Ancient Accounts of Arabia
430 BC - 550 CEHerodotus: The Histories, c. 430 BC Strabo: Geography, c. 22 CE Dio Cassius: History of Rome, c. 220 CEAmmianus Marcellinus: The Roman History, c. 380 CEProcopius of Caesarea: History of the Wars, c. 550 CE
The Histories, Book III
c. 430 BC
The Arabs keep such pledges more religiously than almost any other people. They plight faith with the forms following. When two men would swear a friendship, they stand on each side of a third: he with a sharp stone makes a cut on the inside of the hand of each near the middle finger, and, taking a piece from their dress, dips it in the blood of each, and moistens therewith seven stones lying in the midst, calling the while on Bacchus and Urania. After this, the man who makes the pledge commends the stranger (or the citizen, if citizen he be) to all his friends, and they deem themselves bound to stand to the engagement. They have but these two gods, to wit, Bacchus and Urania; and they say that in their mode of cutting the hair, they follow Bacchus. Now their practice is to cut it in a ring, away from the temples. Bacchus they call in their language Orotal, and Urania, Alilat. . . .There is a great river in Arabia, called the Corys, which empties itself into the Erythraean sea. The Arabian king, they say, made a pipe of the skins of oxen and other beasts, reaching from this river all the way to the desert, and so brought the water to certain cisterns which he had dug in the desert to receive it. It is a twelve days' journey from the river to this desert tract. And the water, they say, was brought through three different pipes to three separate places. . . .The Arabs brought every year a thousand talents of frankincense. . . .
Arabia is the last of inhabited lands towards the south, and it is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and laudanum. The Arabians do not get any of these, except the myrrh, without trouble. The frankincense they procure by means of the gum styrax, which the Greeks obtain from the Phoenicians; this they burn, and thereby obtain the spice. For the trees which bear the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colors, whereof vast numbers hang about every tree. They are of the same kind as the serpents that invade Egypt; and there is nothing but the smoke of the styrax which will drive them from the trees. The Arabians say that the whole world would swarm with these serpents, if they were not kept in check in the way in which I know that vipers Such, then, is the way in which the Arabians obtain their frankincense; their manner of collecting the cassia is the following: They cover all their body and their face with the hides of oxen and other skins, leaving only holes for the eyes, and thus protected go in search of the cassia, which grows in a lake of no great depth. All round the shores and in the lake itself there dwell a number of winged animals, much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and are very valiant. These creatures they must keep from their eyes all the while that they gather the cassia.
Still more wonderful is the mode in which they collect the cinnamon. Where the wood grows, and what country produces it, they cannot tell---only some, following probability, relate that it comes from the country in which Bacchus was brought up. Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word from the Phoenicians, call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests. These are fastened with a sort of mud to a sheer face of rock, where no foot of man is able to climb. So the Arabians, to get the cinnamon, use the following artifice. They cut all the oxen and asses and beasts of burthen that die in their land into large pieces, which they carry with them into those regions, and Place near the nests: then they withdraw to a distance, and the old birds, swooping down, seize the pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests; which, not being able to support the weight, break off and fall to the ground. Hereupon the Arabians return and collect the cinnamon, which is afterwards carried from Arabia into other countries.
Concerning the spices of Arabia let no more be said. The whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvelously sweet. There are also in Arabia two kinds of sheep worthy of admiration, the like of which is nowhere else to be seen; the one kind has long tails, not less than three cubits in length, which, if they were allowed to trail on the ground, would be bruised and fall into sores. As it is, all the shepherds know enough of carpentering to make little trucks for their sheep's tails. The trucks are placed under the tails, each sheep having one to himself, and the tails are then tied down upon them. The other kind has a broad tail, which is a cubit across sometimes. are. . . .The Arabians wore the zeira, or long cloak, fastened about them with a girdle; and carried at their right side long bows, which when unstrung bent backwards.
