pdfVolume 7 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Comparative Approaches to Ethnonyms: The Case of the Persians

Odile Kommer, Salvatore Liccardo, Andrea Nowak

Odile Kommer: Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences
Salvatore Liccardo: Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences
Andrea Nowak: Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna

This article1 examines ethnonyms for Persians in Medieval Latin, Greek, and Arabic sources. These ethnonyms are part of ethnic terminologies which changed over time and varied in different regional contexts. The ethnonyms for Persians are approached in different textual genres from a combination of historiographical, philological, and social anthropological perspectives. In the first part, the investigation of Persians in Late Antique source material sets out from the Tabula Peutingeriana and examines the entries on the map which refer to the Persians, highlighting both their ethnic and political meanings. The second part deals with source material on medieval South Arabia. First, it focuses on the texts of the tenth-century Yemeni scholar al-Hamdānī and his use of a set of ethnonyms for the Persian minority population, of which each term evokes a different association. This is followed by an analysis of the early thirteenth-century account of Persian traveler Ibn al-Mujāwir, in which the roles and meanings of ethnonyms for Persians in different narrative units are discussed. This case study shows that there are interdependencies between ethnonyms and other means of identification, such as language, lifestyle, place of dwelling, kinship, descent, and the division of the world into different spatial and ideological realms. The case of the Persians illustrates how the authors under discussion used ethnonyms as part of narrative strategies which support processes of selfing and othering.

Keywords: ethnonyms, ethnicity, historical geography, Alexander narrative, Late Antiquity, (Early) Middle Ages, South Arabia, Tabula Peutingeriana, Persian

This article focuses on the study of ethnonyms in medieval sources from Mediterranean Europe and Southern Arabia, or historical Yemen, through a comparative and interdisciplinary approach. In our understanding, ethnonyms are group designations which express ethnic differentiation. Thus, the terminological distinctions of collective groups never refer to bounded ethnic categories, nor are they fixed in their application. In this article, the case of “the Persians” serves as an example of the construction of identities through the use of ethnonyms by authors with different regional, temporal, and stylistic backgrounds in their historiographical, geographical, or cartographical accounts, as well as in literary narratives from medieval Mediterranean Europe and Southern Arabia.2 Broader categories of comparison are necessary, which are representative of various academic disciplines, including history, philology, and social anthropology.3 By thoroughly examining the sources, we have identified the following often interrelated key concepts and used them as additional categories of comparison: myths, notions of space, use of terminology, and (pseudo-)etymology.

We argue that the medieval authors under scrutiny employed ethnonyms as conceptual tools, and that ethnonyms were thus made meaningful. The Arabic sources for this case study on ethnonyms for “Persians” include two historical works by the tenth-century Yemeni scholar al-Hamdānī and a travelogue by the early thirteenth-century Persian author Ibn al-Mujāwir. The Latin and Greek source material includes the Tabula Peutingeriana and literary sources from Late Antique and Early Medieval authors.

Myths, Notions of Space, and Environmental Determinism

Myths often feature elements of great narratives which meet a universal human need for the expression of particular conditions. In this sense, they can function as a code of understandings of the world. In mythical narratives, the self and the other interact, as do human and divine elements. Furthermore, mythical narratives contain a processual element, which Angelika Neuwirth calls “myth[s] in a broken form.”4 In these narrative processes, the authors employ popular literary topoi with which they provide meaningful contributions to broader discourses.5 In the context of the analysis of ethnonyms and collective processes of identification it becomes evident that the medieval authors’ narrative strategies not only include mythical features, but that these mythical features are often linked to notions of space. In their accounts, real and imagined places, the distinction between center and periphery, environmental determinism, and spaces and places of collective memory function as unifying or separating elements. For example, a people’s ethnogenesis is constructed through processes of selfing and othering, often in reference to a certain place. As we argue in this article, ethnonyms obtain their various meanings precisely in this interplay of factors.

The Biblical-Quranic founders and ancestors of the South Arabians, together with environmental and climatic conditions, are the central elements of a mythically narrated moment in which the formation process of not only a town, but a South Arabian existence is explained. Environmental determinism is the notion that the physical environment exerts a determining influence on human societies and cultures. In South Arabian mythical narratives, the influence of planetary and stellar constellations on people and climates is particularly emphasized. The notion of environmental determinism was borrowed from Hellenistic Greek discourses and has later been applied in many regions of the world. It has often been used to suggest that some peoples are more advanced than others. In the beginning of his ifat jazīrat al-ˁarab, al-Hamdānī introduces the division of the world into seven “climates” (ˀaqālīm, sg. iqlīm) in accordance with the Ptolemaic idea.6 He locates Sanaa and South Arabia in the first climate and marshals different arguments to prove that the first climate is the best and, therefore, its inhabitants are also more advanced. According to the myth, the descent from Sām (Shem) through Qaḥṭān (Joktan) and Sanaa as the initial place of settlement in South Arabia are substantiated. The narrative strengthens the authenticity of the South Arabians, as well as the qaḥṭānīyūn and their South Arabian identity, by which they differentiated themselves from the North Arabians, the ˁadnānīyūn.

Although largely following Ptolemy’s view, al-Hamdānī disagrees with him concerning a climatic region named by Ptolemy after the Ethiopians (al-abasha), to which Yemen (South Arabia) is also assigned.7 It is particularly the terminological designation of this area as that of the Ethiopians which al-Hamdānī rejects. South Arabia and northeast Africa competed for power for centuries. Al-Hamdānī’s use of the term al-abasha refers to the territory and the dynasty of Aksum, which was a threat to the South Arabian kingdom of the Ḥimyar, and, in the third century, gained control over Yemen. In the sixth century, the abasha were finally expelled from South Arabia with the help of the Sasanian army. Al-Hamdānī takes a stance not only against the subsuming of Yemenis and Ethiopians in a geographical and terminological sense, but also against the idea of shared physical and personal characteristics. Ptolemy describes the area, ranging from the equator up to the middle of the Hijaz (the western part of the Arabian Peninsula), as being extremely exposed to the sun, which causes black skin-color, dark, frizzy, and thick hair, and the (allegedly) hot or even “uncivilized” temperament of its inhabitants. Al-Hamdānī argues against this, saying that the abasha are only a minority in this area and that the skin color of the inhabitants of the region varies greatly. From the perspective of skin color, some of the inhabitants of the region are in strong contrast to the abasha. He identifies the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula and of China (al-īn) as such people, located at the edge of this zone. Obviously, al-Hamdānī dislikes the idea of subsuming the South Arabians and the Ethiopians under the same climatic zone, which would imply that they were similarly affected by environmental conditions and therefore share some characteristics. African ancestry was generally associated with inferior status by Arab authors, often related to racial stereotypes.8 Both the regional history of South Arabia and the desire to see the two ethnic categories as separate motivate al-Hamdānī to make these contentions.

The necessity of drawing a distinction between the abasha and the ˁarab (“Arabs”) is also expressed in a mythical tale recounted by Ibn al-Mujāwir in his Taˀrīkh al-Mustabir.9 According to the story, the territory of the abasha was originally connected to the territory of the ˁarab through a stretch of dry land, an empty valley which reached from Suez to Bab al-Mandab. Dhū l-Qarnayn,10 the mythical hero figure Alexander the Great, then opened up Bab al-Mandab so the seawater would pour forth, flood the valley, and form the Red Sea. By creating the Red Sea, Alexander the Great intended to separate the two regions and grant each people their own territory under their own rule, so that the violent conflict between the abasha and the ˁarab would finally come to an end. Alexander’s intentions notwithstanding, the abasha did not cease invading South Arabia and besieging its inhabitants until much later in history.



Anthropogeography, Terminology, and the Affective Dimension of (Pseudo-)Etymology

In Late Antique and Early Medieval Latin and Greek literature, ethnonyms played a central role in authors’ sense of place. While cartographic representations of the world seem to have been uncommon,11 geographical knowledge was spread through numerous geographical treatises. Being purely textual, these works reflect an image of the world as the product of the totality of names of places and peoples. Thus, ethnonyms constitute a fundamental part of the conceptualization of space. Their importance for the Roman and post-Roman sense of place, as well as their longevity, made ethnonyms a central instrument in authors’ attempts to understand and organize a shifting ethnic landscape. Ethnonyms served both to contextualize the gentes dwelling on the periphery of the Roman world and to support coeval political agendas.

