Ancient Rome

Petra and the Nabataeans: Incense Trafficking in Ancient World

Incense, a unique and lucrative crop, flourished only in specific regions and fetched high prices in distant markets. This trade created wealth for those who transported it from producers to buyers. The Nabataeans, a desert-dwelling people, excelled in moving incense from southern Arabia to Roman markets, exemplifying the wealth potential in trading valuable goods across…

ancient rome economy

Incense, a unique and lucrative crop, flourished only in specific regions and fetched high prices in distant markets. This trade created wealth for those who transported it from producers to buyers. The Nabataeans, a desert-dwelling people, excelled in moving incense from southern Arabia to Roman markets, exemplifying the wealth potential in trading valuable goods across great distances.

Initially, the Nabataeans were nomads in Arabia’s northern deserts, herding camels in lands overlooked by powerful foreign powers due to their lack of natural resources. According to Greek historian Diodorus, a Nabataean spokesperson once declared their preference for a free life in resource-scarce deserts over subjugation, valuing independence over material wealth.

By the fourth century BC, the Nabataeans shifted from simple herding to exploiting their strategic position along key land routes and their ample livestock for transport. They began trading incense obtained from inner Arabian nomads to the eastern Mediterranean. Recognizing the high demand and value of incense, they used their camels to ship this precious commodity, transforming their modest community into a prosperous kingdom.

Origin of the Nabataeans

In the fourth century BC, the Nabataeans’ growing affluence drew the attention of powerful neighbors, particularly the ancient Greeks. Their central meeting place, ‘the Rock’ in Jordan, later known as Petra, was a fortress where they safeguarded their families and livestock. The Nabataeans frequented this site, journeying to Judea’s borders to trade incense. However, their prosperity soon attracted the Macedonian general Antigonus, who targeted Petra in 312 BC while the Nabataean men were away.

Led by a Greek officer named Athenaeus, the Antigonid army, comprising 4,000 infantry and 600 cavalry, marched through the desert to Petra. They launched a night raid, plundering the settlement, capturing women and children for slavery, and seizing a vast amount of incense and silver. As dawn broke, Athenaeus retreated, unaware that the Nabataeans had been alerted and were hastening back to defend their home.

Assuming the Nabataeans would be slow to respond, Athenaeus allowed his troops to rest in a vulnerable desert camp. Here, the Nabataeans launched a surprise attack, freeing their families and decimating the Greek forces, with only a few surviving.

Following this, the Nabataeans explained to Antigonus that their attack was provoked. Antigonus publicly blamed Athenaeus, recognizing the Nabataeans’ mastery of the desert terrain. Despite this, he later sent his son Demetrius with a larger force to attack the Nabataeans.

Demetrius, with 8,000 troops, aimed for a swift ambush at Petra. However, the Nabataeans, distrustful and vigilant, were well-prepared. The Greeks, facing robust resistance and limited supplies, were forced to negotiate peace. Demetrius withdrew, claiming Nabataean land unsuitable for Greek needs but noted its lack of essential resources like grain and wine.

Demetrius then explored the Dead Sea for its valuable bitumen deposits. Despite initial success, local Arab tribes fiercely resisted, repelling the Greek presence. This setback, coupled with Antigonus’ defeat by Ptolemy I Soter in Syria, eased pressure on the Nabataeans. Their lucrative incense trade continued uninterrupted, and by the first century BC, the Greeks recognized Nabataea as a populous and prosperous land.

Early Nabataean Trade

Before the Roman era, Nabataea was a pivotal hub for overland caravans and goods from Red Sea ships. The Sabaeans of southern Arabia, controlling the production of valuable frankincense and myrrh, were central to this trade. However, other Arab nations, including the Gerrhaeans and Minaeans, played crucial roles in transporting these incense stocks to Mediterranean markets. Diodorus Siculus noted that the Nabataeans transported frankincense, myrrh, and high-quality spices from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean, acquiring them from middlemen.

This incense trade involved a complex network of inland caravan routes connecting various oases in inner Arabia. The route was intricate, with the incense passing through multiple intermediaries. Strabo described how Arab tribes near each other successively received and passed on loads of aromatics from the Sabaeans, eventually reaching as far as Syria and Mesopotamia.

Greek author Artemidorus, around 100 BC, highlighted the Nabataeans’ reliance on maritime trade. Merchants from various Arab nations, including the Minaeans and Gerrhaeans, transported their aromatic goods to a point near the Nabataean territory and Palestine. By the first century BC, Arab dhows shipped most incense, traveling from southern Arabian ports to northern Red Sea harbors and even east African coasts. Strabo mentioned that the Sabaeans engaged in agriculture and traded aromatics from their land and Africa, using leather boats for their sea voyages.

The Minaeans also established trade with Ptolemaic Egypt, making deals with Mediterranean sea-captains in Alexandria to distribute their goods across the eastern Mediterranean. Evidence of their presence includes the coffin of a Minaean frankincense merchant found in Memphis, Egypt, and records of Minaean merchants in the sanctuary of Artemis on Delos island. Minaic inscriptions from southern Arabia also confirm expeditions to Egypt.

The wealth generated by this trade was immense. Strabo reported that the Sabaeans and Gerrhaeans, enriched by the incense trade, possessed significant gold and silver wealth, including luxurious household items. The palatial residences in Sabaean cities were lavishly decorated, showcasing their prosperity derived from this flourishing trade network.

Rome Invades the Sabaean Kingdom

By the first century BC, Nabataea had evolved into a stable kingdom, with Petra as its thriving capital. This period marked the kingdom’s integration into the Roman Empire, with its ruler becoming a client king under Emperor Augustus. The Nabataeans’ strategic position and resources made them valuable allies in Rome’s ambitions for Arabian expansion.

Augustus, having secured Egypt, set his sights on the Sabaean Kingdom in southern Arabia, attracted by its fertile lands, incense, and untapped gold reserves. Greek reports described the Sabaeans as a prosperous nation, and Pliny the Elder highlighted Arabia’s wealth, particularly in incense production. Myrrh and frankincense were abundant in Sabaean lands, and Strabo believed they also traded in cinnamon from Somalia.

Strabo mentioned gold nuggets in southern Arabia that required minimal processing, indicating the potential for Roman mining technology to exploit these resources. The conquest of Arabia Felix (modern Yemen and Dhofar) would give Rome control over a major incense-producing region and access to the Indian Ocean.

The Roman governor of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, was chosen to lead this conquest. Augustus envisioned the Red Sea as a ‘Roman Gulf,’ dominating both the Arabian and East African coasts. Initially, a naval attack from Egypt was planned, with a fleet built for the purpose. However, challenging sailing conditions and port locations led to a preference for a land campaign, with Nabataean support promised.

Aelius Gallus commanded a substantial force, including 10,000 Roman soldiers, 500 Jewish troops from Judean King Herod, and 1,000 Nabataean soldiers under a vizier named Syllaeus. This alliance and the prospect of either gaining wealthy allies or conquering rich enemies fueled Roman optimism for victory. The Roman poet Horace reflected this sentiment in his verse “Off to the Wars,” hinting at the allure of Arabian riches and the impending conflict with the formidable Sabaean kings.

In 25 BC, Aelius Gallus, leading a Roman army, embarked on a campaign to seize control of a network of oasis towns on the desert routes leading into central Arabia. The harsh dune deserts, with surface temperatures reaching up to 70 degrees Celsius, slowed the Roman advance towards Arabia Felix. It took Gallus 80 days to capture key oasis stations, eventually reaching Negrana (Nejran). Here, the Sabaeans assembled a 10,000-strong force to defend their homeland, but their lack of experience and poor equipment led to a quick defeat by the disciplined Roman troops.

Marching towards Ma’rib, the Roman army encountered a populous, walled city with impressive mud-brick buildings, royal palaces, and temples. Ma’rib, situated on the edge of coastal mountains, was sustained by a large dam harnessing seasonal monsoon mists for irrigation, creating a fertile landscape around the city.

However, as the Romans neared the Sabaean frankincense districts, they were struck by a scurvy-induced paralysis, likely due to vitamin C deficiency. Misattributing the cause to the local water, Gallus ordered a retreat. The grueling thousand-mile journey back took 60 days, with the army suffering heavy losses from the disease and any remaining Roman garrisons in Arabia Felix being either decimated by sickness or expelled by native uprisings.

Strabo blamed the Nabataean viceroy, Syllaeus, for misleading Gallus, suggesting a direct route to Sabaea might have enabled a Roman victory before the outbreak of scurvy. Campaign doctors incorrectly concluded that the paralysis was a local ailment caused by the water. Gallus reported to Augustus that southern Arabia was unsuitable for Mediterranean troops, and thus, the region’s incense groves remained outside the Roman Empire.

The failed campaign inadvertently benefited the Nabataeans, who strengthened their role as incense trade intermediaries. Strabo later speculated that Syllaeus might have manipulated the Romans to weaken certain Arabian tribes and cities for Nabataean advantage. The conflict destabilized the Sabaean Kingdom, leading to its fragmentation and subsequent conquest by neighboring Arab regimes like the Himyarites and the Hadramawt. These new rulers, recognizing the Roman threat, sent envoys to Rome with gifts, assuring their commitment to being “friends of the Emperors.” Consequently, Arabia remained independent, continuing to trade with and extract wealth from the Roman Empire through long-term trade processes.

