Mavia—The Arabian Warrior Queen who Trounced the Romans

A illustration painting depicts an Arabian queen resting by her window as 2 servants enter the room with with a tray of food.
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Mavia—The Arabian Warrior Queen who Trounced the Romans

The pantheon of military history’s greatest leaders has a distinctly male bias: Hannibal Barca, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Napoleon have all secured their places in history as legendary generals whose military feats will live forever.

There’s every reason to elevate the Arabian warrior, Queen Mavia, to this illustrious list. Mavia not only personally led her troops against the mighty Roman Empire, the superpower of her era. She comprehensively defeated them in battle, compelling the Roman Emperor Valens to sign a peace treaty on her terms.

Yet few outside the Arab world have heard of Mavia; it’s time to elevate a heroine to the pantheon of heroes. It’s a well know aphorism that history is written by the winners. What’s also important to note is that in ancient times, history could only be written by the literate. And the literati were generally composed of scholars, monks, priests, and courtiers, who were invariably men. Consequently, women’s roles in events were glossed over, diminished, or written out of history altogether.

 

The Saracens, from Traders to Rebels

Sometimes referred to as Mawiyya or Mawai: Mavia was born into the Tanukhid tribe in the 4th century A.D. The Tanukhid were part of a loose confederation of Saracens, nomadic Arabs who inhabited southern Palestine and northern Sinai. The Saracens had a reputation for being successful traders, who transported goods in camel caravans along The Incense Route, the ancient world’s precursor to The Spice Route.

The Incense Route was a vast trading network, well established by the 2nd century A.D. and reaching from the eastern Mediterranean to North Africa and Arabia before extending into India. Pliny, the elder, wrote that the route comprised sixty-five sections divided by resting places for the camels and their drivers. Merchants came from as far as Yemen and Oman to the Mediterranean to buy frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatics. These perfumery items were sought-after commodities that grew indigenously and were harvested in Arabia, Somalia, and Ethiopia, giving them an exclusive cachet. Spices and precious stones were also traded along the route, which was so busy that the geographer Sabo compared the volume of traffic along it to an army.

As the Romans spread their influence into the Middle East and North Africa, they made new enemies and became increasingly vulnerable to attacks from Persians, Goths, Isaurians, and others. They established an arrangement with the Saracens whereby they served as auxiliary troops (foederati) to the Roman army and were paid in return. Under this arrangement, relations between the Saracens and the Romans were peaceful until a misunderstanding sparked a massive revolt.

 

Ascending the Throne

A woman commanding an army is even rarer. In 2014 Lori Richardson became the highest-ranking female officer in U.S. history. She was the first woman to be promoted to Commander General with a 4-star ranking. This gendered perception of leadership means females are often perceived as weaker and restricted to nurturing and supportive roles in line with this common misconception.

Historians disagree on the exact cause of Queen Mavia’s revolt against the Romans. One theory hypothesizes that relations soured because of divergent religious viewpoints. The Tanukhids were orthodox Christians, believing that Jesus Christ had always existed, ruling alongside God, and was therefore, God’s equal. On the contrary, Rome promoted Christianity from an Arian viewpoint. Arianism, unlike orthodox Christianity, maintained that Jesus Christ was not equal to God but rather his second-in-command, whom God created. Unsurprisingly, each side wanted a leader whose religious beliefs aligned with their own. According to this theory, when Emperor Valens insisted on going against the Tanukhids’ wishes to appoint a certain bishop, the battle lines were drawn, and war broke out.

Another school of thought contends that the revolt resulted from differing interpretations of diplomatic relations between Emperor Valens and Queen Mavia. The Tanukhids served as Rome’s auxiliary troops under a contractual agreement (a foedus treaty) between the Roman Emperor and the Tanukhid leader. However, when a leader died, the existing agreement became null and void, and the contract needed to be renewed by the new leader sitting on the throne. There is speculation that when Queen Mavia’s husband died, Emperor Valens assumed the new queen would continue their diplomatic relations on the pre-existing terms. As these were terms that Mavia had not agreed to personally, Emperor Valens’ assumption offended her, triggering the revolt.

