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cation of the ways in which poetry served the Ghassānids, the many ways in which
the Ghassānids served poetry, and the contribution of poetry to the cultural life of
Even before they crossed the Roman frontier into Oriens and entered the
service of Byzantium, the Ghassānids as Arabs had been involved in poetry, for
poetry was the central facet of their cultural life. A well-known medieval critic
fully explained this involvement:
When there appeared a poet in a family of Arabs, the other tribes round
about would gather together to that family and wish them joy of their good
luck. Feasts would be got ready, the women of the tribe would join together in
bands playing upon lutes as they were wont to do at bridals, and the men and
boys would congratulate one another. For a poet was a defence to the honour
of them all, a weapon to ward off insults from their good name, and a means
of perpetuating their good deeds and of establishing their fame forever. They
1 One sign of their involvement in poetry is that even around a.d. 630, after the Prophet
Muḥammad’s expedition to Tabūk, the Ghassānids tried to defend Byzantium against the rising tide
of Islam by sending a message to the poet Kaʿb ibn Mālik in Medina, attempting to lure him away from
his support for the Prophet and the Islamic cause. See
(Baghdad, 1966), 66.
used not to wish one another joy but for three things—the birth of a boy, the
coming to light of a poet, and the foaling of a noble mare.2
The Ghassānids belonged to the large group of the Azd, Arabs who had lived
in the Arabian South before they spread out into various parts of the Peninsula,
which they dominated. South Arabia was the abode of many other groups who
contributed substantially to Arabic poetry—especially Kinda, which produced
Imruʾ al-Qays (d. 541), the foremost poet of pre-Islamic Arabia. The century of
much of which has survived. The new
foederati of Byzantium thus entered the ser-
vice of Byzantium carrying with them the Arabic poetic tradition, which was part
of their peninsular heritage.
Oriens, the abode of the Ghassānids for a century and a half, had seen earlier
foederati, the Tanūkhids of the fourth century and the Salīḥids of the fifth, and in
both centuries Arabic poetry was heard in Oriens. In the fourth century, the Arabs
of Queen Mavia composed odes to celebrate her victory over the emperor Valens,4
while the fifth century witnessed a court poet in the entourage of the Salīḥid king
Dāwūd.5 Of the poetry associated with the Salīḥids, only four lines have survived:
a triplet composed by the regicides who killed Dāwūd and one single verse from
the response of Dāwūd’s daughter to those regicides.6
Such was the state of Arabic federate poetry in Oriens in the two centuries
before the coming of the Ghassānids. The scantiness of the survivals from this fed-
erate poetry makes it difficult to draw conclusions on its nature and range, but
it is fair to say that the fifth century, with the rise of the function or office of a
federate court poet for the Salīḥids and the appearance of a woman poet who
belonged to the royal house, showed development over the fourth. Moreover, it
is in the sixth century, with the advent of the Ghassānids, that Arabic poetry in
Oriens can be said to have shown a strong presence, which it maintained until the
fall of the dynasty. This is consonant with the general state of Arabic poetry, which
matured and proliferated in the sixth century in almost all parts of the Arabian
Peninsula. The poetry is audible in the Ghassānids’ first victorious encounter with
2 Ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawāni, in
al-ʿUmda fī Maḥasin al-Shiʿr, ed. M. ʿA. al-Ḥamīd (Cairo, 1955);
quoted in Suyūṭi,
al-Muzhir fī ʿUlūm al-Lugha wa Anwāʿihā (Bulāq, a.h. 1282 ), ed. M. Jād
al-Mawlā, ʿA. al-Bajāwi, and M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1971), II, 236, and translated by Sir Charles Lyall in the
introduction to his
3 This outpouring of poetry resembled that in Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.
See M. Schmidt,
The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets (New York, 2005).
6 Ibid., 436–38; see also Part II, Chapter 2, with notes 101, 110.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
Salīḥ. Because they had their own poets to memorialize their achievements, they
did not need poets to come from the Arabian Peninsula to sing their praises. The
earliest poetry composed by a Ghassānid is associated with Jidhʿ, who helped spark
the Ghassānid-Salīḥid conflict around a.d. 500. A poem of his has survived in
which he entertains his
reign of Jabala, in the first quarter of the sixth century, a sextet of verses has sur-
vived, composed by a poet of Medina named al-Ranq.8 But it was in the reign of the
famous Arethas (a.d. 529–569) that poetry began to flourish, reaching its climax
around a.d. 600, in the last decades of the dynasty.9
I. Poetry’s Service to the Ghassānids
Oriens witnessed a flowering of poetry under the Ghassānids, who were its patrons
and promoters. What were the circumstances and conditions that caused it, and in
what ways did this poetry serve the cause and interests of the dynasty?
