Late 15th-century German woodcut depicting Saracens

Saracen (/ˈsærəsən/ SARR-ə-sən) was a term used both in Greek and Latin writings between the 5th and 15th centuries to refer to the people who lived in and near what was designated by the Romans as Arabia Petraea and Arabia Deserta.[1][2][3] The term's meaning evolved during its history of usage. During the Early Middle Ages, the term came to be associated with the tribes of Arabia.[4]

The oldest known source mentioning "Saracens" in relation to Islam dates back to the 7th century, in the Greek-language Christian tract Doctrina Jacobi. Among other major events, the tract discusses the Muslim conquest of the Levant, which occurred after the rise of the Rashidun Caliphate following the death of Muhammad[5] the prophet of Islam. The Roman Catholic Church and European Christian leaders used the term during the Middle Ages to refer to Muslims.

By the 12th century, "Saracen" developed various overlapping definitions, generally conflating peoples and cultures associated with Islam, the Near East and the Abbasid Caliphate. Such an expansion in the meaning of the term had begun centuries earlier among the Byzantine Greeks, as evidenced in documents from the 8th century where "Saracen" is synonymous with "Muslim".[1][6][7] Before the 16th century, "Saracen" was commonly used in Western languages to refer to Muslims, and the terms "Muslim" and "Islam" were generally not used, with a few isolated exceptions.[8] The term gradually became obsolete in favour of "Muslim" following the Age of Discovery.

Early usage and origins

The Latin term Saraceni is of unknown original meaning. There are claims of it being derived from the Semitic triliteral root šrq "east" and šrkt "tribe, confederation".[9][10] Another possible Semitic root is srq "to steal, rob, thief", more specifically from the noun sāriq (Arabic: سارق), pl. sāriqīn (سارقين), which means "thief, marauder".[11] In his Levantine Diary, covering the years 1699–1740, the Damascene writer Hamad bin Kanan al-Salhi (Arabic: محمد بن كَنّان الصالحي) used the term sarkan to mean "travel on a military mission" from the Near East to parts of Southern Europe which were under Ottoman Empire rule, particularly Cyprus and Rhodes.[12]

Ptolemy's 2nd-century work, Geography, describes Sarakēnḗ (Ancient Greek: Σαρακηνή) as a region in the northern Sinai Peninsula.[2][3] Ptolemy also mentions a people called the Sarakēnoí (Ancient Greek: οἱ Σαρακηνοί) living in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula (near neighbor to the Sinai).[2][3] Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical history narrates an account wherein Pope Dionysius of Alexandria mentions Saracens in a letter while describing the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius: "Many were, in the Arabian mountain, enslaved by the barbarous 'sarkenoi'."[2][3] The Augustan History also refers to an attack by Saraceni on Pescennius Niger's army in Egypt in 193, but provides little information as to identifying them.[13]

Both Hippolytus of Rome and Uranius mention three distinct peoples in Arabia during the first half of the third century: the Taeni, the Saraceni, and the Arabes.[2][3] The Taeni, later identified with the Arab people called Tayy, were located around Khaybar (an oasis north of Medina) and also in an area stretching up to the Euphrates. The Saraceni were placed north of them.[2][3] These Saracens, located in the northern Hejaz, were described as people with a certain military ability who were opponents of the Roman Empire and who were classified by the Romans as barbarians.[2][3]

The Saracens are described as forming the equites from Phoenicia and Thamud.[14][15][16] In one document, the defeated enemies of Diocletian's campaign in the Syrian Desert are described as Saracens. Other 4th-century military reports make no mention of Arabs, but refer to Saracen groups ranging as far east as Mesopotamia who were involved in battles on both the Sasanian and Roman sides.[14][15][16][17] The Saracens were named in the Roman administrative document Notitia Dignitatum, dating from the time of Theodosius I in the 4th century, as comprising distinctive units in the Roman army. They were distinguished in the document from Arabs.[18]

Medieval usage of the term

Further information: Muslim presence in medieval France

Use of saracene in Roman-Catholic narrative: Ceiling of church painting with the name "Attacco delle navi saracene", by Julius Schnorr von Caroesfeld, 1822-27

No later than the early fifth century, Jewish and Christian writers began to equate Saracens with Arabs. Saracens were associated with Ishmaelites (descendants of Abraham's firstborn Ishmael) in some strands of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic genealogical thinking. The writings of Jerome (d. 420) are the earliest known version of the claim that Ishmaelites chose to be called Saracens in order to identify with Abraham's "free" wife Sarah, rather than as Hagarenes, which would have highlighted their association with Abraham's "slave woman" Hagar.[19] This claim was popular during the Middle Ages, but derives more from Paul's allegory in the New Testament letter to the Galatians than from historical data. The name Saracen was not indigenous among the populations so described but was applied to them by Greco-Roman historians based on Greek place names.[2][3]

