Aelius Gallus Attempts the Conquest of Arabia—and Reaches the Limits of Roman Power

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Aelius Gallus Attempts the Conquest of Arabia—and Reaches the Limits of Roman Power


In 25 b.c., the Roman emperor Augustus sent Aelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt, on a military expedition to the Arabian Peninsula. His aim was to extend Roman control throughout Arabia, and to gain control of the wealthy spice-producing states at the peninsula's southern tip, but instead the Romans became mired in a miserably failed operation that proved costly in terms of lives, finances, and the empire's reputation. It was the first time Rome truly came face to face with the limits of its imperial ambitions, an early sign of the slow Roman retreat that would commence some two centuries later.


Founded as a republic in 507 b.c., Rome had begun its existence fighting with the Etruscans for supremacy over the Italian Peninsula. In 496 b.c., Rome fought a battle with several of its neighbors and won, in large part thanks to the Romans' adoption of Greek military tactics such as the use of the hoplite (a heavily armed infantry soldier) and the phalanx, or massed column. An attack on Rome itself by the Celts or Gauls in 390 b.c. further intensified the Romans' determination to establish military superiority over all foes, and in the years that followed, the consuls who led the young republic undertook to ensure that its lands would never be so threatened again.

Between 343 and 290 b.c., Rome fought the Samnites for power over much of southern Italy, and by 275 b.c. had defeated the Greek colonists who controlled Sicily. This left them staring across the Mediterranean at the one other great power in the region: Carthage, which Rome defeated in the First Punic War (264-241 b.c.) The latter conflict left Rome in possession not only of Sicily, but of Corsica and Sardinia, and marked the beginnings of Rome's overseas empire. The Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.), despite a heroic series of engagements led by the Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-183 b.c.), resulted in the end of Carthage's power, and in the years that followed, Rome began to build its empire in earnest.

As Rome added Carthage, parts of Spain and Asia Minor, and Greece to its lands, the Roman economy became increasingly dependent on conquest. The ancients were largely ignorant of the idea of economic growth by accumulation, as with investment or business-building; theirs was a zero-sum game of growth through absorption and acquisition. With the conquest of each new land, Rome simply exploited the riches of the vanquished—including the people themselves, many of whom the Romans forced into slavery.

The situation worked well as long as there were lands easily accessible for conquest; meanwhile, time was running out for the republican form of government. A series of civil conflicts led to veritable anarchy, and when Julius Caesar (102-44 b.c.), along with Pompey (106-48 b.c.) and Crassus (c. 115-53 b.c.), established the First Triumvirate in 60 b.c., many believed that the republic was on its way to recovery. In fact what had happened was the establishment of dictatorship, and the collapse of the First Triumvirate led to the formation of a second, with Caesar's nephew Octavian (63 b.c.-a.d. 14) occupying the apex. With the defeat of his former ally Mark Antony (82?-30 b.c.) at the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c., Octavian became supreme ruler under the name Augustus Caesar. Thereafter Rome would be in theory what it had long been in fact: an empire.


Augustus himself never used the title "emperor," and in spite of the ruthlessness with which he seized power, he would prove a just ruler once he had it. In foreign affairs, however, he was bound by established practice—and indeed by his own desires—to continue the process of growth by expansion.

In the first years of his reign, Augustus turned southward. Cornelius Gallus (c. 70-26 b.c.), first prefect of Egypt, conducted what appeared to be a successful campaign to extend the Egyptian province into Kush or Nubia (modern Sudan), but when Gaius Petronius attempted to consolidate those gains, he was forced to stop at the First Cataract of the Nile. In 26 b.c., Aelius Gallus had replaced Cornelius (who may or may not have been his relative) as prefect, and soon afterward, he received orders from Augustus to undertake the Arabian expedition.

The Romans conceived of Arabia in three parts, and as it turned out, Arabia Petraea or Petra—the area including the Sinai Peninsula and parts of the Red Sea shore—was the only one they ever conquered. Though Rome would not annex Petra until a.d. 106, it was already under Roman influence, and Augustus hoped to use its aid to win control of Arabia Felix, or southern Arabia. The latter, which included the modern nation of Yemen, was a relatively wealthy area. Not only did it possess riches in the form of frankincense, but spices grew there in such abundance that the Himyarite Arab kingdoms of southern Arabia were nicknamed "the incense states." Between Arabia Petraea and Arabia Felix, however, lay a vast, uncharted region that would prove the downfall of any would-be conqueror, a realm whose forbidding quality is encompassed in its Roman name: Arabia Deserta.

