Day 1109 – Ken here (M)(9-24-2012)
(DEF III, v.5, Ch.50, pp.200-210)(pages read: 2240)
Hey there – feeling weak and sick but willing to blunder onward through Islamic history. I’d forgotten what Roman history was until the last paragraph of this week’s 10 pages where Gibbon mentions Heraclius. It was like giving a mostly-dead, dehydrated man a sip of cool, clean, glacier water. Suddenly I feel alive!
I know, I know… whine, whine, complain, complain. How I yearn for the long, snide but well-written asides on Roman Imperial Christianity and Roman Imperial monks, now that we are mired deep in the twilight of pre-literate Arabic history. And again, reading Gibbon – a man who was writing 230 years ago, is more of a sociological-anthropological study of Late Enlightenment English Historians than it is reading actual history. But we have some text to get through here – so onwards…
A Day of Battles
Today Gibbon takes us through the 1st 8 or 9 battles of Mohammed, from his difficult taking of Medina, to the rounding up of the Tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, to his first tentative assaults on the huge (but exhausted) Roman Empire of Heraclius. Rome will be surprisingly easy to capture – after Heraclius had successfully concluded the Persian Wars, won back the Middle East, destroyed the Persian dynasty, and alienated and exhausted most of his citizenry. Of course, the prostrate Persians will fall just as easily, maybe more easily – they barely had a central government back in place when the Bedouins hit them.
The conquests of Islam were NOT a foregone conclusion in the 620’s. Every forward move by the forces of Monotheism under Mohammed were blocked and questioned and opposed. The taking of Arabia was a long affair, more a matter of persistence and luck than blitzkrieg. The initial forays into Roman territory were little more than raids. After all, Mohammed’s forces were cobbled together with religious zeal and the prospect of unheard of plunder from raiding.
The Roman Empire was certain to field an army against them that was a war machine, backed by the strongest power in the Mediterranean, one that had just fought a 30 year war against one of the greatest powers in the hemisphere (Persia) and won. Arabs against Romans – well maybe it would have seemed (to the world at large) like the Afghans marching on Moscow. Raiding people expected. Booty, yes. Burnt towns, cattle, gold, slaves, jewelry yes, yes, and yes. But complete conquest? The world would have said, probably not. Mohammed was barely keeping his current forces loyal.
But in this case, the world would have been wrong.
The poignant thing about Heraclius and Mohammed is that Heraclius had just accomplished what Romans had been attempting for the last 500 years – the annihilation of the Persian Empire. What Gibbon writes about now is the hurricane of Arab/Islam martial activity that seemed to burst upon the Mediterranean from out of nowhere, but actually was a long, difficult, and indirect set of conquests starting with Mohammed in Medina and Mecca and only a handful of men.
It ends of course, with almost all of the 1,300 year old Roman state converting to Islam, obedient politically and religiously to Mohammed’s successors. Seldom has history been more tragic and cruel on such an epic scale.
Maybe what a future graph of interactions in a Historical Analysis of a 23rd Century History Student would look like – contingent, chaotic, partially predictable – this is actually a Graphical Result of a collision in the Particle Accelerator at Fermilab in Switzerland-France
It always cracks me up now when I see a “scholarly article” as this one on Muslim Conquests in Wikipedia that features a quote from Gibbon the Historian (in caps) as if quoting a known authority. No competent historian lists Gibbon as a reference today. You could do it. But why? You’d have to make so many adjustments, changes, etc to his writing – adjusting for his viewpont, taking into account recent discoveries, undoing the considerable amount of prejudice and just plain inadvertent ignorance there is in his text – well, you’d end up using nothing at all of Gibbon and using all of the HUGE VOLUME of historical data produced in the last 50 years (we’re actually living in a kind of Historian’s Golden Age right now – although you don’t hear much about it).
It’s pretty. It’s art. But it’s no longer really science. And certainly no longer history.
And that’s O.K.
Because we (the 21st cent. historians of the Roman past, we most likely will be just as useless to 23rd cent. historians (who will probably be mind-linking directly to vast data-centers exuding socio-anthropological-historico-cultural patternings tailor-designed for the very specific questions posed). Our infant-like, credulous, net-based data structures of the last 10 years will seem – quaint – to put the best spin on it possible, and – criminally negligent – if attacked by some righteous twenty-something historian in 2310’s who refuses to believe her/his remote ancestors could ever have been that naive.
And that’s the stuff running through my head as I read Gibbon.