Sunday, May 15, 2011


Philip Wood, 'We have no king but Christ': Christian Political Thought in Greater Syria on the Eve of the Arab Conquest (c.400-585). Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 295. ISBN 9780199588497. $110.00.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Greatrex, University of Ottawa (

Version at BMCR home site


Philip Wood's book is a remarkable debut, quite unlike most adaptations of doctoral theses. It is broad in focus, sparing in its use of footnotes, and stimulating in the picture it presents of the Roman East in the fifth and sixth centuries. In many regards it calls to mind Garth Fowden's Empire to Commonwealth (Princeton, 1993), a work that is cited a number of times, but it seeks to refine Fowden's approach by concentrating particularly on the Roman East, or, more precisely, Mesopotamia and the region around Edessa.

The author's contention is that there progressively emerged a regional identity in the hinterland of Edessa, an identity that associated the region with Christianity, and more particularly with Miaphysite Christianity, which gained momentum in the sixth century, as Justin I and his successors sought to impose Chalcedon on their empire. By their marginalisation of their anti-Chalcedonian opponents they fostered the growth of this sense of identity, allowing Miaphysite authors (Wood focuses especially on John of Ephesus) to envisage alternatives to Roman Christianity: thus they come to portray local leaders, such as Arab phylarchs or Ethiopian kings, similar way to Roman rulers, usurping a role that previously only the emperor had fulfilled.

The Introduction briefly discusses Roman paideia and how it changed following the conversion of the empire to Christianity, before turning to consider the geographical and cultural position of Edessa. This city, unlike nearly all others, maintained an awareness of a distinctive, independent past, in the form of the fifth-century Syriac work, the Doctrina Addai, which offers a Christian account of its history. Wood proceeds then to engage with modern discussions of identity (pp.12-16): he is interested particularly in the emergence of 'latent points of difference' over time in the formation of an identity. Both Christianity and the Syriac language, he argues, are features that came to define the Suryaya 'ethnie' (i.e. a community with shared myths, territory and a sense of identity).

The first chapter, 'Classification in a Christian Empire' considers the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity and focuses on the early church historians. As he notes, Eusebius and his successors tended to identify Christianity with the Roman Empire; similarly, barbarians were identified with heretics. Barbarians could be improved through absorption into the Christian empire, although certain groups – the Manichaeans and the Samaritans – are excluded. The emperor, through his piety, ensures the spread of Christianity; a holy man, such as Symeon the Stylite, aids in the process, but for Theodoret of Cyrrhus at least, Christianity and empire go together.

Chapter two, 'Controlling the Barbarians. The First Syrian Hagiographic Collection', continues the discussion of Theodoret. Wood underlines the historian's manipulation of the saints whose lives he presents in the Historia Religiosa, starting with two saints from Mesopotamia, then proceeding to Syria. Theodoret is keen to emphasise the holy men's ties to the church and to the bishop, and to make them into suitable exemplars of asceticism. In this way he can appropriate important figures and take a stance against certain practices that he felt to be too extreme or unorthodox, such as those of the Messalians or of other 'over-achievers' (Robin Lane Fox's term).

In the third chapter, 'Theories of Nations and the World of Late Antiquity', Wood begins to focus more closely on Edessa. Roman identity, as he argues, was indeed supra-national and tied to orthodoxy. Emperors promoted this approach, rejecting heretics as barbarian outsiders; hence the discourse employed tends to be centripetal. Other models, however, were possible, which might, over time, diverge from the centralising tendency. Wood compares the case of the Jews, whose own cultural identity revived as a result of increasing marginalisation at the hands of the Christian Roman government; the Samaritans underwent comparable developments (pp.71-5). The rest of the chapter discusses the spread of Syriac, a process probably linked to missionary activities based in Edessa. Wood is careful to emphasise that there is no trace of an independence movement in the city at this time; rather, the basis was being formed for an identity that could later distinguish the region from what he calls 'Roman Christianity' (p.81).

Chapter four, 'Edessa and Beyond: The Reception of the Doctrina Addai in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries', considers this work of the fifth century alongside other Syriac texts of the same period, e.g. the Life of Euphemia and the Goth and the Acts of Mar Mari. These works, along with others discussed in the following chapter, furnish the Suryaye with their own (Christian) traditions, an essential component of their identity. For Wood, the Doctrina Addai incorporates earlier material, e.g. the story of Abgar's conversion, thereby establishing a tradition of the city's early Christian past. Strong anti-Jewish and anti-pagan tendencies emerge, as well as an important role for the city's nobility, the bnay hire, while asceticism is well regarded. The works discussed build up a picture of a distinct Edessene or Suryaya 'ethnie', with Edessa as a Christian centre, protected by a promise of Christ, content on the whole with its place in a Christian Roman empire. But traces can be found of centrifugal tendencies, e.g. in religious practices and traditions, that would later grow in strength.

