Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: The Rise and Fall of a Geopolitical System

A paper by Lucas McMahon, for 2015’s Islam seminar organized by Michael Cook.


The Roman-Persian border in Late Antiquity based on Greatrex’s The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars (Part II, 363-630 AD). This image was taken from Wikimedia Commons under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

With the arrival of the Romans to the eastern Mediterranean, a system of two empires emerged. The Romans dominated Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and parts of northern Mesopotamia and Armenia, while the Persians (first under the Parthian Arsakid dynasty and from the third century, the Sasanian dynasty) controlled most of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and Iran across the Zagros Mountains. Although the history of Rome and Persia is replete with warfare, these wars are notable for changing very little in the grand strategic outlook of the near east. This system persisted because it proved a benefit to both sides. This system failed to persist after the first decades of the seventh century because despite efforts to prop it up, the increasingly expansive, expensive, and acrimonious attitude towards warfare between Rome and Persia took what had previously been a series of border conflicts to a much higher level, ultimately destabilizing both states. Both Rome and Persia had undergone periods of serious tribulation before and survived, but this time the emergence of the new Islamic polity on a previously untroubled frontier at a time of political weakness shattered the hegemony of both states to the extent that they were unable to recover.

The Romans and Persians benefited from each other’s presence in the near east, which led to a system that would eventually refer to the Roman emperor and Persian king of kings as the “Two Eyes of the Earth”, thus giving them both a stake in maintaining the world order.[1] Although somewhat over-generalized here, fighting between Romans and Persians was a good way to secure prestige and wealth for rulers and to help them keep their thrones. In general this held true through much of the period and is particularly notable in the third century, where instability in the Roman Empire and the birth of the Sasanian dynasty led both sides to seek prestige and security in military victory.[2] The failed campaigns of the republic led by Crassus and Antony can be seen in this light as well, since both were in active competition with Roman rivals active in other theatres.[3] During the fourth century, both Roman and Persian kingship came to adopt stronger claims to divinity, and despite both rulers using exclusivist language that made set each of them up as sole rulers of the world, the shared vocabulary allowed a level of communication and tolerance.[4] After the defeat and death of the emperor Julian on a Mesopotamian campaign in A.D. 363, Sasanian Persia gained the strategic city of Nisibis, which altered the frontier in such a way as to make any Roman advance in Mesopotamia difficult.[5] A long peace punctuated with minor flare-ups of hostility persisted until the end of the fifth century, largely aided by both empires having their attention turned towards the steppe.[6] Scenes of violence in art and rhetoric in this period did not necessarily manifest into conflict, and both rulers were able to benefit by still receiving prestige and yet focusing their energies on other problems.[7] Cooperation between the two empires even took place.[8] Throughout the Roman occupation of northern Mesopotamia, the borders remained largely the same, and major successes usually resulted in only minor shifts in the frontier.[9]

The sixth century saw the expansion of Romano-Persian warfare beyond Mesopotamia. In 502 the Persian king Kavadh started a war, probably with the intention of replenishing the Persian treasury and gaining some military authority since he owed his throne to the Hepthalite Huns. Kavadh could hope for a short, profitable war given that the two fifth-century conflicts were resolved within the year and led to the payment of Roman subsidies.[10] He was wrong, and the Romans chose to fight. Stalemate and long-term hostility resulted. The Romans also engaged in a serious fortification program.[11] This required that if either side wanted to move the frontier in Mesopotamia, significant resources and time would have be devoted to sieges. The result was that campaigns increasingly took place elsewhere, notably in Armenia and Lazika (although a Persian attempt to outflank the Romans in southern Arabia was also undertaken), and war in Mesopotamia was focused more on the Arab tribesmen employed by both sides and large-scale raids.[12] The ill-named Eternal Peace of 532 was soon broken, leading to another two decades of conflict. A decade of unsettled peace (562-572) ended with Justin II’s invasion of Mesopotamia, a conflict which lasted into the early 590s. The established peace was unstable, with the Persian king Khusro II placed on the throne by the emperor Maurikios and the king was soon forced to deal with a revolt, while Roman forces were deployed to the Balkans. That Maurikios could shelter and eventually install a member of the House of Sasan reveals that even after a century of hostility the two empires desired the geopolitical system to continue.[13] The installation of Khusro also reveals that both were taking the eastern wars more seriously than before and pushing their opponents harder in them. Peace did not necessarily mean peace, as each side sought to outmaneuver the other even during times when war was not declared.[14]

The Roman and Sasanian Empires in the early to mid 6th century. This image was taken from Wikimedia Commons under the GNU Documentation License.

