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The Syrian Cuckoo: Rome and the Unconquered Sun

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Running after foreign gods - Richard Stoneman explains how Rome's Syrian rival, the city of Palmyra, and her formidable queen Zenobia influenced the religion and mores of the later Empire - and brought us in the process Christmas Day.

When the Emperor Septimius Severus died in AD 211 the city of Rome was the central focus and firm ruler of an empire that stretched from Cadiz to the Euphrates and from Britain and the Danube to Libya and Egypt; the home of a court that attracted writers and intellectuals from the most distinguished schools of the Greek East; and the dispenser to the hungry plebs of doles of corn and other food- stuffs which put half the east in fee. Little more than a hundred years later, that empire had been divided into two parts, of which the momentum now lay in the east. Rome had acquired magnificent new walls, but through that very circumstance had come to resemble many other cities of the northern and western empire; the western court lay elsewhere, and the Roman Senate, who – it has been calculated – represented 0.0002 per cent of the population of the empire at whose head they stood, had become just another local aristocracy. The Roman Empire had become a body whose head was no longer the conquering city of Rome; the Imperial cities looked no longer inward, to a city, but upward, to a God-directed ruler, for the meaning of their existence.

This change was not a swift or a simple one, and in this article I aim to discuss just one aspect of the outside influences on the dominant Roman culture which created the internal possibilities for the transition from a world subject to Rome to a world state. The military threat was obviously central, in the form of repeated invasions from beyond the borders of the empire, especially the Danube and the Euphrates; and the problem for an emperor of maintaining a power base away either from Rome or from his legions led to a rapid succession of rulers in the first seventy years of the third century; but the tone of life, cultural and spiritual as well as material, was changing in the empire, and the new attitudes made new solutions inevitable. It is a cliche to say that all innovation comes from the vast: but I believe one can trace crucial features of the change in the clash between the cultures of Rome and Syria.

Syrian mores had never gone down particularly well at Rome. Since Pompey's conquest of the region which had been the Seleucid kingdom of Syria, and now consisted of the three kingdoms of Judaea, Ituraea and Nabataea, plus an even looser alignment of states in North Syria from Antioch to the Euphrates, upright Romans had felt their lives degraded by exposure to an Oriental riff-raff:

Long since, the stream that wanton Syria laves
Has disembogued its filth in Tiber's waves,
Its language, arts; o'erwhelmed us with the scum
Of Antioch's streets, its minstrel, harp and drum,

snarled Juvenal (fl. AD 100-127; the translation is William Gifford's). Even Horace had characterised their presence in Rome in a wonderful three word hexameter, ambubaiarum collegia, pharmacopolae, ('colleges of flute-girls – abbubo is a n Aramaic word for a kind of fife – 'and mounte-bank quacks'). Poets like Meleager of Gadara had felt pride in being as Syrian as they were Greek, but most of the slaves we can identify in Ptolemaic Egypt were of Syrian (including Jewish) origin.

True, Syrians were perhaps not as low down the Roman social scale as Jews. From an early date they formed colleges of merchants throughout the empire, solidly established enough to found their own temples, like one at Puteoli – something which Jews abroad never did. But their religious practices did little to endear them to the conservative practitioners of the Roman state religion. Lucian's (b. ca. AD 120) essay On the Syrian Goddess vividly describes the ceremonials of that deity at Hierapolis (Mabbug): to a temple surrounded by minarets on which squatted stylite ascetics proceeded an army of no less than three hundred priests in white vestments and caps, following a high priest in purple robe and gold train. These officials performed sacrifice twice a day to the accompaniment of singing, the squeal of pipes and the shaking of rattles. These sounds, according to our author, regularly induced frenzy in the celebrants, many of them women. The cult included festivals of self-laceration, and the most austere devotees of the goddess performed their own initiation by self- castration. Lucretius evokes the Roman rites of the Phrygian Cybele with whom she was identified:

Amidst her pomp fierce drums and cymbals beat,
And the hoarse horns with rattling notes do threat;
The pipe with Phrygian air disturbs their souls,
Till reason overthrown, mad passion rules....
Here some in arms dance round among the crowd,
Look dreadful gay in their own sparkling blood,
Their crests still shaking with a dreadful nod. (trans. Thomas Creech)

(When nearby Edessa became Christian, King Abgar outlawed the Hierapolitan practice of severing the genitals by punishing all offenders with the loss of one hand as well.)