The fifth chapter concerns 'the Julian Romance', a sixth-century Syriac work that offers a highly critical fictional account of the apostate emperor, among whose allies are the Jews. For Wood, the criticism of Julian is an oblique attack on the Chalcedonian tendencies of Justinian. In the Romance, the Edessenes refuse to admit Julian into the city, thus showing that their allegiance to Rome is conditional; likewise, the Edessenes remain fiercely anti-Jewish, while Julian enjoys the Jews' support. Although the work contains no explicit reference to Chalcedon, Wood is right that opponents of the council sometimes assimilated its supporters to Jews, which strengthens his argument for detecting allusions to this doctrinal dispute in the work.

Chapter six, 'Creating Boundaries in the Miaphysite Movement' begins by recounting the gradual separation of an independent Miaphysite hierarchy following the persecutions of the 520s. Wood notes the fissiparous nature of the Miaphysite community, which frequently split into opposing factions; sometimes the emperor sought to intervene, on other occasions, as he goes on to discuss in chapter 7, local rulers such as Jafnid phylarchs, came to take on this role. He makes extensive use of the Lives of the Eastern Saints of John of Ephesus, seeing in the work a celebration of anti-Chalcedonian asceticism, praising practices that had earlier drawn criticism. John's work and the Life of John of Tella portray an emperor lacking in self-control, who comes off worse in his encounters with holy men; Wood notes parallels with earlier treatments of the Arian Emperor Valens. The emperors have thus begun to act as barbarians, strengthening the nascent Suryaya identity. Wood detects traces of an anti-urban, anti-imperial bias in the biographies of Severus by Zachariah Rhetor and John of Beth Aphthonia (pp.201-2); even Roman law becomes subject to criticism. In concluding the chapter, Wood emphasises how John of Ephesus favours the separation of Miaphysites from Chalcedonians, exemplified by the hard line of the holy man Sergius at Amida. Imperial authority is open to criticism; a distinctly Miaphysite identity is being forged.

Although Wood's argument is broadly convincing, there is a general problem with the issue of what works may be considered Syriac and what Greek: Zachariah's biography of Severus, for instance, was originally composed in the 510s or perhaps the 520s in Greek (not c.538, as Wood assserts, p.201, where he also gives the impression that it is a Syriac work). If one is to bring Syriac translations to bear, then one would expect a discussion of John Rufus and the Miaphysite community in Palestine, whereas he does not refer to the useful work of J. Steppa, John Rufus and the World-vision of anti-Chalcedonian Culture, 2nd ed. (Piscataway, 2005), or the Life of Peter the Iberian, on which see C. Horn, Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth-Century Palestine (Oxford, 2006). There is thus a danger of treating the Suryaya case in a vacuum, focusing too narrowly on a few sources, especially John of Ephesus. Furthermore, in the case of John, it is not acceptable to give references to the second part of his Ecclesiastical History, which does not survive (e.g. p.211, n.4): we can cite the Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, much of which stems from John, but Witold Witakowski's detailed analysis of Pseudo-Dionysius' sources must be taken into account.

Chapter seven, 'A Miaphysite Commonwealth', traces the evolution of the Suryaya identity in the spread of Miaphysitism beyond the frontiers of the empire. The various accounts that survive of the Martyrs of Najran and the Ethiopian conquest of Himyar reflect the differing interpretations of the Miaphysite and Chalcedonian traditions. The Jafnid rulers receive high praise from John of Ephesus, becoming the patrons of the Miaphysite community, arbitrating in disputes and successfully defending their territory. Wood concludes by underlining the autonomy gained by the Suryaya by the time of the Arab conquest. While there is no reason to suppose that this contributed to the loss of the region for the Romans, it does help to account for the survival of a distinct culture well into the seventh century and beyond.