Medieval Arabic geography, more precisely the classical school of the tenth century, was primarily concerned with cartographical material which depicted the (Islamic) world. These maps were accompanied by rather short explanatory commentaries.12 Ibn Ḥawqal revised, rewrote, and expanded the literary commentary of the work of his predecessor al-Iṣṭakhrī and thereby crafted a geographical treatise of considerable breadth, the Kitāb ūrat al-ar (The Book of the Image of the World).13 Ibn al-Mujāwir copied a section from this work for his South Arabian travelogue, in which Ibn Ḥawqal defines “the homeland of the Arabs,” diyār al-ˁarab.14 This section offers an example of how an ethnonym was used in an internal differentiation within the Islamic world. To define “the homeland of the Arabs,” the author takes into account elements of physical geography, i.e. mountains, landscapes, seas, deserts, and steppes, but also administrative districts and tribal territories. The ethnonym for “Arabs” is combined with the word diyār – diyār al-ˁarab. In the text and on the map, the word diyār is used again, but together with several tribal names to signify tribal territories. The meaning of the word diyār indicates that the sense of place is shaped by social and political interaction. Dār, the singular of diyār, means “dwelling, abode, house” and is often part of compound words that take on abstract meanings, e.g. dār al-aman “house of safety” and dār al-arb “house of war.” These expressions refer to places/territories which are defined by military conflicts and peace treaties.15 In the expression diyār al-ˁarab, the ethnonym is used to represent the home of a large ethnic group that in itself is not homogenous; this home is further structured through a geographical and tribal terminology.

Moreover, ethnonyms can be loaded with stereotypical qualities and values. In such cases, ethnonyms take on an affective dimension which has an impact on the way they are used or influences social encounters with the respective group. If ethnonyms are applied in this manner, categorical projections of positive or negative ascriptions are made to the respective group. The affective substance of an ethnonym is particularly interesting from the perspective of the distinction between self-ascription and the ascription by others. Even though ascriptions by others can have neutral or positive connotations, they frequently entail negative characteristics and fuel processes of othering.16 While some ethnonyms do not have an obvious disparaging tone, many of the names used by Roman rhetoricians and historians have a strong affective value. When they refer to people’s looks, for instance in the case of the Lombards (who were given this name because of their long beards17) or way of life, for instance the Arabes Scenitae (who were given this name because they dwelled in tents18), ethnonyms can highlight the “barbaritas” of distant peoples and reinforce Roman attitudes towards non-Romans.

Fantastic pseudo-etymologies, a specialty of the author and traveler Ibn al-Mujāwir, can add affective value to ethnonyms and give new connotations to a group’s name. The author explains that the Arabs call the inhabitants of the highland of Ẓafār and those of the islands Soqotra and al-Masīra al-saara, “the sorcerers,” since, as he claims, al-sir, “sorcery,” is their innate characteristic. This attribution conveys a strong sense of otherness which stands in close relation to the theme of insularity. Perceived as self-contained worlds due to their remoteness, islands inspired all kinds of ideas about the other.19 These stories could be used to evoke a sense of normalcy and self-affirmation among the readership.20 It is also possible that in this case the author misinterpreted the Arabic designation for the South Arabian Seri-speakers,21 since in Arabic the root consonants s--r bear the meaning “magic” or “sorcery.”

Resorting to synonyms, i.e. literary or archaic versions of the same name, Latin and Greek authors could adapt their ethnic terminology according to the political and cultural climate. The use of antiquated ethnonyms to describe Late Antique gentes, as in the case of the Goths (which were often designated as Scythians or Getae), was not only a matter of style. By repeating ancient ethnic denominations, writers could flaunt their literary knowledge, but they also drew the attention of their readership to older narratives concerning the peoples in question. This literary strategy could be considered a sort of “defense mechanism.”22 In other words, it reinforced the belief that the new ethnonyms (such as “Goths”) did not prove the existence of new peoples. This rhetorical device clearly shines through Synesius of Cyrene’s speech addressed to the emperor Arcadius. In an attempt to urge the emperor to pursue a more aggressive policy against the Goths, Synesius considers the new ethnonym a forgery made by the barbarians to frighten the Romans, to make them believe that another foreign nation had sprung from the soil.23

In what follows, we show how ethnonyms, considered as conceptual tools, were used together with the above exemplified key concepts to form distinctive discourses in the particular case of the Persians. In Part I of the case study, Salvatore Liccardo analyzes the way in which Persians are portrayed on the Tabula Peutingeriana. Since the Tabula Peutingeriana represents a compendium of Greco-Roman geographical and cartographical knowledge, a study of the visual and written representations of the Persians on the map will serve to highlight both the adaptability and diffusion of ethnonyms, which shaped and supported a specific ethnic discourse or political agenda. In Part II, Odile Kommer studies how the Yemeni author al-Hamdānī applies different ethnonyms for Persians and how this relates to strategies of selfing and othering in the context of interethnic relations between the tribal majority population of the Yemen and local Persian minorities. Her contribution is based on an analysis of al-Ḥasan al-Hamdānī’s Kitāb ifat jazīrat al-ˁarab and Kitāb al-Jawharatayn al-ˁaīqatayn al-māˀiˁatayn min al-afrāˀ wa-l-bayāˀ, Arabic sources written in Yemen in the tenth century. Andrea Nowak examines how Ibn al-Mujāwir, in his thirteenth-century travelogue Taˀrīkh al-Mustabir, traces the presence of the Persians in Yemen throughout its history and along the travel route. Since the travel genre presents a rich blend of styles and topics, it provides different narrative units in which ethnonyms are charged with meaning. Furthermore, Part II offers an example of how an Arabic exonym which predominantly conveyed negative ideas about a (Persian) other later became a neutral and, eventually, positive connoted Persian self-ascription.

The Case of the Persians Part I – Late Roman Empire

According to C. R. Whittaker, the Tabula Peutingeriana is “the only certain map, in any sense that we would recognize it, to survive from antiquity (…) although preserved in a medieval copy.”24 The map was intended to represent the entire inhabited world (in Greek oἰκουμένη), from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to India in the East. Despite its impressive size (6.75 m long and 32-34 cm high), the copy in our possession is, however, incomplete, since it is missing the western extremity, grosso modo, corresponding to the west coast of North Africa, the Iberian peninsula and most of the British Isles. While the history of this copy is rather clear,25 the dating of its archetype remains a topic of heated debate. For the purpose of this article, suffice it to say that there is a certain degree of academic consensus on the dating of the last redaction of the Tabula to the Late Antique period, more specifically to the first half of the fifth century.26 Among the several thousand writings on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a handful concern the Persians. These elements of the map represent the focus of the present analysis, which aims to highlight the essential connection between sense of place, ethnographic reasoning, and imperial political discourse.

References to Persians consist of regional names, city names, and ethnonyms. Although these entries are not particularly abundant, the Persian world appears to occupy a significant place in the imagination of the mapmakers. The most visible entry, PERSIDA (10B5–11C3),27 designates a vast territory stretching from the Tigris to the Indus River. Though it is located in a somewhat peripheral area which the mapmakers knew only partially, Persia differs in no way from any other region. As in the case of the Roman provinces, the map’s coverage focuses primarily on the street network and the urban centers. The only significant difference is represented by the use of the Persian unit of itinerant distance, the parasang, instead of the Roman mile.28

Regarding the presence of other territorial names, the Tabula includes also the rubric PARRIA (11C1–11C2), indicating the region of Parthia. The size and position of this caption seem to reflect its relation to the term PERSIDA. One name, Parthia, clearly represents a subcategory of a bigger entity, Persia, which encompasses a much larger number of cities and streets. Turning one’s attention to city names, one can find the illustrious urban centers of Ctesiphon (capital of the Sasanian Empire), Ecbatana (capital of Media and subsequently one of the seats of the Parthian kings), and Persepolis (royal residence of the Achaemenes).29 Both the entry for Ecbatana and the entry for Persepolis contain a specific reference to the ethnic component of these cities. Ecbatana is called “Ecbatana of the Parthians,” and Persepolis is defined as the “Persian commercial hub.” The coexistence of Persians and Parthians on the map mirrors the ethnic reasoning of Late Antique writers, who often used Parthi and Persae as synonyms.30 Although several sources mention the shift of power from the Arsacid to the Sasanian Empire,31 in Roman accounts Persians and Parthians appear as part of the same ethnic entity, sharing customs and ethnographical stereotypes.

The ethnonym “Persian” recurs on the Tabula on two other occasions.32 Halfway between the regions of Mesopotamia and Persia, squeezed in a complex and confused fluvial system, there are the entries TROGODITI PERSI (10B5) and FLVMEIPERSI (10B5). They are examples of ethnic “double names.” Within this category fall ethnonyms composed of a known ethnic denomination and a second textual element which serves to specify the group in question. In most cases, these double names represent a particular ethnic subgroup belonging to a larger gens. For example, the entries ESSEDONES SCYTHAE (11A3) and ROXULANI SARMATE (7A5) refer to specific groupings ascribed to the broader ethnicities of Scythians and Sarmatians. In other cases, a textual element matched with an ethnic umbrella term can hint at something more than a simple subgroup. It can evoke the geography of a people’s dwelling, their way of life, their physical appearance, and their political structure, or it may even recall a literary figure.33 In the case of the entries TROGODITI PERSI and FLVMEIPERSI, the double names, placed a few centimeters away from each other, represent two groups which share the same ethnic origin: they are both considered Persians. Although one can only speculate about their exact meaning, an analysis of these entries will serve to highlight both the ethnographic knowledge and the political agenda of the authors of the map.

