BMCR 2002.04.20

Das palmyrenische Teilreich

Udo Hartmann, Das palmyrenische Teilreich. Oriens et occidens ; Bd. 2. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001. 532, 4 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515078002 Euro 96,-.

Although Palmyra and Zenobia seem to be topics that have already been squeezed out quite enough, the author (in the following named H.) nonetheless manages to present an excellent, detailed study. Whereas previous publications either deal with this subject in a general manner1 or concentrate too much on Zenobia, with the main focus on the Greek and Roman sources, 2 H. wants to show the development of Palmyra and its empire in the context of the crisis of the third century. For this purpose he uses all possible sources, including Palmyrene inscriptions as well as the medieval Arabic tradition, which — one must admit — was already included in, e.g., Stoneman’s book.

The study consists of twelve chapters. In the first, “Das Problem des palmyrenischen Teilreiches” (pp. 9-16), H. points out the problem of the scarcity of the sources and proposes some solutions; that is, as he himself stresses, intensified consideration of coins, inscriptions and papyri, as well as analysis of the oriental tradition. The author also gives a survey of current scholarship and outlines the structure of his study. In the second chapter (pp. 17-44), the sources are presented and described in a critical manner. After that, one chapter is dedicated to the history of Palmyra to the rise of the Sassanian empire (pp. 45-64) and one to its history from that point on (pp. 65-128), including the rule of Odaenathus and his family. There follow two extensive chapters (pp. 129-230) on Odaenathus himself. After a discussion of chronological questions (pp. 231-241), Chapters 8 and 9 present the reign and life of Zenobia in great detail (pp. 242-394), while Chapters 10 and 11 (pp. 395-426) deal with the reign of Aurelian, mentioning the fate of Zenobia only in passing. Before an appendix on the Nachleben of Zenobia and one listing some Palmyrene inscriptions conclude the study, the twelfth and last chapter, to which the author attaches much importance, is dedicated to the Palmyrene empire as seen in the historical context of the third century (pp. 427-466). A list of abbreviations, a bibliography and a common index of persons and places follow the two appendices. Last but not least, H. presents four plates of maps and coins.

The central focus of this study lies in an analysis of the reasons for the rapid rise of Odaenathus and his empire. The question — whether the Palmyrene dynasts intended from the beginning to form a counterweight to the Romans or if tensions with Rome arose only after the death of Gallienus, when Aurelian was afraid of the mighty position of Zenobia — has led to many scholarly discussions in recent years.3 H. first analyses the background for the development of Odaenathus’ empire. He tries to show that the historical circumstances (the permanent threat from the Sassanid dynasty as well as the Bedouins and the unstable state of the imperial government) were responsible for the rise of Odaenathus’ power in the region. In H.’s opinion, therefore, one cannot speak of separatist movements when Odaenathus was entrusted with the protection of the eastern part of the empire; instead, one has to take into consideration the fact that the Palmyrene empire arose alongside the Roman rule as a power to defend the eastern part of the empire, especially from Sassanid attacks. The Palmyrenes accepted the Roman power, but as they became more and more powerful because of historical circumstances, Rome could no longer ignore their position. Finally, when Zenobia began to rule, the differences came out into the open. Of the three possible reasons for the revolt: 1) Zenobia regarded the time now as favourable to revolt against Aurelian since the emperor had to cope with other problems (the invasion of the Iuthungi, a revolt of the monetary staff, influential sympathizers in Rome itself); 2) The coming of Aurelian’s troops from Europe in 272 forced Zenobia to defend her empire and to revolt against Rome — a kind of justification for her position; 3) Zenobia and her son saw no other possibility after Aurelian had already won a battle at Antioch at the beginning of 272, H. chooses the second (pp. 360-364). In his opinion, Zenobia was somehow forced to this separatist movement. H.’s reason for thinking this is that Zenobia would not have any motive to change her policy, up to then friendly and respectful, towards Rome. Previous scholars have thought differently: Stoneman for example thinks that the revolt against Rome may have begun already before the death of Gallienus, in 267; then followed the invasion of Egypt and Zenobia’s increasing aim for independence from Rome with the subsequent campaign of Aurelian.4 In contrast to H.’s view, the more common opinion in modern scholarship is that Zenobia tried to take advantage of Aurelian’s temporary weakness and began the revolt after the invasion of Egypt.5

The entire study, therefore, presents a very positive picture of the Palmyrenes. In H.’s opinion, as stated above, they came to power only because of their usefulness for Rome. They protected the eastern part of the empire and were, when they finally became too powerful for Aurelian, forced to revolt. But, although one should not overlook the primary intention behind the installation of Odaenathus — the defence of the eastern part of the empire — it must be admitted that H.’s positive portrayal of the Palmyrenes is a bit exaggerated.

Apart from that, there are only small differences from previous scholarship. Whereas Stoneman dates the occupation of Egypt to 269,6 H. thinks it unlikely to have taken place until 270 (p. 294).

The big advantage of the present book lies in its good and clear presentation. All possible sources are considered and their value and meaning discussed. Provided with a clear structure H. describes the history of the Palmyrenes and their surroundings in many details. For this purpose he has included also literature that deals with this topic only marginally. The scarcity of sources, however, remains a problem. Some questions still wait for answers. As a small criticism I only want to mention that a translation of the Palmyrene inscriptions in Appendix 1 would have been useful.

Typos: p. 108, l. 24: Söhnen instead of Söhne; p. 112, l. 1: erste instead of ersten; p. 113, l. 13: Namen instead of Name; p. 183, l. 17: Seiten instead of Seite; p. 268, l. 6: hinter instead of hinten; p. 332, l. 11: Königin instead of König; p. 470, l. 11: Römern instead of Römer; p. 470, l. 12: aus instead of als.


1. Compare R. Stoneman, Palmyra and its Empire. Zenobia’s Revolt against Rome, Ann Arbor 1994. Apart from the very popular presentation there are also many poetic insertions. See the reviews of Stoneman by H. J. W. Drijvers in Gnomon 68, 1996, 465-468 and by D. Kennedy in JRS 84, 1994, 242-243. The study of G. Degeorge, Palmyre. Métropole du desert, Paris 1987, offers only a general overview of the archeological site.

2. See, e.g., E. Equini Schneider, Septimia Zenobia Sebaste, Roma 1993.

3. See, e.g., the publication of T. Kotula with the meaningful title Aurélien et Zénobie. L’unité ou la division de l’Empire?, Wroclaw, 1997. In the opinion of K. Brodersen (“Zenobia”, in Die römischen Kaiser. 55 historische Portraits von Caesar bis Iustinian, ed. M. Clauss, München, 1997, 242), the Palmyrene dynasts became dangerous for Rome when Odaenathus was so successful in his fight against the Sassanian empire. At the beginning of his reign Odaenathus’ interests coincided with Rome’s since both wanted to defend their empire against the danger from the east.

4. Stoneman, op. cit., 155 and 161.

5. Kl. Wegenast, RE X, A, 1, 1972, s.v. Zenobia (Nr. 2), 1-8. Cf. Kotula (op. cit., 177-179) who, however, thinks that the revolt of Zenobia did not take place before 272. Compare also E. Winter and B. Dignas, Rom und das Perserreich. Zwei Weltmächte zwischen Konfrontation und Koexistenz, Berlin 2001, 44-45.

6. Stoneman, op. cit., 155.