This week we are taking another trip through a medieval author, but quite a bit earlier – the end of the sixth century – and quite a bit further east: the Ethiopian-Arab warrior-poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad. This trip ought to be ready closely with the one that is going to follow it (Bertran de Born, I flipped the order from my original intent). The similarities in values and vision between Bertran and ‘Antarah – both mounted military elites singing (with a mind to performance) about the experience of battle – are really striking, given the vast chronological, geographic and cultural gulf that divides them (though they are hardly identical). But perhaps even more striking than the connections between the worlds of these elite cavalrymen is the vast chasm that separates their view of war from our own.
And that’s what we’re going to look at today: how the poems of ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad express a set of martial values and how we can read a text like this to tease out a worldview and value-system.
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Finally, I suppose I must say before we begin – because this point is so frequently misunderstood – that we are reading these sources for the understanding, not for the endorsing. I do not share ‘Antarah’s valuation of war (or for next week, Bertran’s either) and even within the martial space my sympathies are more often with the stoic valor of the common infantryman – entirely absent from ‘Antarah’s poetry – than the cavalryman’s dash that he exhibits so strongly (a preference perhaps not surprising for a Roman-specialist). But all of that is quite beside the point: the question is how people in a particular era of the past thought, not if I – or anyone now – agrees with them (to preempt the question – if you are curious about Roman military values, the best place to begin is J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts (2005)).
(This is, I think, the same species of blockheadedness that assumes that military historians study war because we like it, which is a bit of asinine stupidity that I still encounter from members of the academy from time to time. Every modern military historian I know studies war for the same reason that doctors study illness: not because we like it, but so that we might have less of it.)
(I should also note: Thank you to the ISAW booth at this past SCS/AIA, where I acquired my copy of ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad, War Songs trans. James E. Montgomery & Richard Sieburth (2018). But for them, I would not have known this existed and could hardly have my own copy!)
The Author: We know a lot less about ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad (“Antarah, son of Shaddad” though it is not entirely clear if he is the son or grandson of this Shaddad; note that ‘Antarah’s name is often spelled Antarah (without the initial mark) as well) than we would like; he is an almost legendary figure as soon as he appears in our sources, roughly two centuries after he would have written.
‘Antarah was born a slave; his mother seems to have been a captive taken as a slave by his father from Axum. Our sources agree that ‘Antarah was black, born to a black mother, raised in the Arab Banu Abs tribe of his father. He lived in the second half of the sixth century and his skill as a warrior allowed him to win his freedom and even become a person of some import within his tribe.
The quality of ‘Antarah’s poetry was likely recognized at the time, but it is after his death and with the flowing of high literature in the Abassid court that his poems and legends of his life enter the literary record, with ‘Antarah’ known as one of the three “Arab Ravens” of the pre-Islamic period – black warrior-poets writing in Arabic and within the Arab poetic tradition.
In the broader geopolitical background, we have to understand that the Arabia of the sixth century was a fracture-zone between dueling empires and collapsing kingdoms. To the north, the remains of the Roman Empire were formed into a wealthy, powerful and feisty Eastern Roman Empire by no means satisfied with ‘decline,’ which was engaged in a centuries long conflict with the Sassanid Empire, an aggressive, powerful and culturally vibrant empire. Both empires were multicultural and multi-religious, but with a single religious group running the show (Christians in the ERE, Zoroastrians in the Sassanid Empire) and both had a religiously based vision of universal authority which were fundamentally incompatible with each other. The Roman-Sassanid wars (note: I profoundly dislike Wikipedia’s classification, which splits Roman-Persian and Byzantine-Sassanid wars, rather than Roman-Parthian, Roman-Sassanid), running from 285 to the late seventh century. These were big wars in which both the Romans and the Sassanids used their wealth and power to recruit entire tribes of Arabs to fight for them, sparking continuous proxy wars on their frontiers. Meanwhile, to the south the decline of Axum in Ethiopia and Himyar in Yemen further stirred the pot and provided opportunities for raiding and further destabilization.
In short, ‘Antarah lived during a period when the normal background hum of warfare between Arab tribes – which always a major facet of life – seems to have been accelerated by the violent context. The Arab tribes – while the term ‘Arab’ may date to the seventh century B.C., we should be cautious as the peoples of the Arabian peninsula who I will refer to here as ‘Arabs’ for simplicity went by a number of names and we should not underestimate the likely diversity within those groups – were a mix of nomadic Bedouin and groups with more permanent settlements (which gave rise to further conflict). Within that context, we see the emergence of a mounted warrior elite as the leaders of tribal groups, which might be based on kinship, but also on friendship or comradeship.
‘Antarah, from his humble beginnings, rose to be one of these mounted warrior elites by virtue of his own military skill and his poetry reflects that.