 

You Come at The Queen, You Better Come Correct

Whatever its cause, the conflict was recorded by Rufinus of Aquileia in his ecclesiastical history. “Mavia, queen of the Sacarens, had begun to convulse the villages and towns on the border of Palestine and Arabia with a violent war and to ravage the neighboring provinces. After she had worn out the Roman army in several battles, had felled a great many, and had put the remainder to fight, she was asked to make peace, which she did on the condition already declared; that a certain Monk Moses was the ordained bishop for her people.”

Rufinus’ contemporary account leaves little doubt about Mavia’s skill as a military leader. She set a rebellion in motion, mobilized soldiers, and led them into battle on horseback, earning a reputation as a formidable warrior. As the war raged on, she is said to have garnered the support of several desert tribes, uniting them in the process. Some members of the tribes supported Mavia’s cause and joined with her to fight under her banner. These reinforcements strengthened the army as it continued advancing into North Africa and Arabia.

The Romans dispatched their mighty armies to teach the Tanukhids a lesson and humble them into submission, but the Tanukhids did not waiver. What the Romans hadn’t seen coming was a formidable army led by a woman: Queen Mavia of Arabia, who transcended a woman’s traditional role. The uprising would reverberate throughout the empire as the highly regarded Romans were annihilated by their former auxiliary troops. That a woman led these troops only rubbed salt into the wounds.

Queen Mavia’s army had a few factors in their favor. One was their knowledge of Roman army tactics, gained from previously fighting alongside them for many years. Being semi-nomadic was also an advantage, as the Tanukhids’ had superior knowledge of the terrain and could travel across it more easily than the Romans. Because of this, they moved faster, employing guerilla tactics and destroying anything that stood in their way. The war began to exact a terrible cost on the Romans as their former ally laid them to waste unrelentingly. With momentum in their favor, the Tanukhids continued advancing until they threatened Egypt. At this point, Emperor Valens was forced to concede defeat. Egypt was simply too important to risk losing for strategic access to the Mediterranean and as a trading center.

 

Peace Prevails

The emperor petitioned for peace, putting an end to the rampage and agreeing to a peace treaty in accordance with Mavia’s terms. Mavia was granted the orthodox Christian bishop she had initially asked to be ordained. This was an Arab monk named Moses, who shared common ground with the local population, being both an Arab and an orthodox Christian. His ordination would prove advantageous to her people as it nullified the Romans’ use of Christianity not only to convert people but also to control them.

As diplomatic relations between the Tanukhids and the Romans were restored, Queen Mavia’s daughter Chasidat married Victor, a prominent Roman military officer and politician with the rank of Consul, to cement the peace. As their relationship recovered, the Tanukhids would again join forces with the Romans, this time against the Goths in the battle of Adrianople.

The Arab world is often viewed as being synonymous with women’s oppression. Some historians refute the view that the ancient Arabian world was always harsh to women. Zabibe, Samsi, and Zenobia command respect in Arabian history as they ruled over their people with a remarkable degree of competence. Some took the lead in the battle to defend their countries, as Mavia did against the Romans more than a hundred years after Zenobia.

Before women’s rights were legislated (at least by the world’s democracies). Before woke became a hashtag, there were women making history on a global scale, and one of them was the fierce Queen Mavia of Arabia, whose story lives on in Arabic songs and stories.

She was a warrior who fought for her people’s rights and freedom of religion—proving that exceptional leadership is not a male prerogative. Sisters, mothers, and wives can carry on family legacies and achieve great things. In the words of Melinda French Gates, “A world that limits women’s power and influence also robs itself of women’s talents and contributions.”

 

 

Edited by Michael Moss

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