Citizens of Rome reacted to this kind of thing rather as a modern Londoner does to the outlandish processions of the Hare Krishna religionists. But having something to disapprove of would perhaps only strengthen Roman cohesion. More insidious was the effect of Syria on the Roman legions posted there, which became a byword for idleness, luxury and slack discipline. Nero's general, Corbulo, found them dissolute, but his disciplinary reforms were obviously short-lived, for, seventy years later, Fronto was praising Marcus Aurelius in these terms:

The army you took over was demoralised with luxury and immorality and prolonged idleness. The soldiers at Antioch were wont to spend their time clapping actors, and were more often found in the nearest cafe-garden than in the ranks... Gambling was rife in camp: sleep night-long, or, if a watch was kept, it was over the wine cups.

Their diet included such luxuries as chicken and pastry, and the excavators of Dura-Europos found that the bath-house had been kept in a considerably better state of repair than the fortifications.

Two centuries later the discipline of the Syrian legions was still no better, and the orator Libanius could complain at length of the protection rackets practised on the peasantry by the army officers under the name of 'military patronage'.

It is paradoxical that idleness should be endemic in the guardians of what was one of the tenderest spots in Rome's defences. This situation arose from the peculiar nature of the eastern frontier, which was not amenable to military defence in the strict sense, so that the military presence acted rather as a deterrent. A frontier notably lacking in precision, it depended on a no-man's-land taking in much of the Syrian desert bordering on the Euphrates – a no-man's-land through which the desert nomads constantly drifted. Crucial to the preservation of the status quo were the buffer kingdom of Armenia in the north and the semi-independent city of Palmyra, as well as the frontier fort of Dura in the east. Armenia remained a bone of contention well into the principate; Augustus seems to have established an accommodation with Parthia over the status of Palmyra, which made it the node of the trade route from the east. Trajan's attempt to extend the frontier beyond the Euphrates and to take in the Parthian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon failed to become permanent. Too dense a line of defence was required to hold desert country. In this region, what Freya Stark has called 'the weak periphery' was the only solution. Friendly but independent states like Palmyra were essential to Rome's security. The frontier area was not an iron curtain but a carefully policed network of roads and communications.

Palmyra's importance to Rome was not confined to military aspects. It was the key post, as a glance at the map will show, on the major trade routes from the Far East. The silk road which began at Ch'ang-an in China and crossed the Gobi desert, the High Pamirs and the Iranian plateau made its approach to the homely Mediterranean across the Euphrates close to Palmyra, before continuing to Antioch or Damascus. With the rise of the Kushan kingdom in the third decade of the second century this route was interrupted, and the caravans diverted southwards to the ports of India, either at the mouth of the Ganges, or at Barygaza (Broach) and the mouths of the Indus. Here the trade converged with the equally important spice trade which began from India and the East Indies, and followed the sea route either through the Red Sea to Aqaba, or through the Persian Gulf to the mouth of the Euphrates.

The caravans from Aqaba came to the Mediterranean via Petra, and after the Roman annexation of Nabataea of which it was the capital, in AD 106, Rome benefited cheaply from its commerce. From the Euphrates they came, through the port of Spasinou Charax and the city of Vologesias – at both of which places were colonies of Palmyrene merchants – to Palmyra. If Trajan had succeeded in extending the frontier beyond the Euphrates, Palmyra would have been in the same case as Petra; as it was, it preserved its independence in the no-man's-land and waxed prosperous on the trade. According to Pliny (Natural History), Rome spent 100 million sesterces annually on the purchase of luxury goods from the East. If the role of the empire was above all to make life comfortable for the people of Rome, the increasing luxury of their tastes made Palmyra (the intermediary for silk and aromatics) at least as important as Egypt, from which they got their bread.

