The Roman Empire
Syllaeus and Aretas IV of Nabataea

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Coin Details

Origin/Country: ANCIENT - GREEK EMPIRES (6th CENT BC - 5th CENT AD) NABATAEA Syllaeus+AretasIV,c9-6 BC
Design Description: Syllaeus and Aretas IV AE14
Item Description: AE14 Nabataea rv crossed coruncopias obv Obodas III(?)
Full Grade: NGC Ch VF Strike: 4/5 Surface: 3/5
Owner: Kohaku

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Roman Empire
Competitive Sets: This coin is not competing in any sets.
Research: NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

Around mid 2nd century BC, King Aretas I established rule over Arabic tribes between Judea and Ptolemaic Egypt. This realm, Nabataea, comprised desert oases connecting the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Valuable goods were transported along this route, particularly frankincense and myrrh. Although such items were fantastically expensive, the ancient Romans craved them, and the Nabataeans happily sated their appetite.

Not surprisingly, Nabataea increasingly drew her favorite customer’s attention, and eventually became one of Rome’s client kingdoms. Even so, Nabataea maintained sovereignty and monopolistic control over their valuable trading route. The situation drained Rome’s coffers such that Augustus mandated an alternative spice route by identified. For this important task, Octavian appointed his Egyptian prefect, Aelius Gallus. To guide the Romans, the Nabataean King at the time, Obodas III, chose one of his subordinates named Syllaeus. Syllaeus faced a major dilemma. He needed to demonstrate loyalty to Rome, however, if the mission fully succeeded, Nabataea would likely loose their monopolistic control over the spice trade.

Reportedly, Syllaeus feigned cooperation, while actually sabotaging the mission. The extent of Syllaeus' treachery is debated. Poor decision-making on Gallus’ part likely played at least some role in his expedition’s poor outcome. Travel was extremely slow and dangerous. Syllaeus picked highly sketchy routes for the Romans to follow, both by land (barren deserts devoid of roads) and by sea (rocky coastlines and areas with dangerous tides and current). Moreover, Gallus’ men suffered from fatigue, famine, and disease. Losses were considerable. Although Gallus suspected subterfuge, his Nabataean guide managed to avoid any consequences at that time.

Returning to Nabataean capital of Petra, Syllaeus received a hero’s welcome. He had placated the Romans, and even manipulated them to weaken rival tribes in the area. For his efforts, Syllaeus was promoted to Obodas’ chief minister. His new responsibilities included serving as ambassador not only to Rome, but also Nabataea’s powerful neighbor and fellow client kingdom of Judaea. Nabataea and Judaea were traditionally on poor terms. For example, Nabataea denied asylum to Herod the Great when he was on the run after losing control of the Judaean throne. Instead, Herod turned to Rome, and was eventually restored as a client king in Augustus’ service.

While on a diplomatic visit to Judaea, Syllaeus met and fell in love with Herod’s sister. Syllaeus was upset when he learned that fulfilling his desire would require his conversion to Judaism. Back in Nabataea, such a choice would probably result in his death by stoning. Syllaeus refused Herod’s terms, and apparently carried a grudge henceforward.

Relations between the neighboring client kingdoms deteriorated further when Obodas and Syllaeus harbored bandits raiding Herod’s territory. Herod responded by sending in soldiers, killing many bandits and their families. The situation escalated, and the bandits redoubled their raids. As conflict flared, Herod demanded all bandits be handed over and that Nabataean debts be paid. Shifty Syllaeus responded that he could not locate the bandits in Nabataea, and put off the repayment. Herod then appealed to the Roman governors of Syria, who ordered Nabataea to comply with Herod’s requests. Once again, Nabataea refused, and this time Herod responded even more forcefully, his army moving in to demolish the bandit stronghold, along with any Nabataeans who responded in defense.

It was then that Syllaeus appealed to Rome, directly meeting with Augustus. He told Augustus an exaggerated tale of Herod’s severe and unprovoked attack, neglecting to mention Herod’s justification, and greatly exaggerating Nabataea's destruction and death toll. The tale expectedly angered Augustus, and upon receiving third-party confirmation of Herod’s attack - but not details regarding motive and extent - Judaea fell out of Rome’s favor.

Syllaeus’ sneaky behavior soon backfired. Around this time, Obodas died and Aretas IV claimed Nabataea’s throne. Augustus was displeased that Aretas had assumed power without Rome’s permission. Meanwhile, Herod’s ambassador received an audience in Rome. Convincing evidence was presented regarding Syllaeus’ many crimes: adulterous relationships, supporting bandits, neglecting debt repayments, and, most importantly, misleading Augustus about the cause and severity of Judaea's attacks. This last was most displeasing to Augustus, although Syllaeus managed to once again evade repercussions. Herod regained Rome’s favor, and Aretas was confirmed as client king of Nabataea.

This ancient bronze coin, struck between 9 to 6 BC, provides insights into this chaotic period. Based on its visage, the obverse diademed bust probably represents Obodas. The reverse depicts two cornucopias, symbols of prosperity and fertility borrowed from Hellenistic cultures. The reverse also contains a combination of Aramaic monograms representing both Syllaeus (shin) and Aretas (heth). Perhaps neither Nabataean could easily displace the other, so a truce made more sense, hence the dual monograms. Aretas' choice of Obodas for the obverse, rather than himself, was likely intended to add credibility and promote his link to Nabataea’s former ruler. This theory is also consistent with the view that Augustus had probably not yet approved Aretas' ascension. In any case, later coins bear Aretas’ portrait, not Obodas’.

To what extent, and to what end, Syllaeus shared power with Aretas is not certain. In any case, Syllaeus' numismatic run did not endure. He was eventually captured, convicted, and executed for his crimes. Aretas ruled as Nabatea's client King for nearly the next half century, succeeded by his son, Malichus II who ruled another three decades. Malichus maintained good relations with the Roman Empire, supporting Titus to suppress the Great Jewish Revolt. Rome's valuation of Nabataea continued to rise, and under Augustus Trajan the realm merged into the new Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

Additional Reading: A AL-Rawabdeh, About the Nabataean Minister Syllaeus from New Silver Coins, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 15, 2015.

Coin Details: NABATAEA, Syllaeus and Aretas IV, 9-6 BC, AE 14 (2.58 g), Petra mint, NGC Grade: VF, Strike: 4/5, Surface: 3/5, Obverse: Diademed head of Obodas III(?), Reverse: Crossed cornucopias, Syllaes' Aramaic monogram (shin) left, Aretas' Aramaic monograms (heth) right, References: K. Schmitt-Korte II, p. 113, 26; Meshorer Nabataean 43 var (no left het on rev); SNG ANS 1426 var (same).

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