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BASIC I.1, 373–78.
BASIC I.2, 900–908. As an orator in Greek and in Constantinople, he had for ancestors
in the spirit the three Nabataean Arab rhetors and sophists of the third century who assumed the
Greek names Heliodorus, Callinicus (who taught rhetoric in Athens itself), and Genethlius; see G. W.
Roman Arabia (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 135–36.
are two speeches written by the Ḥārithids of Najrān, their martyred relatives,
around a.d. 520.
In his speech before he was martyred, al-Ḥārith ibn Kaʿb, the chief of the city,
refers to Christ some seven times. He also expresses Arab sentiments, declaring that
he received his wounds on his breast (that is, while facing the enemy and charging)
and not on his back (while fleeing the battlefield as a coward). In so saying, Ḥārith,
the martial saint, succeeds in integrating the Arab ethos within the Christian.9
The speech of Ruhm/Ruhayma bint Azmaʿ, the leading woman of Najrān,
is slightly longer and breathes the spirit of Christianity even more strongly than
that of Ḥārith. She more frequently names Christ, presented as the spiritual bride-
groom for whose sake she prefers death to the renunciation of his name.10
In a number of respects, these two speeches are unique in the whole corpus of
Arabic pre-Islamic prose literature.
1. The authenticity of this literature is often suspect, since many questions
have been raised on the long process of its transmission down to the authors of later
Islamic times, who included it in their works. But no such reservations apply to
these two speeches: they were recorded in primary contemporary sources, based on
2. The speeches resonate with Christian sentiments, and thus suggest the
existence of a Christian Arabic literature before the rise of Islam.12
3. The two speeches were preserved not in their original Arabic but in Syriac,
the lingua franca of
Oriens Christianus in this period.13
4. Stylistically the two speeches are the unadorned prose of lay members of
the community, not of literati or clerics like Quss, whose speech is certainly artis-
tic in its use of rhyme and some verse. Almost all extant pre-Islamic prose litera-
ture, especially speeches that have survived, is couched not in plain but in highly
9 For the speech of al-Ḥārith, see
10 For the speech of Ruhm/Ruhayma, see ibid., 57–58.
11 Simeon based his account on what he had heard at Jābiya from the refugees who came from
Najrān. The phrase “Those who came from Najrān have said or recounted” occurs some eleven times in
the course of the
Letter; see Martyrs, 44, 50, 53, 59, 60, 61, 62, 64.
12 The Jesuit Father Louis Cheikho spent a lifetime collecting traces and echoes of this literature in
al-Naṣrāniyya wa Ādābuhā bayna ʿArab al-Jāhiliyya, 2 vols. (Beirut, 1912–23). For the debate on this
literature between Georg Graf and Anton Baumstark, including more recent contributions, see
13 In Islamic times, Arabic superseded Syriac as the lingua franca of
Oriens Christianus. The pres-
ervation of these two speeches represents a major contribution of Syriac to Arabic pre-Islamic literature;
see the present writer in “The Syriac Sources for the History of the Arabs before the Rise of Islam,”
14 A cogent argument for the existence of Arabic artistic prose,
nathr fanni, has been made by
al-Nathr al-Fannī fi al-Qarn al-Rābiʿ (Cairo, 1932), I, 34, 56.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
The relevance of these two speeches to Ghassānid Christian oratory and
prose in general is obvious. It was to the Ghassānid king Jabala, the father of
Arethas, that some surviving inhabitants of Najrān came after the martyrdoms of
ca. 520. They sought to invoke his aid as their relative against the Ḥimyarite king
who had persecuted them. Among the letters they carried were these two speeches
of Ḥārith and Ruhm, which were read to Jabala at Jābiya in Arabic. As has been
pointed out, the Ghassānids looked upon their Najrānite relatives as role models,
and as a result, a strong Najrānite presence developed in Ghassānland, exempli-
fied by Najrān in Trachonitis and its votive church and by such pilgrimage sites as
Maḥajja.15 The Jābiya-Najrān axis clearly emerged around 520 and remained strong
throughout the sixth century; at its end, sources attest the visit to the court of the
Ghassānids by the distinguished Najrānite Yazīd ibn ʿAbd al-Madān.16 Cultural
and other exchanges, including relics of martyrs, must have been brisk between the
two Christian centers; these two speeches are the earliest, nonmaterial examples
of that traffic. Their sentiments must have resonated among the Ghassānids, espe-
cially in their churches during celebrations of the feast day of the martyrs. It is not
difficult to imagine their impact on the Ghassānid converts to Christianity, whose
enthusiasm was much enhanced by the martyrdom of their relatives in South
III. Speeches of Ghassānid Poets
Although no religious prose compositions of Ghassānid provenance have survived,
some secular ones have, associated with their poets.
