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ROMANS

As is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in ancient history, the Romans wrested control of the Mediterranean from the successors of Alexander. After hard fighting they deposed the kings who succeeded Alexander and replaced them with governors from Rome.  The underlying culture, Semitic with a veneer of Greek, did not change under their rule. During the course of the  Roman Empire’s expansion,  many regions with their own distinctive characteristics were assimilated  There are therefore extensive Roman period remains from many areas outside of the Italian heartland. These were made under Roman jurisdiction, and some embody Roman conceptions of art, but they should not simply be considered as Roman.  The ‘Roman’ designation is therefore an oversimplification, as from the beginning the Roman Empire was a universal one.  There were Roman Emperor’s from many different lineages, and it is not surprising that Syria, with an ancient culture and vast wealth, also contributed leaders to the Empire. Rome also faced some stark challenges for world supremacy from the East.  Perhaps the best example is Zenobia.

Queen Zenobia is best known for her revolt against Rome.  Her husband, Odenanthus, pursued a  different policy.  There was a Roman garrison installed in Palmyra since about 150, but it was more of a warning to the Parthians (a dynasty based in Iran and Iraq from 350 BC - AD 250) not to seize the city for themselves.  After a series of wars with the Parthians, Palmyra was raised to the status of a colony in 212 under Emperor Caracalla.  Because the Emperor’s mother was a daughter of the high priest of Emesa (modern Homs) this could be seen as again protecting Palmyra from Parthian designs.  From 256/7 records outline the rise of Septimius Odainat from his appointment as Consul and Governor of Syria Phoenice. With the breakdown of Roman control in the face of the new threat from Iran under the Sasanian dynasty (AD 250-650), all the Roman troops in the region were put under his command.  With the capture and execution of the Roman Emperor Valerian (253-260), Odainat began his strike into Iraq, reaching as far as the Sasanian capital in Ctesiphon in 266.  He was the hero of the day, but did not live long to savour victory, as he was murdered, perhaps by his wife, in 267/8.  Zenobia, famed for her beauty as well as her political abilities, ruled through her son. Claiming descent from Cleopatra, stories abound regarding her wisdom. She expanded Palmyrene control into Anatolia and Egypt, and she had coins struck with her son assuming the title of “Augustus”. Considering that several Roman Emperors did have Syrian origins, this was indeed an assumption - as the title was not given by the Roman Senate - but it was not completely unjustified.

The Roman response to the re-arrangement of the balance of power was swift, and Aurelian marched through Anatolia and took Emesa (Homs) in 272.  Zenobia was soon caught trying to escape to the Sasanians, and she surrendered the city to the Romans. Palmyra pledged adherence to Rome, but shortly after the majority of troops left in the spring of 273 the Roman garrison was massacred and the city again made a bid for independence. This time the Emperor allowed the city to be completely destroyed.  Inhabitants were slaughtered, and the Bel temple was badly damaged.  A notable exception is the statue to Odainat that was on the processional way, and the inscription below his statue is still visible. It seems Zenobia was lead through the streets of Rome in golden chains, and she may have lived in exile there till her death (though nothing is known of the circumstances). Palmyra was little more than a military camp after this date, though during the Byzantine period several churches were built from the rubble.  What remains today is still impressive enough to rank as one of the most important archaeological sites in the ancient world.  There is also the image of a lone woman who for one moment seemed to hold the world in her hand.

While history delights in wars and events that ‘define the age,” what is not recorded is perhaps more important.  During the so-called Roman period, there was a great deal of construction that suggests a high level of culture.  The relationship between Rome and Syria is far deeper than any single episode or event, as it spans the generations.


Views of the theatre at Bosra (140 km south of Damascus).  Dating to the early 2nd century AD.  It has been billed as the best preserved Roman theatre in the Mediterranean, with a seating capacity of some 6000 people over 37 rows and room for between two and three thousand standing spectators.  The structure is a little over one hundred metres in diameter.  The acoustics are excellent, as someone talking on the stage - there are usually tourists to provide this service - can be easily heard in the higher tiers.


Views of theatre at Jabla.  It is small compared to Bosra, only about 90 metres in diameter with a maximum seating capacity of 7000, but it is undergoing restoration that should make it one of the best theatres in Syria. The Romans were particularly fond of building areas for public spectacles, as they found that when properly entertained the populace was less likely to question the government.  Theatres were also used for more serious political gatherings as well.

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DR. MURRAY EILAND

ARCHAEOLOGIST

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