Graeco-Roman and Sassanian before the Eruption of Islam


Byzantine and Sassanian Cavalry Clash.


Sassanian Cataphract.


Map of the Sassanian and Roman campaigns of the 6th century CE. The end result of the ensuing long and devastating Romano-Sassanian wars of the early 7th century CE was the creation of a military vacuum which was to be adeptly exploited by the Arabo-Islamic invasion forces of the newly established Caliphate in Arabia.

Iran attacked the Eastern Roman Empire in the spring of 571. When Khosrow faced the Roman enemy in the last decade of his reign, he commanded what was probably the world’s most tightly centralized state. Armenia was the casus belli waiting to happen, a religious powder keg wedged between the two empires. Iran’s fifty-year peace with Justinian expressly forbade Christian proselytizing in the Sassanian Empire. The Iranians had become convinced, nevertheless, that the Greeks’ evangelizing clergy, with the full assent of the increasingly mentally addled Justin, was determinedly at work in Armenia. The Sassanian war machine was like a huge boulder in downhill motion. The Immortals were the tested best of the Persian nobility, ten thousand men encased in contoured body armor transforming their close-order cavalry charges into a solid wall of glinting bronze, ostrich feathers rippling from helmets. Behind the bronze wall came the rolling thunder of armored elephants that made horses gag and panic at their smell. Added to the Sassanian advantage of numbers and superior professionalism were the broad sympathy and much complicity garnered among the Eastern Roman Empire’s religiously disaffected. No people showed greater determination to rid themselves of Graeco-Roman rule than the Jews, whose lot had become almost unbearable after Justinian’s policy of forced conversion and property expropriation. To the dogged Nestorians, along with large numbers of suffering powerless and poor, the approach of the kaviani, the Sassanians’ imposing gold, silver, and bejeweled rectangular battle standard, raised hopes of better days. Even Monophysites had become disaffected under Constantinople’s sway.

Faced with wars on several fronts and the gross wastage of material and human treasure in Mesopotamia, Constantinople finally sued for peace in 579, several months after death of the mentally unstable JustinII. Then, before negotiations could be finalized between Justin’s successor and Khosrow I, the shahanshah died of natural causes in the forty-eighth year of his extraordinary reign. Three years later, Emperor Tiberius Constantine, Justin’s militarily capable but spendthrift successor, dropped dead amid customary Byzantine rumors of poison. The imperial purple was draped over the shoulders of Tiberius Constantine’s militarily cautious and administratively capable son-in-law, Maurice (r. 582–602), who was too proud to sue for a peace that left the empire no better off than at the start of the war. More to the point, his father-in-law had utterly depleted the imperial treasury by desperate stopgap expenditures. Biding his time, Maurice applied himself to the systematic overhaul of the army, dividing the empire into military districts (themes) commanded by prefects (strategoi), and writing Strategikon, a primer that became a military classic.

There matters remained in stasis during his twenty-year reign: two decades of non-peace between the Eastern Roman Empire and Iran, a period of simmering ill will, border incidents and flare-ups, at least one significant confrontation, and proxy hostilities among satellites. In Maurice’s ninth throne year, he overruled his counselors in a carefully calculated decision that ultimately proved to be as disastrous as it was objectively intelligent. The fifteen-year-old grandson of Anushirvan himself appeared on Byzantine soil seeking asylum and asked Constantinople’s help in regaining the ancestral throne. The prince’s father had perished in a coup d’état masterminded by the regime’s senior general, a nobleman boasting descent from the last Parthian kings. The logic of the usurping general’s dictatorship could only mean outright war with the Eastern Roman Empire. Khosrow II, dubbed Parvez, “the Victorious,” hardly deserved his name in 590. Maurice embraced the prince’s cause, supplying arms and scarce gold to the army of loyalists flocking to Syria on condition that, once in power, Khosrow’s grandson would sign a treaty of perpetual peace and surrender of Armenia. The dictatorship collapsed within the year, and the new shahanshah conscientiously and gratefully ended the war with the Eastern Roman Empire. By the terms of the generous peace of 591, Persian Armenia and Syria, along with several major cities, were restored to the Greeks.

By the time Maurice of the Eastern Roman Empire and Khosrow II concluded the peace of 591, years of strident Graeco-Iranian competition since the death of Justinian and Khosrow I had forever altered the social, political, and commercial landscape of Arabia. It would have been the rare imperial counselor in the Great Palace at Constantinople or in the White Palace at Ctesiphon who concerned himself with the state of affairs in Arabia’s inner peninsula. Then, as today, superpower panjandrums assumed the prerogative of optional notice of any collateral consequences of their policies. At the dawn of the seventh century, Arabs rated no more superpower attention than did late-twentieth-century Africans south of the Sahara. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a backwater tenuously tied to the great centers of Asia Minor by camel caravans and political alliances of secondary importance. Then, in the last third of the sixth century and the first twenty years of the seventh, Arabia was drawn into the Fertile Crescent’s wars without end. Parthian Persia and Latin Rome were long gone.

Sassanian Iran and the Eastern Roman Empire carried on in their names. For the tribes of the Arabian heartland, the Graeco-Iranian competition fiercely underway at both ends of their peninsula presented opportunities for enrichment, influence, and out-migration hitherto imagined by only the canniest among them. To be sure, out-migration to the edges of Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, where Arab clans assimilated the more sophisticated cultures, had been ongoing for centuries.

