previous next


SABA, SABAEI (Σάβη or Σαβαί: Eth. Σαβαῖος, fem. Σαβαία), were respectively the principal city and nation in Yemen, or Arabia Felix. [ARABIA] Ancient geographers differ considerably as to the extent of territory occupied by the Sabaeans, Eratosthenes assigning to it a much larger area than Ptolemy. The difference may perhaps be reconciled by examining their respective accounts.

Our knowledge of the Sabaeans is derived from three sources: the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek historians and geographers, and the Roman poets and encyclopedists, Pliny, Solinus, &c. The Arabian geographers, also, throw some light upon this ancient and far-extending race.

    1. In the Hebrew genealogies (Genesis, 10.6, 25.3) the Sabaeans are described as the descendants of Cush, the son of Ham. This descent was probably not so much from a single stem, as from several branches of Hamite origin; and as the tribes of the Sabaeans were numerous, some of them may have proceeded immediately from Cush, and others from later progenitors of the same stock. Thus one tribe descended from Seba, the son of Cush, another from Jokshan, Abraham's son by Keturah; a third from Sheba, the son of Raamah--the Ῥεγμὰ of the LXX. (Compare Psalm 72.10; Isaiah, 45.14; Ezekiel, 27.22, 23, 38.13.) The most material point in this pedigree is the fact of the pure Semitic blood of the Sabaeans. The Hebrew prophets agree in celebrating the stature and noble bearing, the enterprise and wealth of this nation, therein concurring with the expression of Agatharchides, who describes the Sabaeans as having τὰ σώματα ἀξιολογώτερα. Their occupations appear to have been various, as would be the case with a nation so widely extended ( “Sabaei... ad utraque maria porrecti,” Plin. Nat. 6.28. s. 32): for there is no doubt that in the south they were actively engaged in commerce, while in the north, on the borders of Idumea, they retained the predatory habits of nomades. (Job, 2.15.) The “Queen of the South,” i. e. of Yemen or Sabaea, who was attracted to Palestine by the fame of Solomon, was probably an Arabian sovereign. It may be observed that Yemen and Saba have nearly the same import, each signifying the right hand; for a person turning his face to the rising sun has the south on his right, and thus Saba or Yemen, which was long regarded as the southern limit of the habitable zone, is the lefthand, or southern land. (Comp. Hdt. 3.107-113; Forster's Geogr. of Arabia, vol i. pp. 24--38.) A river Sabis, in Carmania (Mela, 3.8.4), and a chain of mountains Sabo, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf (Arrian, Periplus. M. Erythr., ὄρη μέγιστα λεγόμενα Σάβα; comp. Ptol. 6.7.23), apparently indicate an extension of the Sabaeans beyond Arabia Proper. That they reached to the eastern shore of the Red Sea is rendered probable by the circumstance that a city named Sabu or Sabe stood there, about 36 miles S. of Podnu, in lat. 14° N. (Ptol. 6.7.38, 5.22.14.)
    2. The first Greek writer who mentions the Sabaeans by name is Eratosthenes. His account, however, represents a more recent condition of this nation than is described by Artemidorus, or by Agatharchides, who is Strabo's principal authority in his narrative of the Sabaeans. On the other hand, Diodorus Siculus professes to have compiled his [p. 2.862]accounts of them from the historical books of the Aegyptian kings, which he consulted in the Alexandreian Library. (Diod. 3.38, 46.) There can be little question that Herodotus, although he does not name the Sabaeans, describes them in various passages, when speaking of the Arabians, the southernmost people of the earth. (Hdt. 2.86, 3.107--113.) The commerce of Yemen with Phoenicia and Aegypt under the Pharaohs would render the name of the Sabaeans familiar in all the havens of the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. The Aegyptians imported spices largely, since they employed them in embalming the dead; and the Phoenicians required them for the Syrian markets, since perfumes have in all ages been both favourite luxuries and among the most popular medicines of the East. At the time when Ptolemy wrote (in the second century A.D.) their trade with Syria and Aegypt, as the carriers of the silks and spices so much in request at Rome, brought the Sabaeans within ken of the scientific geographer and of the learned, generally.
    3. Accordingly, we meet in the Roman poets with numerous, although vague, allusions to the wealth and luxury of the Sabaeans. “Molles,” “divites,” “beati,” are the epithets constantly applied to them. (See Catull. 11.5; Propert. 2.10. 16, ib. 29. 17, 3.13. 8; Virgil, Georg. 1.57, 2.150, Aeneid. 1.416; Horace, Hor. Carm. 1.29. 2, 2.12. 24; Id. Epist. 1.6. 6, ib. 7. 36; Statius, Stat. Silv. 4.8. 1; Senec. Hercules, Oet. 5.376.) The expedition of Aelius Gallus, indeed (B.C. 24), may have tended to bring Southern Arabia more immediately under the notice of the Romans. But their knowledge was at best very limited, and rested less on facts than on rumours of Sabaean opulence and luxury. Pliny and the geographers are rather better informed, but even they had very erroneous conceptions of the physical or commercial character of this nation. Not until the passage to India by the Cape had been discovered was Sabaea or Yemen really explored by Europeans.