Geography Book XVI, Chap. iv, 1-4, 18-19, 21-26
c. 22 CE
Book XVI.iv.1: Arabia commences on the side of Babylonia with Maecene [modern Kuwait]. In front of this district, on one side lies the desert of the Arabians, on the other are the marshes opposite to the Chaldeans, formed by the overflowing of the Euphrates, and in another direction is the Sea of Persia. This country has an unhealthy and cloudy atmosphere; it is subject to showers, and also to scorching heat; still its products are excellent. The vine grows in the marshes; as much earth as the plant may require is laid upon hurdles of reeds; the hurdle is frequently carried away by the water, and is then forced back again by poles to its proper situation. . . .
XVI.iv.2. From Hero÷polis [modern Abu-Keyschid, near modern Suez City], situated in that recess of the Arabian Gulf which is on the side of the Nile, to Babylon, towards Petra of the Nabataei, are 5600 stadia. The whole tract lies in the direction of the summer solstice (i.e., east and west), and passes through the adjacent Arabian tribes, namely Nabataei, Chaulotaei, and Agraei [in the modern An-Nafud desert, along on the borders of present Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia]. Above these people is Arabia Felix, stretching out 12,000 stadia towards the south to the Atlantic Sea.
The first people, next after the Syrians and Jews, who occupy this country are husbandmen. These people are succeeded by a barren and sandy tract, producing a few palms, the acanthus, and tamarisk; water is obtained by digging [wells] as in Gedrosia. It is inhabited by Arabian Scenitae, who breed camels [in the area just to the west of the Euphrates]. The extreme parts towards the south, and opposite to Ethiopia, are watered by summer showers, and are sowed twice, like the land in India. Its rivers are exhausted in watering plains, and by running into lakes. The general fertility of the country is very great; among other products, there is in particular an abundant supply of honey; except horses, there are numerous herds of animals, mules, and swine; birds also of every kind, except geese and the gallinaceous tribe. Four of the most populous nations inhabit the extremity of the above-mentioned country [i.e., modern Yemen]; namely, the Minaei the part towards the Red Sea, whose largest city is Carna or Carnana. Next to these are the Sabaeans, whose chief city is Mariaba [Yemen proper, about the capital San'a]. The third nation are the Cattabaneis, extending to the straits and the passage across the Arabian Gulf [the area about modern Aden]. Their royal seat is called Tamna. The Chatramotitae are the furthest of these nations towards the east [in modern Hadramawt]. Their city is Sabata.
XVI.iv.3. All these cities are governed by one monarch, and are flourishing. They are adorned with beautiful temples and palaces. Their houses, in the mode of binding the timbers together, are like those in Egypt. The four countries comprise a greater territory than the Delta of Egypt. The son does not succeed the father in the throne, but the son who is born in a family of the nobles first after the accession of the king. As soon as any one is invested with the government, the pregnant wives of the nobles are registered, and guardians are appointed to watch which of them is first delivered of a son. The custom is to adopt and educate the child in a princely manner as the future successor to the throne.
XVI.iv.4. Cattabania produces frankincense, and Chatramotitis myrrh; these and other aromatics are the medium of exchange with the merchants. Merchants arrive in seventy days at Minaea from Aelana [i.e., modern Aqaba]. Aelana is a city on the other recess of the Arabian Gulf, which is called Aelanites, opposite to Gaza, as we have before described it. The Gerrhaei [who dwelt along the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf, between what is now Kuwait and Qatar] arrive in Chatramotitis in forty days. The part of the Arabian Gulf along the side of Arabia, if we reckon from the recess of the Aelanitic bay, is, according to the accounts of Alexander and Anaxicrates, 14,000 stadia in extent; but this computation is too great. The part opposite to Troglodyticae [The Troglodyticae extended along the western side of the Red Sea, from about the 26th degree of latitude to the 19th degree, near modern Tawkar], which is on the right hand of those who are sailing from Hero÷polis to Ptolema´s, to the country where elephants are taken, extends 9000 stadia to the south, and inclines a little towards the east. Thence to the straits are about 4500 stadia, in a direction more towards the east. The straits at Ethiopia are formed by a promontory called Deire [i.e., modern Bab-el-Mandeb]. There is a small town upon it of the same name. The Ichthyophagi inhabit this country. Here it is said is a pillar of Sesostris the Egyptian, on which is inscribed, in hieroglyphics, an account of his passage (across the Arabian Gulf). For he appears to have subdued first Ethiopia and Troglodytica, and afterwards to have passed over into Arabia. He then overran the whole of Asia. Hence in many places there are dykes called the dykes of Sesostris, and temples built in honor of Egyptian deities. . . .
