Sixth century


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GF, 15). For 

Flavius as a status designation, see J. Keenan, “The Names Flavius and Aurelius as Status Designations in 

Later Roman Egypt,” 



Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 11 (1973), 33–84; 13 (1974), 283–304. 

340

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

 

a. The title associated with the patriciate was almost a tecnonym, since the 



patricius was called Pater Augusti. It related the Arab incumbent of that honor to a 

group of individuals, the 



patricii, who belonged to various non-Arab ethnic groups 

in the empire whose affiliations lay outside the circle of his clan (Jafnid) and his 

tribal group (Ghassān).

 

b. The flattering title Flavius connected the honor directly to the family of the 



emperor, the second Flavians, the house to which the Byzantine emperors started 

to relate themselves in the reign of Constantine. With regard to lineage, it was even 

more telling than 

patricius. The term affiliated the Ghassānid ruler most clearly 

and explicitly not with his own clan or tribe but with an alien personage who was 

not an Arab.

 

The titulature of the Ghassānid king no longer had the patronymic or tec-



nonymic so characteristic of the Ghassānids; it came closer to the 

tria nomina 

of the Roman world, although that nomenclature was in decline in late antiq-

uity. It represented a dramatic transformation, especially since Arabs such as the 

Ghassānids tended to conceive of the world as bimorphic—Arab and non-Arab, 

ʿAjam (literally, “Dumb”).

 

c. The title of king, 



basileus, functioned similarly. It connected the Ghassānids 

to a group of “barbarian” rulers, also given that title. These formed what has been 

termed “the family of kings” around the Byzantine ruler, who was himself not king 

but 


autokrator, imperator, until the reign of Heraclius; then, in a.d. 629, the short 

title Πιστὸς ἐν Χριστῷ Βασιλεύς, “King Trusting in Christ,” replaced the long one.8 

The Christian Component

Of the three components of Byzantinism, it was Christianity that proved to be the 

most influential in the life and the history of the Ghassānids. And of all the Arab 

groups before the rise of Islam who converted to that faith, it was the Ghassānids 

whose lives were most fully permeated by Christianity.

 

The importance of Christianity to them was reflected in their services to 



it: they revived Monophysitism around a.d. 540; they protected the Holy Land; 

they spread Christianity in the Arab area of Oriens and northern Arabia, espe-

cially during the long episcopate of Theodore; they erected churches and mon-

asteries; their king presided over church councils; and their social life was so 

profoundly suffused by their faith that poets such as al-Nābigha and Ḥassān, 

from distant parts of the Arabian Peninsula, noted its effect on their character. 

Christianity also provided them with two new role models: the holy man and the 

 

8  See the present writer in “The Iranian Factor in Byzantium during the Reign of Heraclius,” 



DOP 

26 (1972), 295–320. 



341

The Ghassānid Identity

ascetic. Ecclesiastical writers now gave their rulers such titles as 

Christophilos, 

Eusebes (Christ-loving and pious).9

 

The Christianized Arabs benefited in two ways from St. Paul’s emphasis on 



the universalism of Christianity and on removing the barriers between Jew and 

Gentile, Greek and barbarian.

 

First, the cloud of biblical opprobrium under which they lived as Ishmaelites 



and Hagarenes—that is, descendants not of Sarah but of her maidservant, Hagar, 

who bore Ishmael—was lifted. Influential saints in the Jordan valley, such as  

St. Euthymius, helped the Ishmaelites enter into the new fold of Christianity.10

 

Second, Christianity enlarged the breadth of their affiliation. Before their 



conversion to Christianity, they viewed themselves as positioned within three 

concentric circles: their house, the Jafnids; within their clan, the Ghassānid; 

surrounded by the large tribal group, the Azd, their blood relations. They were 

proud of this strictly Arab, peninsular lineage, which was sung by their poets.11 

Now a new, non-Arab, dimension of affiliation was added. They became not only 

Christian Arabs—that is, a group of Christians within the wide group of ethnic 

Arabs who adopted Christianity—but Arab Christians, a group of Arabs within 

the still wider and all-embracing circle of the Christian oikoumene, which encom-

passed the whole of the Mediterranean world. The Ghassānid place in this large 

Christian affiliation is best revealed in the career of Arethas and his son, Mundir. 