The Genre: ‘Antarah writes in a form of poetry called qasida. Like many poetic forms dealing with what a society views as ‘high’ matters, it is an elaborate form with a single meter (per poem) and lines that all rhyme on the same sound (as an aside, this is a rule I find generally applicable – with some notable exceptions – over multiple cultures – the topics that are most valued by the elite tend to get rigid, elaborate, difficult forms that speak to the high value placed on them, while ‘low’ or ‘common’ matters get flexible, free-flowing forms that facilitate more personal expression. Thus the contrast between Greek epic (high) and lyric (lower) or tragedy (high) and comedy (low); medieval high literature goes in Latin, but even in the vernacular, note the contrast between the chanson and canso (high-middle) and the sirvantes (middle-low). We do the same things in our own art-forms, of course: one does not film Dunkirk or 1917 the way one films Thor: Ragnarok or Deadpool.).
This kind of poetry was fundamentally oral when it began and was oriented towards performance, meaning recitation. The qasida revolved around the concerns of elite warrior-poets: manly virtue, honor, though also love and the fierceness of kin-bonds. Within that genre, the poems we are going to look at are victory songs – raucous celebrations of military success and the martial valor that earned it.
(Trans. J.E. Montgomery and R. Sieburth, op. cit. Alas, my Arabic is very poor (I have a couple of semesters, but that was a long time ago and I was never very good then either), so I am working with this text entirely in translation. That caveat out of the way, I heartily recommend War Songs, cited above. These excerpts are just two of the 51 poems in the volume, and the introduction was also invaluable.)
“Damn the Ruins!”
Damn the ruins! Damn you!
Stop dwelling on the past again.
Damn you, stop all this talk – you
won’t ever get the sweet times back.
At al-Faruq we shielded our women,
trampled the locusts underfoot
when the armies collided.
“No retreat!” we swore.
“Our spears are from Rudaynah,
hard iron to make you whine
like dogs at the sight of vipers!”
You bolted, rumps in the air
like old camels sniffing a corpse.
Couldn’t you see-
our spears protect us?
You’re not going to drool
takes us all.
I said to my men
“Whose up for a wager?
Who’ll face Death with me?
Turn your horses
the raiders are here.
Don’t let them win
the prize.” They met
warriors, not slaves
We drive our horses
hard, their manes
matted like lice-ridden hair.
Come back for more
now that you know-
Time damns us all.
“The Battle of ‘Ura’ir”
The Battle of ‘Ura’ir was a healing.
Has she heard?
Can my soul ever be cured?
We came upon a mighty army
serried and drilled
bigger than a mountain
and digging the trough of war.
Our raid, a brutal storm of death,
ended their dispute.
Charges of Mashraf blades and pliant
took them by surprise.
Nourished by grim battleswords
our wounds still fresh
we’ll never cede to our foes!
We line up our taut Radwa bows
like tongues of Himyar leather.
Let Quda’ah revel in glory.
Our squadrons stand ready
In asquf and Rahrahan,
arrayed for battle
like vultures’ shadows.
The Battle Was a Healing
We cannot, so far as I know, connect these poems to any particular known battle. These are not the massive engagements of the great dueling empires to the north. The first poem seems clearly a smallish raid aiming to steal women and livestock (the former was clearly a constant concern: the possibility of the poet’s own wife being abducted should she neglect his war-horse forms a motif of a later song). For the latter, the site ‘Ura’ir is too far south (close to modern Riyadh, if I am reading the map correctly). Instead, these poems relate much of the endemic small-scale raiding and counter-raiding which defines non-state and proto-state warfare, especially among nomadic peoples.
Instead of looking at these poems as a record of a historical event, I want to read them as evidence for a system of values, the same way we read Dhuoda of Uzès. One easy trap for students of history to fall into is the assumption that people in the past share some key component of our values – typically because in our culture that idea is rarely seriously questioned. One of these ideas, which is has taken deep hold is the conviction that war is bad. In particular, the view that war both not only destroys people and things, but that it also fundamentally corrupts, leaving those who experience it fundamentally damaged in a way that requires healing, if healing is even possible.
(I feel I should note here that this is a view that I largely agree with: war really is bad. Especially modern war, with its much higher degree of destruction, but also pre-modern war. Much of the ‘nobility of war’ values that we’ll look at today and next week depend on a very narrow vision of humanity as we’ll see – one that excludes or devalues the non-elites who do most of the actual suffering and dying in most forms of pre-modern warfare. We’ll get more into that next week with Bertran de Born.)