Having given this account of the Troglodytae and of the neighboring Ethiopians, Artemidorus returns to the Arabians. Beginning from Poseidium [about twenty-five miles South-Southeast of modern Abu Zanimah] he first describes those who border upon the Arabian Gulf [Red Sea], and are opposite to the Troglodytae. He says that Poseidium is situated within the Bay of Hero÷polis [this is the modern Gulf of Suez], and that continguous to Poseidium is a grove of palm trees, well-supplied with water, which is highly-valued, because all the district around is burnt up and is without water or shade. But there the fertility of the palm is prodigious. A man and a woman are appointed by hereditary right to the guardianship of the grove. They wear skins, and live on dates. They sleep in huts built on trees, the place being infested with multitudes of wild beasts.
Next is the island of Phocae [modern Sheduan], which has its name from those animals [seals] which abound there. Near it is a promontory [modern Ras Muhammad, near Sharm-el-shaykh], which extends towards Petra, of the Arabians called Nabataei [in modern Jordan, about halfway between Aqaba and the Dead Sea], and to the country of Palestine [the modern state of Israel] , to this island [modern Jazirat Tiran] the Minaei, Gerrhaei, and all the neighboring nations repair with loads of aromatics. Next is another tract of sea-coast, formerly called the coast of the Maranitae [Cape Pharan, near Ras Muhammad], some of whom were farmers, others Scenitae; but at present it is occupied by Garindaei, who destroyed the former possessors by treachery. They attacked those who were assembled to celebrate some quinquennial festival, and put them to death; they then attacked and exterminated the rest of the tribe [See: Diodorus Siculus III.41].
Next is the Aelanitic Gulf [modern Gulf of Aqaba] and Nabataea, a country well-peopled, and abounding in cattle. The islands which lie near [modern Jazirat Tiran and Jazirat Sanafir], and opposite, are inhabited by people who formerly lived without molesting others, but latterly carried on a piratical warfare in rafts against vessels on their way from Egypt. But they suffered reprisals, when an armament was sent out against them, which devastated their country. Next is a plain [about modern Al-Maqnah], well-wooded and well supplied with water; it abounds with cattle of all kinds, and, among other animals, mules, wild camels, harts, and hinds; lions also, leopards, and wolves are frequently to be found. In front lies an island called Dia. Then follows a bay of about 500 stadia in extent, closed in by mountains, the entrance into which is of difficult access [about modern Ash-Sharmah]. About it live people who are hunters of wild animals.
Next are three desert islands, abounding with olive trees, not like those in our own country, but an indigenous kind, which we call Ethiopic [black] olives, the tears (or gum) of which have a medicinal virtue. Then follows a stony beach, which is succeeded by a rugged coast, not easily navigated by vessels, extending about 1000 stadia [modern Madyan in Saudi Arabia]. It has few harbors and anchorages, for a rugged and lofty mountain stretches parallel to it; then the parts at its base, extending into the sea, form rocks under water, which, during the blowing of the Etesian winds and the storms of that period, present dangers, when no assistance can be afforded to vessels.
