When All Roads Led to Palmyra

The desert city of Palmyra, ravaged recently by ISIS, held a key position on the Silk Route, connecting the Chinese, Persian and Roman Empires. Raoul McLaughlin describes how a remote caravan settlement assumed a leading role in international affairs, generating enormous wealth. 

The ruins of ancient Palmyra stand in the Syrian desert as a rubble of collapsed stonework. They are now in a worse state than time alone can account for, due to the recent destruction wrought by ISIS. Once a great city and trade centre, lines of broken classical columns can still be seen, marking the broad avenues that led through the ancient city to large market squares, fronted by temples and monumental administrative buildings decorated with marble sculptures. Civic authorities and caravan merchants erected statues and dedications to individuals who had performed some noteworthy service, some of which still survive on ancient stone edifices. The inscriptions are written in a local form of Aramaic, called Palmyrene, but many are duplicated in Greek so that the frequent Hellenic travellers to Palmyra could understand the text. Over 30 of these inscriptions commemorate people who assisted merchants on their caravan ventures into Babylonia and these texts reveal important details about the organisation and destinations of Palmyrene trade ventures. 

These business networks ranged throughout the Roman Empire. A second-century funeral sculpture found at South Shields in north-east England depicts a seated Palmyrene matron dressed in fine fabrics, holding a textile spindle and gesturing to an open box of jewellery by her side. She was British by birth and the accompanying inscriptions in Latin and Palmyrene read: 

To the spirits of the departed and Regina, freedwoman and wife of the Palmyrene Barates. Born a Catuvellaunian and died aged thirty. 

Barates was a Syrian merchant who had married a freed slave-woman from a native British community near the commercial city of Londinium (London). At nearby Coria (Corbridge) a memorial inscription commemorating Barates was found. It reads: ‘To the spirits and the departed Palmyrene Barates, a vexillarius, lived 68 years.’ The term
‘vexillarius’ indicates that Barates was a supplier of vexilla, flags, standards and ensigns made from silk or fitted with silk tassels and trimmings. Both inscriptions confirm the existence of a Syrian commercial network importing Chinese silk as far as the western frontiers of the Roman Empire. 

The oasis city of Palmyra held a unique position in the Syrian desert between Rome and the Parthian Empire, which ruled Persia from 247 BC to AD 224. Palmyra was unusual, occupying an outlying location and separated from other Syrian cities by a wide expanse of desert. It, therefore, maintained a high level of independence and its citizens were able to claim protection and assistance from both the Roman and Parthian regimes. The local authorities in Palmyra raised and equipped their own regional troops to protect their territory from bandits and to keep control over the desert trails leading to their city. This allowed Palmyra to develop into a major centre for caravan trade passing from Babylonia and the Persian Gulf to Syria and the Mediterranean seaboard. 

Ancient Palmyra appears in the Old Testament as ‘Tadmor’, from the Semitic word Tamar meaning ‘palm-tree’. King Solomon, in the tenth century BC, established an outpost at ‘Tadmor in the wilderness’, but it was soon reclaimed by locals. By the third century BC, Palmyrenes spoke a Semitic dialect related to Arabic and Hebrew, though the earliest Palmyrene inscriptions used Greek terminology. Government consisted  of a council of appointed leaders (boule) presiding over a citizen body (demos) assembled to receive instruction or approve political measures. 

Early Palmyra was surrounded by oasis field-systems that irrigated a broad stretch of land. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder reports:

Palmyra is a city famous for its location, for its rich soil and for its ample springs. Its fields are surrounded on every side by a vast circuit of sand, so that nature has isolated this place from the rest of the world. 

Ruins indicate the size the city attained during the height of its prosperity, when its boundary walls encompassed an area almost as large as the Syrian city of Apamea, which, according to Roman census reports, had 117,000 adult citizens. Neighbouring Babylonia was dominated by the cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris. The combined population of these enormous cities concentrated demand and offered substantial business opportunities. Greek and Roman wines could be traded for dates and figs and Mediterranean slaves were exchanged for their eastern counterparts. Roman merchants visiting Seleucia acquired Arabian incense and Indian spices from Persian Gulf trade routes as well as oriental silks imported by Iranian caravans.

