Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.14


Richard Stoneman, Palmyra and its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt against Rome. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Pp. 246. ISBN 0-472-10387-3.


Reviewed by Kent J. Rigsby, Duke University.

Contents: Introduction; 1 "The Syrian Scene"; 2 "Of Spices, Silk, and Camels"; 3 "Of Temples, Tribes, and Taxes"; 4 "Between Persia and Rome"; 5 "Zenobia: The Warrior Queen"; 6 "Of Philosophers, Oracles, and Bishops"; 7 "Revolt in the Desert"; 8 "A Villa in Tivoli"; Appendix "Zenobia in Modern Times".

Stoneman, an established editor and travel writer, has set out to give an account of the rise of Palmyra that will be accessible to a "wider public" than professional historians. For readers of this journal, the question will be whether the book can be recommended for students wishing to investigate the topic; the answer is a qualified yes.

In its several chapters, the book surveys the ancient sources (Introduction), gives a general portrait of Roman rule in Syria (1, with conventional or popularizing remarks on "Roman oppression"); describes commerce and the eastern trade routes (2, emphasizing "luxury"; Rostovtzeff has remarked that items like incense, necessary for religion, ought not to be called luxuries); introduces the Palmyrenes, their government and revenues, their building activities and religion (3, with a good account of euergetism); describes the situation of the eastern frontier and the crisis of the third century (4); turns to Zenobia's rise to power (5); pictures the court circle of Zenobia and intellectual life of Syria (6); recounts the military expansion of Palmyra and the conflict with Aurelian (7) and the Roman victory and its results (8). The brief appendix cites some of Zenobia's appearances in modern literature.

This is not a book to be dipped into; it is an essay rather than a reference work. The half of the text represented by the title, the urban and desert life of Roman Syria, is better -- more informative, substantial, and vigorous -- than the half signalled by the subtitle, a rather feverish but in the end thin account of Zenobia apparently designed to attract that wider public. Especially in the second half, the author has had to range widely in evidence of different dates in order to paint his picture of Zenobia's life and times.

The book's virtues are substantial. Stoneman's reading is wide and quite up to date; the bibliography is huge. A chronological table is provided, which includes a number of events not mentioned in the text; the index is thorough. A dozen plates illustrate Palmyrene monuments and art, though without commentary or bibliography on individual items. The author writes with special clarity and energy on the land and its characteristics and resources; he has himself climbed the walls of Halabiya-Zenobia. Given the wide scope of the book, a panorama of society and culture in Roman Syria, every reader, no matter how professional, will profit from it.

Stoneman's emphases are often eccentric, however. Attentive as he is to the character of places, one wishes he had included more detail on the topography and monuments of Palmyra itself. His evocation of "queens in Semitic nations" (118-121, "Queens among the Arabs" -- Stoneman is eager to find Zenobia paradoxical in "Arab" society) surely explains less about Zenobia than does the example of Roman empresses, especially those from Syria. Again, he gives a detailed description of what Aurelian's army on the march likely consisted of (based mainly on accounts of Roman armies elsewhere, especially from Ammianus). By contrast, what the student of the Palmyrene episode most wants is an explanation of the success of Zenobia's forces; but here the narrative (156-159) is dominated by retailing medieval Arabic legends which Stoneman finally and properly dismisses. Some informed modern speculation on the facts and methods of the campaign would certainly be worth more than those late imaginings. As to goals, Stoneman cites various accounts in historians and imaginative writers, only to conclude that Zenobia wanted "independence" (160-163). In general, Stoneman's fondness for integrating into his narrative medieval and modern fictions (even though in the end he conscientiously rejects them as evidence) is at best distracting, and very likely to mislead the inexperienced student. This interest in the later romance of Zenobia would have been better confined entirely to the appendix.

Stoneman has a good sense of what our evidence on the third century is worth, but tends to invoke it anyway. So, for example, of HA Aurel. 31, "the letter is a fiction, but there is no need to doubt its substance" (183). Zenobia "is said to have known Egyptian" (113, no citation): the source is HA Th.Tyr. 30.21; surely this was invented by the HA in recollection the same report about Cleopatra (Plut. Ant. 27), whom the same HA passage claims Zenobia descended from and emulated (accepted by Stoneman). CIS II 3791 says only that she was the daughter of Antiochus, not "daughter of Antiochus IV Epiphanes" the Seleucid (112).

Shortcomings of presentation may cause confusion for the student. With no list of abbreviations supplied, many will be baffled by footnotes to Ath., ILS, or RSP (213 n. 72: Gawlikowski's abbreviation for his Recueil d'inscriptions). The list of ancient sources is selective, and further selective by citing no edition when a text is "readily available" (225: so, along with more familiar authors, Agatharchides, Aurelius Victor, Petrus Patricius). And citations are erratic -- sometimes a modern work, even a whole book, for a quite specific fact, sometimes no citation. Such unevenness may drive students to cite Stoneman as their authority rather than investigate the original sources.

There is not a little carelessness. As examples: on 151 he cites the same Jewish inscription twice under different references (owing to a typographical error in Cumont) -- and the inscription is in fact not about Zenobia (GRBS 19 [1978] 245 n. 19; J. Bingen, Studia P. Naster II [1982] 11-16). On 58 (no citation) the inscription is IGR III 1539, the date A.D. 54, and the honorand is not called a tax farmer. Some chapters use the 1926 edition of Rostovtzeff's SEHRE, others the 1957. 215 n. 62, read FHG for FGrH. Careless statements as well: e.g., that Dura-Europus was "largely a garrison post" with "no identity as a city" before Roman rule (20); a pound of wood balsam "cost 6 denarii (a year's wages)" (32).

For all its currency of research, the book's perspective is rather dated. Thus Stoneman knows and seems to endorse Bowersock's scattering of the literary coterie of Julia Domna, but urges it anyway as Zenobia's model (131). On the other hand, he rightly disputes B. Isaac's denial of Roman strategic policy on the eastern frontier, though briefly (82) -- see now E. Wheeler, Journal of Milit. Hist. 57 (1993). In the manner of popular writing, Zenobia's war is portrayed as a native revolt against Roman oppression. Conventionality, even popularity, can be a useful teacherly position to start from; the student may think to ask whether Zenobia meant to be a Roman ruler rather than an anti-Roman insurgent.