Roman Empire’s Foreign Relations in the African and Arabian Lands

In the region of Nubia, the Romans penetrated between the first cataract of the Nile and Khartoum. Nubia, at large, is a purely geographical term of disputed origin, coined in medieval times. In so far as it has a political connotation, it is connected to the Christian Nubian kingdoms which were present in this region between the middle of the sixth and the first quarter of the fourteenth century. A geographically rich area, Nubia transitions from a northern arid zone of desert to the rain belt and grasslands of Africa. Intrigued and inquisitive of potential economic development, the emperor Nero in the first century had sent an exploratory expedition that witnessed this geographical transition. As in other parts of north-east Africa, the whims of the Nile were among the most important determinant factors of the local economy. Through the Nubian sandstone, today too, the Nile moves easily, but when it reaches Khartoum, the river is obstructed and cascades through rocks, which have created the famous cataracts of the Nile.


Those cataract regions, whether as political boundaries, defense structures, or as places of refuge for a fleeing population, have played an important role in the history of Nubia. In general, the Roman traveller sought to avoid the worst of the turbulent waters of the cataracts and thus tried to cut off the two great bends of the river between Khartoum and the lands near Wadi Halfa. Thus, the ancient caravan route went right across the flat and windy desert. As is easy to imagine, camels were a crucial commodity in the region and were of primary importance for the people whose means of livelihood came from transporting goods along the caravan route. Desert lands, camels, nomadic tribes, small raiding bands, we need to imagine then how this affected the Byzantine imperial policy ultimately dictated from distant Constantinople.

(…) The Byzantines dealt carefully when it came to those foreign nomadic tribes. It was not only due to difference in customs, but also to their strategic importance and unique knowledge to navigate the desert and connect Africa, Arabia, and subcontinental India by the way of the caravan. At the first cataract, in about 29 B.C., Cornelius Gallus, the close friend of the poet Vergil and the first Prefect of Egypt, established the Nubian border with Egypt. It was later moved southwards 70 miles to Hiera Sycaminos (Maharraqah) to include the zone known as the Dodekaschoinos. The Roman military stations (and roads) in this frontier zone were almost exclusively west of the Nile, with a few bridgeheads on the eastern bank. The garrisons included at different times both cavalry and camel troops. On the west, they were strategically well-placed, for the Nile was a natural barrier. In the eastern desert, the Blemy-Beja tribes roamed about and on occasion raided into Egypt. Incapable of appeasing them or lacking knowledge to be able to move deep into the desert, the Romans eventually consolidated the frontier at the first cataract by the end of the third century.

Interstate relations have always had their challenges, but interactions between sedentary, organized states and nomadic peoples present their intricacies. Usually, the Byzantines dealt with regional tribes by paying them off, hiring them for their military campaigns, or relying on the economic network, dictated by the desert, to sustain them without breaching into imperial domains. Remains of surviving Roman and Byzantine forts in the region chart out, as elsewhere, a clear border line between the domains of the empire and everything else that was not a part of it. The desert and the sea, however (according to an explicit legislative act by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century), was no man’s land; everyone could get to use it as seen fit.

If we are to zoom in away from the macrocosmic level of the empire and on the ground of private relations, we can see that venturesome travellers and entrepreneurs needed the locals’ knowledge, too. The well-known Nessana Papyri are an informative source for the life of the desert in the sixth century. Several of them cite the presence of nomadic tribes on the fringes of agricultural settlement in the Negev region. For example, the Nessana Papyrus 89, dating to the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century, is a partial account of the income and expenditures of a caravan traveling from the Negev to the southern Sinai and back.

(…) Nomads also served as couriers between the Negev and points farther south. According to Papyrus 51, the Bishop of Aila sent a substantial sum of money to the
churches in Elusa and Nessana by means of a Saracen messenger. Anastasius, a seventh century Sinai monk, mentioned how a dying hermit employed a nomadic messenger to Aila to give the news of his grave condition. Earlier testimony to the relationship between the nomadic tribes and the sedentary settlers may be found in the narrative of the fourth-century monk Nilus of southern Sinai whose son was abducted by the nomads and sold as a slave in Elusa.


