Friday, February 23, 2007

Desert flower

Ruins of Palmyra
Photo courtesy of Hovic.
Palmyra had never really wanted or needed to be part of anyone's empire. Located on the largest oasis in the Syrian desert, it had been inhabited by Bedouins and similar nomadic peoples since before 1000 B.C.. Its position near the western end of the Silk Road provided access to all the best trade routes to Persia, India and the Far East, and local families did a brisk business in outfitting caravans for the perilous journey.

This specialization came in handy in 41 B.C., when Mark Antony, learning of Palmyra's wealth, tried to raid the city. The Palmyrans got wind of his approach, and easily spirited their treasure across the Euphrates until the danger passed. Palmyra improbably persisted as an quasi-independent state on the border between two mutually antagonistic superpowers.

But the city's situation remained precarious. In A.D. 18, an envoy from the Emperor Tiberius arrived, probably to make the usual imperial offer of being Rome's friend...or not being Rome's friend. Whatever the exact substance of his visit, a Roman garrison set up shop, roads were built and Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria.

Still, its economic power allowed it to operate with a degree of independence that was fairly unique in the Roman world. A vivid example of its autonomy is provided by the Parthian empire, which permitted Palmyra to establish and maintain trading posts within its borders, even after it came under Roman rule. It's not surprising, then, that when Rome descended into the chaos of prolonged civil war during the middle of the third century, Palmyra readily resumed control of its own affairs.

By 258, the lack of an effective Roman response to the new Sassanian state in Persia had contributed to the rise of Septimius Odenathus, a Romano-Palmyran aristocrat. He assumed the titles dux ("leader"; the English word "duke" is a cognate) and corrector totius orientis ("improver/corrector of the entire East"). When the Emperor Valerian was defeated and captured while campaigning against the Sassanids in 260, Odenathus stood virtually alone against the might of Persia and effectively stalemated them. He was assassinated in 267, but his wife, Zenobia, assumed regent power for their son, Vaballathus.

Like Odenathus, Zenobia operated as a putative vassal of Rome. Around 270, the Roman mint at Antioch was issuing double-headed coins with the new emperor, Aurelian, on one side, and Vaballathus (under the distinctly un-Roman honorific rex) on the other. Around the same time, however, and for reasons which remain unclear, Palmyra went on the offensive and took control of much of the Roman East, sweeping as far as Alexandria. It's possible that the Palmyrans were acting against regional challenges to their authority, but whatever their intent, Aurelian regarded their actions as treasonous.

Aurelian marched east in 272 and defeated the Palmyrans in battles at Immae and Antioch before sacking Palmyra itself in 273. The city never recovered, and was probably completely abandoned by the mid-4th century. Zenobia herself was captured and sent to Rome to appear in Aurelian's triumph; the sources disagree on what happened after that. By some accounts, she died on the journey to Rome. One source says that Aurelian had her beheaded after displaying her during his triumph. The most poetic of Zenobia's possible fates has her living out her days at an estate in Tibur (modern Tivoli), while her short-lived desert empire began its descent into the ruins you see above.

Judith Weingarten has done Zenobia and her kingdom much better justice than I can. She has written a historical novel about Zenobia, and maintains an excellent weblog.

ETA: Judith was kind enough to drop by and provide me with a correction; see the comments.


Judith Weingarten said...

Thank you, David, for the link and kind words about Zenobia's new blog, Empress of the East.

One point if I may: I doubt that Palmyra was abandoned in the mid-4th century AD. The walls we see today were built or restored by Justinian in the 6th C (Procopius, "De Ædificiis", ix) so there must have been a Roman military outpost at the site. Also, Christian bishops of Palmyra are mentioned in documents well into the 6th C., presumably ruling over a fair-sized flock. More likely, I think, the wars between the Ommiads and Abbassids in the mid-8th C finished the city off, for I know of no later references.

David said...

Thanks for the correction, Judith. I was drawing inferences from secondary and tertiary sources that were a bit vague about Palmyra's post-Aurelian fortunes. One claimed that Palmyra was "destroyed" by Aurelian (Cornell & Matthews, "Atlas of the Roman World," 1982), while another described "a rapid decline" after the sack (Cambridge Dict. of Classical Civ, 2006). I took liberties with the narrative in order to provide a sense of finality!

Is it reasonable to speculate that its importance as a regional entrepĂ´t experienced a sharp drop, and/or that its later significance was primarily as a military outpost?

Judith Weingarten said...

Sorry to be so late in replying.

I am fairly certain that the Aurelian's destruction of Palmyra finished off the city as a trading centre and closed the Silk Road route across the Syrian desert. However, it may be that its days were anyway numbered because of the virulence of the Persian wars. Inscriptions commemorating Chief Merchants run in an almost unbroken series from 132 AD to 266; then stop. In that year, Odenathus took the fight deep into Persian lands, actually besieging the Sassanian capital, ravaging the countryside and acquiring a great amount of booty. The Persians were hardly going to allow Palmyran traders into their territory after that. Incidentally, the notoriously unreliable Hist. Aug. tells us that Zenobia was with him on this campaign.