26. In the Empire of Desert, Water is the King

26. ‘In the Empire of Desert, Water is the King’. Water, <i>limites</i> and local peoples on the arid frontiers of the Roman Empire

Session Chairs: Anna-Katharina Rieger & Mark Driessen
Affiliation: University of Graz, Austria / University of Warsaw, Poland
Affiliation of co-organiser: Leiden University, the Netherlands

Session Abstract: The session aims to have a fresh look at the relation of the resource water and the limites in arid areas of the Roman Empire. It engages with conceptions and regional appearances of Roman borders in dry zones and takes issues such as resource availability and control, strategic considerations, local socio-economic conditions as well as interaction with local communities into account.

The arid regions of Africa, Cyrenaica, Aegyptus, Arabia and Syria became provinces of the Roman Empire under different historical circumstances bringing Rome into contact with differently living local people; they bordered to different kinds of socio-political entities in the South and East and were part of the distant fringes of the oikoumene. Hence, the borders took various shapes in North Africa, Egypt, or along the fringes of the Arabian Desert. Whether along roads with chains of military bases and structures, spotty in the desertic regions, or interconnecting existing landmarks, the organization of these frontiers of the Roman Empire adapted to the local ecological, topographical as well as the socio-economic conditions.
In order to understand the interdependencies of water, demarcation and local conditions in the arid environments of the Roman Empire, the contributions to this session focus on specific ecological and economic conditions of dry areas as frontier zones, such as scarceness of the resource water and the control over it, mobile life strategies, low population and settlement density, which entail methodologically little and spatially spread evidence for past periods. The specific strategic and historical backgrounds in the local environments are considered as well. To this end archaeologists, philologists, ancient historians and scholars from other disciplines like for instance hydrologists are invited to address the following questions:

  • implications of arid environments for the organisation of the frontier and pertaining structures and institutions
  • interactions with locally employed forms of connectivity (controlling, communicating, moving) and of the perception of water(s)
  • handling of the resource water (detection, collection and control, use and distribution)
  • impacts of Roman presence on resource availability and socio-spatial organisation of arid environments
  • influence of local communities and their life-strategies on the Roman strategies of border control (population densities, settlements and economic potentials)
  • reflections on these issues in literary, epigraphic, or administrative texts

The contributors to this session embrace a wide range of regions of the Roman Empire and come from different disciplinary backgrounds in order to complementarily analyse the factor water for the organisation of the arid fringes of the Roman Empire.

Time Presenter (s) Presentation


13.30 Introduction
13.50 Brahim M’Barek A settlement pattern to control the eastern desert fringes late 3rd-early 4th century AD from Jordan to Tur Abdin, military sites, civil settlements, control, development and exploitation of the territory
14.10 Simon James Water and Roman control of Dura-Europos and the Middle Euphrates corridor, 2nd-3rd centuries AD
14.30 Andrew Smith Soldiers and Farmers in Roman Arabia: Evidence of Diocletian’s Reforms in the Hinterland of Petra


15.20 Craig Harvey,  John Oleson Competition, Collaboration, and Innovation: Organization of the Water Supply for the Trajanic Frontier Fort in the Nabataean Settlement of Hawara (Southern Jordan)
15.40 Mark Driessen & Fawzi Abudanah A green desert in the hinterland of Petra: water, agriculture and military control in the Udhruh region (southern Jordan)
16.10 Walter Ward Water and control along the later Roman Empire’s south-eastern border
16.30 Gaëlle Tallet Irrigating the land, provisioning the caravans: water decline and military settlement at el-Deir (Kharga Oasis, Western Desert of Egypt), third-fifth century AD
16.50 Mondher Brahmi, Salvatore Ortisi No title Vezereos Tunisia
17.10 Souad Slimani Control and exploitation of water in western Hodna during antiquity

A settlement pattern to control the eastern desert fringes late 3rd-early 4th century AD from Jordan to Tur Abdin, military sites, civil settlements, control, development and exploitation of the territory
Brahim M’Barek, UMR 8164 HALMA / Université de Lille