Palmyra's success has usually been taken as the result of the activities of a trading aristocracy. That in itself would be an unusual thing in the ancient world. In addition, it has been assumed that Palmyra had complete autonomy in the levying of taxes on the goods brought by caravan from the furthest east – this assumption being based on that marvellous discovery, the detailed Palmyrene tariff of AD 137. Yet it seems clear that this tariff, with its rates chargeable on dried goods, olive oil, lard and dried fish – as well as myrrh, slaves and prostitutes – was aimed chiefly at the local traffic to market of a hinterland far more fertile than it is now. The city hardly became the ornament of the east on the proceeds of wool and camel- fodder. The big money in Palmyra came from elsewhere. The merchants will have brought some of their profits back to their city from their establishments elsewhere, but it is not they who receive the dedications honouring benefactors that are so plentiful at Palmyra.

The trousers and swords with which Palmyrene citizens are portrayed in art imply a people of warrior-knights rather than of merchants. Immediate and substantial wealth flowed in to the tribal sheikhs who provided protection for the caravans. It was precisely that no-man's- land quality of the region between Vologesias and Palmyra that ensured the people of Palmyra their prosperity. For the caravan-leader or synodiarch, a town-dwelling sheikh, would recruit a body of troops from his tribesmen in the desert to guarantee the safe-conduct of the slow camel train through 250 kilometres of Bedouin territory. The merchants' wealth came only via these fierce Arabs to the city itself.

The system is analogous to the 'blackmail' paid to a leading sheikh of Damascus in the last century to afford protection for the caravan of the pilgrimage to Mecca. 'He receives the annual sum of 200,000 piastres, nominally to supply 650 camels and men for carrying barley, but really for permit to pass, a blackmail... politely called voluntary contributions' (Isabel Burton, Inner Life of Syria, 1875). Just such a man would have been the Soados honoured in an inscription of Palmyra:

The pious man who loved his native land, who on many and important occasions protected in a noble and generous way the interests of traders and caravans and of his co-citizens established at Vologesias.

From rewards such as these came the wealth that, from Hadrian's time onwards, made Palmyra the most sumptuous city of the Roman east. Antioch might excel it in social life and public entertainments, Jerusalem in venerable tradition and religious intensity, but Palmyra was the Queen of the Desert. And that in itself was no danger to Rome’s supremacy. The danger became noticeable with the resurgence of Persian power under Ardashir, who established a new empire on the remains of the moribund Parthian power. His successor, Shapur, set out to reclaim the Middle East from Rome. At first Rome had reason to be grateful to Palmyra, when her leading citizen, Prince Odenath, drove back the Persian invasion of 262. The rise of Persia was a threat equally to Palmyra, for it closed the Euphrates route and would have forced trade to go by the more northerly Euphrates port of Nisibis, to Edessa. So it was in Odenath's interest to rally to Rome's side. He drove back the Sassanid forces as far as Ctesiphon and received from Rome the title of corrector (or restitutor) totius Orientis. Finding this insufficient, he began to mint coins in his own name as emperor, until he was killed in mysterious circumstances by his nephew Maeonius.

He was succeeded by his wife Zenobia, who forswore any degree of accommodation with Rome and set out to create a Palmyrene empire which would echo that of an earlier Arab queen, Semiramis. Shc gathered around her a court of generals and intellectuals, amongst whom the most prominent was Longinus, described by Eunapius as 'a living library and a walking museum'.

It is worth pausing a little to examine the culture of Zenobia's Palmyra, for it encapsulates many of the distinctive traits of Rome's far east at this period. Zenobia herself was fluent in Greek as well as Aramaic, although her Latin was halting: her sons spoke it better. Such a mingling of Greek and Semitic culture was a precondition for the distinctive religious developments of the Roman east, which are central to the change in the image of Rome as ruler of the world.

Ancient Syria (including Judaea) was the cradle of the three great monotheisms of the ancient world: Judaism, Christianity (the first Christian kingdom was that of Edessa, modern Urfa in Turkey, whose king Abgar was said to have corresponded with Jesus), and the distinctively Arab worship of the sun. The third is perhaps the least familiar to modern readers, and deserves a further word.