The Sarakenoi, as the Greeks called “the people of the tents” (Saraceni in Latin), in more recent times had begun to press harder against the frontiers of both empires. Bedouin raids on caravans and razzias for slaves and booty had accelerated during Justinian’s reign. And in another of those characteristically principled but strategically questionable decisions, Justin II had provocatively terminated the Bedouins’ protection money. But nothing tempted the Roman or the Iranian military establishments to consider invading Arabia proper, a sand mass nearly one-third the size of Europe, parts of which saw rain only every tenth year and for months were baked at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A growing nuisance, the Arabs were still considered a backward people who merely featured in the peripheral vision of the superpowers, although Greek merchants and Persian importers became less risk-averse about turning a good profit at either end of the thousand-mile Arabian sand conveyor belt.

The Arabs of the Hijaz and the vast Najd watched as proxy wars raged in the peninsula’s north and east, and conflict in the south spurted upward out of Yemen like ink on a blotter. The Romans had called Yemen Arabia felix (“Happy Arabia”) because of its alluvial topography and rain-watered expanses. Once united by a powerful Arab state and ruled by a storied Hebrew king known to the Arabs as Dhu Nuwas (“the man with the hanging locks”), Yemen was partially conquered in 525 CE by an Ethiopian army from the kingdom of Axum, the Christian powerhouse in the Horn of Africa. Yusuf As ‘as was the Hebrew name of the man “with the hanging locks.” He was the scion of the founding Jewish dynasty of the great Himyarite kingdom of Yemen that the Axumite Ethiopians invaded and subjugated. Legend holds that Yusuf As ‘as rode his horse suicidally into the Red Sea after losing his kingdom. With his disappearance, a curious chapter in Judeo-Arab domination closed in southern Arabia. Fifty years later, encouraged by Justin II’s promise of money and manpower, the Ethiopian viceroy of Yemen felt strong enough to expand his control over southern Arabia. Yemeni Jews and local sheikhs who chafed under the Monophysite Ethiopians and remembered the golden age of the “hanging locks” man sent urgent appeals to Ctesiphon to act before it was too late.

War reached the very gates of Mecca in 570. The Ethiopian viceroy, Abraha, approached with a large army and war elephants, beasts previously unseen in the desert. To plant Christianity deep in Yemen’s soil, the Ethiopians had built a large church in San’a, today the capital of Yemen. They intended the church to become a great pilgrimage center, a revenue source freed of competition from Mecca. The people of Mecca quaked behind their flimsy wattled fortifications as sand clouds on the horizon trailed the advancing Ethiopian host and its terrifying cacophony. That day fixed itself permanently in Arabia’s racial and religious memory, an allusive phrase about “elephant people” inscribing itself in the Qur’an. To the Arabs, Mecca had been miraculously spared, some said, by a flock of attacking birds. In reality, Meccans owed their deliverance to the sudden arrival of a Sassanian naval expedition, dispatched by Khosrow I to checkmate Graeco-Roman power in the Gulf of Aden. Iranian forces quickly routed the Ethiopians, who fled across the Red Sea to Axum. Yemen was enfolded into the Sassanian grand alliance. Three score years in the future, great significance would be divined in the fact that the Year of the Elephant, 570, was thought to be the very year of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah’s birth in Mecca. For Edward Gibbon, the Occident’s cheerleader, 570 CE was another of history’s lost opportunities. “If a Christian power had been maintained in Arabia,” he reflected, “Mahomet must have been crushed in his cradle, and Abyssinia would have prevented a revolution which has changed the civil and religious state of the world.”

The political, commercial, and religious tremors visited upon Arabia by the superpowers were sudden, sharp, and unprecedented in force. Ethiopian elephants at Mecca’s gates were but the seeming hallucinations of superpower geopolitics. When war came again in 571, Iran and Rome furiously pressed the game of checkmate by proxies across the Fertile Crescent. The proxy calculus was hardly new. At the top of the century, Constantinople and Ctesiphon had created the Lakhmid and Ghassanid kingdoms, now long forgotten. The Lakhmid kingdom, a Sassanian invention extending from the Persian Gulf to Iraq, was ruled by the Banu Lakhm, an Arab clan that warred more or less on the side of the Iranians against the Graeco-Romans for three generations. The Ghassanid kingdom, a Graeco-Roman creation ruled by the nomadic Banu Ghassan, stretched across the top of Arabia from Sinai to the intersection of the Lakhmid territory with today’s Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. The emperors suspected their Ghassanid potentates of collusion with the Iranians and, almost as intolerable, of genuine Monophysite convictions. In the first decade of the seventh century, Constantinople removed the Ghassanid leadership, whereupon several Ghassanid sheikhs defected to Iran. The Ghassanid kingdom, a considerable power blocking the advance of the hungry tribes of the Hijaz, all but disintegrated. The loyalty of the Lakhmid kingdom’s rulers also came under suspicion from their Persian overlords, and with a similar unintended outcome. The consequences were ultimately disastrous for the Sassanian and Eastern Roman Empires and liberating for the peninsular Arabs. By their own actions, the Greeks and Iranians opened an unrestricted channel to Syria for the desert Arabs.

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