Arabians: Strabo and Josephos on Itureans as a supposed bandit-people (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arabians: Strabo and Josephos on Itureans as a supposed bandit-people (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 29, 2024,

Ancient authors: Genesis 25:13-15; Strabo, Geography 16.2.18, 20 (link); Josephos, Judean Antiquities, Against Apion, and Judean War, various passages identified below (link).

Comments: We know very little about the Itureans beyond the brief biblical reference to Jetur (who may or may not be related to Itureans) as a son of Ishmael and the very biased accounts presented below written by the Greek author Strabo of Amaseia (early first century CE) and the Judean (Jewish) author Josephos of Jerusalem (late first century). In both the latter cases, these peoples, who are considered a sub-set of Arabians, are pictured living in rough and mountainous settings and reflecting supposedly equally rough character traits.  Strabo is renowned for depicting peoples that live in mountains as inherently “bandits,” but in this particular passage he opts for a more incriminating label of “evil-doers” or, perhaps capturing the sentiment well, “criminals” (kakourgoi).

In parallel passages in Antiquities and War, Josephos himself narrates in some detail events involving a local leader Zenodoros (also just mentioned by Strabo) set in Trachonitis and provides a story of the Roman governor’s suppression of these people who are characterized as inherently inclined to banditry (set just before about 23 BCE). He goes into some ethnographic detail in outlining the lifestyle of these people in one of the two accounts below. Also in Antiquities, Josephos provides another story from an earlier era about Hasmonean expansionism in relation to the Itureans which involves the forced circumcision of subjugated peoples set in 104-103 BCE (on which compare the Idumeans at this link).

Works consulted: Sean Freyne, “Galileans, Phoenicians,  and  Itureans,” in Hellenism in the Land of Israel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2001), 182–215 (link); Aryeh Kasher, Jews, Idumaeans, and Ancient Arabs (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1988).


Genesis 25:13-15

[Jetur (hence Jeturites or Itureans) as a son of Ishmael; cf. 1 Chronicles 5:18-22]

Now this is the history of the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to the order of their birth: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebaioth, then Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their villages, and by their encampments: twelve princes, according to their peoples. These are the years of the life of Ishmael: one hundred thirty-seven years. He gave up his spirit and died, and was gathered to his people. They lived from Havilah to Shur that is before Egypt, as you go toward Assyria. He lived opposite all his relatives (New World Bible, adapted).


Strabo, Geography 16.2.18, 20

[Itureans and Arabians in the Anti-Lebanon mountains as inherently criminals]

2 . . . (18) After the Makras plain one comes to the Massyas plain [between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains], which contains also some mountainous parts, among which is Chalcis [at the base of the west side of the middle of the Anti-Lebanon mountains], the acropolis of the Massyas, so to speak. The beginning of this plain is the Laodikeia near the Lebanon mountains [at the north end of the plain]. Now all the mountainous parts are held by Itureans (Itouraioi) and Arabians (Araboi), all of whom are criminals (kakourgoi; literally: evil-doers, or harmful people), but the people in the plains are farmers (geourgoi). When the farmers are harmed by them at different times they require different kinds of help. The criminals use strongholds as bases of operation; those, for example, who hold the Lebanon mountains possess, high up on the mountain, Sinna and Borrama and other fortresses like them, and, down below, Botrys and Gigartos and the caves by the sea and the castle that was erected on Theuprosopon. Pompey destroyed both these places. From these places they overran both Byblos and the city that comes next after Byblos, I mean the city Berytos [modern Beirut), which lie between Sidon and Theuprosopon. Now Byblos [modern Jubayl], the royal residence of Kinyras,​ is sacred to Adonis, but Pompey freed it from tyranny by beheading its tyrant with an axe. . . [sections omitted].

(20) Above Massyas lies the Royal Valley, as it is called, and also the Damaskene territory, which is accorded exceptional praise. The city Damaskos [just south of the Anti-Lebanon mountains] is also a noteworthy city, having been, I might almost say, even the most famous of the cities in that part of the world in the time of the Persian empire. Above it are situated two Trachones (literally: Rugged-areas, from which the later term Trachonitis comes) ​ as they are called. And then there are mountains that are hard to pass in the parts inhabited widely by Arabians and Itureans. In these mountains there are deep-mouthed caves, one of which can admit as many as four thousand people in times of incursions, such as are made against the Damaskenians from many places. In fact, for the most part the barbarians have been plundering the merchants from Arabia Felix, but this is less the case now that the group of bandits (lēstai) under Zenodoros [on which also see Josephos further below in connection with Herod as client king] has been broken up through the good government established by the Romans and through the security established by the Roman soldiers that are kept in Syria. . . [remainder omitted].