The religion of Palmyra exhibits a bewildering variety of gods and cults, whose characteristics are not easy to distinguish. There is the Babylonian god Bel, the Phoenician Baal-shamin, 'the Lord of Heaven', Yarhibol, the patron of the spring, Etfca, who (despite his crescent crown) has important solar aspects, the pair Aglibol and Malakbel ('angel of Bel'), who represent respectively moon and sun, the ancient sun god Shamash, and a variety also of female goddesses such as Allat (in later Islamic tradition, one of the daughters of Allah), the 'Syrian goddess' Atargatis, and minor deities, such as djinns and gads, and the twin camel gods, Arsu and Azizu. The confusion of aspect of many of the gods is certainly due to the overlay of a pan-Arab religion of the sun which blurs their original and distinct functions.

The sun cult dominant at Palmyra had also begun to make itself felt in Rome, where dedications to a sun god of some kind had begun as early as Augustus and Nero. Vespasian's Syrian legions acclaimed him in the name of the sun, whom they greeted every morning, and Vespasian dedicated a statue to him in AD 75. The advance of the Arab Sol lnvictus was facilitated by his similarity to the sun god in the religion of Mithras, so popular with Roman soldiers, so that it is often difficult to tell whether a dedication is for the Syrian Sol Invictus or the Iranian.

Many Syrian soldiers abroad erected dedications to the sun god of Emesa (Homs), Sol Elagabalus, and the most famous invasion of Syrian sun-cult into Rome came with the ascent to the throne of that god's boy priest, Elagabalus, in AD 218. Brought up in Emesa, he imported the black stone that embodied the god to Rome, and set up a special college of priests of the sun, and led the orgiastic processions of the God through the streets of Rome itself. His aim seems to have been to unite al] the religions of Rome in the worship of Elagabal.

It was not long before Elagabalus was lynched and his memory damned, and the black stone re- turned to Emesa. His brother, Severus Alexander, kept his religious predilections more to himself, devoting a private chapel – if the Historia Augusta may be believed – to the honour of Orpheus, Abraham, Alexander the Great, and Apollonius of Tyana. Several passages of the Histioria Augusta make it clear that one of the characteristics of bad emperors was an adherence to Oriental cults. Commodus and Isis were other examples.

Yet dedications to Sol Invictus continue to appear in Rome. The Emperor Gordian III (238-42) planned a dedication to Sol/Shamash, and Gallienus minted coins inscribed Soli Invicto. Why was this monotheism of the Sun gaining such ground?

Hand in hand with the dedications of political men went the arguments of the philosophers. Many thinkers sought to reduce religious manifestations to one or another form of the sun as God. In the fourth century Macrobius made his character Avienus interpret every god of the Greek and Roman pantheon as an aspect or interpretation of the sun, while the neo-Platonic philosophers also came to venerate the sun as an expression or emanation of the good. That view is clear as early as the Jewish philosopher Philo who speaks of God as the sun of the sun, and it reappears in the Emperor Julian's Hymn to the Sun, where the sun is an image of the good, 'midway between the visible gods surrounding the universe and the intelligible Gods surrounding the Good'.

The Stoic philosophy, whose roots lay in Syria, had tendencies towards both monotheism and the cult of the heavenly bodies: it was also strongly universalist in tone, envisioning a world state as well as a single god. A universal religion, handled subtly, could give the Roman Emperors an additional tool with which to weld their huge empire together. Sun cult could he expressed both in the religion of Mithras, a Persian religion very popular with the army, and through the cult of the Arab Shamash as Sol Invictus. It was the latter, of course, that dominated at Palmyra. The other monotheisms also made their mark. It is hardly possible to know how far the cults of the Sun and the other gods were intellectualised at Palmyra, but Zenobia would have been very conscious of the different religious currents in Syria, and it has been thought that she herself showed pronounced sympathies for Judaism, or was even a proselyte. Certainly she was responsible for the restoration of at least one synagogue, in Egypt.

