Romans in Arabia

The ruins of Old Marib, Yemen, besieged by the Romans in 25 BC.

The Roman presence in Arabia had its foundations in the expansion of the empire under Augustus, and continued until the Arab conquests of Byzantine territory from the 7th century onward. The Romans never managed to conquer Arabia proper.

Initial contacts

The volume of commerce between Rome and India was huge since the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, according to the historian Strabo: 120 Roman vessels sailed every year from Berenice Troglodytica and many times touched Aden in southern Arabia Felix on their travel to India, while doing the Spice Route.[1] Mostly in order to secure the maritime route from piracy, the Romans organized an expedition under Aelius Gallus in which the port of Aden (then called Eudaemon) in southern Arabia was occupied temporarily.

The Romans furthermore maintained a small legionary garrison in the Nabataean port of Leuke Kome (just north of the Arabian port of Jeddah) in the 1st century in order to control the commerce of spices, according to the academic Mommsen.[2] Indeed, frankincense and myrrh, two spices highly prized in antiquity as fragrances, could only be obtained from trees growing in southern Arabia, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Arab merchants brought these goods to Roman markets by means of camel caravans along the Incense Route. This Incense Route originally commenced at Shabwah in Hadhramaut, the easternmost kingdom of South Arabia, and ended at Petra. Strabo compared the immense traffic along the desert routes to that of an army. The Incense Route ran along the western edge of Arabia’s central desert about 100 miles inland from the Red Sea coast. The Roman Pliny the Elder stated that the journey consisted of sixty-five stages divided by halts for the camels. Both the Nabataeans and the South Arabians grew tremendously wealthy through the transport of these goods destined for the Roman Empire.

Aelius Gallus expedition

Aelius Gallus was the second praefect of Roman Egypt (Aegyptus), from 26 to 24 BC, in the reign of Augustus. His expedition to Arabia Felix, of which an account is given by his friend Strabo,[3] as well as by Cassius Dio[4] and Pliny the Elder[5][6] turned out to be a complete failure.

During Sabaean rule, the area of modern-day Yemen was called "Arabia Felix" by the Romans who were impressed by its wealth and prosperity. Gallus undertook the expedition from Roman Egypt by the command of Augustus, in order to conclude treaties of friendship with the Arabian people or to subdue them if they should oppose the Romans. Indeed, it was believed at the time that Arabia was full of all kinds of treasures: the success of the "Kingdom of Saba" was based on the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics including frankincense and myrrh.

When Aelius Gallus set out with his army in 26 BC, he trusted to the guidance of a Nabataean called Syllaeus, who deceived and misled him. A long account of this interesting expedition through the desert is given by Strabo[7][8] who derived most of his information about Arabia from his friend Aelius Gallus.[9][10][11][12]

A disease among the soldiers (unknown to the Romans) destroyed the greater part of the Roman Army. The Arabs were not only not subdued, but Aelius Gallus, after having spent six months on his march into the country on account of his treacherous guide, was able to besiege Ma'rib (the capital of the "Kingdom of Saba") for just a week. Meanwhile, his Roman fleet occupied and destroyed the port of Aden in order to guarantee the Roman merchant route to India. He was then forced to do a retreat in sixty days, obliged to return to Alexandria having lost the greater part of his force.

Theodor Mommsen wrote that Aelius Gallus sailed with 10,000 legionaries from Egypt and landed at Leuce Kome, a trading port of the Nabateans in the northwestern Arabian coast. He then conquered without difficulty Iathrib (Medina) and the village of Mekke (Mecca). From there he made a march of nearly one thousand km to the south until Marib, but was forced to abandon those conquests -according to Mommsen- not only because of diseases and epidemics, but also because he had overextended his line of supplies from Egypt in a land full of deserts.

Trajan and the Arabia Petraea province

A map of the Roman Empire shortly after Trajan's conquests of the kingdom of Nabataea, including Hegra in the interior. The province was soon reduced back to the line of limes Arabicus.

The Nabateans maintained close relations with the Romans since their arrival in the southeastern Mediterranean area. Under Augustus they were a Roman client kingdom.

When the emperor Trajan started his military expansions toward the east Rabbel II Soter, one of Rome's client kings, died. This event prompted the annexation of the Nabataean kingdom, although the manner and the formal reasons for the annexation are unclear. Some epigraphic evidence suggests a military operation, with forces from Syria and Egypt. What is clear, however, is that by 107, Roman legions were stationed in the area around Petra and Bostra, as is shown by a papyrus (and other evidences) found in Egypt.

The Roman empire gained what became the province of Arabia Petraea (modern southern Jordan and north west Saudi Arabia).[13]

The Hedjaz region was integrated into the Roman province of Arabia in 106 CE. A monumental Roman epigraph of 175-177 was recently discovered at Al-Hijr (then called "Hegra"). The region then formed part of Roman history, and then Byzantine history, until the 7th century. In 356, the city of Hegra is again mentioned, as being led by a mayor of local origin, but it seems to have been very little...[14]

The conquest of Arabia was not officially exulted until the completion of the Via Nova Traiana. This road extended down the center of the province from Bostra to Aqaba. It wasn't until the project was finished that coins, featuring Trajan’s bust on the obverse and a camel on the reverse, appeared commemorating the acquisition of Arabia. These coins were minted until 115, at which time the Roman imperial focus was turning farther eastward. The road links not only Bostra and Aqaba, but also Petra and was continued by a "caravan road" south the coast of western Arabia until the port of Leuce Kome.

