Arabians / Nabateans: Diodoros on Nabatean customs and freedom (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arabians / Nabateans: Diodoros on Nabatean customs and freedom (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 19, 2023,

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 2.48-54, 3.43, and 19.94-100 (link).

Comments: Diodoros of Sicily’s discussion of Arabia (written in the mid-first century BCE) supplies us with one of the few Greek characterizations of the Nabateans and their customs. Once again Diodoros emphasizes what he sees as a close correpondance between the environment or climate and the lifestyle and character of the inhabitants. In a separate, later passage (also included here) Diodoros further explores the customs and military skills of the Nabateans (as well as their involvement in drawing asphalt from the Dead Sea) in connection with Antigonus I Monophthalmos’ campaigns in about 312 BCE.

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Scythians, Amazons, and Hyperboreans, go to this link.]

Book 2

[Nabateans, their waterless environment, and consequent advantages in war]

48  Now that we have examined these matters [the Hyperboreans in the north], we will turn our account to the other parts of Asia which have not yet been described, especially Arabia. This land is situated between Syria and Egypt, and is divided among many peoples of diverse characteristics. Now the eastern parts are inhabited by Arabians, who bear the name of Nabateans and range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful. (2) They lead a life of banditry as they overrun a large part of the neighbouring territory and pillage it. They are difficult to overcome in war. For in the waterless region, as it is called, they have dug wells at convenient intervals and have kept the knowledge of them hidden from all other peoples, and so they retreat in a body into this region out of danger.​ (3) For since Nabateans themselves know about the places of hidden water and open them up, they have drinking water in abundance. But other peoples who pursue them (being in need of a watering-place because of their ignorance of the wells) in some cases die due to lack of water and in other cases return to their native land safely but only with difficulty and after suffering many things. (4) Consequently, since the Arabians who inhabit this country are difficult to overcome in war, they always remain unenslaved. Furthermore, they never at any time submit to the authority of a foreigner (epelys), and continue to maintain their freedom unimpaired. (5) Consequently, neither the Assyrians in the old days, nor the kings of the Medes and Persians, nor even the kings of the Macedonians have been able to enslave them. Even though they led many great forces against them, they never brought their attempts to a successful conclusion.

[Natural resources, environmental factors, and effects on the people]

(6) There is also in the land of the Nabateans a rock [i.e. the city of Petra, now in Jordan]​ which is exceedingly strong since it only has one approach. Using this ascent they mount it a few at a time and store their possessions in safety in this way. A large lake [i.e. the Dead Sea] which produces asphalt in abundance is also there, and from it they derive significant income. (7) It has a length of about five hundred stadium-lengths and a width of about sixty. Its water smells so bad and tastes so bitter that it cannot support fish or any of the other animals which commonly live in water. Although great rivers of remarkable sweetness empty into it, the lake gets the better of them because of its terrible smell.

Once a year, from its centre the large lake spouts out a great mass of asphalt,​ which sometimes extends for more than three plethra and sometimes for only two. When this occurs the barbarians who live around the lake usually call the larger flow a “bull” (tauros) and to the smaller one they give the name “calf” (moschos). (8) Since the asphalt floats on the surface of the lake, to those who view it from a distance it takes the appearance of an island. The fact is that the emission of the asphalt is made known to the people (anthropoi) twenty days before it takes place. For to a distance of many stadium-lengths around the lake the odour is carried by the wind and assails them, and every piece of silver and gold and brass in the area loses it characteristic lustre. But this returns again as soon as all the asphalt has been spouted forth. Because of exposure to fire and terrible odours, the nearby region makes the bodies of the inhabitants susceptible to disease and shortens their lifespan.