Her links with Christianity are also interesting, though inconclusive. The rebellious bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, who maintained a private choir of women whose function was to sing hymns to him as an angel, depended for his power on Zenobia's support. Whether his eventual expulsion from office by Aurelian should be interpreted as a piece of international power politics is doubtful – it is more probably simply a response by the emperor to a plea for assistance by Paul's disgruntled fellow-Christians – at the very least the connection shows that Zenobia wished to have the leading religionists of Syria on her side when the time came to challenge Rome.

It is not Palmyra but Dura which represents the neatest microcosm of Syrian religion. In this site, safely buried for centuries under the mud and sand of the desert, the excavations of a team from Yale University in the 1930s uncovered temples of the Palmyrene gods, of syncretised Greek/Aramaic gods such as Artemis-Azzanathkona, of Mithras, the favourite god of the Roman legionaries, and of his close rival Jupiter Dolichenus, as well as a small Christian chapel and the most elaborate and spectacular synagogue ever found, decorated in its entirety with magnificent frescoes of Old Testament scenes.

To return to Palmyra. Odenath's repulsion of the Persians had been only a temporary success, and Palmyra's role as a focus of trade was still threatened. Dura had already been razed by Persia in 253, and definitively destroyed in 269. Palmyrene survival demanded aggression. In that year Zenobia, as the successor of Semiramis invaded Egypt. Her success was complete but brief. Egypt was Rome's granary, the main source of the bread on which Rome fed its imperial plebs. A Roman fleet reclaimed Egypt, only to find Zenobia had invaded Asia Minor. By 271 Zenobia and her son Waballath were striking imperial coins in their own names. Palmyra had set itself up, not as a rebel, but as a direct rival to Rome.

Aurelian, emperor since 270, marched on Palmyra, forced its surrender, and brought Zenobia in chains to Antioch for trial. Her advisers, among them Longinus, were executed, but she was led in triumph through Rome and then to an honourable retirement at Tivoli. But this first attack had not reduced Palmyra: as soon as Aurelian's back was turned, the Roman garrison was massacred and a new king, Antiochus, proclaimed. This time Aurelian's response was devastating. By a forced march which would be impossible in the desert conditions of to- day, his army returned to Palmyra, sacked and destroyed it, demolished its walls and slaughtered much of its population. Palmyra had succumbed after all to the fate of Dura. In the encroaching desert, its surviving inhabitants eked out a squalid life among its gorgeous ruins until the Emperor Justinian, three centuries later, restored its walls and made it a garrison post once more against the still-menacing Persians.

Yet Zenobia's legacy to Rome – and to us – was no small one. On his return to Rome, Aurelian 'built a lavish temple to the Sun, which he adorned with votive offerings from Palmyra, and in which he set up statues of the Sun and Bel'. This action should be seen in the light of the need of a conquering power to bring the gods of an enemy over to its own side; but for Aurelian it also gave the opportunity for the definitive establishment of the cult of the sun it Rome, a universal religion for an empire whose claims to universalism had, it seemed, been firmly reasserted. A cult without the excesses and personal enthusiasms of Elagabalus had the power to unite the diverse peoples of the empire.

Fustel de Coulanges, eighty years ago, wrote that Christianity, because it was not a local or domestic religion, changed the whole foundation of the ancient city. In fact the reforms of Aurelian had already begun the process to be continued by Christianity. Citizens of the empire no longer worshipped the gods of Rome. Their gaze was fixed on a higher deity, the sun; Rome had outlived its role in the empire and could retreat behind Aurelian's magnificent new walls with quiet dignity. Such was the wound inflicted by Syria on the city of Rome.

Aurelian, despite his simple personal habits and military breeding, wore a diadem and a robe adorned with gold and gems suitable for the first emperor to proclaim himself a god on earth. Such splendour looked forward to the absolutism of Diocletian and to the jewelled magnificence of the Christian court of Justinian.

The most reverberant of all Aurelian's actions is perhaps the establishment, in AD 274, of an annual festival of the sun falling on the winter solstice, December 25th. When the empire became Christian the birthday of Christ was transferred to this date to make the new religion more acceptable to those who enjoyed the festivities of the old. It is a curious thought, that it should be ultimately due to the Empress Zenobia that we celebrate our Christmas Day.



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