The Helmet of Cotofenesti: Examining Thracian Craftsmanship.

By Pat Lowinger


The Cotofenesti Helmet (right front). Photo by author.

Among the numerous treasures to be found at the Museum of Natural History in Bucharest, Romania is an ancient golden helmet dated to 4th through 3rd century BCE.  This helmet, known as the Helmet of Cotofenesti is a remarkable example of ancient Thracian craftsmanship in form, style and design.  

The region of modern Romania and Bulgaria was home to several Thracian tribes.  One of the better known of these tribes was the Getae (Gets).  The Getae were renown not only for their ferocity as warriors- a trait which appears to have universal among all Thracians, but also for their skill as horsemen.  The earliest literary descriptions of the Thracians are found in Herodotus’ Histories.  While a considerable portion of Herodotus’ description of  the Thracians were intentionally inflammatory, his descriptions of Thracian culture, society and religious practices are still invaluable to historians and archaeologists.   While it is at times difficult to parse out the biases of many ancient Greek and Roman sources, modern historians are fortunate to have a considerable amount of literary evidence for the study of ancient Thrace; either as independent tribal regions, a partially-controlled Hellenistic territory and lastly as a province of the Roman Empire.


The Cotofenesti Helmet (right side).  Photo by author.

One area which is often overlooked by historians and antiquarians is the remarkable skill which various Thracian tribes demonstrated in the production of metal goods- whether bronze, gold or silver.  A broad range of finely crafted metal goods have survived from antiquity.  As expected, many of these items are weapons and armor, but some are not.  Delicate pieces of jewelry and/or elaborate armbands show considerable tooling and engraving to create awe-inspiring works of art.

The Cotofenesti Helmet is perhaps one of the best known pieces of Thracian craftsmanship.  The helmet  was originally found in the Romanian village of Poiana Varbilau in 1929.    The piece was crafted from solid gold and weighs just over 2 pounds (1.9 KG).



The Cotofenesti Helmet (left side).  Photo by author.

Experts have identified the production (cultural origin) as Geto-Dacian.   The helmet was of typical design, but the extreme value and elaborate engravings does suggest that the helmet was likely ceremonial (as a symbol of high rank/status).  The imagery does tell us much about the cultural beliefs of the Getae (later called Dacians by the Romans).  Over the front of the helmet (face) are two engraved ‘eyes’ used to ward off evil magic, commonly referred to as the evil-eye (mati in Greek).  The rear is engraved with what are suspected to be mythological figures.  Each cheek guard (in mirror) depicts the ritual sacrifice of a bull.


The Cotofenesti Helmet (rear).  Photo by author.

In antiquity the Thracians were to a military force to be reckoned with.  Whether as enemies or allies, the Thracians ensured their place in the annals of Greek and Roman historians.  Today, we are fortunate to have numerous objects which show the material wealth and culture of these ancient peoples- as craftsmen and artists.

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Greetings From Romania!

Hi Everyone!

Well, after a lengthy flight I have arrived in Romania!  The city of Bucharest is definitely a mix of old and new- like most of Europe.  I was fortunate to have already booked a hotel near the central portion of the city and will be visiting several ‘tourist’ sites tomorrow and Saturday before heading out to Murighiol on Sunday.

It is my intention to post here as much as possible, but my access to the internet will be somewhat limited, so I make no promises.  If you would rather follow the progress of the entire dig, please visit the Halmyris Archaeology page on Facebook.  I will also be posting some more personal pictures via my own Facebook and Twitter accounts.


The staff and volunteers of the dig will be staying in the nearby village of Murighiol.  Don’t let the size of the star I put on the map fool you- it’s a village.  The population is just over 3,000 people and is still characterized as ‘rustic’ by many travelers.  In addition to local fishing and agriculture, the village is known for an ‘out of the way’ resort (The Puflene Resort) which is said to offer nice accommodations.

Let the adventure begin!

You can follow me on Twitter at Patlowinger@Patlowinger .

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The Pauline Epistles: Known and Suspected Forgeries.

By Pat Lowinger

Within modern Christianity there remains pervasive misunderstandings regarding the date(s), authorship and transmission of various portions of the New Testament.  One of the most prolific New Testament authors was the Apostle Paul.  Of the fourteen Epistles credited to Paul, the current mainstream consensus among scholars is that no more than nine are authentic.  The remaining five, some would argue seven, are known forgeries- falsely attributed to the Apostle Paul.

Origin and Acceptance of Paul’s Letters:

St. Paul

Modern Orthodox Icon depicting the Apostle Paul

Current scholarship dates the earliest of Paul’s Epistles (First Thessalonians) to around 50 CE and the latest (Romans) at some point prior to 60 CE.  This isn’t to imply that there isn’t some room for debate.  For example, some scholars would argue that First Thessalonians wasn’t authored until 52 CE, but generally it’s excepted that the authentic letters of Paul were authored during the sixth decade of the 1st century CE.  As such, Paul’s Epistles are generally accepted as the earliest known Christian writings.

Paul’s works were utilized in varying degrees by early Christian sects.  For example, the Marcionites rejected all non-Pauline writings, with the sole exception of a highly edited version of the Gospel of John.  This stands in sharp contrast to the Ebionites who completely rejected all of Paul’s works as heretical.  As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the popularity of Paul’s pro-Gentile teachings grew.  From the 3rd through 5th century CE, the Pauline Epistles became increasingly authoritative and widely adopted- assuring their later incorporation as canonical texts as detailed in the Decretum Gelasianum (c. 520-550 CE).

