Sand and spice: Roman Arabia in world historical context from the Third Century BCE to the Seventh Century CE
Most mental maps of the Roman world center on the Mediterranean basin. At the empire’s heart lies the “Eternal City,” with the edges of this mental map forming the limits of direct Roman political control. This conception of the Roman Empire is not, however, always the most useful way of thinking about the Roman world. Indeed, a Mediterranean-centered notion of the Roman world can actually be detrimental to the study of other aspects of the Roman period that do not emphasize high politics. This is especially the case when discussing Rome’s far flung frontiers, which were often governed in near independence by Roman appointed officials. One case in point is the province of Roman Arabia. Traditional perceptions of the Roman world place Roman Arabia on the empire’s far, southeastern fringe. The end result is an archaic perception of the ancient world; the mental equivalent of resigning the edges of one’s erudition to the old phrase, “hic sunt monstri.”
Modern scholars who persist in holding onto this perception of space cannot help but be adversely affected in their understanding of regions beyond the Italic peninsula. In the case of Roman Arabia, which was a major hub in the ancient world’s exchange networks, the region’s significance is greatly lessened by the adherence to such a mentality. What is necessary to overcome this effect is a shift in our perception of space and a broadening of our mental maps. For instance, if one were to place Roman Arabia at the center of our mental map and expand our view to encompass a wider region (both within and beyond Roman territory), we would see that Roman Arabia, far from being on the fringe of “civilization,” was actually a hinge connecting the communities of three continents.
This thesis examines the Roman province of Arabia on both a micro and macro level. Trans-regional world historical perspective reveals a history of Roman Arabia that is ultimately a study of exchange. As such, the narrative of this thesis is arranged topically, rather than temporally. Chapter One discusses the historiography of both the region and the field of Roman frontiers in general. Chapter Two examines the local and long-distance trade in which Roman Arabia was involved. Chapter Three investigates Rome’s military presence in the region and how the Roman presence affected the indigenous people. Chapter Four explores the interaction of people and their environment in Roman Arabia. And finally, Chapter Five compares Roman Arabia with Britannia, a Roman province on the other end of empire in order to show how we can better understand the history of a given region by changing our perception of space.
Master’s Thesis, San Diego State University, 2010