With the fall of Palmyra and Aurelian’s takeover of the eastern border of the empire, the empire found itself confronted with the direct management of the security of the desert Areas and steppes which today still mark the limits of the area inhabited by sedentary populations between Jordan to the South and Tur Abdin (Turkey) to the North . Although few sites existed before, others developed from here on, mainly during the period of Diocletian and his Tetrarchic successors. Among these, several are known to have military fortifications associated with a civilian settlement, which was also fortified. Moreover, where data is available, these sites are most often associated with installations that also allowed the control of local resources, mainly water, and thus probably also the practice of agriculture. Some of these sites have been known for a long time in Northern Jordan and along the route linking Damascus to the Euphrates through Palmyra to Sura and some have been the subject of extensive archaeological studies. However, work for a PhD making comparison of aerial and satellite images and archaeological publications, show that the number of these sites as well as the area where such an arrangement would have been implemented could have been more important. We will propose to identify potential origins of this arrangement, to understand its evolution, and to judge its efficiency as well as its durability.

Water and Roman control of Dura-Europos and the Middle Euphrates corridor, 2nd-3rd centuries AD
Simon James, University of Leicester

Between the mid-second and mid-third centuries AD, Rome controlled the Middle Euphrates region from the Lower Khabur valley in modern Syria to beyond Anath in Iraq, via a system of garrisons and military outposts based on a regional headquarters in the city of Dura-Europos. Here a major urban military base dominated much of the urban space. This paper will explore the rationale for the observed pattern of Roman military deployment and control in this region, which then as now primarily comprised dry steppe with very little rainfall. It will be seen that imperial military deployment, as would be expected, mapped onto pre-existing patterns of communications and land exploitation, population distribution, settlement and political relations–which were themselves shaped by an environment comprising desiccated landscapes bisected by a major river. The Roman military presence was itself both enabled and constrained by the water factor. And at Dura itself, the imperial garrison was able to apply its technical skills and resources to partially overcome local limitations of water supply to the city, not only for its own benefit, but also in pursuit of civilian hearts and minds: water as soft power.

Soldiers and Farmers in Roman Arabia: Evidence of Diocletian’s Reforms in the Hinterland of Petra
Andrew Smith, The George Washington University

The third century AD was a period of repeated catastrophes that left a devastating toll on local communities throughout the Roman Empire. Against the background of political instability and poor economic policy, the catalysts were many, which ranged from foreign invasions deep into the heart of the empire, a breakdown in internal trade, plague, and other natural disasters. With the near collapse of the economy, local officials and farmers felt the impact of paying taxes that they could ill-afford. Meanwhile, the military benefited from high bonuses as a series of short-lived emperors fleeted in and out of power. Also, cities began to stagnate as revenues from their hinterlands diminished, leaving many communities with vast stretches of agri deserti. The problem was particularly acute in Arabia, where farming practices were already marginal due to the arid climate and limited water resources, although the practices of water management were fairly well-developed. The decline of Petra, for example, has been well-documented, and the history of the Nabataeans beforehand as skilled hydraulic engineers is well-known. Diocletian made an attempt to alleviate the economic distresses in Arabia and to revive the regional agriculture. He installed a series of military quadriburgia in the Araba valley to the west of Petra, which stretched from the Dead Sea south to the Gulf of Aqaba. In addition to the security they provided, a key function of these soldiers, it is here argued, was to revive and revamp the regional agricultural landscape with a sophisticated system for managing the water supply. This paper provides evidence from the Bir Madhkur Project west of Petra that sheds light on the role of the military as agriculturalists and hydraulic engineers.

