TOP 100 REVIEWERon 8 September 2013
This rather massive book is a rather exceptional piece of scholarship and a monument. It certainly is, as another reviewer has mentioned, a "lesson in source analysis", but it is also much more than that. Essentially, and through this 500 pages-plus book, James Howard-Johnston has accomplished a rather herculean work associating data mining, comparison and analysis, systematically extracting each event mentioned in each written sources about the Seventh (the "witnesses" of his title), comparing the narratives, making sense of each episode.
With all these bits and pieces in hand, it has then attempted to reconstruct the whole sequence of events from the usurpation of Phocas in 602 to the end of the siege of Constantinople in 718 or from the end of the East Roman Empire and Late Antiquity to the emergence of Byzantium and the "New World Order" characterized by the domination of Islam and of the Caliphate.
One reviewer has found the book "verbose". There are indeed quite a few repetitions, but these are quite intentional and never boring (or, perhaps to be accurate, I was neither bored nor annoyed by them!). Essentially, the author recapitulates his previous findings and conclusions each time he adds another stone to the edifice and shows how this new stone fits in with the existing ones. At times, the book, despite being very scholarly, reads like a detective story, or even a treasure hunt. It is true, however, that you need to have more than a passing interest in the last Great War between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia and in the rise of Islam and its early Conquests to appreciate fully this "monument". The rather ludicrous price of the hardcover cover may also be a significant deterrent, unfortunately, although I understand that a paperback version of this exceptional book may be printed.
The same reviewer has found the book "a little biased", or even speculative, at times. I did not have the same impression, quite the opposite in fact, and I found such statements rather unfair, although explainable. Howard-Johnston, however meticulous and rigorous he happens to be when analysing all of the sources, whether Christian and Islamic, is clearly at times making a case and coming up with assumptions, lots of them in fact. These may be disputed and questionable, and I have little doubt that they will be by a number of fellow academics who will disagree with his assumptions, especially when they contradict theirs. The main point, however, is whether the author's multiple but carefully argued assumptions are plausible and credible, or not. I found that they mostly were and was rather fascinated by the cases be built.
One of the issues that he addresses is the vexed question of determining to what extent Islamic sources can be trusted, given their obvious religious overtones. This is why he starts his analysis with the Christian, or rather more correctly the non-Islamic sources, whether Byzantine, Armenian, Coptic, And Syrian or even Sassanid, identifying, in the latter case, bits of previous works which have been recycled and subsumed in more recent Christian or Islamic works. Contrary to a number of other historians, those he calls "the sceptics", he demonstrates that these Islamic sources can mostly be trusted, provided they are carefully handled. In fact, he only identifies four instances, although rather significant ones, where he believes that a "religious truth" has replaced what he terms a "historical truth". In other words, there are four cases where historical events have been manipulated. Two of these relate, for instance, to the two early "fitna" periods - the civil wars between Moslems, one for each.
Another fascinating set of issues that Howard-Johnston examines is how the Byzantine sources have also tampered, and perhaps as much if not more, with events. In other terms, and by analysing the authors, the context they were written in and the sources that they themselves had at their disposal, the author has managed to identify and confirm, for instance, to what extent the reign of Phocas has been blackened, with this Emperor being largely made into a convenient scape goat by the regime of his successor. Far from improving the situation, the coup and take-over of the embattled Empire by Heraclius and his family was initially rather disastrous. The new Emperor was defeated. There was civil war, and the Persians got through the Empire's fortifications, occupied Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt and advanced west across Asia Minor. There are quite a few other similar examples across the book.
A third set of questions is to determine how and why the two mighty super-powers of the time, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian one, could be overwhelmed so quickly. This is another area where the author's contribution is exceptionally valuable.
He first tends to downplay the traditional explanation - the two Empire were exhausted after more than a quarter of a century of warfare, and therefore weakened to such an extent that they were unable to face the unexpected and additional onslaught. He also shows that, weakened or not, both put up rather more than a fight than what is generally recognized. This was true of the Romans, despite their frontier being more vulnerable to attacks from the desert. It was even truer of the Persians, supposedly weakened by their defeat, and who managed to defeat the Arabs in the field and push them out of Mesopotamia, forcing them into a general mobilization that allowed them to overwhelm the Persians in battle. Moreover, and even after the last victory in battle against the Persians at Nihawand in 642, it took almost another decade to finally subdue them and kill the last Sassanid king. As for the Romans, and after three successive and increasingly important defeats in the field, Heraclius made the strategic choice to retreat and to pull back what was left of his troops behind the natural protection offered by the Taurus after 636.
According to the author, two of the main factors of the Arab victories and Islamic conquests were the extraordinary strength that their religious beliefs gave them and the administrative knowledge and government capabilities that they inherited from the ruling elite of Mecca. There is certainly more than an element of truth in each statement, and the first successors of the Prophet were clearly outstanding individuals capable of coordinating multiple armies over huge areas. The religious element seems to have also played out in rather unexpected ways, with some Christian subjects of the Roman Empire, such as the patriarch of Alexandria or that of Jerusalem, ready to surrender rather quickly and believing, probably sincerely, that the Arab onslaught was the work of God and that it was therefore hopeless to attempt to oppose it.
A fourth set of issues is also discussed and these are about explaining how the Empire survived despite the odds, and even in a diminished form, to become the medieval Byzantine Empire. This part, which the author calls the battle for the Mediterranean, is also fascinating to the extent that it shows that the Arab caliphs did not have it all their way. The Empire did "strike back" under the reigns of both Constans II (641-668) and Constantine IV (668-685), making especially good use of its naval supremacy. It is during their reign, and especially during the five year breathing space that the first civil war between Muslims gave the Romans that the Empire started to be reorganized into themes and put on a war footing, according to the author.
However, even if the capital itself did survive all major assault and major defeats were inflicted to the Caliphate armies, the Empire lost Africa in the process, leading the author to state that by the beginning of the eight century, Byzantium had become a bulwark resisting against the Islamic tide but no longer a superpower, and not recognized as such. This is one of the rare areas where the author may be going a bit too far. He does however have a convincing case to make with Africa, the Empire's second breadbasket, lost forever, Italy overrun by the Lombard and subject to increasing naval attacks from Africa and the Balkans mostly lost to the Slavs and Bulgars. This is when Asia Minor became per force the heartland of the truncated Empire and even in the Tenth and the early part of the Eleventh Century, during which there was a period of revival in the Empire's fortunes (the so-called "Byzantine Reconquista"), this owed as much to the fragmentation of the Caliphate as it did to the Empire's own efforts.
One element of contention perhaps is the author's belief that the Byzantine authorities somehow recognized and admitted that the universal Empire could not be revived. This seems to be contradicted by the Imperial Ideology inherited from the Roman Empire and the persisting belief, however far-fetched, that, one day, even in a distant future, the Empire would prevail because it was under God's protection.
Despite this relatively minor point (and a couple of others that I did not mention), this monumental book is likely to become the major reference that it deserves to be. It is easily worth five stars and I would have given it many, many more if this had been possible.