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5.0 out of 5 stars A Long-Needed Account of the Century That Changed the World, 3 Sep 2013
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This review is from: The War of the Three Gods: Romans, Persians and the Rise of Islam (Hardcover)
At the close of the 6th century the west was still dominated by the two superpowers of Rome and Persia. Rome may not have been as mighty as it once was, but it still occupied most of the Mediterranean and occupied the Middle East into part of Mesopotamia. By the end of the 7th century Persia was gone, Rome was reduced to a much-harried portion of Asia Minor, and the Islamic state controlled Iran, the entirety of the Middle East, North Africa, and was preparing to invade Spain. The entire world order had changed. Yet it has rarely been discussed (at least in English). Certainly not from the perspective of the original inhabitants.

This book has set out to change that. It can be divided into two broad parts. First, it covers the final wars between Rome and Persia. The ones that left both open to invasion. Secondly, it explores the rise of Islam and the crippling defeats of both Rome and Persia. Despite the greater drama of this second set of wars Crawford does not scrimp on his accounts of the Romano-Persian ones. I have read books on both of these topics (I include a list below) but I have never seen them together before. This book takes the broad view that is often missing in discussions of the 7th century. Due to the scattered and limited nature of the sources much attention in scholarship is given to resolving details or examining one aspect of these changes. Only recently have the multiple disciplines (Byzantinists, linguists, and Arabists) started combining their material.

This book offers a basic military description of all these events. It does so with clarity and a series of very helpful maps and photographs. There are 44 maps alone, all illustrating different battles or stages within a battle. Sometimes these diagrams can make clear actions that are hard to understand without visuals. I don't agree with everything the author says by any means (particularly concerning army sizes), but I understand why he came to the conclusions he did. I have few comments to make since I believe this author did his job well and unobtrusively. The fact that he manages to combine sources from Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, and Iranian accounts into a coherent whole that (while focused mainly on the Romans) is thorough in its description of all participants is an achievement worthy of praise. If you want to read a book on this period then this is the one to choose. If you're more interested in a religious or social history then you'll have to try searching through the specialist literature.

As promised I include here a list of books that I've found helpful previously when dealing with this period. The Great Arab Conquests deals with (as might be expected) the Arab Conquest. This book outlines the course that these conquests took. Kennedy is somewhat suspicious of the details included in Arabic sources, so this book can often be vague in hopes of recording fewer inaccuracies. It is focused very much on the Arab side of things with little mention of Roman or Persian accounts. Similarly focused is The Sword of Allah, a military biography of Khalid Bin Al-Waleed famous throughout the Islamic world. I found this one suspiciously positive about very questionable accounts, but I can't deny that it provides a good overview of Khalid's campaigns.

On the Roman side there remains no single book that covers these events. However, Walter Kaegi has written several that when combined cover the period. Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium is a biography of Heraclius that covers his Persian and Arab wars. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests covers the Islamic conquest of Syria. Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa covers the Islamic conquest of North Africa. Kaegi is an expert on the period, but his works are difficult to read and poorly edited. He remains the best source for information on the Persian or early Islamic wars from a Roman perspective, although John Haldon's Byzantium in the Seventh Century offers a good overview. The Persians have less data to go on given the sources. Nonetheless, The Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire gives a gallant try at it. There is much more here than simply a history of the fall of the Persian Empire. It tries very hard to demonstrate that the Parthian families were a major power behind the Sassanian throne. It's not an easy book for the beginner (and that's pretty much all there is in English), but it is well worth the read.

There is another book that came out recently called In The Shadow of the Sword. It covers basically the same period as this one, but is focused primarily on the different religions and cultures. I rather feel that the titles of that book is more apt for this one and vice versa. At any rate, it may offer a basic look at the three different cultures but it spends surprisingly little time on the campaigns.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Sep 2013 12:22:13 BDT
At the end of the 7nth century the roman empire was still dominant in the west. It was redused in the east by losing it's provinces of syria, messopotamia, judea, arabia and also rome lost north africa and britain but still italy, gaul, spain (it was conquered after 714 ad) asia minor, greece were still nominal parts of the empire. (Even charlemagne in the 8th century acted as a viceroy of irene in the west and in 800 AD he was crowned emperor of the west and tried to unite east and west by marrying irene)
All in all the roman empire in the 7nth and in the 8th centuries not only was not vanished like persia did but it was still a dominant force in mediterrenean and in europe only now it had a serious rival. the islamic empire which wrested from rome the eastern provinces beyond asia minor, the whole north africa region and spain in the 8th century.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Sep 2013 13:31:48 BDT
Arch Stanton says:
No, Rome may have been able to maintain some of its conquests in Italy (you're right that that a few Spanish cities still claimed allegiance to Constantinople but their actual influence there was negligible), but occupying a small part of a country does not make it the dominant force there. In Italy they were able to influence the Pope since they controlled Rome, but most of Italy had passed into Lombard hands. Greece was mostly dominated by the Slavs and Asia Minor was undergoing constant raids by Arab forces that the emperors were utterly incapable of stopping. Byzantine power was largely confined to western Asia Minor and even there their powers were limited. That's maybe a fifth the size they had been at the beginning of the century, and even over this their grip was less firm. You're quoting their ideological size while I'm dealing with their actual size.

The dominant force in the Mediterranean they certainly weren't. This position had passed to the Arabs who now controlled all of North Africa and several of the islands and could defeat any navy the Byzantines sent to stop them. The Byzantines remained the most powerful and influential state in Europe, even though their control of it was limited. The Franks, Lombards, and Visigoths weren't exactly leaping up to do their bidding and if the Byzantines disagreed with their actions there wasn't much they could do about it. Their ability to exert their power on the west through force was essentially nil. The main reason that they kept their importance was their history and tradition. Ideologically the Romans were the fount of all law and religious practices. There was some confusion about whether Rome the city or Rome the nation took priority, but that didn't change the fact that the Byzantines were respected and in many ways treated as the ideal state. Charlemagne is the perfect example of that respect since he tried to reestablish the Roman Empire to gain the moral force to rule Europe. But to be a leading force through cultural superiority and perceived position does not require actual strength. The Byzantines barely survived the 7th century and they would struggle just as hard during the 8th until they were able to rise again in the 9th.
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