Sixth century

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Mulūk Ghassān is discovered,10 archaeology will remain the most important 

source for enhancing knowledge about Ghassānid participation in the economic 

life of Oriens and Byzantium. The mineral wealth of Arabia has been revealed 

by Gene W. Heck’s publication of 

The Precious Metals of West Arabia,11 which 

has shed a very bright light on the keen interest of Byzantium in the Arabian 

Peninsula. That interest began in the days of Leo I (457–474) and of the adventur-

ous phylarch, Amorkesos, of the fifth century, and reached its climax during the 

reign of Justinian.12 More directly and concretely related to the Ghassānids has 


5  See A. H. M. Jones, 

The Late Roman Empire: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey,  

2 vols. (Oxford and Norman, Okla., 1964).


6  See B. Ward-Perkins, “Land, Labour, and Settlement,” in 

The Cambridge Ancient History, 

vol. XIV, 

Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, a.d. 425–600, ed. A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins, and 

M. Whitby (Cambridge, 2000), 315–45, and idem, “Specialized Production and Exchange,” in ibid., 

346–91. For the just assessment of Jones by Angeliki Laiou—one who should know—see 

The Economic 

History of Byzantium, I, 8. 


7  See C. Morrisson, “Peuplement, économie et société de l’Orient byzantin,” in 

Le monde byzantin, 

vol. 1, 

L’Empire romain d’Orient, 330–641 (Paris, 2004), 193–220; and G. Tate, “La Syrie-Palestine,” 

in ibid

., 374–401. See also A. E. Laiou and C. Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy (Cambridge, 2007), 



8  See Jawād ʿAli, 

al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam (Beirut, 1971), VII.


9  See R. G. Hoyland, 

Arabia and the Arabs (London, 2001), 85–112, and his rich bibliography, 



10 On 

Akhbār Mulūk Ghassān, see BASIC II.1, 364–74.


11  See G. W. Heck, 

The Precious Metals of West Arabia and Their Role in Forging the Economic 

Dynamic of the Early Islamic State, King Faiṣal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (Riyadh, 2003).


12  On Leo I, see 

BAFIC, 61–113, esp. 96–99; on Justinian, see BALA III, xi–xvi.


The Role of  the Ghassānids

been the discovery of a Ghassānid church at Nitil;13 its excavation has provided 

much evidence for Ghassānid involvement in the art and architecture of sixth-

century Byzantine Oriens and demonstrates the region’s prosperity, to which the 

Ghassānid protection of trade routes that led to Oriens contributed. Other archae-

ological excavations—perhaps guided by the preceding volume in this series, which 

has provided a road map to and onomasticon of Ghassānid sites—may reveal more 



13  For the Arab character of this church, excavated by Fr. Michele Piccirillo, see the present writer in 

“The Sixth-Century Church Complex at Nitl, Jordan: The Ghassānid Dimension,” 

Lib.ann 51 (2001), 

285–92. On the prosperity of the region in this context, see also M. Sartre, 

Bostra, des origines à l’Islam 

(Paris, 1985), 132–39. 


The Ghassānids and the Security of  Oriens


he Ghassānids were a group employed by Byzantium as 

foederati in the army 

of the Orient to defend that diocese and fight the wars of the empire in the 

east. But they and other Arab 

foederati also performed nonmilitary duties, just as 

the regular Roman legionaries always did in peacetime. A passage in the 


Ancient History details some of the nonmilitary duties of those legionaries:

Detachments of soldiers were involved in major civilian projects like build-

ing the road from Carthage to Theveste, harbour-dredging in Egypt, or 

supplying stone for the forum at Colonia Ulpia Traiana at Xanten in the 

Rhineland. One sphere in which the military will have been always involved 

was administration. The commanders of auxiliary units in Britain or Judaea 

might find themselves in charge of the census at local level, which centuri-

ons on secondment from their legions served as district officers (




The Ghassānid 

foederati, it is almost certain, were called upon to perform 

similar duties in Oriens. Unlike the Ostrogoth troops in Italy or the Franks in 

Gaul or the Visigoths in Spain, the Ghassānids were not alien to their congeners—

Arabs of Nabataea and Palmyrena who had become 

Rhomaioi after their terri-

tories were annexed by the Romans. Hence no tension such as that which arose 

between a Germanic alien army of occupation and the native populations of the 

Roman Occident was present between the Ghassānids and these Arab 


thus, it was easy for them to engage in civilian nonmilitary works and contrib-

ute to the economic life of Oriens. Their civilian, nonmilitary duties included 

building bridges;2 they also acted as umpires in disputes that erupted among the 


1  On the role of the army in peacetime, see M. Hassall, “The Army,” in 

The Cambridge Ancient 

History, vol. XI, The High Empire, ad 70–192, ed. A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, and D. Rathbone, 2nd ed. 

