Arabians: Strabo and others on Aelius Gallus’ expeditions and the imperial purposes of ethnographic knowledge (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arabians: Strabo and others on Aelius Gallus’ expeditions and the imperial purposes of ethnographic knowledge (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 20, 2024,

Ancient authors: Strabo, Geography 16.4.22-24 and 2.5.11-13 (link); Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6.160-161 (link); Dio Cassius, Roman History 53.29.8 (link).

Comments: Strabo’s description of Aelius Gallus’ expedition (into what is now Saudi Arabia) on behalf of emperor Augustus (in his role as governor of Egypt) is among the most important ancient discussions of the intimate relationship between imperial expansion and control, on the one hand, and the gathering of ethnographic information, on the other. However, as Strabo explains matters, the success of the mission was quite limited.

The second passage, which is from the introduction to Strabo’s work, is also important with regard to the link between Strabo’s own ethnographic activities and the furtherance of imperial rule. There Strabo sketches out the expansion of knowledge of many peoples and expressly states that he himself had accompanied Gallus on certain expeditions. Furthermore, he clarifies that he sees his own geographic and ethnographic writing as furthering the purposes of the government.

I have also included later references to Gallus’ expeditions in Pliny the Elder and Dio Cassius.



[Purpose of the expedition]

(22) Many of the special characteristics of Arabia have been disclosed by the recent expedition of the Romans against the Arabians, which was made in my own time under Aelius Gallus as commander. He was sent by Augustus Caesar to explore the peoples (ethnē) and the places, not only in Arabia, but also in Ethiopia. Caesar did so because he saw that the Troglodyte country which adjoins Egypt neighbours upon Arabia, and also that the Arabian gulf [here the Red Sea], which separates the Arabians from the Troglodytes, is extremely narrow. So he conceived the purpose of winning the Arabians over to himself or of subjugating them. Another consideration was the report, which had prevailed for all time, that they were very wealthy and that they sold aromatics and the most valuable stones for gold and silver; yet the Arabians never expended with outsiders any part of what they received in exchange. Caesar expected either to deal with wealthy friends or to master wealthy enemies. He was encouraged also by the expectation of assistance from the Nabateans, since they were friendly and promised to co-operate with him in every way.

[Deceptive guide Syllaios and the long journey through Arabia]

(23) Due to these considerations, therefore, Gallus set out on the expedition. However, he was deceived by the Nabatean administrator (epitropos), Syllaios, who, although he had promised to guide the march, to supply all needs and to co-operate with Gallus, acted treacherously in all things. Syllaios neither pointed out a safe voyage along the coast, nor a safe journey by land, misguiding him through places that had no roads and by circuitous routes and through destitute regions, or along rocky shores that had no harbours or through waters that were shallow or full of submarine rocks. He especially led them to places where the flood-tides and ebb-tides caused very great distress.

Now this was the first mistake of Gallus: to build long boats, since there was no naval war at hand or even to be expected. The Arabians are not very good warriors even on land, rather being dealers and merchants, to say nothing of fighting at sea. But Gallus built not less than eighty boats, boats with two banks of oars and with three banks of oars, as well as light boats, at Kleopatris [Arsinoe],​ which is near the old canal which extends​ from the Nile. But when he realised that he had been thoroughly deceived, he built one hundred and thirty vessels of burden, on which he set sail with about ten thousand infantry, consisting of Romans in Egypt and Roman allies, among whom were five hundred Judeans and one thousand Nabateans under Syllaios. After many experiences and hardships he arrived in fourteen days at Leuke Kome in the land of the Nabateans, a large trading-centre, although he had lost many of his boats, some of these being lost, crews and all, on account of difficult sailing, but not on account of any enemy. This was caused by the treachery of Syllaios, who said that there was no way for an army to go to Leuke Kome by land. Yet camel-traders travel back and forth from Petra to this place in safety and ease, and in such numbers of men and camels that they differ in no respect from an army.

(24) This happened because Obodas, the king, did not care much about public affairs, and particularly military affairs (this is a trait common to all the Arabian kings), and because he put everything in the power of Syllaios. Syllaios treacherously out-generalled Gallus in every way, and, I think, aimed to spy out the country and, along with the Romans, to destroy some of its cities and peoples with the aim of establishing himself lord of all, after the Romans were wiped out by hunger and fatigue and diseases and any other evils which he had treacherously contrived for them. However, Gallus landed at Leuke Kome, his army now being sorely tried both with scurvy and with lameness in the leg, which are native ailments, the former disclosing a kind of paralysis around the mouth and the latter around the legs, both being the result of the native water and herbs. Anyways, Gallus was forced to spend both the summer and the winter there, waiting for the sick to recover.

