This short piece follows from my previous post about the Limes Arabicus in Late Antiquity (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/limes-arabicus-and-saracen-foederati-the-roman-byzantine-desert-frontier-in-late-antiquity/) and seeks to revisit the sources for Mavia’s revolt in order to explore the various dimensions of the Arab-Roman relationship in the Limes Arabicus during the fourth century. Although the existing textual sources are quite limited in what they can tell us, they can still shed light on several aspects of the role of the Arab tribal confederations on the south-eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.
The question of the Roman-Byzantine desert frontier in Late Antiquity has attracted the attention of various scholars in the past several decades. This frontier, known as the Limes Arabicus, spanned more than 1,300 kilometers from northern Syria to southern Palestine and the edges of the Arabian Peninsula. Recent research and excavations have done much to augment scholarly knowledge of this frontier, which served as the south-eastern defense of the Roman Empire for over six centuries, until it was eventually overrun by the Arab Muslim conquerors in the 630s. This frontier consisted not only—nor even primarily—of fortifications and watchtowers, but also of major nomadic tribal confederations, allied to Rome, which patrolled the desert and ensured the security of the eastern provinces by exercising control over nomadic movements both within and, to a certain degree, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Although much attention in recent years has been devoted to the Ghassānids, which served as a major tribal confederation allied to Rome well into the seventh century, the fourth century has been relatively less discussed. Those scholars, including Irfan Shahid, Greg Fisher and Glen Bowerstock, who have devoted their scholarship to understanding this period have indicated its importance and have sought to underscore that the fourth century witnessed both the rise of major Arab tribal confederations along the desert frontier and the establishment of Roman foedus agreements, or alliances, with them.