Sixth century


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77  For Ḥassān’s and al-Nābigha’s verses on the 



walāʾid, the maidens, see the discussion in BASIC 

II.1, 295. 



Al-walāʾid in al-Nābigha can only be the plural of walīda, “daughter,” and not a reference to the 

slaves or servants, as suggested by the scholiast, who explains the word as 



imāʾ (plural of ama, “servant, 

slave”); see 



Dīwān, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 47 note 25, and ed. S. Fayṣal (Beirut, 1968), 63 note 25. 

The context surely suggests the meaning “daughters,” a reading clinched by a verse of Ḥassān that explic-

itly uses the same term, 

walāʾid, of the daughters of the Ghassānids, whom he describes as royals and not 

nomads indulging in occupations appropriate only to the pastoralists; see 



Dīwān, I, 255, verses 6, 7, 8.

76

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

by Justin I and his successors, they refused to assume non-Arab names.78 This resis-

tance is especially noteworthy in the context of the sacrament of baptism. Already 

in the fourth century, John Chrysostom had chided Christian parents for calling 

their children after their forebears, urging them instead to use the names of the 

apostles, martyrs, and saints.79 The Ghassānids never responded to this call.80 All 

their names for their sons and daughters were strictly Arab, including Ḥalīma and 

(their queens) Hind or Umāma or Salma, as well as Ḥārith, Jabala, and Nuʿmān. 

The one exception occurred not among the Ghassānids but within another phy-

larchal royal house, that of Kinda, where the name Māriya (Mary) appeared; thus 

Arethas, whose father Jabala had married the Kindite princess Māriya, was called 

Ibn Māriya, “the son of Māriya.”81

 

The conversion of Arabs to Christianity before the rise of Islam brought 



about a change more generally in Arab attitudes toward the birth of female chil-

dren. Theirs was a society of warriors, most notably in the Peninsula but also when 

they became federates of the two empires, Persia and Byzantium. Hence their par-

tiality to sons rather than daughters—well-illustrated in the Koran’s description of 

the suppressed anger of a father told that his wife had given birth to a daughter.82 

The Koran and Islam ameliorated the earlier attitudes of Arabs toward women, 

but Christianity did more, since it was a woman, the Virgin Mary, through whom 

the mystery of the Incarnation and the miraculous birth of Christ took place.83 

Women continued to play an important role in the life of Jesus and subsequently 

as saints and martyrs; hence women among the Arabs such as the Kinda and 

also Muslims often assumed the name of the Virgin, as Māriya or Maryam. The 

Ghassānids apparently resisted that impulse, however, as the extant sources record 

no Māriya or Maryam in their onomasticon. 

 

Ghassānid parents demonstrated their pride in their children by including 



the names of their sons and daughters as part of their own names. Patronymics 

(“son of”) are widely used across peoples and societies, but the Arabs went further 

 

78  On “Flavius” and “Philochristos” as honorific titles bestowed on them, see “The Ghassānid 



Identity,” below (Part III, Chapter 10).

 

79  See John Chrysostom, 



Sur la vaine gloire et l’éducation des enfants, ed. and trans. A.-M. Malingrey, 

Sources Chrétiennes 188 (Paris, 1972), 146–47.

 

80  Many of their kings and phylarchs were called by the name of al-Ḥārith, the Arethas of the Greek 



sources. Ḥārith, a very Arab name, was also the name of the chief martyr of Najrān, al-Ḥārith ibn-Kaʿb 

of the 


Martyrium Arethae and the Syriac Book of the Ḥimyarites; see the index to Martyrs, s.v. Arethas.

 

81  This matronymic of the famous Arethas was remembered as late as the days of the poet laureate 



Ḥassān, ca. a.d. 600; see his 

Dīwān, I, 74, verse 11.

 

82  Koran, Sūrat al-Naḥl, 16:58–59; Sūrat al-Zukhruf, 43:17. These verses rejected and inveighed 



against the pre-Islamic ethos of partiality to male issue.

