When Palmyra rivaled the Roman Empire

May 25, 2015
Tourists take pictures at the ancient Palmyra theater in the historical city of Palmyra

Tourists take pictures at the ancient theater in the historical city of Palmyra, April 18, 2008. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Palmyra’s history stretches back to the dawn of civilization. The city has had many masters during its long and storied past. Throughout, its celebrated 2nd-century temples and civic buildings have remained intact — even surviving a brutal sacking by Roman troops. Since Islamic State recently seized control, however, Palmyra’s magnificent ruins have been endangered as never before.

Palmyra fell into Rome’s orbit in the 1st century BC. The site had long been inhabited — stone tools discovered at the desert oasis 120 miles northeast of Damascus have been dated to 7500 BC. But the city remained a minor way station in the desert between the Roman and Parthian empires until a fateful decision by the emperor Trajan in 106. While organizing newly conquered territory near the Arabian Gulf, Trajan re-routed the southern branch of the Silk Road through Palmyra. The massive increase in caravan traffic was a boon to the city’s fortunes.

Granted political autonomy after a visit from the emperor Hadrian in 129, Palmyra expanded rapidly. The city made a fortune protecting and taxing the caravans that passed through her gates and the merchant elite invested in civic building projects that showcased Palmyra’s unique fusion of Greek, Roman and Persian architecture. Most of the ruins now in danger were constructed during these years.

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The empires of the Mediterranean Sea in 271. (Wikimedia Commons)

But while Palmyra thrived, the Roman Empire entered a period of crisis. In the mid-3rd century, a series of barbarian invasions led to a breakdown of internal political cohesion. As the provinces were ransacked, a succession of soldier-emperors vied for power in an endless cycle of civil wars. Between 235-253, 11 different men sat on the throne. The golden age of the Roman Empire was over.

As the western provinces wrestled with barbarian hordes, the eastern provinces faced an even deadlier threat. The decaying Parthian Empire that had ruled central Asia for the last 400 years was overthrown in 224 by an energetic new power: the Sassanids. Eager to take advantage of Roman weakness, the Sassanid King Shapur launched an invasion of the Roman east in 253 — sweeping past the overmatched legionary garrisons and sacking the regional capital Antioch. 

A threat of this magnitude required the personal attention of an emperor. Leaving his son Gallienus behind to defend the west, the emperor Valerian marched east to re-assert Roman authority. He brought the situation under control, but in 260 disaster struck. Shapur defeated Valerian at the Battle of Edessa and not only destroyed the eastern legions, but captured the emperor. Now unopposed, Shapur and his army sacked the cities of the Roman east one-by-one. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Sassanids conquered Syria.

And that’s when Palmyra swooped in to the rescue. Believing that lucrative autonomy under the Romans was far better than subjugation by the Sassanids, Palmyrene leader Septimius Odenathus organized a defense force. This makeshift army attacked Shapur’s forces as they returned home laden with Roman treasure. Taken by surprise, the Sassanid army was put to flight — an ignoble end to their invasion.

Despite Odenathus’s victory, the eastern provinces were still dangerously exposed. But Valerian’s son and co-emperor, Gallienus, was unable to send any assistance. Too busy dealing with the further collapse of the western provinces, the emperor instead bestowed upon Odenathus the title totius Orientis imperator — commander of the east. Odenathus was granted broad powers to defend the eastern frontier. Technically subordinate to the emperor, the Palmyrene king was now the de facto ruler of the Eastern Empire.

With an army composed local conscripts, Palmyrene archers and the remnants of Valerian’s legions, Odenathus held the Sassanids at bay for the next seven years. The Palmyrenes even went on the offensive — pushing east and reasserting dominion over Roman territory Shapur had annexed. But in 268, Odenathus was assassinated by a disgruntled relative, leaving Palmyra and the Eastern Empire leaderless and vulnerable once again.

