26 June 2013

The Ultimate Palmyran Identity Crisis

Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation

I'm late, I'm late, I'm late for a very important date:

My review of Roman Palmyra by Andrew M. Smith II appeared almost two weeks ago in the Times Higher Education, but I didn't want to interrupt the flow of posts on Graffiti in Dura Europos, so it only goes up today. 
Here's what I wrote:

13 June 2013

Judith Weingarten on an island emporium in the midst of a sea of sand
When, before AD77, Pliny the Elder remarked that Palmyra “had its own fate” between the Roman and Parthian empires, what had been a remote oasis in the Syrian desert a century earlier was becoming a world-beating marketplace. The city’s strategic location between empires was, of course, one reason for its success. A natural stop for caravans trekking from the Euphrates to the Syrian coast, it was well placed to profit from the trade between Rome and the East. As Pliny grumbled: “By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres [China], and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire 100 millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.”

The vast circuit of desert that surrounds Palmyra kept it just beyond the tight control of either side, an island emporium in the midst of a sea of sand. It was last attacked in 41BC, when Mark Antony crossed the desert greedy for plunder. But it is as if both empires tacitly agreed to let it live in remarkable peace - within the general orbit of Rome, to be sure, but enjoying excellent relations with Rome’s enemies nonetheless. And so, a Graeco-Roman city blossomed in the desert. Who built it, and how, is the story told by Andrew Smith in this latest attempt to explain Palmyra’s rise.

A unique Palmyran cultural identity - at once Greek, Roman, Parthian and, above all, native - grew out of the interplay between (semi-)nomadic tribes in the vast Palmyran hinterland and the city’s Arameans and Arabs. Both desert tribes and urbanites profited from the caravans, whether as cameleers and guards or financiers and merchants. Palmyrans maintained their cultural distinctiveness and language despite the ups and downs of life on a volatile political frontier.

With increasing Roman encroachment in the 3rd century, some of their distinctiveness faded. Roman soldiers were in the city by the close of the 2nd century and Palmyra became a Roman colonia and its citizens Romans after AD212. By then, most of the monumental building was done: temples, a theatre, colonnaded streets, an agora and cemeteries of elaborately decorated tombs. Until the end, the structure of personal and group identity in the city remained essentially tribal. While most temples had specific tribal links, Smith stresses that the Temple of Bel was more civic in nature. Appropriately, the first record for the monumentalisation of Palmyra (AD19) honours a man of the Bene Mattabol tribe for contributing to this temple. In AD24 and AD25, the “treasurers and the people of Palmyra” twice honoured a man of the Bene Komare for his donations. In the 2nd century, one of the Bene Gaddibol paid for a gate and doors. Maddeningly, Smith does not vocalise the Aramaic tribal names (referring to bny mtbwl, bny kmr’, bny gdybwl and 96 other tribes and familial units). This makes reading about “Tribes and Tribalism” difficult for non-specialists. A New York friend of mine brings the Bene Mattabol to mind as “Bene Matzo-balls”; perhaps unscholarly, but it helps.

Smith describes how the status quo crumbled in the 3rd century, provoked in part by Septimius Severus’ successful invasion of Parthia in AD198. In AD228 the Persian vassal king overthrew his master and proclaimed an aggressive new Sassanian Empire. In April AD239, the Persians first assaulted Dura-Europos. This must have sent shock waves across the desert: if Dura were taken, could Palmyra be far behind? Dura finally fell in AD256. The great warrior prince Odenathus rode to the rescue, chasing the Persians from Roman lands and to their capital at Ctesiphon; does Smith really believe that his forces consisted of “an army of Palmyrenes, peasants, and dispossessed soldiers” (repeated twice)? Smith leaves others (among them Pat Southern, author of Empress Zenobia: Palmyra’s Rebel Queen) to tell of events between Zenobia’s rise to power and the sack of Palmyra by Aurelian in AD272.