The inscription FLVMEIPERSI represents the most enigmatic case. As the inscription exists today, on the only surviving copy of the map, the legend is obscure. It could be that the term reflects the mapmakers’ decision to coin a neologism in order to emphasize the exotic nature of this people. Another possibility is that the ethnonym is unintelligible, because one or more different hands involved in the transmission did not understand and, therefore, did not reproduce a previously existing abbreviation. For a better understanding, it is necessary to propose a significant emendation of the inscription FLVMEIPERSI.34

Although any interpretation of this legend is simply a more or less informed conjecture, one could suppose that the term Flumei refers to an unspecified Flumen. Emended as Fluminei Persae, the inscription would mean “the Persians of the River.” This explanation has some advantages. It is close to the text and seems to reflect the location of the inscription, which is stretched out in close proximity to a watercourse. Additional perspectives can be gained by looking at other double names on the Tabula Peutingeriana that seem to allude to the specific geographical area inhabited by a given ethnic subgroup. For instance, the legend PARALOCAESCYTHAE (10A4) has been interpreted as referring to Scythians living on the coast of the Caspian Sea,35 while the inscription RVMI SCYTHAE (11A1) arguably refers to another group of Scythians dwelling near the River Rhymmus.36 Finally, the map also has the legends VAPII (1A2) and VARII (1A3), which plausibly relate to two ancient Germanic ethnonyms with their typical ending (“varii”).37 If Amsivarii and Chasuarii were the correct reading of the terms on the Tabula, these two terms would be another two ethnonyms on the map that may have been derived from the name of a river, since there is a connection between Amsivarii and the river Ems, as well as between the Chasuarii and the river Hase.38

However, the Fluminei Persae would differ slightly from the aforementioned cases, because the name is an allusion not to a specific river but to an unnamed one.39 A look at the Cosmographia of Julius Honorius,40 a geographical treatise which is roughly coeval to the Tabula Peutingeriana, might help find a more equivalent example. In one of the different catalogues which constitute this work, one finds the ethnonym Fluminenses gens.41 Based on its position in the text (after the Feratenses and the Barzufulitani, but before the Quinquegentiani) and its content, Philippe Leveau has proposed interpreting this name as referring to a specific group of Mazices, a people of Mauretania Caesariensis, which lived next to the River Chelif.42 Since the Tabula Peutingeriana and the Cosmographia are similar, both in terms of chronology and the ethnonyms employed,43 the Fluminenses could represent an analogous case to the FLVMEIPERSI and therefore support the interpretation of the map’s legend as referring to the “Persians of the river.”

On the basis of this reasoning, one could hypothesize that TROGODITI PERSI and FLVMEIPERSI were used by the mapmakers to designate two ethnic groups living in two different environments. The “Persians of the River” could represent the inhabitants of the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, while the “Persian Troglodytes” could be the dwellers of the Zagros Mountains. However, the ethnic “double name” TROGODITI PERSI carries a meaning broader than a simple geographical characterization.

The last consideration introduces a subject central to this section of this article: the analysis and contextualization of the legend TROGODITI PERSI. Albeit less obscure, this inscription is also unclear. First, the text needs a small emendation: the inclusion of an ‘l’ in the term Trogoditi, which should read Trog<l>oditi. The unusual location of the legend is also problematic. In the segments representing the eastern and far eastern lands, the depiction of both physical and urban landscapes is often inaccurate. Nevertheless, the discrepancy between the content of the inscription TROGODITI PERSI and its position is particularly striking, because of the ethnographic tradition and evocative power connected to the term “troglodytes.” While Greek and Roman geographers used this term in connection with various ethnic groups living on the fringe of the inhabited world, most frequently in Ethiopia, the authors of the map put the cave dwellers next to a meander of the Tigris, making the homeland of this people anything but peripheral. In contrast with the comparative absence of cities and roads typical of the northern periphery of the ecumene, here city names and streets proliferate.

Nonetheless, this abundance of details is not the result of precise geographical knowledge of the region. The depiction appears chaotic and in some cases utterly wrong. The Mesopotamic fluvial system is far from being exact. The river Tigris, for example, has many incongruous characteristics. First, it gushes from a small mountain chain and then crosses another much longer one. Later, it flows into a neighboring river, the morphology of which is even more bewildering,44 and finally, after twisting with the latter, it flows into a circular inland body of water, named Palvdes (10C3). The number and location of cities and roads reflect a picture just as baffling. A few place names are written twice in two different positions of the map. This is the case with Sinjar, present on the map as Singara (10B5) and Sirgora (10C4, without a symbol), and Ain Sinu, on the map as Zagvrae (10B5) and Zogorra (10C4).45 As they doubled names, the mapmakers also doubled the relative routes (Singara-Hatris and Lacvs Beberaci-Singara). In addition to this confusion, one should mention the atypical position of the caption in question, which, due to the lack of space and the large amount of neighboring physical and urban elements, is vertical rather than horizontal.46

What is more perplexing about the entry TROGODITI PERSI is its content. The juxtaposition of the name “troglodytes” with the ethnonym Persians is unique. Late Antique Latin and Greek texts reflect a nuanced image of the Persians, who represented a sort of counterpart to the Roman world despite often being considered morally inferior.47 Accurate historical information, longstanding ethnic stereotypes, and literary metaphors and commonplaces interweave in the works of Late Antique writers, even in the writings of authors like Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius, and Agathias, who either travelled to the eastern frontier or had (or claimed to have had) personal contact with Persians and access to Persian documents.48 Even if the depiction of Persians could vary according to author and political climate, Roman persons of letters shared a profound interest in this gens. The fourth-century historian Ammianus Mercellinus represents one of the most glaring examples of this fascination. In his historical work, known as the Res Gestae, he inserted a large number of excursuses which contain information primarily of a geographical and ethnographical nature. The section dedicated to the Persians, included in book 23 right before the account of Julian’s Persian expedition, is by far the longest.49 Since the chronology of this work (380s) is not very distant from the last redaction of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a brief analysis of Ammianus’ Persians highlights the extent to which the entry in question deviates from or converges with the opinions of his contemporaries.

Ammianus never explicitly defines the Persians as barbarians,50 yet his judgment of them cannot be considered positive. Century-old ethnographic stereotypes influenced the description of their physical features, temperament, and habits. In its desire to emulate more ancient and authoritative authors, such as Herodotus and Ptolemy, Ammianus’ digression resembles a display of erudition rather than a report of new information about Persian society. Although he seems well aware of the complexity and vastness of the Persian Empire, which is considered a patchwork of diverse peoples and disparate environments, Ammianus does not make any clear distinction among the subjects of the King of Kings when he lists the alleged virtues and vices of the Persians.51 Among their many moral flaws, he mentions their unrestrained lust (which explains why they have numerous concubines and as many wives as they can support), their effeminate posture, their vanity, and their cruelty. Ammianus’ remarks on king Sapor II (309–79) are everything but flattering: he is greedy, quick-tempered, rough, pompous, treacherous, and dishonest. Yet, Persians do not know pederasty, and they do not engage in obscene behavior, such as urinating in public. They are also extremely frugal when it comes to food and particularly disciplined on the battlefield.52

In other words, Ammianus stresses the Persians’ otherness, emphasizing their effeminacy, their licentiousness, and their cruelty, all typical traits of eastern barbarians according to Greco-Roman ethnography,53 but he also recognizes some praiseworthy aspects of their way of life, distancing himself in a few instances from the older historical tradition.54 To conclude, although the Persians share some characteristics with other barbarians and are often depicted in negative terms, they are a unique interlocutor for the Romans, an alius orbis55 representing another, although not equal, civilization. The judgment that shines through the pages of the Res Gestae seems to contradict the entry on the Tabula Peutingeriana, which puts the Persians unambiguously in the realm of the barbaricum.

However, the unusual connection of the Persians with the “troglodytes” appears less strange if one broadens the scope of the primary sources taken into consideration. While Ammianus attributes barbaric habits to Persians but never explicitly calls them barbarians, other Late Antique sources do define them as such. For example, a register of provincial, urban, and ethnic names dating to 314, the so-called Laterculus Veronensis,56 does not imply any difference between Persians and other barbaric groups. The ethnonym Persae is included in a list of gentes barbarae who spread under the authority of Roman emperors.57 For the author of this catalogue, there is no substantial difference between Persians and other barbaric groups, like Saxons, Vandals, and Goths.

