To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Arabian Peninsula was a mysterious place. The eastern Mediterranean coastal regions had been exposed to Greek influence since before the days of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 4th century BCE, followed by the Roman Empire’s encirclement of the Mediterranean Sea centuries later, but neither of these expansionist powers had penetrated deep into the Arabian Peninsula for a prolonged period of time. Rome made attempts to conquer Arabia (Aelius Gallus’ unsuccessful expedition in the 20s BCE comes to mind) but Rome’s lack of local geographical knowledge about the Arabian interior made such forays ineffective. In the end, the ancient Greco-Roman scholars were left with impressions and gossip about Arabia, some of it realistic, but much of what was recorded was also fantastical. Yet, if there was one thing on which the ancient geographers and historians from antiquity agreed about Arabia, it was the pleasant smell. In almost any ancient account of Arabia—such as that of Strabo (c. 64 BCE-24 CE) or Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE)—one is bound to find talk of Arabia being an aromatic place, filled with incenses, spices and sweet-smelling flora.
A more detailed and realistic view of Arabia can be found in the Geography of Strabo, who interestingly was a friend of the aforementioned Roman governor, Aelius Gallus. Strabo’s account of Arabia (book sixteen of his text) reflected the perceptions that the Greco-Roman world had of the Arabian Peninsula’s geography and political landscape at the time of Augustus’ rule in Rome (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE). According to Strabo, two Arabian peoples known to him as the Sabaei (or Sabaeans) and the Gerrhaei had become extremely rich off of a booming aromatics trade, involving incenses, spices, perfumes, and other fragrant items. Focusing on the Sabaeans, Strabo wrote:
“The country of the Sabaei, a very populous nation, is contiguous, and is the most fertile of all, producing myrrh, frankincense, and cinnamon. On the coast is found balsamum and another kind of herb of a very fragrant smell, but which is soon dissipated. There are also sweet-smelling palms and the calamus…The people cultivate the ground, or follow the trade of dealing in aromatics, both the indigenous sort and those brought from Ethiopia; in order to procure them, they sail through the straits in vessels covered with skins. There is such an abundance of these aromatics, that cinnamon, cassia, and other spices are used by them instead of sticks and firewood. In the country of the Sabaeans is found the larimnun, a most fragrant perfume. By trade [in these aromatics] both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaei have become the richest of all the tribes, and possess a great quantity of wrought articles in gold and silver…” (Strabo, Geography, 16.4.19).
These rumors of a lucrative aromatics market and tales of rich treasure-laden tribes were reportedly what led Strabo’s friend, Aelius Gallus, to invade the Arabian Peninsula. As the geographer commented, “He hoped to acquire either opulent friends, or to overcome opulent enemies” (Strabo, Geography, 16.4.22). Gallus’ golden and fragrant dreams, however, did not come to fruition.
As for Diodorus Siculus’ account of Arabia, his presentation of the peninsula was much more generalized and fantastical. Like Strabo, this second scholar described the Arabian Peninsula as a land of aromatics, but Diodorus was more exaggerated on the variety and amount of spices, incenses, and perfumes that could be found in the region. Diodorus Siculus wrote:
“[In Arabia] the reed and the rush [ginger grass] and every other growth that has a spicy scent are produced in great abundance, as is also, speaking generally, every kind of fragrant substance which is derived from leaves, and the land is distinguished in its several parts by the varied odours of the gums which drip from them; for myrrh and that frankincense which is most dear to the gods and is exported throughout the entire inhabited world are produced in the farthest parts of this land” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 2.49).
Besides claiming that Arabia was a land that produced fragrant flora and aromatic plant by-products, Diodorus Siculus also curiously reported that the Arabian land, literally in itself, was also fragrant in nature. In a curious passage of his text, Diodorus claimed that luxurious aromatic materials could seemingly be mined or quarried straight from the earth in Arabia. He wrote, “Indeed the very earth itself is by its nature full of a vapor which is like sweet incense. Consequently, in certain regions of Arabia, when the earth is dug up, there are discovered veins of sweet odour, in the working of which quarries of extraordinary magnitude are formed” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 2.49). The Greco-Roman world thought Arabia was a fragrant land, indeed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Fruit and Vegetable Market with a Young Fruit Seller, Painted by Jan van Kessel, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst).
- Strabo’s Geography, translated by H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer (1903 edition), republished in The Complete Works of Strabo (Delphi Classics, 2016).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).