(Cambridge, 2000), 341–43; quotation, 342.


2  On the 

qanāṭir, bridges and aqueducts, constructed by the Ghassānid king Jabala, see BASIC 

II.1, 326–27.


The Ghassānids and the Security of  Oriens

Rhomaioi.3 Moreover, as enthusiastic Christians they took part in the construc-

tion of many monasteries and churches, as when in the fifth century the phylarch 

of Parembole aided St. Euthymius with the construction of his monastery in the 

Jordan valley.4 


The role that the Ghassānids played in the economic history of Byzantium 

in the sixth century was complex and was related to the significance of the dio-

cese that they protected. In this late antique, proto-Byzantine period, the 


Orientalis became more important than the Occidentalis. This shift was reflected 

in Diocletian’s choice of Nicomedia as his capital, and the eastward move culmi-

nated in the foundation of Constantinople as the new capital, the new Rome. In 


Pars Orientalis, the Ghassānids were established in Oriens, a diocese of great 

importance economically and otherwise. Historians noted its prosperity in the 

sixth century, before, according to one view, decline set in later in the century.5 But 

prosperity requires security. And it is within this framework of security as the key 

to the prosperity of the diocese that the first contribution of the Ghassānids has to 

be sought. The diocese was especially exposed and vulnerable, and the Ghassānids, 

together with the regular 

stratiōtai of the Roman army of the Orient, shouldered 

the responsibility of shielding it from three major threats.6 


1. A nomadic threat originated from the Arab Peninsula. The creation of the 

supreme phylarchate in a.d. 529 extended the power of the Ghassānids from Ayla 

on the Red Sea to the Euphrates, enabling them to meet the threat along that long 

frontier in its entirety. Their role was especially significant after they superseded 


limitanei who had been engaged in performing that function, which more nat-

urally suited the Arab 

foederati than the Roman stratiōtai under the direction of 

the various 



2. A better organized and more concentrated threat emanated from the 

Lakhmids of Ḥīra, especially during the long fifty-year reign of their king Mundir 

(504–554), who terrorized the diocese with his brutality and anti-Christian  


3  For the Ghassānid phylarch Abū Karib as a mediator in a dispute in Ṣadaqa, see P.Petra inv.


called the King’s Scroll (see Bibliography). See 

BASIC II.1, 46 and n. 55.


4  On the phylarch Aspebetos and St. Euthymius, see 

BAFIC, 182.


5  See B. Ward-Perkins, “Specialized Production and Exchange,” in 

Cambridge Ancient History,  

vol. XIV, 

Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, a.d. 425–600, ed. A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins, and 

M. Whitby (Cambridge, 2000), 352–54.


BASIC  I.1 provides a detailed account of the Ghassānid contribution to meeting all these 

threats. On the contribution of the Roman army to security, see B. Isaac, “Trade Routes to Arabia and 

the Roman Presence in the Desert,” in 

L’Arabie préislamique et son environnement historique et culturel,  

ed. T. Fahd

 (Leiden, 1989), 241–56. The article deals with the earlier Roman period and the fourth 

century. The imaginative new system devised by Byzantium, the phylarchate, laid the main burden of 

security involving the Arab threat upon the shoulders of Arabs in its employ.


7 See 

BASIC II.1, 35–51.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

outbursts. But he met his match in the Ghassānid Arethas, who overpowered him 

at the decisive battle of Chalcis in 554, when the Lakhmid king was killed.


3. A third threat, the most serious, gave the Ghassānids a special place in the 

Byzantine defense system. Unlike those allies who were defending the Roman 

Occident along the Danube and the Rhine, and were facing barbarians such as 

the Germans, Huns, and Sarmatians, the Ghassānids, as a contingent in the army 

of the Orient, were facing a world power—Sasanid Persia, which even captured 

Antioch, the capital of the diocese, in 540. The Ghassānids distinguished them-

selves in all these military encounters; particularly notable was their performance 

at the battle of Callinicum in a.d. 531.8


Even within Oriens, the Ghassānids helped enforce law and order when they 

participated and were sometimes the principal agent in pacifying certain areas; 

for example, they crushed a dangerous revolt around 530 after the Samaritans laid 

waste parts of Caesarea and Skythopolis.9


When, in the fourth century, Christianity became a 

religio licita and later, the 

official religion of Byzantium, the status of one of its provinces, Palestine, was imme-

diately elevated to being a holy land, whose capital, Jerusalem, became the spiritual 

capital of the entire Christianized empire and the destination of pilgrims. Thus, 

Palestine and the Diocese of Oriens, within which Palestine was located, assumed 

great spiritual importance in the perception of the entire Christian oikoumene. 