 

83  The veneration for Mary was also shared by the Koran; Maryam, 19:16–26; Āl-ʿImrān, 3:35–37.



77

Ghassānid Federate Society

by also adding tecnonymics (“father of”) to their proper names. Most of the Arab 

tecnonymics involve sons rather than daughters.84

 

The importance of children among the Arabs is reflected in some of the cus-



toms and terms associated with them, including the Ghassānids.

 

1. In aristocratic circles, infants were not suckled by their own mother but 



were given to another woman called the 

murdiʿ or murdiʿa. The end of suckling 

represented the end of a phase of infancy, and the weaning was performed by a 

woman called a 

fātima—a word that became a proper name assumed by many 

Arab women, including the Prophet Muḥammad’s daughter.

 

2. The teething of infants was also considered a significant stage of develop-



ment. The Arabic word for tooth, 

sinn, came to mean the age of an individual, and 

it also gave rise to 



musinn, the term for an elderly man.85

 

3. One of the occasions on which Arabs gave a banquet, 



al-khurs, was child-

birth.86 It is practically certain that the Ghassānids observed this celebration. 

Education

The education of Ghassānid boys is shrouded in obscurity, for the scanty extant 

sources say nothing about it. But it surely must have included a preparation for their 

future duties as federates, such as training in weapons, the sword and the spear, and 

in the equestrianism for which the Ghassānids were celebrated.87 Religious instruc-

tion must also have been part of their education, since their royal house was the 

protector of the Monophysite church. Arabic poetry undoubtedly played a role; the 

art was closely associated with the court at which poets eulogized the Ghassānid 

kings, and some poetry was composed by the Ghassānids themselves. It is worth 

exploring the extent to which these children were likely also exposed to non-Arab 

and non-Arabic education, particularly knowledge of Latin and Greek, the two 

languages important for the Ghassānids as 



foederati in the service of Byzantium.88 

The higher echelons of the Ghassānid hierarchy probably knew both, enabling the 

famous Arethas to confer directly with Justinian and Theodora, without an inter-

preter, when he visited the capital. Similarly, his son, Mundir, almost certainly 

 

84  The Ghassānid onomasticon presents a unique case when al-Ḥārith, one of the many Ḥāriths, is 



called Ibn Abī-Shamir, which thus simultaneously combined both the tecnonymic and the patronymic; 

for the occurrence of this in the Arabic poetry of the period, see Nöldeke, 



GF, 21.

 

85  See Ibn Man



˙

zūr, 


Lisān al-ʿArab (Beirut, 1997), III, 351. 

 

86  For the term, see ibid., II, 239.



 

87  Analogies can be drawn from the education of Lakhmid children, about which more is known. 

Like the Ghassānids, the Lakhmids originally hailed from South Arabia, and the two groups shared 

ideas and ideals common to Arabs; see Y. R. Ghunayma, 



al-Ḥīra (Baghdad, 1936), 109–11.

 

88  On Byzantine education, see “School,” 



ODB, III, 1853.

78

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

addressed the Monophysite conference in Constantinople in a.d. 580 using Greek, 

the language common to all the participants, who came from different parts of the 

empire or at least the Pars Orientalis, including Coptic Egypt.89

 

A passage in Choricius of Gaza, from the 530s, has some relevant material. 



In section 25 of his 

Laudatio Summi, the rhetor speaks of one of his students, who 

was sent to him by Summus, the 



dux of Palestine, and whose father was a very well 

known figure in the Provincia Arabia: γνώρισμα μέγιστον ὁ πατήρ.90 No one after 

the 

dux was more famous in the provincia than the phylarch, Arethas, and it is 

tempting to think that it was he who sent his son—possibly Mundir, who would 

become equally celebrated—to study with Choricius in Gaza.91 

 

In this context, Choricius is also helpful when he speaks of an Arab orator 



who functioned as the 

symboulos of the dux Summus in either assessing the taxes 

of Palestine or reconciling two Arab phylarchs.92 Here the Roman officer, who 

belonged to the Graeco-Roman establishment, had to depend on an interpreter 

who could communicate with the Arabs of the 



provincia. Surely he must also have 

known the languages that Summus spoke or knew, Latin and Greek. The Arab 

phylarchs and their children, who were trained as future phylarchs, thus not only 

spoke Arabic but also may have been taught one or both of the official languages of 

the empire. 

