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ISIS and the Destruction of Palmyra

In May, 2015, ISIS militants took Palmyra, and began “…systematically destroying the city’s treasured ancient monuments” (Calderwood) until the site was retaken by the Syrian army over a year later. But that year took a heavy toll on one of the world’s most significant cultural resources.

Reporting for The Guardian, feature writer Stuart Jeffries points out, “…earlier Muslims who have occupied Palmyra didn’t see fit to destroy it. Under the Ummayyad caliphate that existed in the city in the 7th century AD, part of the Temple of Bel was used as a mosque. Isis is erasing, then, not just pre-Islamic culture, but Islamic heritage, too.” In May of this year, Abu Laith al-Saoudy, ISIS commander at Palmyra, told Alwan FM, an anti-regime Syrian radio station, “Concerning the historic city, we will preserve it and it will not be harmed, God willing….What we will do is break the idols that the infidels used to worship. The historic buildings will not be touched and we will not bring bulldozers to destroy them like some people think” (qtd. in Jeffries). Nonetheless, Australian professor Ross Burns described the destruction of the Temple of Bel, remarking that it “…was blown up with great proficiency.… The only part that appears to be standing is the remarkable western doorway into the shrine, which was a spectacular entry with a richly decorated frame that sloped inwards as it rose in an Egyptian-influenced style” (qtd. in Jeffries).

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Fig. 1. What remains of the Temple of Bel after being dynamited. “Missing monuments: Before and after pics of Palmyra show what ISIS has destroyed.” TV-Novosti. 3 April 2016. Web. Dec. 15 2016.

Despite its significance, “…as a symbol of polytheism, it was also a glaring target to Isis” (Jeffries). The reckless demolition of the Temple of Bel, unfortunately, was not an isolated incident. Soon after, “…photographs released by Isis showed that Palmyra’s second most important temple, the Temple of Baal Shamin … had been dynamited” (Jeffries)

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Fig. 2. The destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin. Coghlan, Tom. “Isis shows destruction of ancient temple.” The Times. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

The casualties at Palmyra are not exclusively those of the historical and archaeological record. In August, ISIS decapitated Khaled al Asaad, the 81-year-old former director of the archaeological site at Palmyra. His body was hung on a column on one of the city’s colonnaded streets (Shaheen and Black). This was in more-or-less equal parts due to his affiliation with Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria; his management of the so-called “idols” at Palmyra; and for his failure, even when tortured, to provide details of the site’s most valuable antiquities, which ISIS would see sold on the black market, a hypocritical crime which ISIS has committed frequently over the past five years (Jeffries; Shaheen and Black). In July of 2015, ISIS took to the Roman Theater at Palmyra, producing a video of “Child executioners … being forced to brutally slaughter a group of more than 25 regime soldiers (Calderwood).

Waiting crowd: Earlier this month ISIS released an execution video from inside Palmyra, showing 25 child executioners lining up regime soldiers in a Roman amphitheatre and shooting them in the head

Fig. 4. Crowds watch as ISIS child executioners murder 25 Syrian regime soldiers. “Slaughter in the Roman Amphitheater.” The Daily Mail. 5 July 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Since the Syrian army’s recapture (discussed below) of the site, “…a mass grave containing more than 25 bodies including women and children” has been uncovered (Wintour). There is, however, the possibility that one of the casualties in the conflict may have prevented Palmyra from having been leveled into dust: “It also emerged that a plan to detonate 4,500 improvised mines that were linked to the telephone network was not carried out because the man responsible for triggering the explosions was killed by Assad loyalists working undercover” (Wintour).

In a more recent publication, The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour quoted Syrian Director of Antiquities Mamoun Abdulkarim as claiming that “…at the time of the capture of the desert town by Isis … many of the most important works had been transported to government-held Damascus, and some of the remaining statues were reproductions” but added that some Roman sarcophagi exhibiting relief sculpture were left behind, having weighed several tons each. In April, taking account of the contents within the site’s museum, it was discovered that  the destruction “…appears to have been devastating, with wanton disregard for the archaeological and cultural value of the artefacts. Tombs have been broken open and heads systematically removed from statues” (Wintour).