The result of this was instability. When Khusro declared war on Rome in 602, it seems quite unlikely that he intended to expand his war as much as he would, and probably just searching for a reversal of the 591 treaty that had cost Persia strategic depth.[15] The decision to liquidate the Roman state probably came only after a significant victory over Herakleios in Syria and that emperor’s groveling attempt to end the war.[16] The Roman response was both a clever and daring assault into Mesopotamia in late 627, drawing on tension between Khusro II and his supporters.[17] The fall of Khusro’s regime did not see the Romans attempting to push their advantage. Rather, they were content to allow that empire that had nearly just destroyed them to continue to exist.[18] However, the political unrest that emerged in both states allowed for the Arabs, previously not considered very threatening but who had undergone a degree of centralization and enrichment as clients over the previous two centuries to take advantage of the situation.[19]

The AD 250s were a disastrous decade for the Romans, with the emperor Decius killed fighting along the northern frontier in 251 and the emperor Valerian captured by the Persians in 260.[20] Out of this political chaos, the city of Palmyra emerged as an effectively independent state, its militia armies able to defeat the Persian king Shapur and conquer parts of the Roman near east.[21] Prior to the seventh century, this was the single greatest deviation from the stable two-empire system. The difference in the third century is that the political situation for the Romans was more fortuitous. In the late 260s, the Romans won significant victories over the “Goths” in the Balkans. The reigning emperor Claudius II Gothicus died and the army raised up Aurelian, a Balkan-based military commander. Aurelian’s rival Quintillus was soon dead, and Aurelian pursued a Germanic army into Italy, securing his control over the peninsula in the process.[22] Returning to the Balkans, Aurelian won another major victory over the “Goths” and shortened up the Danubian frontier.[23] The result was that Aurelian had the prestige to keep him safe from his own soldiers and had a significant power base with which to launch a major campaign against Palmyra in the near east.

This strategic situation was not shared by the Byzantine state in the seventh century. In AD 641, Constans II came to the throne at the age of 14.[24] Internal strife brought him to the throne, and his early years witnessed a rebellion in Africa, Arab invasions, and the domination of the military by the patrikios Valentinian.[25] Constans’s regime was shaken by defeat, but despite this he appears to have followed a strategy similar to that of Aurelian by attempting to secure western strategic depth, and a strategy similar to his grandfather Herakleios by finding allies in the Caucasus.[26] Restoring some Byzantine sovereignty over the Balkans also seems to have been a goal of Constans’s regime, and an attempt was made on Egypt.[27] Neither Herakleios nor Constans were ever able to reacquire the strategic depth and resources that Aurelian had been able to muster when he re-conquered the Roman east from Palmyra. Whereas Aurelian possessed much of the central Mediterranean, Constans had only an embattled Africa and Italy, indeterminate sections of the Balkans, a besieged Asia Minor, and evidently lacked the resources or confidence to take full advantage of the First Fitna. These actions of Constans’s government are important since they reveal an attempt to return Constantinople to its former hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean. The earlier introduction of a third power to the region had occurred under similar circumstances, but in that case sufficient resources could be mustered to return to the status quo. The new invaders were as proficient at warfare as those they had supplanted, and they struck at a time when the formerly vast resources of the two empires could not be brought against them. The stable two-empire situation did not last longer because it was broken at a moment of political weakness, and despite attempts to re-assert it, that break was too severe and too sudden for either power to recover.

A sketch map showing the Roman Empire and the Rashidun Caliphate c. 650. This image was taken from Wikimedia Commons under the GNU Documentation License.

[1] Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 1-5.

[2] J. W. Drijvers, “Rome and the Sasanid Empire: Confrontation and Coexistence,” in ACompanion to Late Antiquity, ed. Philip Rousseau (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 446 sees three periods: Sassanian aggression (226-363, coexistence (363-500), and increasing hostility (500-630). The label assigned to this first period can be critiqued as it saw just as much Roman aggression as Persian, with no less than Alexander Severus, Gordian III, Valerian, Carus, Galerius, Constantine, Constantius II, and Julian all leading campaigns into Persian territory (and Constantine I planning a campaign), with several going as far as Ctesiphon.

[3] Warwick Ball, Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (London: Routledge, 2000), 107-110. B.A. Marshall, Crassus: A Political Biography (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1976), 144-9.