This is not an easy book, but it is worth tackling the early chapters because the arguments become stronger and the writing tighter as Smith proceeds. But why do we call both the people and language “Palmyrene”? After all, Arabs are not “Arabics”. Peeves aside, even the strictest historian who adds Smith to Southern will know all there is to know about Palmyra’s “fate”.

Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation
By Andrew M. Smith II
Oxford University Press, 336pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780199861101
Published 21 February 2013

20 June 2013

"I AM HIYA!" Part 4 (Updated)

Much More Graffiti in Dura Europos (3rd century CE)

Part I, Kilroy Was Here!
Part 2, Azzanathkona is coming!
Part 3, Temple of Palmyran Gods 

Home Sweet Home 

Imagine!  You are sitting on a bench in the entrance hall of a grand mansion in Dura Europos one fine day, waiting for an audience with its noble owner, a man by the name of Lysias.  Lysias traces his ancestry back to the time of the Seleucid kings who had ruled over Syria and eastwards in Hellenistic times.  Even after the Parthians took control of the city (ca. 113 BCE), the family remained great landowners.  An ancestor, Seleucus son of Lysias, had held the office of strategos (General of the City) in 33 CE, and a grandson of the same name was both strategos and epistates (chief magistrate) in 50 CE, both under Parthian rule, and his grandson -- conveniently named Lysias son of Lysias -- held the same positions in 136 CE, at the very time of the Roman conquest; and so on.  As late as 200 CE, another offspring, Septimius Lysias (who had very recently become a Roman citizen) was also in office as the strategos of Dura.  Well, empires come and go, but the family still rejoiced in the exhalted title of 'First and Most Honoured Friends and Bodyguards' of the King, a title dating back to the time of the Seleucids.  

You get the picture.  Wealth.  Lineage.  Class. 

South facade, House of Lysias (Block D1)

And a house as big as a city block.  Even if it's not much to look at now, you can still feel the size.

So, there you are, sitting in the hall of this home, waiting.  Instead of twiddling your thumbs, you idly pick up a stylus or your knife, and -- what can be more natural? -- scratch your name into the wall of your host's house.  Perhaps adding the words, 'Remember me!' (in Greek, the mnēsthē formula).  That's what Addaios, Aisaos, and Areaios did,  presumably while waiting to be admitted, and a fellow named Herakles, too.  In all, eight different persons scrawled their names with 'Remember Me' on the walls of the entrance hall.  Some visitors were perhaps more circumspect, writing Lysias' own name instead of their own: twice 'Lysias.  Remember me!', once naming him in connection with an embassy, and another time recording the death of Lysias (or a family member of the same name).  One uncharacteristic graffiti seems to give the prices of wine.

Why in the world would you deface the house of your powerful host in that way?  Well, of course you wouldn't.  And Dr Jennifer Baird, lecturer in archaeology at Birkbeck College (University of London), tells us why the scribblers didn't:
The scripts clustered in the entranceway ...would have been so unremarkable both in presence and formulation that the guest had no doubt that their actions would not be considered a defacement.... [T]hey were in visible places, and from the dated examples in other houses, it is clear some were allowed to remain as part of the fabric of the building for many years.
Note, first of all, that in this super-rich household, no servant came along to scrub graffiti off or whitewash over them. Not in the grandest houses of Dura, like that of Lysias, nor in the meanest with just a few rooms.

Second, many names with 'Remember me!" were also found at Dura in the synagogue, the Temple of Azzanathkona, the Temple of the Palmyran Gods, and in other buildings, both sacred and secular, public and private. In sanctuaries, graffiti “frequently and appropriately appeared in places of intensified holiness”.  There is no reason to assume that when the same formulations occurred in houses they meant anything different.  Far from being casual, off-hand, or the result of boredom, such graffiti played a part in each building's social fibre.

[M]emorialising an individual on a house wall also –literally- cements that person into a relationship with that social group, a relationship that could further be recalled if the graffito was read aloud. 
 The Writing on the Walls

At Dura, 22% of all graffiti (and there was an awful lot of it) was found in private houses.  Put another way, archaeologists recorded graffiti on the walls of 36% of the 130 houses that they excavated.