Next is a bay in which are some scattered islands , and continuous with the bay are three lofty mounds [modern Jebel Seik, Jebel el-Hawene, and Jebel Hester] of black sand. After these is Charmothas [modern Umm Lajj], a harbor, about 100 stadia in circumference, with a narrow entrance very dangerous for all kinds of vessels. A river empties itself into it. In the middle is a well-wooded island, adapted for cultivation [modern Al Hassan]. Then follows a rugged coast, and after that are some bays and a country belonging to nomads, who live by their camels [the modern Hejaz, opposite Mecca and Medina]. They fight from their backs; they travel upon them, and subsist on their milk and flesh. A river flows through their country, which brings down gold dust, but they are ignorant how to make any use of it. They are called Debae; some of them are nomads, others farmers. I do not mention the greater part of the names of these nations, on account of the obscurity of the people, and because the pronunciation of them is strange and uncouth.
Near these people is a nation more civilized [the Minaei], who inhabit a district with a more temperate climate; for it is well-watered, and has frequent showers. Fossil gold is found there, not in the form of dust, but in lumps, which do not require much purification. The least pieces are of the size of a nut, the middle size of a medlar, the largest of a walnut. These are pierced and arranged alternately with transparent stones strung on threads and formed into collars. They are worn round the neck and wrists. They sell the gold to their neighbors at a cheap rate, exchanging it for three times the quantity of brass, and double the quantity of iron, through ignorance of the mode of working the gold, and the scarcity of the commodities received in exchange, which are more necessary for the purposes of life.
XVI.iv.19. The country of the Sabaei, a very populous nation, is contiguous [most of modern Yemen], and is the most fertile of all, producing myrrh, frankincense, and cinnamon. On the coast is found balsamum and another kind of herb of a very fragrant smell, but which is soon dissipated. There are also sweet-smelling palms and the calamus. There are snakes also of a dark red color, a span in length, which spring up as high as a man's waist, and whose bite is incurable. On account of the abundance which the soil produces, the people are lazy and indolent in their mode of life. The lower class of people live on roots, and sleep on the trees. The people who live near each other receive, in continued succession, the loads of perfumes and deliver them to others, who convey them as far as Syria and Mesopotamia. When the carriers become drowsy by the odor of the aromatics, the drowsiness is removed by the fumes of asphalt and of oat's beard.
Mariaba, the capital of the Sabaeans [the same as Saba], is situated upon a mountain, well wooded. A king resides there, who determines absolutely all disputes and other matters; but he is forbidden to leave his palace, or if he does so, the rabble immediately assail him with stones, according to the direction of an oracle. He himself, and those about his person, pass their lives in effeminate voluptuousness. The people cultivate the ground, or follow the trade of dealing in aromatics, both the indigenous sort and those brought from Ethiopia; in order to procure them, they sail through the straits in vessels covered with skins. There is such an abundance of these aromatics, that cinnamon, cassia, and other spices are used by them instead of sticks and firewood.
By the trade in these aromatics both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaei have become the richest of all the tribes, and possess a great quantity of wrought articles in gold and silver, as couches, tripods, basins, drinking-vessels, to which we must add the costly magnificence of their houses; for the doors, walls, and roofs are variegated with inlaid ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones. . .
XVI.iv.21. The Nabataeans and Sabaeans, situated above Syria, are the first people who occupy Arabia Felix. They were frequently in the habit of overrunning this country before the Romans became masters of it, but at present both they and the Syrians are subject to the Romans.
The capital of the Nabataeans is called Petra. It is situated on a spot which is surrounded and fortified by a smooth and level rock (petra), which externally is abrupt and precipitous, but within there are abundant springs of water both for domestic purposes and for watering gardens. Beyond the enclosure the country is for the most part a desert, particularly towards Judaea. Through this is the shortest road to Jericho, a journey of three or four days, and five days to the Phoinicon (or palm plantation). It is always governed by a king of the royal race. The king has a minister who is one of the Companions, and is called Brother. It has excellent laws for the administration of public affairs.
Athenodorus, a philosopher, and my friend, who had been to Petra, used to relate with surprise that he found many Romans and also many other strangers residing there. He observed the strangers frequently engaged in litigation, both with one another and with the natives; but the natives had never any dispute amongst themselves, and lived together in perfect harmony.
