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Concise Biography

Theophilus of Edessa (~695-~785 CE) was a medieval astrologer and scholar from Edessa in northern Mesopotamia ( Hoyland, 2011:6). He is said to have translated books from Greek to Syriac and Arabic - indicating fluency in all three languages ( Hoyland, 2011:7 and Gramaglia and Dykes, 2017:7). Although he was a Chalcedonian Christian, later in his life he worked in Baghdad as a court astrologer for Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi. As a contemporaneous source for events of the 8th century CE ( Hoyland, 2011:6) with linguistic skills, he likely accessed much information about events of his times. Unfortunately, the Historical Chronicle he wrote in Syriac is lost. However, this Chronicle appears to show up in a number of later sources (e.g. Michael the Syrian, Chronicon Ad Annum 1234, and Agapius of Menbij who directly cited him) and may have been utilized by Theophanes by way of an intermediary. Theophilus' Chronicle was also a source for the lost but influential Chronicle of (the real) Dionysius of Tell-Mahre.

In addition to his Historical Chronicle and translations, Theophilus wrote books on Astrology.

Expanded Discussions


Byzantinists tend to view the period from 630 to the 750s as a historiographical desert and speak of it as a 'long silence' or 'long gap'.4 This is in part because history-writing in the sixth century had enjoyed a considerable measure of vitality. All the three main genres were well represented: secular classicising history (Procopius, Agathias, Menander, John of Epiphaneia and Theophylact Simocatta), church history (Zosimus, John of Ephesus and Evagrius) and the world chronicle (John Malalas and John of Antioch).5 And it is also in part because there are almost no extant historical texts for this period; its events are of course charted by later historians, but the works they depend on do not in general survive.

Because of this historiographical dearth, it seems worthwhile to try and recover one text that was definitely composed at this time, the chronicle of Theophilus of Edessa, an astrologer in the Abbasid court in Iraq in the second half of the eighth century. It has become accepted of late to identify Theophilus’ chronicle with the so-called 'eastern source’, the existence of which had been postulated from the eighteenth century.6 This conclusion had been arrived at from careful comparison of three later Christian chroniclers: the Byzantine monk Theophanes the Confessor (d. 818), the West Syrian patriarch Dionysius of Telmahre (d. 845),7 and Agapius, bishop of the north Syrian city of Manbij (wr. 940s).6 The latter, who relies very heavily upon the ‘eastern source’ for the period 630-750s, states explicitly that he has drawn upon the ‘books’9 of Theophilus of Edessa:
Theophilus the Astrologer, from whom we took these accounts, said: I was myself a constant witness of these wars and I would write things down so that nothing of them escaped me He has many books about that and we have abbreviated from them this book. We added to it what we perceived to be indispensable, but we avoided prolixity.10
Dionysius of Telmahre also names Theophilus as one of his informants:
One of these writers (who wrote ‘narratives resembling ecclesiastical history’) was Theophilus of Edessa, a Chalcedonian who regarded it as his birthright to loathe the Orthodox (...)11 We shall take from the writings of this man some details here and there from those parts which are reliable and do not deviate from the truth.12
The fact that Theophilus of Edessa is indeed known to have penned ‘a fine work of history’13 has been regarded as proof positive that Theophilus is the author of the ‘eastern source’. The situation is a little more complex than this


4 Treadgold, Early Byzantine Historians, 340. 348. For a survey of what history was being written in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, and a consideration of why it was curtailed, see Whitby. ‘Greek Historical Writing after Procopius'. See also my Seeing Islam, ch. 10, which I draw upon here.

5 For the historiography of this period see Croke and Emmett, History and Historians in Late Antiquity, ch. 1; Croke, ‘Byzantine Chronicle Writing'; Treadgold. Early Byzantine Historians. chs. 6-9; Debié. L'écriture de l'histoire en syriaque.

6 See especially Conrad. ‘The Conquest of Arwad* (Conrad, ‘Theophanes', 5-6, refers to earlier literature), and Bomit. Entre Mémoire et Pouvoir. 143 η. 52. Howard-Johnston. Witnesses, 192-236. assesses the worth of Theophilus. but without discussing its composition/transmission. Shortly before 1 was due to submit this book, I was put in contact by Glen Bowersock with a student of his, Maria Contemo, who was about to submit a PhD thesis on the ‘eastern source', but we decided, since we were both at a very advanced stage in our respective projects, that it would be better to complete them independently. Maria's work will undoubtedly be an important re-evaluation of the 'eastern source'.

7 Though not extant, Dionysius’ work is heavily drawn upon by Michael the Syrian (d. 1199) and the anonymous chronicler of AD 1234 (see the sections dealing with these two authors below).

8 Brooks, ‘Theophanes and the Syriac Chroniclers’; Becker, ‘Eine neue christliche Quelle'; Conrad, ‘Theophanes’, 43. Manbij is the Arabic name of the city; the Syriac name is Mabbug and it was known to Greek-speakers as Hierapolis.

9 Arabic kutub, a quite general term that one could also simply translate as ‘writings'.

10 Agapius, 525. The wars in question are those between the Arab dynasties of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, and Agapius wants to add weight to his narrative by noting that it derives from an eyewitness. However, that Theophilus' ‘many books’ dealt with Christian as well as Muslim history may be inferred from Dionysius' remark that Theophilus’ writings sometimes misrepresented the Miaphysites.

11 For Eastern Christians the question of orthodoxy/heresy mostly turned on the problem of Christ’s nature. The Miaphysites (or Monophysites; Copts in Egypt, Jacobites in Syria) wished not to dilute the divinity of Christ and so insisted on one divine nature, the human and divine elements having fused at the incarnation. The Nestorians (or East Syrian Christians), found chiefly in Iraq and Persia, wanted to hold on to the very comforting fact that Christ had become a human being like us and to avoid saying that God had suffered and died, and so stressed two distinct natures, a human and a divine. Trying desperately to eschew the two extremes of denial of Christ's humanity and dualism, the Chalcedonians (or Melkites). who represented the imperial position, postulated two natures, united but distinct. Each group would tend to refer to themselves as the Orthodox. Though important in their own right, these confessional divisions were also bound up with regional, ethnic and linguistic affiliations. See further Atiya. Eastern Christianity and Meyendorff. Eastern Christian Thought.

12 Michael the Syrian (henceforth Msry) 10.XX. 378/358: se below for further discussion of this passage.

13 Bar Hebraeus. CS, 127; MD, 220.


I should emphasise at the outset that by using the term ‘dependants’ I do not mean that the authors below used Theophilus’ chronicle in a slavish manner. Indeed, one of the key conclusions to be drawn from the translation below is that while it is clear that Theophanes, Dionysius and Agapius relied substantially on a single common source, they nevertheless felt free to creatively revise and reshape it, to abbreviate and reword it, and to supplement it with material from other sources.