Determining Authenticity:


Depiction of ‘The Good Shepherd’ dated to 3rd century CE- Via Salaria, Rome.

Modern scholars are faced with the same challenge which plagued their early Christian counterparts.  Namely which apostolic works are authentic?  In his own analysis, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185- 254 CE), appears to have rejected the authenticity of the Second and Third Epistles of John, while accepting The Shepherd of Hermas as a divinely inspired religious text.  Fortunately for us today, scholars and forensic specialists have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing the stylistic, structural and grammatical cues which can be utilized to distinguish fraudulent documents from authentic ones.  While largely unquestioned until the early 20th century many historians and an increasing number of theologians are undertaking detailed examination(s) of the New Testament to determine the authenticity of its traditionally accepted authors.

Genuine Articles:

As mentioned before, seven of Paul’s Epistles are excepted as authentic by an overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars.  This statement should not be construed as some sort of argumentum ad populum or appeal to the masses, but is in fact limited to a select group of highly specialized scholars, who continually examine, affirm or discount the assertions of their colleagues in peer-reviewed literature.  With that said, the following seven Pauline Epistles are regarded as genuine, and having been personally authored by the Apostle Paul during his Christian ministry: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and First Thessalonians.


A page of ‘P-46’ – the oldest extant manuscript of the New Testament.  Dated to 175-225 CE.

After withstanding intense academic scrutiny, each of these texts have displayed internal consistency in style/form and vocabulary (Greek)- as well as sentence structure.  While an author can undoubtedly vary in one or even two of these factors over the course of their entire lifetime- in the decade in which Paul wrote his Epistles, only slight to moderate variations would be expected.  This examination is complicated by the fact that no original versions (first generation) of Paul’s works survive from antiquity.  Some apologists would say this fact alone invalidates any examination, and while it does require additional scrutiny to be sure, it does not make the task untenable.   When examined internally and against each other, these seven Epistles withstand considerable scrutiny.  This analysis holds true even when comparing the earliest (First Thessalonians) and latest (Romans) of Paul’s Epistles.

The Forgeries:

There are currently five Pauline Epistles which are known frauds: First and Second Timothy, Hebrews, Ephesians and Titus.  These texts are known as pseudepigraphical- falsely claimed (assigned) authorship. Each of these Epistles have their own issue(s) which demonstrate their status as forgeries.  By way of a short example, both First and Second Timothy contain structure(s) and language not found in any of Paul’s other letters.  These internal clues have led modern scholars to date these texts to the late 1st and/or early 2nd century CE (c. 90-130 CE).  Attempts to place either of these works within the decade of Paul’s genuine writings are unconvincing.  In the case of Hebrews, no extant copy of the text attributes its authorship to Paul.  Even in antiquity, the author of Hebrews was generally considered unknown (anonymous) by early Church scholars (Fathers), such as Origen, Tertullian and Hippolytus.  The assignment of authorship to Paul was rooted in tradition and the increasing popularity of Paul’s other works.  It wasn’t until the late 4th century CE, when St. Augustine pushed vehemently (and successfully) for the authorship of Hebrews to be assigned to Paul- despite little or no evidence to support it.

The authorship of two remaining texts are still the subject of much academic debate.  Modern New Testament scholars remain divided on Paul’s authorship of Second Thessalonians and Colossians.  Both of these works suffer from significant challenges to their authenticity- not the least of which are highly divergent language and structure.  If these two texts are retained as genuine works of Paul, they should serve as a ‘maximal’ range of acceptable variance by which the previously mentioned Pauline forgeries should be compared/contrasted.

The Future of Forgeries:

The authorship of the Pauline Epistles is an interesting and complex question for historians.  When viewed through the lens of Early Christian Studies actual authorship matters significantly less than how these works were viewed and utilized in antiquity.  Irregardless of their authorship these forgeries remain useful- as pseudepigraphical sources for historical reference and inquiry.  Why were these forgeries made in the first place?  It’s quite possible these ‘Letters From Paul‘ where written to emulate/expand on Paul’s original writings, combat emerging heresies and/or honor Paul’s ministry after his death.  It’s also possible that more nefarious intentions were at work.  All speculation aside, the world may never know the motivation(s) of the forgers… whoever they might have been.

This is not a question about theology.  It’s simply one of authorship.  Whether or not these demonstrably non-Pauline texts should be preserved within Christian canon is a question best answered by theologians.  Not historians.  Even so, those Epistles of dubious origin should be correctly footnoted as such.  Those charged with accurately crediting authorship of Paul’s genuine letters should demand no less.

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“They Offered Him Wine-Vinegar”: Reexamining the Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Last Drink.

By Pat Lowinger

While the crucifixion of Jesus is not a historical surety, the anti-Roman biases which were pervasive in most early Christian literature are unquestionable.  But if we examine the culture and norms of Roman society, particularly those of the Roman military, is there another explanation for at least one of these depictions?  Perhaps one which is far less sinister?  

The Gospel Accounts:I Thirst, The Vinegar Given to Jesus

Each of the four canonical gospels contain moderately similar accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and the ‘offering of sour wine’ to Jesus by one or more Roman soldiers.  In order to fully evaluate the actions of these particular soldiers, it is necessary to briefly examine the accounts relayed in the Gospels.  Both Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus was offered two different drinks involving wine.  The first, mixed with myrrh, the second plain wine vinegar as we can see below.