The former presided over a church council of the Monophysite movement, when 

that confession was troubled by the Tritheistic heresy of Eugenius and Conon; the 

second presided in Constantinople over representatives of the entire Monophysite 

world, from Egypt as well as Oriens.12

The Hellenic Component

The Oriens to which the Ghassānids belonged had been a Seleucid territory for 

some three centuries before it fell under Rome’s rule with the settlement of Pompey 

in 63 b.c. It thus had a strong Greek substrate, which persisted throughout the 

seven centuries of the Roman and the Byzantine periods. Greek received an impe-

tus when the empire moved from Rome to Constantinople and was Christianized: 

the sacred book was a Bible composed of a Greek version of the Old Testament 

(the Septuagint) and the Greek New Testament, and the Church Fathers wrote  

in Greek.

 

9  For this ecclesiastical title, see 



BASIC I.2, 810–14, 816.

 

10  For the many references to St. Euthymius and the Arabs, see the index of 



BAFIC, s.v. Euthymius.

 

11  Al-Nābigha (and not just Ḥassān, their relative) refers to the Ghassānids’ descent from ʿAmr ibn 



ʿAmir; see 

Dīwān, 42, verse 9. 

 

12 See 



BASIC I.2, 805–24, 900–908.

342

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

 

So the Ghassānids, as 



foederati of Byzantium in Oriens, were not strang-

ers to the Greek language. The Greek communities of the Seleucid period con-

tinued to live in Oriens; the closest political entity to the Ghassānids was the 

Greek Decapolis, with which they had very close relations. But as Semites, they 

were closer both ethnically and linguistically to the Aramaeans in Oriens and 

Mesopotamia, who spoke Syriac/Aramaic. And it was an Arab king, Abgar the 

Great, who made Edessa the spiritual capital of the Semitic Christian Orient, the 

counterpart of Antioch for Graeco-Roman Oriens. Nevertheless, there is clear evi-

dence that Greek played a role in the social and cultural life of the Ghassānids.

 

Despite their strong sense of Arab identity and the fact that the Arabic script 



appears for the first time in Oriens among the Ghassānids in the Usays inscription, 

almost all their inscriptions are in Greek. These are found in the reign of Arethas; 

of Mundir, his son; and of Nuʿmān, his grandson.13 Greek even appears on the seal 

of the last Ghassānid king, Jabala ibn al-Ayham, before the fall of Oriens to Islam.14 

This was understandable; Greek was the language of the culturally dominant, and 

in the mostly non-Arab portion of Oriens it was much better known than Arabic. 

Because the rulers relied on inscriptions on monuments to disseminate informa-

tion, Greek was the right language to use to achieve their purpose.15

 

Although the pagan aspects of the classical heritage of Greece were sharply 



condemned by the church, Greek science and medicine retained their prestige and 

remained indispensable. Hence the appearance of Greek terms, naturalized in and 

incorporated into Arabic; three discussed in this volume are 

diryāq, “antidote,” 

from θηριακή; 



mumis, “prostitute,” from μιμάς; and bayṭar, “veterinarian,” from 

ἱππιατρός.

The Arab Foundation

The Ghassānids’ strong sense of Arab identity is reflected in various ways, which 

may be summarized as follows.

 

1. Their lineage. This involved the house they belonged to, Jafnids; the clan, 



Ghassān; and the larger tribal group, Azd. They were aware and proud of these 

affiliations. 

 

The Ghassānids were often called “the Sons of Jafna,” ʿAwlād Jafna, and the 



 

13 See 


BASIC I.1, 258–61, 489–512, 505. The Ḥarran inscription is in both Arabic and Greek 

(325–31).

