Advanced search

Latin inscription CIL III 90 in the context of the history of Roman Orient. Old and new interpretations

Full Text:


The Latin inscription CIL III 90 from Bostra, dedicated to the governor of the province of Arabia, Aelius Aurelius Theon (c. 253‒259 AD), includes the abbreviation PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET. Initial interpretations were based on the assumption that the governor ruled for a very long time or that there was a province named “Old Arabia” (Arabia vetus). Modern research suggests the abbreviation VET mean vir et, which seems syntactically impossible. The interpretation of PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET as a reference to the name of the province of Arabia vetus could be discussed in the context of the structure of the Roman Empire at the end of the 3rd ‒ beginning of the 4th century A.D. in connection with the papyrus letter of Aurelius Malchus (P. Oxy. 50. 3574), which mentions an administrative unit of New Arabia. Analysis of this papyrus document and inscriptions from Bostra demonstrates that the only plausible interpretation of CIL III 90 is the following: the abbreviation VET in PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET indicates that the inscription is set in honor of the former (vetus) governor. Neither the “Old” nor the “New” Arabia ever existed in the structure of the Roman Empire.

For citation:

Bukharin M.D. Latin inscription CIL III 90 in the context of the history of Roman Orient. Old and new interpretations. Orientalistica. 2021;4(3):561-570.

В случае возникновения разночтений в тексте или расхождений в форматировании между pdf-версией статьи и её html-версией приоритет отдаётся pdf-версии.

In case of any discrepancies in a text or the differences in its layout between the pdf-version of an article and its html-version the priority is given to the pdf-version.

The creation of the province Arabia (Arabia Petraea) in 106 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Trajan is one of the most significant events in the political history of the Near East at the beginning of the Christian era. This contributed to the expansion of the Roman Empire to the East. Subsequently, the contacts between the Classical Roman civilization and the Semitic Near East became more diverse, and interactions between the two worlds have intensified and enriched each other. G. W. Bowersock noted in this regard: “The importance of Roman Arabia for imperial power in the Mediterranean cannot be overestimated. This often inhospitable region controls access to the Mediterranean… from the interior of the peninsula as well as from the Gulf of ‘Aqaba. It provides the southern flank for coastal Syria and Judaea. It dominates the route from Damascus to ‘Aqaba. Furthermore, it is essential for communications across the Jordan valley between the urban centres in Judaea and those of Transjordan, which, in turn, furnish links with the nomadic culture beyond” [1, p. 2]. The inclusion of the territories that made up the province of Arabia into the Roman Empire was of great importance from both military and political standpoints. It was decisive for the military encounter with the Parthians, which did happen later and the success of Roman presence in Mesopotamia. The most important city in the north of the province Arabia was Bostra (BṢR’; Nova Traiana Bostra; modern Dar’a district, Syria) ‒ the capital of the Nabataean kingdom, which replaced Petra as the capital city shortly before the annexation of Nabataea by Rome, and that of the province Arabia itself. Boṣtra dominated the crucial crossroads of the north, where the lava region, the Jordanian plateau, and Wādī Sirḥān converge.

The 2nd century AD was the time of prosperity for Roman Arabia. This is evidenced by the extent of urban development in Gerassa and Bostra. In particular, the theatre took an exceptional place among the buildings of Bostra1. Several basalt blocks were installed in the building of the theatre, in particular those with inscriptions that are now considered as very important historical sources on the history of the Roman East. By the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., the territory of the province Arabia was enlarged in the north due to the southern possessions of Syria, in particular, the Leja region transferred to the province Arabia. The power and splendour of the province of Arabia were so great that at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. native Arabs, presumably from the province of Arabia, appeared in the Roman Senate [1, p. 118]. Also, a native of the province of Arabia, Philip the Arab became in 244 A.D. Emperor of Rome. He made peace with the Sassanids, and his rule was a period of peace and relative stability, preceding the turbulent events of the history of the Roman Orient in the second half of the 3rd century AD. Following the death of Emperor Philip, the war with the Sassanids resumed, however, a degree of stability in the region was ensured by the rapid rise of a new military, political and commercial force ‒ the Palmyrene kingdom. The rise of the Palmyrene kingdom took place in the context of the drastic weakening of the Roman Empire.

