Friday, April 14, 2017

Monarch Profile: Queen Mavia of the Tanukh

One of the results of the triumph of the feminist movement has been the rediscover and emphasis on significant female leaders of ancient history. Female leaders of more recent centuries have not been emphasized in the same way because, figures like Queen Victoria, Empress Maria Theresa or Queen Isabella of Castile, had very traditional and non-feminist worldviews. In the ancient world, however, figures like Boudicca in Britannia or Queen Zenobia of Palmyra were more attractive to them since they were pagans, they were rebels against the existing Imperial Roman power structure and they were far enough distant that some degree of mystery still surrounds them and so modern feminists can fill in the gaps of their stories with speculation that fits their narrative. All of that is also why you have probably never heard of another dynamic female leader of Roman times, Queen Mavia of the Tanukh, sometimes also referred to as the “Queen of Syria” though the people she ruled over were fairly recent arrivals to that part of the world and lived only in and around what is today southern Syria.

Perhaps even more than Boudicca or Zenobia, much about Queen Mavia remains a mystery and our accounts of her come from only a couple of ancient sources. Nonetheless, though she was a strong leader who fought successfully against the dominant power of the Roman Empire, the rest of her story makes her a subject that most modern writers would not want to touch. In the first place, she was an Arab, which would not in itself be a problem but she was an Arab from the pre-Islamic era and an Arab woman ruling over Arab men is something likely to offend modern Islamic sensibilities. To make matters worse for the modern, politically correct types, she was an Arab Christian, a convert from paganism and a very staunch, Orthodox/Catholic (before those were different) Christian at that. Moreover, the military campaign she fought against the Romans was a rebellion that was not a rebellion. She did not fight to bring down Rome or usurp Roman power, but rather she was fighting a war in defense of her faith and that is something the modernists simply cannot handle. She was not anti-Roman, she was pro-Christian.

We do not know exactly when or where she was born, her given name in Arabic is usually rendered as “Mawiyya” and she came to prominence through her marriage to one al-Hawari, the King of the Tanukhids, a confederation of Arab tribes who had left the Arabian peninsula and eventually settled in southern Syria. She and her husband had no sons and when King al-Hawari died in 375 it was Queen Mavia who took over the leadership of the Tanukhids. They were a sort of subsidiary national group within the Roman Empire and, early on, there was no trouble about this. The Romans were seen by the Arabs as protectors or allies against the Sassanian empire of Persia (Iran). However, a problem arose over the matter of religion, even though the Roman Empire was not yet officially a Christian empire at this point, it was largely Christian and, with a notable exception, the Roman emperors had been Christian for some time. However, this was also the period when the Arian heresy held sway and the Emperor Valens, while a Christian, was also an Arian. Queen Mavia was not and she would not have Arianism for her people and requested an orthodox bishop be appointed over them.

Emperor Valens, however, insisted on an Arian bishop and so Queen Mavia left Aleppo for the deep desert and began preparing for war. She showed considerable diplomatic skill as she gained the support of numerous other nomadic tribes in the area to join her coalition. However, she also sent word to the Romans that this rebellion was about having an orthodox bishop and nothing more. Mavia told them that as soon as a proper bishop was given to them, her resistance would end and the former, cordial relations could be immediately restored. This was not a struggle for power but a struggle for what Queen Mavia regarded as the true faith. By the spring of 378 AD all was prepared and the war began. Historical accounts agree that the campaign of Queen Mavia was quite successful and that she was leading it personally, ‘from the front’ and was quite a formidable military commander.

The Arab forces Mavia commanded had been used extensively by the Romans in their fight to suppress the previous uprising in Syria led by Queen Zenobia and as such the Tanukhids were very familiar with Roman tactics and were able to counter them and make use of them for their own side. The local Roman governors proved unable to mount an effective defense. Their own forces were quite limited and whereas in the past they had been able to organize the loyal elements of the local population to increase their numbers, this time it was those very tribes that they were fighting against and so the Romans were quite isolated. Queen Mavia and her armies swept south and east, driving the Romans from southern Syria, Palestine and finally all the way to the Egyptian border. Being hard pressed in other areas and with no hope of victory in sight, Emperor Valens finally had no choice but to relent before the vital province of Egypt was invaded and he agreed to appoint the orthodox, non-Arian cleric Moses as the first Bishop of the Arabs. According to Socrates of Constantinople, Bishop Moses was a “Saracen” (Arab) himself and was quite a successful and well regarded churchman.

Emperor Valens
With this, as promised, Queen Mavia suspended her campaign and reverted back to the previous relationship her people had had within the Roman Empire. To bond the two sides together, Queen Mavia gave her daughter, Princess Chasidat, in marriage to a prominent Roman commander in the area named Victor, also a Christian, a Catholic of course, and a man who had been appointed Consul in 369 AD. In fact, he had confronted Emperor Valens himself because of the imperial preference for Arianism so this would seem to have been a good match. However, the ending of the story of Queen Mavia was not entirely a happy one though Emperor Valens certainly had the worst of it. Once peace had been restored, the Emperor quickly called on Queen Mavia to assist him in his war against the Goths who were rampaging into the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire. Queen Mavia dispatched forces to aid the Romans as required but they were less successful in Europe. Along with the Romans, they were defeated, pushed back and finally wiped out at the Battle of Adrianople where Emperor Valens himself was killed. Few Tanukhids survived to return to their homeland.

There was another revolt by the Tanukhids against the Romans but it is unknown and perhaps unlikely that Queen Mavia was involved at all with it. This revolt was swiftly crushed and the Romans abandoned the Tanukhids as an ally and made a new alliance with the Salih, a rival Arab tribe. All that remains known of Queen Mavia after her assistance to the doomed Emperor Valens is that she died in Anasartha, east of Aleppo, sometime in 425 AD. Today, she is remembered by few due to the nature of her exploits and the fact that her story does not fit the preferred narrative of today. Nonetheless, she was a significant figure of some admirable qualities who deserves to be better known.

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