The Ghassanid Imperial Titles

Artwork by Michael Peschka

The Ghassanid Imperial address is object of interest of the historians, jurists and also people curious about the etymology of dynastic titles

Although not very commented and notorious, the historical information and evidence are very abundant confirming that initially the Ghassanid rulers, even though already Kings by their own right, have received the title of “Basileus” which back in the 6th century CE was the official title of the emperor himself.

About the “Basileus” title:

“Basileus and Megas Basileus were exclusively used by Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors in Ptolemaic Egypt, Asia (e.g. the Seleucid Empire, the Kingdom of Pergamon and by non-Greek, but Greek-influenced states like the Kingdom of Pontus) and Macedon. The feminine counterpart is basilissa (queen), meaning both a queen regnant (such as Cleopatra VII of Egypt) and a queen consort. It is precisely at this time that the term basileus acquired a fully royal connotation, in stark contrast with the much less sophisticated earlier perceptions of kingship within Greece.” Chrysos, Evangelos K. (1978), “The Title ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ in Early Byzantine International Relations”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers (Dumbarton Oaks) 32: 66–67, JSTOR 1291418

By the 4th century however, basileus was applied in official usage exclusively to the two rulers considered equals to the Roman Emperor: the Sassanid Persian Shahan shah (“king of kings”), and to a far lesser degree the King of Axum, whose importance was rather peripheral in the Byzantine worldview.” Chrysos, Evangelos K. (1978), “The Title ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ in Early Byzantine International Relations”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers (Dumbarton Oaks) 32: 35, 42, JSTOR 1291418

“… the title acquired the connotation of “emperor“, and when barbarian kingdoms emerged on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, their rulers were referred to in Greek not as basileus but as rēx or rēgas, the hellenized forms of the Latin title rex, king.” Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991), Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, p. 264, ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6

Until the 9th century, the Byzantines reserved the term Basileus among Christian rulers exclusively for their own emperor in Constantinople.” Chrysos, Evangelos K. (1978), “The Title ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ in Early Byzantine International Relations”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers (Dumbarton Oaks) 32: 52–57, JSTOR 1291418

Famous Ghassanid King Al-Harith

Unfortunately, there’s some confusion regarding the early Ghassanid titles. Many authors, for lack of information and interest in study the Ghassanid history in depth, have confused and mixed the numerous Ghassanid titles altogether: “Al-Malik Al-Ghassassinah” (from the Arab “King of the Ghassanids”), “Basileus Araves” (from the Greek “Emperor of all Arabs”), Phylarch, Archphylarch, etc.

Some authors even try to use the term “Chieftain” in the pejorative way. The most common mistake is to call the Ghassanid Kings merely as “Phylarchs”.

“A phylarch (Greek: φύλαρχος, Latin: phylarchus) is a Greek title meaning “ruler of a tribe”, from phyle, “tribe” + archein “to rule”. In Classical Athens, a phylarch was the elected commander of the cavalry provided by each of the city’s ten tribes. In the later Roman Empire of the 4th to 7th centuries, the title was given to the leading princes of the Empire’s Arab allies in the East (essentially the equivalent to “sheikh”), both those settled within the Empire and outside. From ca. 530 to ca. 585, the individual phylarchs were subordinated to a supreme phylarch from the Ghassanid dynasty.” Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. p. 1672. ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6

Here is also important to make a reference regarding the title “Sheikh”.

Sheikh also transliterated Sheik, Shaik, Shayk, Shaykh, Shaikh, Cheikh, and Shekh— is a noble and honorific title in the Arabic culture. Commonly designates a hereditary ruler of a tribe or people. The title is given to a royal male at birth, whereas the related title “Sheikha” is given to a royal female at birth. The title “Sheikh” also has a religious connotation being given to prominent Islamic leaders or clerics, which is not our focus here. The word literally means “a man of great power and nobility”, and it is used strictly for the royal families of the middle east. The title means: leader, elder, or noble. However, there are many degrees of “Sheikh”. It goes from a non-sovereign, non-dynastic Ottoman tax collector or a leader of small Bedouin tribe to the prince of a nation, like the UAE, Bahrain, etc. Hence, a Sheikh from a sovereign or semi-sovereign ruling family is the equivalent of a prince.

Here’s also important to mention the principle of sovereign equivalency. Although there are differences in Royal rank (with merely honorific meaning), the Prince of Monaco is as sovereign as the Emperor of Japan or the Queen of the United Kingdom.