[4] Canepa, Two Eyes, 100-6.

[5] Geoffrey Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 502-532 (Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1998), 11-15.

[6] Geoffrey Greatrex, “Byzantium and the East in the Sixth Century,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 480-6. R. Malcolm Errington, Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 66-7.

[7] Canepa, Two Eyes, 122-154.

[8] Geoffrey Greatrex and Samuel N.C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars Part II: AD 363-630 (London: Routledge), 33-4, 56-8.

[9] See Geoffrey Greatrex, “Roman Frontiers and Foreign Policy in the East,” in Aspects of the Roman East I: Papers in Honour of Professor Fergus Millar FBA, ed. Samuel N.C. Lieu and Richard Alston (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 118-123 for the argument that the Romans adopted sensible limits to their empire, recognizing the difficulty in communications and control by going much further. Cf. Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993),  17-19 who sees the northern Mesopotamian frontier as a stalemate. A good example of the willingness to maintain two empires is AD 363, where despite a crushing Roman defeat and the death of the emperor Julian in battle, the Persians were content with taking the single critical frontier city of Nisibis, and even allowed the Roman army to return home.

[10] Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 5-8.

[11] Greatrex and Lieu, Eastern Frontier, 74-8.

[12] Greatrex and Lieu, Eastern Frontier, 102-18.

[13] Maurikios was willing to remove a commander from Dara whom Khusro disliked, suggesting some amicability: Theophylact Simocatta (trans. Whitby) 8.15.2. Cultural understanding was evidently sufficiently advanced that Khusro could create a convincing pretender of Maurikios’s son Theodosios who managed to secure the surrender of Theodosioupolis: Canepa, Two Eyes, 187; Walter Kaegi, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 67-8.

[14] Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 120-135.

[15] Irfan Shahîd, “The Last Sasanid-Byzantine Conflict in the Seventh century: the Causes of its Outbreak,” in La Persia e Bisanzio , ed. Antonio Carile (Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2004), 227-8, 234-5.

[16] James Howard-Johnston, “Heraclius’ Persian Campaigns and the Revival of the East Roman Empire,” War in History 6 (1999), 1-3. Kaegi, Heraclius, 65. Cf. Josef Wiesehöfer, “The Late Sasanian Near East,” in The New Cambridge History of Islam: The Formation of the Islamic World, ed. Chase Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 113, 138. Note also the post-614 attempt to manage affairs in Jerusalem, indicating that the Sasanians were ruling Syria, rather than just pillaging it: Yuri Stoyanov, Defenders and Enemies of the True Cross: The Sasanian Conquest of Jerusalem in 614 and Byzantine Ideology of Anti-Persian Warfare (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenshaften, 2010), 46-53.

[17] James Howard-Johnson, “Pride and Fall: Khusro II and His Regime, 626-628,” in La Persia e Bisanzio, ed. Antonio Carile (Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2004), 93-113. Parvaneh Pourshariati, The Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 153-60.

[18] Even T’ang China attempted to intervene by establishing a Persian protectorate, but this was quickly conquered by the Arabs: Robert Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 87.

[19] Greg Fisher, Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 79-80, 93-6, 117-20. the Romans never prepared to fight the Arabs. The Strategikon, a late sixth or early-seventh century military manual attributed to the emperor Maurikios includes sections on fighting the Persians, steppe peoples, Germanic peoples, and some of the more recent arrivals to the Balkans, but nothing on Arabs: Maurice, Das Strategikon des Maurikios, ed. George T. Dennis (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenshaften, 1981), XI. Roman thought outside of the military manual believed that Arabs were unable to attack fortifications, and that the best way to fight Arabs was with other Arabs, further disarming the Roman state from a southern threat: Walter Kaegi, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 56-7.

[20] David Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395 (London: Routledge, 2004), 244-6, 255-6.

[21] Potter, Empire at Bay, 251, 259-61, 266-72.

[22] Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London: Routledge, 1999), 39-54.

[23] Watson, Aurelian, 54-6. Potter, Empire at Bay, 268-70.

[24] Peter Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 279-82. cf. Cyril Mango and Roger Scott, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 476, n. 1 who claim Constans was ten years old at the time of his accession.

[25] Theophanes Confessor, Chronographia, ed. Charles De Boor (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1883), 342-345.

[26] In general, Sarris, Empires of Faith, 287-291. James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 479-87. For the journey to Italy: Constantin Zuckerman, “Learning from the Enemy and More. Studies in “Dark Centuries” Byzantium,” Millennium: Jahrbuch zu Kultur und Geschichte des ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr 2 (2005), 79-104. Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II and the Byzantine Navy,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 100.2 (2008), 594-603.

