Mavia (c. 350–c. 430 CE)

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Mavia (c. 350–c. 430 ce)

Queen of the Saracens . Name variations: Mania; Mawia; Mawia, Queen of Syria. Born around 350 ce on the southern or southwestern coast of Arabia; died around 430 ce; daughter of a Saracen chief; probably married a Roman military commander named Victor; children: possibly Mavia.

Mavia was probably the only offspring of a Saracen (Arab) chief whose territory abutted the land which the Romans called Arabia Felix (Arabia the Fortunate). This land lay along the southern and southwestern coast of the Arabia, and was so called because, unlike the arid interior of the peninsula, it produced the plants from which many highly sought-after spices came. Thus in relative terms it was wealthy and drew traders from many lands, both east and west. As such, Arabia Felix was a fairly cosmopolitan region in the 4th century ce. Although Mavia's clan seems to have been Asian in origin, Saracen tribes also inhabited that part of modern Egypt which touches the Red Sea. Given the geopolitical realities of the time, the lands occupied by the Saracens were very strategic since they drove a wedge between the great empires of the Romans to the west and northwest and the Persians to the east and northeast.

When Mavia was born around 350, the Saracens were a nomadic people, having no fixed homes or cities and only loosely defined home ranges (constantly under the press of other tribes). However, they did possess domesticated horses and camels to transport them about, and they used these assets to live according to their wits and military prowess. When the times afforded the opportunity, the Saracens raided sedentary populations and pillaged their accumulated stores. When such times did not exist and potential victims knew the security to be had from credible political authority, the Saracens survived off hunted game and the milk of their transport animals. Such an open life produced egalitarianism within the tribal groups, with women knowing freedoms not afforded to tillers of the soil, and men as well as women being more or less only as important as they were adept in accumulating wealth either through hunting or looting. Such neighbors could be difficult for established powers such as the Romans and the Persians, and in the paraphrased words of one Roman writer, the Saracens made "bad allies and even worse enemies."

During the 360s and 370s, the Roman Empire faced a series of problems which cumulatively produced a crisis. In the geographical proximity of Mavia's experience, the Romans had long been bitter enemies of the Persian Empire which stretched eastward from their common boundary of the Euphrates River. This enmity had led the Roman emperor Julian (363) to invade the Persian realm, but even when the major contestants were not fighting each other directly, they sparred indirectly by manipulating the inhabitants of their joint frontier to fight on their behalf. That is, both the Romans and the Persians exploited the local Arabian peoples to fight for their respective strategic interests. Since neither empire had the capacity to close their borders, and, since, even if either could, neither wanted to do so entirely because of the lucrative trade which passed from one empire into the other, both maintained their stakes through dispersed guerrilla activity. The fighting which resulted was sporadic but destructive, with each side attempting to intimidate the other's rural populations and induce those populations to lose faith in their government's ability to defend them.

For a long time, this system had generally favored the (usually) more powerful Romans. However, in 378 a powerful Visigothic army had defeated a major Roman army under Emperor Valens near the European city of Adrianople (in northwestern Turkey). This disaster shook the Roman world, for not only did Valens die amidst the slaughter, so too did 40,000 of his best troops, leaving the defense of the Eastern Empire in serious doubt. The ramifications of this calamity were many, but as far as Mavia, now the leader of her people, was concerned, it caused the Romans to approach her with the prospect of a formal alliance with potentially rich financial rewards. In 378, she apparently was elevated to the status of "phylarch" (nomadic chieftain whose status was recognized by Rome and whose loyalty was purchased through gifts [financial bribes]). Mavia was so honored because of the strategic nature of the territory over which her people ranged, and because the Romans desperately needed allies to help provide for the defense of Constantinople, lest the Eastern capital fall before the advancing Visigoths.

Mavia lived up to her end of the bargain, providing troops which helped to repel the Goths from the walls of Constantinople. In fact, the contribution of Mavia's troops was especially noteworthy, attracting the notice of Roman authors. For example, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reports that a Saracen (probably under Mavia's command) made a huge impression on the Visigoths when, in the midst of a defensive sally, he heroically cut down a Gothic opponent and then drank the blood of his victim as the battle raged around him. In part put off by the barbarity of this act, the Goths fell back and Constantinople was saved.

However important Mavia's help was in the salvation of Constantinople, at the time the Romans were beset by too many obligations to deal fairly with each one. In Mavia's case, it became evident that the Romans would not live up to their promises even after Mavia's people had acted in good faith. As a result, Mavia led a revolt against the Romans (378) to extract from Rome's Eastern provinces the promised reward for services rendered. This was the first such large-scale attack upon Roman territory by a Roman phylarch of Arabian extraction, and the devastation left in Mavia's wake spread throughout the Roman East, including deep inroads into Palestine and Egypt. The destruction wrought upon the countryside was widespread, but Mavia did not have the engineering wherewithal to besiege Roman cities. Regardless, a solution to the "difference of opinion" over "wages" seems to have been hammered out rapidly, with Mavia apparently returning rather quickly to the Roman fold. Evidence for this exists in the fact that Mavia seems to have married a Roman military commander named Victor. This connection raised her status above that of the average phylarch, but it almost certainly came at a price: that is, in order to contract the marriage Mavia probably was forced to convert to Christianity, with the result that her tribe would have followed suit. Evidence that Mavia converted exists from about 425, when a Christian church in Syria was dedicated by a "Mavia," almost certainly either the phylarch herself or her daughter. It is not known when Mavia died, but 425 is probably close to the mark.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California