Ḥassān is responsible for the most important of all references to Ghassānid
oratory—both what he says in his odes and what is attributed to him in prose. In
one of his unquestionably authentic poems, he says that his maternal uncle,
was the orator who apparently headed a delegation from Medina to the Jābiya of the
Ghassānids. Ḥassān then mentions his father as an orator who decisively spoke on a
certain occasion in Medina, and finally he refers to himself as interceding with the
Ghassānid Ibn Salmā for the liberation of three individuals, whom he names.17 The
verses make clear that the poet also prided himself on being an orator, in a family of
orators.18 In addition, the verse demonstrates the close relationship of Ḥassān to his
patrons—it had begun with his uncle, in the previous generation. More importantly,
15 On Najrān and Maḥajja, see
BASIC II.1, 151–52; BASIC I.2, 828.
16 See Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1958), XII, 7–14.
Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971),
I, 40, verses 7, 8, 10–11.
18 Compare a verse in which he taunts the tribe of Muzayna for not having produced an orator;
ibid., p. 175, poem no. 69, verse 1.
it represents the court of the Ghassānids as one to which chiefs from Arabia would
come as orators to present their cases before the Ghassānid kings.
A speech has survived, purportedly addressed by Ḥassān to the Ghassānid
king, that enumerates the virtues of the Ghassānids in a contest between them
and their rivals, the Lakhmids of Ḥīra. Ḥassān delivered the speech in rhymed
prose; then the Ghassānid asked him to turn it into verse, which he did.19 If
the account is authentic (and there is no good reason to doubt that Ḥassān
could compose rhymed prose),20 it suggests that rivalry between the royal houses
of Ghassān and Lakhm was an incentive for the composition of both verse
Another, longer speech, purportedly delivered by al-Nābigha, is also in
rhyming prose. It is more detailed and more informative on the social and cul-
tural life of the Ghassānids.21 Its occasion was the liberation of some members of
the tribal group Dubyān (to which al-Nābigha belonged), whom the Ghassānid
king had captured. Most of the speech recounts the virtues of the Ghassānid
king, but at the end al-Nābigha praises him by comparing him favorably to the
A speech delivered by al-Nābigha might well have attained a celebrity, just
as his poems did; it is quite likely that Ḥassān, his younger contemporary, heard
of it. Ḥassān might have expanded and then turned into verse only the part on
the rivalry of the two royal houses. The speech is an extremely eloquent and origi-
nal piece of Arabic prose composition, and tradition is probably right to ascribe
its composition to the distinguished poet. Its eloquence and intelligence resembles
that which informed his
Iʿtidhāriya, a poem composed on a similar occasion, when
al-Nābigha presented a request that he hoped the king would grant.22
A hypercritical approach to such prose documents from pre-Islamic times
may induce doubt about the authenticity of this speech or its attribution. But pre-
cise attribution is not as important as its authenticity, and the likelihood of the lat-
ter seems high. Most important in it are the terms the poet uses, which shed a great
deal of light on the social life of the Ghassānids as a highly urban society.
19 For the speech and the poem, see ibid., 489; a fuller version is provided in the older edition by
Sharḥ Dīwān Ḥassān (Cairo, 1929), 181–82. In Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī, XV, 124–25, it is
al-Nābigha who is credited with the speech.
20 The foremost neoclassical poet of modern Arabic verse, Aḥmad Shawqī (d. 1932), composed
much rhyming prose and called it “the other poetry of the Arabic language,”
Shiʿr al-ʿArabiyya al-Thāni;
ʿ,” in al-Mawsūʿa al-Shawqiyya, ed. I. al-Abyāri (Beirut, 1998), VI, 112, line 1.
21 See Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī, XV, 124–25.
22 He asked the Lakhmid king for pardon after some enemies had slandered him; see al-Nābigha,
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
The ἐπιτάφιος λόγος on His Daughter
The funeral oration of Psellos on his daughter Styliane is one of the most famous
ἐπιτάφιοι λόγοι in Byzantine literature.1 Although its author follows the rules
determining the structure of such orations, a section that describes the physical
beauty of Styliane raises questions of propriety.2 The description brings to mind
the poem of al-Nābigha traditionally viewed as an ode on al-Mutajarrida, the
Lakhmid queen and wife of al-Nuʿmān, his patron (discussed in Chapter 7).
