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Aretas and Damascus - Discussion

[Post revised on 5-11-08. New text in red.]
[For Paul and Damascus, see also THIS recent post.]

Here's the text of an old e-mail I sent to a friend in August '06. His short question is followed by my (long) response. I just decided to put this online in case somebody googles it in the future and actually cares to discuss it with me ;) Please leave a comment, no matter what YEAR you may find this! :)

...Without further any ado, then, here's my old, very full mouthful [with a few inserts] about Aretas and Damascus. (1st Corinthians 11:32). Proper homage must also duly be given to the great G.W. Bowersock, as mentioned below:

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On 8/16/06, Neil Carter wrote: ...I'm still somewhat interested in how Bowersock argues that IF Aretas ever had the city, it was before 37. Ogg and Jewett argue that certain political rivalries would have precluded Aretas having much welcome in that region prior to that time, in which case I wonder how he was allowed to post guards all over a city like that. Was Damascus just a kind of independent little place, fairly immune to these riffs?
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[All of what follows was my response:] Zenodorus died in 20 BC, having "sold" the rights to half his kingdom (Trachonitis and the Golan heights) to the Nabateans. (They didn't "buy" Ituraea.) BUT Augustus hadn't been consulted, and happened to be in Syria in 20 BC. Herod came to visit and Augustus gave the region to Herod. (This is all in Josephus' Antiquities.)

Now, Herod's mother was Nabatean, and there was peace between the two nations, but now there was a dispute. In 12 BC, while Herod was in Rome, the Nabatean King's minister stirred up the arabs living in Trachonitis to rebel against Herod. Then this minister (one Syllaeus, mentioned by both Strabo and Josephus) continued to "secretly" harbor and supply bands of the rebel-brigands from Trachonitis, while they raided Judea. Herod invaded Nabatea in 9 BC, and Caesar punished him by removing the Census-exemption he'd held for 18 years! So now there was lots of bad blood between the two nations... including a defaulted loan, and a broken engagement. Odobas the King was getting old and Syllaeus was plotting to take the throne when he died. There's lots more fascinating stuff about this in Josephus.

THE POINT IS... that Israel and Nabatea each felt they had a claim to Trachonitis, and the dispute lingered - especially since the majority of the people in that land were arabs, even after Herod the great settled a couple of new towns there with Babylonian Jews... ANYWAY... the land remained in dispute, albeit unofficially, despite Augustus' ruling.

Now, Aretas comes to the throne in winter 9/8 BC and Syllaeus is deposed. Aretas, cagily, establishes his own ties with Herod's regime, and makes a betrothal of his young daughter to Antipas (who was maybe 10 years old at the time; so it was a long betrothal.) [This happened later. Perhaps by 1 AD.] Then, a year before John the Baptist was arrested, Antipas met his new wife in Caesarea and sailed with her to Rome. They came back and he removed the Arab woman (her name started with a P, but it escapes me at the moment). She left Macherus, in Peraea beyond the dead sea, about the time John was arrested, in May 29 AD.

We just zipped through 50 years, so let's sum up: Nabatea held a HARD grudge about Trachonitis for 11 years. Then Aretas made nice, largely out of expedience, to shore up his diplomatic ties and strengthen his claim to power at home. The bethrothal was the lynchpin of a treaty that kept the "boundary dispute" out of contention for 29 years (from 1bc to 29ad). BUT NOW... Aretas begins to consider Herod as an enemy once again.

HERE IS THE NEXT KEY POINT: you have to realize that Trachonitis (and especially the Golan Heights, on the western end of Trachonitis) is strategically vital to the interests of both Israel AND Nabatea. If the two nations are allied, then it doesn't matter so much who holds the land. But when the two nations are opposed to each other, it becomes a major issue once again.

So Aretes is aware that Trachonitis is more dangerous to him, than it used to be. AND, he knows that if he could somehow control Trachonitis (and the Golan), that he would hold a strong upper hand over Antipas in any future trouble. Kind of a "offense is a good defense" kind of situation.

BUT... from 29 to 33 AD, Philip the Tetrarch was ruling Trachonitis. (Josephus says he did an incredible job, by the way, of keeping stability during his years there).

