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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Sunday 10 April 2016

Palmyra and its Empire

Coincidentally, as Palmyra has been in the news following its ‘liberation’, I have been reading Richard Stoneman’s book ‘Palmyra and its Empire’. This is the story of Palmyra and in particular, Zenobia’s revolt against Rome in AD269.

While archaeological evidence on the site goes back to Neolithic times, the city is first documented in the early 200’s BC. It became part of the Roman Empire in the first century AD (although it retained considerable autonomy) and was an important buffer between the Roman’s and successive Persian states.

The city’s wealth came from trade caravans that travelled along along the Silk Road. Trade wealth enabled the construction of huge projects, such as the Great Colonnade, the Temple of Bel, and the distinctive tower tombs. The Palmyrenes were a mix of races with close ties to the nomadic tribes that occupied the area around the city. Unlike the impression one gets from modern pictures, it was probably a good deal more fertile in ancient times. The city’s inhabitants spoke Palmyrene (a dialect of Aramaic) and its culture produced distinctive art and architecture that combined eastern and western traditions.

The book takes us through the history of the city, explaining its strategic position, its structure of governance, religions and the reason for its wealth. It’s more than halfway through the book before we get to Zenobia.

Her husband Odaenathus had defeated the Persians and strengthened the city’s position. On his death Zenobia effectively took the throne and launched successful military campaigns into Roman Arabia and Egypt. The high point was an invasion of Anatolia that reached as far as Ankara.

The Roman’s were otherwise occupied when much of this expansion occurred, but when Emperor Aurelian was able to respond, his legions defeated Zenobia at the Battles of Immae and Emesa in 272AD. Zenobia escaped the subsequent siege, but was captured and ended her days in Italy. 

The following year the city rebelled and massacred the Roman garrison. Aurelian returned and raised the city. It never really recovered, but the ruins remained until Isis captured the area from Syrian government troops and destroyed a number of buildings. A very brave curator Khaled al-Assad saved many antiquities - paying the ultimate price by being beheaded for refusing to give them information.

Palmyran armies consisted of cataphracts, horse archers and foot archers. There is a FoG army list for them in 'Legions Triumphant' and they are also covered in Osprey MAA 243 'Rome's Enemies (5) The Desert Frontier'.

Stoneman’s book was first published 1995. I picked up my copy second-hand quite cheaply and it appears to be still available. Well worth a read to get the history behind the news.

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