575: A Hispano-Roman Visitor from the Visigoth Kingdom Observes Arab-Byzantine Relations

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Author: Daniel G. König


Iohannes abbas Biclarensis, Chronica, ed. Theodor Mommsen (MGH AA 11), Berlin: Weidmann, 1894, a. 575,3, p. 214, trans. Daniel G. König.
Aramundarus Sarracenorum rex Constantinopolim venit et cum stemmate suo Tiberio principi cum donis barbariae occurrit. qui a Tiberio benigne susceptus et donis optimis adornatus ad patriam abire permissus est. Al-Munḏir, the king of the Saracens, came to Constantinople and appeared with his wreath (cum stemmate suo) before the prince Tiberios with gifts from the barbarian sphere (barbariae). He was received favourably by Tiberios and, having been provided with better gifts, was allowed to return home.

The Author & his/her Work

[§1] Born in Santarém/Lusitania around 540, John of Biclaro spent the years around 570-577 in Constantinople. On his return to the Iberian Peninsula, he came into conflict with the Visigoth king Leovigild (r. 569-586) and was exiled to Barcelona around 580. There he was apparently harassed by adherents to the Arian compromise dogma propagated by Leovigild until, probably after Leovigild’s death, he founded a monastery at Biclar, an unidentifiable place in present-day Catalonia, of which he became abbot. Around 590-591 he became bishop of Girona and died around 620. Of his works, only a chronicle survives. It continues the work of the North African bishop Victor of Tunnuna, which John probably brought to the Iberian Peninsula from Constantinople. Based on John's own experiences, his chronicle provides information on both Byzantium and the Visigothic kingdom for the years 567-590.[1]

Content & Context

[§2] John of Biclaro’s entry provides only a brief notice of a diplomatic meeting between the Byzantine emperor Tiberios (r. 574-578 as co-regent, 578-582 as sole ruler) and the Ghassanid prince al-Munḏir (r. 569-582), which is not contextualised otherwise. Neither before nor after this passage does the chronicler discuss Arab groups again, even though he continues to report on Byzantine affairs, including Persian-Byzantine relations, for example. The visit of al-Munḏir is dated to the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Justin II. (r. 565-578) and the seventh year of the Visigoth king Leovigild (r. 569-586) and is consequently placed in the year 575 by the editor Theodor Mommsen.

Contextualization, Analysis & Interpretation

[§3] Between 569 and 590, al-Munḏir led the dynasty of the Ǧafnids, which is often equated with the so-called Ghassanids in older research. In 569-570, he had successfully fought against another Arab group subject to the Persian Sassanids. This group was led by the Naṣrid dynasty, often equated with the so-called Laḫmids in older research.[2] Following this conflict, al-Munḏir had demanded support from Constantinople for his losses. When he became victim of a failed assassination plot commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justin II (r. 565-578), al-Munḏīr ceased to fulfil his mission to protect Byzantium militarily, and allowed Laḫmid and Sassanid looting in the province of Oriens between about 572 and 575. In the cited source excerpt, John of Biclaro reports that a reconciliation between al-Munḏir and the Byzantine emperor took place in 575 during his visit to Justin’s II co-regent and successor Tiberios. According to the interpretation of Ekkehard Rotter and Irfan Shahîd, this visit entailed a kind of coronation, i.e. an official elevation of al-Munḏir’s status. According to their view, this elevation of status is not only manifest in the fact that the emperor endowed the Ǧafnid prince with “better gifts” (donis optimis), but also in the fact that al-Munḏir appeared before the emperor carrying a wreath (stemma), which both of them regard as a crown. Although there is no mention of a crown, as opposed to a wreath (stemma). Since al-Munḏir did not receive the stemma from the emperor during this visit, but seems to have brought it along himself, this interpretation may be exaggerated, since the Ǧafnid prince could also have used this official visit of reconciliation to symbolically assert his independence. While Rotter and Shahîd assume on the basis of the ecclesiastical history of John of Ephesus that al-Munḏir visited Constantinople again in 580, other scholars only acknowledge one single visit in 580. Greg Fisher, for example, ignores the report of John of Biclaro, which - if one trusts the reconstructed dates of his life - could not have been written after 577, since John was already back in the Visigothic Kingdom at that time. The consensus among scholars is that al-Munḏir was actually crowned in 580, i.e. that his wreath (stemma) was replaced with a more dignified sign of rule. All in all, al-Munḏir’s visit or visits to the imperial centre do not seem to have resolved the tensions arising from mutual distrust between the Ǧafnids and the Byzantine imperial centre. In the same year, i.e. 580, al-Munḏir was placed under house arrest in Constantinople. When, in 582, Emperor Maurikios (r. 582-602) came to power, al-Munḏir was exiled to Sicily, from where he did not return until around 602, probably thanks to an intercession by Pope Gregory the Great.[3]

