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Home » History » ‘Abd al-Rahman III, Orosius’ Historiae Contra Paganos, and the Byzantine Embassy to Cordoba in the Tenth Century

‘Abd al-Rahman III, Orosius’ Historiae Contra Paganos, and the Byzantine Embassy to Cordoba in the Tenth Century

Around 956, when the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba was at its peak, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913–959) sent an important embassy to the Andalusī caliph al-Nāṣir li-Dīn illāh ‘Abd al-Raḥman III (r. 912–961). The embassy sought to formalize diplomatic and economic relations between Islamic Spain and the Byzantine Empire, whose shared interests in opposing the Abbasids in Baghdad provided a common ground for the establishment of an alliance (directed primarily against the Fatimids in North Africa and Sicily).

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In order to demonstrate his desire to cement a friendship with the Umayyads in Iberia, Constantine sent three particularly interesting gifts along with the embassy. The first was a number of expert artisans and architects who specialized in glass and tile work. They would be the ones who would help with the construction of the dome of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which remains as magnificent a sight as ever.

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The second gift was one of the pharmacological treatises of Pedanius Dioscorides (d. 90 A.D.), the Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (known as the De Materia Medica in Latin), which was promptly translated into Arabic and became one of the most important works of Greek science and medicine in the Islamic West and, indeed, Western Europe. Dioscorides’ treatise was the most influential work on pharmacopeia until the 19th century.

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While the translation of Greek works into Arabic (and their subsequent translation into Latin) during the Middle Ages is known to all, the role of the Byzantines in this process of exchange and transfer of knowledge is often forgotten.

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The third gift is the one which has received the least attention, probably because its significance has been the least understood. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III was presented with the monumental historical work of the Roman historian Orosius (d. 418), known as the Historiae contra paganos or “Histories against the Pagans.”

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Orosius was a native-born Spaniard, having been born in Bracara Augusta (modern-day Braga), the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Gallaecia. He was a well-traveled individual, having visited the Roman East and North Africa. The Historiae was a universalist history with a providential character, contrasting the Christian present with the pagan past. It was composed following a request by Orosius’ mentor, St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), for a universal history which would complement his own De Civita Dei (“City of God”). The work sought to demonstrate the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire as a major advancement and civilization development. The author had a clear objective: that the Christians be defended from the non-Christian Roman’s accusations that the arrival of the Germanic tribes and the subsequent sack of Rome in 410 occurred because the Christians had forsaken the city’s traditional pantheon of gods. It  can be read in English translation here (https://sites.google.com/site/demontortoise2000/).

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Although the work is clearly universalist in outlook and scope, Orosius devotes particular attention to events within Iberia, which he clearly considered to be one of the more important parts of the Roman world. One of the defining characteristics of the Historiae is its clearly defined historical methodology, which places it firmly within the tradition of classical Greco-Roman historiography. Among the sources which Orosius relied upon were the Old Testament, New Testament, Caesar, Livy, Junianus Justinus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Florus, and Eusebius. The work has been considered a monument of Roman historiography and it has exercised a major influence upon all future historians. Even the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) relied upon Orosius’ Historiae when he wrote his own universal history; throughout his work, Ibn Khaldūn refers to Orosius as “هروشيوش مؤرخ الروم”. Significantly, the particular translation which Ibn Khaldūn consulted was probably the one which was commissioned in Cordoba at the command of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III and his son, al-Ḥakam II (r. 961–976). In Christian Europe, Orosius’ work was considered to be one of the main works of classical historiography from Spain right up until the time of the Reformation (and beyond).

The significance of the gift of Orosius’ Historiae cannot have been lost on ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III, a native-born Spanish monarch whose mother was Galician and whose paternal grandmother was the Basque princess Iñiga Fortúnez (d. 891). His roots to the various cultures and ethnicities of Spain—Berber, Arab, Galician, and Basque—were therefore well established. As such, a monumental work written by one of the most eminent historians of Roman Spain was quite fitting. One can see the gift as a symbolic complement to his power, which extended across the Iberian peninsula.

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The Historiae provided the caliph with a document that enabled him to contextualize his own dynastic rule within the broader historical frame of Iberian history in antiquity and late antiquity. It also reassured him that divine providence was the guiding force of historical change, reinforcing his own claims to religio-political authority and sense of being blessed by God for having granted him dominion.

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