As the Middle Ages progressed, usage of the term in the Latin West changed, but its connotation remained associated with opponents of Christianity, and its exact definition is unclear.[20] In an 8th-century polemical work, John of Damascus criticized the Saracens as followers of a false prophet and "forerunner[s] to the Antichrist," and further connected their name to Ishmael and his expulsion.[21][22]

By the 12th century, Medieval Europeans used the term Saracen as both an ethnic and religious marker.[1][23] In some Medieval literature, Saracens were equated with Muslims in general and described as dark-skinned, while Christians lighter-skinned. An example is in The King of Tars, a medieval romance.[24][25][26] The Song of Roland, an Old French 11th-century heroic poem, refers to the black skin of Saracens as their only exotic feature.[27]

The term Saracen remained in use in the West as a synonym for "Muslim" until the 18th century. When the Age of Discovery commenced, it gradually lost popularity to the newer term Mohammedan, which came into usage from at least the 16th century. After this point, Saracen enjoyed only sporadic usage (for example, in the phrase "Indo-Saracenic architecture") before being outmoded entirely.

In the Wiltshire dialect, the meaning of "Sarsen" (Saracen) was eventually extended to refer to anything regarded as non-Christian, whether Muslim or pagan. From that derived the still current term "sarsen" (a shortening of "Saracen stone"), denoting the kind of stone used by the builders of Stonehenge,[28] long predating Islam.

Use in medieval entertainment: Crusade cycle

Main article: Crusade cycle

Maugis fighting the Saracen Noiron in Aigremont, in Renaud de Montauban. David Aubert, Bruges, 1462-1470

The rhyming stories of the Old French Crusade cycle were popular with medieval audiences in Northern France, Occitania and Iberia. Beginning in the late 12th century, stories about the sieges of Antioch and Jerusalem gave accounts of battle scenes and suffering, and of Saracen plunder, their silks and gold, and masterfully embroidered and woven tents. From the story of the Frankish knights at the tent of Saracen leader Corbaran:[29]

The tent was very rich, draped with brilliant silk,
and patterned green silk was thrown over the grass,
with lengths of cut fabric worked with birds and beasts.
The cords with which it was tied are of silk,
and the quilt was sewn with a shining, delicate samit.


The Maghreb

The Islamic conquest of countries such as Egypt and Syria had allowed the Muslims to create a fleet capable of undermining Byzantine supremacy in the Mediterranean in a relatively short time.

Especially on the Maghreb and Spanish coasts, various emirates had been established where the local component soon merged with the Arab and Berber ones. Each emirate was headed by an emir who, apart from formal subjection to one of the three caliphs who divided the Islamic Empire between themselves between the 8th and 9th centuries (Córdoba, Cairo and Baghdad), were substantially independent.

Crete and the return to the western Mediterranean

The repression of the Umayyad insurrection in al-Andalus was bloody and it is in this period (818) that the mass emigration of Andalusians (so indicated, regardless of ethnic origin and religion) took place along two lines, partly to Morocco and others to Egypt. From here they supported their co-religionists for the 827 Muslim conquest of Sicily. Also in this year, an autonomous Andalusian kingdom was founded in Alexandria, Egypt, which the Abbasid Caliphate put an end to in 825. Then the Andalusians left for the Aegean, where they established the Emirate of Crete, independent and flourishing from a commercial and cultural point of view, as well as powerful from a military point of view, until the Byzantine reconquest in 961.

Crete became the center of numerous military expeditions in the Aegean, in southern Italy, where Traetto was also founded, and Rome was raided in 846, 849 and 876. In the western Mediterranean, due to the weakening of the Carolingian Empire and its fleet, Marseille was raided in 838 and 846, Arles in 842 and 850 and Fréjus in 869. The Muslims established a refuge in the Camargue in these years, as chronicled in the Annales Bertiniani, and from there they raged in the Rhône valley.

The Balearic Islands were finally conquered by the Andalusian Umayyad cause in 902.

The conquest of Sicily and the incursions into southern Italy

Main articles: Muslim conquest of Sicily and Duchy of Naples

From 827 the Aghlabid emirs of Kairouan, in today's Tunisia, began the conquest of Sicily, which took a long time but which marked the apogee of Saracen rule in the Mediterranean for at least two centuries. The conquest was completed in 902, thanks to the offensive against the Byzantines, who had cut off supplies by conquering Crete (827) and Malta (870).

