A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

I don’t hang about the late antique sources as much as perhaps I should, given some of what I have taught and hope to teach again, but there are of course only so many hours in the day. This means that stories from quite well-known sources can catch me by complete surprise when I read stuff by people who do hang out there, and a while back one such that I was surprised I’d never seen anywhere else wandered before me, courtesy of a paper by one David Grafton.1 This tracks medieval and indeed later identifications of Arabs and, by false implication, Muslims, to the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Grafton believes this is a fourth-century conflation of the Biblical story placing Ishmael’s exile in about the right part of the world with the general picture of the peoples there as barbarians and generally beyond the pale of civilisation. That seems to stack up to me, but in the course of it he refers to an early mention of the Arabs, or at least one of the tribes of Arabia (whom all writers concerned are happy to call Saracens2), who in 373 appear to have revolted against Rome. A clutch of ecclesiastical historians report on this and consider it most serious, though I note just in passing that Ammianus Marcellinus does not. Does this suggest a particular Christian context, you ask, and I say, indeed it do matey, ‘ave a look at this from Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

About this period the king of the Saracens died, and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mavia, the widow of the late monarch, finding herself at the head of the government, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine… the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man called Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses, and to conduct him to Lucius.3

Now this Lucius was the Bishop of Constantinople, but at this exact time the Roman Empire’s dominant Christian creed was Arianism, and Lucius was an Arian bishop. This immediately caused problems as Moses refused to receive ordination from him:

“Your creed is already well-known to me… and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile, and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.” Having again protested, upon oath, that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans, and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.

Grafton reads this as evidence that there was Christianity among the Arabs, and furthermore that it was Catholic Christianity, and that the revolt can therefore be seen in terms of orthodoxy versus Arianism. I’m absolutely sure that that’s how Sozomen wanted it to be seen, and probably the other historians who record this episode, all of whom seem to be deriving it from Rufinus. I, myself, would be a very great deal happier about it if Ammianus mentioned any such thing, or if Sozomen mentioned the names of the Roman and Phoenician generals Mavia (or Mawiyya, as she is modernly transliterated) is supposed to have defeated in her revolt. As it is, it looks like a story more or less invented, or at least spun, to indicate that everyone knew that Arianism just wasn’t really legitimate even when it ruled Constantinople. I find it hard to imagine the trip off to find the exile bishops so as to settle a troublesome frontier people, don’t you? I would like it a lot more if any non-ecclesiastical source mentioned this woman. But they don’t, as far as I can quickly find out.6

Modern portrayal of Queen Mavia receiving the obeisance of two Roman legionaries

Of course, for perfectly understandable reasons Mavia has become something of a heroine in certain areas of the Internet, and I really do wish that there was some source for her that wasn’t religious polemic so that I was not in the position of spoiling the day of people like the artist responsible for this…

However, this is not the last mention of her and her people (who are known, in the limited historiography on this, as the Tanukh, I don’t know whence since all references I can chase up easily go back to Sozomen). In fact, to my continuing surprise, they turn up at no less a place than Constantinople, defending it against the Goths in 378 after the disaster at Adrianople in which Emperor Valens was killed. Sozomen adds only, “In this emergency, a few Saracens, sent by Mavia, were of great service.”5 But this, this time, Ammianus does mention, and he has a lot more to say:

A troop of Saracens (of whose origin and customs I have spoken at length in various places), who are more adapted to stealthy raiding expeditions than to pitched battles, and had recently been summoned to the city, desiring to attack the horde of barbarians of which they had suddenly caught sight, rushed forth boldly from the city to attack them. The contest was long and obstinate, and both sides separated on equal terms. But the oriental troop had the advantage from a strange event, never witnessed before. For one of their number, a man with long hair and naked except for a loin-cloth, uttering hoarse and dismal cries, with drawn dagger rushed into the thick of the Gothic army, and after killing a man applied his lips to his throat and sucked the blood that poured out. The barbarians, terrified by this strange and monstrous sight, after that did not show their usual self-confidence when they attempted any action, but advanced with hesitating steps.6

You can see why Sozomen cut this back a bit: it’s not exactly staunch Catholic conduct. What he also seems to have done, however, or possibly Rufinus did, I haven’t checked, is add the link to Mavia. Ammianus does, as he says, describe the Saracens elsewhere, but it’s in pretty disparaging terms, starting with, “The Saracens, however, whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies…” and going on into a series of clichés about their nomadic, horse-riding, milk-drinking habits, their lack of laws and their enthusiastically-consummated short-term marriages that make these people more or less the same as any other set of outer barbarians he might describe.7 He never mentions a queen, however, so my initial position remains sceptical. I meant, before posting this, to have chased the limited historiography down and tried to gather if there’s any reason to believe that Mavia was anything more than a moral tale. Sadly, time did not permit before I left Oxford and the local resources aren’t as useful for it. This means, of course, that there’s still hope, but even if she should in fact have been a fabrication of the church historians, why was it necessary or useful to fabricate a queen? Perhaps you have thoughts…

1. David D. Grafton, “‘The Arabs’ in the Ecclesiastical Historians of the 4th and 5th Centuries: effects on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations” in Hervormde Teologiese Studies Vol. 64 (Pretoria 2008), pp. 177-192.

2. Grafton discusses this word and its origins, ibid. pp. 178-183, but a more in-depth account to which one is usually referred is John V. Tolan, Saracens (New York City 2002).

3. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VI.38, here quoted from the translation by Edward Walford as The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, as epitomised by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (London 1855), online here, where pp. 308-309.

4. The thing that Grafton cites which I should seek out, as it presumably collects this information if it exist, is J. S. Trimingham, “Māwiyya: the first Christian Arab Queen” in The Near East School of Theology Theological Review, Vol 1 (1978), 3-10, though there is also Glenn W. Bowersock, “Mavia, Queen of the Saracens” in W. Eck et al. (edd.), Studien zur antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift F. Vittinghoff (Vienna 1980), pp. 477–495 and indeed apparently more. No-one appears to consider it possible that she was just a story, so maybe I’m too cynical. Benjamin Isaac, “The Eastern Frontier” in Averil Cameron & Peter Garnsey (edd.). The Cambridge Ancient History XIII: the late Empire A.D. 337-425 (Cambridge 1998), pp. 437-460 at pp. 447-448, runs through this episode and confirms (p. 448):

Our sources on the Mavia affair are all ecclesiastical, so that their interests focuses exclusively on the religious aspects of the episode. The history of Mavia has been discussed frequently in the modern literature, and some scepticism expressed as to the reliability of these sources.

He goes on, however, “However, even a minimalist interpretation allows several conclusions” and then basically accepts everything except the scale of the damage, so I am apparently more minimalist than minimalist here…

5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.1.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestarum, transl. John C. Rolfe as Ammianus Marcellinus: Res Gestarum quae supersunt (New York City 1939-1950), 3 vols, online here with limited corrections by Bill Thayer, XXXI.16.

7. Ibid. XIV.4.

2 responses to “A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

  1. Pingback: Seminar CLV: tracking the head of John the Baptist | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Seminar CCXX: rôles for superfluous imperial women | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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