Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier Gregory Linton, Ph.D. Karak Resources Project
Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier The Meaning of Limes Arabicus
Annexation of Nabataea • The Romans annexed the Nabataean kingdom in AD 106. • Perhaps the Nabataeans lacked a legitimate successor to the king. • The Romans called the region Provincia Arabia. • The emperor appointed a legate, who governed from the capital in Bostra.
Via Nova Traiana • The Romans improved the security of the region. • Trajan built the Via Nova Traiana between AD 111 and 114. • It was a major road from Bostra (in southern Syria) to Aila (on the Red Sea), a distance of 267 miles. • Its primary purpose was to facilitate transportation for troops and government officials.
The Severan Dynasty • During the Severan dynasty (AD 193-235), the Romans strengthened their defenses. • They constructed forts at the northwest end of the Wadi Sirhan. • They repaired and improved roads.
Diocletian’s Reforms • Around AD 300, Diocletian transferred the southern region to the province of Palestine. • Later in the century, it was detached from Palestine and called Palaestina Tertia. • The three provinces were administered by: • a praeses, who had civil authority, and • a dux, who had military authority.
The Military Expansion • Diocletian built fortresses, forts, and watchtowers along the fringe of the desert just east of the Via Nova. • The term for this north-to-south line of military installations is limes Arabicus, which means “Arabian frontier.” • This line of defense extended from south of Damascus to Wadi al-Hasa. • The zone south of Wadi al-Hasa was called the limes Palaestina.
The Central Sector The region from Wadi al-Mujib to Wadi al-Hasa contained four castella and a legionary camp.
The Southern Sector The region from Wadi al-Hasa to the Red Sea contained ten castella and a legionary camp.
The Size of the Expansion • S. Thomas Parker estimates the early fourth-century garrison of Arabia totaled 4,850 men. • It was reduced by 1,000 men by the end of the century. • The military buildup may explain the dramatic increase in Byzantine settlements in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Notitia Dignitatum • The only literary evidence for Roman military operations in Arabia is Notitia Dignitatum, which was written around AD 400. • It lists two legions, eight equites (elite cavalry vexillations), six alae (cavalry units), and five infantry cohorts. • The forces were referred to as limitanei, troops that manned the limes. • The location of only 4 of the 21 units have not yet been identified.
Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier The Purpose of Limes Arabicus
S. Thomas Parker’s Theory • Romans were concerned about Saracen raids on settlements and caravan traffic. • The Romans located forts and watchtowers at the entrances to wadis, which provided access to settlements to the west. • The limes monitored the movements of the Saracens and deterred them from raiding.
David Graf’s Theory • Graf is the primary critic of the traditional theory. • Gaps in the line of defense show that Romans were not concerned about raids from the desert. • Romans were concerned with pacifying a rebellious population.
Problems with Graf’s Theory • Military installations were not located in villages and cities but on the desert fringe. • Graf provides little evidence that the population was rebellious. • Gaps in the line of defense occur in areas of rough terrain, which provided natural defense. • Graf discounts the literary evidence for the threat of Saracen invasion.
Philip Mayerson’s Theory • The limes was not a line of defense to keep out the Saracens. • Saracens moved freely within the province. • The limes was the furthest extent of the settled or inhabited region. • The troops reacted defensively to attacking forces and monitored movements of tribes.
Benjamin Isaac’s Theory • Romans were concerned with brigands and robbers who were disrupting commerce. • However, the expense and effort of establishing so many defenses suggests a greater threat. • Military posts were located on the desert fringe, not in settlements and along interior roads.
Conclusions • Parker’s theory provides the most adequate explanation of the limes Arabicus. • The forts may have served different purposes in different periods. • They also may have served more than one purpose much of the time.
Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier Legionary Fortresses in Arabia
Bostra • The northernmost fortress, constructed soon after AD 106, was in the capital of Bostra. • It has not been excavated because much of it is located beneath the modern city. • It was manned by Legio III Cyrenaica from the 2nd century to the turn of the 5th century. • It is 16.8 ha (41.5 acres) in size and rectangular in shape.
el-Lejjun • Called Betthorus in Roman writings • Built around AD 300 beside ‘Ain Lejjun, most important water source on the Karak Plateau • Housed the Legio IV Martia • 4.6 ha (11.4 acres) in size; rectangular in shape • Semicircular corner towers; 20 U-shaped interval towers • Gate in middle of each wall
el-Lejjun • Originally housed 2000 men • Destroyed by earthquake in AD 363 • Rebuilt to house only 1000 men • Damaged by earthquake in AD 505 • Destroyed by earthquake in AD 551 • Excavated by Parker for five seasons between 1980 and 1989
Udruh • Located just east of Petra • Similar to el-Lejjun in size (12 acres) and design • Housed the Legio IV Ferrata • Excavated by Alistair Killick, who dates it to the early 2nd century • Dated by Parker to late 3rd or early 4th century
Aila • Located in modern ‘Aqaba • Located at north end of Gulf of ‘Aqaba • Intersected by several land routes • Housed Legio X Fretensis, which was transferred from Jerusalem • Constructed in late 4th or early 5th century • Excavated by Parker since 1994
Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier Castella in Arabia
Forts in Arabia • Latin terms for forts were castellum or castra. • Forts filled in the gaps between the larger fortresses. • Their positions provided better observation of movements in the desert.
Khirbet el-Fityan • Located 1.5 km (1 mi.) NW of el-Lejjun • Built at same time as el-Lejjun • West curtain founded on Iron Age wall • Square in shape; 0.6 ha (1.5 acres) in size • Rectangular towers in four corners, in middle of west and south walls, and flanking main gate in north wall • Intervisible with surrounding watchtowers
Rujm Beni Yasser Fortlet 1 km E of el-Lejjun reconstructed from Nabataean structure
Qasr Bshir • Cavalry outpost located 9 mi. NE of el-Lejjun • Constructed between AD 293 and 305 • Quadriburgium = square with large corner towers • 0.31 ha (0.77 acres) in size; trapezoid in shape
Qasr Bshir • Large corner projecting towers (12 m2) • 3 stories high • Contain slit windows • Stables for animals on lower level around perimeter • Barracks above the stables • Housed 150 men