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Farthest part of Roman Empire

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Farasan Islands
Farasan Islands

After hearing the slogan “the farthest part of the Roman Empire”, most of us will probably think of wild Britain or Mesopotamia, conquered for a moment by Trajan. However, modern discoveries have shown that the truth may be different and very surprising. We are talking about a Roman garrison on inconspicuous Arabian islands – over 3,900 km from Rome itself.

The story begins in the late 1990s when two tourists visiting the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia discovered an ancient Latin inscription. The inscription was examined by experts in 2004. The text was not easy to read due to erosion, but in the end, the following translation was obtained:

To Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Pontifex Maximus, in the seventh year of his tribune, three times consul, father of the fatherland, on behalf of the vexillatio of the 2nd legion Traiana Fortis and his auxiliary forces, Castricius Aprinus, son of Publius, prefect of the port of Ferresan and the Sea of ​​Hercules, created and dedicated this monument.

This text provides some important information. Firstly, the name “Ferresan” is mentioned in it, which means that the inscription was not brought to the islands in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, but was actually made there. Secondly, the emperor whose title occupies half of the inscription is the ruler commonly known as Antoninus Pius, who ruled in the years 138 – 161 CE. Each subsequent emperor, after ascending the throne, received tribune power, and the text contains information that it was made in the seventh year of that emperor’s tribune power, so we have the date of execution – the year 144 CE. Third, the text mentions the vexillatio (special task force) and auxiliary forces of Traiana Fortis’ Legion II. At that time, it was this legion that was stationed closest to the Farasan Islands, specifically in Egypt. The inscription proves that at that time there was a Roman garrison on the islands, which probably means that the Farasan islands belonged to the Roman Empire. In this case, it would mean that it is the farthest point of the Empire, located almost 4000 km in a straight line from the city of Rome. For comparison, at a similar distance from Rome, there is even Greenland.

So the question remains why the Romans ventured so far, to the desert Arabian islands? We know the answer. The Red Sea was in Roman times, as it is today, an important communication route connecting the west and the east. Its coasts, however, are full of coral reefs and rocky islands that are only visible during the day in sunny weather. One such coral reef, stretching over 500 km in length and referred to as the Farasan Bank, blocks access to the southern part of the Arabian peninsula – a region from which many valuable raw materials come. For sailors who wanted to reach there, however, there was a safe tunnel along the coast, which was located … north of the Farasan Islands. So control of the Farasan Islands also meant control of this strategic trade route.

Author: Szymon Konieczny (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Phillips, Carl, et al. A Latin Inscription from South Arabia, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, vol. 34, 2004, pp. 239–250. JSTOR,

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