Competition, Collaboration, and Innovation: Organization of the Water Supply for the Trajanic Frontier Fort in the Nabataean Settlement of Hawara (Southern Jordan)
John Oleson, University of Victoria, Canada

A Nabataean king, probably Aretas III, founded the settlement of Hawara in the Hisma desert about 80 km south of Petra in the late first century BC. Despite the low rate of precipitation (ca. 80 mm/year) and the high pan evaporation rate (ca. 3,400 mm/year) the settlement flourished through the harvesting of run-off water guided to cisterns and agricultural fields, and the output of a 27 km long aqueduct that brought spring water from the al-Shara escarpment. Hawara also benefitted from the passage of caravans along the adjacent King’s Highway. Soon after the collapse of the Nabataean kingdom and the foundation of the Provincia Arabia by Trajan in AD 106, Roman engineers built a fort at the north edge of the settlement centre, renamed Hauarra, as part of their strategy for control of this new frontier area. The fort was designed for a garrison of about 500 soldiers and their mounts, probably a mix of detachments from the Legio III Cyrenaica and auxiliary soldiers. The supply of water to the fort would have been a primary concern, and the Roman engineers tapped into the Nabataean aqueduct to fill a reservoir and water distribution system within the fort. They also modified the free-flowing Nabataean aqueduct system with a stop-cock and pipe arrangement that fed water to a small heated bath southwest of the fort. The changes to the original system bring up interesting questions about competition, collaboration, and innovation in the changed urban environment of Roman Hauarra. Despite drastically increased demand on the Nabataean water-supply system, its built-in adaptability allowed continued growth of the civilian settlement.

A green desert in the hinterland of Petra: water, agriculture and military control in the Udhruh region (southern Jordan)
Mark Driessen, Leiden University & Fawzi Abudanah, Al-Hussein Bin Talal University

Access to water is one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century. Scholars from different fields of research around the world are dealing with the ever-growing demand for, and with the severe supply constraints of water. Ancient societies dealt with similar problems. In the Udhruh region (southern Jordan) intriguing transformations in the organisation of water resources, agricultural systems, settlement patterns, communication networks and military control have been observed for the first half of the first millennium. The long-term development of innovative water management and agricultural systems around Udhruh – in the hinterland of Petra – turned the steppe into green oases. The Roman military deployment was enabled by and controlled the available water supplies which were pivotal for the earlier established agro-hydrological systems. This paper focuses on the recent results of our interdisciplinary research, whereby archaeological research is integrated with historical, geophysical, water resources, and chemical soil studies, to reconstruct the antique techniques which were employed to cultivate this arid landscape and the societal conditions that made these possible. From a societal perspective our aim is not only to examine what the key to this water management and agricultural success was in ancient times, but also how this knowledge can contribute to possible sustainable agricultural and water management solutions for future use.

Water and control along the later Roman Empire’s south-eastern border
Walter Ward, University of Alabam at Birmingham

The control of water along the later Roman Empire’s south-eastern border was imperative for survival. For the communities of Third Palestine, this meant controlling both the flow of water and who could access that water. The territories of Third Palestine – roughly the Negev desert, southern Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula – largely lay in zones that could not be farmed through rainfall alone. Communities, such as the towns in the Negev (like Oboda) and in southern Jordan (Petra, Udhruh), constructed elaborate water catchment systems in order to successfully practice agriculture. In a sense, these communities constructed their own oases in the arid terrain. Little information survives to inform us of how access to that water was controlled. Only one document from the Nessana Papyri (32) mentions access rights to water. In the Petra Papyri (17), the ownership and access to a water spout (collected from the roof of a building) were disputed and adjudicated. Several documents in the Nessana (31) and Petra (17, 39) Papyri also indicate that property was routinely demarcated by either water channels or wadis (dry creekbeds that flood during rainstorms). Others mention the ownership of cisterns, reservoirs, and water spouts. Nomadic groups, often called “Saracens” routinely lived and traveled throughout Third Palestine. An inscription found near the Azraq oasis in the province of Arabia notes that a reservoir was constructed because “Saracens” had killed several soldiers who drew water there (Iliffe, QDAP 10 [1942] 62-64; AE [1948] 13). Was there a conflict between the Saracens and the soldiers over who had access to this water? This paper will review the evidence concerning the control of water, both the collection of water and access to that water in Third Palestine. It will furthermore investigate whether there was competition between the sedentary and nomadic populations over water.