During the Augustan era (63 BC-AD 19), most Greek and Syrian merchants crossed into Parthian territory near Zeugma then travelled south by caravan between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. This trade route crossed dry and difficult terrain to avoid the numerous tolls and taxes imposed by the communities who controlled the river valleys. Though the Greek geographer Strabo makes no mention of Palmyra as an important caravan city, Palmyrene merchants were gaining significance in the overland trade routes between Syria and Babylonia. During this era the first in a series of monumental buildings was constructed in Palmyra, partly funded by the wealth acquired from eastern trade ventures. Construction of a vast temple devoted to the Babylonian god Bel began in AD 19 with donations from the ‘Palmyrene and Greek merchants from Seleucia’. Another dedication honours a citizen named Hasas who gave money to the new temple on behalf of Palmyrene merchants in Babylon.

The Temple of Bel, 2001

During this period Palmyra was considered part of Roman Syria, but its civic council was permitted exceptional regional autonomy. Palmyrenes could manage their own political arrangements with the Parthian regime and negotiate deals with communities in Babylonia. Pliny the Elder indicates the attitude of the Roman government in the first century AD when he explains: 

Palmyra has its own fate between the mighty Roman and Parthian Empires, so any discord between these two regimes will cause them immediate concern. 

Palmyra was significant because it offered a direct caravan route from Syria to the mid-Euphrates, which flowed downstream to Babylon. Merchants taking this route could also cross to Seleucia and follow the Tigris south to where it joined with the Euphrates. The converging rivers flowed past the port of Spasinu Charax in the small subject kingdom of Characene at the head of the Persian Gulf.

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An inscription dated to AD 71 provides the first mention of Palmyrene operations at Spasinu Charax. This trade route covered 600 miles and represented a journey of at least 40 days for caravans. Spasinu Charax was the main port for incoming Indian and Arabian products destined for Babylonia. In ad 50 a Greek merchant from Alexandria wrote an account of Roman trade in the Indian Ocean, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. He describes large Indian craft bringing shipbuilding materials, including teak wood beams and copper used for rust-resistant metal fittings, to ports in the Persian Gulf. 

When the Emperor Hadrian visited Palmyra in AD 129 he bestowed political privileges on the ruling council and the city was formally renamed ‘Hadriane Palmyra’ in commemoration. Two years later the Parthian king Vologases III seized direct authority over the Gulf kingdom of Characene and installed a relative, Meredates, as ruler. Meredates offered Palmyrene merchants privileged positions in his new kingdom and extended his authority into the Persian Gulf.

Agreements between Meredates and the Palmyrene council gave Characene associates an access route to Roman markets and, therefore, a means to mutually enrich both territories. In AD 132 Palmyrene merchants from Spasinu Charax paid for the erection of a statue in their home city honouring a colleague named Yarhai who Meredates had made Satrap (governor) of the island of Tylos, in modern Bahrain, which lay off the Arabian coast, about 300 miles south of Spasinu Charax, with good harbours and valuable pearl fisheries. 

Palmyrene caravans exported woollen fabrics, reworked silks, purple cloth, wine stored in skin-flasks, perfumes, ointment, decorative table-ware, coloured glass, red coral, Mediterranean slaves and batches of gold and silver Roman coins to cities in Iraq. Evidence of this commerce is revealed by sculptures of rich matrons bedecked in finely woven fabrics and lavish pearl- and gem-encrusted jewellery. Remnants of silk found in the ruins of tomb towers suggest that these ladies dressed in imported oriental fabrics.

Palmyrene inscriptions refer to the caravans as synodiai, meaning ‘companies’, and merchants were ‘sons of the company’. Each caravan appointed two spokesmen: one of these representatives took the title Synodiarchos, or ‘Caravan-Leader’, with responsibilities for security and travel-logistics; another was appointed Archemporos or ‘Leading-
Merchant’ and managed tolls, taxes and business deals at markets.

Palmyra's world, c.first century AD

Merchants joining the expedition contributed funds for necessary expenses to these representatives. The Synodiarchos arranged for caravan guards and the Archemporos paid the tolls and bribes taken by communities encountered on the planned route. Sometimes the Archemporos took care of expenses from his own funds or negotiated a lower rate on behalf of his associates. These men were honoured by inscriptions in Palmyra, where they were praised for bringing back caravans ‘at no cost’ or ‘at their own expense’.

Palmyrene caravan ventures were seasonal operations, timed to coincide with desert conditions and the annual trade winds in the Persian Gulf, which delivered merchant ships to Spasinu Charax. Based on later historical evidence, the Palmyrenes probably organised two caravan ventures into Babylonia every year. One caravan travelled to the main cities of central Babylonia and the other made the longer journey south to Spasinu Charax. Both caravans would have left within weeks of each other to exploit favourable seasonal conditions. Larger convoys maintained several thousand camels to carry merchandise and travel supplies, including bedding and tents. Each caravan included several hundred drovers and scores of armed guards to ensure the safety of the company as they passed through contested territories or regions threatened by bandits.