1. One of the main assignments of the Ghassānids as
foederati of Byzantium
was to protect Oriens against the inroads of the pastoralists in the Arabian
Peninsula. This they did on the battlefield when their armies crushed the invad-
ers. But it was also important to deter future raids by making known the pres-
tige of their arms. In those days, the best medium of propaganda among the Arabs
was poetry, which was quickly transmitted throughout the Peninsula by various
means, including the
expressed by the Maghribi Ibn Rashīq, a medieval scholar of Arabic poetry: “The
Arabs needed to sing about their nobility of character, the purity of their blood
and to recall their good battle-days and far-away abodes, their brave horsemen and
compliant steeds, in order to incite themselves to nobility and direct their sons to
good character . . . to perpetuate memorable deeds, strengthen their honor, guard
the tribe and
7 The appearance of
jinn in the thirteen-line poem may incline critics to doubt its authenticity, but
Arab poets did continue to refer to
jinn even in late Islamic times; for the poem, see R. al-Maʿlūf, Shuʿarāʾ
al-Maʿālifa (Beirut, 1962), 9. On Jidhʿ, see BAFIC, 285–86.
8 See al-Maʿlūf,
Shuʿarāʾ al-Maʿālifa, 8–9. Nöldeke doubted the authenticity of these verses (GF, 7–8),
but recent research on Jabala and the early Ghassānids suggests that they may in fact be authentic. On iden-
tifying the Abū-Jubayla of the sextet with Jabala, the Ghassānid king and phylarch, see
9 No poetry has survived for the reign of Mundir (a.d. 569–582), possibly owing to the period’s
intense political, military, and especially religious tensions. Similarly, the Iranians during the period of the
Safavids were more interested in religion than in poetry; see E. G. Browne,
A History of Persian Literature
in Modern Times: a.d. 1500–1924, vol. 4 of A Literary History of Persia (Cambridge, 1930), 24–30.
10 Quoted and translated by S. Stetkevych, in “The Abbasid Poet Interprets History: Three
Qasīdahs by Abū Tammam,”
Journal of Arabic Literature 10 (1979), 49. The italics are mine.
The court of the Ghassānids was a center of attraction to poets, who converged
on it in great numbers from all parts of the Arabian Peninsula—western (especially
Ḥijāz and Yaman), central (Najd), and eastern (discussed below). Of all these poets,
those who frequented the fair of ʿUkā
z were the most important, since ʿUkā
z was a
sūq where poetry tournaments were held (for a time judged by one of the
main panegyrists of the Ghassānids, al-Nābigha).11
2. Especially important were those poets who came from eastern Arabia, the
sphere of Lakhmid influence; some had deserted the Lakhmids for Ghassānid
Jābiya.12 The rivalry between Lakhmids and Ghassānids found expression in a spe-
cial genre of poetry called
two royal houses in response to another poet’s praise of the other, usually employing
the same meter and rhyme. Some surviving examples are represented by specimens
prose literature, mentioned below in the chapter on oratory.13 Sometimes the
verse fell to rather low levels, as when a poet at the court of the Lakhmid Mundir,
the famous contemporary of the Ghassānid Arethas, composed a quintet of
verse denouncing Arethas as a regicide of his father, Jabala14—a plainly slander-
ous accusation, since Jabala died at the battle of Thannūris in a.d. 528 fighting for
Byzantium, as the Greek and Syriac sources attest.
Among those who deserted the Lakhmids for the Ghassānid court was a poet
Muʿallaqāt, “the Suspended Odes,” ʿAmr ibn Kulthūm. He and other poets
gave the Ghassānids the edge over their Lakhmid rivals, whose dynasty fell around
602, making the Ghassānid triumph complete.15
3. In addition to the peninsular pastoral groups and the Lakhmids of Ḥīra,
the poetry that advertised the military prestige of the Ghassānids was also recited
among the other
foederati of Oriens, especially those whom the Ghassānids had
toppled, such as the Salīḥids and their predecessors, the Tanūkhids. When the
emperor Justinian in 529 put all the Arab federate groups in Oriens under the
command of Arethas, the other federates could not have been thrilled by his
decision. Although the Ghassānids were able to control these other federates,
11 See Ibn Qutayba,
al-Shiʿr wa al-Shuʿarāʾ, ed. A. M. Shākir (Cairo, 1966), I, 167–68. For the
poetry of Ḥassān at ʿUkā
z, threatening an adversary, see
Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb
Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 153, verse 3.
