MIDDLE NABATAEAN HISTORY
(26 BC - 40 AD) 

Whenever tourists visit ancient Roman city sites they are struck with the large number of temples that the Romans built. As the Romans worshiped a pantheon of gods, they were constrained to build temples to these gods, wherever they went. As their empire expanded, the number of temples in existence expanded. Each of these temples burned incense. Added to this, incense and myrrh were used at funerals to mask the odor of death. All of this eventually led to a massive demand for incense, which the Nabataeans were not only striving to fill, but also striving to monopolize and exploit.

As a result, great amounts of money were leaving the Roman coffers and being passed on to the Nabataeans. It became so bad, that in 26 BC, Agustus Caesar sent an army under the command of the proconsul of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to discover the lands south of Egypt, to see if there was a land route to southern Yemen, the origin of frankincense. The expedition traveled south from Egypt to explore Troglodytae, or present day Djibouti.

Strabo tells us: "Augustus Caesar dispatched this general to explore the nature of these places and their inhabitants, as well as those of Ethiopia, for he observed that Troglodytica, which is contiguous to Egypt, bordered upon Ethiopia; and that the Arabian Gulf was extremely narrow where it separates the Arabians from the Troglodytae. It was his intention either to conciliate or subdue the Arabians. He was also influenced by the report which had prevailed from all time, that this people were very wealthy, and exchanged their aromatics and precious stones for silver and gold, but never expended with foreigners any part of what they received in exchange. He hoped to acquire either opulent friends, or to overcome opulent enemies."
(Geography XVI.4.23)

After the first expedition, Augustus Caesar encouraged Aelius Gallus to employ the Nabataeans as guides and escorts on an expedition down the Arabian side of the Red Sea to locate the source of frankincense. You can imagine the predicament this was for the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans were deemed allies of Rome, but if the Romans discovered their source of frankincense, then the Romans would simply sail down the Red Sea and buy directly from the South Arabian kingdoms, thus excluding the Nabataeans from their lucrative trade.

It appears that Syllaeus, the chief minister of Obodas II had a clever solution to the problem. He agreed to lead the expedition, and together with a contingent of Nabataean camel cavalry, took his place at the head of the Roman Army with the Roman General Aelius Gallus. First, however, the Roman Army needed to get from Egypt to Arabia. The Romans decided to build a fleet of boats for this purpose.

Strabo tells the story this way:
"He (Aelius Gallus) was, moreover, encouraged to undertake this enterprise by the expectation of assistance from the Nabataeans, who promised to cooperate with him in everything. Upon these inducements Gallus set out on the expedition. But he was deceived by Syllaeus, the king's minister of the Nabataeans, who had promised to be his guide on march, and to assist him in the execution of his design. Syllaeus was, however, treacherous throughout; for he neither guided them by a safe course by sea along the coast, nor by a safe road for the army as he promised, but exposed both fleet and the army to danger by directing them where there was no road, or the road was impracticable, where they were obliged to make long circuits, or to pass through tracts of country destitute of everything; he led the fleet along a rocky coast without harbors, or to places abounding with rocks concealed under water, or with shallows. In places of this description particularly, the flowing and ebbing of the tide did them the most harm.

The first mistake consisted in building long vessels of war at a time when there was no war, nor any likely to occur at sea. For the Arabians, being mostly engaged in traffic and commerce, are not a very warlike people even on land, much less so at sea. Gallus, notwithstanding, built not less than eighty biremes and triremes and galleys at Cleopatris, also called Arsino', and near Hero'polis, near the old canal which leads from the Nile.

When he discovered his mistake, he constructed a hundred and thirty vessels of burden, in which he embarked with about ten thousand infantry, collected from Egypt, consisting of Romans and allies, among whom were five hundred Jews and a thousand Nabataeans, under the command of Syllaeus. After enduring great hardships and distress, he arrived on the fifteenth day at Leuce-Come, a large mart in the territory of the Nabataeans, with the loss of many of his vessels, some with all their crews, in consequence of the difficulty of the navigation, but by no opposition from an enemy.

These misfortunes were occasioned by the perfidy of Syllaeus, who insisted that there was no road for an army by land to Leuce-Come, to which and from which place the camel traders travel with ease and in safety from Selah, and back to Selah, with so large a body of men and camels as to differ in no respect from an army." XVI.iv.24 After landing the army, with the loss of men and ships, they headed inland, and south towards southern Arabia. Then things got worse.

"Gallus, however, arrived at Leuce-Come, with the army laboring under stomacacce and scelotyrbe, diseases of the country, the former affecting the mouth, the other the legs, with a kind of paralysis, caused by the water and the plants (which the soldiers had used in their food). He was therefore compelled to pass the summer and the winter there, for the recovery of the sick
."

