Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Islam's great gap -- 700 to 900 AD -- and the destruction of Roman civilization. Was North African piracy the revenge of Carthage?
Thanks to Byzantium we have some idea of what happened in Europe during the "dark" ages. It is a common misconception that the sacking of Rome by barbarian tribes ended the Roman empire. It did not. Roman civilization had become decentralized by then -- which is part of the reason why Rome was too weak to defend itself effectively. So the other great cities of the Roman world continued on much as before, as most of them had already made their peace with the German barbarians. And the German barbarians in turn had by that time also absorbed a fair amount of civilization. So the sack of Rome was in some ways just an internal re-organization.
So Roman civilization did decline but it did not suddenly cease. And after a couple of centuries the decline was extensive and the times did really become dark ages in many ways.
So if the sack of Rome did not end Roman civilization, what did? Mediterranean piracy. The Roman empire was a huge free trade area and trade has always been the secret of economic prosperity. It's why we have things as NAFTA and the EU. Free trade brings specialization in what people and places are good at. In the Roman empire, for instance, much of Rome's grain was imported from Egypt.
And trade was far too advantageous for something like the fall of Rome to interrupt it. It carried on as before. But the loss of Roman authority did have one clear penalty. North African statelets evolved under no form of Roman control and acknowledging no debt to Rome. For a time Byzantium had control of North East Africa but North Western Africa (what we now call Algeria, Morocco etc) was a stretch too far. And it was from North West African statelets that a substantial pirate menace emerged. Piracy was a major economic support for the "Barbary" states. And that piracy continued in fits and starts for a long time -- until the restored French monarchy sent 500 ships across the water and brought North West Africa under French control in 1830.
And for a time the piracy killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So much of money and goods was lost to the pirates that trade became unprofitable and effectively impossible. And the cessation of trade pulled the rug out from under Roman prosperity. All the old Roman lands and cities went into a steep economic decline. Even Byzantium was affected to a degree though its large areas of control in the Eastern Mediterranean shielded it from the worst effects. A lot of its trade was internal and carried overland.
So who were these pirates? Most memory of them traces to the 19th century and identifies them as Muslim Arabs and Muslim Berbers. Both the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the newborn United States took them on. But were they Muslim in the Middle ages? Probably not -- for two reasons: Mohammed supposedly appeared in the 7th century and the Roman world was already in decline by then. More importantly, however, it seems likely that the whole Mohammed story is fiction and that the Koran was written in Egypt some time in the 9th century.
Shock! Horror! Scholars who are bold enough to mention that probability do so at considerable risk and I guess I do too. But the matter is surely too important to be hushed up. The fact of the matter is that the story of Mohammed is much more poorly documented than the story of Christ. Not only do Christians have four separate histories of Christ's life (the Gospels) but there is also an extensive collection of letters from Paul and others -- all of which are collected into the New Testament. There is nothing like that for Mohammed. There is only the Koran, nothing else. There are hadiths but they are clearly later. And aside from the Koran there is no mention in history of Mohammed and his followers until about the 9th century. So was it in the 9th century that the Koran was written?
It seems likely. Egypt was at that time mostly Christian. But it was Christianity with Egyptian characteristics, to coin a phrase. In particular it was a hotbed of Gnosticism -- which was apparently much influenced by the old pagan Egyptian religion of the Pharaohs. And the Gnostics were prolific producers of false Gospels, accounts that claimed to tell of Christ's life and words but which were nothing but forgeries written to boost up a particular theological position or Gnostic belief. So in that hotbed of debate, the production of another forgery, the Koran, was nothing new. It would seem that someone thought to get one-up on his theological opponents by inventing a new account of holy deeds.
And backing that up is the fact that the Koran is a very Bible-conscious. It borrows heavily from both the Old and New testaments and accepts much of what Christians say about Christ.
And by the 9th century, the old Roman word was comprehensively gone. So the North African pirates who destroyed that world cannot have been Muslim. They accepted Islam later on.
So if the early pirates were not Muslim, who were they? We know that lots of marauding German tribes did get to North Africa and settle there so it is likely that the pirate states originated as just another band or bands of German raiders -- but raiders with a nautical bent. And if they were of a nautical bent they probably came from the Baltic area. And we do know of another group of German raiders of around 500 AD who sailed from the Baltic area -- the Angles and the Saxons who invaded Roman Britannia and turned it into England. So seaborne Germans of the time are no myth.
But the raiding went on for a long time so the pirates would soon be comprised of some admixture of the Germans with the native people of the area. The geneticists tell us that the modern-day English are only around 50% German so that percentage may have been even less in North Africa, being further way from the German homeland. It is notable, however that some Berbers to this day have light skin and blue eyes.
And the native people would have been substantially descended from Rome's old adversary, Carthage. Carthaginians were originally Phoenicians but eventually included a large admixture of the native North African Berber people. Carthaginian general Hannibal had given the Romans huge problems -- the destruction of eight Roman legions at Cannae resounds to this day -- so when Publius Cornelius Scipio finally defeated Hannibal's Carthaginian army, the game was up for Carthage. And after further hostilities, Rome laid waste to the city and allegedly salted its fields. That something as valuable as salt then was, was wasted in that way makes it unlikely that much salt was used, however. But the Carthaginians were more than one city and we know that Carthage had substantially revived only a couple of centuries later -- but revived under firm Roman control of course.
So there is a certain irony in the destruction of the Roman world by probable descendants of the great city that Rome had tried to destroy.
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).