I. Theophanes the Confessor (d. 818; writing in Greek)

Theophanes was born in 760 to noble and rich parents. His father, governor of the region by the Aegean Sea, died while his son was still young. As heir to extensive estates in Bithynia and a considerable fortune, Theophanes spent his youth in ‘hunting and riding’ and married a woman of comparable wealth. He entered imperial service with the rank of groom and was assigned the task of superintending the rebuilding of the fortifications at Cyzicus on the southern side of the Sea of Marmara. He would undoubtedly information on both Byzantine and Arab affairs. For the latter he is heavily dependent upon the ‘eastern source’ for the period 630-740s. Even after this date, however, Theophanes continues to narrate events occurring in Muslim-ruled lands, until ca. 780. Either he made use of another chronicle for these three decades or, more likely, he had at his disposal a continuation of the ‘eastern source’.27 The preponderance of material concerning Syria and Palestine suggests that the continuator was from that region.28 Most of the very few entries in Theophanes for the period 630-740s that are not from the ‘eastern source’ are also concerned with Syria and Palestine, so it is likely that this continuator was a redactor as well, inserting the occasional entry within the text of the ‘eastern source’.29 The addition of notices on the succession of the Melkite patriarchs of Antioch in the years 742-56 implies that this continuator/redactor was a Melkite clergyman. It is quite possible that it was George Syncellus himself who did this work. We know he was based in Palestine for a time, at one of the monasteries in the Judaean desert,30 and he specifically states that, in addition to the material of earlier historians, he added ‘a few events which happened in our own times’ (quoted in full above). This suggestion is not in the end provable, but it is plausible and is a very neat and economical solution.

When compared to Agapius and Dionysius, it becomes immediately apparent that the ‘eastern source’, as he appears in Theophanes, has been substantially abbreviated and his notices have sometimes been amalgamated, thus creating’ a causal link between events that seem originally to have been unconnected.31 This compression is probably a consequence of Theophanes’ bias for Byzantine affairs and should not be attributed to the continuator.32


27 It does not seem likely that the ‘eastern source’ itself continued until 780, for the chronicles of Agapius and Dionysius no longer share any notices with Theophanes after the 740s.

28 See Appendix 1 below; Brooks, ‘Theophanes and the Syriac Chroniclers’, 587; Conrad, ‘The Conquest of Arwad’. 336-38.

29 E.g. Theophanes, 328 (Heraclius visits Tiberias), 335-36 (battle of Mu’ta), 348 (death of Thomas, bishop of Apamea, and the burning of the bishop of Hims), 412 (Iraqis burn the markets of Damascus).

30 Thus regarding Rachel's tomb situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem he says (Chronographia. 122 [trans. Adler and Tuffin, 153]): ‘In my journeys to Bethlehem and what is known as the Old Laura of blessed Chariton I personally have passed by there frequently and seen her coffin lying there on the ground’. See also Mango, ‘Who Wrote the Chronicle of Theophanes?', 13 n. 16; Huxley, ‘Erudition', 215-16.

31 E.g. Theophanes, 365 (‘Abd al-Malik’s minting of coins and Justinian’s breaking of the peace), 399 (earthquake in Syria and Umar U’s banning of wine).

32 It was probably Theophanes too who chose to compress the account of the Arab-Persian confrontation into one short notice.

2. Dionysius of Telmahre (d. 845; writing in Syriac)

Dionysius came from a wealthy and well-established Edessan family. He studied at the monasteries of Qenneshre and of Mar Jacob at Kayshum before being elevated to the position of patriarch of the West Syrian church in 818, which position he held until his death in 845.33 At the request of John, metropolitan of Dara, he consented to undertake what others, despite his exhortations, had declined to do, namely ‘to set down in writing for the generations which are to come the events which have occurred (in the past) and which are occurring in our own time’.34 The finished product was described by a later chronicler as follows:

He composed it in two parts and in sixteen books, each part containing eight books divided into chapters. He wrote it at the request of John, metropolitan of Dara. In this chronicle are included the times, a period of 260 years, from the beginning of the reign of Maurice - that is, from the year 894 of the Greeks (582) - until the year 1154 (842) in which there died Theophilus, emperor of the Romans, and Abu Ishaq (Mu‘tasim), king of the Arabs.35
This division into parts - one devoted to church history, the other to secular history - and books and chapters indicates a sophisticated approach that differs from that found in earlier Syriac historiography. In his preface Dionysius characterises his work as a pragmateia, a term used by classical writers to mean a treatise strictly and systematically formulated, and he distances himself from those who ‘composed their narratives in a summary and fragmented fashion without preserving either chronological accuracy or the order of succession of events’. In contrast to such writings, he says. Our aim is to bring together in this book everything which our feeble self is able, with God’s assistance, to collect, and to ascertain the accuracy (of each report) as attested by many persons worthy of credence, to select (the best version) and then to write it down in (correct) order’.36

Bar a few fragments, Dionysius’ achievement unfortunately does not survive.37 Much can, however, be recovered by comparing the writings of those who later drew upon it, notably the West Syrian patriarch Michael the Syrian (1166-99) and an anonymous Edessan chronicler of the early thirteenth century whose work is referred to simply as the Chronicle of 1234, since that is the year in which it stops.38 These two authors were compiling their chronicles within a decade of one another and yet would seem to have been working independently. Both explicitly cite Dionysius a number of times,39 and Michael implies that Dionysius was his only substantial source for the period 582-842. We can, therefore, be reasonably sure that every notice common to both writers in this period derives from Dionysius. However, neither of these two passes his oeuvre on to us intact; rather, they both add, omit, abbreviate, rephrase and reshape.40 Michael breaks up the text of Dionysius and distributes the material over three columns devoted to ecclesiastical affairs, natural phenomena and civil history. The Chronicle of 1234 has one continuous narrative until the time of Constantine and then divides its notices into secular and church history, relegating the latter to the end. Michael’s ecclesiastical column is extensive, but much of this is treated as civil history by the chronicler of 1234, whose church history is relatively small.41 It seems likely that Dionysius, given his position as patriarch, would have deemed his ecclesiastical history the more important and so given it greater space, but it is difficult to say for sure.

In the preface to his work Dionysius states that he would take from Theophilus of Edessa ‘only those parts which are reliable and do not deviate from the truth’. The reason for this proviso is the rivalry in their faith, Dionysius being a Miaphysite and Theophilus a Chalcedonian. In reality, however, Dionysius conveys to us more of Theophilus than either Theophanes or Agapius, albeit only through the filters of Michael and the Chronicle of 1234. Most of the notices in Michael’s civil history column for the period 630-750 have a counterpart in Theophanes and Agapius, and so most clearly represent Theophilus; but many of Michael’s notices on natural phenomena and almost all of the ecclesiastical reports derive from elsewhere.42 The Chronicle o f 1234 has often been thought to best preserve Dionysius, and so Theophilus. This is true to the extent that it often quotes Dionysius in full and does not break up the narrative structure into subject categories as Michael does. Yet on closer study it proves to be quite an eclectic work. For example, it dislikes short notices, preferring to have a paragraph’s worth before accepting a report. And for the Arab conquests and the first Arab civil war it turns to Muslim sources, not merely supplementing, but borrowing wholesale.43 Except for these two occasions, however, almost of all of its notices on civil affairs would seem to derive from Theophilus.

It is evident that Dionysius produced a comprehensive and carefully structured work. The church history takes centre stage, coming first and comprising a formidable array of documents; the secular history follows, smaller in size, but great efforts were made to assemble as much material as possible. The two parts, assigned eight books each, were then crossreferenced and otherwise linked by glimpses forward and flashbacks, and the whole was set forth in a fluid and florid Syriac diction.44 For Islamicists it is valuable as the best witness to Theophilus of Edessa’s chronicle and for revealing to us something of the life and conditions of the Christians, who still constituted a majority of the population of the Near East in Dionysius’ day.

33 Abramowski, Dionysius von Telmahre, discusses the Church and its relationship with the state in Dionysius' time and also Dionysius' own contribution as patriarch.

34 Msyr 10.XX, 378/358 (Dionysius' preface).

35 Msyr 12.XXI, 544/111.

36 Msyr 11.XVIII, 454/487-88. This is a literal rendering; the translation of Palmer. WSC. 94-95, makes it clearer; ‘Weak as I am, my aim is as follows: To collect with the help of God whatever information I can find and to put it all in this book in good order, selecting the most reliable version of events attested by the majority of trustworthy witnesses and writing them down here in the correct sequence.’ For more detailed discussion of the format of Dionysius' chronicle see Conrad, ‘Syriac Perspectives'. 28-39; Palmer. WSC, 85-104.

37 These fragments are edited and translated by Abramowski, Dionysius von Telmahre, 130-44. A few brief citations from Dionysius are also given by Elias of Nisibis, 1.174-80 (AH 138, 140, 142, 146. 152-53)

38 For these two authors and their chronicles see Chabot's and Fiey’s introduction to their translations of Michael and the Chronicle of 1234 respectively, and most recently Weltecke, 'Les trois grandes chroniques syro-orthodoxes’.

39 Chron 1234. 2.17-20, 257. 267; for the numerous references of Michael to Dionysius see Conrad. ‘Syriac Perspectives'. 30 and n. 87 thereto.

40 At different times each will have a longer account than the other; since historical information about the seventh and eighth centuries was scarce, it is unlikely that either was able to add new details, so they must both at times be abbreviating. An example of how they both rework Dionysius is given by Brock, ‘Syriac Life of Maximus’. 337-40, and it is made very clear in my translation below.

41 E.g. Cyrus' part in the conquest of Egypt, the Jews' removal of crosses from the Mount of Olives and the appearance of a false Tiberius (see translation below). Though there are occasions when the reverse is true; e.g. the notice on the Arab attack on the convent of Simeon the Stylite is in the ecclesiastical part of Chron 1234. 2.260, but in the civil section of Msyr 11. VI. 417/422.

42 Michael also reports a number of censuses, seemingly not drawn from Theophilus: e.g. ca. 668 Abu l-A‘war made a census of Christian labourers/soldiers for the first time (Msyr 11 .XII, 435/450); in AG 1009/698 ‘Atiyya made a census of foreigners (Msyr 1 l.XVI, 447/473; Chron 819, 13).

43 This is important to note; I had myself, taking over received wisdom that the Chronicle of 1234 accurately represented Dionysius (e.g. Palmer, WSC, 102: Ί assume that the Chronicle of 1234 preserves Dionysius faithfully'), accepted that the Arabic material was inserted by Dionysius (see Hoyland. ‘Arabic. Syriac and Greek Historiography'). However, since not a single item of it is found in Michael, this cannot be so and must have become included in the Chronicle of 1234 at a later date.

44 See Palmer. W5C. 85-89. for references and further discussion.

3. Agapius, bishop of Manbij (wr. 940s; writing in Arabic)

The earliest manuscript of this author’s chronicle, Sinai Arab 580 of the late tenth century,45 assigns it the following title: ‘The book of history, the composition of Mahbub son of Constantine the Byzantine of Manbij, the title of which is (dedicated) to the man crowned with the virtues of wisdom, versed in the ways of philosophy, commended by the truths of knowledge, righteous and benevolent, Abu Musa ‘Isa son of Husayn.’46 Unfortunately we know nothing about the latter character and very little about Agapius (the Greek equivalent of Mahbub) himself beyond what is in the heading.47 His work begins with Creation and halts abruptly at the end of the reign of Leo IV (775-80), but he would seem to have continued until ca. 942, since at one point he states that ‘the kingdom of the Arabs’ has endured for 330 years.48 The work was known to the Muslim polymath Mas‘udi (d. 956), who deemed it one of the best books he had seen by the Melkites on history.49

Agapius has very little information for the years 630-750s that is not drawn from Theophilus of Edessa. The only other source that we can detect is a Muslim history, which is revealed from the occasional provision of a Hijri date or the full name of a Muslim authority, and also from notices such as who led the pilgrimage in certain years and who the governors were for a particular caliph.50 He would also seem to be dipping into it for certain events of key importance to the political life of the Muslims, especially their various civil wars.51 In addition, it may underlie his chronology, for most of his notices are dated according to the years of the reigning caliph. As regards his use of Theophilus, Agapius is rather erratic, sometimes quoting him at length, at other times abbreviating him considerably.


45 See Gibson. ‘Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts*. 123-24; Atiya, The Arabic Manuscripts of Mount Sinai. 23.

46 The Bodleian manuscript (Hunt 478 dated 1320) misses out a few words of the title, giving simply: ‘The book of the title crowned...' (Kitâb al-‘unwän al-mukallal...) and this is how the work has come to be known (i.e. as the ‘Book of the Title'/Kitâb al-'Unwân).

47 Such information as we do have about him is collected by Vasiliev, ‘Agapij Manbidjskij'; see also Graf, GCAL. 2.39—41. and Nasrallah. Mouvement littéraire dans l'église melchite 2.2, 50-52.

48 Agapius. 456. The year AH 330 corresponds to 941 -42: this is equated by Agapius to AG 1273. but a marginal note says ‘it is wrong*, and indeed it should read AG 1253.

49 Mas‘udi. 154.

50 E.g. Agapius. 474 (‘Umar replaced Khalid with Abu ‘Ubayda as commander of Syria), 476 (‘Umar appointed Abu ‘Ubayda over Egypt in addition to Syria), 477 (‘Umar named Mu‘awiya governor of Syria in place of Abu ‘Ubayda). 483 (‘Uthman led the pilgrimage in the eighth year of his reign), 485 ( ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Abbas led the pilgrimage in the year of ‘Uthman’s murder). 487 (Mu'awiya's governors), 488 (Marwan ibn al-Hakam led the pilgrimage, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As died). Also the notice on Mu‘awiya's capture of Rhodes, which adds details to Theophilus' account, may derive from this Muslim chronology (see Conrad, ‘Arabs and the Colossus', 173).

51 It is, however, very difficult to determine the content of Theophilus* account of the first civil war, since his dependants each have very different accounts (see the entry thereon in the translation below).

4. The Chronicle of Siirt (written in Arabic)

This text, so called because the manuscript was discovered in the town of southern Türkey bearing that name, narrates the history of the saints and patriarchs of the Nestorian church, and the principal events of the Roman, Persian and Arab empires that impinged upon it. Its interest for us is somewhat limited since the two volumes that contain the work are both defective at the beginning and end: it starts abruptly in 251, has a lacuna in the middle corresponding to the years 423-83, and halts mid-sentence in 650.52 It presumably began with Jesus, demonstrating the continuity of the Eastern Church with Christianity’s fount. How far it extended is less easy to say. The mention of place names such as Baghdad (founded in 762), Samarra (830s) and Jazirat ibn ‘Umar (founded by and named after Hasan ibn ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab al-Taghlibi, d. ca. 865), and the reference to Mosul as the seat of a metropolitan (from 820s) take us to the late ninth century.53

Further indications can be gleaned from the sources that the chronicler names at intervals. The Ecclesiastical History of Daniel bar Maryam, a contemporary of the patriarch Isho‘yahb III (d. 658), is cited five times, and that of two other approximate contemporaries, Elias of Merw and Bar Sahde, are cited two and three times respectively. The works of the eighth-century theologian Shahdust, bishop of Tirhan, and the biographies compiled by the patriarch Isho‘ bar Nun (824—28) are each excerpted twice. And the Chalcedonian philosopher and physician Qusta ibn Luqa, who died some time in the reign of the caliph Muqtadir (907-32), is cited four times, bringing us into the tenth century.54 A terminus ante quem is given by the observation that Isho‘yahb III was the last head of the church to bear this name,55 which means that the work antedates the appointment of Isho‘yahb IV in 1020. The Chronicle of Siirt was, therefore, composed between 907 and 1020.