One can recognize the same reasoning in a certain number of inscriptions dedicated to the emperor Julian and found in the eastern part of the empire.58 These inscriptions praise the emperor for his military, civic, and religious policies. Julian is celebrated as liberator orbis Romani, as restaurator templorum, and as recreator curiarum et rei publicae. Regarding Julian’s success over external enemies, the inscriptions contain the cognomina devictarum gentium Alamannicus, Francicus, Germanicus, and Sarmaticus.59 In a few cases, the emperor is hailed with more comprehensive victory titles, such as debellator omnium barbararum gentium, extinctor barbarorum or νικητὴς παντὸς ἔθνους βαρβαρικοῦ.60 In texts from the eastern provinces, the term barbari would likely indicate primarily the Persians, who represented the major threat in the area.61 This seems to be the most logical conclusion concerning at least two inscriptions from the Roman province of Phoenicia,62 where the text presents both cognomina, referring to individual groups of western barbarians, and the generic title extinctor barbarorum. The cognomina devictarum gentium allude to successes accomplished by Julian at the Rhine frontier in 355–58, while the pompous title extinctor barbarorum reflects the propaganda implemented by Julian and his supporters in the months preceding the Persian campaign.63

Although it does not contain the term barbari, an episode in Ammianus’ account of the Persian campaign represents one of the closest examples to the disparaging entry on the Tabula Peutingeriana. In front of an army that was increasingly demotivated and in need of supplies due to the effective scorched-earth policy of the Persians, Julian ordered some prisoners to be brought before the army and harangued his troops as follows: “Behold what those warlike spirits consider men, little ugly dirty goats; and creatures who, as many events have shown, throw away their arms and take to flight before they can come to blows.”64

The description refers to undernourished and unkempt prisoners, yet it repeats and amplifies negative stereotypes of Persians in general. The animal metaphor serves to highlight their physical repugnance and their cowardice on the battlefield. This tirade reflects the intolerant attitude towards everything that was not Roman, an attitude which formed an integral part of the political discourse supported and spread by Julian and his court.65

Libanius, a teacher of Greek rhetoric in Antioch who was a friend of and advisor to the emperor, was among the most prominent spokespersons of this anti-Persian rhetoric.66 In his orations, Persians are repeatedly and explicitly called barbarians.67 In Embassy to Julian, Libanius ascribes two quintessential barbarian vices to the Persians: the disdain for blood ties and the lack of mercy. Prone to violent outbursts, Persians act like wild beasts, while Julian is a Greek who rules over Greeks, and therefore follows a superior moral code of conduct.68 The Greek-Persian dichotomy follows the opposition human-inhuman. The political ideology supported and spread by Julian and his pagan collaborators tended to stress the Hellenic nature of Roman power.69 As stated more than once by Julian himself, Romans and Greeks belong to the same γένος: the Greeks civilized the Romans and the latter acquired, preserved, and spread the Greek religion and political institutions.70 In the political message of Julian and Libanius, the more the Romans resembled the Greeks, the more the Persians took the role of barbarians par excellence.

Although particularly evident in the works of Julian and his court, this attitude towards the Persians was not exclusive to their political and cultural discourse. Judgments of the Persians went hand in hand with the contemporary political situation. Since the rise of the Sasanian Empire in 224, Romans and Persians were in almost constant conflict.71 Mesopotamia, Syria, and Armenia were the main war zones. In a Roman world which looked on the Persians with renewed apprehension, the narrative of Alexander the Great enjoyed a period of revival. The Latin rendition of the Alexander Romance represents one pivotal example of this new interest in the figure of Alexander.72 This text, whose author is traditionally identified as Julius Valerius Alexander Polemius, consul in 338, contributed greatly to the diffusion and longevity of the myth of Alexander in medieval Europe. The Macedon and his deeds in the East represented a model for any Roman emperor who had to confront the Persian threat. If Julian was the most enthusiastic emulator of Alexander,73 other emperors aspired to follow in his footsteps.74 These are the premises on which a text known as the Itinerarium Alexandri (the latest possible date of which is 345) rests.75 Dedicated to Constantius II, this work exploits the myth of Alexander for contemporary political exigencies. Alexander’s expedition is presented both as an archetype and as an omen for the emperor, who had just started his campaign against the Persians. Significantly, the revival of the Alexander narrative also finds expression on the Tabula Peutingeriana. References to Alexander’s deeds play a central role in the map’s portrayal of the eastern lands. The campaigns of the Macedonian king are evoked through the numerous cities that bear his name (founded during or after Alexander’s reign),76 the mention of the Indian elephants,77 and especially two isolated symbols (the “altars of Alexander”), which, marking the limits of Alexander’s expeditions, define the edges of the inhabited world.78 Thus, it appears that the Alexander narrative enjoyed a period of renewed interest in Late Antiquity, a phenomenon that could be interpreted as closely linked to the contemporary political climate. The account of Alexander’s Persian campaign provided a story in which the Persians played the role of the main antagonist, who eventually succumbs, and thus the narrative served to reassure a Roman public worried about the aggressive Sasanian policy.

In light of the above, it is now possible to contextualize the entry TROGODITI PERSI on the Tabula Peutingeriana, which at first glance appears so bizarre. Contrary to the more nuanced judgment of influential historians, such as Ammianus and Procopius, the imperial discourse, influenced by the renewed popularity of the Alexander narrative, described the Persians in clear-cut negative terms. The Tabula Peutingeriana, or at least its last version, appears as the product of Roman imperial ideology. With Italy covering one-third of the map and Rome located in its center,79 the map represents the ecumene seen through the lens of Roman geography and political discourse. Moreover, the myth of Alexander, which offers a particularly disparaging image of the Persians, evidently informs the depiction of the East on the Tabula. To conclude, although the Tabula Peutingeriana represents the only instance in which the Persians are described as “troglodytes,” this legend can be interpreted as an extreme example of Late Antique anti-Persian rhetoric, which, fuelled by the political tensions at the time, repeated and adjusted themes of Alexander’s narrative and perpetuated the most derogatory stereotypes of the Persians.

The Case of the Persians Part II – South Arabia

The basis of the analysis in this article on South Arabia in the tenth century is the writings of al-Ḥasan b. Aḥmad b. Yaˁqūb al-Hamdānī (280–334 AH/894–945), a distinguished scholar, poet, and public figure. As one of Yemen’s minority groups, the Persians offer an example of al-Hamdānī’s adaptation of ethnic terminology, analyzed in consideration of its historical and ethnographic context. Applying ethnonyms in order to differentiate social categories is a universal strategy of othering. In the case of the Yemeni author, it becomes obvious that these strategies can only be understood in relation to simultaneous selfing processes, that they are primarily local, and that they are always contextual. An understanding of othering as the construction of an imagined other through the differentiation of this other from the self (often in a pejorative way) reveals a close link between this strategy and the concept of ethnicity itself, since processes of ethnic differentiation are generally based on constructions of precisely these kinds of dichotomies. The following terminological examination will clarify this.

Al-Hamdānī applies different ethnonyms to Persians in his writings: al-abnāˀ, al-furs, and al-ˁajam. Their etymological meaning and the context in which they are used in the sources are the basis of interpretation regarding the social implications of the terms and the author’s discursive strategies. Processes of selfing and othering concerning South Arabians and Persians are significantly shaped by tribal ideologies in al-Hamdānī’s account. However, his use of the different terms is fluid and cannot be clearly categorized. In spite of sectarian conflicts and continuous power struggles, particularly in the ninth and tenth centuries80 (when al-Hamdānī was writing), there is a remarkable element of continuity, most clearly expressed in the consistent use over long periods of time of tribal names and toponyms, which resist political ruptures and changes.81 This element of continuity must not be ignored in the study of tribal identities and social environments in the Yemeni highlands. The case of the Yemeni Persians further supports the argument. For many centuries, their main area of settlement remained the city of Sanaa and the surrounding region, and their most characteristic ethnonym al-abnāˀ appears consistently in the sources for about 600 years between the sixth and twelfth centuries.82

This main term for Persians (and also the term used most by al-Hamdānī), al-abnāˀ (“the sons”) in the abridged or abnāˀ al-furs (“the sons of the Persians”) in the complete form, clearly refers to the descendants of Persians, who came to Yemen at the end of the sixth century, when it fell under Sasanian rule.83 They were not regarded as “real Persians,” since they were born in Yemen and often had Yemeni mothers.84 Hence, the significance of the term is deeply rooted in the Yemeni local context and history. Al-Hamdānī mentions al-abnāˀ several times, particularly in his Kitāb ifat jazīrat al-ˁarab (Geography of the Arabian Peninsula).85 Among them were prominent personalities, individual inhabitants of towns or villages, and larger groups of the population. The designation al-abnāˀ creates a terminological relation to the tribal population of Yemen. It has the same meaning as banū (“sons”), which is a term for members of a tribal group and can be part of the tribal name. Hence, the two terms abnāˀ and banū are equivalent designations with regard to meaning, yet they are distinct markers of social groups, which is highly interesting from the perspective of an analysis of the constructions of identity and interethnic relations. Both terms are part of group designations which imply kinship references. Through banū a connection to genealogy is expressed, which marks an important factor of tribal identities. However, not every tribal group shares such an identity-establishing genealogical record or is composed of a mixture of different genealogical backgrounds. Yet the addition of banū to the tribal name conveys the impression of having one shared genealogy.86