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”).  Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. – Mark 15: 22-23 NIV,

[Just before his death] Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.  With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. – Mark 15: 36-37 NIV

The accounts attributed to Luke and John only reference the offering of wine once, just prior to Jesus’ death. [1] It is this second offer of wine or vinegar that will be the focus of this article.

A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19: 29-30 NIV

The ‘they’ in each of these accounts were the Roman soldiers charged with carrying out Jesus’s execution via crucifixion.  The ‘someone’ in Mark’s second mentioning of wine is not known, but could have been nearly anyone who was present at the crucifixion.

Several Christian denominations offer a rather negative view of these offerings of wine during Jesus’ crucifixion.  For example, noted author and theologian, William Lane wrote, “…the offer of a sip of wine [vinegar] was intended to keep Jesus conscious for as long as possible.”[2] This often repeated trope demonstrates a continued anti-Roman bias in New Testament studies, many of which are rooted in dogmatic approaches to scholarship.  Rev. Carl Haak  presents the soldiers as detached and expert executioners, completely removed from the grim task they had been charged with undertaking. [3]



Roman mosaic depicting a wine container and cup. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

The most common translations for the variety of wine offered to Jesus are vinegar, wine-vinegar and sour-wine.  None of which are the modern equivalents of the mass-produced, low-grade wine actually drunk by Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.  Posca, a kind of low-cost, sour-wine was in common use throughout the Roman Empire.  In fact, wine of this type was typically issued to soldiers as part of their daily rations.  Posca was an important part of a soldier’s dietary regime.[4]  Not because it tasted good.  Not because of its intoxicating effect(s).  Posca had two very important functions.

The first was to serve as a cutting agent for water, which in antiquity was generally of dubious quality and often had smells, odors and/or tastes that were unpleasant.  Posca served as a cure-all for these issues.  When combined with poor-quality water, posca’s naturally strong flavor was subdued, but served as an excellent masking agent for otherwise unpotable water.  What was the ratio of posca to water?  The simple answer is that historians really don’t know.  In all likelihood a soldier’s personal tastes was probably the deciding factor, but would be adjusted as needed to mask flavor/odor of the most offensive tasting rations of water.

The second was posca’s acidity.  Posca naturally contained two important acids- namely ascetic acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).  Acetic acid is the byproduct of fermentation and has very useful antimicrobial properties, in particular against some of the better known bacterial pathogens such as Streptococcus and Enterococcus.  The later of which is commonly associated with the contamination of water with human and/or animal feces.  Vitamin C is a well-known dietary requirement.  This would be even more important to soldiers who were unable to have steady supplies of foods high in Vitamin C, such as fruit.  Scurvy, a chronically low-level of Vitamin C was a perilous condition in the ancient world and could result in agonizing death.

Reevaluating The Gospel Accounts

Analysis of the Gospels as historical sources are rife with concerns for most modern historians.  Without unduly belaboring the issue, the historicity, authenticity and authorship are constant points of academic debate among scholars, many of whose expertise on these issues far exceed my own.  A second area of concern is the sacrosanct manner in which many religions view the examination of sacred texts, particularly their own.  The later, when combined with social and/or professional pressure not to appear offensive, has in some cases stiffed academic debate.  Lastly, some historians, particular those with a personal attachment to a particular religious tradition(s) may interject personal biases into their analysis, often rising to the level of apologetics.

The Drink Before Death

So what do we know?  All four of the Gospel accounts mention Jesus’s last drink.  Historians have long known about the relatively common use of posca as a dietary staple of the Roman military before, during and after the period in which Jesus’ crucifixion may have occurred.  Historians are also very aware of the practical uses of posca as a cutting agent for water, which was its intended use.  The drinking of posca was likely an acquired taste, but was cheap and widely available.

The Gospel of John reports that toward the end of his life, Jesus stated, “I thirst.” [5] This is an obvious plea by Jesus for relief.  Interestingly, none of the other Gospels mention Jesus’ plea.  Is John’s account in error?

What we don’t know.  We will never know the motivations or thoughts of the soldiers who purportedly presided over Jesus’ execution.  Did they hate him?  Possibly.  A better question might be did they even know who he was? Was Jesus seen as a petty criminal? A seditionist? A charlatan?  So why would a Roman soldier bother himself with giving posca-water to a condemned man?  Particularly a man condemned to die by exposure and/or positional asphyxiation.[6]  If John’s account is accurate, Jesus plea for water was answered.  Again, why would a soldier, whether on his own or at the direction of his immediate superior (centurion) take a portion of his own limited ration and give it away?  Was this extra posca, set aside specifically to be given Jesus as he languished on the cross?  If so, this derails the assertion of the Roman’s desire to cause Jesus as much suffering and humiliation as possible.  John’s account also begs the question to be asked, why would any plea from a condemned criminal be met with anything other than utter disdain and non-compliance?