House. Room 23 (Block E4)
While a tenth of this home-grown graffiti consisted of the "Remember me!" formula, graffiti-artists had many more arrows in their quivers: they scratched or painted horoscopes, calendars (left), alphabets (abecedaria), lists of all kinds of products, bookkeeping accounts, and many more-or-less naturalistic drawings including hunting scenes and ships.

These marks are part of the biography of the building.... 

The House of the Archives, aka House of Nebuchelus

Another very large, but not so grand house, practically covered in graffiti, is the House of Nebuchelus, named after its owner as identified by the graffiti itself.  Almost 100 graffiti were recorded in the house, many clustered near the entrance (especially the 'Remember me!' texts) and in rooms opening off the main courtyard.  The house, which was located in the old agora, had two attached shops which led into the building and four rooms with benches, perhaps indicating that it wasn't strictly private but also had a commercial use.

Graffiti included horoscopes, accounts, receipts and inventories, as well as drawings of a boat, a winged victory, and what looks almost like a child's drawing of the walls of the city (above).
Again in this house, the number and range of graffiti shows that graffiti were not just a casual scratch, nor an act of defacement, but one way the walls of the houses were active in the lives of their occupants, whether being used to invoke a god or to recall how much Aurelios owed you for those two jugs of wine.
Neatly written on the walls, too (with script a centimetre or two high), was an inventory of textile items, records of shipments of grain and wool, and various calculations.
House walls were an available surface, one which could archive the information for easy use and reference, as well as displaying them, and even editing them, scratching off items that had been paid or dealt with.  Parchments or papyri were expensive ... but house walls were ubiquitous and available for mark making.
Given the size of his house, I wouldn't have thought that Nebuchelus was short of a bob or two.  But we mustn't forget that he was a money-lender as well as a merchant: 'take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves' might have been his motto.  I wonder if this part of the house was considered private in a family sense -- or, rather, private in a way that we would today understand and share with Mr & Mrs Nebuchelus?  Such private-public shifting boundaries make it all the odder that horoscopes appeared on the same walls where calculations, inventories, and receipts were scribbled too. 

A number of horoscopes were found scratched into the walls of this house, in the form of a circle divided into four quarters with diagrams of the horoscope, constellations and planets. These, in addition to providing dates for the texts and birthdates for some of those whose horoscope was read, show both people’s interest in divination, and function to place the individual whose horoscope is recorded and their life span in relation to the cosmos....

It also makes the persons who have their horoscopes scrawled on the wall a subject of conversation, and undoubtedly gossip.  I would have thought you'd want to keep this information as private as possible -- lest your enemies learn your secret self and future; but, it seems, not at Dura.  Horoscopes are relatively common, and some appear in (semi-)public  places.  Perhaps, Durenes had a different idea of public and private matters.  It may be so.  As Dr Baird describes it,

House A, Room 1 (Block N8)
At Dura there are many ... banal texts, recording the price paid for a container of wine, or a little scratched drawing of a deer, but many of the graffiti, I think, are special. The medium may not be the carefully carved letters of lapidary inscriptions, but ... they are placed in visible locations, made often by named authors, and have a sacred meaning for them.  Even the seemingly mundane graffiti have something to tell us, about how people used spaces, how they lingered while waiting. The amount of religious graffiti is perhaps also special at Dura, and goes beyond these textual forms, to drawings of gods, scenes of sacrifice, and altars.

But what deserves a special drum-roll is this graffiti from the house of Nebuchelus:
On the 30th day of the month of Xandikus of the year 550 (20 April 239), the Persians descended upon us.
Perhaps it was only a spring raid, but it was the first inkling of the troubles to come and a fearful harbinger of the Persian attack that destroyed Dura-Europos just 17 years later.

Not all the horoscopes in Dura could have helped them then. 