Fig. 5. Mutilated statuary at within the museum at Palmyra. Eid, Joseph. “In Palmyra, Islamic State Left Behind Mass Grave, Destroyed Monuments.” NPR. 2 April 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

In March of this year, CNN reported that “Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra from ISIS on Sunday, months after the city fell to the Islamic extremist group, state media reported” (Hutchison and Karimi). Since, UNESCO has laid plans to evaluate the damage, once security conditions allow, referring to the temples’ destruction as “a war crime” and assuring that “…those responsible for the destruction will be punished” (qtd. in Hutchison and Karimi).

Editor of British Archaeology Mike Pitts expressed the sentiment that best encapsulates the futility of jihadis’ destruction: “Isis has chastised archaeologists for digging up the past. Yet it cannot stop that happening. And no amount of physical destruction can remove the knowledge of mixed cultures, creative thinking and love of beauty that bequeathed a desert ruin. In the face of heritage, at the end of the day Isis is powerless” (qtd. in Jeffries).

Works Cited

Calderwood, Imogen. “Slaughter in the Roman Amphitheater: Horrific moment ISIS child executioners brutally shoot dead 25 Syrian regime soldiers in front of bloodthirsty crowds at ancient Palmyra ruin.” The Daily Mail 5 July 2015: n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

Hutchison, Kimberly and Faith Karimi. “Syrian forces capture Palmyra city from ISIS militants, state media reports.” CNN. 28 March 2016: n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Jeffies, Stuart. “Isis’s destruction of Palmyra: The heart has been ripped out of the city.” The Guardian 2 Sept. 2016: n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Shaheen, Karim and Ian Black. “Beheaded Syrian scholar refuses to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities.” The Guardian 19 Aug. 2015: n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Wintour, Patrick. “Isis destruction of Palmyra antiquities revealed in new pictures.” The Guardian 1 April 2016: n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

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An Archaeological Tour of Palmyra

The architectural styles of Palmyra are a testament to its history as a multicultural hub. Per UNESCO, “Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-Roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style,” depicting “…the contact point between the cultures of Rome and Iran” (Linck and Fassbinder 21; “Site of Palmyra”). This is evident in “The local, stylized, frontal-figured ‘Parthian’ art [that] comprises statues depicting deities, notables … funerary busts … sarcophagi showing the deceased, wall paintings, including funerary Roman allegories (Achilles, Ganymede) plaster heads, and friezes” (Hornblower et al. 566). Subtle nuances in masonry observable when examining some column capitals even suggest a heavy influence from as far east as India (Seyrig 6). Until Roman occupation, Palmyrene artistic styles, in sculpture and architecture, were an extension of the Graeco-Parthian East, later adopting more Western forms, mimicking the styles of Hellenized Syria (Seyrig 6).

Temple of Bel

The Temple of Bel, dedicated in 32 CE, was the focal point of religious worship in Palmyra, dedicated to the Mesopotamian deity Bel, Aglibol, and Iarebol, gods of the moon and sun, respectively (Richmond 44; “Temple of Bel”).  As the British archaeologist Sir Ian Richmond explains, “…while the mode and, to a large extent, the decoration of the building is of Roman craftsmanship, its plan is based upon the requirements of a Semitic cult, no less individual in guise than Jehovah’s worship in the Jerusalem temple of Herod the Great” (44). Richmond describes this artistic meeting of East and West at the Temple of Bel as follows:

The group of gods worshipped at Palmyra … are represented in the military dress of Hellenistic type matched, for example, at Dura [Europas], and sometimes accompanied by the goddess Ishtar [(the Mesopotamian equivalent of Aphrodite)], who was the Tyche [(the Greek divinity of fortune and prosperity)] of the city. They are honoured by a great procession of male dignitaries wearing Parthian trousers and of women who are as heavily veiled as Eastern custom could at any time decree. A richly caparisoned camel bears sacred objects or offerings covered by a sumptuous canopy, reminding us of that which enshrines the sacred carpet on its procession from Damascus to Mecca. These vivid reliefs transport us into the Eastern world whose religious beliefs dictated the design of the great temple. The first quick glance might suggest a building of classical pattern. (44–45)

