G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

The order in which I’m approaching the things I said I’d do in this post has changed. I have to push the timeframe out by a month, so the last promised thing will be appearing in mid-October. And I’m switching the order of Lucian and Bowersock around, so Bowersock comes first.

G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam: a longer-than-500-word review.

This was not the book its title led me to expect. With a title like The Throne of Adulis and a subtitle of the Eve of Islam, one expects a contextualised discussion of kingship around the Red Sea within a relatively short timeframe. But in its 150 pages – this is not a long book – Bowersock ranges from the first to the sixth centuries CE and beyond, leaving one rather with the impression that The Throne of Adulis is not so much a coherent monograph in its own right, but rather the sketched outline of a longer work.

I’m not accustomed to finding academic works lacking in depth of field. In this case, the lack of depth which I perceive may be in part my lack of familiarity with the details of the Late Antique Red Sea, with which Bowersock may in fact be assuming that his readers are already familiar. If so, Oxford University Press have chosen poorly in how to present The Throne of Adulis to the public, for it is not presented in its cover copy or press release as a scholarly monograph appealing to a specialist audience, but rather as a book which “vividly recreates the Red Sea world of Late Antiquity, transporting readers back to a remote but pivotal epoch in ancient history, one that sheds light on the collapse of the Persian Empire as well as the rise of Islam.”

Nota bene, friends: it doesn’t do that. And, it fact, this piece of puffery is contradicted by Bowersock’s stated goal in his own preface. For Bowersock is not so much concerned with the wider Red Sea world, with its social and archaeological context – and let me say that I find the use of archaeological evidence in this book to be both limited and unconcerned with discussing the problems and benefits of said evidence for shedding light on people. Inscriptional evidence for important people, yes – but everyday persons, not so much.

Bowersock is interested in only one thing: an inscribed throne from the Red Sea port of Adulis, described by the sixth-century Christian writer known as Cosmas Indicopleustes. From here, he ranges outward to discuss the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, the Jewish Himyarite kingdom on the Arabian peninsula, and – briefly and in no great detail – the involvement of Byzantine and Persian interests in Axum’s wars in Arabia. When it comes to discussing the throne – the “throne of Adulis” of the title – and Axum’s situation in Ethiopia, it is a very straightforward, useful piece of research, comparing the description of the throne at Adulis with other inscribed thrones from the history of the Axumite kingdom and doing so in ways that I, as someone who knows little of Axum, can follow very well.

When he moves on to discuss Axum’s involvement in Arabia, and the Himyarite kingdom, his work stops being something that I can follow well at all. The discussion of the socio-historical context of the Arabian peninsula up to this time is lacking. Bowersock’s discussion of the Himyarite kingdom is seriously hampered by the fact that he does not take the time to lay out and examine the evidence literary and archaeological in a methodological fashion, so I am left not knowing if the lack of detail is Bowersock’s choice or a result of lack of data. The through-line of his narrative/argument is confusing, therefore, to follow, and he sketches a very limited picture of Byzantine and Persian involvement. Furthermore, he has next-to-nothing significant to say about Axum and Himyar’s impact on the rise of Islam.

And I’m left with a very odd feeling about the way in which Bowersock refers to Jewishness and Arabness. There seems to be an underlying subconscious strain of moral judgement there – not something one can easily put a finger on, but the choice of adjectives and adverbs strikes me very uneven at times. The discussion of the Christian kingdom of Axum’s interests in Arabia, and the Jewish Himyarite kingdom’s suppression of Christians, never rises to an acknowledgement that there are reasons other than pure religious sentiment to suppress adherents of a different creed: that religion is intimately political. That adherents of the creed of one’s belligerent neighbours can also be seen as Fifth Columnists.

Anyway. The Throne of Adulis is a book of interest to people fascinated by inscribed thrones, and of very limited use in explaining the social and political context of the Red Sea in the century before the rise of the Prophet.

3 thoughts on “G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

  1. “And, it fact, this piece of puffery is contradicted by Bowersock’s stated goal in his own preface.”
    “Furthermore, he has next-to-nothing significant to say about Axum and Himyar’s impact on the rise of Islam.”

    Whoever wrote the subtitle (and copy) has a lot to answer for.

    “The discussion of the Christian kingdom of Axum’s interests in Arabia, and the Jewish Himyarite kingdom’s suppression of Christians, never rises to an acknowledgement that there are reasons other than pure religious sentiment to suppress adherents of a different creed: that religion is intimately political. That adherents of the creed of one’s belligerent neighbours can also be seen as Fifth Columnists.”

    Huh. See, on the one hand I would very much like that attitude (Different relgion = fifth columnists!) to be judged, or at least not taken for granted as the smart decision, as it has done so much damage and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I’m reading right now about Joseph II, the HRE who introduced toleration for Protestants, who were sometimes thought of as fifth columnists for Prussia, as well as poking around 17th/18th century British politics, so this whole issue is on my mind at the moment). But it sounds like this book doesn’t get to the point of discussing the validity of/ issues with that attitude in the first place, if it doesn’t acknowledge it exists.

    And overt and not well-substantiated moral judgment, rather than simply arranging the facts in such a way as to be damning, was one of my problems with Bowersock’s “Julian the Apostate.”

  2. Yeah. I’m not saying it’s a good attitude? But Bowersock never suggests reasons for a pogrom besides DIFFERENT RELIGION. Which, y’know, fair enough, that can sometimes be enough of a reason if tensions are high enough and all that, but the way it’s framed seems to be a top-down political decision to suppress Christians in the Himyarite kingdom, which… really needs more exploration than it got.

    I’m making a note not to read Bowersock’s Julian, then. Pity. I quite like Julian as a historical figure. He’s… interestingly mad.

  3. “I’m making a note not to read Bowersock’s Julian, then. Pity. I quite like Julian as a historical figure. He’s… interestingly mad.”

    To be fair, I read the preview on Google Books a year ago, and my judgment is therefore based on a memory of the couple of sentences that bugged me when I read part of the book. So don’t take my word for it; it may be a fine book that I got the wrong end of. But there was something off about it.

    I was hoping the books would be better though, as my dad is very slightly acquainted with Bowersock, who lives in our town (they used to work for the same organization, though totally different areas).

    “Interestingly mad” is a good way of putting it. Definitely a vivid and odd personality, and refreshingly unaware that one’s supposed to disguise that when writing for an audience…

    I’m trying to write a play about Constantius II with Julian as a major character but I haven’t really had time to sit down and do the amount of research I need (luckily a play doesn’t need to be a historical recreation the way a novel does!). So it’s been interesting holding in tension the conjectures that make for good fiction with the conjectures that are more likely as history. Fictional!Constantius’s POV is fun to play with.

    Anyway if there are any books or articles on that period that you particularly like, it would be great to know!

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