But that vision of war as fundamentally a process of damage is quite modern; the current version of it is very directly a product of the literary and cultural response to World War I (compare a modern war song (because I will take any chance to plug bands from Virginia) which actually uses a lot of the same techniques of vividness and an implied listener, but to very different effect). That set of values (‘war is bad’) is contingent, a phrase we use describe things which are not, in fact, inevitable or universal (though they may so seem to societies where they hold) but are instead dependent on certain circumstances – and thus crucially, things which are contingent might well be different with a different set of circumstances, or a different time or different place.
For ‘Antarah, war is not damaging at all: it is healing and ennobling. War improves, rather than destroys. In the first poem, it is the experience of battle and the call to hazard, “Whose up for a wager/who’ll face Death with me?” which brings out the essential truth (a ‘time comes for everyone’ motif which opens the poem as the poet urges the subject – which in victory songs are usually the taunted, defeated enemy – to abandon their attachment to lost glories, “damn the ruins”) which in turn enables the brave nobility (“come back for more”) of the final line. Likewise, in the second poem, the battle is a healing for ‘Antarah’s soul; it also ends the dispute, causes revelry and the poem concludes with a description of the brilliant array of the cavalry, underscored by the brilliant juxtaposition of the shadow of the vultures who may feast on the corpses produced by this impressive array (which, in turn, echoes the ‘presence of death’ of the first poem).
Now, some of this we might attribute to the genre here: the victory song. These songs would have been performed by the poet and you want to imagine them in the context of that sort of (probably quite raucous) live performance; some of the verses seem like clear ‘applause’ or ‘cheer’ lines, with big defiant finishing flourishes. The implied subject of many of these songs is the defeated enemy, being taunted over his defeat – the songs revel in mocking a foe no longer present to make his reply.
And in that context, we might imagine ‘Antarah to expand his achievements and his own valor. If he felt terror in battle, or faltered that would hardly be an appropriate note in such a victory song. Yet, speaking for a moment from a broad reading of martial literature, even within genre constraints, such literature tends to embody the values of its society. If war and battle were viewed ambiguously, we would see it (consider the contrast with the ambiguity of war from the Iliad, a poem that, I think in the end, falls on the ‘war is good’ side of the line, but drinks deeply of the sorrow of war before getting there). For ‘Antarah, at least, war is not a complex, morally freighted thing – success in war is an uncomplicated good, and no pity or remorse is spared for the vanquished. This is not, I must stress, some sort of unique product of a non-Western tradition: we will see, next week, a medieval French (Occitan, to be precise) voice presenting effectively the same vision; the temptation to ‘orientalize’ this positive vision of war is a false one and must be resisted.
And yet, for all of that, it is hard to miss that for ‘Antarah – and indeed (as we’ll see next week) for a great many historical cultures, war and battle were thought of not only as normal, but as potentially quite positive things. Now, we need to be clear with that statement that this isn’t some sort of Star-Trek-Mirror-Universe society (though ‘Antarah is usually depicted with impressive facial hair…); it is not that all or even most violence is viewed positively. But within a certain set of socially sanctioned bounds – in this case, the seemingly endless space for violence created by inter-clan feuding – violence for ‘Antarah is not a regrettable necessity, but a positive, unalloyed good.
We Drive Our Horses
Also relevant is the kind of violence that the poet places value on. Because it isn’t just any kind of warfare that ‘Antarah celebrates: it is a very specific sort of warfare tied to a mounted aristocratic elite.
Through his poems, the ‘us’ alongside the poet is always mounted. Their weapons, when described, are typically brilliant, imported weapons from places of renown – Rudaynah and Samhar spears, Radwa bows with Himyar leather (none of these are places within the typical ranging of the Banu Abs). Elsewhere in the poems, ‘Antarah describes his coat of mail (somewhat rusted from heavy use), his own sword (“never dented or dull”) and other weapons. Such equipment (especially the mail, which was expensive) mark ‘Antarah and his companions out as a member of the warrior elite. These are not poor fighters, nor marginal ones. It is not hard to imagine why the even more rarefied warrior-aristocrats of the Abbasid court found this narrative to resonate so clearly.
Their station is contrasted throughout the corpus with slaves. Enemies meet “warriors, not slaves” as noted above. Elsewhere, a defeated enemy is described as grasping at spears like “a slave-girl gathering wood for a fire.” The possibility of the abduction and enslavement of the tribe’s women, in particular – but even of warriors like ‘Antarah himself – stalks many of the war poems. It seems a bitter irony that ‘Antarah, born in the slave’s lot nevertheless expresses no real empathy for them, but rather shows a sort of elite disdain for them – but that’s actually fairly common for slave-holding societies (cf. for instance the song of Gripus, the slave-fisherman in Plautus’ Rudens, where Gripus, imagining he has come into a great fortune, immediately thinks of the slaves he will buy once he is free; to add another layer to that, it is often thought that Plautus’ self-mocking name – it means ‘flat-footed’ – is indicative that he too, was a slave or a freedman). But it seems to me that the motif of the slave serves as the counterpoint for ‘Antarah’s warrior-elites. It is always worth remembering that these ‘chivalrous’ (a word quite a few commentators apply to ‘Antarah) warrior codes would never apply to most of us, but rather were meant for our ‘betters.’