The settlement of the Saracens was sometimes also encouraged and supported by local lords, as help in disputes, as in the case of Andrea, consul of Naples, who was harassed by the Lombard prince of Benevento Sico and after turning in vain to Louis the Pious he asked for help to the Saracens. The intervention was also requested again by his successor Sicard, with the cities of Amalfi, Sorrento and Gaeta joining the Neapolitans: the Saracens behaved correctly towards the cities of Campania, helping them to defeat the Beneventans and signing peace and trade agreements. In exchange the Neapolitans helped the Saracens during the siege of Messina in 843 and maintained a complicit neutrality when Punta Licosa and the islands of Ischia and Ponza fell under Islamic rule.

Again the Neapolitans, to weaken Benevento, had invited the Saracens to attack Brindisi in 838, from which they extended to Taranto and Bari, which became the seat of the eponymous emirate from 840 to 871.

Having defeated a Venetian fleet in the Kvarner Gulf, the Saracens now took advantage of the rivalries between the local powers, acting as masters and now also putting themselves at the service of the unscrupulous Beneventans themselves.

In the year 840 Siconulf, lord of Salerno, fighting with Radelchis and Landulf, lords of Benevento and Capua, called to his aid the Saracens settled in the colony under the Traetto hill, at the mouth of the Garigliano, often and willingly hired by the Duke of Naples, Andrew II. After bloody incursions into some parts of southern Italy, the Saracens found a way to prosper thanks to their raids and their offering themselves as mercenaries to the most diverse Christian lords of the time.

In 843 the Saracens went so far as to destroy Fondi and Monte Cassino, arriving in Ostia and going up the Tiber to reach Rome where they sacked St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.

The gesture prompted a swift reaction against the Saracens. A first attempt to expel the Saracens from southern Italy was made in 866-871 by the emperor and king Louis II, who, having descended into Italy with an army of Franks, Burgundians and Provencals, in addition to the allied troops of Pope Sergius II, of the Doge of Venice, the Duke of Spoleto and that of Naples, he took back Benevento, Capua, Salerno, Bari, destroying Matera and Venosa.

Now uncontrollable Saracen troops had been hired by Adelchis, Duke of Benevento: he forced the people of Bari to accept the protection of the Berber Khalfun, who as payment was promised nothing less than permission to sack and burn some sacred buildings in the area, but he went so far as to raze the city of Capua to the ground. Ludovico, then in Italy, managed to free Benevento from the mercenaries and pacify the Lombard princes, acting as guarantor for the division of the duchy into the two principalities of Salerno and Benevento and the county of Capua.

The compromise solution did not please Pope Leo IV, who in those years was having Rome surrounded with the "Leonine belt" of walls, as proof of the fear that was still alive, so the pontiff sponsored the formation of a Campanian fleet which in 849 defeated the Saracens off the coast of Ostia. Ludovico, nominated emperor in the meantime, moved towards Bari, also begged by the abbots of Monte Cassino and San Vincenzo al Volturno. In the meantime, an emir reigned in Bari who juggled between the various local powers, without denying the granting, upon payment, of safe conducts for pilgrims who wanted to embark for the Holy Land. He also protected the learned Jewish community of Oria. Expelled for the first time from Bari, a nucleus of them entrenched themselves near Monte Matino (Horace's Mons matinus) on a hill which therefore took the name of Mount Saraceno on the Gargano. From there they often came down to plunder and burn towns, villages and cities, to desecrate temples and commit all sorts of cruelties and atrocities. Defeated numerous times by different peoples, the Saracens, who fled from the Gargano in 967, fortified themselves in Bari. The campaign against Bari was long and between various negotiations, alliances and treaties it took place from 855 to 871, with the active combat phase in the four years between 867 and 871. The emir Sawdan, who had also sacked the Sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo on the Gargano, was allowed to spend his life in golden captivity by his friend Adelchis, prince of Benevento. But this move turned out to be wrong for the German emperor due to the entry into the scene of the Byzantine emperor Basil I, who frowned upon the intervention in Southern Italy, a territory of Byzantine prerogative for centuries: Basil allied himself with Sawdan and he fomented a revolt of the Lombards of Benevento, who took the emperor prisoner for about two months, while a new Saracen army of twenty thousand men, sent by Kairouan, devastated Calabria and Campania. In 873 Ludovico returned to Campania and defeated the Saracens, but died two years later.

Therefore, the Saracen port of Taranto remained, from which a very rich slave trade took place. It was the Byzantines who recovered Taranto in 876. However, the Saracen raids in the Adriatic did not end with the reconquest of Taranto, indeed in those years the Muslims completed the conquest of Sicily (Syracuse in 878, Taormina in 902). In 882, once again allied with the Campanians, they destroyed the abbeys of San Vincenzo and Montecassino, establishing a nest at the mouth of the Garigliano (Traetto), from which they also held Rome at gunpoint: they were finally expelled only in 915, when the Byzantine empress Zoe Porphyrogenita managed to get the Italian lords to agree on the need to expel the Saracens from the Italian peninsula and began a campaign against them which - thanks to the commitment of Berengar I of Italy, of Pope John X, and of the Dukes of Spoleto and Camerino - reaped the promised fruit. In reality the raids continued, in fact one of the most serious episodes seems to be the new sack of Oria and Taranto which occurred in 925/926, on which occasion the family of the well-known Oritan Jewish scholar Shabbethai Donnolo was captured.

