Glen W. Bowersock, “The Nabataeans in Historical Context,” in Petra Rediscovered: Lost City of the Nabataeans (ed. Glenn Markoe; New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 19-26.
This brief chapter gives an overview of Nabataean history. The origin of the Nabataeans is unknown, though they are attested in Syria and the Negev in the third century BCE. They had probably already come to prominence by the end of the fourth century, controlling the trade routes between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean. Their early administrative language was Nabataean Aramaic (later eclipsed, but not totally replaced, by Greek), and some evidence exists that they also spoke an Arabic dialect.
The Nabataean kingdom flourished under Aretas (Ḥāritat) IV, who reigned from 6 BCE until 40 CE. He was highly regarded at home (coins and inscriptions record that he “loved his people” [rḥm ‘mh]), built several monuments, and sent envoys to Rome.
The last Nabataean king was Rabbel II. He moved the capital from Petra to Bostra. After Rabbel’s death, Trajan annexed the Nabataean kingdom in 106 CE. He stationed a legion (III Cyrenaica) in the new province and built a Roman road from Bostra to Aqaba. Though it is a matter of debate, Bowersock thinks it is likely that Bostra was the provincial capital during the Roman period.
The Nabataeans maintained their cultural heritage under the Romans. In the fourth century, coins at Bostra show the Nabataean god Dusares, and the cult of Obodas (a deified Nabataean king) was revived at ‘Avdat in the Negev. Even in the sixth century, the residents of Petra still had Nabataean names (like Obodianus and Dusarios).