The following spring they set out again. Strabo tells the story:

"Gallus, setting out again from Leuce-Come on his return with his army, and through the treachery of his guide, traversed such tracts of country, that the army was obliged to carry water with them upon camels. After a march of many days, therefore, he came to the territory of Aretas (modern Medina?), who was related to Obodas. Aretas received him in a friendly manner, and offered presents. But by the treachery of Syllaeus, Gallus was conducted by a difficult road through the country; for he occupied thirty days in passing through it. It afforded barley, a few palm trees, and butter instead of oil

The next country to which he came belonged to the nomads, and was in great part a complete desert (the Debae). It was called Ararene. The king of the country was Sabos. Gallus spent fifty days in passing through this territory, for want of roads, and came to a city of the Nejrani (probably Mecca), and to a fertile country peacefully disposed. The king had fled, and the city was taken at the first onset. After a march of six days from thence, he came to the river (in the land of the Minae).

Here the barbarians attacked the Romans, and lost about ten thousand men; the Romans lost only two men. For the barbarians were entirely inexperienced in war, and used their weapons unskillfully, which were bows, spears, swords, and slings; but the greater part of them wielded a double-edged axe. Immediately afterwards he took the city called Asca (probably modern Al-Lith), which had been abandoned by the king. He thence came to a city Athrula (modern Abha?), and took it without resistance; having placed a garrison there, and collected provisions for the march, consisting of grain and dates he proceeded to a city Marsiaba, belonging to the nation of the Rhammanitae, who were subjects of Ilasarus (in modern Yemen, east of modern San'a). He assaulted and besieged it for six days, but raised the siege in consequence of a scarcity of water. He was two days' march from the aromatic regions, as he was informed by his prisoners.

He occupied in his marches a period of six months, in consequence of the treachery of his guides. This he discovered when he was returning; and although he was late in discovering the design against him, he had time to take another route back; for he arrived in nine days at Negrana (near modern Sa'dah?), where the battle was fought, and thence in eleven days he came to the "Seven Wells" (modern Al-Qunfudhah), as the place is called from the fact of their existing there. Thence he marched through a desert country, and came to Chaalla, a village, and then to another called Malothas (perhaps modern Jeddah), situated on a river. This road then lay through a desert country, which had only a few watering-places, as far as Egra (modern Yanbu) a village. It belongs to the territory of Obodus, and is situated upon the sea.

He accomplished on his return the whole distance in sixty days, in which, on his first journey, he had consumed six months. From Negra he conducted his army in eleven days to Myus Hormus; thence across the country to Coptus, and arrived at Alexandria with so much of his army as could be saved.

The remainder he lost, not by the enemy, but by disease, fatigue, famine, and marches through bad roads; for seven men only perished in battle. For these reasons this expedition contributed little in extending our knowledge of the country. It was however of some small service. Syllaeus, the author of these disasters, was punished for his treachery at Rome. He affected friendship, but he was convicted of other offences, besides perfidy in this instance and was beheaded(actually he was killed by throwing him from a cliff)." XVI.iv.25

Gallus accused Syllaeus of treachery, charging that the Nabataean minister had deliberately led the Romans across the most arid and desolate land he could find, using the most round about route he could think of. The route the army took, however, was an established trade route; although it was one that the Nabataeans seldom used as in those days they preferred the maritime route. Syllaeus managed to peacefully get away from the Romans and return to Petra a hero. Along with defeating the Roman Army, he had used the Roman army to weaken the South Arabian kingdom of Saba allowing the Himyarites, the kingdom friendliest to the Nabataeans to overcome them later that year. (25 BC) I look at this in more detail in chapter ten.

Obodas confirmed Syllaeus as chief minister and almost immediately, Syllaeus initiated negotiations with both the Romans and Herod the Great, a long time foe of Nabataea. Some think Syllaeus was setting himself up to be the next king.

Obodas was assassinated in 9 BC, (possibly poisoned by Syllaeus) and Aenaeas took possession of leadership, and took on the name Aretas IV. A short time later Syllaeus found himself in shackles, and was transported to Rome. He was tried for the murder of Obodas by a Roman court, found guilty and pitched headlong from the Tarpeian Rock in 6 BC.

