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A Saracen queen and her struggle against Rome

A century after Zenobia of Palmyra rose up against the Romans, Mavia, queen of the Saracens, did her one better. Not only did this she challenge the Romans, she also defeated them and made them sign a treaty on her terms.

Before she took up arms against the Romans, Mavia was unknown. Her tribe of nomadic Saracens inhabited southern Palestine and northern Sinai, believes classicist Noel Lenski. Archaeologist Bert de Vries, who has conducted excavations at Umm el-Jimal in Jordan, a city likely in Mavia's territory, says, "She was at the head of a mobile tribal federation allied to Rome, on the frontiers of Arabia and Phoenicia in a transitional period." The only contemporary sources for her revolt are ecclesiastical and mark her as a warrior queen.

Trouble Begins

Scholars have difficulty dating Mavia's reign. Several sources indicate "that the revolt occurred as Emperor Valens was trying to move his forces from Antioch over to Thrace to fight the Goths, which we know happens in 378," says Lenski. However, Lenski proposes an earlier date of 377 for Valens's first move from Antioch against the Goths. At such a time, he would have requested that Mavia's tribe provide auxiliary troops. In Chapter XXXVIII of his Ecclesiastical History, the 5th-century church historian Sozomen writes that Mavia's husband died, probably around A.D. 375. The peace between his people and the Romans dissolved and Mavia assumed queenship and decided to go on the offensive.


The Roman Emperor Valens (Wikimedia Commons)

Why would Mavia attack the Romans? At the time of her revolt, Valens faced trouble in Thrace from the Goths and in Isauria, southern Turkey, from the natives there. He exacted troops from his allies and subordinates to help meet these threats. Lenski believes Valens's request for auxiliary troops provoked a military response from Mavia. "The use of barbarian auxiliaries was always a matter for negotiation and conflicts could erupt, particularly over the terms," says Lenski. He proposes that, "after the death of Mavia's husband, that the tribe was in some sort of leadership crisis" when Valens demanded troops from them. "I suspect that it was a decision to assert her authority, which may have had something to do with the fact that, if she hadn't, she might've been removed," says ancient historian Glen Bowersock.

Mavia's revolt took place as two Christian creeds—Orthodoxy and Arianism—battled for control. While the Orthodox belief maintained, as do modern Catholics, that Jesus is one with God the Father, Arians believed that Jesus was separate and inferior to the Father. "There seems to be some kind of question about this Moses that she met," Bowersock says, referring to Mavia's favoring of a local Orthodox Christian monk, Moses, to be made bishop over her people. "The fact that Valens was Arian and Moses is Orthodox suggests that there is a serious doctrinal struggle going on here....These are big differences and so that could have had something to do with the conflict."

To Arms!

The 4th-century monk Rufinus of Aquileia writes, "Mavia, the queen of the Saracens, began to rock the towns and cities on the borders of Palestine and Arabia with fierce attacks" (Church History 11.6). Sozomen reports Mavia led "her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine," and went as far as Egypt. The Romans found Mavia a serious threat. Rufinus says she laid provinces waste and "wore down the Roman army in frequent battles, killed many, and put the rest to flight" (Church History 11.6).

The revolt's casualties included more than just Roman soldiers. Lenski believes that a contemporary massacre of monks in Sinai—recorded in a monastic account, the Ammonii Monachi Relatio—can be attributed to Mavia. "The Saracens were big into raiding and captive taking," he says. "Maintaining flocks in a pre-barbed wire world is a very labor-intensive process, so these people used slaves to do that." When "they attacked this monastery in Sinai," the Saracens found older men, not easily made into slaves. Adds Lenski, "[They] probably attacked that monastery and thought, ‘Well, they're all a bunch of old, bearded guys. Kill them all.'"

Mavia's revolt was fast and effective. "It was simply a kind of blitzkrieg. She just swept down with her Arabs and moved in places and killed people as they went, I suspect, and took over," says Bowersock.

