Saturday, August 21, 2004

A Warning from Ancient History in the Middle East

The Bush Administration’s current occupation of Iraq is only the latest in a long string of attempts by Imperial powers to control the resources of the Middle East region. Writing in 220 A.D. Roman administrator and historian Dio Cassius recounts the story of an ill-fated early campaign conducted in 23 B.C. by Aelius Gallus, Roman governor of Egypt. The Romans had noted the region’s rich mineral and herbal resources. Ignorance of the region, and poor planning resulted in the campaign’s failure and Gallus was forced to retreat:

Dio Cassius: History of Rome, Book LIII.xxix.3-8.
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 Greek geographer Strabo was a personal friend of Aelius Gallus. He wrote his account of the campaign in 22 AD whilst he was Gallus’ house guest and so presumably relates Gallus’ perspective. Even Strabo considers the campaign a failure. According to Strabo the difficulties Gallus encountered were due in large part to the misdirection of the Chalabi like Syllaeus, king's minister of the Nabataeans:

Strabo: Geography, Book XVI, Chap. iv 22-24
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 Arsinoë, and near Heroöpolis] 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 Bãr Safajah], it is then conveyed on camels to Coptus of the Thebaïs, 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.

As Historian Christopher S. Mackay notes, the failed expedition indirectly brought an end to the Romans’ ambitions in other regions too:

…While the Roman garrison of Egypt was thus distracted, forces of the kingdom of Meroe (in the area of modern Ethiopia) attacked the southernmost outposts of Rome on the Nile (to the north of the second cataract). The next praefect, C. Petronius, launched a punitive campaign and captured Nabata the northern capital, though he did not reach Meroe. Tribute was imposed and a garrison left behind, but soon the Meroitic forces attacked again. Though their assault was repelled, an embassy was allowed to be sent to Augustus, who remitted the tribute. In effect, it was decided that it was not worth the bother to extend Roman control south of Egypt.

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