Based on how the Romans typically conducted crucifixions,  the offering of posca-water would have been antithetical to the desired outcome, namely death.  It would also be a notable exception to the numerous other examples of crucifixions conducted by the Romans.  Was the offering of posca-water merely a literary device?  Was it inserted to support some prevailing scriptural expectation (prophecy) of early Christians?  If the Romans did in fact offer Jesus a final drink of posca-water there are three important observations which must be made: 1) the nature (taste) of the drink itself was not insulting or uncommon, 2) the Roman(s) giving/allowing Jesus water to drink would have been a rare exception to standard crucifixion practices, 3) If this exception was made in the case of Jesus (possibly after his plea), the assertion of historians/theologians such as Haak, that the Romans were always unsympathetic killing machines starts to unravel.


The certitude of many scholars regarding the motivations of ancient peoples is often striking.  Superficial analysis of the Gospel accounts often perpetuate the anti-Roman biases contained within them.  For historians, particularly those focusing on the culture and societal norms of the Romans, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion often create more questions than they answer. The question(s) asked in this particular article represent a very narrow sliver within a larger body of inquiry that historians need to address given the known laws, practices and customs of the Romans- as they relate to Jesus’ crucifixion.   This analysis needs to be undertaken in an unbiased and nonprejudicial manner, irregardless of religious traditions and/or presuppositions.


[1] John 19: 29-30 NIV & Luke 23:36 NIV.
[2] Lane, William. The Gospel According to Mark, 2nd ed.  Eerdmans Publishing. 1974. 571-574.

[3] Haak, Carl.  The Reformed Witness Hour: The Cup Jesus Refused to Drink. Transcript 1999.

[4] Cardano, Girolamo(translator), Nero.  An Exemplary Life.  Inkstone Books. 2012. 184-186.

[5] John 19: 28 NIV.

[6] Edwards, William (and others).  On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.  Journal of the American Medical Association, May 1986.  Digital archive.

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The Muslim Conquest of Roman Syria, Part Two: The Systemic Failure of the Byzantine Military

By Pat Lowinger

In Part One we examined several of the factors which had severely weakened the Byzantines in the century prior to the Arab invasion of Roman Syria.  These factors included a series of devastating plagues, severe economic stress and a war-weary military.

The Muslim Invasion of Syria (April, 634 CE)

The grand military strategy of the Byzantine Empire was designed to be primarily defensive.[1] This defensive plan relied upon the establishment and maintenance of border garrisons along the frontiers of the empire.  These border forts were designed to defend strategic strong points and provide vital information regarding enemy troop movements.  In theory, as well as previous practice, an enemy that overwhelmed or bypassed one or more of these garrisons would have given the Byzantine military the time necessary to mobilize field forces stationed in the imperial provinces.[2] The prevailing military mindset of the empire prior to this period was that any attack which penetrated into the interior of the empire would eventually be repulsed.  Thus, any territories lost to an enemy would be temporary, regionally limited and eventually restored to imperial control.


Map detailing the initial invasion of Roman Syria and Palestine as well as the locations of the battles of Ajnodayn (634 CE) and Yarmouk (636 CE).

After having marshaled four separate armies, Abu Bakr attacked a weakly defended portion of the Byzantine’s border just north of the Gulf of Aqaba. Abu Bakr assigned command of an army to each of four generals: Amr ibn al-A’as, Yazid ibn Abu Sufyan, Shurahbil bin Hassana and Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah.[3]  Soon after crossing the border, the four armies separated and each moved rapidly to secure strategic objectives.  After defeating the Byzantine’s Ghassanid allies in two consecutive battles, Shurhabil moved towards the key city of Bosra.  The first weeks of the Arab invasion caught the Byzantines largely off guard.  The initial Byzantine response could be best described as chaotic; some garrisons abandoned their posts while those garrisons which remained in place were simply bypassed as the Arab forces rapidly advanced into the province.  In northern Syria, the Emperor Heraclius began marshalling his own forces.  Abu Bakr responded to the build up of Byzantine forces by recalling his most skilled general, Khalid ibn al-Walid, from the offensive in Persia to personally oversee the campaign in Syria.[4] By early June, Shurhabil had encircled Bosra and placed the city under siege.[5] By mid July, the Byzantine counteroffensive began to move southwards under the command of the Emperor’s brother, Theodore.

After more than a month-long siege, Bosra fell to Shurhabil and Khalid’s combined forces. Khalid then moved his army toward the lead elements of the Byzantines near Ajnadayn.[6]  In late July 634 CE, the armies met.  Military Historian Michael Decker has stated that the strength of the two armies was relatively equal and consisted of approximately 20,000 men each.[7]  One of the most commonly utilized historical sources for information regarding the Syrian campaign is Al-Waqidi’s well-known account, but is generally considered to lack credibility in regards to the respective sizes of opposing forces and/or causality figures.  While Al-Waqidi’s record indicates 50,000 Byzantines were slain with only the loss of 575 Arabs, Decker asserts that heavy casualties were suffered on both sides. [8]  Arab casualties included the loss of several prominent nobles, which appears to support Decker’s hypothesis.[9] What is clear is that the defeated Byzantine army was forced to retreat north of the heavily fortified city of Damascus. On August 21, 634 CE, Arab forces surrounded the city.  Despite two attempts by the defenders to break the siege, Khalid’s troops captured the city on September 19th.