Terms of Peace

Eventually, the Romans and Mavia made peace, but the queen's terms were unusual. In Book IV of his Church History, the 5th-century Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus writes that Mavia only agreed to peace if Valens appointed a particular monk as bishop over her home area. However, Mavia probably was not Christian until this treaty was made. "The Romans did seem to want to convert barbarian peoples as a way of...gaining control over them," says Lenski. Until the Saracens came into contact with Moses, he adds, they seem to have been pagan. He adds, "The Saracens aren't one group. They're a variety of tribes and sub-tribes and some are Christian and some aren't and Mavia's tribe doesn't seem to have been Christian up to this point."

Later accounts, including that of the 6th-century Byzantine historian Theodorus Lector, make Mavia a Christian girl with whom a Saracen king fell in love. Glossing over her pagan past "make[s] a good story," says Bowersock. "It seems to me it makes a more novelistic account and would have appealed to readers more than the actual story that we have from the earlier sources.... The fact that it comes from later, at a time when almost everybody's Christian anyway, would seem to me to make this more plausible to readers later on."

Mavia's choice for bishop was the Orthodox hermit and native Saracen Moses, who appealed to the locals. "These monastic, ascetic types at this period, they go out and live in the desert deliberately in order to communicate with God there," says Lenski. Because they live in the deserts, "they're the ones that are going to be on the front lines when it comes to contact with the nomadic Saracens." Even though Moses was Orthodox, the Arian Valens agreed to this investiture. Lenski believes Valens focused on the Saracens' conversion rather than their choice of bishop: "if this was the person these people insisted on in order to convert, then he wasn't going to force them otherwise," he notes. "All emperors had to be pragmatic."

In return for making Moses a bishop, Valens probably demanded Saracen auxiliaries to fight against the Goths. Mavia honored her bargain at the Battle of Adrianople, which Valens eventually lost. In Book VII of Ecclesiastical History, Sozomen writes, "In this emergency, a few of the confederate Saracens sent by Mavia, together with many of the populace, were of great service.

To solidify the peace, Mavia married her daughter to Victor, a prominent military official under Valens. Marriage to Victor was a "was a big plus," notes Bowersock, "because that suddenly put her in the center of the Roman-Byzantine administration." Adds Lenski, "It was probably one of those dynastic marriages that's typical of power circles right up to the present—more like a frontier dynastic marriage with some pretty woolly people."

Assessing the Evidence

De Vries notes that the nomadic nature of the Saracens would leave little archaeological evidence. "Thus, for Mavia's material world, you may have to think ‘tents,' not palaces," he says. "In general, the material evidence for local Arab culture in this period is ephemeral, and, textually, they do not tend to write about themselves."

"The revolt didn't last very long and certainly didn't leave any archaeological traces that I'm aware of. One could be hard put to date them unless they had a name on them," says Bowersock. Islamic scholar Irfan Shahid believes that an inscription from A.D. 425, found near Anasartha, Syria, references Mavia's contributions to local Christianity. The text praises a woman named Mavia and states that she built a martyrium, or building in honor of a saint, for St. Thomas. Shahid holds that both the timing and the laudatory tone of the inscription fit with the warrior queen. Bowersock counters with the assertation that the name "‘Mavia' is not all that uncommon. We do have people called ‘Mawiya' in inscriptions of this time, but there's not the slightest reason to think that it's this Mavia." Adds de Vries, "Irfan Shahid, my friend, does stretch the evidence because he so desperately wants Mavia to be a great Arab Christian queen...he speculates a lot, and sometimes those speculations become facts when he returns to them later."

Even with no archaeological evidence, Sozomen says that Mavia lived on in the songs of her people. "I take that very seriously...because we know that the pre-Islamic Arabs wrote a lot of these famous battle poems," Bowersock adds. "We don't have any one about Mavia, but it's more than plausible that her story was told in these oral poems, which, eventually, were recorded and written down."

Nothing is known of Mavia's later years or her death.