A source not cited by the chronicler is the work of Theophilus of Edessa. Unfortunately, since the Chronicle ofSiirt breaks off in 650, we do not have much material for comparison with Theophilus, but there are a few notices that reveal close correspondence: the pact between Heraclius and Nicetas to depose Phocas (AD 610), the rift between Khusrau and Shahrbaraz (ca. 626), Khusrau’s dispatch of Rozbihan against Heraclius (627), a sign in the sky ca. 634 and ‘Umar’s building activity in Jerusalem ca. 642 (all cited in the translation section below). However, for the first three notices, which occur before the Arab conquests, we cannot be sure whether they go back to Theophilus or to some other source that Agapius and Dionysius have in common, such as the Sergius of Rusafa whom Dionysius names as a source for this period (see below) and who may have been accessible to the chronicler of Siirt. The sign in the sky is a brief entry that is likely to travel easily between chronicles, so we are only left with the account of ‘Umar’s building activity in Jerusalem. This is quite close to the narratives of Theophanes, Agapius and Dionysius (see the entry thereon in the translation section below), but as a single notice it does not give us a sufficient basis for assessing how much and in what way the Chronicle of Siirt used Theophilus.


52 On the manuscripts of this work see Degen, ‘Zwei Miszellen zur Chronik von Se'ert'. 84-91.

53 Fiey, ‘Isho‘denah et la Chronique de Séert', 455: note that the text of Muhammad’s pact with the Christians of Najran was said to have been discovered in AH 265/879 (Chron Siirt C il PO 13,601).

54 References and further literature on each are given by Sako. ‘Les sources de la Chronique de Séert’, where other minor sources are noted, though not Theophilus of Edessa.

55 Chron Siirt LIV. 460.

5. The Byzantine-Arab Chronicler of 741 (written in Latin)

This is a somewhat odd composition. Its content is as follows:

Spanish affairs (99c): six cursory references to Visigothic kings (§§1-3, 5, 9, 14). dated according to the Spanish era. from the death of Reccared in 602 to the accession of Suinthila in 621. The Spanish dating era is no longer used after 640. The conquest of Spain is only mentioned among other triumphs of Walid’s reign (§36), but there is an entry devoted to the battle of Toulouse in 721 (§42). Byzantine affairs (299c): brief notices on the emperors from the death of Phocas in 610 to the accession of Leo III in 717: only Heraclius receives any substantial treatment (629c of Byzantine notices; 18% of all notices). Arab affairs (629c): this is the major component of the chronicle and comprises entries on each ruler from Muhammad until Yazid II (720-24), giving the length and events of their reigns and often some personal description.
The initial references to Visigothic kings are drawn from Isidore of Seville’s History of the Goths, but it can hardly be regarded as a continuation of Isidore since it concerns itself thereafter only with eastern rather than western rulers. One might instead see the work as a continuation of John of Biclar’s Chronicle, which, as a contribution to the universal chronicle tradition, had a more eastern focus than Isidore’s history and ended in the reign of Reccared, with whose death the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle o f 741 begins. Moreover, both place the Byzantine emperors in a numerical scheme that goes back to Augustus. But the almost total absence of Spanish material, which John of Biclar does include in some measure, makes impossible any strict alignment with the Spanish historiographical tradition.56

The second distinctive feature of the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle of 741 is its favourable attitude towards the Arab caliphs, and not only towards the more renowned ones such as Mu‘awiya and ‘Abd al-Malik. Thus, though noting that he had little success in war, it characterises Yazid I as:
A most pleasant man and deemed highly agreeable by all the peoples subject to his rule. He never, as is the wont of men, sought glory for himself because of his royal rank, but lived as a citizen along with all the common people (§28).57
The chronicler evidently relies upon a Near Eastern source, and this must have been composed in Syria, since the Umayyad caliphs are each described in a relatively positive vein, all reference to ‘Ali is omitted, Mu‘awiya II is presented as a legitimate and uncontested ruler (§29) and the rebel Yazid ibn al-Muhallab is labelled ‘a font of wickedness’ (§41). Another chronicle from eighth-century Spain, the Hispanic Chronicle of 75458 also makes use of this Syrian source, and a comparison between the two Latin texts makes clear that it must have dealt with both Arab and Byzantine rulers - though the latter much more briefly - and was more extensive than either of its transmitters, both of which abbreviate it, at times substantially. One would expect this Syrian source to have been in Greek, since that was the usual language of exchange between east and west, and there are a few parallels between it and Byzantine chronicles.59 Yet as regards Arab rulers, no Greek source displays such a positive attitude towards them as the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle of 741. Dubler suggested it was written by a Spanish convert to Islam, but no Muslim would portray the rise of Islam as a rebellion, and surely no convert would refrain from passing some comment upon his newly adopted faith. The Syrian source of the Latin texts reports many of the same events and halts at the same point (ca. 750) as the common source of Theophanes, Agapius and Dionysius of Telmahre, and it is tempting to postulate that the Spanish chroniclers are dependent on a Latin translation of this common source. However, there are very few textual parallels60 (though this could just be because the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle is heavily abbreviating his Syrian source) and Theophanes, Agapius and Dionysius have much material not found in the Spanish texts.

A brief comment is required concerning the date of the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle of 741. The concluding notice is as follows:
Then Yazid, king of the Saracens, his fourth year having unfolded, departed from this life, leaving the rule to his brother, Hisham by name; and he determined that after his brother the one bom of his (Yazid’s) own seed, named Walid, should rule (§43).
This takes us only to 724 and no later event is narrated, nor is the length of Hisham’s reign given.61 It is because the entry on Leo III’s accession (in 717) contains the remark ‘he took up the sceptre for 24 years’ (i.e. until 741 ) that the text is associated with the year 741. But this suggests that the chronicler had intended to proceed further. The notices on Arab affairs in the Hispanic Chronicle of 754 carry on in much the same vein until ca. 750, concluding with the accession to power of the Abbasids, and it is simpler to assume that the author is still relying on the same Syrian source rather than to posit some other Near Eastern source for the period 724-50. It may be, then, that we have the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle o f 741 in a curtailed form and that it too originally continued until ca. 750.62

56 See Diaz y Diaz, ‘La transmision textual del Biclarense', 66-67: Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, 1-10 (John of Biclar). 11-24 (Isidore of Seville), 25-42 (Chron Byz-Arab 741).

57 There is some parallel here with the short biographies of caliphs given by Muslim histories at the end of a ruler’s reign; e.g. Tabari, 2.1271 : ‘In the view of the people of Syria, Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik was the most excellent of their caliphs. He built mosques - the mosque of Damascus and the mosque of Medina - and set up pulpits, was bountiful to the people and gave to the lepers, telling them not to beg from the people. To every cripple he gave a servant and to every blind person a guide. During his rule extensive conquests were achieved: Musa ibn Nusayr conquered Andalus, Qutayba conquered Kashgar and Muhammad ibn al-Qasim conquered Hind.’

58 This chronicle is much more straightforward. It follows in the footsteps of John of Biclar. for the scope of both is Mediterranean-wide but with an Iberian focus, and both treat matters ecclesiastical and secular. The author, an Andalusian cleric, generally disparages the emirs of Spain and makes clear his antipathy towards the invaders: ‘Even if every limb were transformed into a tongue it would be beyond human nature to express the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils’ (§45). See Pereira, Crônicon mozarabe de 754; Barkai. Cristianos y musulmanes en la Espana medieval, 19-27; Collins. Arab Conquest of Spain, 57-65; Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, 28-45.