Sources:  I would again happily thank Dr J. Baird for her help in pointing me to useful publications and photographic resources, as well as for getting me started on this fascinating topic.  My warmest thanks, too, to Dr. Agnes Korn, Empirische Sprachwissenschaft, Universitaet Frankfurt a.M. and to Chris Bennett for their help on horoscopes, and to those who wrote in from Parthia-L@yahoogroups.com.  In addition to sources mentioned in previous posts, I would cite the Cambridge History of Iran, on the Parthian period (pp. 716-718); and An Ancient Horoscope .


Top: Graffiti Sketch of a man (possibly armed with sword), scratched in plaster. Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos, 1929.441.  Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery. 

Centre: Façade sud de la résidence de Lysias, en fouille ©MFSED; photo via AOROC.

Top left: Calendar illustrating (top row) seven planets or days of the week; (bottom row) the gods.  Photo via B. Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, D-1. House, Room 21.  South wall. Block E4.

Middle left: City wall and gate.  Photo via B. Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, G-1.  Block B-8, House 17:  House of Nebuchelus.  Shop on Main Street.

Lower left: Horoscope discovered by Jotham Johnson on a courtyard wall of a small house.  Photo credit: Ancient Horoscope.

Bottom left: Forequarters of horse with heavy mane (surely not a lion), frontal face; beneath the animal, inscriptions, loose scratchings, feather designs and two inscribed tabulae ansatae.  Photo via B. Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, E-4.  House A, Room 1 (Block N-8).
Updated 15 July 2013

Archaeologists have just reported discovering an immense quantity of Greek graffiti scrawled on walls in the agora of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) on the Aegean coast of Turkey.

Two gladiators (provocatores?); small boy urinating on street
The graffiti is estimated to date back to the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. Experts have said the graffiti was the richest Greek graffiti collection in the world. Besides writing and paintings done with paint, there are also dozens of carvings on the wall.... 

There are many different figures in the graffiti, from trade ships to gladiators. There are also confessions; one read, “I love someone who does not love me.” One inscription read, “The gods healed my eyes, this is why I dedicate an oil lamp to the gods.” Another piece of graffiti read, “The one who ensouls,” which symbolized Jesus Christ in early Christianity. There are also riddles that have not yet been solved....

More news as I hear of it!

13 July 2013
credit: for the report and illustration

12 June 2013

"I AM HIYA!: Part 3

Still More Graffiti in Dura Europos (3rd century CE) 

Part I, Kilroy Was Here!
Part 2, Azzanathkona is coming!
In The Temple of the Palmyran Gods 

This famous fresco from the north wall of the front room (pronaos) of the Temple of the Palmyran Gods was painted ca. 239 CE.  It shows Julius Terentius, the tribune of the XXth Palmyrans, a cohort of mounted archers, offering incense to the statues of three Palmyran gods, all dressed in Roman military costumes -- Aglibol, Iarhibol, and Arsu (upper left); and to the gads, the protective goddesses of the cities of Palmyra and Dura-Europos (seated, lower left).  Red flames  rise from the golden incense burner. A standard bearer, facing Terentius,  holds the regiment's colours: the banner is red, with a yellow border and fringes below; on top of the pole is a golden ring or crown. Behind Terentius stand some of his troops raising their right hands in prayer, their left hands on the hilts of their swords.

Although  almost always shown alone -- as if it were a modern, framed painting in a museum -- this wonderful fresco was not alone on the north wall.  Much the larger portion of the wall, in fact, was filled with other paintings and graffiti -- making up a strange, mixed bag of images and texts, both formal and informal.  Early in the twentieth century, the excavators somehow lost track of most of the other frescos from the north wall -- and all the graffiti; the originals went walkabout and no one knows what happened to them  (the Terentius fresco survived, having been sent to Yale University).  Happily, a drawing of the wall still exists -- which gives a radically diverse impression of daily worship among those natives and foreigners, soldiers and civilians, who lived, traded, and fought in Dura.

But, first, where are we exactly?