The Roman Theater at Bosra constructed during the 2nd century CE.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 635 CE, the Emperor Heraclius placed the combined forces of the empire under the command of the Imperial Treasurer Theodore Trithyrius.  Despite his long and dedicated service to the state, Trithyrius had little or no military experience.[10] The appointment caused derision among several prominent and experienced Byzantine generals.  The army that numbered between 100,000 – 150,000 infantry and cavalry had been charged with expelling the Arabs from southern Syria and recapturing Bosra.  In May 636 CE, the army moved southwards towards the Yarmouk River in pursuit of Arab forces.  Khalid ibn al-Walid’s force was estimated to have numbered no more than 40,000.[11]  Despite reported warnings from their Christian Arab allies, Trithyrius ordered the army to pursue the highly mobile Muslim forces.  For several days, Khalid’s forces lured the slow and ponderous Byzantine army into increasingly rugged terrain.[12]  On August 15, 636 CE, having carefully positioned his forces, Khalid’s light Arab cavalry began their attack.  Upon realizing that he had foolishly led the army into a well laid trap, Trithyrius transferred command of the army to his subordinate, Vahan.[13] The battle of Yarmouk lasted for 6 days and was largely characterized by the rapid hit and run tactics employed by Khalid’s forces.  On the 6th day of the battle, Khalid’s cavalry were finally successful in driving off the Byzantines’ protective cavalry screen. With their flanks now exposed, the large formations of Byzantine infantry were surrounded and largely annihilated.[14] Casualties among the Byzantines are estimated to have exceeded 50%.   Historian George Ostrogorsky stated the following, “They [Khalid’s forces] completely routed the Byzantine army at the famous battle of Jarmuk [Yarmouk] on 20 August 636, and thus Byzantine resistance was broken and the fate of Syria decided.”[15]

Following the defeat at Yarmouk, Antioch, the provincial capital of Syria capitulated to the advancing Arab forces.[16] Al-Waqidi recorded the surrender of Antioch as, “That night the city leaders gathered around the Patriarch and said, ‘Go to the Arabs and obtain whatever terms you can.’ ”[17] Several smaller cities in the region also surrendered to the Arabs with no opposition being offered.  A notable exception occurred at Aleppo.  In August 637 CE, Arab forces surrounded the fortified city of Aleppo.  The siege lasted for three months. During that time several violent skirmishes were fought between Arab and Byzantine forces.[18] Ultimately, the garrison forces were unable to break the siege and accepted terms for their departure from the city under a flag of truce.

In Palestine, Arab forces began a protracted siege of Jerusalem in November 636 CE.[19]  Defense of the city was placed under the command of the city’s Patriarch, Sophronius.  The city’s considerable defenses meant that any direct assault would prove costly.  The Muslim forces instead surrounded the city in order to starve out the defenders.  In April of 637 CE, the Byzantines resolved themselves to the idea that no relief from the Empire was forthcoming and sought terms with the forces of Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattah.  Under the terms of the agreement, all Christians and Jews within the city would be allowed to keep and practice their own faiths.[20]  The city’s garrison and officials were allowed to depart by sea.  At Caesarea, Heraclius’ son Constantine III fled by ship rather than risk possible capture as Arab forces advanced towards the city.  The remaining garrison and civilians surrendered to Amr bin al-As in 640 CE after a protracted siege.[21]


St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, modern religious icon.


The century before the Arab conquest of Roman Syria was marked with a steady decline in the wealth and stability of the empire.  The recurrent plagues that began during the reign of Justinian I decimated the population and economy of the empire.  These factors were further compounded by the 2 ½ decades long war between the Sassanids and Byzantines.  While ultimately victorious, the empire’s treasury and military were exhausted.

There can be little doubt as to the quality and dedication of the Arab forces which fought for control of Syria and Palestine.  With that said, it is important to remember the systemic failures within the Byzantine military facilitated the Arabs’ unprecedented success.  The static defense offered by the empire’s border garrisons, which had long protected the empire, were easily circumvented by the rapidly advancing and highly mobile Arab troops, thus largely negating the advanced warning they had previously offered.  Poor and inexperienced leadership exacerbated these issues and in all likelihood was responsible for the Byzantines’ disastrous defeat at Yarmouk.  The Byzantines were not without their own insights into the Arab-nomad style of warfare, having themselves numerous Christian Arabs who had long been trusted allies.  The ultimately failure of the Byzantine military was exacerbated by the inability of the Emperor Heraclius and his commanders to adjust their tactics as necessary to meet the fast, hard-hitting and often evasive maneuvers of the invading Muslim Arabs.

Bibliography and Citations:

Decker, Michael. The Byzantine Art of War. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2013.

Goldschmidt, Arthur, and Lawrence Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2006.

Haldon, John F. The Byzantine Wars. Gloucestershire: History Press, 2009.

Haldon, John F. Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Mango, Cyril A. The Oxford History of Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Mazor, Amir. “The Kitab Futuh Al-sham of Al-Qudami.” Der Islam 84, no. 1 (2007): 17-45.

Ostrogorski, Georgije. History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008.

Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes: An English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813). Translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Tsiamis, Costas, Effie Poulakou-Rebelakou, and Spyros Marketos. “Earthquakes and Plagues During Byzantine Times.” Acta Medico-Historica Adriatica 11, no. 1 (2013): 55-64.

Wāqidī, Muḥammad Ibn ʻUmar, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria: a Translation of Futûh̲ushâm: The Inspiring History of the S̲ah̲abâh’s Conquest of Syria.  Translated by Sulayman al-Kindi. London: Ta-Ha, 2005.

[1] John F. Haldon, Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 43-46.