Al-furs appears either as additional part in the construction with abnāˀ, e.g. abnāˀ al-furs, or can otherwise be applied as an ethnonym by itself. Al-Hamdānī used al-furs partly synonymously with al-abnāˀ for people of Persian descent. The following example is a passage on Persians from the mining city of al-Raḍrāḍ, who came under attack and had to flee the town. It shows that al-furs is the term applied to descendants of Sasanian Persians but also of Persians who came to Yemen in later periods (under the Umayyads and the Abbasids). It seems they worked in the mine and therefore were called furs al-maˁdin (“Persians of the mine”). Some of them had a background in Sanaa, including houses [manāzil] and estates [iyāˁ], to which they could return. Furthermore, those who returned to Sanaa are identified by names, which all contain banū, followed by a Persian word as the first syllable,87 and the same ending syllable [ōye], which was very common to Persian names even if probably pronounced differently88:


When Muḥammad b. Yuˁfir was killed and these qabāˀil89 fell into distress because of that, some of them acted unjustly against its inhabitants, killed among them and ransacked them. Who remained flew, and they were dispersed in the bilād [country]. A qawm [body of men/women] of them went to Ṣanˁāˀ who had a footing there from times of old and dwelling houses and property. Its inhabitants were all from al-Furs [the Persians], from those who came there during the jāhiliyya [pre-Islamic times], in the days of the Banū Umayya [Umayyads] and the Banū al-ˁAbbās [Abbasids]. They were called Furs al-maˁdin [Persians of the mine]. Who is in Ṣanˁāˀ of them are Banū Sardōye, Banū Mihrōye, Banū Zanjōye, Banū Bardōye, and Banū Jandōye.90

Al-furs is also a general designation for Persians beyond the Yemeni context, which refers to a territory, namely the bilād fāris (“Persia”). Fāris, “Persia,” was used in Achaemenid (559-330 BCE) and Sasanian (224-651 CE) times and designated both the Persians as an ethnic group and their homeland. In early Arabic sources, the term fārs/fāris was applied both in the narrow sense to the Persian province of Fars and in a wider sense to the whole Persian territory. As an ethnonym for Persians, al-furs was much more common than fāris.91 Al-furs can be opposed to other ethnonyms, such as al-ˁarab (“the Arabs”) or al-rūm (“the Byzantines”). Having the qualities of a typical ethnonym, al-furs cannot be combined with these alternative categories, since, when used in the same context, they are mutually exclusive.92 It is used in this sense by al-Hamdānī, for example in listings of people or lands, but since the focus of his writing is South Arabia, such lists are only marginal and little explanation of them is provided. One corresponding example is a passage from the Kitāb al-Jawharatayn al-ˁaīqatayn al-māˀiˁatayn min al-afrāˀ wa-l-bayāˀ (The Book on the Two Noble Metals Gold and Silver) on the mining business in Yemen:The merchants from among the Iraqis [al-ˁirāqīyīn], Persians [al-furs], Syrians [ash-shaˀmīyīn], and Egyptians [al-miṣrīyīn] carried away the silver of Yemen at that time, and they gained through it significant profit.”93 Here, Persians are listed with other agents active in the mining business. In this context, al-furs is in line with the other foreign categories, and there is no indication of any closer relation to Yemen. On the contrary, there is some sign of a tie to the foreign lands to which the silver was “carried away” by the merchants.

Another designation that can be applied to Persians is al-ˁajam (pl. aˁājim). Al-Hamdānī mentions it more rarely than al-abnāˀ and al-furs. Where it appears in the text, it is sometimes not clear whether it actually refers to Persians or to non-Arabs. This ambivalence is caused by the historical use of the term. ˁAjam has its etymological root in ˁujma, “impure speech,” and is opposed to faāa, “highly eloquent, clear speech.” Even pre-Islamic poetry drew a distinction between al-ˁarab and al-ˁajam. In the context of the Islamic conquests, it was used in order to distinguish between “Arabized” populations and “pure” or “real” Arabs.94 The etymology and semantic evolution of this collective term are comparable to those of the Greek term βάρβαροι, and it was primarily associated with the neighboring Persians. The affective value attributed to the word was at times inspired by claims of Arab superiority due to their more civilized and refined culture.95 In Yemen of the tenth century, al-ˁajam could have functioned as general designation for non-Arabs, could have meant non-Arabic speakers, or could have been an ethnic designation for Persians. Al-Hamdānī, for example, writes about abnāˀ aˁjam,96 which can be translated as “offspring of non-Arab descent” or “offspring of Persian descent.” In later sources, such as Ibn al-Mujāwir’s Taˀrīkh al-Mustabir, al-ˁajam was explicitly used for Persians. The Shuˁūbīya movement in the time of the ‘Abbasids97 questioned Arab superiority and strove to revalue the role of the aˁājim, which mostly but not exclusively meant the Persians. Fostered by these developments, ˁajam as the initially pejorative identification of others by Arabs became a neutral term of ethnic differentiation. With its novel quality of an ethnic group designation for Persians, it was eventually used as self-ascription.98 Moreover, the term could also be used to denote a territory, i.e. bilād al-aˁājim (“non-Arab lands”).99 Thus, ˁajam in its various forms is the most unspecific of the terms in question. It stresses distinctiveness without qualifying or defining it. It can be assumed that the Yemeni readers were able to discern, at least in some matters, whether al-ˁajam meant Persians or non-Arabs, but al-Hamdānī’s intention in using this term might have been less to identify the other and more to evoke a sense of it.

In order to explore ethnonyms for Persians in South Arabia in a later medieval period, this case study draws on Ibn al-Mujāwirs Taˀrīkh al-Mustabir (The Historiography of the Sharp-Sighted), a travelogue from the early thirteenth century. The author, to all appearances a native of Khorasan, Persia and native Persian-speaker, visited South Arabia at least three times between 1220 and 1230. He shows great interest in the history and topography of the Arabian Peninsula, but mainly focuses on the topic of trade and commerce, which leads to the assumption that he was most likely a businessman himself.100 In a copious style, he combines his own observations and those of informants and transmitters with an abundance of storytelling, including local myths and legends as well as Quranic themes and his own dreams, creating a rich mix of genres. Thus, the analysis of ethnonyms in this source focuses on their roles and meanings in these different narrative units and also their etymology and historical context.

In Taˀrīkh al-Mustabir, the abovementioned terms al-furs and al-ˁajam are used synonymously and are equally eligible to designate people of Persian origin or descent, meaning either Persians who came to Yemen from Persia or their Yemeni offspring. It is clear that the term ˁajam refers to no other ethnicity than Persian. ˁAjam as used by Ibn al-Mujāwir has no negative connotation whatsoever and bears no reference to its Greek/Arabian etymology of “impure speech.” The author even uses the term al-ˁAjamīya to refer to the Persian language when quoting a Persian saying given by his contemporary Yemeni Persian-speakers. Although furs and ˁajam are used interchangeably, the term ˁajam is used slightly more often in the text. When in opposition to other typical ethnonyms, especially ˁarab, the term ˁajam is preferred, maybe because of its phonetic similarities or because al-ˁarab wa-l-ˁajam had been coined as a pair of opposites since pre-Islamic times. The following quotation shows how ˁajam qualifies as a term that clearly designates Persians as an ethnic group in distinction to others:


They are a people descended from Ham, son of Noah – peace be upon him. Moreover they are not Arabs [ˁarab], Persians [ˁajam], Indians [hind], Abyssinians [ḥabash], Turks [turk] nor Nabateans [nabaṭ], but they have a language all of their own which is used [only] among themselves.101

In this passage, the author recounts one of his dreams about a mystic valley and its inhabitants near the city of Medina. In this case, it is obvious that “Persian” serves as an ethnic category that is dissociated from any distinct historical timeframe.

Whenever the frequently used phrase “it was built by the Persians” or its variation, “a construction of the Persians,” is used, the question arises how an approximate historical period can be determined. Ibn al-Mujāwir provides his readership with a hodological rather than a chronologically organized narrative, meaning that he structures his writing according to the stops on his itinerary (towns, cities, historical sites). He shows a pronounced tendency to attribute the erection of impressive building structures such as fortifications and mosques and even the founding of whole towns to the Persians, whether these edifices or settlements still existed, were in ruins, or were gone altogether. Flipping this causality around, he interprets the remains of constructions as indications of Persian presence in major cities and various other towns in earlier history. If at all, he gives only vague time specifications, e.g. “when the Pharaonic rule came to an end,” “in the days of the Persians,” and “under Persian rule.” One can either try to reconstruct at least a tentative timeframe from the context and compare it with other historical records to determine whether the building in question was or could have been of Persian making, or one can use additional information given on the building materials, location (e.g. the center or the periphery of the town), and other architectural features to determine Persian workmanship.102 Particularly in the case of Aden, it seems most likely that expressions like “the days of the Persians” refer to the period of Sasanian rule in the sixth century. Roxani Margariti notes that “Al-Marzūqī103 conveys the tradition that Aden always came under the jurisdiction of Yemen’s rulers.”104 On some occasions, Ibn al-Mujāwir supports his statements by saying that the information was revealed to him in a dream, hence it was a divinely inspired vision (manām or ruˀ), which can be understood as strong proof.105 A legend like that of Alexander the Great, a mythical figure who also appears in the Quran, might also serve as evidence. In spite of the fact or, perhaps, precisely because of the fact that such narratives defy clear historical substantiation, they attain a strong effect. The following may serve as a prime example:


When Dhū l-Qarnayn [Alexander the Great] released the sea from Jabal Bāb al-Mandab and it flowed out, all the area around Aden dried up. […] When the Persian rulers [mulūk al-ˁajam] took over Aden they saw this exposed area and were afraid for the town, that someone coming to conquer might lay siege to it. Then they made an opening on the side near to Jabal ˁImrān and released the sea over it. The sea poured forth, descending until it drowned the whole exposed area around Aden. Aden became an island. […] The new-made sea was called Buḥayrat al-Aˁājim and was known by their name for all times.106

Here, the plural form aˁājim is part of the hydronym buayrat al-aˁājim. Ibn al-Mujāwir never uses the word aˁājim as a term to designate the Persians. It occurs only twice in the text, the second time in a piece of Arabic poetry which he quotes. Mulūk al-ˁajam might refer to the Sasanian rulers, but the fact that this story connects to the legend of Dhū l-Qarnayn creates a certain level of ambiguity. Such ambiguities are characteristic of Ibn al-Mujāwir’s writing and do not necessarily undermine the author’s discourse. If anything, they create narrative tension and draw more attention to what seems to be the author’s intention, namely to point out the momentousness of Persian influence in medieval Yemen.