Palmyrene merchants soon began to outfit their own commercial ships to sail from the Persian Gulf to trade ports in the Indus Kingdoms. From the Persian Gulf, ships also sailed westward to visit trade stations in southern Arabia and northern Somalia. Evidence of Palmyrene business operations in the Gulf of Aden comes from the island of Socotra off the Horn of Africa. Somalia produced incense and other fragrant saps, which sold for high prices in Roman markets. Wooden tablets found in a cave at Hoq on the north-east coast of Socotra included business records written in Indian, Ethiopian, Nabataean and Palmyrene scripts.

In the mid-second century a group of Palmyrene businessmen established a commercial building in the Nile city of Coptos. A Palmyrene inscription honours a businessman named Zabdalas, ‘who established the foundations of this building entirely from his own funds’. Archaeologists have found two Palmyrene altars in the ruins, along with 12 stone slabs, each depicting a pair of Palmyrene merchants. Palmyrene businessmen from Coptos also left a dedication in the nearby Nile town of Dendereh, the site of a major temple complex. This inscription refers to Palmyrene businessmen as naukleroi, captains or ship-owners involved in Red Sea voyages. 

Roman agents at Palmyra assessed the quarter-rate customs tax, the tetarte, which was imposed on all commodities crossing the imperial frontiers. Some of these officials could have been Palmyrenes, who paid imperial authorities competitive rates for the right to collect the tax and keep any surplus earnings. An inscription from a tomb tower in the Umm Belqis necropolis in Palmyra records how imports worth 360 million sesterces were assessed for the tetarte at Palmyra. The precise amount is presented in three currencies: Roman, Palmyrene and Greek, whose monetary units are listed down to small denominations such as brass shekels and obols. To place this figure in context, the tax revenues of the Roman Republic amounted to 340 million sesterces in the first century BC. Palmyrene imports valued at 360 million sesterces would have raised 90 million sesterces in tax revenue for the Roman state, enough to pay the annual cost of six Roman legions.

Trade goods were conveyed onwards under a state bond, with the assessed import payment due at the destination city. If a merchant could not afford to pay the tetarte in cash, then customs agents would secure a quarter share of his merchandise to sell on behalf of the government. This was the system that operated in Egypt and it meant that the government was not responsible for the cost and risk involved in moving large amounts of cash or seized goods between frontier stations and Mediterranean ports.

Once the tetarte was evaluated at Palmyra, merchants regrouped into smaller caravans for travel to the Syrian capital Antioch or one of the other cities on the Mediterranean coast. Antioch was positioned next to the River Orontes and connected to the Mediterranean via Seleucia Pieria. At 150 miles, or ten days’ travel, from Palmyra, this was the closest major seaport. Confirmation is provided by a Palmyrene inscription honouring a tetarte collector at Antioch, who gave special assistance to a caravan returning from Spasinu Charax. The Greek physician Galen encountered what was possibly a Palmyrene caravan at the Phoenician port of Tyre or Sidon; he visited Syria in the 150s looking for drug ingredients from the East for his medical remedies. He reported:

I had the good fortune to get hold of some Indian lyceum as the drug had recently been imported to Phoenicia together with some Indian aloe. 

Galen was certain that the product was genuine because ‘it was brought in by camels with a whole cargo and the material is not produced in this region’. Many merchants would have sold their eastern goods to Greek and Roman shippers based at Syrian ports, but Palmyrene trade networks also operated in the Mediterranean.

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Many of the merchant vessels visiting the Syrian ports were sailing to Ostia, the main port serving Rome, which was the largest market in the Empire. Merchant communities from Palmyra and Tyre operated in Rome, where they established temples to their homeland gods. Their commercial networks extended into Gaul and supplied the Atlantic trade routes that brought Continental commodities and merchants such as Barates into Roman Britain. 

Due to the wealth passing through Syria, gangs of bandits would lie in wait to ambush caravans crossing through unclaimed wilderness territories. To counter this threat the city council in Palmyra raised and armed its own troops to protect routes between the city and the Euphrates. These troops were under the command of Palmyrene generals, issued with orders to accompany the caravans, protect approved travellers and patrol the wilderness. 