XVI.iv.22. The late expedition of the Romans against the Arabians, under the command of Aelius Gallus, has made us acquainted with many peculiarities of the country. Augustus Caesar despatched 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. He was, moreover, encouraged to undertake this enterprise by the expectation of assistance from the Nabataeans, who promised to cooperate with him in everything.
XVI.iv.23. 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 ArsinoŰ, 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 [modern Hanak], 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 Petra, and back to Petra, with so large a body of men and camels as to differ in no respect from an army.
XVI.iv.24. Another cause of the failure of the expedition was the fact of king Obodas not paying much attention to public affairs, and especially to those relative to war (as is the custom with all Arabian kings), but placed everything in the power of Syllaeus the minister. His whole conduct in command of the army was perfidious, and his object was, as I suppose, to examine as a spy the state of the country and to destroy, in concert with the Romans, certain cities and tribes; and when the Romans should be consumed by famine, fatigue, and disease, and by all the evils which he had treacherously contrived, to declare himself master of the whole country. 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.
Merchandise is conveyed from Leuce-Come-to Petra, thence to Rhinocolura [modern Al-Arish] in Phoenicia, near Egypt, and thence to other nations. But at present the greater part is transported by the Nile to Alexandria. It is brought down from Arabia and India to Myus Hormus [modern BŃr Safajah],, it is then conveyed on camels to Coptus of the Theba´s, situated on a canal of the Nile, and Alexandria. 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 Negrani [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.
XVI.iv.25. The aromatic country, as I have before said, is divided into four parts. Of aromatics, the frankincense and myrrh are said to be the produce of trees, but cassia the growth of bushes; yet some writers say, that the greater part (of the cassia) is brought from India, and that the best frankincense is that from Persia. According to another partition of the country, the whole of Arabia Felix is divided into five kingdoms (or portions), one of which comprises the fighting men, who fight for all the rest; another contains the husbandmen, by whom the rest are supplied with food; another includes those who work at mechanical trades. One division comprises the myrrh region; another the frankincense region, although the same tracts produce cassia, cinnamon, and nard. Trades are not changed from one family to another, but each workman continues to exercise that of his father. The greater part of their wine is made from the palm.
A man's brothers are held in more respect than his children. The descendants of the royal family succeed as kings, and are invested with other governments, according to primogeniture. Property is common among all the relations. The eldest is the chief. There is one wife among them all. He who enters the house before any of the rest, has intercourse with her having placed his staff at the door; for it is a necessary custom which every one is compelled to observe, to carry a staff. The woman, however, passes the night with the eldest. Hence the male children are all brothers. They have sexual intercourse also with their mothers. Adultery is punished with death, but an adulterer must belong to another family.
A daughter of one of the kings was of extraordinary beauty, and had fifteen brothers, who were all in love with her, and were her unceasing and successive visitors; she, being at last weary of their importunity, is said to have employed the following device. She procured staves to be made similar to those of her brothers; when one left the house she placed before the door a staff similar to the first, and a little time afterwards another, and so on in succession, but making her calculation so that the person who intended to visit her might not have one similar to that at her door. On an occasion when the brothers were all of them together at the market-place, one left it, and came to the door of the house seeing the staff there, and conjecturing some one to be in his apartment, and having left all the other brothers at the marketplace, he suspected the person to be an adulterer; running therefore in haste to his father, he brought him with him to the house, but it was proved that he had falsely accused his sister.
XVI.iv.26. The Nabataeans are prudent, and fond of accumulating property. The community fine a person who has diminished his substance, and confer honors on him who has increased it. They have few slaves, and are served for the most part by their relations, or by one another, or each person is his own servant; and this custom extends even to their kings. They eat their meals in companies consisting of thirteen persons. Each party is attended by two musicians. But the king gives many entertainments in great buildings. No one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, from separate cups, each of gold. The king courts popular favor so much, that he is not only his own servant, but sometimes he himself ministers to others. He frequently renders an account before the people, and sometimes an inquiry is made into his mode of life.