Upper left circle: Temple of Palmyran Gods
The Temple of the Palmyran Gods  was built in the northwest corner of the city (red circle, upper left) early in the first half of the first century CE, when the Parthians still ruled Dura-Europos.  The Romans took over in 165/6 CE but, although control of the city changed hands, Dura was never converted into a Roman city. Documents continued to indicate a polyglot mix of people living in this frontier town, including local families descending from the original Macedonian settlers, all sorts of Greeks, Syrians, Iranians, Mesopotamians, Christians and Jews (perhaps from Babylonia), with the later addition of Roman army veterans to boot.  Around 210 CE, the Roman army walled off the whole north-west sector of Dura and turned it into a military camp (roughly the area shown on the map, above).  It's unclear if civilians still had access to the temple after this time or if it was now visited only by soldiers, such as Terentius and his lot. 

The temple's plan (left) is typical of temples in the region, with rooms built around a courtyard. The inner sanctum (naos - room B on the plan, left) and front room (pronaos - room A) -- were built against the western ramparts of the city wall.  The other rooms around the courtyard were used for worship, as banqueting halls, or to house the priests of the temple. Judging from a graffiti on the east wall of the pronaos, these  priests came from local families. These same local families worshipped in the temple and paid for much of its adornment with wall paintings through the second century CE.  

Terentius in Context 

Drawing of scenes on the north wall of the pronaos
Recently, Professor Maura Heyn, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, set out to understand the bigger picture of gods and worshippers in the temple by studying all the differents pieces and parts of the north wall and its surroundings in the pronaos.  The result of her work is 'The Terentius Frieze in Context'*  (and that study is the basis of this post).  As the drawing, above, makes clear, the soldiers, gods, and gads of the Terentius panel fill only about one-third of the wall.

So it's time to examine the whole wall.

The scene closest to Terentius and his troops shows a young lad carrying a platter with food to an over-large goddess, with the halo of divinity, who reclines on a thick couch of plump cushions.  To her left is a completely separate scene, only partially preserved, with four men making offerings on altars and incense burners.   Below the four men is a row of separate pictures (from left to right): a man dressed very like Terentius, so perhaps he's another Roman officer, and a gowned woman thought to be the goddess Atargatis; next, a bearded man dressed in a cloak and a goddess (halo!); then, some animals -- a sheep or goat and a gazelle; and more figures, one of whom is the god Herakles with his club and lion skin.  Although a bit crowded and uneven in their frames, the wall boasts a panorama of professionally-painted images, most probably of gods and goddesses worshipped in this part of the temple.  So far, so normal.

The surprises are below, above, and even superimposed right on top of the paintings.  First, as Prof. Heyn tells us:
Underneath these diverse scenes were painted the letters of the Greek alphabet. This seemingly random addition probably had religious connotations and may have been apotropaic [that is, to ward off evil].  Abecedaria, or alphabet inscriptions, are surprisingly numerous in Dura-Europos. Both Greek and Latin abecedaria have been found in houses, public structures, and in other sanctuaries in the city, most notably the Christian House Church and the Temple of Azzanathkona....
Scribble, scribble, scribble

And so we return, willy nilly, to our subject of graffiti.  The temple walls were literally covered with a multitude of scratched inscriptions and amateur drawings. Particularly thick on the western portion of the north wall, there are also many graffiti on the other walls of the front room and even within the inner sanctum.  Most are written in Greek, and a few in Aramaic.

A long  Aramaic graffiti (left), scrawled just to the left of the fresco was probably written by two different Palmyrans serving in the Roman army.  More graffiti continues down and around this text with many other names and remembrance inscriptions, really rather like an early version of Facebook: 

 May Maliku the son of Wahballat be remembered before Iarhibol and [Aglibol] and Resu ...

... and made this good memorial and reward for them in fixing the painting

...the son of Baba, the son of ....

