BMCR 2019.10.14

L’histoire par les noms: histoire et onomastique, de la Palmyrène à la Haute Mésopotamie romaines. Bibliothèque archéologique et historique, 212

, L'histoire par les noms: histoire et onomastique, de la Palmyrène à la Haute Mésopotamie romaines. Bibliothèque archéologique et historique, 212. Amman: IFP Orient, 2018. 296. ISBN 9782351597422. €50,00.

Written by a leading epigrapher and historian of the Roman Near East, L’histoire par les noms rewards close consultation. As its title promises, the book is devoted to the onomastic patterns of Roman-period Palmyra and north Syria/Mesopotamia and the historical questions that they elicit. To this end, it collects the relevant epigraphic evidence dispersed throughout the Near East and Mediterranean and produced in many languages. It also delves into later Greek and Syriac Christian texts that bear traces of pre-Christian names. Altogether, the book is very thorough and insightful, and its contributions defy easy summary.

A brief introduction (13-19) defines the parameters. Previous onomastic studies, overwhelmingly being lexica and commentaries, have either treated Semitic names in isolation or have focused on all names of varied origin attested in a locality (15). By contrast, Yon’s goal is to identify the “onomastic profiles” (16) of the communities inhabiting the stretch of territory from Palmyra to north Syria and Mesopotamia and to explore their social implications in context. There is no pretension that names offer reliable indications of ethnic self-definitions. Instead, the key premise is that the onomastic patterns of local or regional populations can reveal broader social dynamics.

To this end, Yon focuses on the published epigraphic finds from the Roman Near East, especially those from the environs of Palmyra, Dura-Europos, Zeugma, and Edessa, and papyrus documents found at Dura-Europos or originating from the Middle Euphrates. Various works of Christian literature and records of church councils also provide material. But the inscriptions made by or for expatriate Syrian soldiers throughout the Roman empire, as well as the famous papyrus rosters for the Twentieth Cohort of Palmyrenes at Dura-Europos, play a critical role. As Yon surmises, these reflect the naming patterns of non-elite inhabitants of rural hinterlands and contrast with the onomastic profiles of elites or urban-dwellers. This is clearly so for the well-documented Palmyrenes (13).

The main part of the book is divided into three substantial chapters. The first is devoted to the Palmyrene diaspora, and Yon makes two observations about Palmyrene names that have bearing throughout the study. He stresses that only names popular at Palmyra but rarely attested outside its vicinity (like Yarhibola) should be classified as “Palmyrene”; common Semitic names circulating at Palmyra should be excluded from this category, despite longstanding scholarly tendencies. He also observes that some Palmyrene names became famous due to the individuals that held them (like the dynast Odainath) but were not common previously (21-22). From there, Yon notes that the bilingual components of Palmyrene-Safaitic inscriptions from Palmyra’s environs differ in their emphasis on patronyms and clan/tribal identifications. They also suggest that some Palmyrenes were nomadic (24-25). Moreover, certain names were common to the northwest Palmyrene while others were popular elsewhere in the hinterland. This has implications for the origins of Palmyrene recruits in the Roman army (26-27).

Other sections discuss figures with Palmyrene names that appear as residents of Mesene in late antique Syriac and Manichaean literature and the Palmyrenes attested in Palestine, Jordan and northern Arabia, Egypt (28-39), and, quite fascinatingly, south Arabia and the island of Socotra.1 In some cases, the use of ethnics or Palmyrenean language clearly indicates a Palmyrene background. Yet, for the figures at Mesene, we rely on their names, and Yon notes that these are occasionally attested at places like Edessa too. Here, it may have been useful to discuss the references to “Tarmodeans” in the Talmud Bavli, as these hint at the continued presence of Palmyrenes near Mesene throughout Late Antiquity.2

Another key point that Yon makes pertains to Palmyrene presences in the Roman Empire (39-47), particularly in Dacia, Numidia, and at Rome, which largely represent the expatriation of Palmyrene soldiers or middling merchants,3 even if some important “civic” families had connections to Rome. Most soldiers bear Palmyrene and general Semitic names or Latin ones that were fairly common in the Roman army; Thracian ones eventually surface in the Palmyrene units of Dacia (46-47). Greek names are very rare. Yon observes that these patterns suggest that the countryside, not urban centers at Palmyra or elsewhere, were focal points of recruitment (53-61).