The houses are sumptuous, and of stone. The cities are without walls, on account of the peace which prevails among them. A great part of the country is fertile, and produces everything except oil of olives; the oil of sesame is used instead. The sheep have white fleeces, their oxen are large; but the country produces no horses. Camels are the substitute for horses, and perform the labor. They wear no tunics, but have a girdle about their loins, and walk abroad in sandals. The dress of the kings is the same, but the color is purple.
Some merchandise is altogether imported into the country, others are not altogether imports, especially as some articles are native products, as gold and silver, and many of the aromatics; but brass and iron, purple garments, styrax, saffron, and costus (or white cinnamon), pieces of sculpture, paintings, pieces of statues, are not to be procured in the country. They look upon the bodies of the dead as no better than dung, according to the words of Heracleitus, "dead bodies more fit to be cast out than dung;" wherefore they bury even their kings beside dung-heaps. They worship the sun, and construct the altar on the top of a house, pouring out libations and burning frankincense upon it every day.
History of Rome, Book LIII.xxix.3-8.,
c. 220 CE
For 23 B.C.: While this was going on, another and a new campaign had at once its beginning and its end. It was conducted by Aelius Gallus, the governor of Egypt, against the country called Arabia Felix, of which Sabos was king. At first Aelius encountered no one, yet he did not proceed without difficulty; for the desert, the sun, and the water (which had some peculiar nature), all caused his men great distress, so that the larger part of the army perished. The malady proved to be unlike any of the common complaints, but attacked the head and caused it to become parched, killing forthwith most of those who were attacked, but in the case of those who survived this stage it descended to the legs, skipping all the intervening parts of the body, and caused dire injury to them. There was no remedy for it except a mixture of olive-oil and wine, both taken as a drink and used as an ointment; and this remedy naturally lay within reach of only a few of them, since the country produces neither of these articles and the men had not prepared an abundant supply of them beforehand. In the midst of this trouble the barbarians also fell upon them. For hitherto they had been defeated whenever they joined battle, and had even been losing some places;. but now, with the disease as their ally, they not only won back their own possessions, but also drove the survivors of the expedition out of the country. These were the first of the Romans, and, I believe, the only ones, to traverse so much of this part of Arabia for the purpose of making war. .
The Roman History, Book XIV.iv.1-7. ,
c. 380 CE
Book XIV.4: At this time also the Saracens, a race whom it is never desirable to have either for friends or enemies, ranging up and down the country, if ever they found anything, plundered it in a moment, like rapacious hawks who, if from on high they behold any prey, carry it off with a rapid swoop, or, if they fail in their attempt, do not tarry. And although, in recounting the career of the Prince Marcus, and once or twice subsequently, I remember having discussed the manners of this people, nevertheless I will now briefly enumerate a few more particulars concerning them.
Among these tribes, whose primary origin is derived from the cataracts of the Nile and the borders of the Blemmyae, all the men are warriors of equal rank; half naked, clad in colored cloaks down to the waist, overrunning different countries, with the aid of swift and active horses and speedy camels, alike in times of peace and war. Nor does any member of their tribe ever take plow in hand or cultivate a tree, or seek food by the tillage of the land; but they are perpetually wandering over various and extensive districts, having no home, no fixed abode or laws; nor can they endure to remain long in the same climate, no one district or country pleasing them for a continuance.
Their life is one continued wandering; their wives are hired, on special covenant, for a fixed time; and that there may be some appearance of marriage in the business, the intended wife, under the name of a dowry, offers a spear and a tent to her husband, with a right to quit him after a fixed day, if she should choose to do so. And it is inconceivable with what eagerness the individuals of both sexes give themselves up to matrimonial pleasures.
But as long as they live they wander about with such extensive and perpetual migrations, that the woman is married in one place, brings forth her children in another, and rears them at a distance from either place, no opportunity of remaining quiet being ever granted to her. They all live on venison, and are further supported on a great abundance of milk, and on many kinds of herbs, and on whatever birds they can catch by fowling. And we have seen a great many of them wholly ignorant of the use of either corn or wine.