 

14  See the present writer in “Sigillography in the Service of History: New Light,” in 



Novum 

Millennium: Studies on Byzantine History and Culture, Dedicated to Paul Speck, ed. C. Sode and  

S. Takács (Aldershot, Eng., 2001), 369–77.

 

15  Even Shāpūr I, the son of the founder of the Sasanid state and archenemy of Rome, found it 



necessary to give a Greek version of his 

Res Gestae in the famous trilingual inscription; see R. Frye, The 

History of Ancient Iran, Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 3 (Munich, 1984), 371–73, and BALA 

III, 299–301.



343

The Ghassānid Identity

king or prince was called “the son of Jafna,” Ibn Jafna. The term 

usra, “family,” is 

used by a poet to refer collectively to the royal Ghassānid house, demonstrating 

that outsiders perceived the Ghassānids’ strong family ties.16 Al-Nābigha, one of 

their principal panegyrists, enumerated almost all the important members of the 

dynasty and presented them as a family in a quartet of verses.17

 

The clan, Ghassān, is not mentioned as often as Jafnid, but when it does 



appear it is as an expression of a sense of pride.18 Thus it appears in one of Ḥassān’s 

poems as 



Yā La Ghassān, a war cry shouted during one of their battles with the 

Persians that displayed their celebrated endurance,



 ṣabr.19 In another poem, he 

named both the clan and the larger group, Azd, thereby expressing his own and the 

Ghassānids’ pride in both.20

 

2. Their onomasticon. Whereas the Arab groups who preceded them, such 



as the Ituraeans, the Nabataeans, and the Edomites, had assumed Graeco-Roman 

names and been almost fully assimilated by the Graeco-Roman establishment

the Ghassānids scrupulously kept their names Arab: Ḥārith, Jabala, al-Mundir, 

al-Nuʿmān, ʿAmr, Ḥujr, and so on. So too did Ghassānid women, with such names 

as Hind, Layla, and Ḥalīma; the exception, Māriya (after the Virgin Mary), was 

assumed for obvious reasons.

 

Their sobriquets likewise were Arab, often reflecting their Arab ethos—



particularly hospitality—such as 

Qātil al-Jūʿ, “the Killer of Hunger,” and Maʾ 

al-Samāʾ, “Water of Heaven.”21 Other Arabic nicknames included al-Aʿraj, “the 

Lame”; 


al-Ayham, “the Irresistibly Courageous”; al-Aṣfar, “the Yellow” (Arabic 

for Flavius); and 



Qaṭām, “Eagle.” Even when they set up a Greek inscription, 

they simply transliterated the Arabic name: thus 



Qātil al-Jūʾ became Καθελόγος, 

Kathelogos. 

 

The Ghassānid self-confidence demonstrated in their retention of a strictly 



Arab onomasticon must have been enhanced and flattered in the latter half of 

the sixth century, when no less a personage than the daughter of Justin II and his 

wife Sophia was given the name “Arabia.” This surprising choice for a Byzantine 

 

16  See ʿAbīd al-Abraṣ, 



Dīwān, ed. T. Asʿad (Kuwait, 1989), 56, verse 4. 

 

17  For this quartet, see Al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 166; for its analysis and translation into German,  

see Nöldeke, 



GF, 33–34, verses 1–4.

 

18  It appears at the end of Simeon of Bēth-Arshām’s 



Letter on the martyrs of Najrān (see Martyrs

xxxi, 63) and in the name of a monastery (see 



BASIC I.2, 833–35).

 

19 See 



Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971),  

I, 308, verse 13.

 

20  Ibid., 183, verse 2.



 

21  For these two Ghassānid sobriquets and their connotations, see Hishām al-Kalbī, 



Jamharat  

al-Nasab, ed. N. Ḥasan (Beirut, 1987), 616, 618–19.