[§4] The fact that a Hispano-Roman chronicler from the Iberian Peninsula collected information about Arab groups in the vicinity of Constantinople and carried it back to the Visigoth King, sheds light on the relations between the Latin and Arab spheres before the beginning of the Arab-Islamic expansion. As is demonstrated in the later commentaries on Arabes, Saraceni, etc. in the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (d. 636),[4] Arab groups were not entirely unknown in the western Mediterranean in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Nevertheless, exchanges were too sporadic for reporters in the Latin West to have gained a truly deep insight into Arab-Byzantine relations.[5] Only the papacy in Rome might constitute an exception: it had very good sources of information due to its manifold relations with Byzantine and ecclesiastical authorities in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. To a certain extent, it was thus even able to intervene actively in Byzantine-Arab relations in the pre-Islamic period.[6] According to Rotter, “the Western reader is unlikely to learn much more from the note in John of Biclaro than that friendly relations also existed between Byzantines and Saracens [...]; from the ‘foreign gifts’ (dona barbariae) presented to Tiberios by al-Munḏir, he may infer a (considerable) distance between the Eastern Roman cultural sphere and the world of the Saracens.” Rotter denies the chronicler the ability to distinguish between different Arab groups.[7] It is clear, in any case, that John establishes a clear hierarchy between the Byzantine imperial leadership and the barbarian visitor.

Editions & Translations

Iohannes abbas Biclarensis, Chronica, ed. Theodor Mommsen (MGH AA 11), Berlin: Weidmann, 1894, pp. 211-222.

Juan de Biclaro, Obispo de Gerona. Su vida y su obra. Introduccion, texto critico y comentarios, ed. Julio Campos, Madrid: CSIC, 1960, pp. 77-100.

John of Biclaro, Chronicle, in: Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999, pp. 61-80.

Iohannes Biclarensis, Chronicon, in: Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann (ed.), Victoris Tvnnvnensis Chronicon cum reliquiis ex Consvlaribvs Caesaravgvstanis et Iohannis Biclarensis Chronicon (CCL 173A), Turnhout: Brepols, 2003.

Iohannis Biclarensis Chronicon, ed. Francisco María Fernández Jiménez, El “Chronicon” de Juan de Bíclaro. La crónica del rey Leovigildo y del III Concilio de Toledo. Estudio y traducción, in: Toletana 16 (2007), pp. 29-66.

Cited & Additional Literature

Alonso-Núñez, J. M.: Johannes, 68. J. v. Biclaro, in: Lexikon des Mittelalters, 10 vols, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1977-1999, vol. 5, col. 557.

Collins, Roger: John of Biclaro, in: E. Michael Gerli (ed.), Medieval Iberia. An Encyclopedia, New York: Routledge, 2013, p. 445.

Ferreiro, Alberto: Johannes Biclarensis, bishop, in: International Encyclopaedia for the Middle Ages-Online, Turnhout: Brepols, 2005.

Fisher, Greg: Between Empires. Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

König, Daniel: Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West. Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Nöldeke, Theodor: Die Ghassânischen Fürsten aus dem Haus Gafnas, Berlin: Königl. Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1887.

Rotter, Ekkehard: Abendland und Sarazenen, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1986.

Shahîd, Irfan: Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 1, Part 1: Political and Military History, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, 1995.

Valenzuela, Claudia: „Ritu Mamentiano“. Auf der Suche nach den christlichen Wahrnehmungen vom Islam in der frühmittelalterlichen Historiographie Nordspaniens, in: Anna Aurast, Hans-Werner Goetz (eds), Die Wahrnehmung anderer Religionen im früheren Mittelalter. Terminologische Probleme und methodische Ansätze, Münster: Lit, 2012, pp. 121-168.

Recommended Citation

Daniel G. König, "575: A Hispano-Roman Visitor from the Visigoth Kingdom Observes Arab-Byzantine Relations", in: Transmediterranean History. Commented Anthology of Primary Sources, ed. Daniel G. König, Theresa Jäckh, Eric Böhme, URL: https://wiki.uni-konstanz.de/transmed-en/index.php/575:_A_Hispano-Roman_Visitor_from_the_Visigoth_Kingdom_Observes_Arab-Byzantine_Relations. Last Revision: 21.09.2021, Access: 29.11.2022.


Arabs, al-Munḏir, Byzantium, diplomatic relations, Ǧafnids, John of Biclaro, Visigothic Kingdom

  1. Alonso-Núñez, Johannes, col. 557; Collins, John of Biclaro, p. 445.
  2. On the problem of equating Ǧafnids and Ġassānids as well as Naṣrīds and Laḫmids, see Fisher, Between Empires, pp. 3-7, 95-99.
  3. Nöldeke, Die Ghassânischen Fürsten, pp. 24-25, 27-30; Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. I,1, pp. 339, 386-389, 403, 602-605, 618; Fisher, Between Empires, pp. 72, 99, 121-124, 174-178.
  4. 621: Isidore of Seville on the Origins of the Term “Saracens”.
  5. Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, pp. 135-138; Valenzuela, „Ritu“, pp. 137-138; König, Arabic-Islamic Views, pp. 32-33, 151.
  6. See 600: Pope Gregory the Great Intervenes in Favour of the Exiled Ǧafnid Prince al-Munḏir b. al-Ḥāriṯ and 653: Papst Martin I. leugnet in einem Brief die Kollaboration mit den expandierenden Sarazenen.
  7. Rotter, Abendland und Sarazenen, p. 138.