59 Parallels are indicated and sources discussed by Dubler. ‘La cionica arabigo-bizantina de 741, 298-333, who, however, exaggerates both the similarities with other chronicles and the number of sources that would be circulating in Byzantium and Spain in the seventh century. In the opinion of Nöldeke, ‘Epimetrum’, the Syrian source was composed in Greek by a Miaphysite of Syria. An additional argument in favour of a Greek intermediary is the similarity in the rendering of Arab names between the two Latin texts and a short chronology of AD 818 in Greek (Schoene, Eusebi chronicorum libri duo. Appendix IV).

60 As opposed to notices on the same subject; such textual parallels as do exist are presented in the translation below.

61 Collins. Arab Conquest of Spain. 55, infers that the text must date to 744 or that the final notice was added later, not realising that the accession of Walid II after Hisham (d. 743) was pre-arranged by Yazid II. Collins’ discussion of the text (53-57) is nevertheless very helpful.

62 Though the observation that ‘it is a descendant of the son of the latter (Marwan ibn al-Hakam) who holds their leadership up till now in our times’ (§31) suggests that the chronicler is writing while the Marwanids are still in power, unless the reference is to the fact that Spain was governed by a descendant of Marwan.


From a comparison of Theophanes, Dionysius and Agapius it becomes immediately apparent that their notices for the seventh and eighth century follow a chronological order. A few are misplaced, but the intention was clearly to progress through history from some point in the past up until the author’s own day. Yet it is also evident from the frequency with which Dionysius and Agapius either begin a notice with ‘at this time’ or else disagree with each other on dating that Theophilus’ work was not annalistic and was indeed rather sparing with dates.63This is an important point, for modem scholars often rely upon Theophanes for ascertaining the date of an event. But it is because he is writing an annalistic work that he puts notices under specific years, not necessarily because these notices were dated in the sources he is using. And in the case of the notices on eastern affairs, Theophanes often had to place them just where he thought best.

... Theophanes, Dionysius and Agapius are clearly dependent on a common source from the notice on Abu Bakr’s despatch of four generals in 634 onwards. Before this time Theophanes is able to obtain fairly full coverage from Byzantine sources and only occasionally has notices in common with Dionysius and Agapius.

... The last notice that Theophanes, Dionysius and Agapius would seem to have in common concerns the manoeuvres of the caliph Marwan against Sulayman ibn Hisham and Dahhak the Kharijite in 746. Thereafter Theophanes begins to adduce new material, and we can conclude that this point marks the commencement of the activity of the continuator of the ‘eastern source’. Agapius and the chronicler of 1234 correspond very closely in their narratives - to the extent that one could often pass for a translation of the other - from 744 to 750, then a little less so until 754-55.67 Both conclude with an account of the revolt of ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Ali, uncle of the first Abbasid caliph Abu l-‘Abbas, against the latter’s brother, Mansur, who defeated ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Ali with the help of his general Abu Muslim and became the second Abbasid caliph.

63 Theophilus may have proceeded by simply narrating events, arranging his entries in chronological order as far as possible and occasionally giving synchronisms after the fashion of Eusebius; e.g. ‘In the year 34/35/37 of the Arabs, 10/13 of Constans and 9 of ‘Uthman. Mu'awiya prepared a naval expedition against Constantinople’ (Theophanes. 345; Agapius. 483; Msyr 1l.XI, 430/445; Chron 1234, 274).

67 It is not impossible that Agapius is using Dionysius directly, or a transmitter/continuator of Dionysius, but he does state explicitly that he is citing the actual writings of Theophilus (see above).


There has been almost no study at all of what might have been the sources used by Theophilus. It is not an easy question to answer, since we have no direct clues and, as noted above, the period from 630 to the 750s is an obscure one in Eastern Christian historiography. Looking at the subject matter of the chronicle, we can see that there are three principal types of material: Byzantine (notices about Byzantine emperors and dealings with the Muslims from a Byzantine perspective, especially battle narratives), Muslim (notices about caliphs, military campaigns and civil wars) and disasters (plagues, earthquakes, famines, floods etc.) or signs in the sky (comets, eclipses etc.). Though no firm conclusions can be drawn as yet, it seems worthwhile advancing some tentative observations about this material in the hope that it will stimulate further research in this direction.

1. Byzantine material: the 'eastern source'?

There are frequent laments in modem scholarship about the lack of Byzantine writing on the Arab conquests, and yet Theophilus presents us with some quite lengthy and detailed notices on this subject: the battles with the Arabs (of the patrician Sergius; of Theodore, brother of Heraclius; and of the general Baanes), Heraclius’ farewell to Syria, the Arab conquest of Egypt, the Arab subjection of Syria and Mesopotamia, the Arab capture of Cyprus and Arwad, the naval battle of Phoenix, the failed rebellion of Shabur (supported by the Arabs) against Constans, the defeat of an Arab fleet in the 670s and successful Mardaite raids against the Arabs.75 One could assume that these battle narratives were a unit in themselves, an account of Arab-Byzantine clashes that ended on a positive note, a few Byzantine triumphs that held out hope for the future recovery of this Christian regime. Otherwise one might suppose that Theophilus received them already collated with all the rest of the Byzantine material, most obviously the notices on Byzantine emperors, and postulate that he had to hand a full Byzantine chronicle covering the period ca. 630-750s or ca. 590-750s.

I label these accounts Byzantine simply because they describe events involving Byzantine characters and would seem to take the Byzantine side rather than the Arab. Indeed, a number of the battle accounts were evidently selected because they constitute victories for the Byzantines (e.g. Phoenix, Shabur’s aborted revolt, the failed Arab naval advance on Constantinople and devastating Mardaite raids against the Arabs). Even with defeats, the tenor is pro-Byzantine; think, for example, of the image of the heroic patrician Sergius, who, having fallen off his horse, brushes aside offers of help from his soldiers, selflessly advising them rather to run and save themselves from the pursuing Arabs; or the loyal chamberlain Andrew who courageously stands his ground against the caliph Mu‘awiya and lectures him on the art of rule.76 Now the perspective of such narratives is rather at odds with Theophilus’ documentation of the third Arab civil war and the Abbasid revolution (743-54), where his interests would seem to lie almost wholly with the Muslim Arab government. It is entirely plausible, then, that Theophilus did have a Byzantine chronicle at his disposal, and that he simply supplemented it and brought it up to date with material drawn from the Muslim sphere. I would also venture to suggest that we should identify this Byzantine chronicle with the aforementioned ‘eastern source’ and so dissociate it from Theophilus, if only for the practical purpose of trying to identify the latter’s Byzantine source(s).77

Since Theophilus was highly accomplished at translating from Greek into Syriac, as noted above, it is tempting to assume that this ‘eastern source’ was in Greek, and there are some hints from Theophilus’ dependants that this might have been the case.78 But since Syriac was replete with Greek vocabulary and a high proportion of educated Syriac-speakers were competent in Greek, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that a Syriac text is definitely derived from Greek, especially if, as here, one no longer has the original Syriac text. Who might have been the author of this ‘eastern source’? He was without doubt a Chalcedonian, which would explain his pro-Byzantine leanings, but probably from the Levant rather than from a Byzantine-ruled region, for many of his notices, such as those about the sabotage of the Arab fleet in Tripoli and the encounter between Andrew and Shabur at the court of Mu‘awiya, even if pro-Byzantine, reveal a fair degree of familiarity with what was happening in Muslim-ruled lands. One possible candidate is the aforementioned George Syncellus. We know, from his own admission, that he was intending to write a world chronicle up to his own day, and it was only ill health that prevented him from completing it past the reign of Diocletian (285-305). Possibly the latter portion (305-813) was more complete than is usually supposed, even if still a little rough and not properly edited.79 We would then have to look for another continuator of the ‘eastern source’, since it is unlikely that a copy of George’s chronicle, halting at ca. 743, would have gone to Theophilus while another copy, which he extended to ca. 780, went to Theophanes.80 Another possible candidate for the authorship of the ‘eastern source’ is John son of Samuel, whom Dionysius describes as ‘of the western country’ (i.e. somewhere in the Levant, most likely the Mediterranean coastal region) and whom he places among those who wrote ‘narratives resembling ecclesiastical history’.81 This is the same category that Dionysius uses for Theophilus of Edessa, which both strengthens the argument (i.e. their styles are compatible) and weakens it (would not Dionysius have noticed if Theophilus was heavily reliant on John, though would he have said so if he did?)

A final matter that requires consideration is whether this ‘eastern source’ reached Theophanes, Dionysius and Agapius only via Theophilus of Edessa or by means of an intermediary. The former scenario seems most likely for Agapius and Dionysius, but it is possible that the ‘eastern source’ reached Theophanes independently, via someone who extended it until 780 (and translated it into Greek, if it was originally written in Syriac rather Aan in Greek). This and all questions to do with the authorship and nature of the ‘eastern source’ will, however, remain highly speculative until more work has been done on them, but it is interesting to observe that there was considerably more Byzantine history writing at this time than is usually allowed for.


75 For these narratives see the translation below under the years 634-36 (Sergius/Theodore/ Baanes). 636-40 (Heraclius’ farewell; capture of Egypt. Syria and Mesopotamia), 649-50 (Cyprus and Arwad), 654-55 (Phoenix), 666-67 (Shabur), ca. 672 (defeat of Arab fleet) and 677 (Mardaites).

76 See the relevant notices in the translation section below, under the years 634 and 666-67. Speck. Geteilte Dossier. 170. takes this as an indication that the 'eastern source’ was in Greek, which is possible (see next paragraph), but not cogent, for Syriac-speaking Chalcedonians of Palestine and Syria could also be expected to have held such a position, especially in the early decades of Muslim rule.

77 One could go so far as to make the ‘eastern source'/Byzantine chronicle the principal source and Theophilus no more than the author of an addition on the third Arab civil war/ Abbasid revolution, but Dionysius makes clear that Theophilus wrote a full chronicle and that it must have treated Christians as well as Muslims, since it contained what Dionysius considered to be pejorative remarks about Miaphysites (‘His presentation of all events involving one of our number is fraudulent': Palmer. VV5C. 92). Though one could argue that both chronicles were available separately to Theophanes. Dionysius and Agapius. it is easier to explain how these three authors record much the same events in much the same order if we think of one overall chronicle (nevertheless combining a number of different sources) that was available to all three of them, whether directly or indirectly, and that they supplemented with different materials.

78 E.g. Sergius’ characterisation of the eunuch Andrew as ‘neither man nor woman nor ’wd’t’rws (= Greek oudeteros)'. Heraclius’ Greek farewell to Syria/sosou Syria, and the pun in Emperor Constans’ dream about Thessalonica/thes allo nikën before the battle of Phoenix, though one could also argue that the Greek is there for literary effect. See also Speck. Geteilte Dossier, 52-53, 169-71, 185-87, 499-502 and 516-19, and n. 59 above, and notes 242. 261-63,272, 276, 342, 392, 402-3, 682 and Appendix 1 n. 17 in the translation below.

79 This is effectively the view of Speck, Geteilte Dossier, esp. 516-19, though he sees George’s work as a loose dossier rather than a complete text. Cf. Huxley, ‘Erudition’, esp. 216-17. Palmer, WSC. 95. notes that Dionysius includes a certain George of Ragtaya in his review of past chroniclers and suggests this could this be George Syncellus.

80 Though Speck does argue for this, postulating a second dossier.

81 I would myself prefer to identify Dionysius' John bar Samuel with John of Antioch, since Dionysius does seem to be presenting the key exponents of the various genres, and John of Antioch fulfilled such a position for the Christian world chronicle. Dionysius mentions a John of Antioch, but this almost certainly intends John Malalas. On these two figures see Treadgold, Early Byzantine Historians, 311-29, 235-56.

2. Muslim material

Comparison between Theophilus and the Syriac Chronicle of 819, written by a monk of Qartmin monastery in northern Mesopotamia, reveals a number of close textual correspondences in quite a few of the notices on Muslim affairs and natural phenomena (listed in Appendix 2 below). It is not totally impossible that the Chronicle of 819 was using Theophilus, but the two works have many notices that they do not share and they have a very different character,82 and so it is much more likely that they are independent of each other, but have a common source, and this is evidently a Syriac chronicle that went up to the 730s, the point at which they cease to have any shared notices. It has been argued that this common source is John of Litarb (d. 737),83 a stylite monk living in early eighth-century northern Syria. We still have the remnants of a lively correspondence that took place between John, Jacob, bishop of Edessa (d. 708), and George, bishop of the Arabs (d. 724), and he seems to have been a major Christian intellectual of early Islamic Syria.84 His spiritual master, Jacob of Edessa, wrote a Eusebian-style chronicle up to 692, and it is reported that John continued it up to the time of his own death.86 The only potential problem with this is that Dionysius remarks that ‘part of his (John of Litarb’s) book is conveyed (hmil) in this book (of mine)’,86 and so he would effectively be using John twice (directly and via Theophilus of Edessa), though this is not impossible.87

One important aspect of this common source of Theophilus and the Chronicle of 819 is that it draws our attention to how and in what form information about Muslim affairs circulated among Christians of the Near East. The items these two texts share (listed in Appendix 2 below) are particularly concerned with caliphs, and indeed it is the reigns and deeds of caliphs and their opponents that make up the bulk of the Muslim Arab material found in the various Christian chronological texts for the period ca. 630-750s. Should we think of one single ‘history of the caliphs' (a sort of Liber calipharum) on which all Christian chronicles relied or of a multiplicity of them?88 On the one hand the material in Christian chronicles does follow a fairly standard pattern and they share the same basic contents. Yet on the other hand each chronicle possesses details that are not in the others. For example, the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle of 741 and the Chronicle of 819 have very different notices on Walid I:

Walid succeeded to power, (taking up) the sceptre of rule of the Saracens in accordance with what his father had arranged. He reigned for 9 years. (He was) a man of great prudence in arranging his armies to the extent that, though destitute of divine favour, he crushed the strength of almost all the neighbouring peoples adjoining him. He debilitated Byzantium in particular with constant raiding, brought the islands to the point of destruction and tamed the land of India by raids. In the western regions, through a general of his army by the name of Musa, he attacked and conquered the kingdom of the Goths established in Spain with ancient solidity, and having cast out their rule he imposed tribute. So, waging all things successfully, he (Walid) gave an end to his life in the ninth year of his rule, having already seen the riches of all the peoples displayed to him. (Chron Byz-Arab 741, §36)

A devious man, who increased the exactions and hardships more than all his predecessors; he completely wiped out robbers and bandits; and he built a city and called it ‘Ayn Gara. (Chron 819, 14)
A recent article by Sean Anthony examined the account of the assassination of ‘Umar I in Theophanes, Agapius and Dionysius and compared it with a number of Muslim depictions of this event, concluding that the latter served as the basis for the former.89 Because Anthony just takes the one incident and does not deal with these texts as a whole, he assumed that it was Dionysius who inserted the Muslim material, since Theophanes and Agapius had much shorter notices. However, the latter two authors very commonly abbreviate Theophilus and there are enough similarities between their and Dionysius’ account (see the translation below, under the year 644) to make it clear that all three are using, whether directly or indirectly, a common source. But was this common source Theophilus or an author that he was drawing upon; to put it another way, was Theophilus responsible for incorporating the Muslim material in his work or was he reliant upon a chronicle that had already done this work for him?90 Since he worked as an astrologer at the Abbasid court, it is very likely that he spoke and read Arabic and he would have been in a good position to procure Arabic books. It is certainly plausible, then, that we should regard him as the one who made all of this material on the Muslim regime available to later chroniclers.

At this point, however, one should note that there are two quite distinct types of Muslim material in Theophilus: the fairly short and simple notices on individual caliphs up to and including Hisham (724-43), which are pithy and unconnected, and the very full and detailed account of events from 743-54, which is presented as a continuous narrative and includes causal explanations. The former could travel orally and so, though they might derive ultimately from a Muslim source, could be picked up by a Christian writer who was not intimately familiar with Muslim affairs or writings. The latter presume deep acquaintance with Muslim politics and very likely with Muslim historical texts.91 When Theophilus says, in the words of Agapius cited above, that ‘I was myself a constant witness of these wars’, one assumes that it is to the events of 743-54 that he is referring, and it is this section that I would almost certainly attribute to Theophilus’ own hand. How much of the earlier Muslim material, on the succession of the caliphs, he put together and how much he simply took over from an earlier author is a question that cannot at present be answered.

82 The Chronicle of 819 principally presents the history of the monastery of Qartmin. drawn from the latter's archives, and then mostly brief notices on local church affairs, natural disasters / phenomena, and the Muslim caliphs. See further Palmer, WSC, 75-84, and Palmer, ‘Chroniques brèves’. Brooks. ‘Sources of Theophanes', was the first to draw attention to this common source.

83 Palmer, ‘Chroniques brèves', 70 and 79.

84 We have sixteen letters of Jacob to John (see my Seeing Islam, 741) and four letters of George to John (Wright, Catalogue, 2.988: on George see Tannous, Between Christology and Kalam).

85 Msyr 10.XX, 378/358: ‘Others charted the succession of the years, namely Jacob of Edessa and John of Litarb'.

86 Msyr 1 l.XX, 461/500, unless Michael himself is speaking here.

87 If we want to assume that Dionysius' list of chroniclers in his introduction is a pretty comprehensive guide, then John son of Samuel is still an unknown and we could select him as our candidate for this common source (and not identify him with John of Antioch, as I suggested above), but of course the very fact that he is an unknown means that this does not advance our knowledge very much.

88 Note that Elias of Nisibis cites two anonymous sources on Muslim history: a "chronicle of the kings of the Arabs' and a "chronicle of the Arabs' (Borrut, "La circulation de l' information historique'. 145): unless both titles refer to the same source.

89 ‘The Syriac account of Dionysius of Tel-Mahre on the assassination of "Umar ibn al-Khattab.'

90 Could, for example, the ‘eastern source’ have included Muslim as well as Byzantine material? In this case Theophilus would have done no more than add material on the third Arab civil war and the Abbasid revolution to a very full chronicle that covered Muslim and Byzantine politics up to ca. 743.

91 See the example I give in n. 876 in the translation section below, on the massacre of the Umayyads, where there is almost word-for-word equivalence with the account of the Muslim historian Ya‘qubi.


One reasonably sure conclusion that could be inferred from the above discussion is, first, that a lot more historical material was circulating between the Muslim and Christian communities than is usually assumed92 and, secondly, that there was already a fairly advanced tradition of Muslim history-writing by the mid-eighth century. We get a hint of the former point from one of our earliest Christian caliphal histories (composed ca. 724—25), which is little more than a list of caliphs and their time in office, but which would appear, from its use of the lunar calendar93 (Yazid II died in AH 104-05) and of Arabic technical terms (rasull‘messenger’ and fitnal'civil war’), to derive from an Arabic original:
A notice of the life of Mhmt the messenger (r...ä)94 of God, after he had entered his city and three months before he entered it, from his first year; and how long each king lived who arose after him over the Muslims once they had taken power; and how long there was dissension (ptnâ)95 among them.
  • Three months before Mhmd came.96
  • And Mhmd lived ten years (more).
  • And Abu Bakr son of Abu Quhafa: 2 years and 6 months.
  • And ‘Umar son of Kattab: 10 years and 3 months.
  • And ‘Uthman son of ‘Affan: 12 years.
  • And dissension after ‘Uthman: 5 years and 4 months.
  • And Ma‘wiyä son of Abu Syfan: 19 years and 2 months.
  • And Yazid son of Ma‘wiya: 3 years and 8 months.
  • And dissension after Yazid: 9 months.
  • And Marwan son of Hakam: 9 months.
  • And ‘Abd al-Malik son of Marwan: 21 years and 1 month.
  • Walid bar ‘Abd al-Malik: 9 years and 8 months.
  • And Sulayman son of ‘Abd al-Malik: 2 years and 9 months.
  • And ‘Umar son of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz: 2 years and 5 months.
  • And Yazid son of ‘Abd al-Malik: 4 years and 1 month and 2 days.
The total of all these years is 104, and 5 months and 2 days. (Chron 724,155)
What can we say about the second conclusion, namely that there was already a fairly advanced tradition of Muslim history-writing by the mid-eighth century? At this time we can observe two different styles: compilations of anecdotes on a particular topic, such as ‘The Campaigns of the Prophet’, ‘The Battle of Siffin’, ‘The Murder of Hujr ibn ‘Adi’ and ‘The Life of Mu‘aw iya'97 and year-by-year lists of holders of high office and notable events.98 Gradually these two genres began to influence each other. There was an increasing emphasis on giving some chronological order to narratives of early Islam;99 conversely and coincidentally, there was a move to flesh out lists compiled from government records that had been kept since probably the reign of Mu‘awiya (661-80),100 and that could include caliphs, governors, judges, leaders of the pilgrimage, commanders of the summer and winter campaigns into Byzantine territory, and so on.101 Names of those who had fallen in battle may also have been inscribed since they had a bearing upon the distribution of stipends.102 Then, in the early ninth century, we begin to get our first chronicles (ta'rikh ‘alä l-sinin): those of al-Haytham ibn ‘Adi (d. 822) and Abu Hassan al-Ziyadi (d. 857), and, our first extant example, that of Khalifa ibn Khayyat (d. 854).103 In these, and especially in the ‘History of the Prophets and Kings’ of Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923), we see a full marriage between historical narratives and official annals.104

It is not impossible that Muslim historians hit upon using an annalistic style of presentation independently,105 but since the technique has a considerable pedigree in the Middle East, it is worth examining the possibility of borrowing from the other cultures existing in the region. There is no firm evidence of Iranian authors producing annalistic writings;106 neither did Nestorians until Elias of Nisibis (d. 1050).107 Annalistic techniques were, of course, deployed by writers in the Greco-Roman tradition as far back as Thucydides, who was himself probably confirming the practice of individual cities before him. Any direct influence upon the Arabic tradition seems unlikely, however, given the conspicuous absence of Arabic translations of Byzantine historical works.108 Moreover, the Eusebian tradition of chronography in Greek appears to have faltered after the efforts of Panadorus and Anianus in the fifth century,109 and Greek historical writing as a whole sank into the doldrums with the onset of Arab rule, as noted above. On its re-emergence in the late eighth and early ninth century, it does evince an interest in precise chronological narrative, as is exemplified by the chronicle of Theophanes, but an indebtedness to some Syriac or Arabic model is readily apparent.110

West Syrian history-writing, on the other hand, suffered far less disruption.111 The royal annals of Edessa inspired a subsequent episcopal tradition of annalistic record-keeping, of which we find extracts in chronological works of the mid-sixth and mid-seventh century.112 At monasteries such as Qenneshre and Qartmin in northern Mesopotamia, the tradition was continued until the time of Dionysius of Telmahre, who gave it new vigour.113 After the fashion of Eusebius, ‘other men charted the succession of years, namely Jacob of Edessa and John the stylite of Litarb’, as noted above. Language constituted no barrier to exchange between Syrian and Arab cultures. Many Arabs, Muslim as well as Christian, knew Syriac, and West Syrian Christians made use of Arabic very early on as a language of scholarship.114 So if one were to posit extraneous rather than indigenous origins for the annalistic form in Muslim historiography, then it is to the West Syrian historical tradition that one should look.

It is worth emphasising, in conclusion, that the lines between Christian and Muslim were not drawn so rigidly as often tends to be assumed, either in terms of definitions or in terms of social relations. It is true that Christians living in the Byzantine realm were to a large degree insulated from contact with Muslims, but for those living under the latter's rule it was a different story. The claim of the Mesopotamian monk John bar Penkaye that ‘there was no distinction between pagan and Christian, the believer was not known from a Jew’ may be exaggerated,115 but it is nevertheless instructive. The initial indifference of the Muslims to divisions among the peoples whom they conquered, when compounded with the flight and enslavement of an appreciable proportion of the population and with the elimination of internal borders across a huge area extending from north-west Africa to India, meant that there was considerable human interaction across social, ethnic and religious lines. This was especially true for those who sought employment in the bustling cosmopolitan garrison cities of the new rulers, where one was exposed to contact with men of very diverse origin, creed and status. In addition, there were the widespread phenomena of conversion and apostasy, of inter-confessional marriage and festival attendance, of commercial contacts and public debate, all of which served to break down sectarian barriers.

An excellent illustration of this point is the author of the chronicle that I translate in this volume, Theophilus of Edessa. He began his life in Edessa, the key city of Syriac Christianity, yet ended up in Baghdad, the heart of the early Abbasid Empire. He advised Muslim caliphs on astrological affairs and his scientific writings were appreciated by later Muslim astrologers, but excerpts from them also entered into a Byzantine astrological corpus. He translated works of Galen and Homer into Syriac, but seemed also to be comfortable with writing a history of Muslim caliphs and rebels in the Near East. Theophilus cannot, therefore, be viewed as simply a Christian who writes under Muslim rule; he is evidently a highly educated man, still influenced by the traditions of Antiquity as well as cognisant with the culture of his employers.

None of this is to say that religious affiliation did not count for a great deal; it obviously did. But it did not exert, in some predictable fashion, an all-encompassing power to direct patterns of social relations in such a way as to prevent external influence or positive response to that influence. Religious specialists of the various confessions in the Near East might well have wished that this were the case, but the region was and remained too diverse in terms of culture, ethnicity, history, language and so on for that ever to happen.

92 For some interesting thoughts along these lines see Conrad, ‘The Mawâli. See also Figure 1 below

93 The total given at the end of the list, 104 years and 5 months and 2 days, only works if one counts in lunar years: Yazid II died in AH 104-5/724, but 104 solar years would take one into AD 727.

94 A later hand has tried to erase this word, which is clearly meant to be Arabic rasüll messenger’.

95 This represents the Arabic word fitna. which denotes civil discord.

96 The ‘three months before Mhmt came’ presumably refers to the interval between the beginning of the Islamic calendar on 16 July 622 and the date of Muhammad’s arrival in Medina on 24 September 622. See Tabari, 1.1255-56, where it is explained that though Muhammad’s emigration to Medina is the starting point of Muslim chronology, the fact that he made it in the third month of the year means that ‘year 1 ’ begins 2 1/2 months earlier.

97 These and other examples are given in Faruqi, Early Muslim Historiography, 214-302. Compare the extant work on the ‘Battle of Siftin' by Nasr ibn Muzahim al-Minqari (d. 828). Moreover, Mourad, ‘Al-Azdi’, has recently shown that the ‘Conquest of Syria' by Abu Mikhnaf al-Azdi (d. 774) substantially survives in the work of its later redactors, such as Abu Isma‘il al-Azdi (d. ca. 820). See also Elad, ‘Beginnings of Historical Writing'; Borrut. Entre Mémoire et Pouvoir.

98 The earliest that we can discern is by Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 742), who served the Umayyad regime in various departments of their administration. On him see Duri. Historical Writing, 95-121, and see 115-16 for his list of the reigns of the caliphs.

99 Jones, ‘The Chronology of the Maghâzi (that is, of the campaigns of the prophet Muhammad).

100 Papyri, inscriptions and coins suggest that an effective Umayyad administration was in place at a very early date; see Donner, ‘The Formation of the Islamic State'.

101 Rotter, ‘Abu Zur‘a al-Dimashqi’; Schacht. Origins, 100 (on the early provenance of Kindi's lists).

102 See Tabari, 1.2496 (on ‘irafat). Sellheim (‘Prophet, Chalif und Geschichte', 73-77) and Schacht (‘Müsä ibn ‘Uqba’, 288-300) have discerned name-lists as a discrete element in Muhammad's biography.

103 Duri, Historical Writing, 53-54 (Haytham); Sezgin, GAS, 316 (Abu Hassan); Schacht in Arabica 16 (1969), 79f. (Ibn Khayyat).

104 That is, between akhbär and ta'rikh: see further Crone, Slaves, introduction. On early Islamic historiography in general see Donner, Narratives: Robinson, Islamic Historiography: Howard-Johnston, Witnesses, 354-94.

105 It could, for example, originate in pre-Islamic practice; cf. Tabari. 1.1254: ‘When they dated an event, they did so from the like of a drought which occurred in some part of their country, a barren year which befell them, the term of a governor who ruled over them, or an event the news of which became widespread among them' The cataclysmic nature of the hijra could have served to halt the constant revision of termini a quo by furnishing the ultimate point de repère.

106 Spuler, ‘The Evolution of Persian Historiography’, 126-32; Christensen, L'lran sous les Sassanides, 59ff. But see Morony, Iraq after the Muslim Conquest, 564-65 (’Sasanian royal annals’).

107 Nestorians seem to have favoured a biographical arrangement of material; cf. the anonymous Chronicle of Khuzistan and the Chronicle of Siirt (see bibliography).

108 Steinschneider. Die arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen, fails to signal any.

109 The Chronicon Paschale. which goes up to 630, is obsessed with chronological computations. even coming up with its own system, but does not seem to have enjoyed wide circulation or influence.

110 Mango, ‘The Tradition of Byzantine Chronography’. 363-69.

111 Both the Chronicle of 819 and the Chronicle of Zuqnin have a gap for the years AG 976-88/664-77 (Palmer, WSC. 59 and 77), but a number of notices on natural phenomena shared by Theophanes, 353-55. and Msyr 11 .XIII. 436/456-57, show that there was still some activity.

112 Debié. ‘Record Keeping and Chronicle Writing in Antioch and Edessa’.

113 For example, the work of earlier authors is clear in the Chronicle of 819 (Palmer. ‘Chroniques brèves’, and Brooks. ‘Sources of Theophanes and Syriac Chroniclers’).

114 Griffith. ‘Stephen of Ramla and the Christian Kerygma in Arabic in Ninth Century Palestine’. For a later example of such sharing of historical ideas see Borrut, ‘La circulation de l’information historique’.

115 John bar Penkaye, 151/179. I expand upon this point in the first two chapters of my Seeing Islam.