 

Also instructive is the case of a young Arab prince who belonged to the other 



phylarchal family, Kinda, in central Arabia. To negotiate a settlement, Justinian 

sent Kinda his veteran diplomat, Abraham, who succeeded in 528 in striking a 



foe-

dus with the Kindite phylarch, Qays; as part of the agreement, Qays sent his son, 

Muʿāwiya, to the capital as a hostage, a ὅμηρος.93 Surely a young Arab prince resid-

ing in Constantinople received some Byzantine education at the court or some 

schooling at home, learning Greek, the language of the capital where he was living, 

and possibly some Latin, which was still the language of the army and thus espe-

cially important to the son of an Arab military ally. Some Ghassānid princes may 

also have been sent to Constantinople, since Ghassānid-Byzantine relations during 

 

89  For the Monophysite conference in Constantinople, see 



BASIC I.2, 900–908.

 

90 



Laudatio Summi, section 25, in Choricii Gazaei opera, ed. R. Förster and E. Richsteig (Leipzig, 

1929), 76, lines 17–18; see 



BASIC I.1, 189.

 

91  When I wrote 



BASIC I.1 in the 1990s, I doubted that Arethas was involved (189 note 47). But my 

subsequent lectures on and research into other aspects of Ghassānid life have led me to conclude that the 

leader left unnamed by Choricius was almost certainly Arethas; especially persuasive are Arethas’ non-

military attainments, which recent research has revealed. Such an accomplished king might well have 

sent his sons to Gaza to be trained for their future careers in the service of Byzantium in the style of the 

“barbarian” chiefs of the Roman Occident, who cared for the education of their children.

 

92  Ibid., 189–90.



 

93  See “Byzantium and Kinda,” in 



BALA III, 86–90.

79

Ghassānid Federate Society

the reign of Justinian were very good; but the young Ghassānids did not have to 

make the journey to the distant capital to learn the two languages, since instruc-

tion was available in the many schools of Oriens.

Marriage


The marriage of Ghassānid children was noticed in the prose account of the wed-

ding of the princess al-Dhalfāʾ to her cousin, which pointed out that the mar-

riage was endogamous.94 Both these accounts derive from later prose works. 

Contemporary poetry on the Ghassānids, or what has survived of it, is silent on 

marriages. But in federate, non-Ghassānid history—such as that reported by the 

Historia Ecclesiastica of Socrates—there is reference to the fourth-century marriage 

of the daughter of Queen Mavia to the 



magister equitum, Victor, a remarkable mar-

riage between a 



Rhomaios, Sarmatian though he was, and a “barbarian” princess. It 

was a significant political marriage, unique in the social history of Arab-Byzantine 

relations.95 Its varied dimensions involved the Christian faith, which united Victor 

and the princess, and the imperial interests, political and military, of Byzantium in 

the second half of the fourth century.

 

The statement of the ecclesiastical historian on this marriage was very laconic, 



even leaving the princess anonymous. There is no doubt, however, that the wed-

ding was royally celebrated and involved a nuptial banquet, which the Arabs always 

gave on such occasions and which they called the 

ʿurs or ʿurus.96 To the reign of 

Mavia also belongs the earliest solid reference to the composition of Arabic poetry 

(celebrating victories over the imperial armies of Valens), and it is very likely that 

epithalamia were composed on this unusual marriage. According to Sozomen, the 

epinician odes of Mavia were still remembered and sung in the fifth century, but 

they—together with the epithalamia, if any were composed—have unfortunately 

disappeared.97

Circumcision

The Arabs in pre-Islamic times did circumcise their children, a practice attested 

by Josephus.98 They also celebrated childbirth with a meal called 



ʿidhār/iʿdhār/

ʿadhīra.99 But the Ghassānids, after converting to Christianity, became devoted 

to their new faith. As is well known, St. Paul rejected circumcision in favor of 

 

94  For a description of the wedding, see the Cambridge Manuscript, No. 1201, 115v. 



 

95 See 


BAFOC, 158–69.