(…) The historical sources indicate the intricate relations between the Byzantines and nomad chiefdoms on the frontiers of the empire. After signing a series of treaties with the Byzantines, some tribes were appointed to guard the borders of the empire, or hired as mercenaries to defend its remote corners. Local phylarchs (chieftains) were held responsible for maintaining order in the territory under their control. As elsewhere, the Byzantines tried to adapt to the local conditions and to protect the regular flowing of people and goods through the imperial borders.

Specifically in the region of the Negev, the network of treaties, which seems to have existed since the late fourth century, apparently collapsed at the beginning of the seventh century. Theophanes in the ninth century described how payments to the Arab tribes ceased during the reign of Heraclius (610-641) and wrote about a government official sent to a border outpost to pay the salaries of the regular soldiers stationed there. When the Arabs demanded their due, at least according to Theophanes, they were colorfully reproached: “The Emperor pays his soldiers with difficulty, with how much more to dogs like you?”

Away from the regions of Egypt, south of the Euphrates, the imperial frontier extended along the edge of the Syrian desert for about 800 km. to the Red Sea. At first, Rome exercised indirect control through a system of client states, but by the early second century, the Romans were guarding the southeastern frontier with regular imperial forces and a system of roads and fortifications. The southern end of this fortified frontier was within the province of Arabia. The original Roman frontier in Arabia is still not well understood, but was based on a chain of forts along the important road, the via nova Traiana, originally built in the early second century AD.. A few forts served as outposts east of this line. By ca. 300, the Romans had developed a defense in depth, based on a fortified zone some 20-30 km. deep.

(…) The appearance of Germanic tribes on the Roman side of the limes in the West had major influences on the East, too. Due to the initial disruptions and the time that it took to establish proper relations, merchants from the West had declined in importance, and their position had been taken by easterners—Syrians, Jews, and Greeks. By the sixth-century, this reliance on eastern traders and markets for the Byzantines had increased, of course, since the western kingdoms were moving on their separate trajectory. The diplomatic relations that Justinian tried to establish with various peoples and tribes in the Red Sea region were a testimony to the crucial role that those lands played in the imperial economy, especially in times when the emperor needed money to restore the western territories.

(…) The Wadi Sirhan, the great migratory route between southern Syria and the interior of the Arabian peninsula, was controlled by a chain of forts at least by the Severan period (193-235). On the other hand, the Romans made no apparent move to occupy a series of watchtowers in the Hisma, well east of the via nova Traiana. Those posts were located in the Wadi Ram, another migration route. Despite the absence of their fortifications in the Wadi Ram, the Romans may have cooperated with local Thamudic allies in regular reconnaissance patrols of this region. The Romans clearly had the capability for desert patrols. Units such as ala dromadariorum in the northern Hejaz Desert or ala Antana (or Antoniniana) dromedariorum were obviously suited for such operations.

Bostra was the hub of the regional road system. It served as the end of the via nova Traiana from the southwest. From Bostra other roads led west to Der‘â, south to Umm el-Quttein, and east to Salkhad and Imtân, to a junction with the strata Diocletiana. The latter two roads merged south of Deir el-Kahf and reached Azraq, at the head of the Wadi Sirhan. Crucial to defense of the north was control of the Wadi Sirhan, the natural migration route between southern Syria and the interior of the Arabian peninsula. The wadi is a long, shallow valley extending southwest from the Jebel Druz to al-Jawf in Saudi Arabia. The area includes a large section of the desert of central Jordan west to the wadi. By erecting a chain of forts to block the northwestern outlet of the wadi, the Romans could monitor and when necessary control the movements of the nomadic tribes. The fort at Azraq was especially important because it guarded the major oasis of this arid region.

(…) The great canyons formed the wadis hinder movement from north to south. Thus, a series of bridges was constructed along the via nova Traiana to facilitate north-south traffic. A second road, farther east and parallel to the via nova came from the south.


