A man known as Aelius Gallus was appointed as Prefect of Egypt around 26 BCE during the reign of Augustus. Shortly after his appointment, the prefect, with the blessing of Augustus, launched an invasion into southwestern Arabia (near modern Yemen), known at the time as Arabia Felix. The Romans coveted the region for its rich supply of spice and incense. In a spirit similar to future explorers who sailed in search of El Dorado, an army of Romans led by Aelius Gallus marched into Arabia, driven by visions of wealth and glory. The exact date of this expedition is still debated, but it is believed to have taken about two years, likely either from 26-25 BCE or 25-24 BCE.
Aelius Gallus and his army did not wander blindly into Arabia—they were sensible enough to find a guide named Syllaeus, a Nabataean Arab from the region of Petra. Thousands of Roman soldiers followed Syllaeus for months through the most inhospitable and dry lands of the Arabian Peninsula. In these hot and parched conditions, the army quickly began to run out of supplies, especially water, and they failed to scavenge enough from the landscape to replenish their stocks. By the time the unfortunate Romans discovered that Syllaeus was deliberately leading the army on long routes through waterless regions, it was too late—the army was thoroughly dehydrated and infected with disease.
Despite Syllaeus’ effective sabotage, Aelius Gallus supposedly dragged his troops a fair distance into southern Arabia. According to ancient sources such as Strabo, Cassius Dio and Pliny, the army of Aelius Gallus harassed several towns and cities within Arabia, and possibly even reached as far as Marib, or even Aden (in modern Yemen). Nevertheless, the poor condition of the speedily deteriorating army forced the Romans to retreat back to their safety and supplies in Egypt. In the end, the costly expedition was little more than a deadly scouting mission.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae- A Roman Legion (from Trajan’s Column), c. 16th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Roman History (Book 53, chapter 29) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.