AND THEN... in early 34 AD, Philip the Tetrarch died!

Of course, Tiberius immediately "annexed" his tetrarchy to Syria... BUT this was another "official" decision that held little bearing on actual events... because... there was another problem.

Tiberius had been semi-retired and ruling by proxy from Capri since 26 AD. His prefect of the guard, Sejanus, was his proxy from 23 to 31, when he was executed. Then the next prefect, Macro, took his spot. BUT DURING THE DAYS OF SEJANUS, the governors of certain provinces were not actually required to GO to their provinces! The governors of Spain and SYRIA (!!!) held their posts under Tiberius' proxies for NINE years, during which time they followed Tiberius' own example and ruled by proxy (!!!) THE POINT IS that the governor of Syria sent his praetors to the province as his own personal legates for nine years [23 to 32.] And conditions around Syria began to deteriorate.

Actually, a new Governor named Flaccus arrived in Syria in mid 32 AD (about 9 months after Sejanus died, natch). But Flaccus himself died in 33 and was not replaced until 35. So Syria still went more than 10 years out of 12 with no Governor.


So there still was NO Governor in Syria when Philip the Tetrarch died... and thus no one to enforce Tiberius' nominal annexation of Trachonitis. And just across the border in Nabatea (Northern Arabia), Aretas KNEW it... but we'll get to that in just a moment.

During this decade of laxity, major problems developed on all sides of the Syrian Province - in Parthia, Armenia, Cappadocia (the Taurus mountains north and NE of Tarsus) and... to the point... Trachonitis.

Lucius Vitellius was sent to Syria in spring (which was early) of 35 AD. And he got VERY busy VERY quickly leading his four legions all over the trouble spots previously mentioned. Josephus, Tacitus and Dio all give accounts of his activities. Of course, it was during this time that Aretes destroyed the army of Antipas... in "Gamala". [Actually, that battle was in summer of 36 AD, near the end of Vitellius' two years of campaigning - which was mostly around the Euphrates.]

Now, Josephus says this battle happend at "Gamala". But most historians have struggled mightily to believe that this could be true, since Gamala sits E-NE of Bethsaida, on the southern slopes leading to Mount Hermon, at the start of the Golan Heights. Historians have suggested it was inconceivable that Aretes pushed so far north, since no one else mentions such a thing. [Their main objection has actually, usually been that no "boundary" or "border" exists so far north on the limits of Nabatean territory.] There is quite a long parade of suggestions for a substitute location, or, "what Josephus meant to write was"... and they give various places beginning with "G"! (!!!) :)

And now, at last, we come to Bowersock...

Bowersock says, essentially: 1) let's take Josephus at face value and believe they were fighting over Gamala. 2) this makes sense if you go back to the old dispute over Trachonitis, since the days of Zenodorus. [So that must be the "boundary dispute" Josephus was referring to.] 3) it is actually easy to believe that Antipas AND Aretes BOTH began moving into parts of Trachonitis after the death of Herod. (Antipas probably focused on the north-west portions of Ituraea, at least around Caesarea Philippi, and the Golan. Aretas probably took most of Trachonitis, up to the Golan.) 4) And so the conflict now CAN center on the Golan. And it happens at "Gamala".

And now, what Bowersock says about Damascus...

This is very simple. If we see that Aretes made movements into Trachonitis and the Golan during this time (BEFORE 37) and that he was forced to retreat in 37, and that Agrippa was given ALL of Trachonitis (and the Golan) by May of 37........ THEN............ THIS IS THE HIGH WATER MARK OF ARETES' NORTHERN PUSH............... and, therefore, this is the best opportunity for Aretes to move into Syria, if such a thing ever even occured. And if not, he was still the furthest north he ever went, to have relations with Damascus and to send an Ethnarch there who would be readily respected and cooperated with.

The only question is: "Why did the Ethnarch want Paul so badly, even badly enough to pursue him as far as Damascus?"

And I still think the best answer is: "Because Paul ran his mouth off one day about Aretes' immoral invasion of Gamala." (And this helps explain why Paul was so careful later on about not speaking ill of the emperor in public, or in his letters!)