The chapter concludes with an intriguing discussion of names derived from Arabic ones for animals (66-74). In some cases, these intriguingly inform the common usage of “ambiguous” Latin names.4 For example, the popularity of the Latin name Bassus was probably determined by similarities to the Arabic word for cat, itself a personal name in Palmyrenean and Safaitic inscriptions (bs’/bss). A list of attested animal names ends the chapter (73-74).

Chapter 2 is devoted to names at Dura-Europos, particularly in the Twentieth Cohort of Palmyrenes recorded by many papyrus documents and also treated by Yon in a recent article.5 I found this chapter to be particularly insightful. As Yon shows, the Greek names of the cohort’s members are not particular to Dura-Europos and often have parallels in south Syria (81-82). Except for names localized to Palmyra, the numerous Semitic names are attested in the Greek inscriptions of south Syria and the Safaitic epigraphic corpus (98). The huge concentrations of names listed for soldiers recruited in 214- 216 bear witness to this pattern. While still present, Palmyrene names are less pronounced; many Semitic names are widespread ones. Common Latin names are frequent, and relatively few general Greek names appear (101-102). On the basis of such patterning, Yon addresses whether there was ethnic continuity of recruitment at Palmyra. For example, from the papyri one can occasionally identify sons and brothers of Palmyrene soldiers who enlisted (107-8). Even so, the pattern of Semitic names attested in south and east Syria or north Arabia suggest that many of the unit’s recruits originated from the east Syrian semi-desert but not necessarily Palmyra’s vicinity (108-9). Following these observations is a list of the unit’s soldiers organized by year of recruitment (110-18), as well as compilations for the attested Greek names and their frequency in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

The second chapter’s final sections (123-47) focus on patterns of naming in Dura-Europos’ civilian population. The tendency for a standard selection of Greek names to circulate within the Parthian-period elite is well known. The presence of Aramaean, Mesopotamian, and even Iranian ones, especially among women, is too. Yet, noticeably absent are Arabic or distinctly Palmyrene names, which only surface later when the Romans governed the city (127-142). During Roman occupation, the standard Greek naming pattern continued somewhat, presumably so that traditional elites could distinguish themselves at a time of significant transition. Even so, Semitic names, often with Arabic roots or Palmyrene orientations, become more dominant and indicate that newcomers were now joining the civic community and its elite. The shift is pronounced in the final decades of the city’s occupation; the circle of the merchant Nebouchelos is a key example (144-47). Yon suggests that such names may have entered circulation in the early 3rd century without routinely appearing in the written record until decades later.

The final chapter shifts to the hinterland of north Syria (Cyrrhestica and Commagene) and adjacent parts of Mesopotamia (Edessa and Oshroene), regions whose corpora of names have been amplified by the recent publication of Greek inscriptions at Zeugma (150-65) and those from other cities (165-74). There we also encounter some intriguing patterns. Latin names appear frequently at Zeugma, due to the presence of Roman legions there and at nearby Samosata (151, 162, and 180). They are generally absent from most other parts of Commagene or Chyrrestica (178-79), which bear their own unique Semitic naming patterns (152-62). The names of expatriate soldiers in the Roman army, reflecting rural zones of recruitment, consist of Semitic names common to the region or Latin ones (especially among officers). Otherwise, at urban centers like Zeugma and Hierapolis, Greek names are common. In the Middle Euphrates, the names are overwhelmingly Semitic, sometimes Iranian (179-80).

