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G. W. Bowersock, Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity

Waltham MA, Brandeis University Press, 2012,128 pages
Nathanael Andrade
Référence(s) :

Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity / Glen W. Bowersock .- Waltham MA : Brandeis University Press, 2012 .- 128 p., 5 illus .- (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures)

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1Empires in Collision marks the publication of three lectures that G. W. Bowersock delivered at Jerusalem in 2011. As the title implies, these lectures focus on certain historical episodes that shaped how the later Roman and Sasanian Persians empires embarked upon a mutually destructive conflict in the early seventh century, thus enabling the Muslim Arab conquests of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Iran during the 630s and 640s. The series for which Bowersock wrote his lectures honors pioneer Menahem Stern, and Empires in Collision is therefore associated with the names of two scholars who have made unparalleled contributions to scholarship on the multicultural world of the Roman empire and its environs.

2As Albert Baumgarten narrates in his Foreword (vii-xv), Bowersock has long attained the remarkable achievement of harmonizing disparate academic disciplines. Bowersock’s scholarship has brought poignant focus to the interconnections of ancient societies that have often been viewed in isolation, and his works are famous for their masterful integration of material and technical expertise from diverse disciplinary fields. His books Augustus and the Greek World (1965), Hellenism in Late Antiquity (1990), Fiction as History (1994), and Mosaics as History (2006) merit recognition for this (as noted by Baumgarten, xi-xii). But Bowersock has also been an exceptional diplomatic bridge among scholars of such disciplinary fields. For these reasons, his contributions to the knowledge of antiquity have been virtually unprecedented. While Bowersock writes about the “collision” of empires, few have done more to bring harmony to the often times fragmented and even fractious disciplines that study them.

3The aggregate contribution of Bowersock’s lectures is that they situate imperial conflicts in the sixth-century Red Sea at the heart of the massive “collision” between the eastern Roman and Sasanian Persian empires and the expansion of Islam notable in the seventh century. They also convey in a lively, accessible style the significance of recent historical, epigraphic, and archaeological research on the Red Sea, Aksumite Ethiopia, Arabia, and Palestine in late antiquity to a broad scholarly and popular audience. In the first lecture, entitled “Byzantium, Ethiopia, and the Jewish Kingdom of South Arabia” (3-28), Bowersock examines the formation of the Aksumite monarchy’s aspirations to control the south Arabian region of Ḥimyar, as well as the religious facets of its imperial claims as the fourth-century Aksumite kings became Christians and the fifth-century imyarite monarchs embraced Judaism (6-17). An appealing aspect of Bowersock’s treatment is that it includes several photographs of a stele raised at Aksum by Aezanas (‘Ezana), the first Christian Aksumite king (8-16). While having a text in Greek, the stele also bears two texts written in Ge‘ez, one in the Ethiopic script and the other in Sabaic script (which originates from south Arabia).

4By the 520s, conflicting imperial visions and religious trends triggered a notable episode in which the Jewish king of Ḥimyar commonly known as Yūsuf, but whose name appears with considerable variation in the sources, massacred the Christians living in the south Arabian city of Najrān, apparently after a recent Aksumite invasion. The Aksumite king Kālēb responded with an expedition to Ḥimyar that established Aksumite rule in the region for the next half-century or so (17-28). In Bowersock’s summation, the imperial and religious struggle between Aksum and Ḥimyar, while initially an independent episode, became a proxy conflict as the Persians aligned themselves with the Ḥimyarite Jews and the Romans forged an alliance with the Aksumites, who maintained a presence in south Arabia until the Persians conquered Ḥimyar c. 570 (24-27). Thus the stage was set for the “collision” of the eastern Roman and Persian polities.

5The second lecture, entitled “The Persian Capture of Jerusalem,” leaps forward to the year 614 CE, and it makes a meaningful connection between the proxy wars that the Romans and Persians had prompted in Arabia with the Persian siege of Jerusalem (31-51). In fact, Bowersock even suggests that Jews of Palestine, being in contact with Jews of Arabia, were cognizant of the alignment between Persia and Ḥimyarite Jews (35), and they were therefore disposed to accommodate the Persians as they faced increasing acrimony from the resolutely Chalcedonian Roman imperial administration. Whereas the Jewish perspective on the siege is difficult to establish through direct evidence, the works of religious politics Christians named Strategios, whose convoluted textual transmission Bowersock admirably clarifies, and Sophronios (eventually bishop of Jerusalem) suggest that some Jews sympathized with the Persians (37-41 and 48-50). Moreover, aside from the recent discoveries of several mass burials and a coin horde from the period, current archaeological developments from Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine generally indicate that these sources exaggerate the destruction that the Persians wrought and, by extension, the effects of Jewish collaboration (41-48). When the Muslims invaded the Roman Levant in the 630s, they did not encounter a war-ravaged landscape but rather a context of religious politics in which the benefits for Jews and anti-Chalcedonians (Monophysites, as Bowersock calls them) to align with tolerant invaders against their Chalcedonian persecutors had been well established (48-50).

6 In the final lecture, “Heraclius’ Gift to Islam,” Bowersock maintains that Sura 30 (Rūm) of the Qur’ān, by making references to the military situation of “Rūm,” alludes to Heraclius’ catastrophic defeat at Der‘a by the Persians in 614 and his victory over them near Ctesiphon in 628 (55-77). Consequently, this passage opens a window onto a brief period in which the followers of the prophet Muammad showed sympathy for the Chalcedonian administration of the eastern Roman empire, the very same which they would vigorously attack only a few years later. Indeed, during the 620s, Muammad’s disciples were mapping its struggles with Persia onto their own conflicts with “infidels” in Arabia (60-72). Moreover, when a key passage of Theophanes is placed against Syriac and Arabic controls that all cite a common source, it becomes clear that an earlier Greek account depicted an accommodating relationship between Sophronios, bishop of Jerusalem, and the caliph ‘Umar in 638 (72-75). Later Muslim and Christian treatments reinterpreted the harmonious perspectives of this period so that they were consistent with current inimical antagonisms and Christian-Muslim polemics (67-68 and 74-75), but in the later 620s, Heraclius had bestowed a great gift upon Islam (75-76). He destroyed the empire that had aligned itself with Jewish interests in both Arabia and Palestine and that had disenfranchised Chalcedonian Christians in the Roman Levant. Even as the Muslims wrested the Roman Levant from a Chalcedonian Roman empire, they encountered Chalcedonian Christians willing to cooperate with conquerors that seemed more accommodating than the previous ones. Sophronios and ‘Umar accordingly negotiated the smooth transfer of Palestine.

7 Bowersock’s lectures provide a deft and concise treatment of very complex and challenging episodes, and as such they are truly in the spirit of the series for which they were written and published. In his own preface, Bowersock pays due tribute to Menahem Stern, the eminent scholar of ancient Judaism in whose honor the lecture series was established. Stern’s multi-volume Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism in particular has been of incomparable value for students of Jews in the Greco-Roman world and of the multiethnic, multicultural, and cosmopolitan societies that emerged in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests and Roman imperial expansion. For well over a generation, scholars with an interdisciplinary vision have launched their endeavors from the foundations laid by Stern’s research. His untimely, tragic death deprived the world of an illustrious mind. It is therefore most appropriate that Bowersock has honored Stern with his lectures, which also treat a topic of great multicultural complexity with the depth of insight for which both scholars are most notable.

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Nathanael Andrade, « G. W. Bowersock, Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2015, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathanael Andrade

University of Oregon, Department of History

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