Arabians: Ammianus Marcellinus on the customs of Saracens (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arabians: Ammianus Marcellinus on the customs of Saracens (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023,

Ancient author: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman AntiquitiesRes Gestae 14.4 (link).

Comments:  In the context of troubles in the eastern part of the Roman empire in the mid-fourth century reigns of Constantius and Gallus, Ammianus Marcellinus provides an aside on the Saracens of Arabia who were, in his view, making regular, bandit-like incursions into Roman territory (much like his characterization of Isaurians in the same section – link). Marcellinus has nothing but negative things to say about the nomadic and war-like Saracens, which is not surprising since the category of “Saracens” itself is a derogatory, outsider designation rather than a self-designation for various nomadic peoples in the area of Arabia.  For more on this designation, consult other posts on the “Saracens,” particular those by Nonnosos (link) and pseudo-Nilus (link).

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935-1940), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.


[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Isaurians, go to this link.]

[Incursions and customs of the Saracens]

However, the Saracens (Saraceni), whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies, ranged up and down the country in a brief space of time and destroyed whatever they could find. In doing so, they were like rapacious birds of prey (kites) which, whenever they have caught sight of any prey from on high, seize it with swift swoop and quickly take off. Although I recall having told of their customs in my history of the emperor Marcus [in one of the lost books], and several times after that, yet I will now briefly relate a few more particulars about them.

Among those descent groups (gentes) whose original home extends from the Assyrians to the cataracts of the Nile and the frontiers of the Blemmyians [an Ethiopian people], all alike are warriors of equal rank. They are half-nude, wearing dyed cloaks down to the crotch, ranging widely with the help of swift horses and slender camels in times of peace or of disorder. No man ever grasps a plough-handle or cultivates a tree, none seeks a living by farming. Instead, they roam continually over wide and extensive tracts without a home, without fixed settlements or laws. They cannot endure the same sky for long and the sun of a single district never makes them content.

Their life is always on the move, and they have mercenary wives, hired under a temporary contract. But in order that there may be some appearance of marriage, the future wife, by means of a dowery, offers her husband a spear and a tent, with the right to leave him after a stipulated time, if she chooses to do so. It is unbelievable how much effort both sexes give themselves up to sexual passion. Moreover, they wander so widely as long as they live, that a woman marries in one place, gives birth in another, and rears her children far away, without being given an opportunity for rest.

They all feed upon game and an abundance of milk, which is their main sustenance, and on a variety of plants, as well as any birds they take by hunting. I have seen many of them who were wholly unacquainted with grain and wine. So much for this destructive people (natio). Let us now return to our original theme. . . [omitted remainder of the discussion of the mid-fourth century in the East].

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Romans, go to this link.]

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