Now the loads of aromatics are conveyed from Leuke Kome to Petra, and from there to Rhinokoloura, which is in Phoenicia near Egypt, and from there to the other peoples. However, at the present time they are for the most part transported by the Nile to Alexandria. The loads of armomatics land from Arabia and India at Myos harbour. Then they are conveyed by camels over to Koptos in Thebais, which is situated on a canal of the Nile, and then to Alexandria.

Next Gallus moved his army from Leuke Kome and marched through regions of such a kind that water had to be carried by camels, because of the deceptive guides. Therefore it took many days to arrive at the land of Aretas, a kinsman of Obodas. Now Aretas received Gallus in a friendly way and offered him gifts. However, the treasonous behaviour of Syllaios made the journey through that country difficult. Anyways, it took thirty days to traverse the country, which afforded only zeia,​ a few palm trees, and butter instead of oil, because they passed through parts that had no roads.

[Conquests in Ararene and of the Rhammanitians]

The next country which he traversed belonged to nomads and most of it was truly desert. It was called Ararene, and its king was Sabos. In passing through this country, through parts that had no roads, he spent fifty days, arriving at the city of the Negrana and at a country which was both peaceable and fertile. Now the king had fled and the city was seized at the first onset. From there, Gallus arrived at the river in six days. Here the barbarians joined battle with the Romans, and about ten thousand of them fell, but only two Romans, because they used their weapons in an inexperienced manner. They were utterly unfit for war, using bows and spears and swords and slings, though most of them used a double-edged axe. Immediately afterwards he took the city called Aska, which had been abandoned by its king. From there he went to a city called Athrula. After conquering it without a struggle, he placed a garrison in it, arranged for supplies of grain and dates for his march, and then advanced to a city called Marsiaba, which belonged to the people of the Rhammanitians, who were subject to Ilasarus. Now he assaulted and besieged this city for six days, but desisted due to a lack of water.

[Journey back without reaching the source of aromatics]

Gallus was in fact only a two days’ journey from the country that produced aromatics, as informed by his captives, but he had used up six months’ time on his marches because of bad guidance. He realised the fact when he turned back, when at last he had learned the plot against him and had gone back by other roads. On the ninth day he arrived at Negrana, where the battle had taken place, and from there on the eleventh day at Hepta Phreata, as the place is called, from the fact that it has seven wells. Finally, from there he marched through a peaceable country and arrived at a village called Chaalla, as well as another village called Malotha, which is situated near a river. Then through a desert country, which had only a few watering-places, as far as a village called Egra. This village is in the territory of Obodas, and it is situated on the sea. On his return he accomplished the whole journey within sixty days, although he had used up six months in his first journey. From there he carried his army across the Myus harbour within eleven days, and marched by land over to Koptos.

[Slight success of the expedition]

Along with any who had been fortunate enough to survive, he landed at Alexandria. The others he had lost, not in wars, but from sickness, fatigue, hunger and bad roads, because only seven men perished in war. For these reasons, also this expedition did not profit us to a great extent in our knowledge of those regions, but still it made a slight contribution. But the man who was responsible for this failure, I mean Syllaios, paid the penalty at Rome. Although he pretended friendship with Rome, he was convicted not only for his evil behaviour in this matter but also for other crimes, and he was beheaded.


[Strabo’s travels and advancements in ethnographic knowledge]

(2.5.11) Now I will explain what part of the land and sea I have myself visited and what part I have trusted to accounts given by others by word of mouth or in writing. I have travelled westward from Armenia [northeastern Turkey] as far as the regions of Tyrrhenia​ [northern Italy] opposite Sardinia, and southward from the Euxine Sea [Black Sea] as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia. And you could not find another person among the writers on geography who has travelled over much more of the distances just mentioned than I. Actually, those who have travelled more than I in the western regions have not covered as much ground in the east, and those who have travelled more in the eastern countries are behind me in the western areas. The same holds true in regard to the regions towards the south and north.

However, the greater part of our material both they and I receive by hearsay and then form our ideas of shape and size and also other characteristics, qualitative and quantitative, precisely as the mind forms its ideas from sense impressions. Our senses report the shape, colour, and size of an apple, and also its smell, feel, and flavour. From all this the mind forms the concept of apple. So, too, even in the case of large figures, while the senses perceive only the parts, the mind forms a concept of the whole from what the senses have perceived. And men who are eager to learn proceed in just that way: they trust as organs of sense those who have seen or wandered over any region, no matter what, some in this and some in that part of the earth, and they form in one diagram their mental image of the whole inhabited world. Why, generals, too, though they do everything themselves, are not present everywhere, but they carry out successfully most of their measures through others, trusting the reports of messengers and sending their orders around in conformity with the reports they hear. The person who claims that only those have knowledge who have actually seen abolishes the criterion of the sense of hearing, though this sense is much more important than sight for the purposes of science.

