I was reading something and found out about an interesting and (I think) relatively unknown incident that, had it played out differently, could have significantly altered the course of history. So I decided to write an article about it, and here it is.
Incense is a mixture burned in religios rituals. Two most important ingredients are frankincense and myrrh. They are both obtained by collecting the resin which leaks when their respective trees are cut. When burned, these resins produce strong odour.
Frankincense and myrrh grow in the mountains of south Arabia (nowadays Yemen and Oman) and mountains of Horn of Africa (Somalia). Because of their importance in religious rituals, they were very sought after by the ancient world’s temples and as the sources were geographically concentrated, trade developed.
The trade route is ancient. It could have existed as early as 1000 BC, when Bible describes Queen of Sheba (a kingdom in south Arabia) travelling it to visit Jerusalem, where she brought gifts of spices. By Roman times the route was well established, interspersed with water stations and supported s massive volume of trade. The sea route was also sometimes used, but Red Sea was dangerous because of pirates and its trecherous weather. At the source of the route powerful cities and kingdoms thrived on taxation and trade which went as far as India and Britain. Roman territories were big consumers. Most of this trade created a deficit for Romans. Having nothing else valuable to trade, they had to give gold and silver in order to purchase the coveted spices. The sums have grown to be significant. Romans called the land “Arabia Felix”, happy Arabia, and Plinius the Elder lamented that it was the richest land in the world. Romans were thus eager to either break the monopoly or capture it for themselves.
Contemporary Roman historian Strabo in his work Geography gives an account of how Romans decided to conquer Arabia Felix. In 26 BC, on orders from Emperor Augustus, Roman governor of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, took upon organizing a military campaign with the goal of finding the source of incense and subduing it to Roman power. 10 000 soldiers were assembled in Egypt, Romans and Egyptians with 1000 Nabatean auxillaries and 500 Jews. Nabatea was a north Arabian kingdom under Roman influence and Nabateans had agreed to help the Romans. Syllaios, a Nabatean governor, became their guide and thus they began their expedition.
Which immediately took off on the wrong foot. In the port of Cleopatris (south end of today’s Suez canal) the Romans constructed wrong type of ships. Having corrected that mistake, they made it to the Nabatean port of Leuke Come, but not without having lost many ships due to bad navigation. Once they arrived disease broke out and they had to spend the winter in the port. Finally, they marched to the interior the following spring.
Syllaios proved a terrible guide and progress was slow. The expedition made it to some friendly tribes and after wandering through waterless desert, they eventually arrived to the green landscapes of northern parts of south Arabian kingdoms. The climate was better and there was water which sustained denser population. Romans managed to capture a couple of cities easily and ressuply there. After garrisoning them they proceeded south. Natives consolidated and attacked the Romans at a river crossing. Romans were outnumbered but more expirienced at warfare so they came out victorious, losing only seven men in combat and killing “tens of thousands” by Strabo’s account.
They proceeded to the city of Marsiaba (today Ma’rib) to which they laid siege, but had to give it up after six days for lack of water. That marked the southernmost point of the Roman advance. Having marched some 2000 km from where they started and spent six months on the road, suffering from attrition, famine and exhaustion from difficult terrain, Gallus decided to turn back. The captured natives of the area claimed that they were only two days from the spice producing regions.
Roman march back to the sea took only two months, which reinforced their belief that they were purposefully misled by their guide. When they reached the Red Sea, they crossed back to Egypt with the remains of the expeditionary force. Thus ended their ambitious expedition and incense remained in Arab hands. Syllaios, the Nabatean guide, was tried for treason, found guilty and beheaded.
An interesting question is what would have happened had the Romans suceeded in reaching the incense sources? In that case, they would very likely have kept the territories they had captured. Arabia is a huge peninsula, but it is mostly uninhabited. As this map shows, Romans passed through the inhabited areas, so no additional expeditions would have been needed to control the land:
Where people in Arabia live:
Romans considered natives lousy warriors on both land and sea, so pacifying them wouldn’t likely have been a problem for them. Different scenarios are imaginable: from displacing the local population to mixing with it. In any case it is possible that Arabia Felix, including Mecca and Medina and other inhabited areas, would afterwards remain Roman for decades or centuries. Could classical heritage have shaped the culture of the area and its subsequent history differently, we can only guess.