Between Rome and Persia


Palmyra is a city excellent in its setting, the fertility of its soil and the pleasantness of its waters, and its fields are hemmed in … by a vast stretch of sand. It steers its own course between the two great empires of the Romans and of the Parthians.


Palmyra emerged from the desert of eastern Syria in much the same way that its ruins appear before the eyes of the modern visitor – suddenly and spectacularly. In the Roman period this oasis settlement was transformed by long-distance trade into a city whose wealth and beauty rivalled all others in the eastern empire, with architecture, culture and institutions reflecting both the Mediterranean world and the East. In Rome’s crisis of the 3rd century AD the Palmyrene Odenathus defeated its Sassanian Persian invaders, and his celebrated wife, Zenobia, created a short-lived Palmyrene empire encompassing Egypt, Anatolia and Arabia, as well as Syro-Palestine. The Roman emperor Aurelian defeated Zenobia, ending Palmyra’s independent power and unique culture. Palmyra survived as a Roman garrison town, and then declined into a village. Like many other cities in this volume, including Paestum, the West rediscovered Palmyra and its buildings in the mid-18th century, when it played its part in the emergence of the new discipline of archaeology.

Most of the magnificent remains visible at Palmyra date from the Roman imperial period. This richly decorated Severan arch (early 3rd century AD) provides a monumental link between Palmyra’s most important temple, the great temple of Bel, on the eastern side of the city, and the colonnaded main street of the city that runs towards the west gate.

© Jane Taylor (

The Old Testament states that King Solomon established Tadmor (Palmyra’s Semitic name), but evidence from the decades following the Roman conquest of Syria (in 64 BC, by Pompey the Great) presents Palmyra as a political and economic centre for nomadic peoples, attracted by its oasis in the otherwise arid eastern Syrian steppe, rather than as a monumental city recognizable as such to Greeks or Romans. Palmyra’s spectacular emergence as a city of great temples, public buildings and colonnaded streets took place in the Roman imperial period, as did its decline into what the Roman historian Sir Fergus Millar called ‘a minor Greek provincial place’.

The colonnaded main street of Palmyra, with the citadel in the background. The citadel remained in use long after the city declined, and the latest phase of the Arab fortress there dates to the 16th century.

© Jane Taylor (

The earliest sign of the city’s greatness is its huge main temple, dedicated to the god Bel. Inscriptions and archaeology suggest a complex building history starting by AD 17, and continuing into the last decades of the 1st century. It employs Corinthian columns typical of Roman imperial temple architecture, but as superficial decoration for a courtyard plan that reflects Palmyra’s connections with Mesopotamia rather than the Mediterranean. Public and private inscriptions from Palmyra typically are Greek, showing Palmyra’s connections with the Hellenistic culture of the wider Roman East, but also bilingual, with Palmyrene, the local version of the Aramaic language, emphasizing the city’s eastern connections. Palmyra’s culture was a unique blend of eastern Mediterranean Greco-Roman and eastern Syrian-Mesopotamian. Its civic institutions included a council, popular assembly and magistrates such as archons, echoing those of Greek city-states, and eventually it was awarded the Roman status of colonia(‘colony’). On the other hand, its deities, Bel, Baalshamin, Yarhibol, Arsu, Aglibol, Allat, Atargatis and others, were local or more broadly Syrian or Mesopotamian in origin and form. Palmyrene sculpture shows Greco-Roman influences, but its most striking feature is a formal frontality rare in contemporary Mediterranean art.

This funerary relief of a couple named as Mal’ and Bolaya displays a characteristically Palmyrene blend of eastern and Mediterranean stylistic features. The inscription in the background is Palmyrene, the local version of Aramaic. Palmyrene and Greek were both widely used, and most public inscriptions are bilingual.

Gianni Dagli Orti/National Museum Damascus, Syria/The Art Archive.

Palmyra’s political status between the Roman world and the East was equally ambiguous. The Elder Pliny, writing in the second half of the 1st century AD, described the city as ‘between the Roman and Parthian empires, with its own individual destiny’. Certainly it lay on the frontiers of both empires, but it belonged to the Romans. It was visited by Germanicus, ill-fated nephew of the emperor Tiberius, in AD 18, and the inscription recording the city’s tax law shows it accepting his – Roman – authority. A milestone of AD 75 attests to a Roman road from Palmyra to Sura on the Euphrates, implying that the former lay well within the Roman empire even by Pliny’s day. The emperor Hadrian visited Palmyra in AD 131, and Palmyrene units served in the Roman army throughout the empire.

Palmyra’s colonnaded axial street runs roughly west to east, typical of cities of the Roman East. In the centre is the tetrapylon (four-way arch) that spans the street, with the theatre and agora (marketplace) nearby to the south. Beyond the colonnades lie the imposing remains of the temple of Bel.

© Jane Taylor (

The city’s location brought in the tremendous wealth displayed in its walls, temples, monumental archway and colonnaded main street. Pliny refers to ‘the riches of its soil and its pleasant waters’, and undoubtedly the oasis site facilitated agriculture in an otherwise arid area and served as a focus for nomadic herdsmen. However, it was Palmyra’s role in long-distance trade – silk from China and spices and other luxury goods from India – and shifting trade routes, that led to the city’s rapid rise to prominence in the 1st century AD. Palmyra linked the Mediterranean with the East via desert roads to the Euphrates, thence to the Persian Gulf and so to India and beyond. Dedications by Palmyrene traders have been found at the Parthian city of Vologesias in modern Iraq, the Indus delta and Merv, in Turkmenistan. Inscriptions from Palmyra itself refer to caravan leaders, and funerary reliefs depict camels and merchant ships.

The peak of Palmyra’s military and political power came in the third quarter of the 3rd century AD, under its king Septimius Odenathus and his famous queen, Zenobia. At this time, central Roman power was near fatally weakened by a combination of civil wars and external invasions. In AD 260 the Roman emperor Valerian was defeated and captured near Edessa in northern Mesopotamia by the Sassanian Persian king Sapor I, and subsequently died in captivity. Odenathus, a Palmyrene Roman citizen who had already adopted the unprecedented titles of ‘Lord of Palmyra’ and ‘King’, sought to restore Roman power. Having defeated Roman usurpers at the Syrian city of Emesa (Homs), he led an army against the Persians, driving them back across the Euphrates and even (in AD267) winning a victory near the Persian western capital of Ctesiphon in Babylonia. While the notoriously unreliable late imperial biographies of the Historia Augusta describe Odenathus as ‘emperor’ of the East, other evidence suggests he made no such claim, but was recognized as a Roman commander and ‘Restorer of All the East’ by the emperor Gallienus. However, returning from his victory in Ctesiphon, Odenathus, by now titled ‘King of Kings’, was murdered, together with his son Herodes, probably as part of an internal power struggle.

Odenathus’ wife Zenobia claimed (undoubtedly fictive) descent from the 2nd-century BC Seleucid king Antiochus IV and his Ptolemaic wife Cleopatra Thea. The Historia Augusta presents her as a beautiful and glamorous figure, with dark eyes and white teeth, a noble and capable leader. She acted as regent to her young son Vaballathus (‘Gift of Allat’, rendered in Greek as Athenodorus, the goddess Allat being equated with Athena), who adopted his father’s Palmyrene and Roman titles. In AD 270, however, while Gallienus’ successor Claudius II was occupied fighting the Goths in the Balkans, Zenobia sought to break away from Roman influence and expand Palmyra’s power to encompass the whole of the Roman East. A Palmyrene army conquered Egypt, and tenuous ancient sources attest to campaigns in Arabia and Anatolia. Initially coins of mints under Palmyrene control (Antioch and Alexandria) bear portraits of both Vaballathus and Claudius’ successor Aurelian, with only Aurelian bearing the title Augustus – ‘Emperor’. However, later issues omit Aurelian, calling Vaballathus ‘Augustus’, a direct claim to imperial power; some depict Zenobia herself, with the title Augusta. But Palmyrene independence was short-lived. Aurelian, a key figure in the recovery of the Roman empire, defeated the Palmyrene army near Antioch in 272 and brought the East back under central control. Zenobia was captured and displayed in Rome in Aurelian’s triumph, weighed down (according to the Historia Augusta) by gems and golden shackles, but spared, and granted an estate at Tivoli, near Rome.

Palmyra surrendered to Aurelian but revolted later that year, resulting in the sack of the city. While Palmyra’s distinctive culture faded, its location and oasis ensured that the city survived. The fortress of the legion I Illyricorum was established there by Diocletian in c. AD 303, and remains of its headquarters, ‘The Camp of Diocletian’, are visible today. While Palmyra retained some military significance even in the 7th century, Procopius claims that it was nearly deserted by then. By the time it was rediscovered by European travellers in the 17th century, Palmyra was a small and impoverished village. However, the remains of its architectural glories survived, and were studied and published by James Dawkins and Robert Wood in The Ruins of Palmyra in 1753, serving as further inspiration for neo-classical architecture and the study of the ancient world.

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