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Limes Arabicus: Examining details of ancient Levantine road systems

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Mar 13,2024 - Last updated at Mar 13,2024

The East facade of House XVIII, consolidation masonry to the left of double window (Photo courtesy of ACOR)

AMMAN — The annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom into the Roman Empire in 106AD led to the establishment of the “Limes Arabicus”, whose aim was to consolidate the eastern border of the empire. In addition, the Via Nova Traiana was constructed between 111AD and 114AD, and this road connected Bosra with Ayla.

The objective of Via Nova Traiana was to link commercial centres but also to provide a solid road for faster transportation of military. The complex network of watchtowers, fortresses and towns protected the southern and eastern frontier of the empire.

These forts and fortresses were strategically located at important crossroads or beside water sources, and hosted garrisons ranging from small detachments through to complete legions, which were mobilised according to the scale of the threat. 

“The main difference to the northern stretch is that the southern defensive chain occupies the eastern edge of the area suitable for farming and this arrangement was well suited to protect the agricultural zone to the west, as well as to project force into the desert to the east, noted a Spanish professor at the German-Jordanian University. 

The border works were intended to defend the settled territories to the west of the limes from both Persian attacks and raids by pastoralists who periodically ravaged the villages and towns under direct Roman control, said Ignacio Arce, adding that reuse of pre-existing roads, such as the King’s Highway that became the Via Nova Traiana, and many forts and structures from the Iron Age and Nabatean period, which were incorporated in this chain of military structures, provide proof of the existence of a border (or borders) in this region for centuries before the arrival of Rome. 

These fortifications were motivated by socioeconomic urges and political willingness.

“Building activity remained vigorous under Emperor Septimius Severus [193AD-211AD], when a road was built to Azraq in AD 208/210 and additional military structures were added to the Limes Arabicus. We can demonstrate that a major effort was made during this period to control and block access through the wadi Sirhan, which acted as the main conduit linking Iraq and the Persian Gulf to Provincia Arabia and Syria,” highlighted Arce, noting that most of the structures created during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD were carefully built using opus quadratum masonry (in limestone or basalt), combining precise jointing with intermediate-size ashlars. In most cases, the forts were small- to medium-sized square installations without the watchtowers.

The middle of the 3rd century AD brought major political changes in the Orient as the new Sassanid kingdom that defeated and succeeded the Parthian one in AD224 heralded a renewed Persian threat for Rome. 

The disastrous wars against Shapur I led to the sacking of Antioch in 253, the destruction of many cities and forts, and, in AD260, the defeat and capture of Emperor Valerian. 

“In the aftermath, Odenathus of Palmyra [220AD-267AD] sought revenge, taking over the defence of the region on Rome’s behalf and this initiative soon degenerated into Zenobia’s attempt to carve out a Palmyrean Empire of her own, an ambition that Aurelian brought to an end, Arce said, adding that by the end of the century Diocletian’s Tetrarchy was providing much needed stability and security, especially in the Levant. 

Emperor Diocletian bolstered the frontier defences and introduced major political and administrative reforms, partitioning Provincia Arabia and transferring its southern portion to Provincia Palestina. 

“Later in the 4th century AD the area to the south of Wadi Hasa was split off to become Palestina Tertia, perhaps creating the limes Palestina,” Arce said, adding that awareness of the increasing threat posed by Persian armies resulted in the limes Arabicus receiving attention throughout the Tetrarchic period, even after the victory of co-emperor Galerius over the Sassanians in 297 AD. This prompted the rapid construction of several new military installations, particularly legionary fortresses and quadriburgia housing cavalry units, and the refurbishment of several forts built in preceding centuries. 

The rough building techniques employed, especially among the new quadriburgia founded at this time, bear witness to both the pressing need and the speed of construction, Arce said, adding that the Saracen threat grew during the 4th century AD , as increased cooperation between tribes led to the establishment of confederations, and rulers who were more than tribal chiefs. 

“Indeed, during the reign of Valens [364–378], Mavia, ‘Queen of Saracens’ launched attacks on the frontier,” Arce said, adding that it created the opportunities for alliances between Rome and the local tribes.

It represents a transitional moment when these groups started to play a new political and military role in the region as the 4th and 5th centuries AD saw the incorporation of Arab tribes into the armies of both rival empires, as well as a shift towards a new mode of warfare, in which heavy armoured cavalry gave way to light cavalry units capable of greater mobility, Arce underlined.

“The increasing use by the Persians of mobile Arab troops from the Lakhmid tribes based at Hira [near present-day Kufa] therefore posed a new risk to the Roman provinces of Oriens from the 4th century AD onwards. 

To counter this threat, the existing Roman strategy of static defence was radically transformed. The regular soldiers garrisoning the limes forts were withdrawn, and a foedus with Christian Arab tribes,” Arce underscored.

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