[2] Ibid., 67-71.

[3] Muḥammad Ibn ʻUmar Wāqidī, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria: A Translation of Futûh̲ushâm: The Inspiring History of the S̲ah̲abâh’s Conquest of Syria, trans. Sulayman al-Kindi (London: Ta-Ha, 2005), 12.

[4] Ibid., 44-45.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Theophanes, Chronicles, 38-39.

[7] Michael Decker, The Byzantine Art of War (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2013), 20-21.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Decker, The Byzantine Art of War, 21-22.

[10] Haldon, The Byzantine Wars, 58-60.

[11] Ibid., 59-60.

[12] Al-Wāqidī, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria, 272-274.

[13] Haldon, The Byzantine Wars, 57-58.

[14]Haldon, The Byzantine Wars, 62-64.

[15] Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State, 111.

[16] Ibid., 111.

[17] Al-Waqidi, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria, 522.

[18] Ibid., 408-415.

[19] Theophanes, Chronicles, 38-39.

[20] Al-Waqidi, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria,

[21] Ibid., 575.

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The Muslim Conquest of Roman Syria, Part One: A Prelude to War.

By Pat Lowinger


Illustration of Muhammad receiving divine revelation(s) from the angel Gabriel by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (1307 CE).

By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, the armies of Islam had already consolidated their control of the vast territories of the Arabian Peninsula.[1] It was from these strongholds in Arabia that the first Rashidun Caliph, Abu Bakr, began several well-organized and coordinated military campaigns against the war-weary Byzantine and Sassanid empires.  In 634 CE the Arabs launched a devastating military campaign into Roman Syria. The success of the Arabs against the Byzantine Empire owes as much to their own discipline and flexibility as it does the repeated tactical and logistical failures of the Byzantines.[2] There are multiple additional factors which ultimately led to the Byzantine defeat in Roman Syria: recurring plagues during the 6th century, depleted imperial coffers, inadequate recruitment and retention of seasoned troops, and the appointment of inexperienced military commanders.

The Plagues of the 6th Century

In the century prior to the Arab invasions of Syria, the populace of the Byzantine Empire had been devastated by several outbreaks of bubonic plague.  The first and most well known of these plagues struck Constantinople in 541 CE.[3] The Byzantine scholar Procopius recorded outbreaks in Egypt and Syria during the same year.  Historian William Rosen, author of Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, estimates the plague killed nearly 5,000 people a day in Constantinople following the diseases’ initial outbreak until the plague subsided four months later.[4] Rosen further estimates that 15-25% of the Empire’s population died as a result of the initial outbreak and subsequent resurgences of the disease during the 6th century CE.[5] In Roman Syria, three additional outbreaks of the disease struck again in 568, 581 and 635 CE.[6] While it is unknown how many Syrians died in these subsequent outbreaks, scientists have determined that the same bacterial strain responsible for the initial outbreak in 541 CE was also responsible for these subsequent outbreaks as well.[7]

These plagues disrupted the economy, military and political structure of the Empire.  The resulting shortage of able bodied agricultural workers led to a severe drop in grain production throughout the empire.[8] The relative scarcity of grain was followed by a dramatic rise in its price that crippled the Empire’s predominantly agrarian economy.  Military recruitment and readiness levels fell as an increased number of men remained on their farms rather than enlisting in the army. The 540s saw a marked decrease in tax revenues as increasing numbers of taxpayers became victims of the disease.[9] As the plague continued, the coinage of the empire was repeatedly debased, which caused rampant inflation to occur.[10] The Emperor Justinian I (482-565 CE) responded by increasing the tax obligations of the landed aristocracy, who in turn demanded increased rents from their tenant farmers.   These increased economic burdens produced severe strains upon the patron-client system which ultimately led to political unrest in Constantinople and abroad.  In order to secure the legal status of tenant farmers, Justinian enacted several pieces of legislation prohibiting the confiscation of farms owned by members of the military.  With no legal recourse to remit their lost income, many aristocratic landowners began to openly commit tax evasion in direct opposition to the Emperors’ decrees.[11]

The Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628 CE)


Map illustrating the territories of the Byzantine Empire prior to the outbreak of the Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628 CE).  It is important to note that control of the province of Illyricum was subject to constant Slav and Avar raids (effective control and authority in the region).

The murder of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice in 602 CE not only brought political instability to the Empire, but also a renewed conflict with the Sassanid Empire.[12] The first two decades of the war saw several Persian victories.  It wasn’t until 610 CE that Heraclius seized the Byzantine throne for himself, ending the civil war.  Heraclius then marshaled and reorganized existing regional forces.  Heraclius’ initial counterattacks into Anatolia were defeated.[13] These defeats further sapped the empire’s limited amounts of men and materials.  By 618 CE the Sassanid’s and their allies had captured Armenia, Syria, the Levant, Egypt and eastern Anatolia.  With little or no financial reserves, the Emperor sought financial support from the Patriarch of Constantinople.[14] After having gained access to the wealthy coffers of the Eastern Church, Heraclius rebuilt his tattered army over the next four years.

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Gilded plaque illustration of the Emperor Heraclius’ (ERACLIUS REX) triumph over Khosrau II c. 1160 CE.  On display at the Louvre, Paris.  