One group of Persians which is datable and clearly distinguishable from other Persians throughout the text are al-furs min ahl Sīrāf, “the Persians of the people of Siraf.” The ancient city of Siraf, situated on the Iranian coast of the Persian Gulf, was a seaport and early Islamic trade center. In 997, it was left in ruins by an earthquake which lasted for seven days. The people of Siraf, whose merchants had already been traveling back and forth to the Red Sea, then immigrated to the coastal regions in the area.107 Ibn al-Mujāwir introduces the ahl Sīrāf early in his account when dealing with the history of the seaport Jeddah.108 A group of contemporary Yemeni Persians tells him the story of their Sirafi ancestors who fortified the city by enclosing it with a massive wall. They then dug a huge moat around it so that the seawater would pour into it and run around the town until it flowed back into the sea. Thus the city of Jeddah resembled an island amidst the sea. The incredible number of a thousand reservoirs, built to guarantee a secure supply of drinking water, adds a fantastic element to the story. After approximately 80 years of prosperous community life, the Persians were forced out of Jeddah by the Arabs, and they immigrated to other islands and coastal cities in the region yet again.

Another tale which features the ahl Sīrāf speaks to their pride and wealth as merchants.109 The same story appears in Ibn al-Baṭṭūṭa’s Rila, who visited Aden about a hundred years later, probably around 1330.110 In Ibn al-Mujāwir’s account the protagonists are the Sirafi Persians. Two slave-boys of two Sirafi merchants are sent to the market to bid for fish. The slaves start bidding for the only fish available until the price exceeds 1,000 Dinars and one of them buys it. When he brings home the fish, his master is so pleased with him that he sets him free and provides him with 1,000 Dinars sustenance. The other slave who returns to his master empty-handed is severely punished. In Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s version the fish is a ram, but the masters who send their slave-boys are not associated with any particular ethnic group, but rather with the social group of Adeni traders in general.111

As to the etymology of the name Aden, Ibn al-Mujāwir states that it was derived from the word maˁdin, more specifically from maˁdin al-adīd, “the iron mine,” and that it was called ākhuri sangīn “an empty, or rather, stony cratch” by the Persians.112 This is clearly a reference to the Persian mining activities in Yemen and a further example of how the author uses different tools to point out the strong impact of Persian presence in medieval Yemen.

Despite the different etymologies of al-furs, al-ˁajam and al-abnāˀ, and although there are some tendencies in al-Hamdānī’s texts, which at first glance suggest preferences for one or the other term depending on the context, these South Arabian sources from the tenth century show that no clear-cut distinctions between the three terms can be made. The range between al-abnāˀ, al-furs, and al-ˁajam varies in terms of their othering potential. The relatedness of the terms abnāˀ and banū can be interpreted as minor differentiation and could even be read as a strategy of selfing, e.g. al-abnāˀ refers to the Yemeni Persians, understood as part of the author’s own society, in contrast to al-furs, which refers to the Persian Persians, not understood as part of Yemeni society. Of course, the differentiation between abnāˀ and banū, or Persians and Yemeni tribesmen respectively, continues. Otherwise the ethnonym would not make sense. Consequently, the three ethnonyms for Persians in Yemen, which al-Hamdānī uses, combine different levels of selfing and othering. Yet the flexibility of how they are used underlines the fluid character of ethnic categorizations in medieval South Arabia. Genealogy and descent were major factors of tribal belonging and ethnic naming, as the case of the abnāˀ shows. What becomes evident is that in the case of the abnāˀ, the construction of identity for the (Arab) self and the (Persian) other follows patterns of tribal belonging and genealogical descent. The abnāˀ are addressed as sons/offspring of an ancestral group or referential figure, like Yemeni tribesmen, but this ancestral reference is an ethnic other: the furs (abnāˀ al-furs). In al-Hamdānī’s writings, ˁajam and its variant forms bear, according to its etymology, the highest othering potential. Yet the affective dimension of the term gradually lost its meaning of “impurity” in its practical applications over time. Also, the term became increasingly limited to designating something or someone as “Persian,” rather than referring to a non-Arab or non-Arabic other. Ibn al-Mujāwir, in all probability a native Persian and an author of the early thirteenth century, also uses the terms furs and ˁajam to designate Persians in the Yemeni context, and a third term which refers to a certain group of immigrants, al-furs min ahl Sīrāf. Furs and ˁajam are used synonymously and are predominantly to be understood as ethnic terms which identify people of Persian descent. Both furs and ˁajam convey no additional information as to social status or the historicity of a group, unless they are combined with other compounds which indicate either rulership or geographical origin, e.g. mulūk al-ˁajam or al-furs min ahl Sīrāf. Ibn al-Mujāwir’s writing is characterized by fluid transitions between the historical report, mythical narratives, fantastic stories, and genuine observations, a style that creates ambiguity, which can be interpreted as part of the author’s narrative strategy. The text consistently highlights the Persians’ presence in South Arabia, and building structures serve as the main indicator in the emerging discourse of Persian self-authentication. The ethnonyms al- furs, al-ˁajam and (al-furs min) ahl Sīrāf are all suitable to praise the outstanding accomplishments of Persians and thereby portray them as an ethnic group who is more advanced in comparison to others. Thus, all three terms have the same selfing potential. This is also where it becomes most evident that over time the term ˁajam not only lost its original pejorative meaning, but eventually acquired a positive affective value, being used as a Persian self-ascription.


This comparative study shows that ethnonyms function as conceptual tools, which authors can strategically use in their narratives. Drawing on Latin, Greek, and Arabic source material, we presented the particular case of the Persians as an illustration that ethnonyms are dynamic and adaptable, that they shape processes of selfing and othering, and that they support ideologies and political agendas. Ethnonyms and, more generally, ethnic terminology can serve to accentuate or reduce the hiatus between the self and the other. The case study shows that constructions of Persians as the other in interethnic relations varied greatly over the course of time.

The legends that refer to the Persians on the Tabula Peutingeriana are a mixture of erudite citations, ill-informed guesses, and ethnographic commonplaces. While Late Antique Greek and Latin authors have conveyed a nuanced view of the Persians and their empire, the inscription TROGODITI PERSI on the Tabula represents a vivid example of ethnic polemic in the service of Roman imperial propaganda.

TROGODITI PERSI on the Tabula Peutingeriana portrays the Persians as an extreme opposite to the Roman (self-)understanding of (Roman) “civilization.” Around the time of the advent of Islam, Arabs developed a comparable notion of “non-Arabs” (al-ˁajam or al-aˁājim), from which they marked themselves off. In the case of the Roman map, the point of reference for distinction was the dwelling place and way of life, whereas the Arabs referred to language. For them, Arabic was the divine language, and it was closely linked to the holy script of the Quran, which distinguished the Arabs from all non-Muslims and non-Arabs. Persians were among the first non-Arabic speakers whom the Arabic-speaking Muslims conquered in the seventh century. Until the tenth and thirteenth centuries, ˁajam was more and more closely associated with (and even adapted by) the Persians, and less closely associated with non-Arabs in general, or the inability to speak Arabic properly. In Latin sources, the terminological designations for Persians did not change significantly between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, perceptions of the Persae varied between notions of them being “barbarous” in the fullest sense to them being “civilized,” or even similar and comparable to the Romans.

In the South Arabian context of the tenth century, the local term al-abnāˀ created a zone of transition between the Yemeni self and notions of the Persian other. Al-Abnāˀ could be combined or exchanged with the transregional terms al-furs and al-ˁajam to appropriate new meanings. In this interplay of local and transregional ethnonyms, it was possible either to enhance the role of the Persian minority as an integral part of the Yemeni society or to express a stronger sense of its otherness and separation. In the early thirteenth century, the Persian author Ibn al-Mujāwir used the terms al-furs and al-ˁajam to elevate the Persians as a civilization in the context of South Arabian history. A strong element of storytelling, together with references to elements of construction as evidence of civilizational accomplishments, built the framework through which he engaged in a discourse of Persian self-authentication.