Wahballat before [the god] Iarhibol 

May Ayeb be remembered

Someone also thanked the gods for having answered his prayers for more animals (could he have written it while gazing at the sheep/goat and gazelle on the fresco?).  Still others scrawled their names within the paintings: on top of the panel of the four sacrificing men in the upper register, Taimarsu, engraver(?), the son of Taime wrote his name and trade; and Konon Nikostratou was there, leaving his name in Greek near the head of the soldier in the lower left-hand corner, repeating it twice to make sure everyone saw it.

I don't mean to sound facetious. It is hard for us today to take such scribblings seriously.  In fact, the excavators originally assumed that the graffiti meant that the temple was derelict and almost abandoned at this time.  But it wasn't.  Several more graffiti scratched on the panels to the left of the Terentius painting give the dates 158 CE and 165/66 CE, so it's quite clear that, when the Terentius fresco was painted (ca. 239 CE), the adjacent scenes were already covered with graffiti.

Why place the scene of a very important officer in the corner of a wall covered in graffiti?  If the location had bothered Terentius, he could have chosen a completely empty wall (there were several available).  But he didn't: he was honoured in the corner of a wall that was filled with scenes in different sizes, and of different subjects, as well covered with an awful lot of graffiti.  

He doesn't seem to have minded graffiti. 

In fact, his fresco went right over some earlier graffiti (left).  The artist-in-charge didn't even bother to smooth away the human figure (of a fighter?) scratched into the plaster of the wall: it still underlies the image of the very gad or Fortune of Dura!  It seems certain that Terentius (and his men) did not view the graffiti as we do -- as disfigurement, even as vandalism -- but rather as a different kind of contribution to the life of temple walls.  In short, as Dr Heyn concludes,

The adornment of the walls does not conform to the conventional idea of what is aesthetically pleasing; it results from a system in which all types of mural markings could function as votive offerings. 

'Terentius in Context' leaves no doubt that those who scrawled graffiti in this temple,  --  like those who wrote on the walls of the synagogue (Part I) and in Azzanathkona's temple (Part 2) -- were also active worshippers.  No less than the individuals painted in the Terentius fresco, they shared in a continual presence within the sacred space. The decoration of the walls was changing and changeable.  Professionally painted scenes, such as that of Terentius and his troops, were placed next to scenes covered with graffiti, even scratched on top of and underneath the paintings themselves. Paintings were not ornamental; they were votive, and so too were the graffiti:
It is more than likely that the graffiti functioned in the same way as the paintings, particularly those graffiti that recorded the name of the worshipper or the name of a god or both.  The graffiti scratched throughout the painted decoration were not disfiguring and did not detract from the desirability of location, because they were also votive.
Graffiti was everywhere at Dura-Europos ... in every part of the town, in public and in private places,  in sanctuaries, in the fortifications, on gates, in shops, and houses.  

Next post: leaving your mark in private homes.

* In (L.R. Brody and G. L. Hoffman, eds.) Dura Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, Boston, 2011, 55-67. I am most grateful to the author for sending me a copy of her paper.

Sources are those listed in Parts 1 and 2.


Top:  Julius Terentius fresco.  Photo credit: University of Leicester.

Upper left:  Magnetometry survey superimposed on the plan of the military base.  After 'The Roman Military at Dura'; website of University of Leicester.

Middle left: Plan showing location of naos (A), pronaos (B), Temple of the Palmyrene Gods. After Downey, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture. Via M. Heyn, 'Terrentius in Context', Fig. 13.1 .

Centre:  Drawing of scenes on the north wall of the pronaos.  After Franz Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-
Europos (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1926), plate XLIX. 
Via M. Heyn, 'Terrentius in Context', Fig. 13.5. 

Below left: Aramaic graffiti.  From  L. Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos, 1999, 307-8.

Bottom left: Graffito underlying the wall painting of Julius Terentius performing a sacrifice (detail, pl. 1931.386). (photograph by Jessica Smolinski, Documentation Photographer, Yale University Art Gallery).  Via  M. Heyn, 'Terrentius in Context', Fig. 13.9.

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