[27] Marek Jankowiak, “The First Arab Siege of Constantinople,” Travaux et Mémoires 17, 305 accepts Agapios’s claim that Constans used his new navy in Sicily for carrying out attacks on Slavic settlements in the Balkans. Presumably the march and wintering in Athens was intended to shore up Byzantine power in the south Balkans as well: Liber Pontificalis (ed. Duchesne), 343. Egypt: Hoyland, God’s Path, 76.


Book review: “In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire”, by Robert G. Hoyland


Another interesting old book review I’m bringing up here… 🙂


51xZEYkLMhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA very interesting and balanced account of the Arab conquests and the formation of the Islamic civlization as well as its early empires (of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties).

I loved Hoyland’s contextualization of the Arab expansion within the developments of Late Antiquity, his reassessment of the importance of the rise of Islam to it and his approach to the formation of several features of Islamic civilization like the “sharia”, the evolution of the concept of “jihad”, its social structure and the development of Islam as a religion, which are very important both for the historiography of this period and modern debates on Islam (the latter is horribly skewed by far-right propaganda entering into History, especially in America and Europe after 9/11). It has a focus on the sources coming from the conquered peoples and not the Arabic ones, which allows for a greater level of accuracy since the first Arabic written sources started to being written in the late 8th century, already under the Abbasid state and its ideology.

There might be a few imperfections (there was no Georgia in the 7th and 8th centuries, for instance, although I suspect the author used that name for familiarity), while the use of “and” gets sometimes annoying for me, but the scholarship in this book is invaluable and very well thought out, bringing new perspectives into this field.

Book review: “D. Pedro I”, by Cristina Pimenta

1028421_1242060507.jpgThis book was quite disappoiting, especially if compared to other books I’ve read of the Reis de Portugal (translation: “Kings of Portugal”) series. I felt the book was more of a panegyric on Peter I of Portugal (r. 1357-1367) and his relationship with Inês de Castro (c. 1320-1355) than properly a History book intended to make a neutral (as far as possible, of course) appreciation of the king’s life and reign.

The author just tried to stick her modern prejudices into the 14th century and defend as mush as she could the old mythology around Pedro and Inês’ love or about the former’s ten year reign to the point she even dared to use 20th century poetry to represent feelings of 14th century characters!

In Pimenta’s vigorous defence of Peter, she also defended the biographed didn’t have any sexual relationship with men because Fernão Lopes shouldn’t be trusted and he loved Inês! This is very serious: she made several comments like this without taking into account any research on History of sexuality (there isn’t a single book on the topic in her bibliography) while her argument about his desire for women is binary: if a man has known relationships with women, he can’t be “homosexual”! That brings the problem someone could be capable of loving women and men, so that argument is not valid, while her mentions to “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” also fall flat because such terms are inadequate as sexual identities for the 14th century. Finally, as a final blow, she couldn’t have dismissed the sayings of Fernão Lopes on this matter: he wrote in the early 15th century and was patronized by the Portuguese kings of the Avis dynasty, a bastard cadet branch of the Portuguese House of Burgundy through Peter I himself. Since Fernão Lopes and his patrons had every interest in preserving a good memory of the father of the founder of the new royal dynasty, a remark that he had some form of sexual relationship with his squire Afonso Madeira (“E como quer que o el-rei muito amasse, mais que se deve aqui de dizer” – Chapter VIII of “Chronica de El-Rei D. Pedro”) shouldn’t be discarded with a sheer dismissal of gossip since political interests regarding the royal family’s legitimacy were necessarily at stake. This is just one example of Pimenta’s distortions regarding the king’s personal life that I condemn.

Pimenta also presented a view of Peter I’s reign that is often a bit too rosy, namely regarding his diplomacy or justice. These kinds of anachronisms and acriticisms should be off the marks of any scholarly work and don’t bring much prestige to either the author or the series, being also very ironical considering the book’s very academic and dry tone. As such, this book is a travesty to History (even more considering her extensive, yet not exhaustive historiographical considerations), but I must say the chapters on legal History and the holy orders (the author’s area of expertise) were good and the contextualization of Portuguese reality in the 14th century at the start is not bad at all. This is what gives the book two and not one star.