The research for this article was funded by a DOC-team-fellowship provided by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. We would like to thank Johann Heiss, Walter Pohl, Stephan Prochazka, Danuta Shanzer, and Ekkehard Weber for their support and advice during the preparation of this article and the preceding research phase.


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1 Odile Kommer is a PhD-candidate and researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Salvatore Liccardo is a PhD-candidate and researcher at the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Andrea Nowak is a PhD-candidate and researcher in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna

2 For reasons of readability, “medieval” and “Middle Ages” are used in this article for European and non-European contexts. For South Arabia, this refers to the Islamic period before the Ottoman conquest (ca. seventh–sixteenth century CE. Also for reasons of readability, all references to centuries are understood as centuries in the so-called Common Era).

3 We apply the methodical approaches of distant and regional comparison according to Gingrich, “Comparative Methods.

4 Neuwirth, Introduction, x–xi.

5 Ibid.

6 Müller, ifat jazirat al-ˁarab, 1.

7 Ibid, 29.

8 Szombathy, “Genealogy,” 19f.

9 Smith, Traveller, 119. Löfgren, Tāˀrīkh 1, 95.

10 “the two-horned.“

11 For an introduction to the subject, see Bianchetti, Cataudella, and Gehrke, Brill’s Companion to Ancient Geography. For an overview of diffusion and the accuracy of maps illustrating the Geography of Ptolemy, considered as a compendium of classical scientific geography, see Mittenhuber, Text- und Kartentradition in der Geographie.

12 Dunlop, “al-Balkhī.”

13 Miquel, “Ibn Ḥawqal.”

14 Kramers, Opus geographicum, 19–21.

15 “Dar al-Harb,” The Oxford Dictionary of Islam.

16 Cardona, Nomi propri e nomi di popoli, 12.

17 See Origo Gentis Langobardorum 1; Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum 1.8.

18 See Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 22.15.2; 23.6.13.

19 Margariti, “Ocean of Islands,” especially 203f.

20 Al-Azmeh, “Barbarians,” 3.

21 Smith, Traveller, 269, n2. Seri is an older name for Jibbāli, a South Arabian language. Johnstone, Jibbāli Lexicon, xiff.

22 The expression is borrowed from psychology and applied to Synesius of Cyrene in Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns, 7.

23 See Synesius, On Imperial Rule, 11, 6.

24 Whittaker, “Mental Maps and Frontiers: Seeing like a Roman,” 82.

25 The map was produced in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, probably in Swabia/Alemannia, and its first mention dates back to January 24, 1508, when the German humanist Conrad Celtis decided to bequeath it to the antiquarian and imperial counsellor Conrad Peutinger, hence the name. For a brief recap of the transmission process, see Dalché, “La trasmissione Medievale e Rinascimentale della Tabula Peutingeriana,” 43–53.

26 See Weber, “Zur Datierung der Tabula Peutingeriana,” 113–17. For a dissenting opinion, see Albu, The Medieval Peutinger Map. For the latest overviews of this subject, see Rathmann, “The Tabula Peutingeriana and Antique Cartography,” 335–62; Rathmann, Tabula Peutingeriana, 6–25; Weber, “Die Datierung des antiken,” 229–59.

27 For this and all the other entries, see the website containing the digital material added to Talbert, Rome’s World. In brackets the corresponding location on the map.

28 See Magini, “In viaggio lungo le strade della Tabula Peutingeriana,” 7–15. The Persian road network as represented on the Tabula Peutingeriana was studied at the end of the nineteenth century by Tomaschek, “Zur historiographischen Topographie,” 145–231. Recently on this theme, see Braun, “Untersuchungen zum XI. Segment der Tabula,” 11–32.

29 Cesiphvn (11C1); Ecbatanis Partiorvm (11C1); Persepoliscon Mercivm persarvm (11C2).

30 Chauvot, “Parthes et Perses dans les sources du IVe siècle,” 115–25; Drijvers, “Ammianus Marcellinus’ Image,” 193–206.

31 See Herodian, History 6.2; Cassius Dio, Roman History 80.3.4; Paschoud, Zosime 1.18.1. Ardashir I defeated the last Parthian emperor, Artabanus V, in 224.

32 Another entry, which seems to refer to the Persians, is Are(a)e fines romanorvm (10C2), which arguably marks the Roman–Persian frontier. On this subject, see Weber, “Areae fines Romanorum,” 219–27.

33 E.g. SARMATEVAGI (4A5–5A4); Nigizegetvli (7C3); MEMNOCONES ETHIOPES (7C2–7C3).

34 More than one hundred years ago, Konrad Miller connected this inscription with the ethnonym Elamitae, a name that has an ancient and rich tradition, which is included in the bible, in patristic texts, and in a few medieval maps. Miller, Itineraria Romana: Römische Reisewege an der Hand der Tabula Peutingeriana, 838.

35 From the provincia paraliton (from Greek παράλιος, ία, ον, Eng. “by the sea”), mentioned by the Cosmographer of Ravenna, see Miller, Itineraria Romana, 624; Podossinov, Vostochnaya Evropa, 367.

36 See Miller, Itineraria Romana, 623; Podossinov, Vostochnaya Evropa, 372.

37 See Miller, Itineraria Romana, 612–13.

38 See Rübekeil, Diachrone Studien zur Kontaktzone, 316, 323, 401–11.

39 Like the “Persians of the river,” precise or ill-defined geographical locations could be used in relation to the word natio to specify the origin of an individual. Thus, we find persons defined as natione montanus – CIL XIII, 7684 – or natione transfluminianum – P.Lond. II 229 (S. XXI) = ChLA III 200 = FIRA III 132 = CPL 120 = Jur. Pap. 37. On the latter case, Palme, “Die classis praetoria Misenensis in den Papyri,” 294–96; Ferreira, “El papiro 229 de la British Library,” 93–111. More in general on the interplay between civic, ethnic, and geographical identity, see Mathisen, “Natio, Gens, Provincialis and Civis,” 277–86.

40 The communis opinio places this work between the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. The standard edition is in Riese, Geographi latini minores, 24–55. Recently, Monda, La Cosmographia di Giulio Onorio. On its meaning as a textbook of Geography, Dalché, “L’enseignement de la géographie dans l’antiquité tardive,” 157–59.

41 On this ethnonym, see J. Desanges, « Fluminenses », Encyclopédie berbère, 19, 2862. More generally on the African section of the Cosmographia see Modéran, Les Maures et l’Afrique romaine, IVe–VIIe s., 37–62.

42 See Leveau, “L’aile II des Thraces,” 172–73. In a second-century funerary inscription found in Lambaesis (next to the modern village of Tazoult in Algeria) – CIL VIII, 2786 = ILS, 2659 – the Mazices are characterized as coming from a mountainous region. See Malone, Legio XX Valeria Victrix, 102–03; Bernard, “Les prétendues invasions maures,” 365–66; Migliorati, Iscrizioni per la ricostruzione, 571. Although this second source is chronologically distant, it seems to attest to the coexistence of two subgroups of the same broader ethnic gens that are distinguished on the basis of their habitat: the Fluminenses, i.e. Mazices living next to a River, and the Mazices of the regio Montensis.

43 Podossinov has drafted a chart which compares some of the ethnonyms present on the Tabula Peutingeriana, the Cosmographia and the Laterculus Veronensis; Podossinov, Vostochnaya Evropa, 103–04.

44 After a very bizarre course, the river is specified as the Ganges. On the depiction of the fluvial system in the eastern lands of the inhabited world, see Schuol, “Indien und die großen Flüsse,” 92–155.

45 On this Roman site, see Oates and Oates, “Ain Sinu: A Roman Frontier Post,” 207–42. More generally on the urban landscape and road network of this region, see Palermo, “Settlement Patterns and Road Network in Upper Mesopotamia,” 123–37.

46 Talbert mentions this detail when he analyses the design of the map, see Talbert, Rome’s World, 100–01.

47 For an overview of the image of the Persians in Late Antique sources, see Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth, 12–36; Schneider, “Orientalism in Late Antiquity,” 241–78; Drijvers, “Rome and the Sasanid Empire,” 441–54; McDonough, “Were the Sasanians Barbarians?” 55–65; Drijvers, “A Roman Image of the “Barbarian” Sasanians,” 67–76.

48 On Ammianus see Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus Marcellinus, 130–79; Teitler, “Visa vel lecta?,” 216–23; Drijvers, “Ammianus Marcellinus’ Image of Sasanian Society,” 45–69; Wiebke, Das Imperium Romanum und seine Gegenwelten, 86–126; Morley, “Beyond the Digression,” 10–25. On Procopius, see Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 62–93; Börm, Prokop und die Perser. On Agathias, see Cameron, “Agathias on the Sassanians,” 67–183.