Farther east, at Edessa and Osrhoene, various types of inscriptions, supplemented by late antique and medieval Syriac literature, cast light on names borne by the royal family of Edessa and its courtiers (182-96), which in turn circulated among subjects. Noting an intriguing pattern in the mosaics of Osrhoene (predominantly inscribed in Old Syriac/Edessene Aramaic), Yon observes that very few Iranian names appear among local elites, in contrast to the royal family or courtiers (198-99). Likewise, the Greek and Syriac literary texts of later periods align with epigraphic sources to show that a shift occurred in the onomastics of Edessa after the Abgarid dynasty was deposed (in the early 3rd century). Common royal names mostly disappear (201-2). The chapter concludes with a treatment of names in upper Mesopotamia’s main urban centers.

A brief epilogue and conclusion address the impact of Christianity and summarize the main contributions of the book. During Late Antiquity, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew names with Christian connotations become popular even in regions previously characterized by patterns of localized Semitic names (214-15). In Roman times, Greek cities established during the Hellenistic period fielded Greek and Greco-Macedonian names, along with some adopted Semitic names. Cities along the Parthian-Sasanian frontier that did not have (or lost) previous Greek cultural patterning were influenced by Iranian onomastics. Otherwise, most rural hinterlands were characterized by a traditionally localized pattern of Semitic names. The circulation of Latin names was overwhelmingly linked to Roman military presence or recruitment. Remarkably, the various regions of the Roman Near East, while having their own unique naming patterns, shared many points of Semitic onomastic continuity, in part the result of Arabian nomadic presences and contacts throughout the region (216-17).

Yon has authored a characteristically learned book. In some instances, his findings affirm phenomena already recognized or assumed by scholarship. In others, his insights shed new light on social phenomena in the Roman Near East. His various compilations of names are helpful reference tools. Those who research the Roman Near East or the expatriation of Syrians throughout the Roman empire will want to consult Yon’s study.6 So will those interested in patterns of recruitment in the Roman army, particularly the ethnic composition of auxiliary units and numeri.7


1. Maria Gorea, “The Palmyrene Tablette ‘De Geest’,” in Ingo Strauch (ed.), Foreign Sailors from Socotra: the Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq (Bremen: Ute Hempen, 2012), 449-57. A recent inscription from South Arabia also suggests diplomatic contact between south Arabian kingdoms and Palmyra. See J. Schiettecatte and M. Arbach, “The Political Map of the Arabia and the Middle East Revealed by a Sabaean Inscription,” AAE 27 (2016), 176-96.

2. Alan Appelbaum, “The Rabbis and Palmyra: A Case Study on (Mis-)Reading Rabbinics for Historical Purposes,” JQR 101.4 (2011), 527-44.

3. Palmyrene units and soldiers have received extensive treatment. For recent summary, Andrew Smith, Identity, Community, and State Formation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 164-73 and J. D. Grainger, Syrian Influences in the Roman Empire to AD 300 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 117-19

4. Maurice Sartre, “The Ambiguous Name: The Limitations of Cultural Identity in Graeco-Roman Syrian Onomastics,” in Elaine Matthews (ed.), Old and New Worlds in Greek Onomastics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 199-232.

5. J.-B. Yon, “L’onomastique de la garnison ‘palmyrénienne’ de Doura Europos: la Cohors XX Palmyrenorum et l’origine des recrues,” Revue internationale d’histoire militaire ancienne 6 (2017), 143-153.The scholarship on this unit is vast.

6. Recently, Grainger, Syrian Influences, as in footnote 3.

7. Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces: the Roman Auxilia and the Making of Roman Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2013, 135-42 and 285-300 surmises recruitment where units are stationed. Everett Wheeler, “Parthian Auxilia in the Roman Army, Part II: from the Flavians to the Late Empire,” Revue internationale d’histoire militaire ancienne 5 (2017), 117-20 and “Book Review: Blood of the Provinces, CJ Online 2015, 6-9 explores possible ethnic continuities among units’ soldiers.