One would not expect an author such as Psellos, who had worn the monas-
tic habit for some time and was writing as a
Rhomaios of the Christian empire, to
mention and indeed dwell on breasts and thighs in an oration on his daughter.3 But
apparently he was carried away by his desire to praise his daughter’s beauty by com-
paring her with Aphrodite. That Psellos was inspired by the statue of Aphrodite of
Cnidus, to which he explicitly refers,4 links his oration to the
on the Lakhmid queen. The direct evidence that Praxiteles’ masterpiece inspired
Psellos in composing his eleventh-century oration strongly supports the inference
discussed in Chapter 7 that the same statue inspired the Arab poet; such inspira-
tion is in fact more appropriate for one describing a beautiful living queen than a
father writing about a dead daughter.
In addition to the statue of Aphrodite, Psellos refers to the Song of Songs
when describing his daughter’s lips, neck, and stature.5 In this case, Psellos invoked
his ancestor in the spirit, Solomon,6 to whom is ascribed the Song of Songs; perhaps
the appearance of such sensual and sensuous imagery in the Bible itself encouraged
Psellos to use similar language.
The explicit reference in Psellos to Solomon and his Song of Songs raises the
question of whether the Arab poet, too, was also inspired by the Song of Songs,
since his sextet of verses on the Ghassānids, it has been argued above, was inspired
by scripture.7 This is related to the still open question of whether the Bible in its
entirety had an Arabic version before the advent of Islam. It appears likely that at
least portions of the Bible were translated, such as one or more of the Gospels and
1 For the oration, see
Bibliotheca Graeca Medii Aevi, ed. C. N. Sathas, vol. 5, Pselli Miscellanea
(1876; reprint, Athens, 1976), 62–73; for a translation with commentary, see Michael Psellos,
and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos, ed. and trans. A. Kaldellis
(Notre Dame, Ind., 2006), 111–38.
Bibliotheca Graeca Medii Aevi, V, 68–73.
3 Ibid., 72.
5 Ibid., 70, 71, 73; see Song of Songs 3:3, 4:4, and 7:8 (verses identified by Kaldellis).
6 Ibid., 70.
7 See the closing lines of al-Nābigha’s
bāʾiyya, the rhyme in B, discussed in Chapter 7 (with note 64).
the Psalms.8 Of all the books of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs would have
appealed the most to a poetry-loving people such as the Arabs, and it may have
been known to them in an Arabic version.
The Song of Songs would have been very fitting as a source of inspira-
tion to an Arab poet such as al-Nābigha. Like his ode, and unlike the statue of
Praxiteles, it is a work of
literary art; moreover, it contains many references to
Lebanon, a region well known to al-Nābigha from his visits to the Ghassānids
in nearby Jābiya. Its two erotic protagonists—the Shulamite and a king, the
Israelite Solomon9—recall al-Mutajarrida and her husband, the Lakhmid king
al-Nuʿmān, in al-Nābigha’s ode. So, the possible influence of the Song of Songs on
al-Nābigha’s poem may illustrate the rise and development of a Christian Arabic
poetry, inspired by the Bible.
Thus the ode of al-Nābigha may represent the influence of not one but quite
possibly two elements of Byzantinism on Arabic poetry: Christianity through its
sacred book and the Hellenism of classical Greece through Praxiteles. In addition,
the examination of Psellos’ oration has shown the fruitfulness of the compara-
tive approach in studying an Arabic ode, since that approach has drawn attention
to the Song of Songs as a potential second source of inspiration and, through its
explicit reference to Aphrodite of Cnidus, has strengthened the case, drawn only
inferentially from the poem itself, for the influence of Hellenism.10
8 An argument for this position is presented in
BAFOC, 435–43; BAFIC, 422–30.
9 Solomon was in al-Nābigha’s thoughts when he wrote his ode asking for forgiveness from the
Lakhmid king al-Nuʿmān: in it, he alluded to Solomon as the builder of Palmyra, according to the legend
familiar to many pre-Islamic Arabs (see above, Chapter 7, note 31).
10 I should like to thank my colleague, Eustratios Papaioannou, warmly for drawing my attention to
Psellos’ elegy on his daughter.