In 970 they returned again to the Gargano, devastating places (the two Roman cities of Siponto and Matinum were razed to the ground), terrifying the inhabitants in massacres and robberies, who were forced to ask Otto the Great for help. It is on Mount Saraceno, where they were strongly entrenched for years, that the Saracens were defeated and driven from the place by Otto the Great.

In 1002/03 Doge Pietro II Orseolo successfully led a fleet of 100 ships against the Saracens who had been besieging Bari for months. As thanks, the Church of San Marco dei Veneziani was built in old Bari.

From Sicily in the 9th century the Arabs continued to plunder the coasts of southern Italy, also establishing new, occasional bridgeheads, such as at Agropoli or Santa Severina, which, despite the unsuccessful intervention of Otto II (in 982), they lasted for a long time, falling away only after 1036, when the death of the Sicilian emir of al-Akhal led to an irreversible fragmentation of power on the island. They were expelled from Sicily in 1071, after ten years of war, by the Normans.

The chain of coastal towers along the Tyrrhenian coast, connected to each other within sight to exchange signals, had the purpose of spotting pirate ships from afar in order to give the alarm to the defenseless populations in time, but they were only built in the 16th century to protect themselves by the Ottoman fleet. The commonly used name "Saracen Tower" is incorrect.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Daniel 1979, p. 53.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Retsö 2003, p. 505.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Retsö 2003, p. 506.
  4. ^ "Saracen". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Cambridge University Press. 2012. Archived from the original on 16 July 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  5. ^ Déroche, Vincent; Dagron, Gilbert (1991). Doctrina Jacobi nuper Baptizati, "Juifs et chrétiens dans l'Orient du VIIe siècle" (Edition of the Greek text with French translation ed.). pp. 17–248.; Kirby, Peter. "External references to Islam". External References to Islam. Archived from the original on 29 April 2006. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  6. ^ Kahf 1999, p. 181.
  7. ^ Retsö 2003, p. 96.
  8. ^ Tolan, John V. (6 July 2002). Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. Columbia University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-231-50646-5.
  9. ^ Macdonald 2009.
  10. ^ Toral-Niehoff, Isabel. "Saraca". In Cancik, Hubert; Schneider, Helmuth; Salazar, Christine F.; Orton, David E. (eds.). Brill's New Pauly: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World. Vol. 14. Brill Publishers. p. 1158. doi:10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1101160.
  11. ^ Shahîd, Irfan (1984). Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs. Dumbarton Oaks. p. 125. ISBN 0884021157.
  12. ^ "الحوادث اليومية من تاريخ أحد عشر وألف ومية" [The Chronicles of Ash-Sham"]. Yawmiat Shamiyya (Chronicles of Ash-Sham) (in Arabic). The Daily Events As of 1111 Hijri / 1699 CE. 15 October 2015. Retrieved 30 April 2018.((cite web)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Retsö 2003, p. 457.
  14. ^ a b Retsö 2003, p. 464.
  15. ^ a b Retsö 2003, p. 465.
  16. ^ a b Retsö 2003, p. 466.
  17. ^ Retsö 2003, p. 517.
  18. ^ Retsö 2003, p. 464-466.
  19. ^ Rubenstein, Jay (1 November 2011). Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. Basic Books. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-465-01929-8.
  20. ^ Daniel 1979, p. 246.
  21. ^ Damascene, John (28 April 2012). "The Fount of Knowledge" (PDF). Gotiska Ärkestiftet av de Sanna ortodoxt kristna. Translated by Warwick, G. N. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 September 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  22. ^ Chase, Frederic (1958). Writings (The Fathers of the Church, vol. 37). Catholic University of America Press. pp. 153–160. ISBN 9780813200378. There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: 'Sara hath sent me away destitute.'
  23. ^ Heng 2012, p. 334.
  24. ^ Heng 2012, p. 231.
  25. ^ Heng 2012, p. 422.
  26. ^ "The King of Tars". The Crusades Project. University of Rochester. 28 April 2012. Archived from the original on 16 July 2015. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  27. ^ Kahf 1999, p. 31.
  28. ^ Bruce Bedlam The stones of Stonehenge Archived 30 October 2022 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ Heller, Sarah Grace (2002). "Fashion in French Crusade Literature Desiring Infidel Textiles". In Koslin, Desiree (ed.). Encountering Medieval Textiles. Palgrave Macmillian. p. 103.