The Ghassānids bore the major brunt of the defense of the Christian Holy Land 

because they were stationed in the three provinces that surrounded it, the Provincia 

Arabia, Palaestina Secunda, and Palaestina Tertia, through which ran the two 

gateways of the nomads from the Arabian peninsula to Oriens: Wādī Sirḥān and 

the Tabūkiyya in northern Ḥijāz. In addition to protecting the Holy Land against 

the threat of the nomads, the Ghassānids protected it from the Lakhmid scourge, 

Mundir, who celebrated his accession to power in Ḥīra by launching a bold cam-

paign that brought him to the borders of the Holy Land around a.d. 503.10 The 

Ghassānids effectively protected Palestine from the south and southeast through 

the efforts of Abū Karib, the energetic phylarch of Palaestina Tertia, and from the 

east and northeast through those of Arethas, his brother. This led to the prosperity 

of both provincial Arabia and Palestine, reflected in the efflorescence of Christian 

art and architecture.11


8 See 

BASIC I.1, 134–42, and BALA II, 13–18, especially the testimony of Malalas on the loyalty 

and courage of Arethas, the Ghassānid commander in chief: ἄλλοι δὲ ἐπέμειναν σὺν Ἀρέθᾳ μαχόμενοι (14). 


9 See 

BASIC I.1, 82–92.


10  Ibid., 17–19.

  11  See M. Piccirillo, L’Arabia cristiana: Dalla provincia imperiale al primo periodo islamico (Milan, 

2002), whose title is itself relevatory of the thoroughly Christian character of the 

provincia in this 

period, reflected in its art and architecture.


The Ghassānids and the Security of  Oriens


Security, provided to a considerable extent by the Ghassānids, was conducive 

to a prosperity that enabled the 

Rhomaioi in the region to finance and subsidize 

the erection of many churches and monasteries on both sides of the Jordan. The 

foederati, especially the Ghassānids, took part in this sixth-century explosion of 

Christian art and architecture, including the recently excavated church of Nitil in 

the Madaba region of the Provincia Arabia.12 


12  In the Provincia Arabia and its environs alone were constructed at least 137 monasteries, some of 

which were Ghassānid; see 

BASIC I.2, 824–38, and BASIC II.1, passim. 


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes


hough important, the contribution of the Ghassānids to the security of 

Oriens was indirect: defending the diocese and enabling its economy to pros-

per. A more substantial contribution was their protection of important segments 

of the international trade routes.


The last segment of the Silk Road connecting the Far East and central Asia 

with the world of the Mediterranean passed through Mesopotamia and the north-

ern part of Oriens. It is often referred to as the Mesopotamian route. According 

to the 

Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes, the Silk Road was in fact 

two routes: one by sea, extending from China to Ceylon to the Red Sea, and the 

other on land, stretching through central Asia and Persia and finally reaching 



The West Arabian route connecting the world of the Far East, India, and 

the Indian Ocean with that of the Mediterranean was a land route that traversed 

South Arabia and Ḥijāz. Its final segments passed through the Provincia Arabia 

and Palaestina Tertia. To its west and east were two other routes: a sea route, which 

passed through the Red Sea to the island of Iotabe (modern Tirān) and finally 

to the port of Eilat/Ayla in Palaestina Tertia, and a shorter land route through 

Wādī Sirḥān—at the southern end of which was Dūma, sometimes called Dūmat  

al-Jandal—which led to the Provincia Arabia.2


Oriens was, thus, the confluence of all these major arteries of international 

trade in the sixth century. Hence the importance of the group of 

foederati in whose 

provinces of Arabia and Palaestina Tertia were located the termini of the West 

Arabian routes and through which traveled the caravans that carried this long-

distance trade. Because the caravans passed through difficult and dangerous ter-

rain, attractive to raiders, they needed protection, which the Ghassānids provided. 


1 Cosmas Indicopleustes, 

Topographie chrétienne, ed. and trans. W. Wolska-Conus, Sources 

chrétiennes no. 141 (Paris, 1968), Book II, sections 45–46, pp. 351–55. 


2  See E. H. Warmington, 

The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India (1928; reprint, 

London, 1974); N. Pigulewskaia, 

Byzanz auf den Wegen nach Indien (Berlin and Amsterdam, 1969).