12 Christian poets of eastern Arabia were naturally attracted to the Ghassānids, especially as some
of the Lakhmid kings, such as the famous Mundir, were violently anti-Christian.
13 For a
munāfara in prose at the court of the Ghassānids, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī
(Beirut, 1958), XII, 11–12.
14 See ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Baghdādi,
Khizānat al-Adab, ed. ʿA. al-Salām Hārūn (Cairo, 1982),
15 See G. Rothstein,
Die Dynastie der La
hmiden in al-Ḥira: Ein Versuch zur arabisch-persischen
Geschichte zur Zeit der Sasaniden (Berlin, 1899), 118–19.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
their discontent on occasion revealed itself.16 So, a poetry that described the
prowess of the Ghassānids could deter their potential rebelliousness as well.
4. Poetry was also an important feature of Ghassānid victory celebrations,
both after a horse race and after a military encounter on the battlefield.17 In the
case of the former, short poems were composed in a special meter, the
latter were marked by longer poems in other meters. The most memorable of these
victory celebrations were those for the battle of Chalcis, because it witnessed the
death of their great adversary, the Lakhmid Mundir, who for fifty years had posed
a threat to Oriens and to the Ghassānids.
5. Poetry also had a social function, at times celebrating the various aspects of
everyday life discussed earlier in this volume. Many odes must have been composed
on such occasions as births, baptisms, weddings, and deaths. Of these, two have
a quatrain on a Ghassānid youth, also by al-Nābigha.18
6. A final service that poetry rendered the Ghassānids is that it recorded the
war that the Ghassānids waged in Arabia to impose the
Pax Romana on its turbu-
lent tribes.19 In so doing, they spared Oriens the invasions of the Arabian pastoral-
ists, and thereby enabled it to flourish in the sixth century. This contribution of the
Ghassānids, preserved in poetry, supplies additional evidence that they were not a
pastoral group but a sedentary, urban one, which also contributed to the welfare of
Oriens by urbanizing the limitrophe.
On these aspects of Ghassānid history, Arabic poetry provides information
found nowhere in the Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources, both enabling medieval
Arab authors to understand the truth about the Ghassānids’ society as urban, not
pastoral, and providing modern historians, Arabist and Byzantinist alike, with the
data needed to write the history of this dynasty.
16 Non-Ghassānid federate coolness toward the Ghassānids was suspected during the battle of
Callinicum in a.d. 531 (see
BALA I, 25), as well as in the attempt of one Ghassānid to control two tribal
federate groups in Oriens by sowing dissension between them (see Nöldeke,
GF, 52 note 1).
17 The most spectacular example occurred in Abbasid times, during the reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd:
when he returned from his Anatolian campaign against Heraclea, eight poets recited poetry celebrating
his victory; see al-Ṣūlī,
Kitāb al-Awrāq, ed. H. Dunne (Cairo, n.d.), 75, 80.
18 On these two poems, see
Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 115–22,
166. The first moved even the dour Nöldeke; see
19 Perhaps a
Pax Ghassanica may have developed, when Arethas brought to an end the internecine
strife between two subdivisions of the powerful tribal group of Ṭayyiʾ called Jadīla and al-Gawth, an
achievement remembered in prose and in poetry; see
(Beirut, 1994), 88, no. 16, verse 5. For the best account of the Ghassānids’ war in Arabia, see N. ʿA.
al-Raḥmān, “Fi Ayyām Ghassān Maʿa al-Aḥālif Fi al-Shiʿr al-Jāhili,”
II. The Ghassānids’ Service to Poetry
The efflorescence of Arabic poetry during the Ghassānid period in Oriens was due
to their patronage. It is, therefore, necessary to examine the ways in which they
contributed to that efflorescence and how they promoted that art.
The Institutionalization of Poetry
The Ghassānid patronage of poetry found expression in a number of services, some
of which may be called technical.
