This celebrated name, which became so renowned and dreaded in Europe, is given to a tribe of Arabia Felix by the classical geographers, who do not, however, very clearly define their position in the peninsula, and indeed the country of Saracene in Ptolemy seems scarcely reconcileable with the situation assigned to the Saraceni by the same geographer. Thus he, consistently with Pliny, who joins them to the Nabataei (6.28. s. 32), places the Saraceni south of the Scenitae, who were situated in the neighbourhood of the northern mountains of the Arabian peninsula (6.7.21); but the region Saracene he places to the west of the black mountains (μελανὰ ὄρη
--by which name he is supposed to designate the range of Sinai, as he couples it with the gulf of Pharan--and on the confines of Egypt (5.17.3). St. Jerome also calls this district the “mons et desertum Saracenorum, quod vocatur Pharan” (Onomast. s. v. Χωρὴβ,
Choreb), in agreement with which Eusebius also places Pharan near the Saraceni who inhabit the desert (s. v. Φαράν
According to these writers their country corresponds with what is in Scripture called Midian (Exod.
2.15, 3.1; see MIDIAN), which, however, they place incorrectly on the east of the Red Sea; and the people are identified with the Ishmaelites by St. Jerome (Onomast. l.c.
), elsewhere with Kedar (Comment. in Ies.
xlii. and in Loc. Heb. ad voc.
), with the Midianites by St. Augustine (in Numer.
), with the Scenitae by Ammianus Marcellinus, who, however, uses the name in a wider acceptation, and extends them from Assyria to the cataracts of the Nile (14.4). Their situation is most clearly described by the author of the Periplus. “They who are called Saraceni inhabit the parts about the neck of Arabia Felix next to Petraea, and Arabia Deserta. They have many names, and occupy a large tract of desert land, bordering on Arabia Petraea and Deserta, on Palaestina and Persis, and consequently on the before-named Arabia Felix.” (Marcian. apud Geog. Min.
vol. i. p. 16, Hudson.)
The fact seems to be that this name, like that of Scenitae (with whom, as we have seen, the Saraceni are sometimes identified), was used either in a laxer or more restricted sense for various [p. 2.905]
As their nomadic and migratory habits were described by the latter, so their predatory propensities, according to the most probable interpretation of the name, was by the former, for the Arabic verb Saraka,
according to lexicographers, signifies “to plunder.” (Bochart, Geog. Sac.
lib. iv. cap. 2, pp. 213, 214.)
The derivation of the name from Sarah has been rejected by nearly all critics as historically erroneous; and the fact that the name was in use many centuries before Mohammed, at once negatives the theory that it was adopted by him or his followers, in order to remove the stigma of their servile origin from Hagar the bondwoman. (Reland, Palaestina,
This author maintains that “Saraceni
nil nisi orientales populos notat:” deriving the word from the Arabic sharaka
== ortus fuit; and as unhappily the Greek alphabet cannot discriminate between sin
and the name does not occur in the native authors, there is nothing to determine the etymology. Mr. Forster, in defiance of Bochart's severe sentence, “Qui ad Saram referunt, nugas agunt” (Geog. Sac.
1.2, p. 213), argues for the matronymic derivation from Sarah, and shows that the country of Edom, or the mountains and territory bordering on the Saracena of classic authors, are called “the country, mountains, &c. of Sarah” by the Jews; and he maintains that, as this tract derived its name of Edom and Idumaea from the patriarch Esau, so did it that of Sarah from Sarah the wife of Abraham, the acknowledged mother of the race. (Geog. of Arabia,
vol. ii. pp. 17--19.) His attempt to identify the Saraceni with the Amalekites is not so successful; for however difficult it may be to account for the appearance of the latter in the Rephidim (Exod.
17.1, 8; REPHIDIM
), which was the country of Saracena, yet their proper seat is fixed beyond doubt in the south of the promised land, in the hill-country immediately north of the wilderness of Paran, near to Kadesh (Numb.
13.29); and it is impossible to understand “the valley” in 14.25, and “the hill” in 14.45, of Horeb, as Mr. Forster does, since the whole context implies a position far to the north of the district of Horeb, marked by the following stations: Taberah, 3 days' journey from “the Mount of the Lord” (10.33, 11.3); Kibroth-hattaavah, Hazeroth, the wilderness of Paran (11.34, 35, 12.16, compare 33.16--18).
It must indeed be admitted that the name of the Amalekites is occasionally used, in a much wider acceptation than its proper one, of all the Edomite tribes, throughout Northern Arabia, as e. g. in 1 Sam.
15.7; and similarly the name Saraceni is extended in Marcian's Periplus, already cited: but it seems more natural to interpret the words οἱ καλούμενοι Σαρακηνοὶ, πλείονας ἔχοντες προσηγορίας
of the general name of several specific tribes, marking common habits or common position rather than common origin, according to the analogy of the Scenitae in old times and of Bedawîn
== “deserti incolae,” in modern times; particularly as it does not appear that the name was ever adopted by the Arabs themselves, who would not have been slow to appropriate an honourable appellation, which would identify them with the great patriarch.
That their predatory character had become early established is manifest from the desperate expedient resorted to by the emperor Decius in order to repress their encroachments.
He is said to have brought lions and lionesses from Africa and turned them loose on the borders of Arabia and Palestine, as far as the Circisium Castrum, that they might breed and propagate against the Saracens. (Chron. Alex.
in A. M. 5760, Olymp. 257, Ind. xiv. == A.D. 251.)
This strong fortress, called by Procopius Circesium (Κιρκήσιον φρούριον
), the most remote of the Roman garrisons, which was fortified by Diocletian (Amm. Mare. 23.5), was situated on the angle formed by the confluence of the Aborrhas (Khabour
) and the Euphrates (it is still called Karkisia
), so that it is clear that, in the time of Procopius, the name of Saraceni was given to the Arab tribes from Egypt to the Euphrates. Consistently with this view, he calls Zenobia's husband Odonathes, “king of the Saracens in those parts” (Bell. Pers.
2.5, p. 288); and Belisarius's Arab contingent, under their king Aretas (Ἀρέθας
) he likewise calls Saracens (2.16, p. 308). That Roman general describes them (100.19, p. 312) as incapable of building fortifications, but adepts at plunder, which character again justifies the etymology above preferred; while it is clear from these and other passages that the use of the name had become established merely as a general name, and precisely equivalent to Arab (see Bell. Pers.
1.19, p. 261), and was accordingly adopted and applied indifferently to all the followers of Mohammed by the writers of the middle ages.