(9) Yet the land is good for the growing of palms, wherever it happens to be traversed by rivers with usable water or to be supplied with springs which can irrigate it. Furthermore, the balsam tree, as it is called, is found in these regions in a certain valley [i.e. the Jordan Valley] from which they receive a substantial revenue. This is because this tree is found nowhere else in the inhabited world and the use of it for medicinal purposes is most highly valued by physicians.​

49  (3) … Kostos​, cassia​, cinnamon and all other plants of this aromatic nature​ grow there in fields and thickets of such depth that what all other peoples sparingly place upon the altars of the gods is actually used by them as fuel under their pots. Also, what is found among all other peoples in small specimens there supplies material for the mattresses of the servants in their homes… (5) Consequently, in certain regions of Arabia, when the earth is dug up, veins of sweet odour are discovered. In this process, extremely large quarries are formed from which they gather stones and build their houses. Regarding their houses, whenever rain falls from the sky it flows into the joints of stones and, hardening there, makes the walls solid throughout.

50  Also mined in Arabia is the gold called “fireless,”​ (apuros) which is not smelted from ores, as is done among all other peoples. Instead, it is dug out directly from the earth. It is found in nuggets about the size of chestnuts, and is so fiery-red in colour that it makes the fairest of adornments when it is used by artisans as a setting for the most precious gems. (2) There are also so many herds in the land that many peoples which have chosen a nomadic lifestyle are able to do very well, experiencing no want of grain but being provided for in abundance by their herds…

[Environment and peoples in different parts of Arabia]

54  The southern part of Arabia as a whole is called “Felix.” But in the interior part a large population of Arabians who are nomads and have chosen a tent life range across the land. These raise large flocks of animals and make their camps in immeasurable plains. (2) The region which lies between this part and Arabia Felix is desert and waterless, as has been stated [above]. The parts of Arabia which lie to the west are broken by sandy deserts as spacious as the sky. Those who journey through, even by sea, must direct their course by signs obtained from the Bears [constellation]. (3) The remaining part of Arabia, which lies towards Syria, contains a multitude of farmers and merchants of every kind. By a seasonable exchange of merchandise they compensate for the lack of certain wares in both countries by supplying useful things which they possess in abundance.

(4) That Arabia which lies along the ocean is situated above Arabia Felix, and since it is traversed by many great rivers, many regions in it are converted into stagnant pools and into vast stretches of great swamps. (5) With the water which is brought to them from the rivers and that which comes with the summer rains, the people irrigate a large part of the country and get two crops yearly… (6) This land also breeds camels in very great numbers and of various kinds: both the hairless and the shaggy and those which have two humps (one behind the other along their spines) and hence are called dityloi.​ Some of these provide milk and are eaten for meat, and so provide the inhabitants with a great abundance of this food. Other camels are trained to carry burdens on their backs and can carry some ten medimnoi of wheat and can even carry the equivalent of five men lying on a couch. Others which have short legs and are slender in build are swift one-humped camels that can go a great distance at full speed in a day’s journey, especially in the trips which they make through the waterless and desert region. (7) Also in their wars the same animals carry into battle two bowmen who ride back-to-back to each other, one of them keeping off enemies who come on them from the front and the other those who pursue from behind. So even if we have written too much about Arabia and the products of that land, we have at least reported many things to delight lovers of reading.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of inhabitants on an island beyond India, go to this link].


Book 3

[Nabateans and their supposed shift to piracy in the Ptolemaic era]

43 . . . (4) After one has sailed past this country the Laianites [Aqaba] gulf​ comes next, around which are many inhabited villages of Arabians who are known as Nabataeans [on which see Diodoros’ previous discussion at this link]. These people occupy a large part of the coast and not a little of the country which stretches inland. The Nabataeans are numerous beyond telling, and have flocks and herds in multitude beyond belief. (5) Now in ancient times these men observed justice and were content with the food which they received from their flocks. However, after the kings in Alexandria had made the ways of the sea navigable for the merchants, these Arabians not only attacked the shipwrecked but also prepared pirate ships to prey on voyagers. In this respect they imitated in their practices the savage and lawless ways of the Taurians of the Pontos [north of the Black Sea]. Some time afterward, however, they were caught on the high seas by some ships with four banks of oars (quadriremes) and punished as they deserved…


Book 19

[Context of Antigonos’ campaign against Arabians]

94 (1) Now that Antigonos (or: Antigonus) [I Monophthalmus] without a fight had gained possession of all Syria and Phoenicia, he desired to make a campaign against the land of the Arabians (Araboi) who are called Nabateans [ca. 312 BCE]. Deciding that this people was hostile to his interests, he selected one of his friends, Athenaios, gave him four thousand light foot-soldiers and six hundred horsemen fitted for speed, and ordered him to attack the barbarians suddenly and cut off all their cattle as plunder.

[Customs of the Arabians who are called Nabateans]

(2) For the sake of those who do not know, it will be useful to state in some detail the customs of these Arabians. It is believed that, by following these customs, the Arabians preserve their freedom. They live in the open air, claiming as native land a wilderness that has neither rivers nor abundant springs from which it is possible for a hostile army to obtain water. (3) It is their custom neither to plant grain, plant any fruit-bearing tree, use wine, nor construct any house. Now if anyone is found acting contrary to this, the penalty is death. (4) They follow this custom because they believe that those who possess these things are easily forced by the powerful to do their bidding, because they need to do their bidding in order to retain the use of them.

Some of them raise camels and others sheep, pasturing them in the desert. While there are many Arabian peoples (ethnē) who use the desert as pasture, the Nabateans far surpass the others in wealth although they are not much more than ten thousand in number. (5) The reason for their wealth is that a considerable number of them are accustomed to bring down to the sea frankincense and myrrh and the most valuable kinds of spices, which they procure from those who convey them from what is called Arabia Eudaimon.​ (6) They are exceptionally fond of freedom. Whenever a strong force of enemies comes near, they take refuge in the desert, using this as a fortress because it lacks water and cannot be crossed by others. They alone can cross the desert since they have prepared subterranean reservoirs lined with stucco, which furnishes safety.

(7) As the earth in some places has the character of clay and in others is of soft stone, they make great excavations in it, the mouths of which they make very small, but by constantly increasing the width as they dig deeper, they finally make them of such size that each side has a length of one plethron [about 30 metres]. (8) After filling these reservoirs with rain water, they close the openings, making them even with the rest of the ground, and they leave signs that are known to themselves but are unrecognizable by others.

(9) They water their cattle every other day, so that, if they flee through waterless places, they may not need a continuous supply of water. They themselves use as food meat, milk, and those of the plants which are suitable for this purpose. (10) For among them there grow the pepper and plenty of the so‑called wild honey from trees,​ which they drink mixed with water. There are also other peoples among the Arabians, some of whom even till the soil, mingling with the tribute-paying peoples, and have the same customs as the Syrians, except that they do not live in houses.

95 (1) It appears that such are the customs of the Arabians. But when the time draws near for the national gathering at which those who live nearby are accustomed to meet, some to sell goods and others to purchase necessary things, they travel to this meeting, leaving on a certain rock​ their possessions and their old men, as well as their women and their children. (2) This place is exceedingly strong but unwalled, and it is distant two days’ journey from the settled country.

[Nabateans’ military skills and initial success against Antigonos’ armies]

After waiting for this season, Athenaios set out for the rock with his army in light marching order. Covering the twenty-two hundred stadia​ [one stadium-length was about 185 metres] from the district of Idumea in three days and the same number of nights, he escaped the attention of the Arabians and seized the rock at about midnight. (3) Of those that were caught there, some he slew at once, some he took as prisoners, and others who were wounded he left behind. He gathered most of the frankincense and myrrh and about five hundred talents of silver. Delaying no longer than the early morning watch,​ he at once departed at top speed, expecting to be pursued by the barbarians. When he and his men had marched without pause for two hundred stadia,​ they made camp, being tired and keeping a careless watch as if they believed that the enemy could not come before two or three days.

(4) But when the Arabians heard from those who had seen the expedition, they at once gathered together and, leaving the place of assembly, came to the rock. Then, being informed by the wounded of what had taken place, they pursued the Greeks at top speed. (5) While the men of Athenaios were encamped with little thought of the enemy and because of their tiredness were deep in sleep, some of their Nabatean prisoners escaped secretly. Learning the state of the enemy from the escaped prisoners, the Nabateans attacked the camp at about the third watch, being no less than eight thousand in number. They slaughtered most of the enemy troops where they were sleeping. The rest they killed with their javelins as they woke up and grabbed their weapons. In the end all the foot-soldiers were killed, but about fifty of the horsemen escaped and most of these were wounded.

(6) So Athenaios, after being successful at first, later because of his own folly failed in this manner because carelessness and indifference usually follow success. (7) For this reason some rightly believe that it is easier to meet disaster with skill than very great success with discretion. For disaster, because of the fear of what is to follow, forces men to be careful, but success, because of the previous good fortune, tempts men to be careless about everything.

[Nabateans write to Antigonos]

96 (1) When the Nabateans had manfully punished the enemy, they returned to the rock with the property that they had recovered. Now they wrote a letter to Antigonos in Syrian characters in which they accused Athenaios and vindicated themselves. (2) Antigonos replied to them, agreeing that they had been justified in defending themselves. He found fault with Athenaios, saying that he had made the attack contrary to the instructions that had been given. He did this, hiding his own intentions and desiring to delude the barbarians into a sense of security so that, by making an unexpected attack, he might accomplish his desire. It was not easy without some deception to overcome men who enthusiastically pursued a nomadic life and possessed the desert as an inaccessible refuge.

(3) The Arabians were highly pleased because they seemed to have been relieved of great fears; yet they did not altogether trust the words of Antigonos. Rather, regarding their prospects as uncertain, they placed watchmen upon the hills from which it was easy to see from a distance the passes into Arabia, and they themselves, after having arranged their affairs in proper fashion, anxiously awaited the issue. (4) But Antigonos when he had treated the barbarians as friends for some time and believed that they had been thoroughly deceived and thus had given him his opportunity against themselves, selected from his whole force four thousand foot-soldiers, who were lightly armed and well fitted by nature for rapid marching, and more than four thousand mounted men. He ordered them to carry several days’ supply of food that would not require cooking, and, after placing his son Demetrios in command, he sent them off during the first watch, ordering him to punish the Arabians in whatever way he could.

[Second campaign against the Nabateans led by Demetrios]

97 (1) Demetrius, therefore, advanced for three days through regions with no roads, striving not to be observed by the barbarians. However, since the lookouts had seen the hostile force entering, they informed the Nabateans by means of prearranged fire signals. The barbarians, having immediately learned that the Greeks had come, sent their property to the rock and posted a garrison there that was strong enough since there was a single artificial approach. They themselves divided their flocks and drove them into the desert, some into one place and some into another.

[Nabatean’s speech regarding the Nabatean way of life]

(2) On arriving at the rock and finding that the flocks had been removed, Demetrios made repeated assaults upon the stronghold. Those within resisted firmly, and easily had the upper hand because of the height of the place. So on this day, after he had continued the struggle until evening, he recalled his soldiers by a trumpet call. (3) On the next day, however, when he had advanced upon the rock, one of the barbarians called to him, saying:

“King Demetrios, with what desire or under what compulsion do you war against us who live in the desert and in a land that has neither water nor grain nor wine nor any other thing whatever of those that pertain to the necessities of life among you? (4) For we, since we are in no way willing to be slaves, have all taken refuge in a land that lacks all the things that are valued among other peoples and have chosen to live a life in the desert and one altogether like that of wild beasts, harming you not at all. We therefore beg both you and your father to do us no injury but, after receiving gifts from us, to withdraw your army and from now on regard the Nabateans as your friends. (5) For neither can you, if you wish, remain here many days since you lack water and all the other necessary supplies, nor can you force us to live a different life; but you will have a few captives, disheartened slaves who would not consent to live among strange ways.”

(6) When words such as these had been spoken, Demetrios withdrew his army and ordered the Arabians to send an embassy about these matters. They sent their oldest men, who repeated arguments similar to those previously stated and persuaded him to receive as gifts the most precious of their products and to make terms with them.

