Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation by Andrew M. Smith II

Book Review by Alistair Forrest

We won’t ever see the glorious structures of Palmyra again. ISIL/Daesh destroyed the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin and the Arch of Triumph in 2015, and beheaded the elderly head of antiquities, Khaled al-Assaad. Thank whichever god you serve for the photographs, the museums that hold ancient reliefs and inscriptions, and books such as Smith’s Roman Palmyra.

The outrages of 2015 came after Smith had completed his work on the community that thrived in the Syrian desert, located at an oasis on the frontier between Rome and Parthia. Therefore it stands as a monument in its own right to a rich period (the first three centuries AD) that saw the pastoral settlement develop into an important trading city with influence throughout the Roman empire.

Roman Palmyra is in the main a textbook for students and the author’s peers, examining the sociological, cultural and economic foundations for this unique and fascinating community. It is not until the final third of the narrative that the excitement of political and military tensions kick in, lifting the work beyond its textbook status to draw in a wider audience. This culminates with the rise of Queen Zenobia and her son Vaballathus, the self-styled “king of kings”, and their rebellion against Aurelian. Initially, Aurelian spared the city but lost patience in 273 (Diocletian later rebuilt Palmyra on a limited scale).

The backstory is one of a pastoral community and caravan trading post that gradually emerged as a city with a strong religious identity – witness its temples and the spread of the Yarhibol cult by its traders and military (of which, more below). Amorites, Aramaeans and later, Arabs, all settled at the oasis and although strategically sited between the Roman and Parthian empires, Palmyra appears to have grown and expanded peacefully through tribal co-operation and a dependence on caravan commerce. Having said that, Mark Antony took it upon himself to lay down a marker at Palmyra with a raid on the embryonic city in 41 BC, presumably to emphasise Rome’s claim in the face of the Parthian threat.

Smith charts Palmyrene identity and community as the city sought to remain neutral, a sensible policy as its wealth depended on the free flow of goods as a nexus of (then) global trade. Excavated pottery reveals imports from Egypt, Africa, Greece, Palestine and Parthian Mesopotamia, with wine, olive oil and garum, Rome’s favourite salted fish sauce, the primary goods supplied along the trade routes. A strong military tradition evolved to protect the caravans in a wide hinterland including the Palmyrene outpost at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, where the Yarhibol cult was firmly established.

While Rome sought to consolidate its presence at Palmyra, Parthia regarded the city as an ally. Mark Antony’s raid was seen as an act of war and in the first century AD Rome’s gradual expansion eastwards led to obvious tensions which escalated with Trajan’s aggression in 114 AD, and the war of 162-5 when Lucius Verus launched a counter offensive against Parthian expansion under Vologeses IV in Armenia and Syria. Thirty years later Septimus Severus sacked the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon.

The diaspora of Palmyrenes with their culture and religion is in itself fascinating, and well covered by Smith. The Palmyrene archer soldiers not only performed a key role in frontier defence and policing the wider province, but also served all over the empire and were as much responsible for the spread of their home city’s culture and identity as the merchants. They exported their language and native gods wherever they served, with archaeological evidence from Dacia, Dalmatia, Egypt and across north Africa, even Rome itself and Britain. The latter is attested by two funerary stelae from South Shields, one of them set up by the wife of the Plamyrene Barates, a soldier serving in a Roman unit there.

The Palmyra story is obviously a much longer one than the Roman period alone, but with the ill-fated attempt by its leaders to usurp imperial power, the “Palmyrene identity” fades from the end of the third century AD. As long as Playmra complemented Roman power structures, the city prospered. “Only when it became politically competitive did it succumb,” Smith concludes.

There’s around a hundred pages of references and bibliography – enough to keep the true student busy for weeks! This book is very timely and no doubt welcomed by historians and enthusiasts saddened by the barbarity of ISIL/Daesh, which took place not long after publication. Indeed, a worthy addition to an ancient near east historian’s library.

Alistair Forrest is a magazine editor and author of historical fiction. You can find his personal website at www.alistairforrest.com

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