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Now... that's all my answer to why it had to BE before 37.

But there's a whole other list of considerations as to why it can NOT be AFTER 37. The main thing is that Caligula gave Trachonitis to Agrippa. (After all, no one had really been governing it for three years!) And it does not make any sense - politically, economicly, geographicly, culturally, or practically - for him to give Aretes ONE little city ON THE OTHER SIDE of the sizeable district of Trachonitis. How would he even manage it? And why wouldn't Caligula have given it to his uncle Claudius' best buddy, who showed strong personal loyalty to Caligula and went to prison for it (under Tiberius)? WHY would Caligula "give" Damascus to Aretes, who was under Roman assault just a month before, INSTEAD of giving it to Agrippa?

The truth is that the gift to Agrippa wasn't just a nice favor to a friend, or an arbitrary whim of the man who would soon become mad with encephalitis. The gift to Agrippa was all about Caligula's advisers (Macro, the prefect of Tiberius, being the chief among them, at the start) telling him they had a problem in Trachonitis... and Caligula happened to have the perfect man for the job of keeping it straight!

One final point. The continuity of Macro ALONE should be enough to upend a lot of the traditional arguments. In other words, not that much really changed, immediately, in 37 AD, when the empire passed from Tiberius to Caligula. At least, not in the provinces or foreign policy. Caligula's changes were all made by lavish expenditures which nearly bankrupted Rome itself, and his actions affected Rome - but the "foreign policy" of the empire wasn't really something that Caligula ever showed very much interest in (except for putting up statues of himself, and the trip to Germany was an abberation). MACRO'S CONTINUED PRESENCE, ALONE, in 37 and 38, should be enough to see that the Empire had not forgotten Aretas' sins and suddenly, magically, decided to reward him.

Therefore, Aretas' Ethnarch would be far LESS likely to be accepted in Damascus AFTER 37. And it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to think that Caligula ever "GAVE" Aretas ANYTHING... let alone the city (and environs) of Damascus, the largest city in Southern Syria.

Capice? :)
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A final note: can you imagine what it must take for Neil to put up with me?

If you actually read this far, I guess you can! ;)

And if you actually enjoyed it, feel free to let me know...



2 comments:

Bill said...

About Macro:

Found this line in Tacitus a couple of weeks ago, and I've been meaning to come post it here. It's the first line of Tacitus' Year Book from 37 AD:

"By this time the influence of Macro exceeded all bounds. Never careless of the good graces of Gaius Caesar, he was now courting them with daily increasing energy;" (Annals 6.45)

I am aware that Tacitus takes an extremely negative, cynical view of nearly everyone in power, and sometimes he exaggerates. But there it is. Of course, it also stands to reason Macro's power would peak when Tiberius was practically on his deathbed.

More: In Annal 6.37 (35 AD) Tacitus compares Macro to Sejanus (in general villany and abuse of power, presumably) via the accusations of Senator Trio's last will. The fact that Trio waited until death to make his "long and appalling incictment" also speaks to Macro's power in the years since Sejanus' death in October 31.

Even More: As far back as Annal 6.29 (34 AD) Tacitus compares Macro practiced "the same arts" as Sejanus had done, but "with superior secrecy". Here, Tacitus also says Macro's "hatred" against any man was by itself enough to cause that man's fall in Rome.

Now THAT's Power!

And Macro kept that power to some degree as Caligula's chief advisor during his first year in power.

So how can anyone assume the Empire's position towards Aretas and Nabatea changed suddenly in 37, just because Tiberius died?

As I said in the post, Macro's position alone should wipe out that argument.

Shouldn't it?

Anyone... (?)

Bill said...

I also meant to come back and say this:

Aside from Bowersock, I can only found one other scholar who's written about this basic premis. Douglas A Campbell published "An Anchor for Pauline Chronology" in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2002. (Thank you, JSTOR!)

His article was pretty good too - right up until he got into Cyprus at the end, which should have gone into a seperate paper. But what do I know? ;)

Still... Bowersock & Campbell published 20 years apart and they're the only two! Why hasn't this caught on? I just don't know.

Oh, I have my theories...

But more on that another day!