1. Pre-Islamic peninsular poetry had not been a profession. The pastoral poet
was a tribesman, and composing poetry was only the artistic dimension of his life,
for which his tribe did not pay him. Although Zuhayr, a poet of the
attached himself to an Arabian chief, Harim ibn Sinān, who had managed to
end the internecine tribal Basūs War, and thereby benefited materially from the
latter’s liberality, he was the exception.20 But when the Ghassānids (and also the
Lakhmids) opened their courts to peninsular poets, who received from them hand-
some rewards (often in Byzantine denarii), poetry became a profession,21 and poets
thenceforth expected and received remuneration for their verse.22
2. The rise of the poet laureate attached to the court was also a new phenom-
enon.23 The first recorded court poet was the Iyādi ʿAbd al-ʿĀs, at the fifth-century
Salīḥid court of King Dāwūd; but Arab literary consciousness retains merely his
name, since none of his poetry has survived. It is, however, the Ghassānids whose
name is associated with court poets, two of whom were al-Nābigha and Ḥassān.
Al-Nābigha’s relation to the Lakhmids suggests that he may not have been tech-
nically the Ghassānids’ court poet.24 Ḥassān, in contrast, stayed with them much
longer and indeed was their relative; so he may be considered their true court poet.
20 See L. Bettini, “Zuhayr,”
EI2, XI, 556–58.
21 See H. A. R. Gibb,
Arabic Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1963), 18–19.
22 Alan Cameron has shown that poets in the late antique period began to expect remuneration
and became traveling professionals; see his “Wandering Poets: A Literary Movement in Byzantine
Literature and Society in the Early Byzantine World (London, 1985), article I, 470–509.
For the same phenomenon at the Byzantine court of a later age, see M. D. Lauxtermann,
Poetry from Pisides to Geometres, Wiener Byzantinistische Studien, 24/1 (Vienna, 2003), 36; he sug-
gests that professional poets expected, even begged, to be paid for their services from the twelfth cen-
23 The first true court poet of Byzantium was George of Pisidia, who was the “poet laureate” for
Heraclius; see W. Hörandner, “Court Poetry: Questions of Motifs, Structure and Function,” in
in Byzantium, ed. E. Jeffreys, Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies 11 (Aldershot, Eng., 2003),
76, where he also endorses the view of Lauxtermann on this point (76 note 4). On the poet laureate of
the fifth-century Arab federate king Dāwūd, see
24 But one verse in an ode addressed to the Lakhmids suggests that he had a special relationship
with the Ghassānids; see Al-Nābigha,
Dīwān, 73, verse 6.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
He also functioned later as the poet laureate of the Prophet Muḥammad for a
decade during his Medinan period (a.d. 622–632).
3. The third service that the Ghassānids rendered poetry was their contri-
bution to the rise of an appropriate venue worthy of poetry recitals—namely the
ōdeion/odeum. In his Dīwān, Ḥassān apparently makes a specific reference to an
buyūt al-rukhām, “houses/mansions of marble,” in which he could
hear song and poetry.25
New Subjects of Poetry
Other contributions were even more important and substantive. When the
Ghassānids gave the peninsular Arab poets the chance to visit their court and
eulogize them, they also offered a first glimpse of an outside superior civilization,
that of Byzantium, and thus enabled the poets to incorporate into the texture of
pre-Islamic poetry new tones and motifs—a particularly important consideration
for poetry like that of the pre-Islamic Arabs, whose simplicity of life in Arabia
Pastoralis had conduced to a certain exiguity in poetic themes. The poetry com-
posed for the Ghassānids derived not only from the Arabian scene but also from
vibrant new developments outside the Peninsula; it thus represents the first stage in
the thematic evolution of Arabic poetry and the expansion of its expressive range
from its constricted pastoral surroundings to the breadth of the Arab
later Muslim times.
The scene that inspired the peninsular poet was now urban Ghassānland and
the even more sophisticated urban scene of Byzantine Oriens, with its Decapolis
and cities. The three well-known components of Byzantine civilization—the
Roman, Christian, and Hellenic—offered inspiration to the Arab peninsular
poets, who also were stirred by a fourth component, the Syriac-Aramaic, emanat-
ing from the Semitic sector of the multicultural Byzantine Oriens.
1. The phrase “the urbanization of Arabic poetry” perhaps best describes
what the Arab poet expressed in his poems after his experience in Oriens. Poets
such as Ḥassān rarely allude to the Arabian scene with its desert elements of tents
and pegs, referring instead to the urban landscape: the terms
(palace or castle),
haykal (temple), and dayr (monastery) appear in their lexicon.
Within the Ghassānid town, they mention the tavern (
ḥānūt, ḥāna), wine, song,
and drinking parties. Within the Ghassānid house or mansion, clothes and fur-
niture are described; the princesses do not busy themselves with such desert veg-
etation as the colocynth, but instead weave coral wreaths as they prepare for Palm
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