Assuming, then, that the Sabeans were a widely spread race, extending from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, and running up to the borders of the desert in the Arabian peninsula, we proceed to examine the grounds of their reputation for excessive opulence and luxury. A portion of their wealth was undoubtedly native; they supplied Aegypt and Syria from the remotest periods with frankincense and aromatics; and since the soil of Yemen is highly productive, they took in exchange, not the corn or wine of their neighbours, but the precious metals. But aromatics were by no means the capital source of their wealth. The Sabaeans possessed for many centuries the keys of Indian commerce, and were the intermediate factors between Aegypt and Syria, as these countries were in turn the Indian agents for Europe. During the Pharaonic eras of Aegypt, no attempt was made to disturb the monopoly of the Sabaeans in this traffic. Ptolemy Philadelphus (B.C. 274) was the first Aegyptian sovereign who discerned the value of the Red Sea and its harbours to his kingdom. He established his Indian emporium at Myos-Hormus or Arsinoe, and under his successors Berenice, which was connected with Coptos on the Nile by a canal, shared the profits of this remunerative trade. But even then the Sabaeans lost a small portion only of their former exclusive advantages. They were no longer the carriers of Indian exports to Aegypt, but they were still the importers of them from India itself. The Aegyptian fleets proceeded no further than the haven of Sabbatha or Mariaba; while the Sabaeans, long prior even to the voyage of Nearchus (B.C. 330), ventured across the ocean with the monsoon to Ceylon and the Malabar coast. Their vessels were of larger build than the ordinary merchant-ships of the Greeks, and their mariners were more skilful and intrepid than the Greeks, who, it is recorded, shrunk back with terror from the Indian Ocean. The track of the Sabaean navigators lay along the coast of Gedrosia, since Nearchus found along its shores many Arabic names of places, and at Possem engaged a pilot acquainted with those seas. In proportion as luxury increased in the Syro-Macedonian cities (and their extravagance in the article of perfumes alone is recorded by Athenaeus, xii.), and subsequently in Rome, the Indian trade became more valuable to the Sabaeans. It was computed in the third century of the Empire, that, for every pound of silk brought to Italy, a pound of silver or even gold was sent to Arabia; and the computation might fairly be extended to the aromatics employed so lavishly by the Romans at their banquets and funerals. (Comp. Petronius, 100.64, with Plutarch, Plut. Sull. 100.38.) There were two avenues of this traffic, one overland by Petra and the Elanitic gulf, the other up the Red Sea to Arsinoe, the Ptolemaic canal, and Alexandreia. We may therefore fairly ascribe the extraordinary wealth of the Sabaeans to their long monopoly of the Indian trade. Their country, however, was itself highly productive, and doubtless, from the general character of the Arabian peninsula, its southern extremity was densely populated. The Sabaeans are described by the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Arabian writers as a numerous people, of lofty stature, implying abundance of the means of life; and the recurrence of the name of Saba thoughout the entire region between the Red Sea and Carmania shows that they were populous and powerful enough to send out colonies. The general barrenness of the northern and central districts of Arabia drove the population down to the south. The highlands that border on the Indian Ocean are distinguished by the plenty of wood and water; the air is temperate, the animals are numerous (the horses of Yemen are strong and serviceable), and the fruits delicious. With such abundance at home the Sabaeans were enabled to devote themselves to trade with undivided energy and success.