Recently further evidence has been discovered that Roman legions occupied Madain Salih in the Hijaz mountains area of northwestern Arabia, increasing the extension of the "Arabia Petraea" province.[15]

Hadrian probably restructured the province after the Trajan expansion, reducing the area to nearly half the original size (at the west of what was called the Limes Arabicus) in order to better defend Arabia Petraea from raiders and enemies. The same process occurred in Caledonia, when he abandoned the Roman forts around Inchtuthill and the Gask Ridge and created the Hadrian Wall in Roman Britannia (reducing the Roman-controlled area of Scotland).

Under emperor Septimius Severus Arabia Petraea was expanded to include the Leja’ and Jebel Drūz, rough terrain south of Damascus, and also the birthplace of M. Julius Phillipus (Phillip the Arab).

Roman Arabia in the "Diocese of the East" (Dioecesis Orientis) at the beginning of the 5th century

Indeed, the Romans found a powerful ally in the Arabs called Ghassanids, who moved from the area of Marib to southern Syria mainly in the 2nd century. The Ghassanids were the buffer zone against the other Bedouins penetrating Roman territory in those years. More accurately their kings can be described as phylarchs, native rulers of subject frontier states. Their capital was at Jabiyah in the Golan Heights. Geographically, the Ghassanid kingdom occupied much of Syria, Mount Hermon (Lebanon), Jordan and Palestine, and its authority extended via tribal alliances with other "Azdi" tribes all the way to the northern Hijaz as far south as Yathrib (Medina).

Furthermore, precise Arab ancestry of the Roman Emperor Philip the Arab is not known, since all sources give only the Latin names of him and his family members. However, having originated from the general area in which the Ghassanids settled, many historians consider he may have been of that origin. His being mentioned either as a Christian himself or at least tolerant of Christians would fit with his originating from a people which was in the process of Christianization at the time of his rule.

Septimius Severus enlarged a province that was already huge. He then proceeded to enlarge the empire, through the conquest of Mesopotamia. The transfer of the Leja’ and Jebel Drūz seemed to have been part of a shrewd series of political acts on the emperor’s part to consolidate control of the area before this conquest. Arabia became the ideological power base for Septemius Severus in the Roman Near East.

Arabia became such a symbol of loyalty to Severus and the empire, according to Bowersock,[16] that during his war against Clodius Albinus, in Gaul, Syrian opponents propagated a rumour that the Third Cyrenaica legion controlling Arabia Petraea had defected. That it would matter to an issue in France/Gaul that a single legion in a backwater province on the other side of the empire would rebel indicates the political sway that Arabia had amassed. Not a land of significant population, resources, or even strategic position, it had become a bedrock of Roman culture. That it was an Eastern Roman culture didn't seem to dilute its effectiveness in matters in the west. It is precisely because Arabia Petraea had so little that it was able to define itself as Roman and that spurred its loyalty to Imperial Rome.

Another example of the loyalty to Rome of the Arab tribes of northern Arabia was Lucius Septimius Odaenathus. He was "the son of Lucius Septimius Herod (Hairān), the senator and chief of Tadmor, the son of Vaballathus (Wahballath), the son of Nasor"[17] and was the romanized Arab ruler of Palmyra and later of the short lived Palmyrene Empire. Odenatus, in the second half of the 3rd century, succeeded in recovering the Roman East from the Persians and restoring it to the Empire.

With Emperor Diocletian's restructuring of the empire in 284-305, Arabia Petraea province was enlarged to include parts of modern-day Palestine. Arabia after Diocletian was a part of the Diocese of Oriens ("the East"), which was part of the Prefecture of Oriens and was largely Christian.

The province was conquered by the Arab Muslims under the Caliph Umar in the 7th century: the Legio III Cyrenaica was destroyed defending Bosra in 630, ending the Roman presence in Arabia.[18]

See also


  1. The Geography of Strabo published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917
  2. Theodor Mommsen. The Provinces of the Roman Empire. Chapter X (Syria and the land of the Nabataeans)
  3. Strabo, xvi. p. 780-783.
  4. Cassius Dio LIII, 29
  5. Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist. vi. 32.
  6. See also Charles Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, ch. 4; H. Krüger, Der Feidzug des Aelius Gallus nach dem glucklichen Arabien unter Kaiser Augustus, 1862.
  7. Strabo, xvi. p. 780782; xvii. pp. 806, 816, 819.
  8. Dio Cassius, liii. 29.
  9. Strabo, ii. p. 118.
  10. Pliny, Natural History, vi. 32; vii. 28.
  11. Charles Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, ch. 34, 1864.
  12. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, xv. 9. §3.
  13. Map showing the Roman Arabia province under Trajan emperor
  14. Roman presence in Hegra (actual Madain Salih)
  15. Romans at Madain Salih, in northwestern Arabian peninsula
  16. G. W. Bowersock, "A Report on Arabia Provincia", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 61, (1971), pp. 219-242
  17. Gawlikowski, Michel, "Les princes de Palmyre", Syria 62 (1985) 251-61.
  18. L. Gatier, La Legio III Cyrenaica et l'Arabie, in dans Les légions de Rome sous le Haut-Empire, I, Lyon, 2000, p. 341-344


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