(2.5.12) In particular the writers of the present time can give a better account​ of the Brittanians, the Germans, the peoples both north and south of the Ister [Danube], the Getians, the Tyregetians, the Bastarnians, and, furthermore, the peoples in the regions of the Kaukasos mountains [east of the Black Sea], such as the Albanians and the Iberians [eastern Iberians].​ Information has been given us also concerning Hyrkania and Baktriana by the writers on Parthian matters (Apollodoros of Artemita and his school), in which they marked off those countries more definitely than many other writers.

[Strabo’s involvement in some of Gallus’ expeditions]

(2.5.12) Furthermore, since the Romans have recently invaded Arabia Felix with an army, of which Aelius Gallus, my friend and companion, was the commander, and since the merchants of Alexandria are already sailing with fleets by way of the Nile and of the Arabian gulf as far as India, these regions also have become far better known to us of today than to our predecessors. At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and ascended [sailing south] the Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Ethiopia, and I learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India. Formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise.

[Imperialistic purposes of Strabo’s ethnography]

(2.5.13) Now my first and most important concern, both for the purposes of knowledge and for the needs of the government is this: to try to give, in the simplest possible way, the shape and size of that part of the earth which falls within our map, indicating at the same time what the nature of that part is and what portion it is of the whole earth, because this is the task proper of the geographer. . . [omitted following sections of introduction].


Pliny the Elder

[Gallus’ expeditions into Arabia and ethnographic knowledge]

Aelius Gallus, a member of the equestrian order, is the only person who has up until now carried Roman weapons into this country, because Gaius Caesar son of Augustus only had a glimpse of Arabia. Gallus destroyed the following towns not named by the authors who have written previously: Negrana, Nestos, Neska, Magousos, Kaminakos, Labaitia, as well as Mariba above mentioned, which measures six miles around, and also Karipeta, which was the farthest point he reached.

The other discoveries that he reported on his return are: that the nomads live on milk and the meat of wild animals; that the rest of the peoples extract wine out of palm trees, as the natives do in India, and get oil from sesame; that the Homeritians are the most numerous people; that the Minaians have land that is fertile in palm groves and timber, and wealth in flocks; that the Kerbanians, Agraians, and especially the Chatramotitians, excel as warriors; that the Karreans have the most extensive and most fertile agricultural land; that the Sabaians are the most wealthy, owing to the fertility of their forests in producing scents, their gold mines, their irrigated agricultural land and their production of honey and wax (we will explain their scents the volume [12] dealing with that subject). The Arabians wear turbans or else go with their hair unshorn; they shave their beards but wear a moustache. Others however leave the beard also unshaven. It is strange to say that, among these innumerable peoples, an equal part are engaged in trade or live by banditry (latrocinia). Taken as a whole, they are the richest descent groups (gentes) in the world, because vast wealth from Rome and Parthia accumulates in their hands, as they sell the produce they obtain from the sea or their forests and buy nothing in return.


Dio Cassius

[Gallus’ expedition]

While this [revolt in Iberia / Spain] was going on, another and a new campaign had at once its beginning and its end. It was conducted by Aelius Gallus, the governor of Egypt, against the country called Arabia Felix, of which Sabos was king. At first Aelius encountered no one, yet he did not proceed without difficulty. For the desert, the sun, and the water (which had some peculiar nature) all caused his men great distress, so that the larger part of the army died. The illness proved to be unlike any of the common complaints, but attacked the head and caused it to become parched, immediately killing most of those who were attacked. However, in the case of those who survived this stage, it descended to the legs, skipping all the intervening parts of the body, and caused dire injury to them. There was no remedy for it except a mixture of olive-oil and wine, both taken as a drink and used as an ointment. This remedy naturally lay within reach of only a few of them, since the country produces neither of these articles and the men had not prepared an abundant supply of them beforehand. In the midst of this trouble the barbarians also attacked them. For up till then they had been defeated whenever they joined battle, and had even been losing some places. However, now, with the disease as their ally, they not only won back their own possessions, but also drove the survivors of the expedition out of the country. These were the first of the Romans, and, I believe, the only ones, to traverse so much of this part of Arabia for the purpose of making war. They advanced as far as the place called Athlula, a famous locality.


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932); H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well); E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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