But “Sheikh” was not the title given to the Ghassanid Kings. According to Professor Irfan Shahid:

“The title awarded to the Ghassanid Ruler or Chief by his own people was neither Patricius nor Phylarch but king (Malik). The title, established beyond doubt by Procopius is confirmed by the contemporary poetry of Hassan and of later poets who continued this authentic tradition.” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the sixth century, Volume 2 part 2 pg.164

The dignity of king in Procopius had been sharply differentiated from the “Supreme Phylarchate” (archyphilarchia), with which Arethas was endowed …” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. 1, 1995, p. 103

The dignity of king was not new to the Ghassanids; they had brought it with them from the Arabian Peninsula where its assumption by a Ghassanid ruler is attested in a Sabaic inscription. When the Ghassanids appeared on the stage of Byzantine history, their chiefs, such as Tha’laba and Harith had already been kings to their subjects.” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the sixth century, Volume 1, p.104

In 528 CE, emperor Justinian I bestowed upon King Al-Harith VI (Arethas in Greek sources) the aforementioned title of “Basileus” which, as cited, signified at that period the same as emperor.

The old Basileia (kingship) was confirmed by the byzantine emperor; the new one was bestowed by him…” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the sixth century, Volume 1, p.104

In the case of the Ghassanids it was a confirmation and an extension of the royal tradition that the Ghassanids had had and which they had brought with them from south Arabia.” (Ibid p.111)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an empire is:

“a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially:  one having an emperor as chief of state”

The “Basileus Araves” or “the Emperor of the Arabs”ruled over many tribes in addition to the Ghassanid people.

“These were included in the phrase in Procopius that spoke of the elevation of Arethas to the Archyphilarchia and the Basileia: ‘as many tribes as possible placed under his command’.” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. 2, part 1, 1995, p. 51

Traditionally, each tribe was sovereign or semi-sovereign, having its own autonomous ruler. By simple logic that would make the bestowed “Basileia” an imperial title to all of the Arabs allied to the Byzantine empire.

“And though the Ghassanid King was the head of what we would today call a client state, he and the [byzantine] emperor met on equal footing – as comrades in arms – discussing matters of earthshaking and less-than-earthshaking importance.” Gene Gurney, “Kingdoms of Asia, the Middle east and Africa”, 1986, p.70

Here, the Ghassanid vassalage also has to be explained.

“Feudal Vassalage. So, also, tributary states, and those subject to a kind of feudal dependence or vassalage, are still considered as sovereign, unless their sovereignty is destroyed by their relation to other states. Tribute… does not necessarily affect sovereignty …, nor does the acknowledgement of a nominal vassalage or feudal dependency.” Henry Wager Halleck, Elements of international law and laws of war p.44

” . . . the mere fact of dependence or feudal vassalage and payment of tribute, or of occasional obedience, or of habitual influence, does not destroy, although it may greatly impair, the sovereignty of the state so situated.”(Ibid. p. 188)

According to one of the Forefathers of International Law, Emmerich de Vattel in his book, “Law of Nations”:



  • 5. States bound by unequal alliance. We ought, therefore, to account as sovereign states those which have united themselves to another more powerful, by an unequal alliance, in which, as Aristotle says, to the more powerful is given more honour, and to the weaker, more assistance. The conditions of those unequal alliances may be infinitely varied, but whatever they are, provided the inferior ally reserve to itself the sovereignty, or the right of governing its own body, it ought to be considered as an independent state, that keeps up an intercourse with others under the authority of the law of nations.
  • 6. Or by treaties of protection. Consequently, a weak state, which, in order to provide for its safety, places itself under the protection of a more powerful one, and engages, in return, to perform several offices equivalent to that protection, without however divesting itself of the right of government and sovereignty, – that state, i say, does not, on this account, cease to rank among the sovereigns who acknowledge no other law than that of nations.

. . .

  • 8. Of feudatory states. The Germanic nations introduced another custom – that of requiring homage from a state either vanquished, or too weak to make resistance. Sometimes even, a prince has given sovereignties in fee, and sovereigns have voluntarily rendered themselves feudatories to others. When the homage leaves independency and sovereign authority in the administration of the state, and only means certain duties to the lord of the fee, or even a mere honorary acknowledgment, it does not prevent the state or the feudatory prince being strictly sovereign. the king of Naples pays homage for his kingdom to the pope, and is nevertheless reckoned among the principal sovereigns of Europe…”

The Ghassanid vassalage was limited to honorific homage and military alliance. Not even financial tribute or taxes were paid to Constantinople, on the contrary, a “salaria” or salary was paid to the Ghassanid kings so they could pay the Arab armies. Therefore, no harm to the Ghassanid sovereignty.