The Ghassānid Identity
t is now possible, drawing on the evidence provided by the volumes that make up
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, to present a clearer picture of the
Ghassānids than ever before. Before they became
foederati of Byzantium toward
the end of the fifth century, the Ghassānids had lived in the highly sedentary south
of the Arabian Peninsula. After their wanderings in western Arabia on their way
to the north, they lived in urban centers such as Najrān and Medina/Yathrib, then
finally settled in the highly urban Byzantine Diocese of Oriens.
Of all the
foederati of Byzantium from the fourth to the seventh centuries,
they were the strongest and longest lasting. For a century and a half, they fell under
the powerful threefold influence of Byzantinism: Roman political and military
institutions, the Christian faith, and Hellenic culture. In their professional, social,
cultural, and spiritual life, the Ghassānids’ response was broad and sometimes
intense. Unlike the Germanic tribes who were
foederati in the Roman Occident,
they were related, ethnically and linguistically, to the large Arab component in the
demographic landscape of Oriens: namely, their predecessors in the limitrophe, the
Arabs of Petra and Palmyra, who had lived in Oriens before it was annexed by Rome
and even before Alexander conquered the region, and who became
the promulgation of the Edict of Caracalla in a.d. 212. Thus the Ghassānid Arabs,
though newcomers, were not utter aliens in their new environment; they were living
among congeners, and all spoke the same language in their everyday lives.
This volume concludes by assessing the effect on the Ghassānids of their long
residence in Oriens, under the powerful influence of Byzantium. Were they assimi-
lated, integrated, or acculturated as they moved in the orbit of Byzantium, drifting
away from their Arab peninsular moorings and losing their identity as Arabs? To
answer this question, each of the three components of Byzantinism is considered.
The Roman Component
foederati of Byzantium, the Ghassānids’ primary function was military, and
they assimilated much of the Roman military system. As Arab peninsular war-
riors, they had fought in lines,
The Ghassānid Identity
Arab tactics—the charge (
were organized in and fought as units, like the Roman army formations: they
Mavia in the fourth century. The Ghassānids became cataphracts and their horses
were also mailed. In battle, they invoked new patrons such as Jesus, the Roman
Sergius and other Christian saints, and Job.2 When Arethas’ father, Jabala, died in
a.d. 528, the short obituary notice observed that “he had much experience in the
use of Roman arms.”3 This assimilation is reflected in the Latin and Greek terms
acquired from the Byzantine military establishment that at different times entered
the Arabic language: these included
castrum, strata, ζωγράϕος, miliarium, veredus,
stabulum, which became qaṣr, sirāṭ, zukhruf, mīl, barīd, and iṣṭabl.4
Byzantium also integrated the Ghassānid military aristocracy into its struc-
ture, as reflected in the titles and honors it conferred on their commanders.
1. In the
cursus honorum, the titles clarissimus, spectabilis, and gloriosis-
simus (and its variants) were conferred on the officers of various ranks in the
2. The honor
patricius, most prestigious though not related to any office, was
3. The title
basileus/βασιλεύς, malik, was conferred with its insignia.6
Flavius, the nomen gentilicium, was also bestowed on certain members of
the Ghassānid aristocracy.7
The last three titles are particularly significant for an analysis of the problem
1 Procopius, too, when referring to the contingent of the Ghassānids at the battle of Callinicum,
refers to their army, στράτευμα;
History, I.xvii.7. The term jarrār, “commander of a thousand,” was most
probably a translation of Greek χιλίαρχος.
Kardūs could have derived from cohors or exercitus.
2 For these new military patrons of the Ghassānids, see
Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed.
M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 53, verse 16; cf. the old pagan slogans in war:
labbayka rabba Ghassān!
rājilihā wa al-fursān—“at your service, Lord of Ghassān! their infantry and their cavalry.”
3 Zacharia of Mytilene,
Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. E. W. Brooks, CSCO, Scriptores Syri, ser. 3,
vol. 5 (Paris, 24), 64.
4 For other Latin terms that entered Arabic in this pre-Islamic period, see the present writer in
“Latin Loan Words,” in
Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, ed. K. Versteegh (Leiden,
2008), III, 6–8. The ζωγράϕος was the painter who polished the shields of the Roman soldiers; see
G. Bowersock, “A Report on Arabia Provincia,”
477 note 74.
5 For the sequence of the three titles and for
patricius, see BALA II, 115–37.
BASIC I.1, 109–17.
7 See ibid., 509–10, and
BALA I, 78–79. This imperial gentilicium was officially conferred and
not personally assumed by those who bore it, and so it was conceived long ago by Nöldeke (
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