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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.

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roman forts on the arabian frontier

Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier

Gregory Linton, Ph.D.

Karak Resources Project

roman forts on the arabian frontier2

Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier

The Meaning of Limes Arabicus

annexation of nabataea
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
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
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
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
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 Central Sector

The region from Wadi al-Mujib to Wadi al-Hasa contained four castella and a legionary camp.

the southern sector
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
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
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 frontier14

Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier

The Purpose of Limes Arabicus

s thomas parker s theory
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
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
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
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
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.
  • 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 frontier22

Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier

Legionary Fortresses in Arabia

  • 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 lejjun27
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
forts 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
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
Rujm Beni Yasser

Fortlet 1 km E of el-Lejjun reconstructed from Nabataean structure

qasr bshir
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 bshir46
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
da janiya
  • S of Wadi al-Hasa; W of Desert Highway; NE of Udruh
  • Constructed in late 3rd and early 4th century
  • 1 ha (2.47 acres) in size; square in shape
  • Heavily plastered walls
  • Main gate in E wall
  • Rectangular corner projecting towers
  • Two interval towers in each wall
  • Built in late 2nd century and called Auara
  • Located on Via Nova between Petra and Aila
  • Built at north edge of a large community
  • Probably abandoned in 4th century
  • 3 ha (7+ acres) in size; rectangular in shape
  • Gate in middle of each wall
  • Projecting rectangular corner and interval towers
  • Housed 500 men
  • Excavated by John Oleson in 1990s
  • Numerous watchtowers have been identified.
  • Roman reused existing Iron Age and Nabataean structures.
  • They also built new ones.
  • They were built on top of hills and ridges.
  • They could pass signals by means of smoke during the day and by means of torches at night.
roman forts on the arabian frontier60

Roman Forts on the Arabian Frontier

The End of the Roman Frontier

the decline of military presence
The Decline of Military Presence
  • Romans diverted forces to other threatened frontiers in the mid-400s.
  • In early 500s, Justinian turned over defense of southeastern frontier to the Ghassanids, a Christian Arab tribe.
  • Around AD 530, troops withdrew and the limes Arabicus ceased to exist.
withdrawal of troops
Withdrawal of Troops
  • El-Lejjun, Khirbet el-Fityan, Rujm Beni Yasser, Qasr Bshir, and Da’janiya were abandoned at this time.
  • Watchtowers provide no evidence of occupation in 6th or early 7th centuries.
  • By early 600s, fortified frontier in Palestine and Transjordan no longer existed.
  • This withdrawal led to the Muslim conquest in the 600s.