In the spring of 622 CE, Heraclius led an army against the Persians and their allies in Armenia. After securing the western portion of Armenia, Heraclius reestablished the former border garrisons in the region.  In the spring of 624 CE, Heraclius’ armies were again on the march and conquered eastern Armenia.  This was followed by the unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 626 by the Sassanids and their Avar allies.  In 627 CE, Heraclius’ armies penetrated into the heart of the Persian Empire.  At Nineveh, in September of 627 CE, the Byzantine forces surprised the Persian army and defeated it.[15] Having defeated the only remaining army in Mesopotamia, the Byzantines plundered the region at will.  Faced with the possible loss of his kingdom, Khosrau II accepted humiliating terms of ‘peace.’  The victorious Byzantines returned home only to find the provinces of Syria, the Levant, Egypt and Armenia ravaged and in disarray.  Victory in Persia had not eased the economic issues of the empire.  The imperial treasury remained at critically low levels as much of the wealth taken from the coffers of Persia had been used to pay the army.  Many of the army’s veterans retired soon after returning home.[16] With very little money to recruit new soldiers, the numbers of garrison troops fell dramatically.[17]

Author’s Note:  Part 2 will contain a complete list of all reference material.


[1] Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson, A Concise History of the Middle East. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010),  34-35.

[2] Ibid., 45-46.

[3] Cyril Mango, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 49.

[4] William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 16-18.

[5] William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 41-47.

[6]  Costas Tsiamis et al., “Earthquakes and Plague During Byzantine Times,” Acta Medico-Historica Adriatica 11 (2013): 57.

[7]  Ibid., 58-59.

[8]  Mango, Byzantium, 49.

[9] Ibid., 49-50.

[10] Georgije Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswich, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 76-77.

[11] Mango, Byzantium, 51.

[12] Ibid., 53.

[13] Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes: An English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813), trans. Harry Turtledove (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 8-9.

[14] Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State, 100.

[15] Ibid., 103-104.

[16] John F. Haldon, The Byzantine Wars (Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2008), 64-65.

[17] Ibid., 65.

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Of Gods, Heroes and War: The Historiography of Classical Greece.

by Pat Lowinger

The earliest ‘historians’ of the Mediterranean were Greek and as such they serve as both a template and warning for modern Historiography.  From the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, various Greek city-states grew and prospered.  In turn, these city-states founded numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean which brought the Greeks into contact with previously unknown lands and cultures.  As the Greeks continued to explore and colonize even more remote parts of the Mediterranean, many of these explorers (and colonists) began to record the geography, cultures and histories of themselves (as foundation cults) and those they encountered.[1]  This desire of the Greeks to create these records and preserve them for themselves and future generations- as well to aggrandize the accomplishments of Greek culture is the spark which ignited Greek Historiography and laid the foundations for subsequent historical traditions. 

The Greek World


Map of the ‘known world’ based on the accounts of Herodotus.  Original map published by Hatchett & Co. 1884.  Click to expand.

The Greek city-state (polis) emerged during the eighth century BCE.  In the simplest of terms, the polis was the city itself and surrounding country side which fell under its control.[2]  This was much more than a village or town; it was a center of government formed by the unification of the populace into a body known as the politai.  Members of individual poleis typically identified themselves with the polis itself (i.e. Sparta) rather than a larger cultural identifier (i.e. Greek).  As previously mentioned the Greeks undertook extensive exploration and colonization efforts throughout the Mediterranean- which by the end of the fifth century BCE resulted in Greek colonies stretching from the coast of the Black Sea to Southern Spain.

As Greek civilization continued to develop during the Archaic Age, many Greeks undertook intellectual and academic pursuits.  While much of these early intellectual pursuits were confined to the development of lyric poetry and philosophy, others undertook the process of categorizing and describing the known world.  The vastness of the world, as the Archaic Greeks knew it, as well as their apparent mastery of it; either birthed or fostered beliefs in the superiority of themselves and of their culture.  To the Greeks, the outside world was the domain of the ‘barbarians’ and lesser races of people.  While various poleis competed among themselves, by the end of the sixth century BCE the Greeks found themselves in the center of a huge world, or so they believed, which was inhabited by strange, mystical and often warlike peoples.

Before Herodotus: The Homeric Epic


Greek amphora (c. 525 BCE) depicting the hero Achilles slaying Penthesilea.  On display at the British Museum.

The beginning of Greek history as we know it owes its humble beginnings following the collapse of the Mycenaean Greece at the end of the Late Bronze Age.  Whether ‘The Collapse’ was due to earthquakes, drought, or changes in militaristic organizations and weapons production- the precise cause for the collapse of these great kingdoms is still under debate by scholars.[3] Neither the Mycenaeans nor their Minoan neighbors were without written records, in fact the discovery of both the Linear A and Linear B tablets contain a wealth of information regarding Mycenaean society and culture,but the script used to make these records were undecipherable to the Greeks of the sixth century BCE. [4] This isn’t to imply that the Mycenaeans were unknown to their Dorian, Ionian and Aeolic descendants.  Many of which lived in the shadow of the once great Mycenaean citadels of Knossos, Argos, Athens, Orchomenos and Mycenae.  Likewise, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had also extensive written records, but these appear to have been preserved in support of religious and/or bureaucratic functions.

