Friday 19 July 2013

Rome's Forgotten Expedition: Arabia Felix

The Roman Empire, at its peak
The Romans were arguably history's greatest war machine. Conquering the Italian peninsula from the Latin League whilst being politically and militarily outnumbered, subduing the relentless Gauls of modern-day France, wiping out the Carthaginian civilisation and bringing an end to the Seleucid Empire. The year is 25 BC, Rome's empire stretches from the Iberian peninsula to Egypt. But this was during the time of Octavian, founder of the Roman empire and he wanted to expand his newly-created empire. It should be no surprise that he referred to himself as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, Imperator meaning 'Emperor' which is where the term originates from. Seeking to expand his empire, Augustus set his sights on Arabia Felix, in modern-day Yemen.
Arabia Felix, on a map by Ptolemy.

Of all places, why Arabia Felix? Why conquer a land in a seemingly hot desert region at the world's end? To understand, it is necessary to look at the situation from the Roman perspective. The Latin phrase 'Arabia Felix' literally translates into 'Happy Arabia' but is meant to imply 'Blessed Arabia' (Romans and their Latin, eh?). Many geographers and historians in antiquity referred to Arabia Felix as being extremely wealthy, owing to its strategic position in the incense trade. 

The legendary riches of the Nabataeans (those who lived beyond south of the Roman province of Syria) and Sabaeans (the inhabitants of Yemen) had captured Roman imaginations for centuries. Gold, silver, perfume, incense; control over these goods would provide a solid supply of income for the Roman coffers. The illusion of legendary Nabataean riches caught the attention of the likes of Antigonus the One Eyed of Macedon, the Roman general Pompey amongst others.

Augustus had other reasons for choosing Arabia Felix over the other regions in the Middle East. Persia's riches were guarded by the Parthian empire whereas mainland Arabia had no empire to guard its riches. Augustus brushed aside the minor Arabian kingdoms in the south and ordered Aeilius Gallus, the governor of Roman Egypt, to lead an expedition along the Red Sea coast of Arabia (and Ethiopia) with the purpose of conquests. The Nabataeans encouraged the Romans, promising to cooperate and provide assistance against the Sabaeans, their motives hidden.
The incense trade route (From Ancient

The expedition was doomed to fail before it even began. Poor leadership, poor planning and a poor choice of guides were to blame. The expedition landed on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, with one source stating they landed near Aynunah on the north side. Other sources state they landed in the Nabataean port of Leuce-Come. The sea journey was disastrous; the vast majority of the boats and crew were lost to rocky shores, improper storage of provisions and scurvy. The expedition's strength was depleted to the extent that the Romans had to camp the winter to regain their strength.

10,000 men were drafted from Egypt's garrison for the expedition, accompanied by an auxiliary force of 500 Judaeans and 1,000 Nabataeans under their own commander and influential minister, Syllaios. Unfortunately for the Romans, Syllaios was their guide. The Romans relied heavily on Syllaios; not only did the Romans venture into uncharted and foreign territory, Syllaios was their only guide who knew where the roads were and the watering holes as well. He was also the Romans' negotiator with local tribes, to gain provisions from them. 

But Syllaios had an agenda. Under orders from the Nabataean king Obodas III, Syllaios deliberately misled the expedition. The Nabataeans wished to safeguard Arabia's lucrative trade routes for themselves and they saw sabotaging Aeilius Gallus' expedition as the perfect way to expand their own influence in Arabia and to weaken the Roman hold on Egypt. Syllaios deliberately led the expedition in circuitous routes, avoiding wells and provisions, hoping that hunger and disease would destroy the Romans. Though it had some effect, the expedition carried on and soon, the Romans encountered the defenseless Minnaean city of Negrana (present-day Najran) and swiftly occupied it. It had taken six months but the expedition finally arrived in Arabia Felix.

Map of the doomed Roman expedition. Copyright of Warwick Ball
The South Arabians amassed an army to counter the Roman invaders. Despite disease, hunger and treachery, superior Roman military discipline led to minimal losses against the Arabians. The expedition carried onwards to occupy Yathil (modern day Baraqish) and planned to march onto the legendary Kingdom of Sheba's capital, Marib.

 Marib was a fortress like no other, the Sabaeans of South Arabia were masters of stone masonry, second to none. Limestone ramparts and 6-metre thick walls covered the city, providing a formidable obstacle to Roman siege tactics. 

The Romans besieged the city but only for six days, citing the lack of water. Marib had an oasis, a potentially endless source of water. The Romans, heavily demoralised with illnesses and scarcity of supplies as well as the intense heat, called off their expedition. Aelius Gallus conceded defeat. Having finally realised Syllaios' treachery, Gallus sought new guides. Within two months, the shattered remnants of the expedition returned to Alexandria. Gallus had stated that, of the dead, only seven of his men died to enemy combat, the rest were thought to have perished due to disease. The Romans made no further attempts to conquer territory in the Arabian peninsula.


Syllaios didn't keep a low profile. His actions led him up the hierarchical line in Nabataean society and became a key adviser to the king. He would later act as Nabataea's ambassador to Judaea (where he had a rather heavily-publicized affair with Herod's sister) and the Romans until his death in 9 BC.

The traditional idea that Syllaios is to blame for the failure of the expedition is owed to the fact that Strabo, the Greek geographer, was a personal friend of Aelius Gallus and was unwilling to blame the expedition's failure on his friend. He turned to the foreigner, Syllaios, as a scapegoat. He criticised Syllaios for the routes he had chosen and blamed him for the failure of the expedition. Though Strabo had no evidence aside from his own words, later Nabataean history reveals that Syllaios was unscrupulously ambitious and cruel, Strabos must have known this of him and conveniently put the blame on him but aside from Stabos' words, there is no evidence to suggest that Syllaios caused the expedition to fail. Even without treachery, an expedition into a desert would have been extremely difficult and losses had to be expected. The harshness of the terrain, the inexperience of the Romans in deserts, the over-extension of communications and supply lines, the expedition was destined to fail, even with the world's best guides at its helm. 


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