344

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

princess demonstrated the influence that the Ghassānids wielded in imperial cir-

cles and reflects the early inclination of Justin II and Sophia to Monophysitism.22

 

3. Their location. The Arabness of the Ghassānids must have been kept alive 



by their having settled in the limitrophe, adjoining the Arabian Peninsula; they 

therefore lived next to the great ethnic reservoir of Arabs and Arabic-speaking 

groups with whom they had to deal in peace and in war, whether conducting puni-

tive expeditions or defending the frontier against marauding pastoralists. Their 

responsibility to fight the “Unknown Wars”23 in the Peninsula helped keep alive 

their sense of ethnic and linguistic identity.

 

The Ghassānids had also some important contacts with the Outer Shield: 



Arab tribes beyond the frontier who were on friendly terms with Byzantium. 

Thus, the Ghassānids never lost their connection with the Arabs and the Arabic 

language.

 

4. Their script. Script has always been a badge of identity. The epitaph of the 



most distinguished federate Arab figure in the fourth century, Imruʾ al-Qays, was 

engraved by 



foederati in Arabic, expressed in the alphabet of the Nabataean Arabs, 

which was the Aramaic-based script then prevalent in Oriens. No federate inscrip-

tions have turned up so far for the Salīḥids of the fifth century. But with the advent 

of the Ghassānids, the Arabicization of the script of federate inscriptions appeared 

for the first time in the Zabad and Usays inscriptions. In these two inscriptions, 

especially in the Usays inscription, a new Arabic script suggestive of the later 



naskhi 

style is used, clearly differentiated from the Nabataean script; it can easily be inter-

preted as an expression of the Ghassānid Arab identity. And if, as seems likely, the 

Ghassānids inspired the translation (or retranslation) into Arabic of the Gospels 

and other portions of the Bible rather than depending on a Syriac or a Greek ver-

sion, those translations also would have been an expression of their Arab identity.

 

5. Their sponsorship of poetry. Perhaps most important, the court of the 



Ghassānids was a great venue for Arabic poetry; there were recited some splendid 

panegyrics, which still stand in the front rank of Arabic poetry. This poetry bla-

zoned forth their virtues in war and in peace. Poetry was then the most effective 

means of propaganda, used to protect and enhance the image and prestige of the 

Ghassānids in the Arabian Peninsula. This reliance on poetry kept them close to 

the Arabic language, a closeness that became even more intimate when they them-

selves produced some poets, such as ʿAdī ibn al-Raʿlāʾ.24 And a number of their 

 

22 See 



BASIC I.1, 390–93.

 

23  Major military operations were conducted by the Ghassānids in the service of Byzantium, 



nowhere mentioned in the Byzantine sources but documented in detail in the contemporary poetry—

hence their description as the “Unknown Wars.”

 

24  For the verse composed by one of their chiefs, Qātil al-Jūʿ, “the Killer of Hunger,” see Hishām 



al-Kalbī, 

Jamharat al-Nasab, 619.

345

The Ghassānid Identity

kings and phylarchs—including Arethas, as his encounter with the poet ʿAlqama 

reveals—were connoisseurs of Arabic poetry. 

 

6. Their perception by others. The Ghassānids’ self-awareness as Arabs must 



have been bolstered by the official Byzantine practice of always referring to them as 

Saraceni/Sarakenoi,25 even though the highest Byzantine titles, such as patricii and 

gloriosissimi, were bestowed on their rulers. But those rulers, like the rank and file 

of the Ghassānids, remained for the Byzantines 



Saracens. Moreover, they lacked 

the legal status of Roman citizens, 



cives or Rhomaioi. Although civitas may have 

been extended to their kings and to distinguished members of the royal house, the 

rest remained only 

foederati.

The Arab-Byzantine Ghassānid Identity

The interaction of four elements outlined above created a new Ghassānid iden-

tity, which may be described as Arab-Byzantine. It was richer, inclusive, and mul-

tifaceted, and was the result of a century and a half of life spent in the service of 

Byzantium as 



foederati fighting its wars and as Christians following the teachings 

and ideals of their faith. This may be illustrated in one area where these elements 

interacted.