Josephos, Judean Antiquities

[Hasmonean king Aristoboulos’ supposed forced circumcision of Itureans, ca. 104-103 BCE]

(13.314-319) But Aristoboulos [I, ca. 104-103 BCE] was soon seized by remorse for the murder of his brother [Antigonos], and this was by illness, his mind being so troubled by what he had done that he had internal pains and he vomited blood. Once one of the servants who waited on him was carrying this blood away, slipped and spilled it – by divine providence, I believe – on the very spot where the stains made by the blood of the murdered Antigonos were still to be seen. At that point those who saw this shouted out that the servant had spilled the blood there deliberately, and when Aristoboulos heard this, he asked what the reason for it was. Since they did not tell him, he became still more determined to find out, for in such cases men naturally suspect the worst in what is covered by silence. But when, under his threats and the constraint of fear, they told him the truth, he was stricken in mind by his consciousness of guilt. Crying openly with deep groans, he exclaimed, “I was not destined, I see, to escape the notice of God in committing such impious and unholy crimes, but swift punishment has overtaken me for the murder of my relative. How long, then, O most shameless body, will you keep within you the life that is forfeit to the spirits of my brother and mother? Why, instead of giving this up to them at one stroke, do I merely offer my blood drop by drop as a libation to those who have been so terribly murdered?” And scarcely had he spoken these words when he died.

In his reign of one year, with the title of friend of the Greeks (Philhellene), he conferred many benefits on his homeland. He made war on the Itureans (Itouraioi), acquired a good part of their territory for Judea and forced the inhabitants, if they wished to remain in their land, to be circumcised and to live in accordance with the laws of the Judeans. He had a kindly nature, and was wholly given to modesty, as Strabo also testifies on the authority of Timagenes, [of Alexandria; FGrHist 88 F5] writing as follows:

“This man was a kindly person and very serviceable to the Judeans, for he acquired additional territory for them, and brought over to them a portion of the Ituraean people (ethnos), whom he joined to them by the bond of circumcision.”

. . . [account of Alexander Jannaeus’ reign follows].

[Bandits under Zenodoros in Trachonitis (implied Arabians / Itureans) and Herod’s actions as the Roman client king]

(15.344-349) . . . At this point, with Sebaste [Samaria] already rebuilt as a city, Herod decided to send his sons Alexander and Aristoboulos to Rome to present themselves to Caesar [Augustus]. And when they arrived, they stayed in the house of Polio, who professed himself as one of Herod’s most devoted friends. Caesar himself gave them permission to stay because he received the boys with the greatest consideration.

Augustus also gave Herod the right to give possession of his kingdom to any of his offspring he chose, and in addition he gave him the territory of Trachonitis, Batanea, and Auranitis [all north and east of the Sea of Galilee, with Trachonitis furthest north, between that lake and Damaskos], which he had taken over for the following reason. There was a certain Zenodoros who had leased the domain of Lysanias. However, since he was not satisfied with the revenues, he increased his income by using bandit groups (lēstēria) in Trachonitis (literally: Rough territory) [on which see Strabo’s “Trachones”]. The inhabitants of that region led desperate lives and pillaged the property of the Damaskenes. Zenodoros did not stop them but himself shared in their gains.

The neighbouring peoples, feeling these serious losses, protested to Varro, who was their governor at the time [governor of Syria, ca. 23 BCE], and asked him to write to Caesar about the misdeeds of Zenodoros. When these reports were brought to Caesar, he wrote back that he should drive out the bandit groups and assign that territory to Herod in order that, through his supervision, Trachonitis might cease to be an annoyance to its neighbours.

[Detailed description of the bandit-people’s lifestyle and methods]

It was really not easy to restrain people who had made banditry a lifestyle and had no other means of making a living, since they had neither city nor field of their own but only underground shelters and caves, where they lived together with their cattle. They had also managed to collect supplies of water and of food beforehand, and so they were able to hold out for a very long time in their hidden retreat. Moreover, the entrances to their caves were narrow, and only one person at a time could enter, while the interiors were incredibly large and constructed to provide plenty of room, and the ground above their dwellings was not high but almost level with the surrounding surface. The whole place consisted of rocks that were rugged and difficult to access unless one used a path with a guide leading the way, because not even these paths were straight, but had many turns and windings. Now when these men were prevented from harming their neighbours, their custom was to engage in banditry (lēsteia) in relation to one another. The result was that that no form of lawlessness was left untried in the mean time. But when Herod received this grant from Caesar and reached their territory with the help of experienced guides, he put a stop to their criminal acts and brought security and peace to the surrounding peoples. Zenodoros, however, was angry in the first place at having his district-leadership (eparchy) taken away from him and was still more angry in the next place because he was envious of Herod, who had taken it over. Therefore he went up to Rome to bring charges against him, but he returned without accomplishing anything.

[Herod’s continuing problems with “bandits” in Trachonitis with alliances with Nabateans]

(16.271-285) After Herod had been in Rome and returned from there, a war broke out between him and the Arabians for the following reason. The inhabitants of Trachonitis, the region that Caesar had taken from Zenodoros and added to Herod’s territory, no longer had freedom to practise banditry (lēsteuein) but were forced to farm and live peaceably. This was not what they wanted, nor did the soil bring much profit in return for their labour. At first, however, with the king preventing them, they refrained from committing offences against their neighbours. For that reason Herod acquired a favourable reputation for vigilance. But after Herod sailed to Rome to bring charges against his son Alexander and to visit Caesar in order to leave his son Antipater in his care, the inhabitants of Trachonitis [associated with Itureans in other reference] spread a report that Herod had died. They also revolted and again turned to their accustomed way of robbing their neighbours. On this occasion, at least, the king’s generals in his absence subdued them.

