Demographic and Religious Changes in Sixth and Seventh Century Romano-Byzantine Edessa

Merle Eisenberg, Colby College

Document Type Honors Thesis (Open Access)


The original idea for this thesis began several years ago when I questioned the role of the people living under Romano-Byzantine rule during the Sasanid and Muslim invasions of the early sixth and seventh century. I wanted to examine ethnic and demographic transformations that might have caused these people to alter their view of their Romano-Byzantine rulers and support invading armies. These changes might then explain the “inevitable” Sasanid and Muslim conquests. The resulting work is extremely different. I have focused primarily on religious transformations, rather than ethnic or demographic changes. The reason is simple. The writers of this period did not write about ethnic or demographic changes. Instead, most writers concentrated on religion and on the different Christian creeds and the Jews in the empire. I have included several examples of demographic changes, but the sources do not concentrate on them and, therefore, these changes are largely secondary. In addition, these transformations occurred primarily during the sixth, rather than the seventh century. The large volume of information on these changes forced me to focus the thesis as well. I have chosen to examine these changes in the Mesopotamian city of Edessa. Edessa serves as a good case study because it had significant numbers of different religious, each of which attainted control of the city a period of time. Further, the most important Syriac writers were from Edessa, providing vital primary sources from a period that has few. This thesis focuses primarily on the period from 502-639 AD. The former date coincides with the beginning of the first Roman-Persian War of the sixth century, while the latter date marks the Muslim conquest of the city. I have, however, examined a few critical events from before and after this period. This work is vital because it examines the reaction of the Edessene people, of all religions, to the numerous invasions of the sixth and early seventh centuries. It seeks to determine how, and more importantly why, the Edessene people responded to the crises of this period as they did. Examining the reaction of the Edessene people to these tumultuous events provides insight into how subjects of Romano-Byzantine rule viewed the empire.