 

In their function as 



foederati for the empire, the Ghassānid exercised one of 

the twin virtues of their Arab 



murūʾa—courage and endurance in battle. This was 

professionalized and sophisticated by the Roman element when the Ghassānids 

were trained to fight in the Roman manner. The new Arab warrior, Romano-Arab, 

was then affected in the performance of his duty by the most powerful component 

of Byzantinism, namely, Christianity. The wars that the Ghassānids were fighting 

were now 



spiritualized and made more meaningful by being harnessed to the ideals 

of their religious faith, as they undertook religious war in defense of the Christian 

Roman Empire and its Holy Land in Oriens against Persians and Lakhmid Arabs. 

In short, the Ghassānids now fought as 



milites Christi,26 whom they invoked in 

their battle cries as they did saints such as Sergius, their Roman patron saint.

 

Christianity also spiritualized whatever chivalry the Ghassānids possessed 



in war and peace. The seeds of chivalry were sown in the pre-Islamic Arabian 

Peninsula, and its most outstanding representative was the black Abyssinian knight 

 

25  For a very interesting account of the employment of this term in later Islamic times, see  



A. Savvides, “Some Notes on the Terms Agarenoi, Ismaelitai, and Sarakenoi in Byzantine Sources,” 

Byzantion 67 (1997), 89–96; see also the present writer in RA, 123–41, and more recently in I. Shahîd, 

“Saracens,” 



EI2, IX, 27–28.

 

26  See A. von Harnack, 



Militia Christi: Die christliche Religion und der Soldatenstand in den ersten 

drei Jahrhunderten (Tübingen, 1905; reprint, Darmstadt, 1963), still a standard work on the subject. 

The introduction to the English translation offers some useful observations on the views of the author; 

see 

Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries, trans. and intro. 

D. M. Gracie (Philadelphia, 1981).



346

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

ʿAntara; but his was a secular form of chivalry untouched by any religious sentiment 

(or so it seems in what has survived of his poetry). In the case of the Ghassānids, the 

spiritual dimension was imparted by Christianity. And so the Arab 

miles Christi in 

the Orient, represented by the Ghassānid, foreshadowed in a modest way his coun-

terpart, the chivalrous 

miles Christi of medieval western Europe.

 

The retention and cultivation by the Ghassānids of a strong Arab identity as 



the foundation of their new inclusive Arab-Byzantine status had important con-

sequences for the limitrophe in Oriens and for Oriens in its entirety. The Arab 



Rhomaioi of Oriens, Nabataean and Palmyrene, had been assimilated by the 

Graeco-Roman establishment, and their Arab identity slowly eroded. The 



foederati 

of the Byzantine Oriens, who were newcomers from the Arabian Peninsula, infused 

fresh Arab blood into the limitrophe and thereby revived the strong Arab presence 

in Oriens, which had been almost extinguished by the gradual Romanization of 

the Arabs of the region following the Edict of Caracalla. Unlike the Nabataeans 

and Palmyrenes, the great majority of the 



foederati remained legally noncitizens. 

The 


foederati, especially the Ghassānids, effected the Arabization of the limi-

trophe, as illustrated most clearly by the emergence of their court as a great venue 

for Arabic poetry. This Ghassānid achievement influenced Oriens both in the 

Byzantine period and after the Muslim Conquest. They first made Oriens a tricul-

tural region, consisting of Graeco-Roman, Aramaic-Syriac, and Arab sectors. In so 

doing, the Ghassānids also prepared the way for the future and greater Arabization 

of the region after it was conquered by the Muslims in the 630s and the Umayyad 

dynasty was established in Oriens, now Arab Muslim Bilād al-Shām.



Addenda et Corrigenda

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century

In some sixty pages, 138–201, I opened in great detail the dossier of the Arab 

Queen Mavia and her extraordinary career. Since then a torrent of studies has 




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