History of the Wars, Book I.xix.1-16, 23-26; xx.1-13:
c. 550 CE,
The boundaries of Palestine extend toward the east to the sea which is called the Red Sea. Now this sea, beginning at India, comes to an end at this point in the Roman domain. And there is a city called Aelas [modern Aqaba] on its shore, where the sea comes to an end, as I have said, and becomes a very narrow gulf. And as one sails into the sea from there [i.e., sailing Southwest, from Aqaba to the Red Sea], the Egyptian mountains lie on the right, extending toward the south; on the other side a country deserted by men extends northward to an indefinite distance; and the land on both sides is visible as one sails in as far as the island called Iotabe, not less than one thousand stades distant from the city of Aelas. On this island Hebrews had lived from of old in autonomy, but in the reign of this Justinian they have become subject to the Romans. From there on there comes a great open sea. And those who sail into this part of it no longer see the land on the right, but they always anchor along the left coast when night comes on. For it is impossible to navigate in the darkness on this sea, since it is everywhere full of shoals. But there are harbors there and great numbers of them, not made by the hand of man, but by the natural contour of the land, and for this reason it is not difficult for mariners to find anchorage wherever they happen to be.
This coast immediately beyond the boundaries of Palestine is held by Saracens, who have been settled from of old in the Palm Groves. These groves are in the interior, extending over a great tract of land, and there absolutely nothing else grows except palm trees. The Emperor Justinian had received these palm groves as a present from Abochorabus, the ruler of the Saracens there, and he was appointed by the emperor captain over the Saracens in Palestine. And he guarded the land from plunder constantly, for both to the barbarians over whom he ruled and no less to the enemy, Abochorabus always seemed a man to be feared and an exceptionally energetic fellow. Formally, therefore, the emperor holds the Palm Groves, but for him really to possess himself of any of the country there is utterly impossible. For a land completely destitute of human habitation and extremely dry lies between, extending to the distance of a ten days' journey; moreover, the Palm Groves themselves are by no means worth anything, and Abochorabus only gave the form of a gift, and the emperor accepted it with full knowledge of the fact. So much then for the Palm Groves. Adjoining this people there are other Saracens in possession of the coast, who are called Maddeni [in modern Madyan] and who are subjects of the Omeritae. These Omeritae dwell in the land on the farther side of them on the shore of the sea [modern Yemen]. And beyond them many other nations are said to be settled as far as the man-eating Saracens. Beyond these are the nations of India.
For the sea which one traverses beyond this point as far as the shore and the city of Aelas has received the name of the Arabian Gulf, inasmuch as the country which extends from here to the limits of the city of Gaza used to be called in olden times Arabia, since the king of the Arabs had his palace in early times in the city of Petrae. Now the harbor of the Omeritae from they are accustomed to put to sea for the voyage to Ethiopia is called Bulicas [modern Al-Hudaydah?]; and at the end of the sail across the sea they always put in at the harbor of the Adulitae. But the city of Adulis [near modern Asmara] is removed from the harbor a distance of twenty stades (for it lacks only so much of being on the sea), while from the city of Auxomis it is a journey of twelve days.
All the boats which are found in India and on this sea are not made in the same manner as are other ships. For neither are they smeared with pitch, nor with any other substance, nor indeed are the planks fastened together by iron nails going through and through, but they are bound together with a kind of cording. The reason is not as most persons suppose, that there are certain rocks there which draw the iron to themselves (for witness the fact that when the Roman vessels sail from Aelas into this sea, although they are fitted with much iron, no such thing has ever happened to them), but rather because the Indians and the Ethiopians possess neither iron nor any other thing suitable for such purposes. Furthermore, they are not even able to buy any of these things from the Romans since this is explicitly forbidden to all by law; for death is the punishment for one who is caught. Such then is the description of the so-called Red Sea and of the land which lies on either side of it. . .