In 9 BC a war broke out between Herod and the Nabataeans. Again we are entirely dependant on the narrative of Josephus, based on a much fuller contemporary narrative by Nicolus of Damascus who himself acted as Herod's envoy to defend his actions before Augustus. (Josephus Ant. XVI, 9, 1-4: 271 - 299, 9, 8-9: 335-355)

In brief, the conflict developed as follows. In 12 BC, while Herod had been absent, the Nabataeans had encouraged the inhabitants of Trachonitis, now under Herod's rule to revert to brigandage, and had given asylum to forty of their 'bandit chiefs'. Using a base provided for them in Nabataean territory, they raided not only Judea but into the province of Syria, and quite possibly the cities of the Decapolis. Herod could and did repress those in Trachonitis, but he could do little about those operating out of Nabataean territory. He appealed to the governors of Caesar, Saturninus, Volumnius, and Sentius Saturninus and the procurator of the province. No question of Roman military interception seems to have arisen. They merely decided that the Nabataeans would pay a debt due to Herod and that refugees on both sides should be restored. Only when this was not done, did they give Herod permission to invade Nabataean. After a successful invasion and a minor battle, Herod settled a colony of three thousand Idumaeans to control Trachonitis, and wrote to the Roman officials explaining his actions.

The affair was further complicated by the death of Obodas, the king of Nabataea, and the accession of Areneas, without Augustus' permission. The Romans considered the Nabataeans allies and perhaps subjects of Rome. The Nabataeans considered themselves subject to no one.

Areneas then changed his name to the more kingly one of Aretas. Unlike Aretas II who had looked abroad for his epithet 'Philhellene', Aretas IV called himself 'rym 'mh' or 'he who loves his people.' During his long reign (9 BC - 40 AD) the Nabataeans reached the height of their economic and cultural development. They built new towns and enlarged, and embellished old ones. In particular, most of the major monuments at Petra were built during this time. They also extended their irrigation schemes and expanded their agricultural base.

Some writers have felt that an attractive feature of the Nabataeans at this time was the status they accorded women. Inscriptions at Meda'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia indicate that Nabataean women, unlike many of their contemporaries, inherited and owned property in their own right. Also, from the time of the democratic Obodas II onwards, the queen's profile appears on coins together with that of her husband or in the case of a regency, her son. Aretas IV seems to have had two wives, apparently successively rather than together, the first was called Huldu, and the second Shaqilath. Another Shaqilath appears as the consort of his successor Laichus II, and again with her son, the last Nabataean king, Rabbel II during his minority.

There had long been ties between Herod the Great and the Nabataeans. Herod was the son of an Idumean (Edomite) father and a Nabataean mother. It seems he spent part of his boyhood in Petra. When Herod was forced to flee Jerusalem and sought to secure help from Rome, he is said to have attempted to find asylum in Petra but was repulsed by the king of the Nabataeans. Later when Herod received the kingship of the Jewish State from the Roman Senate and returned to Jerusalem, various political relations existed between him and the Nabataeans. However as the Nabataeans continued to expand their sphere of influence, skirmishes soon began to take place along their common border. In an attempt to end the fighting, Aretas IV married one of his daughters, Phasaelis, to Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. When Herod the Great died in AD 4, his kingdom was divided between his three sons who had escaped his recurrent murderous moods. In 6 AD, Rome annexed Herod the Great's realm and created the Province of Judea.

Herod Antipas became the tetrarch of Galilee and Paraea. For a while this resulted in good relations, but in AD 27, Antipas fell passionately in love with his niece. Her name was Herodias, and she was the mother of Salome and the wife of Antipas' brother, Herod Philip. To marry her, which outraged religious opinion, he divorced his Nabataean wife, which outraged Aretas. John the Baptist's outspoken condemnation of the marriage and his subsequent imprisonment and execution at the instigation of the delinquent Herodias, are well known. Less well known is that the spurned Nabataean wife went quietly home to Petra and Aretas launched an expedition against his old son-in-law and new enemy.

Aretas IV assembled an army and defeated Herod Antipas' army, but the Nabataean king was unable to do more. The Romans decided to come to Herod's defense to defend his honor, and the honor of the Empire.


Some historians feel that during a brief revival of Nabataean rule in Damascus under Aretas IV, the apostle Paul made his famously undignified exit from the city. The Bible tells us that this was when 'the governor under King Aretas guarded the city... in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.' (2 Corinthians 11:32-33)

copyright 2002 CanBooks

 Who were the Nabataeans?  The Muslim Invasion
 Arabia in Ancient History  The Crusades
 Early History  Rediscovery
 Middle History  The Hagarites/Gerrhaeans
 Late History  The Twelve Tribes of Ishmael
 The Fall of Petra
Nabajoth, Mibsam, Kedar, Adbeel, Mishma, Dumah,
Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, Kedemah