Seyrig adds to the discussion of divine icons at the Temple of Bel, citing another relief featuring “…two gods fighting against a monster, while other gods are pictured beside them, clad in Hellenistic armour, all standing stiff, all strictly frontal. Such repetition of similar figures had been attractive to the ancient Egyptian and Oriental artist” (3–4). The artistic element of frontality—figures represented as forward-facing and rigid intended not to dramatize a scene but to evoke the spiritual presence of the divine—is a distinct feature of Eastern art, a form not to return until the Orientally-influenced Byzantines (Seyrig 4), but these icons were showcased in a structure indistinguishable from the Graeco-Roman tradition. “Palmyra, therefore, a forerunner of Byzantine art as early as about the time of Christ, once more appears to us in that function as an outpost of the civilization of Parthian Babylonia” (Seyrig 4).  These motifs in relief sculpture were not the only elements exhibiting a hybridization of East and West—structural architecture spoke to this cultural confluence as well.

The temple was initially adorned with elements of metalwork; whether precious metals were used or if more common metals were merely gilded is unclear, but what is certain is that when the temple was repurposed as a church and later as a mosque, these elements were stripped from the façade (Richmond 46). At the height of its patronage, the temple would have been a spectacle. Its construction ensured that the “…high lateral windows, placed just in front of the sanctuary fronts, would … ensure that a subdued side-light would play upon the metallic surfaces,” illuminating the space to echo its divine purpose (Richmond 46). Commenting on two surviving relief sculptures within this space, Sir Richmond again describes scenes of Eastern belief enshrined in Western-influenced architecture:

The first bears on one side a wonderful processional relief with a horse and four male figures walking side by side, a canopy-bearing camel and attendant women…. The reverse of this bears a sacrificial scene, with a tall incense burner. Two more carry respectively processions of the gods and a sacrificial scene in which Bel receives a horse and attendant, with other male figures in the background. The architrave carved below the processional relief exhibits handsome scroll-work, more open in design than that on the soffit. This remarkable design as a whole emphasizes the fact that here the conventions of Graeco-Roman architecture are applied to liturgical requirements and structural forms which have nothing to do with Western practice or belief. (46)

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Fig. 2. Temple of Bel. “Palmyra’s Temple of Bel destroyed, says UN.” British Broadcasting Network. 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Temple of Baalshamin

The Temple of Baalshamin is perhaps equal in importance to the Temple of Bel in illustrating Palmyra’s multicultural significance. The structure that stood until 2015 was “…in its present form … dedicated in A.D. I30-3I by Male, son of Yarhai, who had in A.D. I29 been host to the Emperor Hadrian and his cortege,” though earlier iterations date back seventy years prior—the colonnade over a century prior—evidenced by epigraphical data (Richmond 46). It was initially dedicated to “the Canaanite sky deity Baalshamin” and, like the Temple of Bel, converted into a Christian church four hundred years after the dedication of its altar (“Temple of Baalshamin”). Sir Richmond remarks on this site’s periphery, suggesting that the Temple of Baalshamin served a purpose different than that of the Temple of Bel:

To north lies a large colonnaded courtyard with a priests’ house on its north side, and to south a smaller court, also colonnaded, and associated with the banqueting chamber of a religious guild. The entire ensemble is thus to be connected rather with the cult of an individual group, no doubt connected with a great tribal sheik or caravan-family, than with the public cults of the city. The whole complex overlies an earlier cemetery on a different orientation, one of the sole traces of pre-Imperial Palmyra that has come to light. (47)

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Fig. 3. Temple of Baalshamin. “Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra.” Khan Academy. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

The Roman Theater at Palmyra

The Roman Theater at Palmyra is unarguable the most striking work of architecture in the city. Like the aforementioned temples, the theater is accessed via Palmyra’s intricate, ornate system of colonnades, a sequence of which leads to two large entry archways at either side of the stage. Undoubtedly constructed around the time of Hadrian’s patronage, “Its style suggests that the building is Hadrianic, as would agree with the unusually complicated planning of the stage … The surrounding colonnaded street is met on the axis of the theatre by a short colonnaded avenue leading southwards to a monumental entrance which later became the rear-court of a fortified city gate” (Richmond 48).