An inscription dated AD 144 records how a citizen named Soados saved a Palmyrene caravan from an ambush by robbers. Soados held a command on behalf of the city council and his intervention was commemorated by grateful merchants, with several statues in his honour erected in prominent sanctuaries. A Greek inscription in the Palmyrene Temple of Athena records that ‘Soados took a large force and protected the merchants against Ahdlallathos and his robbers who had lain in wait for a long time to harm the caravan’.

The Palmyrene Council also dedicated statues to Soados and placed these on columns in a plaza near the city centre. A dedication from AD 150 records that Soados achieved an unprecedented reputation for his military actions and was the first Palmyrene to have statues erected in his honour at Charax, Vologesias and a caravan station called Gennaes. The inscription records that Soados was also honoured in decrees issued by the governors of Syria and commended in official letters by the Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. 

 The Roman military were also involved in efforts to protect Palmyrene caravans from attack by bandits and nomads. In AD 135 a caravan led by a merchant named Ulpius Abgar was returning from Spasinu Charax when the group encountered difficulties on the Roman frontier. An inscription commends a centurion called Julius Maximus, who protected the merchants from bandit communities in the Syrian Desert. 

Palmyrene interest in protecting commercial traffic transformed the city into a regional military power. Caravan inscriptions reveal how civic officials received titles and recognitions usually given to generals. An inscription from AD 199, for example, names a Palmyrene named Ogeilu, who was selected several times by the council to serve as strategos or ‘general’ of desert troops. Ogeilu is credited with taking command ‘against the nomads’ and assuring ‘the security of merchants and many caravans under his leadership’. Although they were not part of the Roman command structure, these generals received commendations from Syrian governors in recognition of their military exploits. As in other parts of the ancient world, trade thrived when overland routes were dominated by a strong and accountable authority able to deploy troops to protect its commercial interests. 

But Palmyrene prosperity did not last. In AD 216 the Parthian army was decimated in a new conflict with Rome. As a consequence, the Parthian regime was overthrown and replaced by a Persian dynasty, the Sassanids. The third century also became a period of crisis for the Roman Empire as repeated civil wars, lethal pandemics and foreign invasions reduced the fighting strength of its legions. The desert frontier between the two empires became a battleground as they fought to capture or devastate strategic outposts and control invasion routes.

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In AD 260 the Persian king, Shapur I, captured the Emperor Valerian during an attack on Syria. Valerian’s son Gallienus was proclaimed emperor in Rome but the commander of the Rhine legions declared autonomy and established an independent government in Gaul.

Gallienus was also challenged by imperial rivals who seized power in Syria. The Palmyrenes took this opportunity to intervene and a commander, Odaenathus, gathered a large force of armed men from his home city. His militia pursued and attacked the Persian army as it withdrew from the Roman frontiers and helped defeat rival imperial claimants in Syria. With these victories, Odaenathus proclaimed himself Ruler of Palmyra and received imperial titles from the grateful Emperor Gallienus, such as ‘Preserver of the East’, as well as confirmation of consular Roman rank. By the time Odaenathus was assassinated in 267, Palmyra had become a royal military regime dominating Roman Syria.

After his death, Odaenathus’ wife, Queen Zenobia, claimed his royal titles and began to rule on behalf of their infant son. In 268 there was further crisis in the west when Gallienus was murdered and Roman armies fought to repel Germanic invaders who threatened Italy. Exploiting the situation, Zenobia sent Palmyrene forces into Jordan, Egypt and Asia Minor to seize authority from the established Roman governors. In AD 272 the Emperor Aurelian led a Roman counterattack and, after defeating the Palmyrene army at Antioch, he marched on Palmyra. Zenobia was captured trying to escape into Persia and Aurelian placed a Roman garrison in the captured desert city. The following year the Palmyrenes staged an uprising and Aurelian ordered Palmyra and its inhabitants to be sacked and destroyed. 

Following these dramatic events Palmyra never recovered its former independence or commercial importance. All records of caravan ventures cease in 273 and the depleted city became no more than a garrison outpost for imperial troops defending a frontier territory from foreign hostilities. Yet even after two millennia, remnants of abandoned ancient ruins have survived the savagery of war, terrorism and the erosion of dry desert winds. Such was the prosperity of the ancient city of Palmyra. The concern now is its restoration – or not – following the barbarities of ISIS as the Syrian civil war continues.  

Raoul McLaughlin taught at Queen's University, Belfast. 

When All Roads Led to Palmyra

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