Book review: “Belisarius: The Last Roman General”, by Ian Hughes

One of my older reviews I thought useful to post here… 🙂


Belisarius-Ian-Hughes-20091-667x1023.jpgTo start, I must say I was a bit hopeful this book might be good by the reviews online despite being a work of popular History, but I was a bit defrauded while reading it.

The introduction and the first chapters (on the Roman world) are a bit awful, with many real basic mistakes being done there. The contrasting descriptions of the governments of Ravenna and Constantinople and the people from the western and eastern provinces regarding the way how they viewed themselves are completely false as well as the claims that the Romance languages were already around (that’s clearly ridiculous and Ian Hughes should learn something about Romance philology), the Equites Sagitarii (called by their Greek equivalent in this book) were the results of Hunnic influence (when they had been around for much longer than that), the equestrians can hardly be called “middle classes” and the late antique Roman world wasn’t stagnated. Basically, a person will learn very few actual facts if it won’t get confused by them.

The actual description of Belisarius’ campaigns are much better, but aren’t anything special at all (namely the descriptions of his private life) and the maps lack the movements by the Romans and its enemies through the theatres of operations (which would be certainly a nice addition to it), besides claiming the Suebi were subjects of the Franks (this seems a basic research error). He also sometimes uses Norwich as a source (when he isn’t a trustworthy one and even that popular historian wrote his claims didn’t have academic pretensions) and his bibliography and notes are non-existent (an horrible flaw especially if someone wants to check his sources), notwithstanding the fact he cites Procopius and Agathias often.

To end this review, this is the kind of popular History I don’t like: a book with lots of oversimplifications and mistakes which mislead the public unaware of the actual historical events. I also wonder how Goldsworthy passed many of these mistakes by what I already read from him. Perhaps he advised the author in the right direction, but was simply ignored, but even I’m a bit disappointed with his support of Ian Hughes’ work.

Matilda II of Dammartin (1202-1259), Countess of Boulogne and Queen of Portugal.

Text by Pedro Alves

Also known as Mathilde, Maud or Mahaut, she was Countess of Boulogne, Mortain, Aumale and Dammartin in her own right since 1216 and Queen of Portugal by marriage to King Afonso III from 1248 until their divorce in 1253. She was the daughter of Ida, Countess of Boulogne and her husband and co-ruler Renaud, Count of Dammartin and was great-granddaughter of Stephen of England.

Married in 1238 to Infante Afonso, second in line to the Portuguese throne, younger brother of King Sancho II. He became King Afonso III of Portugal on 4 January 1248. At that time he renounced Boulogne.

In 1258, Matilda charged Afonso with bigamy, following his marriage to Beatriz of Castile. Pope Alexander in response, imposed interdict upon any place the couple stayed. At the time of Matilda’s death, Afonso and Beatriz were still together, despite the Pope’s protests.
She had no surviving issue with Afonso III and Matilda’s then apparent barrenness was the true reason for their divorce. According to reports, Queen Matilda remained in Boulogne and was not allowed to follow her husband to Portugal.


History of wine in medieval Portugal – producing, consumption and exports

Text by Pedro Alves



By the 10th century BC, the Phoenicians had arrived and introduced new grape varieties and winemaking techniques to the area. Up until this point, viticulture was mostly centered on the southern coastal areas of Portugal. In later centuries, the Ancient Greeks, Celts and Romans would do much to spread viticulture and winemaking further north.

Of particular importance for the development of viniculture during the medieval period were the Benedictine and the Cistercian monasteries. In Portugal it was late in the 12th century that after establishing 120 monastical communities, the Cistercians essentially became the keepers of agricultural knowledge but also provided training on how to grow wine to the faithful congregations. Through them the first quality varieties were selected and intentionally propagated. The Alcobaça Monastery is one such example.

Initially, however, Portugal did not participate in this huge international wine production due to trading constraints in the early Middle Ages and Islamic rule. Since viniculture did indeed survive and alcoholic beverages were drunk even by the Islamic elites (!), it would appear that the Islamic rulers tended to tolerate the existence of vineyards, but often in the case of Umayyad or Almohad rulers there were a few ritual persecution of people drinking wine and the destruction of vineyards, mainly around Córdoba. Also al-Andalus engaged mainly in trade with the eastern Mediterranean from the 10th to the 12th/13th centuries, when Genoese merchants became the main traders of Islamic Hispania. For this reason the Portuguese wine sector only made its appearance on the international scene later as it made contacts and cemented its new trade with Atlantic Europe, without ever having lost its relative standing in the domestic agricultural sector.