Such imperial bestowal to the Ghassanid King was so colossal and magnanimous that was criticized by Greek historian Procopius, a harsh critic of Arabs and especially the Ghassanid kings:

” . . . the Basileia (kingship) conferred by Justinian on Arethas takes a new meaning, one which Procopius’ comment that is something that ‘among the Romans (both western and eastern – byzantine) had never been done before‘…” (Ibid)

The imperial bestowal was very well documented being corroborated by hard evidence as the Usays inscription.

The Usays inscription

The (Usays) inscription is considered to be the most important Arabic inscription of the sixth century, the second most important of all the pre-Islamic Arab inscriptions as a historical document.” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. 1, 1995, p. 117

But the strongest evidence [of the imperial bestowal] is supplied by contemporary epigraphy — the Usays Inscription carved by one of [King] Arethas commanders, Ibn Al-Mughira, who refers to him around A.D. 530 as Al-Malik, the King. There is also no doubt that the Ghassanid Arethas was dressed as a King on important occasions in Ghassanland, since the poet laureate of later times underscores his own eminent position among his Ghassanid patrons by nothing that he used to sit not far from their crowned head.” Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the sixth century, Volume 2 part 2 pg.164

“Contemporary documents reflect the contrast between the two Basileiai (kingships). In Simeon, Jabala is termed as ‘King of The Ghassanids’, in Usays inscription Arethas is called simply ‘The King’, possibly indicating the extension of the Basileia (kingship) over non-Ghassanids including the person who sets up the inscription.” (Ibid)

Also important to mention that the title of “Emperor of the Arabs” – wrongly called “king of the Arabs” by some authors – was subsequently confirmed by at least two other byzantine emperors. King Al-Mundhir ibn Al-Harith in 580 CE by Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (Justinian Dynasty /ruled 578-582 CE); and King Jabla ibn Al-Ayham by Emperor Heraclius (Heraclian Dynasty / ruled 610-641 CE). (See John A. Shoup, Culture and Customs of Jordan, pg. xvii)

It’s known by academia that the Ghassanid Dynasty ruled many realms in direct male line after the fall of the first State until 1747 CE. (See Ignatious Tannos Khoury, The Sheikhs Chemor rulers of Akoura (1211-1633 CE) and rulers of Zawie (1641-1747 CE)” Beirut, Lebanon, 1948)

 “After the disappearance of the Ghassanid state, isolated Ghassanian Princes continued to reign in some oases and castles, along with Salihids and some other phylae.” Bowesock/Brown/Grabar “Late Antiquity” –, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 469

Certainly, the most noteworthy of those reigns was the Byzatine Empire in the 9th Century CE.

“Although little is known of Jabala’s activities after his emigration to Anatolia, his place in the history of the Ghassanids in the Middle Byzantine period is important, since it was he who established a strong Ghassanid presence in Byzantine Anatolia, one which lasted for many centuries. The climax of this presence was the elevation of one of his descendants to the purple and his establishment of a short-lived dynasty which might be described as the House of Nicephorus.” “Ghassan post Ghassan” by Prof. Irfan Shahid, Festschrift  “The Islamic World – From classical to modern times”, for Bernard Lewis, Darwin Press l989, pg. 325

solidus nicephorus
Solidus of the Ghassanid emperors of Byzantium Nikephorus and Staurakius

“Nicephorus (A.D. 802-11) was a descendant of the Ghassanid [King] Jabala.” (Ibid.)

This assertion was even stronger not merely citing the King Jabala as ancestor, but the eponym of the Royal Ghassanid Dynasty using the name of King Jafna, the founder of the Ghassanid Kingdom. Therefore, we can conclude that Emperor Nicephorus (or Nikephoros) was not only citing his ascendancy but by using the term “Jafna” he was claiming to be the head of the Ghassanid Dynasty.

“…This valuable information comes from Tabari; see Tarik (Cairo, 1966), VIII, 307, when he speaks of [King] Jafna, the eponym of the Ghassanids, rather than [King] Jabala.” (Ibid. pg.334)

For all of the aforementioned, the Ghassanid Dynasty has the imperial dignity not only once, but twice. First, in 528 CE receiving it from the highest emperor of those times, the Byzantine; and second by being elevated to that very throne in 802 CE.

Important to mention that the legal existence of those titles today is not due to an ancient link to a monarchy that ended fourteen centuries ago but through the a Princely Family (El-Chemor) that reigned until the 18th century in Zgharta-Zawie (currently Lebanon) and was recognized as the lawful heir of those Ghassanid titles by the Ottoman empire until its end in 1924 and is also recognized by the Lebanese republic until today. Please, click on the link to an official 2014’s article (in Arabic) from the Lebanese Government News’ Agency (Lebanese Republic – Ministry of Information) mentioning the titles and validating the book written in 1947 about the family’s history.

More about the Ghassanid Dynasty

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