 

96  On this term, see Ibn Man



˙

zūr, 


Lisān al-ʿArab, IV, 298. 

 

97 See 



BAFOC, 151–52 and note 54.

 

98 Josephus, 



Jewish Antiquities, book I, 193, 214.

 

99  See Ibn Man



˙

zūr, 


Lisān al-ʿArab, IV, 286.

80

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

baptism,100 and following his recommendation, circumcision was abandoned by 

the Christian Church, although it has survived among some of the Christian com-

munities in the Orient such as the Ethiopians.

 

Extant texts do not definitively settle the question of whether the Ghassānids 



had their children circumcised. However, baptism was close to their hearts, liv-

ing as they did near the Jordan, the river of baptism. And the Ghassānids, like 

other Christians, sought to distinguish themselves from the Jews—whom St. Paul 

referred to as ἡ περιτομή, “circumcision”101—in an age that viewed the Jews as 



Theoktonoi, deicides. Like other Monophysites, the Ghassānids were probably hos-

tile toward the Jews and Judaism.102 It is thus almost certain that the Ghassānids 

did not circumcise their children. But soon after the fall of the Ghassānids, Islam 

prevailed in Oriens and the practice of circumcision returned, but not as a religious 

ritual.

  100  Galatians 5:6, 6:15.



  101  Romans 3:30; Ephesians 2:11.

  102  When Michael the Syrian, the Monophysite historian and patriarch, expressed his antipathy to 

the Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch during the latter’s encounter with the Ghassānid king, Arethas, 

he pejoratively referred to him as Ephraim the Jew: see 



BASIC I.2, 748.

II 

The Women of  Ghassān

G

ender studies across the humanities have been considerably stimulated by 



Joan Scott’s pathbreaking article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical 

Analysis,” which appeared in 1986.1 The field of Byzantine studies has witnessed 

the publication of many important works that have built on older well-known 

ones as they have taken up the theme of women in Byzantium.2 These provide 

a valuable background for considering the Arab women of Ghassān, since the 

Ghassānids lived in the shadow of Byzantium for a century and a half and were 

its 

foederati. Studies on Arab women have focused mostly on the modern period, 

as societies today grapple with the problem of the veil and its return as a head-

dress, promoted by Muslim fundamentalists to reassert Muslim identity.3 None 

has appeared on Arab women in late antiquity, let alone on the more special-

ized subject of Ghassānid women. Among scholars, only the late Nabia Abbott 

touched briefly on the Arab women in late antiquity in an article that treated 

the theme of Arab queens from the Assyrian period of the eighth century b.c. to 

the Byzantine period of the seventh century a.d.4 More recently and more rel-

evantly, Sebastian Brock and Susan Harvey have dealt with the Syriac Orient in 

 

1  J. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” 



American Historical Review 91 

(1986), 1053–75.

 

2  See D. M. Nicol, 



The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits, 1250–1500 (Cambridge, 1994); L. Garland, 

Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, ad 527–1204 (London, 1999); A.-M. Talbot, 

Women and Religious Life in Byzantium (Aldershot, Eng., 2001); I. Kalavrezou, Byzantine Women and 

Their World (New Haven, 2003); and C. L. Connor, Women of Byzantium (New Haven, 2004). See 

also A. Laiou, “The Role of Women in Byzantine Society,” 



JÖB 31 (1981), 233–60, with a useful bib-

liography (233 notes 1–2) of some important works on Byzantine women that preceded Scott’s article. 