Nothing more strikingly displays the ignorance of the ancient geographers as regards Sabaea than their descriptions of the opulence of the country. Their narratives are equally pompous and extravagant. According to Agatharchides and Diodorus, the odour of the spice-woods was so potent that the inhabitants were liable to apoplexies, and counteracted the noxious perfumes by the ill odours of burnt goats'-hair and asphaltite. The decorations of their houses, their furniture, and even their domestic utensils were of gild and silver: they drank from vases blazing with gems; they used cinnamon chips for firewood; and no king could compete in luxury with the merchant-princes of the Sabaeans. We have only to remember the real or imputed sumptuousness of a few of the Dutch and English East India Companies' merchants in the 18th century, while the trade of the East was in a few hands, in order to appreciate the worth of these descriptions by Agatharchides and Diodorus.

The delusions of the ancients were first dispelled [p. 2.863]by the traveller Niebuhr. (Description de l'Arabie, p. 125.) He asserts, and he has not been contradicted, that Yemen neither produces now, nor ever could have produced, gold; but that, in the district of Saade, it has iron-mines,--a fact unnoticed by earlier describers,--which were worked when he visited the country. He states, moreover, that the native frankincense is of a very ordinary quality, Sabaea yielding only the species called Libân, while the better sorts of that gum are imported from Sumatra, Siam, and Java. The distance from which the superior kinds of myrrh, frankincense, nard, and cassia were fetched, probably gave rise to the strange tales related about the danger of gathering them from the trees, with which the Sabaeans regaled the Aegyptian and Greek merchants, and through them the Greek geographers also. One cause of danger alone is likely to have been truly reported: the spice-woods were the abode of venomous reptiles; one of which, apparently a purple cobra, was aggressive, and, springing on intruders, inflicted an incurable wound. The ancients, however, said and believed that cinnamon was brought to Yemen by large birds, which build their nests of its chips, and that the ledonum was combed from the beards of he-goats.

The Sabaeans were governed by a king. (D. C. 53.29.) One inexorable condition of the royal office was, that he should never quit his palace: found beyond its precincts, it was allowable to stone him to death. The rule which governed the succession to the throne was singular. A certain number of noble families possessed equal claims to the crown: and the first child (females were eligible) born after an accession was presumptive heir to the reigning monarch. This seclusion of the king, and the strange mode of electing him, seem to indicate a sacerdotal influence, similar to that which regulates the choice of the Grand Lama and the homage paid to him by the Thibetians.

The precise boundaries of Sabaea it is impossible to ascertain. The area we have presumed is comprised within the Arabian Sea W., the Persian Gulf E., the Indian Ocean S., and an irregular line skirting the Desert, and running up in a narrow point to Idumea N.

For the principal divisions of the Sabaeans see the articles on ARABIA; ADRAMITAE; MINAEI.

The decline of the Sabaeans seems to have proceeded from two causes: (1) the more direct intercourse of the Aegypto-Greeks with India, and (2) the rivalry of the powerful tribe of the Homeritae, who subjugated them. In the account of their eastern traffic, and of the characteristics of their land, we have traced the features of the race. Compared with the Arabs of the Desert, the Sabaeans were a highly civilised nation, under a regular government, and, as a mercantile community, jealous of the rights of property. The author of the Periplus remarks upon similar security among the Adramitae; the interests of the merchant had curbed and softened the natural ferocity of the Arab. This also, according to Niebuhr (Descript. de l'Arabie, p. 315), is still observable in Yemen, in comparison with the inland provinces of Hejâz, and Neged.


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: