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SYRIAN EMPERORS OF ROME

Two Syrian born Emperors emerged from the chaos of the 3rd century, a time of tumult in the Roman world. Both Syrians were first cousins of one another, members of a single family related by marriage to the Severan dynasty. Varius Avitus Bassianus, known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, but popularly known as Elagabalus, or Heliogabalus, was born in 204 and reigned in 218-222.  His cousin, Alexianus Bassianus, is better known as Alexander Severus, and was born in 208 and reigned from 222-235.  Both rulers came to power under the tutelage of the female members of a powerful family based in Emesa (modern Homs). The city was famous for a sumptuous temple to the sun god. There is little trace of the ancient city today, but the city of Palmyra can offer clues as to what kind of architecture was lost.

General view of Palmyra.  The main part of the ancient city is on the plain.  Tower tombs (the West Necropolis) decorate the hillside that could support no agriculture. Most date to the 2nd century AD.

Another view of Palmyra. The castle on top of the mountain - although it is often described as ‘Zenobia’s Castle’ dates from the 17th century.

Homs (ancient Emesa) before the Hellenistic period seems to have been unsuitable for habitation before this date.  The city was apparently established as a result of draining a large lake - of which a small portion remains - and the surrounding marshes. There is no architecture left in Homs that is contemporary with Palmyra, but it is important to recognize that the grand scale of Palmyra might not have been an isolated phenomenon in Syria.  There were a number of powerful cities that grew rich from the trade between Rome and the East. And this trade did not only involve goods.  Many religious movements originated in the East and were spread by Syrian traders, and in a few cases even Syrian Emperors.

Although sun worship was practised throughout the empire, the Syrian cult of  Elaiagabal, the sun, was famous throughout the ancient world. Pilgrims came from many regions and left large donations at his temple. The Samsigeramid family likely provided hereditary priests for the temple, had control over the treasury, and controlled the city. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-192) Iulius Bassianus, likely from the Samsigeramid family, was high priest of the temple. His two daughters married well.  The first, Domna, married the commander of a Roman legion, Lucius Septimius Severus, who became Roman Emperor (193-211). Their sons, Caracalla (211-217), and Geta (211-212), had short reigns. After Caracalla murdered Geta he was quickly replaced by his Praetorian Prefect who ruled for a year. Yet this was not the end of the Samsigeramid family and their bid for power. Sister number two, Maesa, married an Imperial magistrate Iulius Avitus Alexianus.  They had two daughters, Soaemias and Mamaea, who also married Syrians in the service on Rome.  Soaemias gave birth to Varius and Mamaea had a son, Alexianus. Both would have a great role to play in Roman history. Yet it was not the mothers of these two children that plotted their career, but rather their grandmother, Maesa. Because Geta was popular in Rome, Caracalla established his capital in Antioch, leaving his mother, Domna, with much of the power.  After his assassination, his mother committed suicide, leaving her sister free to plan.  Maesa almost certainly arranged for the deaths of her daughter’s husbands, and spread the rumour that their children were really from Caracalla and/or Geta. This, along with massive bribes from the temple treasury, led to Varius being proclaimed Emperor.  He shocked the Romans by attempting to introduce the worship of Elagabal, and according to Classical writers - who were openly hostile to him - human sacrifice, castration, and prostitution were part of the rituals.

Interestingly, the worship of the invincible sun, Sol Invictus, was introduced into Rome by the Emperor Aurelian (270-275).  He is better known for defeating Zenobia and destroying Palmyra, though he entered the city of Emesa and offered tribute to the sun god, who according to legend assisted him in his struggle against Zenobia. No doubt his positive attitude to the cult of Elagabalus made his victory more palatable to the East. Being a politician he certainly hoped that by instituting a state cult, one which was already favoured by the army, he could cement their loyalty and prevent a repeat of the short reigns of previous Emperors.  Epitomizing the ‘slowly, slowly’ approach, he equated the Semitic deity with Jupiter Maximus and proclaimed him the great god of the Empire. Yet as in the case of the Emperor Elagabalus, it seems the time was not yet ripe.

In contrast to the reign of his cousin, Severus was less colourful. The coup that led to the downfall of Varius and his mother was probably supported if not planned by Maesa. Although she died several years later, the Empire was effectively ruled by her daughter Mamaea, at least at first. Eager not to repeat the mistakes of Elagabalus, there was a stark shift in the emphasis of the reign. The memory of Elagabalus was officially damned. Severus returned the sacred stone of the Sun god from Rome to Emesa. The silver standard of coins was improved, and taxes were lowered.  Campaigns were launched against the Persians and Germans, yet it was the power of the military that brought Alexander down and led to a period of turmoil with military rule till the reign of Aurelian.

Philip the Arab (244-249) was also from the Roman province of Syria, though little is known of his background.


Portrait of Philip the Arab (244-249) in the museum of Shahba.

Philip was born under the reign of  Septimius Severus in the modern village of Shahba, about 55 miles south of Damascus. It was heavily re-built by him to reflect its new status when he was proclaimed Emperor. He named it Philippopolis and it reflects Roman and not Syrian traditions as embodied by Palmyra.

Philippopolis (87 km south of Damascus) is a city that is stark in contrast to Palmyra, though much of this relates to the dark colour of the local building stone, which is basalt. Reflecting Roman conservatism rather than Eastern exuberance, the complex was built to glorify the reign of this Emperor and display his lineage.


The theatre in Philippopolis is just behind the temple and despite it’s size - 43 metres in diameter - it is one of the best preserved theatres in Syria. It is apparently the last Roman theatre constructed in the East.

Mosaic from the museum in Suweida (128 km Southeast of Damascus).  The city is the capital of the province of Hauran.  It has an extensive collection of mosaics and sculptures from Philippopolis.  Perhaps the most famous mosaic is of Venus at her bath.  Dating to the mid 3rd century, Venus is in a shell looking at herself in a mirror with one hand while adjusting her tresses with another.


Another typical Roman mosaic from the Museum of Al No’man. At first the design may seem simple, but it is a complex arrangement of forms that can be, with concentration, appreciated in a number of different ways.

This Emperor gained power while Gordian III was on campaign against the Sasanian Persians, and some suggest it was he - and his brother - who had that ruler killed.

There is also evidence of Sasanians (a dynasty based in Iran and Iraq) in the Roman mosaics from Suweida.  The borders of one large mosaic depicting Artemis have small figures dressed in Eastern style.  Sasanians were an ancient Iranian speaking group that were known as horsemen.  Instead of wearing loose fitting garments they wore trousers and long sleeved tunics.  They also wore caps that protected their ears and the back of their necks from the elements.  The small figure on the border of the mosaic appears comical and harmless, while in reality the Romans were continually fighting the Sasanians for mastery of the region.


Philip the Arab quickly engineered a peace treaty with the Persians and went to Rome to consolidate his power, leaving his brother Priscus in control of the East.  It was under the reign of this Emperor that Rome celebrated one thousand years since her foundation.  The year 248 was taken up in celebrations and games. 

Flexibility was a characteristic of his reign, although the army desired victories. It was the Danube that was the undoing of this Emperor.  Philip sent Decius, a native of the Danube, to calm the troops there.  He was proclaimed Emperor and Philip was defeated in a confrontation with them in Verona. History presents a very divided picture of Philip. He was assumed by Christian authors to be a co-religionist, yet his Roman contemporaries did not suggest as much.  They castigated him for his weak and indecisive nature, though as a rule Emperors did not last long during this period. The fact that he lasted five years amidst several revolts in various parts of the empire suggests that he was in fact quite effective. With his skill as a negotiator, it is clear that his reign would have been regarded as outstanding in a time of peace.  There is also another short lived Syrian Emperor, Uranius Antoninus (253 - 254).

Like some other Emperors of the 3rd century, he is known only from coins, which are rare.  Little is known of him other than that he ruled from the city of Emesa. In the light of the others, Zenobia’s son, Vabalathus, can best be considered a claimant Emperor based in Palmyra (267 - 271).  The city was certainly granted greater autonomy than a province, and could best be described as a client kingdom, particularly during the crisis of the 3rd century.  After the death of Odenathus in 267, Zenobia proclaimed her son Emperor.  Neither Gallienus nor Claudius Gothicus confirmed these titles, and the Emperor Aurelian stamped out the rebellion in 272.

While Roman history casts the reign of Varius as wholly negative, it is likely that his attempt to impose a new religion was the cause of much hostility.  It would not be unknown for Roman authors, noted for their political sensitivity, to concoct events that had no basis in fact to please later rulers.  Indeed, from the standpoint of an educated tourist the story of Varius, who rose from a powerful Syrian family to dominate the Roman empire, needs to be told.  It is a unique Syrian perspective in world history, and one that is not covered in any popular way anywhere else.  The other two Syrian Emperors noted here have less written about them, as they were less colourful.  Yet the fact that there were Syrian Emperors makes an important point.  The common perception of the vast gulf between East and West did not exist in antiquity.  Syria played a significant role in the history of Rome in particular and the west in general. As Ignacio Peña notes (Peña, 1997, 227-228): “Posidonius of Apamea (131-51 BC), an encyclopaedic spirit who synthesized the knowledge of his time in an image of the world determined by astrology, had Pompey and Cicero as his disciples.  The Syrian legal experts Ulpian (c. 170-228), Paulus and Papias (2nd century) occupied high posts under the Severan dynasty; Papias is considered to be the prince of Latin jurisprudence.  In the 2nd and 3rd centuries the writers and philosophers Lucian (c. 115-200), Plotinus (c. 205) and Lamblichus (d. 330) became famous.  The architect who sketched the plan of the Pantheon in Rome was a Syrian”.

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