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

In this trade were manifest the rivalry and the struggle between Byzantium and 

Persia; these trade routes hence took on added political and military impor-

tance—as did the role of the Ghassānids, who protected the caravans that traveled  

along them.3

*  *  *

The four sketch maps that accompany this chapter are intended solely to illustrate 

the role of the Ghassānids in the economic history of Byzantium in the Oriens of 

the sixth century. By visually presenting the convergence of the trade routes on 

Oriens, the maps contribute to a clearer and better understanding of how impor-

tant this diocese was in the economic life of Byzantium and how grave was its loss 

to Islam after its conquest in the seventh century. An additional map in the follow-

ing chapter graphically represents the fairs, 

aswāq, frequented by the Arab caravans 

in Oriens. The maps focus on the 

final stations of the trade routes, especially their 

termini in Oriens overseen by the Ghassānids, but include some stations on the 

remoter segments of the long trade routes, which help put the stations involving 

the Ghassānids in geographical context. 


While the

 Periplus Maris Erythraei of the first century cast much light on 

the Red Sea route, as did the 

Mansiones Parthicae of the same century for the 

Mesopotamian one, no such guides seem to exist for the sixth.4 In the world of 

the Christian Roman Empire of the sixth century, maps and itineraries were avail-

able for pilgrims to the Holy Land such as those used by Theodosius.5 When the 

“Byzantine” Cosmas ventured into composing something similar to the 

Periplus of 

the Red Sea,6 he approached his task with an explicitly Christian agenda (an xious 

to prove that Ptolemy was wrong, that the earth was not a globe, and that the uni-

verse resembled the Tabernacle of Moses). Nevertheless, he preserved valuable 

information on Axum and Ceylon and made reference to a few ports relevant to 

seafaring in the Red Sea, such as Adūlis on the African coast and Leuke Kome and 

Rhaithou on the Asiatic.


3  See M. Morony, “The Late Sasanian Economic Impact on the Arabian Peninsula,” 


Irān-e Bāstān 1.2 (2002), 25–37. 


4 See 

The Periplus Maris Erythraei, trans. and annot. L. Casson (Princeton, 1989). For Isidore of 

Charax, and his 

Mansiones Parthicae, see The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. N. G. L. Hammond and 

H. H. Scullard, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1992), s.v. Isidorus (1), a more informative entry than is found in the 3rd 

ed. (1996). The indefatigable modern traveler and explorer Alois Musil traversed the Mesopotamian seg-

ment of the route described by Isidore; for his comments and reservations on 

Mansiones, see The Middle 

Euphrates: A Topographical Itinerary (New York, 1927), 227–32. The Tabula Peutingeriana is a twelfth- 

or thirteenth-century copy of a fifth-century tourist map; see A. Kazhdan, “Tabula Peutingeriana,” 

ODB, III, 2004–5. 


5  See Y. Tsafrir, “The Maps Used by Theodosius: On the Pilgrim Maps of the Holy Land and 

Jerusalem in the Sixth Century c.e.,” 

DOP 40 (1986), 129–45.


6  See Cosmas Indicopleustes, 

Topographie chrétienne. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

I. The Mesopotamian Route

War with the Persians, which suddenly broke out in a.d. 502 after a long period of 

peace, reignited in the reign of each emperor of the sixth century; this conflict con-

tributed to the West Arabian route gaining some advantage over the Mesopotam-

ian (for the Mesopotamian route, see Map I). Nevertheless, the latter route retained 

much of its significance.7 That two clauses in the peace treaty of 561, the prod-

uct of complex negotiations between the two powers, involve the Arabs and the 

Ghassānids reflects their importance in the Byzantine-Persian relationship.8


The second clause of the treaty deals with the Ghassānids directly and is 

military in character. After the decisive Ghassānid victory over the Lakhmids at 

the battle of Qinnasrīn/Chalcis, in 554, hostilities continued between the two 

Arab groups independently of their Persian and Byzantine overlords. To address 

the resultant souring of relations between the two world powers, it was necessary 

to devote the second clause of the treaty to putting an end to any further strife 

between the Ghassānids and Lakhmids. The fifth clause is even more relevant to 

our theme, since it dealt with economic problems. It reads as follows:

It is agreed that Saracen and all other barbarian merchants of either state 

shall not travel by strange roads but shall go by Nisibis and Daras, and shall 

not cross into foreign territory without official permission. But if they dare 

anything contrary to the agreement (that is to say, if they engage in tax-

dodging, so-called), they shall be hunted down by the officers of the frontier 

and handed over for punishment together with the merchandise which they 

are carrying, whether Assyrian or Roman.9

This clause has elsewhere been commented upon copiously by the present writer,10 

and the following point may be added here. Financial considerations were behind 

the restrictions imposed on Arab traders who engaged in tax dodges. The emperor 

Justinian was naturally concerned about building up the economy and the trea-

sury, which suffered heavily owing to his wars of reconquest in the West and his 

expensive building program, and these worries were reflected in his exorbitant 

duties on merchandise and in the establishment of state monopolies in certain 

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