Nabataean Commerce in the Roman Era

During the Imperial period, Petra, built at the site of ‘the Rock’, was a central hub for Arab caravan traffic heading to the Mediterranean coast. Located in the cliffs of Mount Hor, Petra was carved into a gorge formed by an ancient, now dry, river leading to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea’s northeast coast. Strabo described Petra as the Nabataeans’ capital, surrounded by inhospitable terrain but itself a fortified, level site amid towering rock faces.

The Nabataeans ingeniously harnessed the region’s scarce water through dams and conduits, collecting rainwater from flash floods into cisterns. This created an artificial oasis, sustaining Petra’s population even during droughts. Springs within the city were used for domestic and public garden irrigation. Petra’s architecture, influenced by Greek designs, featured monumental buildings carved into the salmon-colored sandstone, including a Roman-style amphitheater and family tombs resembling classical structures.

Roman merchants in Petra traded gold and silver for incense, and offered iron, brass, perfumes, purple cloth, and yellow dye materials to the Nabataeans. Strabo noted the Nabataeans’ appreciation for classical art forms, including paintings, sculptures, and embossed silverware, which were exchanged for incense. Pliny confirmed Arabia’s high demand for imported foreign scents.

The Nabataeans typically ended their caravan journeys at Mediterranean ports like Gaza in Palestine or Rhinocorura in Egyptian territory. Gaza, strategically located between Jerusalem and Alexandria, was a key point for distributing goods to Judea and Egypt.

On the Red Sea coast, the Nabataeans operated major ports at Aila on the Gulf of Aqaba and Leuke Kome (‘White Village’), further south. Many Nabataeans were full-time merchants, sailing in shallow-draft dhows with lateen sails, capable of carrying up to 30 tons of cargo. Procopius described these ships as uniquely constructed, with cord-fastened hulls able to withstand impacts without fracturing, and without the use of pitch or iron nails.

Arab ships took about ten weeks to sail from southern Arabia to Aila, trading frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatics. The Red Sea’s strong northerly winds made navigation challenging, especially towards its inner reaches like Suez and Aqaba. Many ships offloaded at Leuke Kome, with caravans then transporting goods 300 miles north to Petra, for sale or further distribution to Roman markets.

Leuke Kome, a key Nabataean trade port, became the primary gateway for Eastern goods reaching Petra. Notably, in 26 BC, it was the landing site for the Roman fleet during the invasion of Arabia Felix, led by Aelius Gallus. The town was capable of hosting 10,000 Roman troops for several months, illustrating its significant capacity.

The “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” a Roman trade guide, details Leuke Kome’s bustling activity, with numerous small ships importing goods from Arabia Felix. It highlights a route from the harbor to Petra, controlled by the Nabataean King Malichus, indicating the port’s role as a crucial junction in trade. Strabo, an associate of Aelius Gallus, conveyed firsthand accounts of the extensive trade through Leuke Kome, describing a busy route to Petra, bustling with traders and caravans.

Despite Nabataea’s status as a Roman client kingdom, Rome exerted control over its trade, particularly at Leuke Kome. A customs station was established there to tax incoming cargoes, aligning with Roman tax rates to avoid undercuts by traders using Egyptian routes. The “Periplus” mentions a one-fourth import duty, overseen by a customs officer, to safeguard imperial revenues. A Roman or Nabataean military presence, including a centurion and soldiers, protected the customs post.

This tax system was effective, and Nabataean merchants complied, regardless of which Red Sea port they used. Some even shifted their operations to the Egyptian port of Myos Hormos, as evidenced by Nabataean pottery and graffiti found along caravan routes there.

Pliny estimated that the Roman Empire annually exported over 50 million sesterces in bullion to Arabia for incense, a significant portion of which was accrued by the Nabataean Kingdom through tolls on caravan routes. However, the annexation of Nabataea by Rome occurred after the death of King Rabbel II Soter in AD 106. In AD 107, Nabataea was transformed into the Roman province of Arabia Petraea, bringing its overseas possessions under Emperor Trajan’s control. This annexation brought new revenues to the empire and increased Roman influence along the Arabian Red Sea coasts.

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Nikos Georgiou
Hailing from Athens, Greece, Nikos Georgiou brings a distinct Mediterranean perspective to his exploration of Greco-Roman history. A graduate of the University of Athens, his work incorporates a deep understanding of the region's cultural legacy and the enduring influence of classical antiquity.

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