49 For a detailed comment on this digression, see Ferraco, Ammiano geografo (23.6).

50 See A. Chauvot, Opinions romaines face aux Barbares, 386 ff. More generally on Ammianus’ depiction of non-Romans, see Guzmán Armario, “Ammianus adversus externae gentes,” 217–22.

51 After a historical and a geographical account of the Persian Empire, Ammianus describes the good and bad habits of the Persians, see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 23.6.75–84.

52 Concerning military skills, however, Romans continue to have the edge over Persians, who Ammianus describes as crafty but rather weak in a one-on-one fight, see Res Gestae 23.6.80; 25.1.18. To stress the superiority of the Roman armies over the eastern gentes, an anonymous panegyrist presents the victory of Constantine over fellow Romans as more praiseworthy than Alexander’s Persian campaign, because the Macedon won against “leves Medos et imbelles Syros et Parthorum arma volatica,” see Panegyrici Latini 12 (9), 5–6.

53 For a useful analysis of the different typologies of barbarian, see Dauge, Le Barbare, 466–510.

54 Particularly interesting is its relationship with Herodotus. On one hand, Ammianus repeats the reference to their good manners in executing their physical needs; on the other, he diverges from Herodotus concerning alcohol consumption and pederasty. According to the historian of Halicarnassus, the Persians made important decisions while drunk and learned to practice pederasty from the Greeks. See Herodotus, Historiae 1. 133–35.

55 “Der alius orbis Persien” is the title of the section dedicated to this subject in Wiebke, Das Imperium Romanum und seine Gegenwelten, 2013.

56 For an overview of its content, see Klein, “Laterculus Veronensis,” 1745–46.

57 The heading reads: Gentes barbarae quae pullulaverunt sub imperatoribus.

58 Greek and Latin inscriptions erected during the empire of Julian have been collected and studied by Stefano Conti. See Conti, Die Inschriften Kaiser Julians. These inscriptions constituted part of the imperial discourse, see Conti, “Un aspetto della propaganda imperiale tardo-antica: la titolatura di Giuliano nelle fonti letterarie ed epigrafiche,” 29–44; Benoist, “Identité du Prince et discours impérial: Le cas de Julien,” 109–17. More generally on the topic of inscriptions and imperial ideology in Late Antiquity, see Davenport, “Imperial ideology and commemorative culture,” 45–70.

59 For a commentary on the single inscriptions containing these titles, see Conti, Die Inschriften Kaiser Julians .

60 According to Conti’s register, nr. 17, 18 (extinctor barbarorum); 26, 27 (debellator omnium barbararum gentium); 54 (νικητὴς παντὸς ἔθνους βαρβαρικοῦ).

61 That the eastern frontier was opposing barbaric groups shines through Ulpian’s description of Palmyra as a city “prope barbaras gentes et nationes collocata,” Digest

62 Inscriptions nr. 17 and 18. See Negev, “The Inscription of the Emperor Julian at Ma‘ayan Barukh,” 170–73; Bowersock, Julian the Apostate, 123–24; Dietz, “Kaiser Julian in Phönizien,” 821–22; Eck, “Zur Neulesung der Iulian-Inschrift von Ma’ayan Barukh,” 857–59.

63 Conti suggests dating the inscriptions to the first months of 363. Julian left Antioch for the east on March 5, 363.

64 “En” inquit “quos Martia ista pectora viros existimant, deformes inluvie capellas et taetras, utque crebri docuerunt eventus, antequam manus conferant abiectis armis vertentes semet in fugam,” Res Gestae 24.8.1. On this passage, see Den Boeft, Philological and Historical Commentary, 223–25.

65 On Roman prejudices, especially towards Persians, as highly influenced by Greek ethnography, see L. Cracco Ruggini, “Pregiudizi razziali, ostilità politica e culturale,” 139–42; Rosivach, “The Romans’ View of the Persians,” 1–8; Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 371–80.

66 Specifically on the relationship between Julian and Libanius, see Wiemer, Libanios und Julian.

67 E.g. Libanius, Oratio 15.3; 17, 25–27; 16.9.

68 See ibid.

69 See Rivolta, “Miti letterari e programmi politici,” 525–46; Stenger, “Libanius and the ‘game’ of Hellenism,” 268–92; Caltabiano, “La comunità degli Elleni,” 137–49.

70 See Julian, The Caesars 324a; Hymn to King Helios 153a.

71 The literature on this topic is vast. For detailed overviews of Romano–Persian relations, see Blockley, East Roman Foreign Policy; Winter and Dignas, Rom und das Perserreich. For a collection of ancient sources for this period, see Dodgeon, Greatex, and Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier.

72 Since the Itinerarium Alexandri is to a certain degree based on the Romance, the Latin version of the Romance must have been known by 345.

73 See Smith, “The Casting of Julian the Apostate ‘in the Likeness’ of Alexander the Great,” 44–106.

74 The myth of Alexander played a significant role in Constantine’s imperial propaganda. For numismatic evidence, see Kolb, Herrscherideologie in der Spätantike, 201–04. Moreover, Constantine announced a campaign against the Persians but fell ill before accomplishing it, see Fowden, “The Last Days of Constantine,” 146–70; Fowden, “Constantine and the Peoples of the Eastern Frontier,” 377–98. In his biography of Constantine, similarly to Libanius, Eusebius of Caesarea calls the Persians barbarians; see Life of Constantine 4.56.1.

75 The original title should have been Itinerarium Alexandri Magni Traianique, but the Codex Ambrosianus P 49, the only manuscript that preserves the work, neither contains the last accomplishments of Alexander nor the campaign of Trajan. See Tabacco, Itinerarium Alexandri. For the question of its authorship and the use of this text in political discourse, see Lane Fox, “The Itinerary of Alexander,” 239–52.

76 E.g. Alexandria (11A4); Alexandria Bvcefalos (11B3); Alexandria catisson (9B4); Alexandria troas (8B2).

77 In his locis elephanti nascvntvr (11C4).

78 Ara alexandri (11A3); Hic Alexander Responsvm accepit Vsq(ve) qvo Alexander (11B4–11B5).

79 Since the first few leaves, which correspond to the map’s western edge, are missing, it is impossible to positively identify the centre of the archetype. However, everything points to this conclusion, see Weber, Tabula Peutingeriana, 13; Talbert, “Peutinger’s Roman Map,” 221–30.

80 Smith, “The political history of the Islamic Yemen,” 130ff.

81 Gingrich, “Multiple Histories,” 9; Dresch, Tribes, Government and History, 320ff.

82 Last mentioned, to our knowledge, in ath-Thaqafī, Sīrat al-ˀImām ˀAmad b. Sulaymān.

83 Lewis, “al-Abnāˀ.“

84 Crone, “ˁAbbāsid Abnāˀ,” 2.

85 Müller, ifat jazīrat al-ˁarab.

86 Heiss, Tribale Selbstorganisation und Konfliktregelung, 139.

87 sard = “cold”; mihr = “sun”; zanj = “plaint”/“Blacks”; bard = “(brave) man”; Jand = city in Turkistan (Steingass, Persian-English dictionary).

88 wayh in Persian.

89 Engl. “tribes”

90 Heiss, Johann. Unpublished Translation of Kitāb al-Ǧawharatain al-ˁaīqatain al-māˀiˁatain a-afrāˀ wa ’l-baiāˀ [al-Ḥasan Ibn-Aḥmad al-Hamdānī], by Christopher Toll, 1968 [2014], 144–45.

91 Savant, New Muslims, 8–9.

92 James, “Arab Ethnonyms,” 684–85.

93 Toll, Kitāb al-Ǧawharatain, 148.

94 Gabrieli, “ˁAdjam.”

95 Ibid.

96 Müller, ifat jazīrat al-ˁarab, 88.

97 Enderwitz, “al-Shuˁūbiyya.”

98 Gabrieli, “ˁAdjam.”

99 Toll, Kitāb al-Ǧawharatain, 68.

100 Smith, Traveller, 3.

101 Ibid., 44. Löfgren, Taˀrīkh 1, 16.

102 Roxani Margariti did so in her book Aden and the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port. For two illuminating examples concerning Ibn al-Mujāwir’s claim for Persian workmanship see 51ff. and 99ff.

103 A philologist who died in 421 AH/1030. Pellat, Ch., “al-Marzūqī.”

104 Margariti, Aden, 224–225, n83.

105 Fahd, T., and Daiber, H., “Ruˀyā.”

106 Smith, Traveller, 137; Löfgren, Taˀrīkh 1, 115–16.

107 Whitehouse, Siraf, 2–3.

108 Smith, Traveller, 70ff; Löfgren, Taˀrīkh 1, 42ff.

109 Smith, Traveller, 122; Löfgren, Taˀrīkh 1, 98.

110 Miquel, A., “Ibn Baṭṭūṭa.”

111 Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Rilat, 252.

112 “i.e. an unprofitable situation,” Steingass, Dictionary, 25; Löfgren, Texte, part 1, 29, n1; Smith, Traveller, 133, n3.


Figure 1. Miller, Die Peutingerische Tafel, Segmentum XI, 3–5.