A century after Zenobia set her sights on taking Egypt from the Roman Empire, another Arab queen attempted the same thing. Where Zenobia had failed, Mavia not only succeeded – but also made Rome sign a treaty in her favour.
Also known as Māwiyya, this fierce warrior queen ruled a confederation of Arab tribes (known as the Tanukhids) from her seat in southern Syria. Her husband had been king of the Tanukhids and once he died his power passed to Mavia.
She proved herself equal to the task, leading her army in open rebellion against Roman rule in the Middle East. Mavia rode at the head of her cavalry, leading troops into Phoenica (modern day Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and Palestine before finally reaching Egypt.
In Egypt Mavia met the Roman army in battle again and again, defeating them each time. Eventually, Rome consented to a truce – but Mavia set the conditions.
Mavia was a successful general and ruler largely because of her use of guerrilla tactics. Rather than fight from Aleppo, which would have given the Romans a target, she retreated with her troops into the desert, drawing on the nomadic tribe’s knowledge of the terrain. As a result, the Tanukhids were better prepared than the Romans and able to keep them guessing.
As for her conditions for peace, Mavia requested that a monk named Moses be made bishop over her people. Moses was supposedly a desert dwelling Christian Arab who impressed Mavia – and who possibly convinced her to convert to Christianity. To prove that she honoured the truce, Mavia married her daughter Chasidat to a Roman commander.
Peace was temporary.
Rome was soon at war with the Goths (in Eastern Germany) and called upon Mavia’s formidable forces for assistance. She provided cavalry, but her Arab army was not prepared for the environment of northern Europe and the Goths won, killing Roman emperor Valens.
The new emperor Theodosius I gave the Gothic kings and nobles a number of high profile positions within the Roman Empire at the expense of the Arabs. Furious at the lack of respect shown for their loyalty, the Tanukhids revolted a second time in 383. It is not clear whether or not Mavia led this revolt, but it was certainly the end of the Tanukh-Roman alliance.
God’s Self-confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women – Anne Jensen
Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs – Irfan Shahîd
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century – Irfan Shahîd