In the four-hundred-year span (1200-800 BCE), commonly known as the Greek or Geometric Dark Age grew traditional stories commonly known as Homeric Epics.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are perhaps two of the best known pre-Christian works of literature which emerged during this post-Mycenaean period.  While custom attributes the genesis of these tales to Homer it is quite plausible these tales were derived from multiple rhapsodes.[5] Regardless of their precise origin, these epics formed the basis for many ‘Greek ideals’.

Throughout the Iliad, several themes present themselves.  The first is religious, that the gods not only exist but interact and often interfere in the lives of mortal men.  The second theme espouses the deeds of great men which served to demonstrate the ideals of virtue and bravery in war.  The last theme is one of disgrace for cowards or cowardly behavior.  The following is an example of Homer’s contempt for the coward and adoration of the hero, “The skin of the coward changes color all the time, he can’t get a grip on himself, he can’t sit still, he squats and rocks, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his heart racing, pounding insides the fellow’s ribs, his teeth chattering- he dreads some grisly death.  But the skin of the brave solider never blanches.” [6]

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Bust depicting Herodotus (Roman copy of Greek original), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Herodotus: The Histories

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484- 425 BCE) is known to have lived during the fifth century BCE and is often credited by his proponents as The Father of History and as The Father of Lies by his detractors.[7] While it is true that as a historian Herodotus and his Histories are not without serious concern to modern scholars, it is important to understand that his work was founded on the earlier Homeric model.  The Histories were written to serve both a record and commentary of the Greco-Persian Wars which had been the major military conflict of Herodotus’ lifetime.[8] While Herodotus attempted to detail major historical events, places and peoples- he often lacked good data and was prone to occasional fabrication and/or inclusion of divine intervention.  This was done not only to fill in the gaps, but to promote a dramatic flair to his historical narrative.  Detractors aside, historiography, in the west is credited to have begun with Herodotus and while far from perfect, he undertook the previously unprecedented task of, at least nominally, differentiating fact from myth.[9]

After Herodotus: Thucydides and Xenophon


Bust depicting Thucydides (Roman copy of Greek original), Pushkin Museum.

Thucydides (460-400 BCE) was a contemporary of Herodotus, but whose own work seems to have been built upon the best precepts of the Histories.  Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides was not only an observer, but was a participant in the history which he recorded- serving as a general in the army of Athens.  What is initially obvious to the reader of both works is that Thucydides’ style and organization is very different from Herodotus.  Rather than a post-facto account, major portions of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War appear to have been written as major events unfolded- in painstakingly chronological order.  Those parts which were written afterwards appear to have been completed within a year or two after to conflict had concluded.  According to historian Victor David Hanson, “what stands out about Thucydides is not his weakness but his strengths as a historian.  We note his omissions, but no account of the Peloponnesian War or of fifth-century Greece in general is more complete.” [10] Even so, Thucydides’ history is not without its own problems regarding a lack of crediting his sources and details very few non-militarily related incidents.[11]

Xenophon (c. 430-354 BCE), like Thucydides was an Athenian general.  Yet, unlike Thucydides, Xenophon traveled extensively into Anatolia and Persia as detailed in the Anabasis and the Cyropaedia.  Xenophon also wrote extensively on the Constitution of Sparta, a detailed biography of the Spartan King, Agesilaus II and the Hellenica which details the history following the Peloponnesian Wars until approximately 360 BCE.  As with his predecessors, Xenophon’s style is unique, but more closely related to Thucydides, than Herodotus- but like his fellow Athenian also fails to cite his sources.  Even so, most historians agree that Xenophon’s accounts are much more credible that Herodotus’, appearing to have either been an eye-witness to events or been only one or two persons removed. [12] As with all early sources, Xenophon’s work shows significant problems, not the least of which is his pro-Spartan bias and his factual misrepresentation of certain historical events.


Greek Historiography grew as a natural extension of the Homeric epic and the need within the culture of ancient Greece to superiority of their history to those of others.  History was not only an academic pursuit; it was a matter of cultural identity.  The ancient Greeks saw themselves as both intellectually and morally superior than those people(s) and cultures surrounding them.  While the concept of nationalism was unknown to the early Greeks, this collective history often bound them in common purpose as seen during the Greco-Persian Wars.

From its humble beginnings with Herodotus, within just two generations a vibrant tradition of creating historical records was alive and flourishing within the Greek world.  While no means perfect, there appears to have been an ever-increasing self-imposed obligation to records as many verifiable facts as possible and to distinguish those facts from that which was merely speculation or founded upon myth.  This tradition would continue through the later Hellenistic and into the Roman period.  The discipline of history had been born.

Bibliography & Citations:

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013.

Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Herodotus, and Aubrey De Sélincourt. The Histories: Herodotus. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981.

Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Iliad: By Homer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.

Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Marincola, John (editor) & various contributors.  A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

Pipes, David. “Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies.” Loyola University New Orleans. Accessed October 01, 2015.

Palmer, Leonard R. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. New York, NY: Simon Et Schuster, 2008.

Xenophon, John Marincola, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.

[1] Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 104-105.

[3] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 175-208.

[4] Palmer, Leonard R. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 60-62.

[5] Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

[6] Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Iliad: By Homer. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), 350.

[7] Pipes, David. “Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies.” Loyola University New Orleans.

[8] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. (Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013)

[9] Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 4-5.

[10] Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. (New York, NY: Simon Et Schuster, 2008), xxii.

[11] Leone Porciani and John Marincola (editor).  A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 328-334.

[12] Xenophon, John Marincola, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), lix.

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