By the late 12th century viniculture and cellar technology experienced a noticeable revival, of which Alcobaça is one example. This was achieved through research and vocational training of the faithful congregation and from a cultural perspective, Portugal was no different from other European countries.

The Hundred Years’ War (1337‑1453) wreaked havoc on French viniculture, and the French lost a substantial part of the English wine market. With the end of the war, and the consequent reversion of Aquitaine to the French crown and the Turkish occupation of the Mediterranean islands England was cut off from its former procurement markets. This facilitated the entry of Iberian, but particularly Portuguese wine into English, Flemish, German and international trade. From 1360 onwards, England encouraged the importation of Portuguese wine, not so much the light table wines, which in spite of the situation continued to come from France (Bordeaux until 1460) and Germany, but rather the dessert wines, particularly those made from the well known Malvasia and Muscatel grape. These varieties doubtlessly belong to the Vitis occidentalis gene pool. They were previously known as “Greek wines” and were traded by Venetian merchants before the Portuguese took over. In England, they were thought of as Malvasia (Malmsey), and it is possible that Malvasia‑type wines began to come from Portuguese vineyards as well.

With this new alliance, Portugal intensified wine exports to England, and much later to colonial America, although only in the 17th century, already in the early modern period, due to the Anglo-French conflicts, did Portuguese wine start to gain a greater hold in the British markets. In the third quarter of the 14th century Portuguese wine was traded with the Hanseatic League, which took it to Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and the Baltic States. Wine was transported in vats, casks, barriques, barrels, and amphorae.

Crane in the Hanseatic city of Bruges, c. 1510. Flanders was a major Portuguese trade partner in the late Middle Ages.


The first Portuguese export successes were the wine from the Monção area (vinho verde/green wine), and the “Osoye” and “Bastardo” dessert wines. At that time, one did not speak of “Muscatel from Setúbal”, although this has to be what was referred to as Osoye. Johnson (1990: 166) writes, “… It began with the sale of wine from the North; in 1430 primarily because Lisbon was an important port of embarkation, “Osoye” gained more widespread recognition, as did Bastardo later”. Johnson (ibid.) continues, “There is no doubt about the Osoye of the 14th century; it was the dessert wine from Azóia, a small harbour situated on the South bank of the Tejo river, quite close to Setúbal.” Marques (1992: 83) gives the following names by which Osoye was also known: Ansoye, Azoy, Asoy or Azoie. Kuske (in Marques 1992: 83) writes, “Ansoye is a wine that is made from dried grapes, or even those of bastardo, so called because of its uncertain colouring”. (Dion, 1959: 321‑322) refers to it as “a small harbour situated on the south bank ofthe Tagus, near Setúbal” (Johnson 1990: 166). Franco (1938: 6) writes, “The wines from this area were famous because of their excellent quality which made them particularly rich and noble wines”. Statements such as these lead one to assume that these wines are the same as those that the Phoenicians first brought to Alexandria (Egypt) and Kelibia (Tunisia), and probably to Setúbal too, which would give them the characteristics of the so‑called Greek wines.

Vineyards close to the castle of Beja, in southern Portugal.

Although these vineyards were destroyed in the 12th century by the invading armies of the Almohad caliph Yaqub al‑Mansur, viticulture recovered and soon thereafter produced exceptional wine which was in great demand. Documents even exist on the piracy of Portuguese wine during this period. Marques (1992: 84) writes, “Portuguese wine destined for Germany was definitely seized by English pirates from Sandwich”. The punitive expedition of 1471, which King Afonso V had entrusted to the future Marquis of Montemor, was cancelled because of the death of the English King Henry VI, suspected to have been caused by the corsair Focumbridge, who was in his service (Fonseca, 2010: 29).

The stability of the genetic base of Portuguese grapevine varieties was one interesting phenomenon.They retained their “endemic” individual characteristics, which were fortified by new varieties introduced by migrating peoples, and by trade relations with colonising nations such as the Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks.

After Lisbon, the Algarve was one of the most important wine export centres in the 15th century. The wines of the Alentejo were shipped via the River Guadiana from the old Roman river port at Mértola to the Algarve from where they were then marketed.