Irrigating the land, provisioning the caravans: water decline and military settlement at el-Deir (Kharga Oasis, Western Desert of Egypt), third-fifth century AD
Gaëlle Tallet, University of Limoges, France, and director of the el-Deir archaeological mission in Kharga oasis (Egypt), Jean-Paul Bravard, University of Lyon 2

The site of el-Deir (Oasis of Kharga, Western Desert of Egypt), on the southern border of the province of Egypt, developed around an exceptional fossil water resource, which allowed the cultivation of a vast irrigated perimeter at the service of a  cash-crop economy, but also contributed to the supply of caravan traffic, that was necessary for the oasis connectivity. At the end of the 3rd century, however, the scarcity of water seemed to profoundly affect the vocation of the site, whose agricultural perimeter shrank drastically: the construction of a Roman fortress around one of the most important wells of the site (ca 280 AD) questions the imperial policy on the arid frontiers of the Empire and its implication in the various types of circulations through the Western Desert of Egypt. Our contribution will focus on the evolution of the modes of water capture on the site and its impact on the agricultural perimeter. The transformation of the economic model of the Great Oasis, made up of the two depressions of Kharga and Dakhla, from an agricultural model to a mode of exploitation focused on mineral resources (alum, ochre), occurred in a context of increasing scarcity of water resources, that seems to have affected the relations between nomadic and sedentary populations. However, the question of the type of regional policing justifying the erection of a network of fortresses does not seem to be reduced to a simple arbitration of conflicts of use, nor to the protection of an Egypt threatened on its border. Water management seems to have been at the heart of this military settlement, with the fortress playing the role of an organisational pole in a renewed oasis economy.

Mondher Brahmi, Institut National du Patrimoine (Tunisie), Salvatore Ortisi, LMU Munich

The small fort of Vezereos near Bir Rhezene is one of the most impressive military sites in southern Tunisia. It lies south of the Djebel Tebaga between the present-day towns of Douz and Matmata on the edge of the Great Eastern Erg. The fort is one of the central installations at the western end of the Limes Tripolitanus. In his still fundamental publication on Roman Tripolitania (1995), David Mattingly emphasised the importance of the site as a probable military command centre of a larger section of the limes at the latest in Severan times. On the basis of the epigraphic evidence, especially a repair inscription dated to the year 201, it is assumed that the fort was built under Commodus, possibly during the term of office of the legionary legate M. Valerius Maximus between 183 and 185. The first garrison of the small fort of Vezereos, measuring about 0.19 ha, is assumed to have been a vexillation of Legio III Augusta, about 160 men strong, detached from the legionary camp of Lambaesis in present-day Algeria. The close connection of the site with the legion is also shown by a newly discovered, still unpublished building inscription from the large Roman well complex in the associated civilian settlement. The extensive civilian settlement (vicus) around the fort and the large well indicate that Vezereos may also have played an important role as a caravan station and for the control of transhumance movements between the Sahara and the Mediterranean coast. The contribution will present the inscription from the well and discuss the importance of the site as a border and caravan station, which is probably ultimately based on the availability of water.

Control and exploitation of water in western Hodna during antiquity
Souad Slimani, Hanane Kherbouche, Université  Constantine 2

The remains of hydraulic works in the Hodna attest to the multiple existence of dams, reservoirs, canals, aqueducts, cisterns; sometimes even catchments and wells. Farms, hamlets and villages, were supplied with water by an original genius, which would probably not be inherited from a know-how of the ancestors. Sometimes, the permanence of use of these works, lead us to speak of various interventions on these works, through several periods of occupation. Nowadays, the water control in these almost arid zones is distinguished on several archaeological sites whose major function is economic; traces of adduction canals lead the water towards agrigoles, oil mills, ceramics factory, worms, ovens … etc. In addition, several fortifications in the Hodna are built near water points, especially at the intersection of rivers or wadis, wells, dams, etc. The state of conservation of the works developed in this part of Hodna prevents us from clarifying the points in common with other similar developments in North Africa or even from deducing any possible contributions from them across the Mediterranean world; so so far are they also very likely to be typical of this region?