Into the vacuum stepped Odenathus’s remarkable wife Queen Zenobia. A strong-willed and ambitious woman, Zenobia asserted the right of her sons to inherit their father’s title of Orientis imperator. As they were still minors, she also asserted her right to rule until they came of age. Already commanding the loyalty of the best Palmyrene generals, Zenobia used her considerable diplomatic skills to secure alliances with the major cities of the east — forging a Pylmyrene-led political coalition that extended deep into Asia Minor.

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The Palmyrene Empire at its greatest extent. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though she was always careful to acknowledge fealty to Rome, it soon became clear that Zenobia was building an independent Palmyrene empire to rule the lands between Persia and Greece. In 270, Zenobia made her boldest move yet — ordering her army to occupy Egypt. With the Romans tied down battling both barbarians and each other — who was going to stop her?

Unfortunately for Zenobia, she made her bid for independence just as Aurelian, one of the most formidable emperors in Roman history, ascended to power. In just five years Aurelian would re-unite the empire and put it back on sound political, military and economic footing — paving the way for the great imperial renaissance lead by Diocletian and Constantine.

Determined to prevent Palmyra from forging an independent Empire, Aurelian marched east at the head of an army in 272. But instead of laying waste to the cities that had pledged allegiance to Palmyra, Aurelian employed a policy of firm leniency to return the rebel cities to the Roman fold. By the time the emperor arrived in Syria, Zenobia was politically isolated and her nascent Palmyrene empire on the brink of extinction.

In two great battles, Aurelian defeated Zenobia’s armies and the queen was forced to fall back to Palmyra itself. With her home city under siege, Zenobia attempted to escape to the Sassanid court and beg them for assistance, but she was discovered by a Roman cavalry patrol and taken into custody. With their queen captured, Palmyra surrendered. Aurelian allowed his men to plunder the rich city, but he did not impose any permanent sanctions — hoping to keep the oasis city as a Roman ally and a key link in the Silk Road.

But after Aurelian marched away to confront yet another barbarian invasion in the west, the leaders of Palmyra made a fatal decision. Believing the emperor was tied down battling Goths on the Danube frontier, they planned a new revolt against Roman authority. When Aurelian was alerted to the planned revolt he dropped everything and raced back to the Syrian desert. In the spring of 273, Aurelian and his army were back at the gates of Palmyra. The revolt was crushed before it even began.

As punishment for this second revolt (and to ensure it would never happen again) the Emperor ordered his men to raze Palmyra to the ground — leaving only the temples and a few other public buildings intact (which is why temples are so prominent among the modern ruins). The emperor then redirected the Silk Road to bypass Palmyra, cutting off her economic lifeblood. Crushed and broken, the city that had nearly seized control of the Eastern Roman Empire faded back into relative obscurity.

Palmyra would remain a minor legionary outpost for the remainder of the Roman period and then find itself passed around by various Muslim rulers after the rise of Islam. Though the city was occasionally prosperous, it would never be as rich and powerful as it had been under Odenathus and Zenobia. But the spectacular ruins that stand beautifully preserved in the desert bear witness to her former glory — spectacular ruins that now face destruction at the hands of men who would like to erase Palmyra from history altogether.

5 comments

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Beautiful story. Always amazes me though how our human history is one long string of wars.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Sad about the destruction of such historic relics. Lessons we could use here with our native American land. Like Celilo Village under the Columbia River now from The Dalles Dam, a village that had been the oldest continual settlement in North America. Hopefully we will learn to cherish sites.

Posted by Riehlthing | Report as abusive

Um, what was the point of pretending the name of the Seleucid Empire was really the Palmyrene Empire?

Posted by ReutAway | Report as abusive

And the Barbarians return. If only the world could find a 21st century Aurelian instead of President Obama

Posted by Nofit | Report as abusive

ReutAway
I don’t know if you are joking, but in case you are really this ignorant of history, let me tell you that the time between the fall of the Seleucid Empire and the rise of the Palmyrene Empire is around 300 years. The Seleucid Empire was founded in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire by his general Seleucis. The Romans were among the causes of its fall, and that happened, obviously, before Rome took control of her territory (in Syria).

Posted by dentedpat | Report as abusive