Documents exist on the first wine export in 1456 from Madeira to England. Johnson (1999: 245) quotes António Cordeiro (1717: 79) in this regard. In his True History (1557), the German mercenary soldier in the service of the Portuguese, Hans Standen, refers to its two main products: wine and sugar cane. By improving the competitive position of Madeira wines, made possible by using “Greek” grapevine varieties, “Malmsey” (Malvasia/Malvasier) became a favourite of the English.King Afonso V was far‑sighted enough to send for plants from Candia (Crete), including the Malvasia grapevine (Cordeiro 1717: 79). Strategically, Madeira gained in importance, because it was able to compensate for supply shortfalls of “Greek wine” from elsewhere.This was to Portugal’s advantage when Crete was occupied by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. Crete experienced a similar exodus with Muslim occupation as had Iberia, but this time it benefited the Iberian wine regions. That Iberia rose to become a wine superpower by supplying products comparable to “Greek wine” was thanks to the Venetian merchants, who had already secured its excellent international reputation. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which represented a victory for the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II as did his subsequent conquest of the Balkans, caused the collapse of the local wine industry, including the marketing and distribution of its wine by a Venetian Doge. This opened up a new and important market segment for Iberian wine growers who, in contrast to the French and Germans, were capable of producing naturally sweet dessert wines. The Muscatel dessert wines from Osoye, the Porto, Madeira, and Pico wines, Sherry, and Malaga and Tarrragona dessert wines targeted this all‑important new market for “Greek wines” in Northern Europe, from which the Venetians had been expelled. The centuries of Ottoman rule prevented the resurgence of original “Greek wine” in the market. It also lost its prominence because the market had developed a taste for lighter wines as processing and preservation techniques improved.



Even Shakespeare gave voice to the reputation of Madeira wines, although we must be careful given he wrote already in the 16th century: in the play Richard III, when Richard sentences to death the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, by having him drowned in a butt of Malmsey. He also mentions Portuguese wine again in Henry IV when Falstaff is censured for having sold his soul to the Devil for a cup of Madeira wine.

There have been vineyards in Minho for almost two thousand years. Because of its distance from the centre of Arab power, when Afonso Henriques founded the state of Portugal he could see extensive vineyard views in his home country. The wine was characterized by its mild alcoholic content and freshness, and was normally drunk during the year following production because it was not suitable for storage. Cultivated by growing the vine on trees as did the Romans (the arbustrum method. See Figs. 69a and 69b) – as is still the case today in some areas, incidentally – is what naturally gives this wine its low alcohol content at full maturity, and is the determining characteristic of this type of wine which is seldom found today. Because of its special geographical location Viana was a major exporting seaport. History tells us that the harbour was used by the first English traders to establish foreign branches. “The English installed themselves in Portugal with a huge number of special rights, and it was therefore only natural during their war with France that they obtained their wine from Portugal.”

Was Leo III iconoclast?

nomisma representing Leo III (on the obverse) and Constantine V (on the reverse), coined probably between 737 and 741. This coin shows well the Isaurian dynastic concept of imperial succession.

First of all I’d like to express my thanks to Professor Nicola Bergamo for helping me regarding the resignation of patriarch Germanus I of Constantinople (r. 715-730).


Old wisdom claims Iconoclasm (actually it should be called iconomachy; this will be treated in a future post) was started being promoted by the Roman Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741) as an answer to Islam and the huge disasters of the 7th century, after the eruption of Thera in 726, in a series of edicts until 729. It is also claimed he faced revolts from the iconophile provinces and entered a dispute with the Pope over these matters, which made him take away the bishoprics of southern Italy and Illyricum as well as church incomes from papal lands in Sicily. [1]

This might all seem very impressive, but this theory has several problems, as Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon outlined. [2] First of all the narrative sources available for Leo’s reign, most are from the 9th or 10th centuries and have axes to grind against the Isaurians for their promotion of Iconoclasm. [3] This means Theophanes’ Chronographia, for instance, is far from neutral and reliable on this period, as several other instances of the Isaurians’ reign, where contradicting evidence exists, prove. [4] The only 8th century reference to his iconoclasm is allegedly in the Liber Pontificalis, which records Papal conflict with Leo, however the passages referring the emperor’s religious belief suffered from later interpolations, making the text as reliable as our chronistic Roman sources.