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Fig. 4. Roman Theater at Palmyra. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

The Agora at Palmyra

Adjacent the theater exists the ruins of Palmyra’s Agora, a 71-84-meter structure, entailing the Tariff Court and the Triclinium, within which stand two hundred columnar bases that once served as foundations of sculptures of prominent citizens: “the eastern side was reserved for senators, the northern side for Palmyrene officials, the western side for soldiers, and the southern side for caravan chiefs” (“Palmyra”). This market place was “…surrounded by a simple portico, of which the colonnaded front boasts twenty columns a side. The earliest inscriptions on the columns are Flavian, of A.D. 76 and 81, a time when Imperial road-making towards the Euphrates was in progress” (Richmond 48). That this complex was a public space is supported by the space’s resemblance to the Agora at Delos: “The back wall of the colonnade is pierced by no less than eleven doors, thus creating the impression not of a closed Forum, but of an open market-portico” (Richmond 48). Inscriptions deciphered within this complex exhibit evidence of trade networks on a surprising scale, indicating “…direct relations of Palmyra with Scythia, the current name for the Saka kingdoms of North-western India, to which Palmyrene merchant vessels, sailing from harbours on the Persian Gulf, had access by the mouths of the Indus,” suggesting that “…Palmyra and north-west India in those days belonged to a single cultural circle or sphere of influence, the centre of which most probably was in the Graeco-Parthian towns of Lower Mesopotamia” (Seyrig 6).

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Fig. 5. The Agora at Palmyra. “Palmyra (Syria), Part One.” n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Other Notable Structures

Temple of Al-lat. Little of this temple has survived the centuries, save a few columns—and, fortunately, the Lion of Al-lat: a 3.5-meter-high, 15-ton relief that once protruded from the original temple walls (“Lion of Al-lat”). Its left paw bears the Palmyrene inscription roughly translated as “Al-lat will bless whoever will not shed blood in the sanctuary.” (“Lion of Al-lat”). When discovered in 1977, it had already been dismantled and repurposed for the temple’s foundation (“Lion of Al-lat”).

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Fig. 6. Lion of Al-lat. Flickriver. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Valley of the Tombs. The Palmyrene necropolis is comprised of a complex of funeral monuments: more than 50, four-story towers just outside the city walls. Elsewhere, the Palmyrenes constructed hypogea, or underground tombs (“Palmyra”).

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Fig. 7. Valley of the Tombs. “Palmyra.” Gatis Pavils. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

The Camp of Diocletian. Though largely ruined, this complex still exhibits a grand public bath, its entrance entailing four 12.5-meter-high, 20-ton, Egyptian granite columns, behind which is the bath itself, circumscribed by Corinthian columns (“Palmyra”).

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Fig. 8. Baths of Diocletian. “Syria – Baths of Diocletian, Palmyra.” Manuel Cohen Photography. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Works Cited

Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Linck, Roland, Jorg W. E. Fassbinder, and Konstantinos Papathanassiou. “Multipol-SAR-Survey of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Palmyra (Syria).” Archaeological Prospection. Ed. Drahor, Mahmut G. and Meric A. Berge. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 2011. Print.

“Lion of Al-lat.” Wikipedia. 14 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Palmyra.” Wikipedia. 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Richmond, I. A. “Palmyra under the Aegis of Rome.” Journal of Roman Studies 53.1-2 (1963): 43-54. Print.

Seyrig, Henri. “Palmyra and the East.” Journal of Roman Studies 40.1-2 (1950): 1-7. Print.

“Site of Palmyra.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

“Temple of Baalshamin.” Wikipedia. 10 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Temple of Bel.” Wikipedia. 11 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Zenobia.” Wikipedia. 13 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

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A Brief History of Palmyra

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) synopsis of the site describes Palmyra as, “…one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world” (“Site of Palmyra”). This is largely due to its multiculturality, multiple imperial influences, and lengthy historical and archaeological records. The site of Palmyra stands in the heart of what is now Syria, a palm oasis situated between the Palmyrene mountain belt and the Syrian Desert (“Palmyra”). The al-Qubur wadi runs through the city, north of which most phases of construction were focused, and to the south lies the Efqa spring (“Palmyra”). It was first mentioned in archival, cuneiform tablets recovered from Mari, in modern-day Syria, dating back to the second millennium BCE, to the time of Sargon of Assyria, which mention the location as a destination for trade caravans, while another tablet recovered from Emar, dating to approximately the same time, refer to “…the names of two ‘Tadmorean’ witnesses,” Tadmor being the city’s original name (the etymology of which is obscure) (“Palmyra;” Seyrig 1; “Site of Palmyra”).