In sum, Wood builds an interesting and persuasive case. He brings up appropriate modern analogies, e.g. concerning the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, which he applies sensitively, noting both parallels and differences (cf. pp.12-16, 68-9). There is, however, a feeling of haste in the composition of the work – not only in its bibliographical gaps on certain questions, but also even in the prose style, the references themselves, and even some basic facts.1 One instance is the very first sentence of the whole work: 'In the year 502 the Persian shah Kavad laid siege to the city of Edessa…' (p.1), whereas the attack to which he alludes took place in the following year.

There are signs of shoddy editing, e.g. in typographical errors (Aristotlean, p.206, but correctly, p.233), in inconsistency of spelling (e.g. Simeon or Symeon, cf. p.228, where both versions can be found in the same line). At p.239 Elizabeth (Key) Fowden is correctly identified as the author of The Barbarian Plain, but in the bibliography her work is subsumed under her husband's name; an article of A. Vööbus is attributed to J. Walker (p.288); and more examples could be given. It is moreover baffling as to why Wood insists on referring consistently to Hussey's edition of Socrates' Ecclesiastical History when G.C. Hansen (not Hanson, cf. p.272 for Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History) published an important new edition in 1995. These somewhat pedantic comments should not be taken so much as criticism of the author as of Oxford University Press. Most, if not all, of these points should have been weeded out by a good copy-editor, but it appears that the high cost of their books is not reflected in an attention to detail – a tendency observed also by Michael Whitby in his review of the excellent recent work of Volker Menze, Justinian and the Making of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Oxford, 2008) in Gnomon (forthcoming). In any case, these are relatively minor flaws in what is otherwise a well-structured and convincingly argued work.


1.   For more detailed remarks and bibliographical details see the blog to this review.


  1. Geoffrey Greatrex. Supplementary remarks on Wood, Philip. Part 1

    Because of the limited amount of space allowed for the review in BMCR 2011.05.31, I offer here some further comments on Wood’s book, and in particular references to works that are relevant but not cited by him. As I mentioned in the review, these remarks and additions should not be viewed as a series of reproaches to the author, since a good number of the works to which I shall refer came out too late for him to take into account; they may nevertheless be found useful by the reader, since research on this period continues apace. I shall concentrate my remarks on the second part of the book, chapter 6 onwards. For ease of reference I shall make a series of numbered comments with a full bibliography at the end; I trust I may be forgiven for including several allusions to my own works.

    (1) In his overview of Miaphysite history, p.166, Wood asserts that Severus and his allies ‘saw Chalcedonians as schismatics rather than heretics’ because they did not rebaptise Chalcedonians who joined their camp. The term schism, however, is generally used for a division in the church which was not theological, whereas this was clearly not the case for Severus and his opponents. In the following section, concerning the Chalcedonian revival under Justin I, one would expect to find reference to the still important work of Vasiliev 1950, cf. also Greatrex 2008a and b, Menze 2008b and c (on John of Ephesus’ mission, mentioned on p.169), and Millar 2009.
    (2) On p.171 Wood refers to negotiations between supporters and opponents of Chalcedon at Callinicum in 568 at which Justin II’s emissary Amantius was present. But PLRE knows of no such Amantius: the emperor’s envoy was rather John Comentiolus, cf. PLRE III, Ioannes 81. Wood is right to highlight Tiberius’ attempts to unite the two sides in persecuting pagans, as I have argued in Greatrex 2007b: 291-2. It should be noted how the initiative for undertaking persecutions comes now from below, from the provinces, whereas previously it had been the emperors themselves who took the lead.
    (3) Wood’s arguments, pp.188ff., on the efforts deployed by John of Ephesus and the Julian Romance to construct a regional Miaphysite identity are persuasive; among its features is a willingness to defy imperial authority if it should infringe Miaphysite doctrines. One should perhaps bear in mind, however, that Chalcedonians also enjoyed some success in gaining support in this region, e.g. through the activities of Abraham bar Kaili in Amida, whose career is well discussed by Menze 2008a: 235-44.
    (4) In regard to the discussion of the holy man Z‘ura and his visit to Constantinople (pp.195-7), Leppin 2007 should be cited, a useful contribution on Justinian’s church policy.
    (5) When discussing the natural disasters that afflicted the empire under Justinian (pp.198ff.) one would expect to find at least some reference to Meier 2003, who goes into considerable detail on these disasters and their consequences.