On the most famous of all Byzantine women, Theodora, the most recent study is C. Foss, “The Empress 

Theodora,” 



Byzantion 72 (2002), 141–76, which contains a select bibliography on Theodora (141 note 

1). To these works on Byzantine women may be added K. G. Holum, 



Theodosian Empresses: Women and 

Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1982).

 

3  On the veil, see “Veiling in the Islamic Vestimentary System,” in the standard work on Arab 



dress, Y. K. Stillman, 

Arab Dress: A Short History; From the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times, ed. N. A. 

Stillman (Leiden, 2003), 138–45. 

 

4  N. Abbott, “Pre-Islamic Arab Queens,” 



American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 

58 (1941), 1–23.



82

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

late antiquity in a volume that appeared in 1987, but they did not concentrate on 

Arab women.5

 

The present writer broached the topic in 1999 in an article on the Christian 



Arab women of late antiquity from the third to the seventh century; a more spe-

cialized article on the martyresses of Najrān followed in 2004.6 Hence this chapter 

is the first detailed and comprehensive account of the women of federate Ghassān. 

While the Greek sources have yielded data on only two Arab federate women in 

the fourth century—namely, Queen Mavia and her daughter7—and on a single 

anonymous woman in the fifth century—namely, the poet daughter of the Salīḥid 

federate king, Dāwūd8—more information is available on Ghassānid women in 

the sixth and seventh centuries.

I. Overview

On Ghassānid women, as on all aspects of Ghassānid social history, the sources 

have their limitations. They deal with the aristocracy and with members of the 

royal house, rarely or almost never with ordinary Ghassānids. But they are reliable, 

since they are mostly contemporary poetry. Only a few sources are prose accounts 

written later, but even these are borne out by contemporary poetry. The first refer-

ence to the women of Ghassān appropriately begins in the reign of Justinian with a 

matronymic: Arethas ibn Māriya.

 

The examination of the sources on the women of Ghassān has revealed the 



names of no fewer than thirteen queens and princesses: Māriya, Ḥalīma, two 

Hinds, Umāma, Salma, Maysūn, Fākhita, al-Raʿlāʾ, al-Naḍīra, Layla, Dhalfāʾ, and 

Ramla, each discussed below. Despite their importance, revealed so clearly in the 

matronymics of the Ghassānid kings, little data on them have survived, but those 

data are sufficient to enable a picture of their functions in Ghassānid life to emerge. 

Moreover, the limitations of the extant sources can be partially counteracted when 

those sources are set against the background of what is known about the social 

role of Arab women in this period,9 as well the rise of the status of women through 

Christianity in the history of the Christian Roman Empire.10

 

5  S. P. Brock and S. A. Harvey, 



Holy Women of the Syrian Orient (Berkeley, 1987).

 

6  See I. Shahîd, “The Women of 



Oriens Christianus Arabicus in Pre-Islamic Times,” Parole de 

l’Orient 24 (1999), 61–77; idem, “The Martyresses of Najrān,” in Aegyptus Christiana: Mélanges 

d’hagiographie égyptienne et orientale dédiés à la mémoire du P. Paul Devos, Bollandiste, ed. U. Zanetti 

and E. Lucchesi, Cahiers d’Orientalisme 25 (Geneva, 2004), 123–33.

 

7 See 


BAFOC, 138–201.

 

8  See ibid., 426, 434, 436–38.



 

9  See Abbott, “Pre-Islamic Arab Queens”; Jawād ʿAli, 



al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam 

(Beirut, 1970), IV, 616–54. 

 

10  For a succinct description of the status of women in Byzantium, see J. Herrin, A. Kazhdan, and 



83

The Women of  Ghassān

 

Despite the number of queens and princesses whose names are known, their 



story is a practically unknown chapter in Ghassānid history. Source survival is part 

of the problem. An entire long ode has survived on an Arab queen of this period, 



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