Fig. 1. Palmyra. “Palmyra (Syria), Part One.” n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

However, archaeological evidence suggests that Tadmor was occupied long before its appearance in the historical record. The Efqa spring attracted populations early, having created a hospitable environment in the middle of the unforgiving Syrian Desert. “As a result of its extraordinary location at the important trade route between the ports of the Mediterranean Sea and the [Euphrates], Palmyra has been settled since Paleolithic times” (Linck and Fassbinder 21). The spring has yielded lithic tools that date to between 7,500-7,000 BCE, a time when the area was only a small, ephemerally occupied site (Hornblower et al. 566).

It’s not until much later that “A first permanent settlement seems to have established in Hellenistic times in the 3rd century BCE by the sedentism of several tribes” (Linck and Fassbinder 21). Not long after, it fell under the control of the Seleucids, a domain comprised of the Mesopotamian fragment of Alexander the Great’s shattered empire (“Palmyra”). It remained, however, a small settlement of no real consequence.  By the 1st century BCE, the Seleucid empire was all but extinct, and Tadmor became an increasingly independent settlement (Hornblower et al. 566). The archaeological site’s first principle investigator, Henri Seyrig, remarks on the site’s initial steps onto the world stage:

[Tadmor], in the days when it became a city, seems to have been turned much more towards the Parthian empire, to which Mesopotamia then belonged, than towards Western Syria. Our information on this point, however scanty, seems very clear. Appian explains that the Parthians, after having defeated the legions of Crassus, developed great diplomatic activity in Syria, which was still struggling with the chaos that followed the dissolution of the Seleucid monarchy. (1)

Until the 1st century BCE, however, the site was located south of where most of the monumental structures stand today, a smaller city comprised of about 20 hectares, indicating prosperity before the era of Roman occupation (Linck and Fassbinder 21). It is during this phase of occupation that what we know as Palmyra today began to take form.

As the Roman Empire flourished during the 1st century CE, so too did Tadmor. In much the same way that the seas became a means of trade between Venice and the Levant during the Renaissance, the Syrian Desert’s vast seas of sand linked Rome with the kingdoms of Mesopotamia, and Tadmor’s sudden prosperity coincides with the lucrative market for Eastern luxuries that developed in Rome:

[This] was due to the clever policy of its merchants and camel-riders who knew how to keep order in the desert between their town and the great factories and warehouses of Lower Mesopotamia. From that time caravans were able to cross the Syrian desert instead of skirting it, and the transit brought huge profits to the [Tadmoreans] (Seyrig 1).

In 41 BCE, Marc Antony “…unsuccessfully tried to conquer the city,” largely because of its growing economic significance to the Parthians, after which, “the oasis secured its independent position between Rome and Parthia (Hornblower et al. 566; Seyrig 1). This attempt at taking Palmyra is believed to be among the reasons that Parthia declared war on Rome (qtd. in Seyrig 1). Ultimately, at the dawning of the 1st century CE, Tadmor was annexed into the Roman Empire as part of the province of Syria, at which time the city was given the name Palmyra (Hornblower et al. 566; Linck and Fassbinder 21). It then fell to Tiberius “…to restore Roman prestige and to consolidate the power of Rome by annexing Cappadocia, the door to Armenia and the back-door to Parthia. It is in these years that the first manifestations of wealth and civilization appear in Palmyra” (Richmond 44). The annexation brought “…soldiery, the use of Greek and occasionally Latin alongside Aramaic, … taxation (Tariff Law), administration, … urbanization, and religious syncretism” (Hornblower et al. 566). In retrospect, British archaeologist Sir Ian Richmond describes the site’s significance, stating, “The especial archaeological value of Palmyra is that it displays the effects of interchange between East and West in a community permeated by the interests and influences of both,” namely, at the time, those of Rome and Parthia (43).