  2. Geoffrey Greatrex. Supplementary remarks on Wood, Philip. Part 2

    (6) At the start of chapter 7 Wood discusses John of Ephesus’ Eccleasiastical History in some detail, and it is in this context that he makes several references to book 2 of the work, as if it had survived. As I have noted in my review, this is not the case: what we have is a later chronicle, that referred to generally as the Zuqnin Chronicle or the Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, of which English translations (of the relevant sections) exist by Witakowski 1996 and Harrak 1999. Witakowski 1991 analyses the various sources of part III of Pseudo-Dionysius’ chronicle, that which Wood makes the equivalent of part II of John of Ephesus’ work. As I noted in my review of Witakowski 1996 (Greatrex 1998), it is unfortunate that Witakowski does not go into detail on Pseudo-Dionysius’ sources in his translation, since of course he had already dealt with the issue elsewhere, because this can lead a reader to suppose that Pseudo-Dionyius’ chronicle is a simple reflection of John’s work. In fact, however, he derived at least some material from the Greek chronicler John Malalas, which causes serious problems for Wood’s arguments: we are therefore dealing not with a purely Syriac source, but rather one that owes a debt to Roman traditions. See (e.g.) Debié 2004 with some very helpful tables. Furthermore (cf. Wood, pp.213-14), one should not suppose Zachariah of Mytilene to have been John’s predecessor, nor should one attribute books 5-7 (p.213, n.13) to Zachariah: books 3-6 of Pseudo-Zachariah’s work were written in Greek by Zachariah Rhetor, to be sure, but books 7-12 were added subsequently, in 569, by a Syriac compiler based in Amida. The relationship between John’s work and Pseudo-Zachariah’s is problematic: it is far from certain which was published before the other or whether either depends on the other. See Greatrex 2006, Greatrex, Horn and Phenix 2011: 32-3, 38.
    (7) At p.214 Wood assumes that John of Ephesus’ allusion to persecution of Christians under a King Shapur (at HE2.20; all references to Joh. Eph.’s HE are to the third part) refers to those that took place in the fourth century; he thus perceives criticism of Justin II, who failed to emulate Constantine’s zeal for the faith. The reasoning is flawed, however, since the allusion is almost certainly rather to Shapur III, who granted Armenian Christians their religious freedom in the 380s. See Greatrex and Lieu 2002: 139-40.
    (8) The bibliography on the Martyrs of Najran (discussed by Wood, pp.215-26) has expanded enormously in recent years. One must consult now Detoraki 2007 (a new edition and translation of the Acta Arethae) and Beaucamp, Briquel-Chatonnet (not Briquel-Chattonet, cf. Wood p.216 n.21) and Robin 2010 (a collection of relevant papers), cf. more generally Robin 2008. In general, I am not entirely persuaded that one can see veiled criticism of Roman emperors in the comments made by Simeon of Beth Arsham concerning the Jewish ruler Masruq (or Dhu Nuwas), cf. Woods, p.224. One might equally point to the eagerness with which both Justin I and Justinian championed Christian interests beyond the empire, even if this meant supporting anti-Chalcedonians; and at the conference of Ramla, probably in 524, the Roman envoy Abraham, himself a Miaphysite, stoutly defended their interests, cf. Shahîd 1964: 119 n.23. On the other hand, Wood is right to highlight the spread of the Miaphysite faith and its growing importance beyond the imperial frontiers. He does not go into much detail concerning the Persian church, although it would have buttressed his arguments to look ahead to the time when Khusro II conquered much of the Roman Near East. Although he initially supported the Nestorian church, as had been the tendency of Persian kings since the start of the fifth century, he quickly realised that he had more chance of securing his conquered territories by turning instead to the Miaphysite church, cf. Greatrex 2003.

