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Prominent Arabs in Ancient Rome

posted on: Jul 15, 2021

By Lyric Ludwig / Arab America Contributing Writer

 Many point to the Roman Empire as an example of the world’s first superpower, with its long lasting hegemony over much of Europe and the Mediterranean world. However, much of our ideas regarding many of the facets of modern day imperialism simply don’t apply to Rome, and by extension, the rest of the classical world as well. For example, European imperialism in the 19th and 20th (as well as colonialism of earlier centuries) was rife with justifications based on racist pseudoscience. The Romans saw the world differently,  the Mediterranean was “mare nostrum” (“our sea”) and there was an ideology of a multi ethnic empire (not that there weren’t instances of what we would call racism today). Simply put, the majority of Romans and Roman society wouldn’t discriminate against subject peoples, many of whom were seen as citizens. This applied to many Arabs as well, as Rome began to make inroads into the states of the Near East. This article will explore some of the ways in which Arabs participated in and even ruled the Roman Empire.

A bust of Emperor Elagabalus

     On a more humble, yet still famous note, many Arabs served in the Roman legions. Arabs from Syria, particularly the village of Hama provided the much needed service of archery in the Roman army. Serving as auxilia, many Arabs could attain Roman citizenship for themselves and their families by completing their term of military service. Arab archers would see service in all corners of the empire, fighting not only in the Near East, but against “barbarians” all over Europe, providing support for Rome’s infantry (as can be seen in the movie “Gladiator”).

A Syrian archer from Hama in Roman service.

Arabs could also be celebrities in Rome as well, as Gladiators were loved and revered by the Roman public. One example is Flamma, a heavyweight gladiator from Syria. He fought 34 bouts, winning most of them as a Secutor, a heavy type of gladiator that fought a retiarius, a fisherman with a net and trident. Flamma famously refused the prize of freedom offered to veteran gladiators, instead continuing to bask in the glory of combat in Rome’s arenas. Though a Syrian Arab in origin, Flamma would have thoroughly earned the affection of Roman men and women.

The most famous Arabs to rule Rome come from the Severan dynasty, named after the Emperor Septimius Severus from Libya, who married a Syrian aristocrat Julia Domna. Caracalla was the first to reign after his father and his time in office was troublesome, to say the least. Caracalla was committed to erasing all memory of his brother’s reign from history, attempting to assassinate him. His campaigns against Germans and Parthians alike were also largely unsuccessful. However, another Arab would come to the throne whose reign would be filled with scandal of another sort.

The Severan family

Elagabalus was a young priest for the Syrian sun god and was Emperor at the young age of 18. Elagabalus is noted for being a prominent example of an LBGT person in antiquity. Elagablus dressed in women’s clothing, wore makeup and often presented as a woman in daily life, often prostituting himself as a woman. Some scholars even assert that Elagabalus is one of the first transgender individuals, as there is evidence that the Emperor hated the body he was born in, even wanting to have his genitals altered to be female by a surgeon. Elagabalus also practiced bisexuality, marrying a man and several women as well, including a vestal virgin (a major taboo at the time). Overall, the young Syrian Emperor’s reign was rife with political and sexual scandal, including the establishment of a “women’s senate” considered abhorrent by the patriarchal Roman Empire. However, despite this, many men were still wooed by the apparent beauty of the Emperor, clad in makeup and women’s garb. Elagabalus was eventually killed by the Praetorians, but his legacy remains in the annals of world history.

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” by  Lawrence Alma-Tadema

This article has shown a small picture of the interaction between Arabs and the West. It is important that we look back on this portion of history as multi-ethnic and metropolitan, as people from all over the world shaped the world we live in today, including Arabs who have their own extremely diverse history that is worth studying.

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