In contrast to its time under the Seleucids and Parthians, Palmyra throve under Roman rule. Per UNESCO, Palmyra “…grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world,” giving the city its unique architectural aesthetic (“Site of Palmyra”). By the 3rd century CE, “…the Palmyrenes had created a handsome, largely limestone city, combining Semitic, Greek, Roman, and Parthian features,” including walls, gates, the great Temple of Bel, Romanized temples (like the Temple of Baalshamin), the Great Colonnade, and the Tetrapylon, among other notable structures, and it controlled a trade network stretching from Spain to the west and China in the east (Linck and Fassbinder 21; Hornblower et al. 566). In this trade network, “Imports included Chinese silks, [Roman] imperial and Athenian marble statues, and mosaicists” (Hornblower et al. 566).

By the mid-3rd century CE, the Palmyrene prince Septimius Udaynath (Odaenathus) and his queen, Septimia Zenobia, had created a Roman-style empire (Hornblower et al. 566). Initially, Odaenathus’ career was marked by defending Rome’s territory in Mesopotamia from the Persians, but when he was succeeded by his son, Vaballathus, Zenobia became queen regent of the Palmyrene Empire, officially seceding from Rome (“Zenobia”). At the height of her territory’s expansion, Zenobia controlled lands from Anatolia to Egypt (“Zenobia”). Perhaps inevitably, her empire was not long after razed to the ground by the Roman Emperor Aurelian c. 272 CE, and some decades later, emperor Diocletian constructed a large camp, defensive walls, and a bath complex at Palmyra (Hornblower et al.). Two and a half centuries later, Justinian refurbished many of the temples as churches and reinforced Palmyra’s defenses, before a series of Arab conquests a century later, which would persist, more or less, until the city’s rediscovery by Western Europeans in the 18th century as one of the most influential cities in the neoclassical movement (Hornblower et al.). Palmyra ultimately emerged from antiquity, its ancient ruins relatively intact. Excavations began in the late 1920s, and the city has been a consistent point of study ever since—that is, until the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011, a conflict that would scar the face of Palmyra irreparably.

Works Cited

Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Linck, Roland, Jorg W. E. Fassbinder, and Konstantinos Papathanassiou. “Multipol-SAR-Survey of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Palmyra (Syria).” Archaeological Prospection. Ed. Drahor, Mahmut G. and Meric A. Berge. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 2011. Print.

“Lion of Al-lat.” Wikipedia. 14 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Palmyra.” Wikipedia. 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Richmond, I. A. “Palmyra under the Aegis of Rome.” Journal of Roman Studies 53.1-2 (1963): 43-54. Print.

Seyrig, Henri. “Palmyra and the East.” Journal of Roman Studies 40.1-2 (1950): 1-7. Print.

“Site of Palmyra.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

“Temple of Baalshamin.” Wikipedia. 10 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Temple of Bel.” Wikipedia. 11 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Zenobia.” Wikipedia. 13 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

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Legionnaires on Leave or Looking for Leisure

Whether a Roman legionnaire during the first century or an American soldier in 2016, people are people—as a species, we’re inclined toward leisure activities. As active military members today are awarded periodic leave from the battlefield, so too were Roman legionnaires. As today’s soldiers devise distractions to pass the time between tours (and undoubtedly indulge in a little debauchery to take the edge off after days of intense training or active combat), Roman legionnaires too sought a little R&R between martial responsibilities.

Gaming, Gambling, and Girls: Vice in Ancient Rome

“So intense was the Roman love for games of hazard,” said Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani, “that whenever I excavate the pavement of a portico, of a basilica, of a bath, or any flat surface of accessible to the public, I have always found gaming tables engraved or scratched on the marble or stone slabs [see figure 1], for the amusement of the idle men, always ready to cheat each other out their money” (98). These gaming tables are found in most excavated Roman barracks—as far away from the empire’s heart as Numidia and Mauritania—and many soldiers appear to have taken these heavy tables with them when units relocated (99).