Рис. 1. Надпись CIL III 90. © Фото Крешимира Матиевича
Fig. 1. The inscription CIL III 90. © Photo by the Krešimir Matijević

The inscription CIL III 90 (p 969) = IGLS-13-01, 09078 from Bostra belongs to this period, i.e. the time of crisis in the Roman Empire and the weakening of Roman power in the East. This inscription is interesting, in particular, since it contains the abbreviation ARABIAE VET. In its original form, the inscription reads as follows:


Modern editions (EDCS-21200159) provide the following reading:

Ael(ium)] Au[r(elium) Theone]m v(irum) c(larissimum) leg(atum) Augg(ustorum) pr(o) pr(aetore) / praes(idem) provinc(iae) Arabiae v(irum) et integerr[i]/mum benignissimum atque iustissim[um] / Statil(ius) Ammianus pr(a) ef(ectus) alae patronu[m] / ob multa merita2.

The inscription is carved on a framed basalt plate installed as part of the theatre building in Bostra. It is a dedication to Aelius Aurelius Theon, the governor of the province Arabia between 253 and 259. The modern researchers unanimously agree on its date and attribution3.

Aelius Aurelius Theon is also mentioned in another inscription from the Bostra theatre:

Ael(io) Aurel(io) Theoni leg(ato) / Augg(ustorum) pr(o) pr(aetore) co(n)s(uli) desig(nato) / optiones (centuriarum) leg(ionis) III Kur(enaicae) / Valerianae Gallianae raris(s)i/mo et per omn(i)a iustissimo co(n)s(ulari) h(onoris) c(ausa) (CIL III 89; IGLS 13, 1 Nr. 9079, EDCS-21200158). This inscription is different from the first one: the person honored in the inscription is mentioned in the Dative case rather than Accusative case.

Probably the same Aelius Aurelius Theon is also mentioned in an earlier inscription (CIL XI 376 = D 01192, EDCS-24600978), which dates back to the time between 226 and 250 A.D.: M(arco) Aelio Aurelio / Theoni v(iro) c(larissimo) / iurid(ico) de infinito…

The inscription CIL III 90 deserves further attention for the reasons as follows. It comprises the abbreviation PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET, which allows for different interpretations, which, in turn, are important for the reconstruction of the political history of the Roman Orient in the 3rd ‒ 4th centuries A.D.

This inscription was published and commented on by J. H. Mordtmann. He understood ARABIAE VET to mean Arabiae vet(eris?). Taking into consideration the date of the inscription and the uniqueness of this abbreviation, Mordtmann considered it possible to connect the appearance of the province “Old Arabia” with the creation of the second province Arabia under Septimius Severus (145‒211), as was allegedly reported by Aurelius Victor [5, p. 148‒149].

W. H. Waddington ‒ the editor of the inscription in CIL III ‒ accompanied the text with the remark as follows: “…V. 2 cum de Arabia vetere provincia Romana memoria nulla extet, interpretare vetustissimum id est qui per longum tempus praefuerit Arabiae” [6, p. 18] (since there is no mention about the existence of the province “Old Arabia” as the Roman province, the abbreviation VET should be interpreted as vetustissimum. According to him, Aelius Aurelius Theon has governed Arabia for a very long time; the adjective vetus, according to Waddington, refers to Aelius Aurelius Theon and indicates the duration of his official duties as governor of the province.

Modern scholars discuss the adjustment of provincial boundaries, the division and the renaming of the Roman provinces. As a rule, the basis for this discussion lacks sufficient data and sources. Recently, the inscription CIL III 90 has not been used in the discussions at all, since the original reading is obscure; its emendation still does not contribute much to its proper understanding.

In the Roman Empire, there were several provinces, to which were applied designations as “Old” and “New”. Among them, the Roman province of Africa with its capital in Utica (created in 146 B.C.) was divided into Africa vetus and Africa nova in 46 B.C. (Eastern Numidia). Later these regions were combined into the province of Africa proconsularis. Some inscriptions also mention “the old and new borders of the province” of Africa proconsularis (fines provinciae novae et veteris) (AE 1912, 00148, EDCS-16300369; AE 1912, 00149, EDCS-16300370; AE 1912, 00150, EDCS-16300371; AE 1912, 00151, EDCS-16300372; CIL VIII 14882 = CIL VIII 25860 = ILTun 01293, EDCS-25501680, etc.). The inscription CIL VIII 357 = CIL VIII 11546 = D 06810 = Haidra-05, 00039, EDCS-14900356 from Africa proconsularis mentions the name of Africa vetus.

The province of Epirus (created in 167 B.C.) was split under the Emperor Diocletian in late 3rd cent. A.D. The existence of “Old Epirus” is confirmed by epigraphic evidence: Coranius Titianus v(ir) p(erfectissimus) / praes(es) prov(inciae) vet(eris) Epiri (ZPE-108-159 = Thesprotia 00001 = AE 1993, 01406 = AE 1995, 01394 = AE 2009, 01287 from Achaia; 309–313 AD). The inscriptions CIA 00230 = LIA 00240 = AE 1984, 00814 = AE 1984, 00815, EDCS-08400517; ZPE-108 159 = Thesprotia 00001 = AE 1993, 01406 = AE 1995, 01394 = AE 2009, 01287, EDCS-03700724 also mention a certain praeses provinciae Epiri veteris.

Two inscriptions from Ohrid (nowadays in North Macedonia) refer to the province “New Epirus” or the “new province” of Epirus: Fl(avius) Hygin[us] / p̣ (raeses) pr(ovinciae) [Epiri] [novae — — — — —] (IG X 2, 2 364 (333–337; Lychnidos (Ohrid)). Sofronius v(ir) p(erfectissimus) / [pra]eses prov(inciae) nova[e] / [E]p̣iri d(evotus) n(umini) m(aiestatique) eorum (IG X 2, 2 365 II (351–354; Lychnidos, Ohrid)). Thus, the expression “old province” is identical to that with a different word order and a different accent: “Province ‒ the name of the province ‒ Old/New”.

The Inscription CIL 02, 01970 = D 01341 = AE 2009, +00077 = AE 2012, +00732, EDCS-05501668 mentions the “old province Hispania Baetica” (…pro[c(uratori)] / provinc(iae) veteris Hispan(iae) / Baetic(ae)…), which implies the existence of the “new province”.

The adjective “old” (vetus) could refer not only to provinces, but also to municipalities: IIvir(o) m(unicipii) Fab(rateriae) vet(eris) (Fabrateria 00003 = AnalEpi p 108 = AE 1979, 0014 from Cessana (Fabrateria Vetus), Latium et Campania / Regio I). The same designation is mentioned in the inscription Fabrateria 00004 = AnalEpi p 108 = AE 1979, 00141. Municipalities could be designated not only as vetus, but also as antiquus4.

Since Aelius Aurelius Theon was the governor of the province Arabia with its capital in Bostra, the abbreviation PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET may suggest the existence of the province called “Arabia vetus”. This should be juxtaposed with the name of the province “New Arabia” (Arabia nova). The formation of “New Arabia” would have had to take place before 253 A.D., when inscription CIL III 90 in honour of Aelius Aurelius Theon was made.

The interpretation of the abbreviation PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET as praeses provinciae Arabiae Veteris could be relevant to the interpretation of the letter by Aurelius Malchus to the governor of the province of Aegyptus Herculea (P. Oxy. 50. 3574; the beginning of the 4th century). This letter, as well as several earlier papyrus documents from the 120‒130 A.D., mention an administrative unit of “New Arabia” (ἡ νέα Ἀραβία). The interpretation of earlier documents is quite plausible: the letters mention the province of Arabia, created in 106 by Emperor Trajan. The interpretation of the letter P. Oxy. 50. 3574 is more difficult. Scholars believe that it referred to the name of a province, although sources do not reference any other province called Arabia. The designation “New Arabia” in P. Oxy. 50. 3574 does not refer to the newly created province (ἐπαρχία) instead of the former nomos called Arabia in Egypt or Idumea, as they suggested. In this document, the “New Arabia” most likely, refers to τοπαρχία (toparchy) or an “area”, i.e. a smaller administrative unit (part of a nomos). The borders of this toparchy changed several times and it moved from Lower to Upper Egypt5.

Analysis of the letter by Aurelius Malchus (P. Oxy 50. 3574) showed that the province of New Arabia in fact never existed. Accordingly, there are no sources to suggest there was a province of Old Arabia.

The Abbreviation VET is frequently used in Latin epigraphy, however, one haven’t come around any cases where VET meant abbreviated vir in combination with conjunction et. VET is normally an abbreviation of vetus and its derivatives: Vettius (CIL II. 2914 = IRPPalencia 73), Vettus (AE 1910. 42), veteranus (CIL. III. 846 = CIL. III. 7650), vetus(IAM-02-02, 824 = IAM-S, 824 = LBIRNA 507 = AE 1966. 60; DipintiKoeln-01. 66-68, 71, etc.). The interpretation of VET as a contraction of vir + et in the inscription under investigation, as suggested in the EDCS-21200159, is incorrect. First of all, this is because the duplication of vir breaks the syntactic and stylistic structure of the phrase. Therefore, for the abbreviation, PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET should be sought a different explanation.

A better understanding of the meaning of the phrase in question is connected to the meaning of the adjective vetus. The semantic fields of vetus were analyzed in a relatively recent publication [9, p. 73‒74, 78]. The data from the Latin literary tradition show that the adjective vetus had not only the usual meaning such as “old” or “ancient” but also more rare, such as “experienced”, “former”, “past”. The meaning “experienced” in the inscription would be less appropriate than the meaning “former” or “past”. Moreover, vetus in the sense of “former” or “past” can hypothetically refer in the abbreviation AEL AVREL THEONEM... PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET, both to the province itself and its governor.

The former suggestion would have to be confirmed by the very fact that the province Arabia had ceased to exist and had become “former”, i.e., that it had undergone partition or other changes. However, there is no indication in the sources that the province Arabia, established by Emperor Trajan in 106 A.D., either disappeared in the middle of the 3rd century A.D. or was renamed or its borders changed. The large-scale change of the former borders of the Middle Eastern provinces dates back to the reign of Emperor Diocletian.

Most likely, the abbreviation VET in the inscription in question refers to the governor of the province of Arabia ‒ Aelius Aurelius Theon: this could indicate a change of the governor rather than the duration of his rule as suggested by W. H. Waddington. J. H. Mordtmann was focused on the search in the sources for the existence of the province of Arabia vetus, which the known sources do not support. The appointment of a new governor would be a suitable reason to set a commemorative inscription in honour of the former or previous governor.

Therefore, the analysis of the inscription CIL III 90 shows that the abbreviation VET in this particular text cannot be interpreted as a contraction of vir and et and confirm that this is a usual abbreviation of vetus. This inscription, as well as several other sources, does not confirm the hypothesis of the existence of the province Arabia vetus, which had to be established earlier than the province of Arabia nova. Similarly, the abbreviation PRAES PROVINC ARABIAE VET cannot be interpreted as referring to the governor of the “former” province of Arabia. The province of Arabia did not disappear from the political map of the Roman Empire by the middle of the 3th century, although information about it became less certain by the early 4th cent. A.D. The most plausible interpretation of the phrase in question is as follows. VET refers neither to the province, nor to Arabiae, but PRAES, i.e., the “former”, the governor himself. It can be well assumed that by the time the inscription was set, Aelius Aurelius Theon was no longer the governor of the province of Arabia, because somebody else already held this position.

The facts as above allow the new interpretation of our inscription

Ael(ium)] Au[r(elium) Theone]m v(irum) c(larissimum) leg(atum) Augg(ustorum) pr(o) pr(aetore) / praes(idem) provinc(iae) Arabiae veterem integerr[i]/mum benignissimum atque iustissim[um] / Statil(ius) Ammianus pr(a)ef(ectus)alae patronu[m] / ob multa merita.

“To Aelius Aurelius Theon, the man most glorious, the envoy of Augustus instead of the praetor, the former governor of the province of Arabia ‒ the most immaculate, most favourable, and also the fairest ‒ Statilius Ammianus, prefect of the wing of the patrons, for many merits (this monument erected).”

The setting of a commemorative inscription to the “former governors” is an extremely rare case. Perhaps a similar situation is attested in the inscription from Churchell (modern Western Algeria; Mauretania Caesariensis) (CIL VIII. 9357; EDCS-23500112):

Ma[ 3 ] / pro [ 3 ] / vet[ 3 ] / praesi[di 3] / Mar[et(aniae) Caes(ariensis)]

The inscription has been preserved only in fragments, and it is difficult to analyze it for this reason. The circumstances in which Statilius Ammianus set a memorial inscription in honour of the former governor of the province of Arabia (following his own decision or a command of other officials), Aelius Aurelius Theon, cannot be clarified without referring to additional sources. One can only assume that the preservation of his memory could be connected with the appointment of a new governor, who could owe something to his predecessor, perhaps the very fact of the appointment. It is not possible to accurately establish the name of the next governor of the province of Arabia at the moment. Virius Lupa or Gallonianus can be considered as possible candidates [1, p. 162].


AE ‒ L’Année épigraphique.

AnalEpi ‒ Solin H. Analecta Epigraphica. 1970‒1997. Roma, 1998.

CIA ‒ Anamali S., Ceka H., Deniaux É. Corpus des inscriptions latines d’Albanie. Roma, 2009.

CIL ‒ Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.

DipintiKoeln-01 ‒ Ehmig U. Tituli picti auf Amphoren in Köln. Kölner Jahrbuch. 2007;40:202‒313.

EDCS – Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss / Slaby (see:

D ‒ Dessau H. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae. 3 Bände. Berlin, 1892‒1916.

Fabrateria ‒ Brancato N. G. Il “caso Ceccano”. Fabrateriae Veteris inscriptiones, Roma, 1994.

Haidra-05 ‒ Benzina ben Abdallah Z. Inscriptions de Haïdra et de environs (Ammaedara et vicina) publiées (CIL, ILAfr., ILTun) et retrouvées, Tunis, 2011.

IAM ‒ Inscriptions antiques du Maroc. 2. Inscriptions latines. Paris, 1982.

IAM-S ‒ Inscriptions antiques du Maroc. 2. Inscriptions latines. Supplément. Paris, 2003.

IGLS ‒ Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie (see:

ILTun ‒ Inscriptions Latines de la Tunisie. Paris, 1944.

IG X, 2 ‒ Inscriptiones Graecae, X: Inscriptiones Epiri, Macedoniae, Thraciae, Scythiae. Pars II, fasc. 2: Inscriptiones Macedoniae septentrionalis. Sectio prima: Inscriptiones Lyncestidis,

Heracleae, Pelagoniae, Derriopi, Lychnidi (Inscriptions of Northern Macedonia. Section 1: Inscriptions of Lyncestis, Heraclea, Pelagonia, Derriopus, Lychnidus). Ed. F. Papazoglu, M. Milin, M. Ricl, adiuvante Klaus Hallof. Berlin, 1999.

LIA ‒ Ehmig U., Haensch R. Die Lateinischen Inschriften aus Albanien (LIA). Bonn, 2012.

LBIRNA ‒ Saastamoinen A. The Phraseology and Structure of Latin Building Inscriptions in Roman North Africa. Helsiniki, 2010.

P. Oxy. 50. ‒ The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Nos. 3522—3600. Ed. with transl. and notes by A. K. Bowman, H. M. Cockle, W. E. H. Cockle et al. London, 1983.

Thesprotia ‒ Sironen E. Some Notes on Inscriptions of Roman Date from Thesprotia. Forsén B. (ed.) Thesprotia Expedition I. Towards a Regional History. Helsinki, 2009, pp. 185‒196.

ZPE ‒ Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.


1. See about the theatre of Bostra: [2].

2. See illustration:$M_CIL_03_00090_1.jpg.

3. The dating is given after: [3, p. 141][1, p. 162][4, p. 105 (Anm. 55)].

4. See, in particular, the opposition of municipalities by age, reflecting the presence or lack of own mores and laws in elder and younger municipalities: [7, p. 130–131].

5. See in details: [8, 2021: 438‒450].


About the Author

Mikhail D. Bukharin
Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Russian Federation

Mikhail D. Bukharin ‒ Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ph. D. habil. (Hist.), Prof., Chief Researcher, Department of Ancient History, Member of the International Advisory Board of the Orientalistica


Competing Interests:

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

For citation:

Bukharin M.D. Latin inscription CIL III 90 in the context of the history of Roman Orient. Old and new interpretations. Orientalistica. 2021;4(3):561-570.

Views: 96

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

ISSN 2618-7043 (Print)
ISSN 2687-0738 (Online)