Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Desert Bishop and the Saracen Queen ~ The Roman-Arab War of AD 371

Christian bishops, emperors and saints as portrayed in an 11th century fresco
in the Monastery of Mar Musa in Syria. 
February 7 is the feast day of Saint Moses, bishop of Arabia. Not to be confused with Saint Moses the Black who was his near contemporary, this Moses was a desert hermit of the late-Fourth century AD who is mentioned by several of the ancient Christian Roman historians including Rufinus, Socrates and Sozomen, in connection with Mavia, warrior-queen of the Arabs.

Following the death of her husband the king, Mavia made war on the Roman Empire, invading Phonecia and Palestine around the year AD 371. The Magister Militum of the East—possibly Julius, who would be memorialized by Ammianus Marcellinus for having all of the Gothic troops in the eastern provinces treacherously killed after the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378—at first, considered this incursion to be a minor one that would be easily dealt with. Sozomen describes what happened next:
This war was by no means a contemptible one, although conducted by a woman. The Romans, it is said, considered it so arduous and so perilous, that the general of the Phœnician troops applied for assistance to the general of the cavalry and infantry of the East. This latter ridiculed the summons and undertook to give battle alone. He accordingly attacked Mavia, who commanded her own troops in person, and he met with so signal a defeat, that it was with difficulty he saved his life.
This rescue was solely effected by the intervention of the general of the troops of Palestine and Phœnicia. Perceiving the extremity of the danger, this general deemed it unnecessary to obey the orders he had received to keep aloof from the combat. He therefore rushed upon the barbarians and then, while retreating, discharged volleys of arrows upon them, in order to enable the Romans to make good their escape. This occurrence is still held in remembrance among the people of the country and is celebrated in songs by the Saracens.
Following this battle, the Romans made peace overtures to Mavia. She, however, had one very specific demand in mind which may indicate why she went on the warpath to begin with. It is here that our Saint Moses makes his appearance. Sozomen continues:
As the war was still pursued with vigor, the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man named Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighboring desert, as bishop over her subjects. This Moses was a man of virtuous life and capable of performing the most wonderful miracles. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses and conduct him to Lucius.
For the record, the Lucius mentioned here was the Arian Patriarch of Alexandria. During the reign of the eastern emperor Valens, Arianism was in the ascendancy while orthodoxy was actively suppressed and persecuted. As an orthodox monk, Moses wanted no dealings with Lucius, least of all to be consecrated bishop by him. Sozomen describes the scene as follows:
The monk exclaimed, in the presence of the rulers and the assembled people, “I am not worthy of the honor of bearing the name of bishop. But if, notwithstanding my unworthiness, God destines me to this office, I take him to witness who created the heavens and the earth, that I will not be ordained by the imposition of the hands of Lucius, which are defiled with the blood of the saints.”

Lucius immediately rejoined, “If you are unacquainted with the nature of my creed, you do wrong in judging me before you are in possession of all the circumstances of the case. If you have been prejudiced by the calumnies that have been circulated against me, at least allow me to declare to you what are my sentiments, and do you be the judge of them.”

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“Your creed is already well known to me,” replied Moses, “and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.”

Having again protested, upon oath that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.
Sozomen then proceeds to give a brief history of the Arabs drawn largely from the Old Testament accounts of their origins. Given that Sozomen himself was a native of Bethelia, a small town near Gaza, it is likely that he had personal interactions with local Arabs which helped to inform this passage. He completes his account of Saracen history with their acceptance of Christianity near his own time, likely drawn from his own knowledge as this tale does not appear among other contemporary historians:
Some of the Saracens were converted to Christianity not long before the accession of Valens. Their conversion appears to have been the result of their intercourse with the priests who dwelt among them and with the monks who dwelt in the neighboring deserts and who were distinguished by their purity of life and by their miraculous gifts. It is said that a whole tribe and Zocomus their chief, were converted to Christianity and baptized about this period, under the following circumstances: 
Zocomus was childless and went to a certain monk of great celebrity to complain to him of this calamity, for among the Saracens and, I believe, other barbarian nations, it was accounted of great importance to have children. The monk desired Zocomus to be of good cheer, engaged in prayer on his behalf, and sent him away with the promise that if he would believe in Christ, he would have a son. When this promise was accomplished by God and when a son was born to him, Zocomus was baptized and all his subjects with him. From that period this tribe was peculiarly fortunate and became strong in point of number, and formidable to the Persians as well as to the other Saracens.
The above excerpts are all taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 38.

It seems that after the conclusion of Mavia’s war, a contingent of Saracen troops was recruited into the Roman army and accompanied the emperor Valens while he was in Antioch. This contingent would render signal service during the Gothic raid into Thrace preceding the Battle of Adrianople. The pagan historian Zosimus, writing in the early 6th century AD, describes how these Saracens stymied and terrified the Goths:
As the fleetness of their horses, and the force of their spears, caused the Scythians [that is, Goths] to suppose it difficult to overcome these Saracens, they attempted to circumvent them by stratagem. They planted in several places ambuscades of three Scythians to one Saracen; but their design was rendered abortive, as the Saracens by means of the swiftness of their horses could easily escape whenever they perceived any considerable number approaching. The Saracens with their spears committed such ravage among the Scythians, that at length despairing of success, they preferred passing the Ister and surrendering themselves to the Huns, than being destroyed by the Saracens. [Zosimus, New History, Book 4]

1 comment:

Catholic Legal Beagle said...

Fascinating account- I had never heard of this War before. Thanks for sharing!