• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Regionalism in Byzantium & Early Islam


Historically, the scholarly literature on the Rhomaioi has either melted sub-identities in a vast Orthodox soup, or fractured the empire into a smorgasbord of peoples (with competing theologies) whose only shared trait was obeisance to the emperor. The reality was more interesting and involved a complex interplay between particularity and Romanitas. The author of the Miracles of Artemios, a text written in mid-seventh-century Constantinople, for instance expected his audience to be familiar with the fact Alexandrians spoke Greek with a silly accent.[1] The same text depicted Sicilians as quick to wrath. Elsewhere, Anastasios of Sinai framed the Cypriots as extremely hardy thanks to their difficult climate.[2] Armenians occupied a space in the Byzantine mind that was fairly similar to the one the Eastern Romans had in the Frankish imagination. They were an untrustworthy, devious folk whose virtues came alive only when commanded by Byzantine officers.[3] Maurice’s Strategikon contains all the stock characters or caricatures that clearly populated Byzantine ethnography from an early stage. The Iranians were wicked, dissembling and servile. Avars were superstitious, foul, faithless and avaricious. The Franks were bold, proud, impetuous, undisciplined and loquacious. Not that identities were always so static. Even the Roman view of themselves (or at least the emphasis) changed over time. They morphed from being the universal people (who dominated the world) to the new chosen people, successors to the Jews, who sailed an ark (who had to suffer the world’s travails). It was a way of controlling the narrative in times of weakness.[4] A position that led to increased invective against the Jews,[5] as well as the consolidation of Christian norms expressed through hagiography. In short, saints, relics and icons were set against doubters, heretics and barbarians. Intriguingly, sub-identities survived in the most direct agents of imperial power: soldiers. The provincial troops that were permitted by Constantinople’s garrison to enter with Tiberios Apsimar in 698 and proceeded to plunder much of the city might have expressed regional resentment for example.[6] However, this may be an over-reading of simple greed.


Some soldiers were viewed as particularly troublesome. The so-called Gotthograikoi of the Opsikion were probably Goths and Lombard mercenaries, recruited by Tiberios II, and transferred to Bithynia in the middle of the seventh century. They had a strong identity and reputation, and even operated as a distinct fiscal unit as attested by an early eighth-century seal of Theodore, silentarios kai dioiketes of the Gotthograikoi.[7] Finally, the seventh century also reveals an evolution in the imperial forces stationed in Italy. Whereas they were happy to execute the exarch’s orders 640-50s, they often refused to support Byzantine ambassadors against popes thereafter.[8] Byzantine historiography was not particularly accurate when it came to dealing with Arabs, even though they knew the term contained multitudes. Usually conflated with Muslims, the memory that Arabs predated the Islamic conquest in Syria was an unhappy one, and so a fifth-column vibe was projected backwards upon them. The fact remained, however, that in many districts the Arab population was almost as numerous as the native Arameans, and there was an influx of them into the Roman regions of S. Syria and Transjordan in the late sixth century. Large numbers adopted Islam but others remained Monophysite and viewed this position as an Arab one (much as Islam can be viewed as a nationalised monotheism).[9] Islam was not immune from regional identities either. The ahl al-Iraq (Muslims of Iraq) and ahl al-Sham (Muslims of Syria) were often potent labels in political conflicts. The former regarded the latter as greedy and impoverished but also wrestled a begrudging admiration for them as the disciplined spine of the Umayyad forces i.e. those who repeatedly vanquished the infidel.


Perhaps the most biting criticism that could be made against the ahl al-Sham was their investment of Mecca, especially their supposed bombardment of the Kaaba. This was repeatedly used against them. Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) was typical when he moaned that the ahl al-Sham was full of Nabataeans and Copts who violated Islamic sites and women. This groaning has to be set against the fact the ummah appear to have viewed the ahl al-Sham as “Bad Muslims but our Muslims.” The fact remained that they were the only professional force capable of breaking the Kharjites. This meant that though Iraqis resented Syrians quartered in their cities, it rarely bubbled over into violence. Hence the failure of Qutaybah bin Muslim’s appeal (715) to anti-Syrian sentiments when he asked “For how long with the ahl al-Sham continue to lie in your courtyards and under the roofs of your homes? Oh army of Khurasan if you look at my ancestry you will find I have only Iraqi blood.” Yazid ibn al-Muhallab tried the same trick c. 720 when he raised the standard of revolt and bolstered his men with a speech about how the Syrians were only a powerful force when they confronted the unbelievers. They would falter when opposed by the true believers. A theory proven false in the battle that followed where al-Malik’s cavalry cut Yazid down.


These regional identities often cut through tribal ties. In the lead-up to the battle at Dayr al-Jamajim (701), for instance, two men emerged from each camp to engage in single combat. Each, however, proclaimed themselves “al Ghulam al-Kilabi” (or champion of the Kilab). After a quick parley the realisation dawned that they were first cousins and the spectacle was cancelled. While the anecdote clearly demonstrates tribal sentiment mattered, the fact such close relations stood on the opposite sides of a war equally reveals that tribes were divided in their allegiances, and didn’t necessarily form the primary identity of most Muslims.



[1] Nesbitt and Crysafulli, Miracles of Artemios (1997).

[2] Anastasii Sinaitae Quaestiones et Responsiones (2006).

[3] G. T. Dennis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises (1985).

[4] S. MacCormack, “Christ and Empire,” Byzantion 52 (1982).

[5] Dagron & Deroche “Juifs et Chretiens dans l’orient du VIIe siècle,” Travaux et Memoires, 11 (1991).

[6] Theophanes, Chronographia 370.

[7] J. Haldon, “Trouble with the Opsikion: some issues in the first themata,” ed. F. Evangelatou-Notara, Kletorion, In Memory of Oikonomides (2005).

[8] Brown, Gentleman and Officers.

[9] F. M. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests (1982).

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