The summer of AD 378 was a turbulent time in the Roman east. Rumblings in Thrace – a historic region in the south-east Balkans – threatened to erupt into war as the Goths, hungry for imperial territory to settle, crossed the Danube and headed south towards Constantinople. The Roman emperor Valens, struggling to stem the rising tide of Germanic invasion from the north, began preparing for war.


The ranks of his army were bolstered by an unexpected source: Saracen cavalry from distant Arabia, dispatched by Queen Mavia of Tanukh. This was an unlikely turn of events, because Mavia had defeated Valens in battle just months earlier. But the Arabs and Romans had a common enemy now in the Goths, whose multitudes advanced upon the very doorstep of the Roman empire.

On 9 August, the emperor’s legions and allies faced the Germanic warriors at the battle of Adrianople. It was a massacre. The Goths slew Valens and all but annihilated his men. Mavia’s army, equipped for mobile assaults rather than pitched battle, were spared the worst and lived to fight another day. Later that year, and smelling blood, the Goths advanced on Constantinople itself. Outside the great walled city stood its Saracen guardians, determined that vengeance would be theirs. They confronted the Goths in wedge formation, breaking their enemy’s rank – and, in doing so, helping to save the seat of the imperium.

Constantinople flourished as the epicentre of Roman identity and Orthodox Christianity for another millennium – in part thanks to Mavia and her men.

Who was Queen Mavia of Tanukh?

Before her ascent to power, Mavia’s origins are something of a mystery. We know that she was born in the mid-fourth century, a noblewoman of a semi-nomadic Arabian people whose powerbase lay between the deserts of Syria and Hijaz (a region in what’s now western Saudi Arabia), precariously sandwiched between the warring Roman and Persian empires. Hailing from the battle-hardened Kalb tribe, she was married to the king of the Tanukhids – possibly named al-Hawari – who ruled over a tribal confederation whose land stretched from Bosra (in southern Syria) to Aleppo in the north. When he died in AD 375 without an heir, Mavia, took control.

The abrupt transfer of power – and the fact that their new leader was a woman – made the Tanukhids vulnerable to attack. Yet Mavia asserted her military dominance immediately and decisively. To the shock of male contemporaries and later chroniclers, she quickly proved to be a brilliant military general. The contemporary Latin church historian Rufinus of Aquileia recounts the moment when she burst into history: “Mavia, the queen of the Saracens, began to rock the towns and cities on the borders of Palestine and Arabia with fierce attacks, and to lay waste to the neighbouring provinces at the same time; she also wore down the Roman army in frequent battles, killed many and put the rest to flight.”

Within months, Mavia had conquered much of the Middle East, including Arabia, Palestine and the Sinai region of Egypt. She remained undefeated against a series of Roman legions and garrisons, vanquishing Valens before enacting terms for peace. Her breathtaking victories on the battlefield are nothing short of legendary. Mavia’s success in building a broad coalition of Arab tribes gave her the upper hand against a Roman army that was thinly spread across the region, and lacked the military fervour of their Saracen adversaries.

In the short term, she gained independence for the Arabs from Roman rule, setting a precedent for diplomacy and warfare with the Romans and Persia for centuries to come. In the long run, she guaranteed the Arabs a seat at the table, especially in discourse with the polities and churches of the near east.

Whatever her specific reasons for waging war against the Romans, Mavia was determined that her people should abandon paganism and adopt Christianity. In a world that was starting to turn towards the church, conversion would help build ties with the Christian Romans – a politically advantageous move for the Arabs. Ultimately, her goal was to form an alliance with the eastern Roman empire while maintaining independence. She achieved both on her owns terms.

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Writing a few decades later, the church historian Sozomen of Gaza recounts her negotiations with the Romans. “As the war was still pursued with vigour, the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man named Moses, who practised asceticism in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects… He reconciled them to the Romans and converted many to Christianity, and passed his life among them as a priest.”

By securing a religious leader from among her people, rather than accepting a foreign holy man appointed by the Romans, Mavia secured independence for the Arabs. The partnership she forged with the monk Moses planted the roots of an orthodox Arab national church and began the process of unifying Arabia through religion. Varieties of Christianity spread in the fifth and sixth centuries through the works of tribal chieftains and the missions of their holy men who introduced monotheism to the Arabs two centuries before the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad.

Mavia of Tanukh's death in battle

Amid the turmoil of warfare, Mavia gave her daughter Chasidat in marriage to a Roman officer, Victor, making her a Roman citizen. Chasidat was also a warrior, and would fall in battle against the Goths in service to her mother’s revolt. But the peace between the Romans and their Arab allies, sealed by the first marriage in history between an Arab woman and a Roman man, lasted three centuries.

Although Mavia was the primary catalyst for Arabia’s turn towards Christianity, she likely never converted. She is, therefore, associated with pre-Islamic pagan customs throughout classical Arabic literature, remembered as a fiercely independent noblewoman who dispensed with money and men freely. She is explicitly called “queen of the Arabs”, sharing this honour with only one other woman – empress Zenobia of Palmyra, ruling a century earlier.

What we know of Mavia following her defeat of the Romans comes largely from literary sources, which perhaps tell us more about wider ideas of values and identity in the Arab world than about her historical life. But these tales are enlightening, nonetheless. In these writings, Mavia occupies the most opulent throne in Arabia – that of al-Hira in Mesopotamia, in what’s now south-central Iraq. Young men of her palace chambers serve her every need, and she is courted by the finest bachelors of all Arabia.

Having taken a worthy warrior-poet as a husband, she divorces him according to ancient Bedouin custom – that is, without consulting him, and indefinitely keeping possession of their home and children. Beyond these stories, Mavia is recalled as foremost among women who “married whomever she wished”, but also among those who “used to divorce their husbands in the jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic Arabia]”.

Little is known definitively about Mavia’s later life, though it seems she survived for many years after those early military triumphs. The date of her death is a matter of dispute; one Mavia is cited in a funerary inscription dated AD 425 in Khanasir (then known as Anasartha), a town south-east of Aleppo. If this dating is correct, it means that Mavia ruled for half a century following the death of her husband.

Whatever the truth of her life or death, this great Arab warrior queen certainly changed history. She was a rugged fighter and an undefeated military general worthy of Sozomen’s hyperbole: “[Mavia] regarded not the sex which nature had given her and displayed the spirit and courage of a man.”

Her pagan freedom demonstrates the practice of polyandry and divorce culture among upper-class Arab women before the imposition of patriarchal marriage. Her triumph against the Romans, and her success in establishing a unified Arab church, launched Arabia as a whole towards monotheism long before the dawn of Islam. Most importantly, it is thanks to this proud, strong and brilliant woman that the Arabs entered history as an independent, unified, diplomatically connected, God-fearing people.

Emran El-Badawi is associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Houston. His latest book is Queens and Prophets: How Arabian Noblewomen and Holy Men Shaped Paganism, Christianity and Islam (Oneworld, 2022)


This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine