When, before AD77, Pliny the Elder remarked that Palmyra “had its own fate” between the Roman and Parthian empires, what had been a remote oasis in the Syrian desert a century earlier was becoming a world-beating marketplace. The city’s strategic location between empires was, of course, one reason for its success. A natural stop for caravans trekking from the Euphrates to the Syrian coast, it was well placed to profit from the trade between Rome and the East. As Pliny grumbled: “By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres [China], and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire 100 millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.”
The vast circuit of desert that surrounds Palmyra kept it just beyond the tight control of either side, an island emporium in the midst of a sea of sand. It was last attacked in 41BC, when Mark Antony crossed the desert greedy for plunder. But it is as if both empires tacitly agreed to let it live in remarkable peace - within the general orbit of Rome, to be sure, but enjoying excellent relations with Rome’s enemies nonetheless. And so, a Graeco-Roman city blossomed in the desert. Who built it, and how, is the story told by Andrew Smith in this latest attempt to explain Palmyra’s rise.
A unique Palmyran cultural identity - at once Greek, Roman, Parthian and, above all, native - grew out of the interplay between (semi-)nomadic tribes in the vast Palmyran hinterland and the city’s Arameans and Arabs. Both desert tribes and urbanites profited from the caravans, whether as cameleers and guards or financiers and merchants. Palmyrans maintained their cultural distinctiveness and language despite the ups and downs of life on a volatile political frontier.
With increasing Roman encroachment in the 3rd century, some of their distinctiveness faded. Roman soldiers were in the city by the close of the 2nd century and Palmyra became a Roman colonia and its citizens Romans after AD212. By then, most of the monumental building was done: temples, a theatre, colonnaded streets, an agora and cemeteries of elaborately decorated tombs. Until the end, the structure of personal and group identity in the city remained essentially tribal. While most temples had specific tribal links, Smith stresses that the Temple of Bel was more civic in nature. Appropriately, the first record for the monumentalisation of Palmyra (AD19) honours a man of the Bene Mattabol tribe for contributing to this temple. In AD24 and AD25, the “treasurers and the people of Palmyra” twice honoured a man of the Bene Komare for his donations. In the 2nd century, one of the Bene Gaddibol paid for a gate and doors. Maddeningly, Smith does not vocalise the Aramaic tribal names (referring to bny mtbwl, bny kmr’, bny gdybwl and 96 other tribes and familial units). This makes reading about “Tribes and Tribalism” difficult for non-specialists. A New York friend of mine brings the Bene Mattabol to mind as “Bene Matzo-balls”; perhaps unscholarly, but it helps.
Smith describes how the status quo crumbled in the 3rd century, provoked in part by Septimius Severus’ successful invasion of Parthia in AD198. In AD228 the Persian vassal king overthrew his master and proclaimed an aggressive new Sassanian Empire. In April AD239, the Persians first assaulted Dura-Europos. This must have sent shock waves across the desert: if Dura were taken, could Palmyra be far behind? Dura finally fell in AD256. The great warrior prince Odenathus rode to the rescue, chasing the Persians from Roman lands and to their capital at Ctesiphon; does Smith really believe that his forces consisted of “an army of Palmyrenes, peasants, and dispossessed soldiers” (repeated twice)? Smith leaves others (among them Pat Southern, author of Empress Zenobia: Palmyra’s Rebel Queen) to tell of events between Zenobia’s rise to power and the sack of Palmyra by Aurelian in AD2.
This is not an easy book, but it is worth tackling the early chapters because the arguments become stronger and the writing tighter as Smith proceeds. But why do we call both the people and language “Palmyrene”? After all, Arabs are not “Arabics”. Peeves aside, even the strictest historian who adds Smith to Southern will know all there is to know about Palmyra’s “fate”.