The Ghassanid homeland and Imperial Kingship – part 1

Filippo (Marcus Julius Philippus) aka Roman Emperor Philip the Arab

1 – The land of the great dam, i.e. the city, and therefore the surroundings of Ma’rib, in the current hinterland of Yemen, seem to be the places of origin of the Ghassanid Dynasty: the great Middle-Eastern House which, due to its antiquity and power can certainly surpass the history of all the European reigning families by centuries. To affirm that the area of origin is identifiable in the capital of the biblical Kingdom of Saba, would be an oral tradition known in southern Syria; which explains the transfer of the Ghassanide family following the collapse of the great dam that made the city flourishing, and its extraordinary flooding. The local proverb “They dispersed like the people of Saba” would refer precisely to this episode (Cf. https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghassanidi#Sovrani_ghassanidi).

It is historically certain, however, that the Ghassanid House was already in Byzantine Syria before the great (or more famous) collapse of the structure in 542. In fact, the Ghassanid King al Harith b. Jabala lived in an area that extended from the interior of the Empire of Constantinople and along its borders, up to the vicinity of Medina, already at least a few decades before the collapse of the great dam. He had helped the Byzantines with his warriors to repel the aggression of the Sassanid Persians, and had received the title of Patrician as a reward in 529: a mainly military honor, reserved in this case to an ally who controlled and defended a sensitive border (Cf G.RAVEGNANI, Soldiers and wars in Byzantium, Bologna 2009) The dominion of the Family had progressively extended from the areas of ancient settlement south of Damascus to Medina (Cf. W.CAMPBELL, The Koran and the Bible in the light of history and science, Orlando 202, p. 269). That is, in territories that were located within the Empire, along its borders (periodically ephemeral) and outside them, and in which the Ghassanids had carried out their work of supporting the state. We have outdated and distorted information on the relations that existed between the Roman Empire (both in the East and in the West) and the peoples we are used to defining as “barbarians”, especially from the period close to the late Empire. The populations driven by population growth or food shortages, dependent on the alternation of the climatic regime, were forced to look for new settlement lands, earn them or take them by force. Using their warriors as a tank for the imperial army was one of the reasons for settling these peoples in areas very close to the Roman state which progressively ended up opening its borders to the new arrivals. Who, often settling in sparsely inhabited areas, maintained their own social structure and traditional rulers who in turn recognized the distant imperial authority. “In the West – Werner affirms with an explanation that is also perfectly suited to the eastern part of the Roman domain – the Empire was no longer only surrounded by the regna but was to a large extent composed of these regna whose kings still recognized the imperial authority ” (Cf. K.F.WERNER, Birth of Nobility, Turin 2000, p.135).

In the Arabian Peninsula, the imperial pole of attraction acted not only due to shocking and dramatic phenomena such as the failure of a dam; but over time it constituted a constant attraction as a production center, destination and market for local products and those that came from India and Ethiopia; and that in the southern Kingdom of the Ghassanids they found the most important stage before going up again towards Syria and the Mediterranean. Strabo recalls how already at the time of the emperor Augustus the fame of the immense goods that were or transited in the southern lands of the Peninsula had prompted the sovereign to send his captain Elio Gallo to explore the area and make friends with its inhabitants. “The emperor -writes Strabo- had proposed to conciliate those peoples or to subjugate them, since these at all times had the reputation of being very rich, because they used to exchange their aromas and herbs for the silver and gold of foreigners their precious stones” (Cf. STRABO, Geography, 1, 16).

Therefore, minerals and products of the collection and cultivation of plants then considered rare passed along the caravan roads; and with the loads went merchants and farmers together with their families; later also the soldiers who were called to swell the ranks of the army. The extraordinary economic situation of a nation surrounded by vast deserts was due to the ability of its inhabitants to build impressive works, capable of modifying or canceling the negative consequences of the climate and the impact of the desert in its vicinity.

At least from the 11th century BC. and up to the eighth century, the Sabeans had designed and built a dam that became ever more enormous. A lake basin that regimented and collected the waters of at least seventy mountain rivers, using them to preserve the area from sudden floods and irrigate hundreds of square kilometers of land (Cf. B.LUPPI, Gli Arabi prima di Maometto, Messina-Florence 1974, p. 51).

Archaeological research has established that primitive works with earth barriers and canalizations had already begun at least around 2000 BC, and lasted until the old dam came to life. On the one hand it was necessary to expand the flow of water following the increase in population and market demand; on the other hand, continuous maintenance was essential, which served to maintain the solidity of the structure and to free the exits from the silt that accumulated there. For this reason, around 500 BC, the height of the dam was about 7 meters; and in 115 BC, following the restoration carried out, it had reached 14 meters (Cf. https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diga_di_Ma%27rib). It is clear that, in the event of a collapse of the structure, the waters would have disastrously spilled over an immense territory, with the consequent ruin of crops and commerce, and a more or less long impoverishment of the population. Large-scale collapses occurred several times over the centuries, and are remembered by inscriptions found on the site and which also recall the restoration works. The first inscription found dates back to the 4th century AD; a second one, of one hundred lines, found in Ma’rib, dates back to the years between 451 and 456; three others recall the restoration work carried out by the Abyssinian king Abraha (d. towards 553) who had also occupied the Kingdom of the Sabeans. Among these is the large stele of 539 which commemorates the reconstruction of a part of the dam (Cf. B.LUPPI, cit., p.50). To get an idea of the great amount of maintenance, just remember that the works of this period they had required the commitment of 20,000 men and the use of 14,000 camels (Cf. K.ROMEY, Colpita la grande dam di Marib, engineering marvel of antiquity, in National Geographic Italia, 3 June 2015). However, the work must not have been flawless; and probably a disastrous event irreparably affected the structure which collapsed definitively and irreparably within a few decades, even causing the emigration of a good part of the inhabitants and the subsequent desertification of the territory. In fact, our imagination often only remembers the sunny desert expanses of Arabia; while in the area there has never been a periodic lack of heavy rainfall and flooding, as demonstrated by what happened in a large part of the Middle-Eastern Peninsula in May 2023 (Cf. https://www.tgcom24.mediaset.it/mondo /floods-in-saudi-arabia-the-desert-turns-into-a-lake-video_3176453-201802a.shtml).

There are numerous memories of the floods that occurred between Upper Mesopotamia and Arabia: the Byzantine historian Giorgio Cedreno, in his work A concise history of the world (written in the mid-11th century), for example, recalls the flood that hit Edessa in 521, submerged by the Sirte river “as if it were the sea”: “magna, atque celebras Urbs deluge Sirti amnis, qui per eam decurrit, afflicta est. Maris enim instar ille exundans Domos una cum habitantibus abripuit, atque submersit” (Cf. M.BONITO. Terra tremante, Naples 1691, p.300). Of particular importance seem to me the news that tell of particular atmospheric perturbations that between 547 and 548 hit the capital of the Empire and vast areas of the Middle East. Girolamo Bardi, in the Summary over the chronological age of the world, fixes the news of the extraordinary flooding of the Nile that submerged a large part of Egypt to 547 (Id., p. 319); and St. Theophanes, the confessor, in his Chronography recalls the very intense rains that fell on Constantinople in 748 (Id., p. 320). I am sure that these vast and repeated floods, if also extended to the southern part of the peninsula, could have inflicted fatal damage on the great dam, which definitively collapsed in those decades (the disaster can recall, to an even greater extent, what happened in 1963 in Italy with the disaster of the Vajont dam which caused the death of thousands of people), causing the definitive and more massive migration of the Sabeans towards the northern areas of the peninsula where many of their compatriots had already settled.

2 – It is an inveterate habit of almost all royal families or large noble families to gild their genealogy with the inclusion, more or less probable, of very noble ancestors who bring prestige to their home. Among the earliest examples of alleged earthly ancestors (and not imaginative divine ancestors, as was the custom in antiquity), the Roman emperor Licinius claimed to be descended from Philip the Arab, the first Christian Roman emperor (Cf. Cf. M .SORDI, I Cristiani e l’Impero romano, Como 2006, p. 137) who also the Ghassanid Princes consider as an illustrious exponent of the House. Philip was a Christian is a widely proven fact, and on which Marta Sordi clarified. Which recalls how the emperor was born in Trachonitide, near Bosra, an episcopal see already from the first decades of the third century with Beryl, and also a theological school with doctrinal deviations (especially in Christology) fought by Origen (Id., pp. 136- 137). Just with Origen, Philip the Arab and his wife Otacilia Severa were in epistolary relations (Cf. EUSEBIO DA CESAREA, Historia Ecclesiastica, 36, 3); and St. John Chrysostom recalls how in 244 in Antioch the emperor was forbidden by the local bishop Babila to enter the church for the celebration of Easter. St. Babila, in fact, contested Philip’s killing of his predecessor Gordian III, according to a widely spread and accredited rumor, which took place during the war against the Sassanids (Cf. St. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, Oration on St. Babila, 6) . Even if Philip adopted the Roman custom of divinizing his father after his death, the gesture must be understood among those political acts whose purpose was based on the attempt not to antagonize pagan subjects (Cf. M.L.MECKLER, Philyp the Arab and Revel Claimants of the later 240, at http://www.roman-emperors.org/) Philip (Marcus Julius Philippus), was the son of Julius Marinus, a Syrian who had Roman citizenship and who therefore was a prominent personality if his other son Julius Priscus, according to the studies of Alfred von Domaszewski, had made a brilliant career as an officer, holding positions that required belonging to the equestrian order (Cf. https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/RE:Iulius_340?fbclid=IwAR3BoXjk 6VBDHm8FwEjSJRZjeYbfoRpH1vCmWRxrJVnBFjOH7qaComZ8Ec)..

In the Epitome de Caesaribus, a work by an anonymous pagan Author inserted in the body of the work of Aurelius Victor, it is said disparagingly that Philip “humillimo loco ortus fuit” and that his father was a “nobilissimus latronum ductor”, a very noble leader of predators: a way to express one’s hatred against a Christian who had favored his religion (Cf. Epitome, 28, 4). Precisely on these definitions, however, we can better define the social condition of the emperor at his birth. In fact, the author wrote his work in the last decades of the fourth century, i.e. when the use of appellations used to address the most important characters in the courts and the Church developed its own protocol form which at that time was well known by insiders.

The fact that the emperor was defined as a “humillimo loco ortus” indicates a social condition that one would like to associate with the situation of the obscure provincial place where he was born, a place in the geographical sense, far, not far from the border on which the merchants and the soldiers are seen as “latres”: Bedouins dedicated to raids and robberies, rather than to surveillance and commerce. However, the pagan writer does not neglect to add that the “ductor” of these thieves, i.e. Philip’s father, is “nobilissimus”; using a word in a way that cannot be ironic, since readers would not fail to grasp the literal implications of him.

Since ancient times, the adjective was used for the same people to whom the title of “princeps” was reserved, in particular for the apparent heir of the emperor, starting at least with Geta in 198 (Cf. F.MITTHOFF , Annona militaris, 1993, s.l.).

Title then gradually extended and used for the highest environment of the state. Subsequently, and for centuries, “to re-establish the discipline of a militia principis once again in the hands of the king – argues Werner – the most highly placed had to settle for the title of comes since the highest titles, such as princeps or nobilissimus, were strictly reserved for the king and members of his dynasty” (Cf. WERNER, cit, p. 397).

Titles such as glorious and optimates, later widely used by the Franks, found their ecclesial and administrative equivalent in venerabilis for the abbot, apostoleus for the bishop and inluster for the count (Id., p.250). And it was precisely in this period, which still retained the use of ancient terminologies in the drafting of documents, that we can begin to notice a slight expansion of their attribution. If the clarissimi, excellentissimi, gloriosissimi, praestantissimi still exist, it must be kept in mind that “the -issimus began to be applied to the great vassals of those who were already princeps, demonstrating that they were about to become so in turn” (Id., p. 313).

Therefore, even if in its irony, the word used in the Epitome can underline the very high social origin of Philip; and, if the father was a prince of marauders or soldiers (it depends on the sympathy felt) who lived on the border with the desert, in any case it connects us to the family of royal lineage who lived precisely in Syria, namely that of a branch of the Ghassanids, transferred to one of its oldest movements, before the great migration due to the collapse of the dam.

Carmelo Currò Troiano, Italian Scholar, historian and journalist

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