Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The western networks of Palmyra

Two weeks ago, I went to Copenhagen in order to attend the conference Palmyra and the Mediterranean that concluded the Palmyra Portrait Project. The Palmyra Portrait team, headed by Rubina Raja (Aarhus) and Andreas Kropp (Nottingham) have over the last years tracked down, measured, photographed and described more than 2000 of the Palmyrene portrait busts, that once sealed graves in the funerary towers, house-tombs and underground hypogea in the Syrian desert city. Their database will hopefully go online later this year. The database is, however, only part of their work. They are also editing the excavation diaries and notebooks of Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt, one of the most important excavators of Palmyra, they are launching a new book series on Palmyra, and they have organized a series of workshops and conferences.

My own interest in Palmyra stems from my postdoctoral work on the trade of the city, but Palmyra was also of course an important city in the wider context of the Roman Near East, and it is well suited to network studies for reasons of its epigraphic record of some 3000 inscriptions in Aramaic, Greek, and (a few in) Latin. At this conference I was invited to give a talk on the western networks of Palmyra, and below is a brief summary of the approach I took in that paper. What I wanted to demonstrate was how thinking in terms of networks can help explain the rather spectacular career and success of Palmyra, that emerged from obscure origins in the first centuries BCE to compete for leadership of the Roman Empire in the third quarter of the third century. Pending peer-review the paper will eventually appear in a conference volume in the book series launched by the Palmyra Portrait Project and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Palmyra is generally studied for its connections to the east or its situation on the eastern edge of the Roman world, alternatively for its distinctiveness, as something between east and west or something of its own. While I think these perspectives remain valuable and valid, I still appreciate the challenge to think about Palmyra in a Mediterranean context.

Sociologist Michael Mann, in his monumental Sources of Social Power (1986-2012), argues that power relations take the form of social networks.  He identifies four sources of social power: Ideology, Economy, Military and Politics. Networks of course describe connections between people. It is quite possible to study power in the forms of institutions, as traditional social science does, but this misses the aspect that power is always exercised in relation to someone. Arguably Mann’s IEMP model provides a potent framework for understanding Palmyras remarkable trajectory of power, and by not treating power as a zero-sum game, it is also good at catching the dynamics between the multiplicity of tribes, city-states, principalities and empires with a stake in what was going on in the Near East in the Roman period.

Starting with politics, the most constant relation of Palmyra, spanning from some of the earliest inscriptions in the Temple of Bel to the coins of Zenobia and Vaballthus during the rebellion in 270-273, is that with Rome. The Palmyrenes dedicated monuments to the Roman emperors, honour individual Romans as well as Palmyrenes who have been generous on behalf of the city occasion of imperial visits, and of course they employ the Roman name of their city, Hadriana. This is a typical mode of attention seeking for local communities in the Roman World. The remarkable thing with Palmyra is of course that she goes from saying “listen Rome, we are here”, to saying “listen folks, we are Rome”.

Moving on to military power, we have at least 23 inscriptions attesting the presence of Roman officers, soldiers or military units in Palmyra. This of course is what we would expect in a border region like the Syrian Desert, more interesting is the well known fact that we find Palmyrene soldiers in Roman Service attested in several places in Dacia and Numidia, in Egypt, where we have Palmyrene archers at Berenike, and possibly at South Shields in Britain. We also have them at Dura Europos and in a number of other locations on the middle Euphrates. Of course during the third quarter of the third century, we find Palmyrene soldiers just about everywhere from Ctesiphon in the East to Egypt and Anatolia in the west. Through this tradition of Palmyrene military service a strong tradition of Palmyrene integration with the Roman Empire will have evolved, and there is a equal or larger military diaspora in the west, to the much more famous commercial diaspora in the east.

Economically, we get the impression that Palmyra interacts with her surroundingson at least five levels. We have the city itself, then we have the surrounding territory. Third, of course we have the Empire, with its tax and money systems, and movements of resources from the periphery towards the centre, and back towards the frontiers in military expenditure. Fourth, we have Palmyrene commercial activities, attested southwards to the Gulf of Aden, and Eastwards to India, westwards to Egypt, and I think we can assume also to Rome, although we only have indirect evidence in the Palmyrene temple there. Finally, of course, we have the ancient world exchange, spanning from Spanish Silver mines to silk-producing Chinese Mulberry groves, with Palmyra as one of the major gateways integrating the system.

The ideological networks that Palmyra tapped into are perhaps the most difficult to identify. I’ve argued elsewhere that it makes sense to characterise Palmyrene identity at ethnic, in the sense that it was based on perceived common descent, and that the main way of becoming Palmyrene is being born into the group. The Palmyrene community, attested from Mesopotamia and the Gulf of Aden to South Shields, Rome and Numidia shared a feeling of being Palmyrene, that we can trace by proxies such as religion, script, language, sculpture, clothing onomastics, citizenship and so on.

A strong group identity, however, did not prevent Palmyrenes from engaging with other ideological networks, and in my view that is perhaps the main key to understand their success. I have already mentioned how Palmyra competed for privilege and status within the Roman world. The bilingual nature of Palmyra is also interesting in this respect. Many people, and many communities in the Near East will have been bilingual, but the interesting and significant difference with Palmyra is that they make a point of it. They go into the Greek Hellenistic world saying “we are like you”, but at the same time they stand by their Aramaic identity. This will have given them common ground with people in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Near East, and also far further afield in Mesopotamia and further to the East.

Finally, while some aspects of the Palmyrene religious landscape can surely be related to the Syrian identity that we are also looking at through the use of Aramaic language, others seem to have different connotations, like the mounted divinities, often characterized as caravan gods. These seem to relate to the world of nomads, of the steppe, and of aristocratic warrior life. There is also a well-documented Jewish presence in Palmyra, and Palmyrene Jews are attested from a handful of settings outside Palmyra. To use this latter group as an example, people who identified themselves as Palmyrenes and Jews, speaking Greek and Aramaic, being familiar with the ways of the Desert and of the sown, and being able to present themselves as Romans if need be, certainly had a wide register to draw on.

In conclusion, what I think is useful about Mann’s model of Ideological, Economic, Military and Political networks of power with regard to Palmyra is not only that it allows us to show how the city engaged with others in a local, regional and proto-global setting, but it also provides a framework for thinking about how this developed over time. In other words it helps us going from describing the success of Palmyra to also explaining it. This point can also be made for the wider field of network studies, where I think Mann's model is one of the qualitative approaches that has a great potential to explain the patterns revealed by quantitative network analysis.

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