In the same vein, it is not surprising that one specific kind of martial valor is commemorated here: that of the mounted aristocrat. The set of equipment and weapons is neatly consistent from poem to poem: the bow and spear, wielded from horse- or camel-back, the sword as a back-up weapon. As we’ll see even more clearly next week, elite military readers often minimize or even entirely exclude less prestigious warriors from visual or narrative commemoration; infantry do not vanish from the battlefields of horse-borne aristocrats, but they do vanish from their literature and artwork.
Likewise, the system of military values that ‘Antarah presents are themselves contingent on the kind of warfare is he elevating. It is the individual skill of the mounted warrior that ‘Antarah singles out for praise – not the clever general, or the careful organizer, or the stoic infantryman. Indeed, the cavalryman’s ‘dash’ often lionizes some things – the reckless assault, the swift and skilled feinted retreat – which would be cowardly or fatal to the infantry (and as a consequence are often not lionized by infantry-centric systems of martial values – the Greeks (e.g. Herodotus, Demosthenes) have unkind words for the sort of fighter with this kind of ‘dash’ who attacks and retreats readily). Reading war literature widely is a helpful reminder that there is more than one set of ‘martial values,’ despite the fact that writers within these traditions (and readers within ours) often represent this or that set of ‘martial values’ as universal.
What does ‘Antarah value in his mounted aristocrat? There’s little place for stratagem or the stoic courage of standing one’s ground here: all of the honor is in the attack, fearless and brutal. And while most martial systems value aggression (understandably!), here it is relatively untempered by discipline, unit cohesion, careful plans or doctrine. That isn’t to say it is unthinking – I’ve alluded to cavalry ‘dash’ as distinct from other martial values (that the courage demanded of a cavalry charge is not the same as that demanded of infantry made to stand under fire or to receive a charge) and this strikes me as being of a piece with that sort of ethos. At the same time, it is not the attack-and-retreat of the steppe – one poem concludes, “cowards run/I stand/my ground” and ‘Antarah at multiple points invites death over retreat.
Most of all, ‘Antarah values the attachment to his clan or tribal group. In one poem he defiantly concludes that, “My mother descends from Ham/but my father’s the finest of the clan!” contrasting the low birth of his mother high status of his father. The Banu Abs features frequently in the poems, it’s glory celebrated or its honor defended. Describing a victorious raid, ‘Antarah recounts “the swords of the ‘Abs/answered each other-/Indian blades severing skulls…” and elsewhere “In war my clan/are the finest riders,/gripping the reins/in the hands that killed/Laqit and Ibn Hujr,/Hajib and/the sons of Aban.” The ties of clan dominate the poems to the exclusion of all others, except perhaps the ties between ‘Antarah and his women (a topic of considerable interest on the corpus of poems in its own right; I cannot say I found ‘Antarah’s attitude towards any of the women, either of opposing tribes or of his own particularly endearing).
There is a lot more of interest in ‘Antarah’s poems. We have here, for instance, focused almost entirely on martial values at the expense of the other great theme of the work: ‘Antarah’s love for ‘Ablah. And there are running themes throughout the poems – the desert, the role of time (and its expression as death) and the promise of timelessness through deeds and song – which are obvious enough that I picked them up even as a non-specialist in this literary tradition and which would reward discussion in their own right.
At the same time, the values in ‘Antarah’s war poetry also echo in their own way. ‘Antarah’s poetry seems to have mostly lay dormant during the 7th and early 8th centuries, as pre-Islamic poetry was eclipsed by the emergence of Islamic culture. And then, in the Abbasid court of the late-8th and 9th century, it was rediscovered and included in the period’s growing interest in a pre-Islamic literary and poetic canon. Montgomery and Sieburth attribute this to the reemergence of clan rivalries with the collapse of unified Umayyad control – that the return to clan warfare suddenly made the bold, fearsome and fiercely clan-loyal ‘Antarah a relevant model of military masculinity in the Abbasid court (though subsequent generations of court scholars, they imply, become more interested in narrative as context to poetry and put more effort into trying to excavate ‘Antarah’s life from his poems).
Consequently, ‘Antarah’s poetry serves two purposes, casting light both on the culture that created it, but also the later culture that, having rediscovered his poems, deemed them worthy of commemoration – speaking to a set of military ideals. And for that reason (and several others!), the poetry of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad is well worth the trip.