To add to this scenario, we have the letters of patriarch Germanos (r. 715-730), that, despite the problems of such epistolary kind of evidence [5], are especially important for the case given his contemporaneity and his political role, especially if we have into account the story he was deposed for resisting iconoclasm.  In one letter written in the 730’s to Thomas of Klaudiopolis (a real Iconoclast), he wrote Leo III and his son Constantine V had ordered an icon of the apostles, prophets and the cross to be made in front of the imperial palace. [6] Since the Isaurians weren’t exactly popular after the end of the second controversy around iconomachy, the likelihood of this text being an invention is extremely low. As such, it introduces quite a different and startling conclusion: the founder of the Isaurian dynasty was an iconodule who suffered from character murder! [7]

Someone might object Germanos was deposed due to the iconoclasm of the Emperor, but this story was the result of later constructions with either defaming or moralistic ends, just like many others, including the story of the women on the Chalke Gate killed by the imperial guards and the reasons for the revolts during his reign as well as his disputes with the Pope. Regarding the patriarch of Constantinople, he was forced to resign not because he opposed to iconoclasm, but instead because he sought a hard line against bishops such as Thomas, while Leo wanted an ecumenical council to solve the issue and avoid aggravating the controversy as it was in the late 720’s. This made the emperor issuing a law forcing both sides to commit themselves to a Council and respect its outcome. It was Germanos’ opposition to it that provoked his resignation as Patriarch and exile. Later his story would be used and rewritten by the iconodules to serve as a model case of opposition to imperial heresy.

The rebellion of the Karabisianoi and the theme of Hellas in 727, like any rebellion at the time, should also be seen not as a riot of iconodule vs. iconoclast conflict (in my view pure imagination by modern historians), but instead as another riot for political and economic power (characteristic of the Roman Empire in this age) intended purely to overthrow the Roman Emperor and replace it with a general named Kosmas. Finally, the Popes never entered in conflict with Leo III over religious policy and actually kept a quite polite and friendly policy notwithstanding any divergence with the imperial court. The matters of conflict at hand were just over Papal incomes and grain (confiscated in 732 by an imperial army due to financial reasons as well as religious jurisdiction in southern Italy and Illyricum and that’s visible in the Liber Pontificalis, although it’s possible they might have viewed the conciliatory imperial policy of Leo with concern by 731. [8]

Concluding, Leo III, as far as we really know, wasn’t iconoclast at all. He was a man of his age who, according to patriarch Germanos, was an iconodule and assisted to the rise of Iconoclasm as a conservative movement designed to counter the innovations around icons (as in a future post we’ll see, icons didn’t have the religious power they had later on in the Christian church up to the late 7th century). Since Constantine V was the emperor who started imperial support of iconoclasm and the Isaurians had a very good military record (which led to the second iconoclast period in the 9th century), the founder of the dynasty was vilified by chroniclers such as Theophanes the Confessor, Patriarch Nikephoros I or Stephen the Deacon. Usually Leo III is remembered for iconoclasm, however I propose something different: let’s remember him as a cunning man who managed to rise to the throne under very hard circumstances, defend Constantinople during the siege of 717-718 (stopping therefore Umayyad expansion against Rome and preventing any possible annexation by the Muslim Caliphate), start the process of stabilization of the Roman borders seen in the 8th and early 9th centuries, make administrative reforms and issue a new law code that simplified and actualized Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis, called the Ekloge. In sum, a great emperor who made the Isaurian Renaissance possible.

[1] A good example of the way how Leo III is traditionally depicted is in Treadgold’s A History of the Byzantine State and Society, pp. 346-356.
[2] Brubaker and Haldon 2011, pp. 69-155.
[3] Brubaker 2012, p. 28-30; Whittow 1997, p. 143.
[4] A nice example of this is the supposed anti-monasticism of Constantine V. Actually we know he was a patron of several monastic communities and the monks he persecuted were actually political enemies probably involved in the coup against him in 765/6. See for further informations Whittow 1996, pp. 147-148 and Brubaker 2012, pp. 47-49.
[5] Whittow 1996, pp. 4-7.
[6] Brubaker 2012, p. 24.
[7] Regarding the damnatio memoriae inflicted on the Isaurians, check Bergamo, La Familia Dannata: Leone III e Costantino V, Vita di Due Empi Tiranni, Imperatori di Bizancio, in Porphyra no. 15, fascicle no. 2.
[8] Brubaker and Haldon 2011, pp. 85-86.



Brubaker, Leslie; Haldon, John. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Brubaker, Leslie. Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm. Bristol Classical Press, London, 2012.

Bergamo, Nicola, La Familia Dannata: Leone III e Costantino V, Vita di Due Empi Tiranni, Imperatori di Bizancio, in Porphyra no. 15, fascicle no. 2.

Whittow, Mark, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025. California University Press, Los Angeles, 1996.