A Roman flotilla converged on the island of Elephantine in the spring of the year 25 B.C. The rowers pulled in their oars as the prows of their galleys nosed up onto the beach. A landing party of legionaries swarmed over the side with drawn swords, waded ashore and secured a beachhead. When the rest of the legion landed, a fortified camp was quickly set up facing Syene (modern Aswan) on the east bank of the Nile. The Prefect of the Egyptian Province of the Roman Empire stepped gingerly along an improvised gangplank held in place by two files of his sailors. He was Aelius Gallus, a rising figure of the Imperial administration, and he had come by water all the way from Lower Egypt. His purpose, by order of the Emperor Augustus, was to locate the site of a permanent legionary encampment that would block the path of invading armies from the upper reaches of the Nile.
Since he intended to push on into lands unfamiliar to the Romans, the Prefect had brought with him a professional geographer to map the topography of the border area—the illustrious Strabo, Greek scientist and author of one of the world's great books. Even today, Strabo's Geography remains an important source of information about the Middle East of his time.
Strabo proved his value to Aelius Gallus almost immediately. One feature of Elephantine was a deep well with mysterious, graduated markings up and down its interior. Later a group of Roman commanders escorted the Prefect to the well, which he examined silently for a few minutes. Then, obviously puzzled, he turned to his Greek friend and asked what it could mean. "Aelius Gallus," replied Strabo, "this is a device to indicate the highest, lowest and mean levels of the Nile. The river and the well communicate underground; hence they rise and fall together. By consulting this Nilometer, the people around Elephantine know when to irrigate and when to plant."
Such specialized knowledge was common to Strabo. Born in Pontus (modern Turkey), educated in the Greek and Roman schools, he inherited enough wealth to permit him to indulge his consuming pastime, hobby and vocation—travel. His connections helped. He knew influential politicians and administrators like Aelius Gallus, whom he calls "my friend and companion." He may have been introduced to the Emperor Augustus. Some scholars believe that he wrote his Geography for Queen Pythodoris of Pontus.
Strabo's audience explains his marked difference from Herodotus, the famous Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. Where Herodotus writes for himself primarily, and looks for the anecdotal material that interests him, Strabo invariably has the viewpoint of his aristocratic readers in mind. His work has been interpreted as a handbook for rulers and diplomats, a manual from which they might learn about people and places elsewhere in the known world.
There are many dramatic highspots in the 17 volumes of the Geography. One is Strabo's description of Elephantine, Syene and the upper Nile. Even better is his account of what happened to Aelius Gallus after the Prefect was suddenly recalled to Alexandria and given the task of conquering Arabia Felix. Strabo wrote classical pages about the disastrous march of the Romans southward across Arabia.
His most arresting sentence touches the motives that enticed the Romans across the Red Sea to their doom. Aelius Gallus was, by order of the Emperor Augustus, in quest of the wealth of Arabia Felix—the spices and gems and pre cious metals of the lush kingdom at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. What kind of reception he would receive, the Prefect did not know when he set out, so he came prepared for anything. "He intended," says Strabo, "to make opulent friends, or to conquer opulent enemies."
Aelius Gallus did neither. His Greek friend, anxious to absolve him of the blame, attributes the fiasco to the treachery of a guide, "who exposed the Romans to danger by leading them where there was no road, or where the road was impracticable for an army, or where they were compelled to make long detours over terrain destitute of food or water."
That, according to Strabo, was how the desert defeated Aelius Gallus. That was why he eventually returned to Egypt bedraggled and empty-handed. Strabo, incidentally, makes it perfectly clear that the famous Roman Prefect retreated, not from Marib, the capital city and site of the legendary dam, but from a lesser place named Marsiaba.
Added to the story of the military failure is a description of Arabia Felix that shows its fame to have been no myth. The land abounds in "cassia, cinnamon and nard." The houses are "sumptuous and of stone." The people usually take their meals in groups "entertained by musicians." The rulers are "servants of the people who are required to render frequent reports on their administration."
Strabo is obviously regretful not only that his Roman friend failed so catastrophically, but also that so splendid a province was not added to the Roman Empire.
When Aelius Gallus left Egypt for Rome, Strabo left for Syria. He traveled as far as the Cilician Mountains in the north, observing lands and cities, peoples and customs, and then to Tyre. There his interest was stirred at the spectacle of an island "joined to the continent by a mound of earth that Alexander raised when he was besieging the city." To the ancients, Tyre meant "Tyrian purple." Strabo paused to examine "the shellfish from which the dye is procured," and the factories that turned out "the fabrics that we all know with their brilliant purple hue."
No ancient traveler, if he could avoid it, would leave the Middle East without a tour of the Land of the Two Rivers. Strabo took passage on a coach headed east toward the river Euphrates.
He rode past the leveled site of Nineveh without being able to place it any more exactly than somewhere in Assyria. Nineveh would remain "lost" for another 1,900 years. Strabo explored Gaugamela, the scene of Alexander's crushing victory over Darius. He stopped for a longer look at Babylon, where "the roadway upon the walls will allow chariots with four horses to pass each other with ease."
Strabo has a passage about one of the Seven Wonders of the World that he found in this fabled city:
"In the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, trees grow on terraces. Stairs give access to the highest story, and there are water engines by means of which skilled engineers raise water from the Euphrates to the gardens. They can do this because the Euphrates flows through the city, and the Hanging Gardens are on one bank."
Strabo remarks on the Chaldean stargazers who combined astronomy and astrology. He portrays water traffic on the Tigris and Euphrates. He explains how the soft earth of the terrain compelled a corps of workmen to stay on the job cleaning the irrigation canals of Mesopotamia.
One product of the Middle East, naphtha, beguiled Strabo a great deal. "When naphtha is brought near a fire, the fire catches hold of it; and if an object smeared with naphtha is brought near a fire, that object burns with a fierce flame that cannot be extinguished except with a vast quantity of water." Strabo could not guess the future importance of naphtha as fuel and solvent.
The credit often given Strabo is that he covered so much ground. If he is not deep, he is broad. If he is sometimes less than exciting, he is always factual. Following him step-by-step, one can see clearly what the Middle East was like when it was beginning to feel the power of the upstart in the West, the Roman Empire.