At about the time of this war Ellesthaeus, the king of the Ethiopians, who was a Christian and a most devoted adherent of this faith, discovered that a number of the Omeritae on the opposite mainland [modern Yemen] were oppressing the Christians there outrageously; many of these rascals were Jews, and many of them held in reverence the old faith which men of the present day call Hellenic [i.e., pagan]. He therefore collected a fleet of ships and an army and came against them, and he conquered them in battle and slew both the king and many of the Omeritae. He then set up in his stead a Christian king, an Omeritae by birth, by name Esimiphaeus, and, after ordaining that he should pay a tribute to the Ethiopians every year, he returned to his home. In this Ethiopian army many slaves and all who were readily disposed to crime were quite unwilling to follow the king back, but were left behind and remained there because of their desire for the land of the Omeritae; for it is an extremely goodly land.
These fellows at a time not long after this, in company with certain others, rose against the king Esimiphaeus and put him in confinement in one of the fortresses there, and established another king over the Omeritae, Abramus by name. Now this Abramus was a Christian, but a slave of a Roman citizen who was engaged in the business of shipping in the city of Adulis in Ethiopia. When Ellesthaeus learned this, he was eager to punish Abramus together with those who had revolted with him for their injustice to Esimiphaeus, and he sent against them an army of three thousand men with one of his relatives as commander. This army, once there, was no longer willing to return home, but they wished to remain where they were in a goodly land, and so without the knowledge of their commander they opened negotiations with Abramus; then when they came to an engagement with their opponents, just as the fighting began, they killed their commander and joined the ranks of the enemy, and so remained there. But Ellesthaeus was greatly moved with anger and sent still another army against them; this force engaged with Abramus and his men, and, after suffering a severe defeat in the battle, straightway returned home. Thereafter the king of the Ethiopians became afraid, and sent no further expeditions against Abramus. After the death of Ellesthaeus, Abramus agreed to pay tribute to the king of the Ethiopians who succeeded him, and in this way he strengthened his rule. But this happened at a later time.
At that time, when Ellesthaeus was reigning over the Ethiopians, and Esimiphaeus over the Omeritae, the Emperor Justinian sent an ambassador, Julianus, demanding that both nations on account of their community of religion should make common cause with the Romans in the war against the Persians; for he purposed that the Ethiopians, by purchasing silk from India and selling it among the Romans, might themselves gain much money, while cause the Romans to profit in only one way, namely, that they be no longer compelled to pay over their money to their enemy (this is the silk of which they are accustomed to make the garments which of old the Greeks called "Medic," but which at the present time they name "Seric" [from Lat. serica, as coming from the Chinese (Seres)]). As for the Omeritae, it was desired that they should establish Ca´sus, the fugitive, as captain over the Maddeni, and with a great army of their own people and of the Maddene Saracens make an invasion into the land of the Persians. This Ca´sus was by birth of the captain's rank and an exceptionally able warrior, but he had killed one of the relatives of Esimiphaeus and was a fugitive in a land which is utterly destitute of human habitation.
So each king, promising to put this demand into effect, dismissed the ambassador, but neither one of them did the things agreed upon by them. For it was impossible for the Ethiopians to buy silk from the Indians, for the Persian merchants always locate themselves at the very harbors where the Indian ships first put in (since they inhabit the adjoining country), and are accustomed to buy the whole cargoes; and it seemed to the Omeritae a difficult thing to cross a country which was a desert and which extended so far that a long time was required for the journey across it, and then to go against such a people much more warlike than themselves. Later on Abramus too, when at length he had established his power most securely, promised the Emperor Justinian many times to invade the land of Persia, but only once began the journey and then straightway turned back. Such then were the relations which the Romans had with the Ethiopians and the Omeritae.
Herodotus, The Histories of Herodotus (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898)
Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, trans. by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857), pp. 185-215
Dio Cassius, The Roman History, Vol. V, trans. Ernest Cary (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917), pp. 269, 271
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus During the Reigns of The Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens, trans. C. D. Yonge (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1911), pp. 11-12
Procopius, History of the Wars, 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), I.179-195.