But Aelius had reason to be confident at the outset of his campaign. He had the support of the Nabataean Arabs in Petra, and the help of a Nabataean administrator named Syllaeus, who agreed to serve as guide. He set out from the city of Cleopatris (the modern city of Suez) on the Gulf of Suez with some 10,000 Roman and Egyptian troops, as well as 500 Jewish and 1,000 Nabataean auxiliaries.

The first sign of bad things to come occurred when the Romans' ships ran into ill winds crossing the Gulf of Aqaba, but they finally reached the city of Leuke Come or Haura on the Arabian Peninsula. Soon afterward, however, bad food and water caused an outbreak of sickness that forced them to tarry in Leuke Come throughout the summer and winter. Finally, in the spring of 24 b.c. they set out across the desert with a caravan of water-bearing camels.

The expeditionary force marched for 30 days through lands controlled by the Areta tribe, allies of Rome, and spent 50 more days traveling across uncharted desert. Finally they reached the area of Negrana or Nejran, a region whose fertile lands raised their hopes. The Romans even conquered a few towns and took on supplies, then proceeded to besiege the city of Marsiaba or Marib. Diminishing water supplies, however, forced them to break off the siege, yet Syllaeus insisted that they were just two days' march from the tempting "incense states" of the coast.

Gallus and his troops spent six months wandering through the desert, until finally he realized that Syllaeus and the other Nabataeans were not the trusty allies he had supposed them to be. Eventually he turned his army around, and they took only 60 days to reach the Red Sea coast—further proof that they had been led on a wild goose-chase.

The army that crossed the sea to Myos Hormos, or Abu Scha'ar in Egypt, was much smaller than the one that had departed more than a year before: though they had lost only seven men in battle, disease, hunger, and exposure had claimed many lives. Nor had they gained any valuable knowledge concerning the region: indeed, all they knew was that Roman interests would not be served by a second expedition.

The campaign of Aelius Gallus, about which Gallus's friend Strabo (c. 64 b.c.-c. 23 a.d.) is the principal source, in retrospect seems the first chapter in a gathering saga of Roman retreat. Though Augustus's forces consolidated control over the western reaches of North Africa, as well as Judea and other parts of western Asia, it was becoming clear that certain fringes of the empire could not be won except at unthinkable costs.

Principal among these regions was the area beyond the Rhine, whose blond-haired, blue-eyed inhabitants seemed so alike to the Romans that they had long dubbed them by a Latin word meaning "similar": germanus. The Germans, of course, would play a major role in Rome's ultimate downfall many centuries hence, but even in Augustus's time, at the height of Roman power, the German tribes dealt Roman forces a decisive blow at the Teutoburg Forest in a.d. 9.

As a result of the Teutoburg defeat, Augustus—by then getting on in years—withdrew from further attempts at northward expansion, and counseled his stepson Tiberius (r. a.d. 14-37) to be wary of further military adventures. Nonetheless, the empire would expand under Tiberius's rule, and reached its greatest extent under Trajan (r. 99-117) in 116. At that point, Roman authority stretched from the borders of Scotland to the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Pax Romana or Roman peace established by Augustus prevailed throughout much of the world. But just six years later, Hadrian (r. 117-138) ordered the erection of his famous wall in northern Britain. Intended to keep out the Picts of Scotland, a purpose in which it failed, the wall served as a physical manifestation of the fact that the empire had its limits—and that it would inevitably begin to shrink.


Further Reading


Birley, A. R. Roman Papers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Cary, M., and E. H. Warmington. The Ancient Explorers. London: Methuen, 1929.

Internet Sites

"Aelius Gallus' Arabian Expedition Ends in Disaster!" Vox Romana II.

"Ancient Accounts of Arabia, 430 b.c.-550 C.E." Ancient History Sourcebook.

"A History of Merchant Routes." Sheba Aromatics.