[Digression on the Dead Sea’s asphalt and surrounding peoples’ collection and competition for it]

98 (1) Demetrios received hostages and the gifts that had been agreed upon and departed from the rock. After marching for three hundred stadia,​ he camped near the Dead Sea,​ the nature of which should not be passed over without comment. It lies along the middle of the satrapy of Idumea, extending in length about five hundred stadia and in width about sixty.​ Its water is very bitter and of exceedingly foul odour, so that it can support neither fish nor any of the other creatures usually found in water. Although great rivers whose waters are of exceptional sweetness flow into it, it prevails over these by reason of its foulness. From its centre each year it sends forth a mass of solid asphalt, sometimes more than three plethra in area, sometimes a little less than one plethrum.​ When this happens the barbarians who live near habitually call the larger mass a bull and the smaller one a calf. When the asphalt is floating on the sea, its surface seems to those who see it from a distance just like an island. It appears that the ejection of the asphalt is indicated twenty days in advance,​ for on every side about the sea for a distance of many stadium-lengths the odour of the asphalt spreads with a noisome exhalation, and all the silver, gold, and bronze in the region lose their proper colours. These, however, are restored as soon as all the asphalt has been ejected. But the neighbouring region is very torrid and ill smelling, which makes the inhabitants sickly in body and exceedingly short-lived. Yet the land is good for raising palm trees in whatever part it is crossed by serviceable rivers​ or is supplied with springs that can irrigate it. In a certain valley in this region there grows what is called balsam,​ from which there is a great income since nowhere else in the inhabited world is this plant found, and its use as a drug is very important to physicians.

99 (1) When the asphalt has been ejected, the people who live around the sea on both sides carry it off like plunder of war since they are hostile to each other, making the collection without boats in a peculiar fashion. They make ready large bundles of reeds and cast them into the sea. On these not more than three men take their places, two of whom row with oars, which are lashed on, but one carries a bow and repels any who sail against them from the other shore or who venture to interfere with them. (2) When they have come near the asphalt they jump upon it with axes and, just as it were soft stone, they cut out pieces and load them on the raft, after which they sail back. If the raft comes to pieces and one of them who does not know how to swim falls off, he does not sink as he would in other waters, but stays afloat as well as do those who know. (3) For this liquid by its nature supports heavy bodies that have the power of growth or of breathing, except for solid ones that seem to have a density like that of silver, gold, lead, and the like; and even these sink much more slowly than do these exact bodies if they are cast into other lakes. The barbarians who enjoy this source of income take the asphalt to Egypt and sell it for the embalming of the dead because, unless this is mixed with the other aromatic ingredients, the preservation of the bodies cannot be permanent.

[Further clashes with Nabateans in connection with the asphalt collection]

100 (1) When Demetrios returned and made a detailed report of what he had done, Antigonos rebuked him for the treaty with the Nabateans, saying that he had made the barbarians much bolder by leaving them unpunished. It would seem to them that they had gained pardon not through his kindness but through his inability to overtake them. Yet Antigonos did praise him for examining the lake and apparently having found a source of revenue for the kingdom. He placed Hieronymos,​ the writer of the history, in charge of the lake (2) and instructed him to prepare boats, collect all the asphalt, and bring it together in a certain place.

But the result was not in accord with the expectations of Antigonos because the Arabians, collecting to the number of six thousand and sailing up on their rafts of reeds against those on the boats, killed almost all of them with their arrows. (3) As a result, Antigonos gave up this source of revenue because of the defeat he had suffered and because his mind was engaged with other more important matters. At this point, a messenger with a letter from Nikanor, the general of Media and the upper satrapies, came to Antigonos. In this letter was written an account of Seleukos’ march inland and of the disasters that had been suffered in connection with him.​ (4) Therefore Antigonos, worried about the upper satrapies,​ sent his son Demetrios with five thousand Macedonian and ten thousand mercenary foot-soldiers and four thousand horses. Antigonos ordered him to go up as far as Babylon and then, after recovering the satrapy, to come down to the sea at full speed. . . [sections omitted].

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