Fig. 1. Floor tile incised with lines for use as a game board, with various bone game counters, excavated from Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). Reading Museum. Retrieved from:

Paintings from Pompeii depict games of dice and those involving chess piece-like objects. Playing boards often exhibit boastful graffiti (e.g., “If you have a chance in your favor, I will win by skill”), as well as graffiti inviting members to play and others warning against such vice (Lanciani 99; “Romans”). Lanciani states that Roman taverns were frequented more often by gamblers than drinkers, remarking, “Mercury was worshipped in those dens more than Bacchus” (99).
Even Emperor Augustus was an admitted gambler, as were Claudius; Caligula (though, this should come as no surprise); and, above all, Lucius Verus—and, yes, the pastime was illegal in most parts of the empire (102-104). Lanciani mentions that emperors would wager sesterces (quarter denarii) in amounts that would equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in modern American currency.
If the riches won in games of chance didn’t slake a traveling legionnaire’s thirst for pleasure, should he be more interested in that of the carnal variety, prostitution was rampant across Rome—sex cubicles beneath the arches of countless buildings, elegant brothels (see figure 2), even women who conducted their sexual business in cemeteries and in tombs for legionnaire clientele who liked their eroticism a little macabrely charged (Matyszak 93-95).


Fig. 2. Roman work, c. 1st century CE, likely a prostitute with her lover. Glyptothek Munic. Retrieved from:

When in Rome

Seeing the sights

Legionnaires visiting the Roman capitol would first have to orient themselves to the seven distinct hills that made up the city. The Quirinal Hill, home to Rome’s middle-class citizenry and once hometown of Emperor Vespasian, features the Forum, as well as “…the finest shopping arcades” (Matyszak 26). On the Capitoline Hill, west of the Quirinal, was “…the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus Optimus Maximus—Jupiter of the Capitoline Hill: Best and Greatest,” which was rebuilt time and time again between the reign of the Tarquins and that of Domitian (29).

On the adjacent peak, the Arx, existed both the temple of Juno and the auguraculum, where Rome’s priests and mystics came to divine the will of the gods by observing the patterns of birds in flight or shooting stars (29). Near here existed the Tarpeian Rock, the infamous height from which the city’s “criminals and traitors” would be flung to their deaths—a cheap, thrilling spectacle, albeit a little barbaric (29).

Location, location, location

Finding accommodations while visiting could be accomplished by either staying with a hospes—a friend who had invited lodging at their town house—or by locating vacancies to be rented out by the day, the week, or (if the sordid need arose) by the hour (31). To the east of the Quirinal, along the Esquiline Hill, travelers could find reasonable accommodations at the top of the slope but would have been wise to avoid traveling further downhill, as it was held to be one of Rome’s rougher neighborhoods—a kind of Classical Mediterranean Detroit, if you will (27).

Your Chariot Awaits

For spectacles both gruesome and grand, Legionnaires visiting Rome could find no greater displays than in the Colosseum or the Circus. These mesmerizing blood sports—namely gladiatorial matches and chariot races—were so popular that the Colosseum was constructed to accommodate around 50,000 audience members, the Circus Maximus five times as many (“Prometheus”). But for those less inclined toward the savage delights of the arenas, theater was also alive and well in Rome, though most of the Classical Attic Dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles still performed in their traditional Greek language, so less-schooled visitors would have been better off attending the performances of the more contemporary Latin playwrights, like Terence and Plautus (Matyszak 90-91).

A Long Soak in a Large Tub

Common across the Roman world were both thermae (large-scale, imperial bath complexes) and balneae (small-scale, common bath complexes) (“Thermae”). While serving an obvious utilitarian function, these complexes were also centers of socialization. These complexes were luxurious and multifaceted, the modern equivalent being “…a combination of a library, art gallery, mall, restaurant, gym, and spa” (“Thermae”). Some housed ancient scrolls and masterpieces of sculpture and employed masseurs and masseuses as well; ancient Romans believed wealth was achieved through eating, exercising, and enjoying massages—and bathing (“Thermae”).


Figure 3. The Roman Baths at Bath, England. Retrieved from:,_Bath,_England.jpg

Works Cited

Luciani, Rudolfo. “Gambling and Cheating in Ancient Rome.” The North American Review 155.448 (1892): 97-105. Print.

Matyszak, Phillip. Rome on Five Denarii a Day. London: Thames and Hudson (2008). Print.

“Prometheus Unbound.” Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Romans: Leisure.” BBC. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.

“Thermae.” Wikipedia. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

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