  3. Geoffrey Greatrex. Supplementary remarks on Wood, Philip. Part 3

    (9) The criticisms mentioned above, section (6), come to the fore in the context of Wood’s discussion of the Martyrs of Najran: he refers to a ‘vignette of Axumite history’ that John of Ephesus adds after his account of the martyrdoms, referring to the conversion of the Ethiopian ruler after his victories in Himyar over Masruq/Dhu Nuwas (pp.226-7). This vignette, however, clearly stems from the Chronicle of Malalas – to a section, indeed, to which Wood refers on p.227 (Mal. 18.15). Thus ‘John’s’ ‘vignette’ is not his at all: he has merely taken it over from Malalas. Wood’s then hypothesises that John is portraying Andug (the Ethiopian ruler in his version) as taking on the mantle of Constantine and winning a victory like that of the Milvian bridge, thus usurping this emperor’s role and demonstrating ‘how far John departs from the model of ecclesiastical historians in describing Christianity beyond the borders of the Roman empire.’ But given that he is merely offering a version of what the Greek chronicler Malalas states, such inferences are unjustified: there is every reason to suppose that Justin and Justinian were quite content to have been responsible for such conversions (cf. the mission of John of Ephesus at Justinian’s behest, noted in (1) above). Note also that the references to Frumentarius (pp.227 and 34) should be to Frumentius.
    (10) In his discussion of relations between nomadic and sedentary peoples on the eastern frontier, p.231, Wood alludes to a handful of studies – the tip of a bibliographic iceberg. This issue has attracted considerable scholarly attention, and one would expect to find references (e.g.) to the work of Mayerson, conveniently collected in Mayerson 1994, cf. Banning 1986, Parker 1987, Graf 1989, Haiman 1995, Liebeschuetz 2006 – a list to which no doubt other recent contributions could be added. This is a vast topic, of course, and Wood brings to bear important recent contributions by Robert Hoyland. He is also right in emphasising the important role that Christianity played in relations with the various Arab tribes that came to reside in the vicinity of the empire, citing the well-known case of Aspabetus, who defected from Persia c.420 (p.234). The cession of the island of Iotabe is briefly passed over, as is its recovery by the Romans under Anastasius. Again, one would expect to find at least a brief allusion to recent work on this region, e.g. Fisher 2005, Haarer 2006, 42-6, cf. Meier 2009, 137. Note that at p.237, n.91, Parker’s work, Romans and Saracens was published at Winona Lake, not Winter Lake.

  4. Geoffrey Greatrex. Supplementary remarks on Wood, Philip. Part 4

    (11) As regards the christological allegiance of the Jafnid rulers of the Ghassanid confederation, Wood, p.246, suggests ‘that, after initially rejecting the overtures of Severus, the Ghassanids were drawn into Miaphysitism in the middle of the sixth century, at a time when the movement was clearly out of favour as an imperial orthodoxy but had many adherents in the Levant.’ Rather like Fowden 1993: 120, he supposes that the Jafnids coolly weighed up the advantages of accepting one interpretation of Christ’s nature rather than another and deliberately decided to back the side that would give them the most leverage in the expansion of their influence. This does seem a somewhat startling and anachronistic interpretation. The Jafnids came into the Roman orbit around 502 and are likely to have adopted Christianity at this time. If one takes the parallel of the Goths, then one would suppose that they are likely to have adopted the orthodox Roman view of the time – which was Miaphysite. This is, more or less, the view to be found in Haarer 2006: 36-7 (although she supposes that it was only a little later that Anastasius became thoroughly Miaphysite), cf. Meier 2009: 193. Wood’s suggestion thus flies in the face of earlier opinion, which must at least be taken into account before being cast aside. Of course, Wood is right to suppose that in the long term, their adoption of Miaphysite Christianity stood them in good stead, allowing them to increase their influence and to act as arbiters in the disputes that racked the anti-Chalcedonian camp. Note that Sir Fergus Millar has just published a useful article on the Jafnid rulers, Millar 2010.
    (12) A few more general bibliographical points (regarding the bibliography). H.J.W. Drijvers’ article referred to by Wood as ‘Rabbula, the Man of God and the urban poor’ (p.277) is not to be found in the edited volume Portraits of Spiritual Authority but rather in JECS 4 (1996), 235-48 and is entitled ‘The Man of God of Edessa, Bishop Rabbula, and the Urban Poor: Church and Society in the Fifth Century’. There is now an English translation of Zachariah’s Life of Severus by L. Ambjörn (Piscataway, 2008), as also of Pseudo-Zachariah’s Chronicle (Greatrex, Horn and Phenix 2011).
    (13) In conclusion, this series of remarks does not detract significantly from the overall value of the book. Moreover, I have tended to focus on particular areas where my opinion diverges from Wood’s; as should be clear from my review, however, I find much of his main argument persuasive. And, as I mentioned in the review, there is much to be commended in his work, and it is perhaps inevitable that in publishing such a wide-ranging work the author should overlook certain important recent studies. He has tackled an ambitious and important topic and will no doubt contribute further significantly to the theme in coming years.

  5. Geoffrey Greatrex. Supplementary remarks on Wood, Philip. Part 5


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  6. Geoffrey Greatrex. Supplementary remarks on Wood, Philip. Part 6

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