But some forty of the bandit-leaders, fearful of what had been done to those who had been captured, left the country and set off for Arabia [i.e. Nabatea], where Syllaios [a Nabatean leader] received them after his failure to marry Salome, and gave them a fortified place to live. They overran and pillaged not only Judea but also all of Coele-Syria, for Syllaios provided a base of operations and security to these offenders.

But when Herod returned from Rome, he learned that many of his possessions had suffered, and since he was unable to seize the bandits because of the security which they enjoyed as a result of the protection given them by the Arabians, and was himself angry at the injuries inflicted by them, he surrounded Trachonitis and slaughtered their relatives (oikeioi). Then the bandits (lēstai), becoming even angrier at this treatment (for it is a law among them to take vengeance at any cost on killers of their relatives), continued to harass and plunder all of Herod’s territory without fear of consequences.

Herod therefore spoke of this matter to Saturninus [Roman legate of Syria, ca. 9-7 BCE] and Volumnius [perhaps military tribune of Syria], the officers of Caesar, and demanded that the bandits be given over to him for punishment. At this point, the bandits’ strength and numbers increased still more, and they spread confusion everywhere in an effort to overthrow Herod’s kingdom. They plundered towns and villages, and slaughtered their captives, so that their outbreaks resembled a war. Now they numbered about a thousand.

Indignant at these actions, Herod demanded the surrender of the bandits and also demanded the repayment of the debt of the sixty talents that he had loaned to Obadas through Syllaios, for the time-limit had now been reached [i.e. Obadas III, king of the Nabateans, ca. 29-9 BCE, although Josephos does not use the term Nabateans here and instead speaks of “Arabians” (Arabes)]. But Syllaios, who had set Obadas aside and was in charge of everything, flatly denied that the bandits were in Arabia, and he also delayed payment of the money. About this there was a discussion before Saturninus and Volumnius, the governors of Syria. Finally, through the intervention of the Romans, they agreed that Herod should be paid his money within thirty days and that each of them should return those of the other’s subjects who had taken refuge in his realm. Not a single one of the Arabians was found in Herod’s territory who was wanted for a crime or any other reason, whereas the Arabians were proved to be keeping the bandits in their territory. But when the time-limit was at an end, Syllaios departed for Rome without meeting any of his obligations.

At that point, Herod attempted to get back money wrongfully withheld and the bandits sheltered by the Arabians. When Saturninus and Volumnius gave him permission to take action against them as defaulters, he led his army into Arabia [i.e. Nabatea], covering a seven days’ march in three days. After reaching the fortress which held the bandits, he captured them all in one attack, and demolished the place, which was called Rhaipta. He did not, however, attack anyone else. But when Nakebos [a relative of Syllaios, according to Josephos in 16.288], a leader of the Arabians, came to the assistance of the bandits, a battle ensued in which only a few of Herod’s men fell compared to the commander of the Arabians Nakebos and twenty-five of his men. The rest of them fled.

After punishing these Arabians, Herod settled three thousand Idumeans in Trachonitis and in this way restrained the bandits there. He also wrote to the governors, who were in Phoenicia, about these matters, explaining that he had done nothing more than what was proper in taking action against the defaulting Arabians. When the Romans made a full investigation of this, they found that he had not misrepresented the facts.


Josephos, Judean War

[Bandits in Trachonitis suppressed by Varro, Roman governor of Syria]

(1.398-400) After the first period of the Actian era (starting 28 BCE), Caesar [Augustus] added to Herod’s realm the country called Trachonitis, with the adjacent districts of Batanaea and Auranitis. The occasion of this grant was as follows: Zenodoros, who had taken on lease the domain of Lysanias, was perpetually sending the bandits (lēstai) of Trachonitis to harass the inhabitants of Damaskos. The latter fled for protection to Varro, the governor of Syria, and requested that he report their sufferings to Caesar. On learning the facts, Caesar sent back orders to exterminate the bandits. Varro, accordingly, led out his troops, cleared the district of these pests and deprived Zenodoros of his tenure. This was the territory which Caesar subsequently presented to Herod to prevent it from again being used by the bandits as a base for raids upon Damaskos. When ten years after his first visit (ca. 20 BCE) Caesar returned to the province, he gave Herod the position of procurator of all Syria, for the Roman procurators were forbidden to take any measures without his concurrence. Finally, on the death of Zenodoros, Caesar [Augustus] further assigned to him all the territory between Trachonitis and Galilee. But what Herod valued more than all these privileges was that in Caesar’s affection he stood next after Agrippa, in Agrippa’s next after Caesar. From then on Herod advanced to the utmost prosperity. His noble spirit rose to greater heights, and his lofty ambition was mainly directed to works of piety.


Source of the translation: H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.

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