(…) The Limes Arabicus was most heavily fortified in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The economic prosperity of the Byzantine era was due to several factors. Constantine’s
conversion to Christianity elevated Palestine overnight from a provincial backwater to the home of the new state religion. Imperial patronage on a grand scale was extended to the region for the construction of churches and monasteries. Additional income was derived from the pilgrim traffic to sacred Christian sites. Another important factor was the shift in trade routes between the Empire and its eastern neighbors. The fall of Palmyra and the rise of Sassanid Persia led to renewed importance of routes through the Arabian peninsula. Commercial caravans passed through Roman Arabia and Palaestina Salutaris carrying myrrh, frankincense, silk, and other luxury products. Maritime traffic through the Red Sea remained important; the port of Aila on the southern tip of the limes was a major crossroad of several commercial routes from the Red Sea and the Hejâz. Caravans continued to use the Wadi Sirhan, which terminated near Azraq in the northern sector of the Arabian limes. Finally, the increased security brought by the strengthened frontier led to a significant expansion of areas under cultivation. This expansion is best documented thus far in the Negev, central Moab, and northern Edom.

Justinian’s reduction of the limitanei in favor of a powerful Ghassanid client kingdom was a workable policy and was initially successful. Military and financial resources from the southeastern frontier could be used instead against Persia, on the
Danube, or in the reconquest of the West. But, such a policy depended heavily upon
maintenance of good relations with a strong Ghassanid ally. His successors seriously
weakened the Ghassanids without any corresponding strengthening of regular Roman forces in the area. The resulting strife between the empire and the Ghassanids contributed to the disasters of the early seventh century. The Persian invasion and occupation of much of the East between 613 and 628 was a major blow to the eastern frontier defenses. Heraclius (610-41), after finally defeating the Persians and restoring the status quo before the war, had insufficient time to restore the Arabian frontier before the Muslim’s expansion. But the imperial government was still committed to the active defense of the southeastern frontier. In 629, the initial Muslim advance was defeated at Mu‘ta, just south of the Wadi Mujib along the old via nova Traiana.

The lack of regular troops farther south is demonstrated by events of the following years. In 630 Muhammed received the negotiated surrender of Udruh and Aila without resistance. The talks with the latter town were apparently conducted with the local bishop; legio X Fretensis and whatever unit had garrisoned Udruh had long since disappeared. The capture of Aila provided the Muslims with a secure base and opened the door to the Sinai and southern Palestine. In the absence of adequate imperial troops the empire was forced to rely on federate Arabs, but about this time Heraclius terminated subsidies to at least some of the local tribes in southern Palestine. Some of these disaffected Bedouin, who had been paid to guard the desert south of Palestine, promptly guided the Muslim incursion of 633, which reached the territory of Gaza. There was no longer any fortified frontier to block their advance and subsidies to some Roman federates had been terminated. The decisive Muslim victory at the Yarmuk in 636 sealed the fate of Transjordan, Palestine, and Syria.

This detailed overview of the Byzantine imperial dynamics in the region should testify to the vested interests that the imperial government had in the Red Sea region. Generally peaceful relations between sedentary households and nomadic tribes in the desert regions, garrisoned sections on the key via nova Traina, strata Diocletiana, as well as the natural travelling routes by the water-flowing wadis through the arid zones administered the political and economic dynamics. In the sixth-century, Justinian’s ambition to reunite the Roman empire and to center it back on the Mediterranean Sea required that he refocus military power to the West. In doing so, the emperor created the tide of abandonment of Arabian and Red Sea garrisons. Justinian had hoped to rely on well-entrenched local customs and established peace as well as on outsourcing the political rule to local chieftains and tribal leaders in order to concentrate his energy to the West. In his own time, strictly speaking, this strategy worked, proving to us the successful integration of the region in the diplomatic and economic network of the empire.

[Source: “Conversion and Empire: Byzantine Missionaries, Foreign Rulers, and
Christian Narratives (ca. 300-900)“, by Alexander Borislavov Angelov]

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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