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Arabia in Roman times

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ruins of Old Marib in Yemen
Ruins of Old Maribu in Yemen. In 25 BCE the fortress was besieged by the Romans. The location in a remote corner of the territory called Arabia Felix from the Mediterranean world meant that the kingdom of Saba and the capital were never conquered by Persia or the Roman Empire. | Author: Tapatio | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Arabia in Roman times was traditionally divided into two parts: Arabia Magna (northern desert Arabia) and Arabia Felix (including today’s Yemen and Oman). Arabia Magna was mainly inhabited by Bedouin tribes that migrated to the outskirts of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. However, with the occupation of Nabatea by Rome, Arabia was divided in a new way. Northern Arabia was divided into Arabia Petrea (including the Sinai Peninsula and the territory of today’s Jordan, Palestine and Israel), Arabia Deserta (Desert Arabia) and Arabia Felix. This second division of the peninsula eventually took root in oriental sciences. The Arabian Peninsula in Roman times was inhabited not only by Arabs but also by southern Arabs (their language was quite different from classical Arabic) and Jews.

Speaking of the ancient Arabs, the Nabataeans are best known. They occupied the territories of today’s Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They were a semi-nomadic people whose Arab culture was overlapped with Hellenistic and Aramaic patterns. With the weakening of the heirs of Alexander the Great, the Nabataeans began to raid their Jewish neighbours (Judea gained independence from the Seleucid Empire after the Maccabean Rising). When the Romans arrived in Judea, proconsul Marcus Aemilius Scaurus defeats the Nabataeans in battle and forces King Aretas III to submit to Rome. However, Rome’s sovereignty over Nabatea remains rather loose, and the Nabatean Arabs grew rich by trading and privateering in the Red Sea. The last Nabatean ruler, Rabbel II, tried to fortify his state, which alarmed Rome. The Romans liquidated the Nabatean state and organized the province of Arabia with its capital in Boston (106). Inscriptions are the oldest known forms of the Arabic language and the ruins of cities, the most famous of which is Petra Nabatean, carved in the rock.

Apart from the Nabataeans, the Arabs also had other states on the outskirts of the Roman Empire and the Party. It is worth mentioning, for example, Palmyra, prospering thanks to the profits from the Silk Road, which in the third century tried to detach its eastern provinces from Rome, or buffer states such as Osroene, Hatra and Characene in the south of Mesopotamia. With their elimination by Rome and Sassanid Persia, both empires became the target of raids organized by the Bedouin tribes. This is how the Ghassanid states (they were settled as foederati on the outskirts of the Roman limes in Syria, and their rulers bore the title of phylarch) and the Lachmids (on the outskirts of Persian Mesopotamia). These countries, apart from protecting the Roman Levant and Persian Mesopotamia against the invasions of their Bedouin kinsmen, provided their sovereigns with military units and fought against each other on their behalf. The Ghassanid-Lachmid rivalry flared up even more when the Ghassanids adopted monophysical Christianity and the Lachmids adopted Nestorian Christianity. The liquidation of the Ghassanid state at the beginning of the Middle Ages meant that in the 7th century, Muslim Arabs easily entered the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire – similarly with the pro-Lachmids.

Triumphal Arch in Palmyra, blown up by terrorists from the Islamic State in 2015.
Author: Bernard Gagnon | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Of course, when talking about Arabia, it is impossible to forget about the Bedouin tribes. Although most of the information about them relates to the period between the 5th century and the birth of Islam, it can be assumed that their lifestyle has not changed much since the Greco-Roman period. The tribes fought with each other, and their survival depended on the fertility of the oases and the camels they farmed. They also led a nomadic lifestyle, although city-states emerged along trade routes or around religious sanctuaries (such as Mecca). At the end of the ancient era in Arabia developed the so-called kasyda, or Arabic poem. Originally passed by word of mouth, most casinos have survived to the present day and are still highly regarded among Arabs. Bedouins were also eager to invade their neighbours whenever the opportunity was right. In addition, as already mentioned, many of them settled on the outskirts of the deserts. The Romans practically did not go deep into Arabia, although it is impossible not to mention the unsuccessful expedition of the Egyptian prefect Gallus from 30 BCE, who wanted to conquer South Arabia. The defeat of the Romans was caused by problems with supplies, diseases decimating the army and the guide’s betrayal.

South Arabia, known as Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”), was considered an extremely prosperous area. This is where the extremely valuable incense, myrrh and saffron come from. For most of its history, South Arabia was not a single state. Instead, there have been several rival states, the most famous of which is Saba. The ancient Arabs of the south could boast a high level of civilization development. They developed their own writing system known as South Arabian script (though not having much in common with the later classical Arabic script). They were also excellent builders, as evidenced by the Dam in Marib, which, thanks to its network of canals, was able to continuously irrigate two oases. The last representatives of South Arabian civilization were the Himyarites, who finally managed to unite all of today’s Yemen. The Himyar state was getting richer, in which a great role was played by the lively exchange of goods on the trade route from India to Roman Egypt. On the other side of the Red Sea, however, a new power had arisen in the form of the Kingdom of Aksum, the ancestor of today’s Ethiopia. In the 4th century CE, the fierce Himalayan-Axumite rivalry became even more inflamed as the pagan Aksum adopted Christianity, and the Himyar – wishing to maintain friendly relations with Rome and Sassanid Persia – adopted Judaism.

Author: Mateusz Szatkowski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Janusz Danecki, Arabowie

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