BMCR 2020.04.10

Women, children and the family in Palmyra

Signe Krag, Rubina Raja, Women, children and the family in Palmyra. Palmyrene studies, 3. Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2019. 228 p.. ISBN 9788773044193 DKK 250 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book presents the proceedings of one of the many workshops and conferences organised in connection with the Palmyra Portrait Project, a research project headed by Professor Rubina Raja and funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Since 2011 and increasingly in the years that followed, when the political situation and the enormous damages to the Syrian historical heritage forced the scholarly community to interrupt its work on the field, the activities and the numerous initiatives of the Project have become a reference point for all the scholars dealing with Near Eastern subjects in general and Palmyra in particular.

This volume, in particular, collects the papers presented in a two-part workshop held in October 2016 and February 2017 at Aarhus University, where experts on the topic investigated the roles of women and children within the family in Palmyra during the Roman period (1st–3rd centuries CE).

The first section pertains to the funerary sphere. The contribution of Agnes Henning (“The representation of matrimony in the tower tombs of Palmyra”) deals with the presence of women and familial ties in some case studies taken from a particular type of Palmyrene burials. Henning takes into consideration the representation of marriage relationships by analysing a few examples of tower tombs, one of the most popular burial monuments among ancient Palmyrenes between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. After having investigated how wives are portrayed in the various iconographic elements of the tower burials, both those placed outside for anybody to see and those inside the buildings meant to be seen by the visitors only, the author concludes that the representation of marriage through couple portraits, which explicitly stress the marital bound, is rare. Most of the time, wives are included in family group compositions along with their husbands and children. The exclusive relationship between a woman and her husband is usually sacrificed to reaffirm their respective roles within the family.

Signe Krag (“Palmyrene funerary buildings and family burial patterns”) discusses the role of women in Palmyrene burials by investigating another type of tombs: three large hypogea, which provided more than a hundred funerary portraits. It emerges that women tended to be buried in their husbands’ tombs, i.e., in the graves of their new family, even though sporadic cases of double portraits of the same woman would suggest that at least a representation of the deceased woman could appear in her father’s family tomb as well. Cases of remarriage are documented. They probably followed the premature death of the first wife, a more plausible scenario than polygamy.

The contribution of Eleonora Cussini (“Daughters and wives: Defining women in Palmyrene inscriptions”), an expert on Palmyrene inscriptions, who has investigated the role of Palmyrene women in the society of the city for many years, gives an exhaustive view of the many ways through which women are defined in the epigraphic texts. Mostly they appear as daughters and wives, less frequently as sisters, nieces, cousins, daughters-in-law or sisters-in-law. The investigation deals with iconographic and spatial relations established between males and females when the latter are portrayed in the company of other people, as in case of couple or group reliefs. Cussini concludes that due to the scarcity of sources on the topic, the role of women in Palmyrene society cannot be entirely assessed. The analysis of both epigraphic and iconographic elements can shed some light on the role of women within family and society, helping to avoid any misleading conclusion the study of the artistic representations only would suggest.

Ted Kaizer’s contribution (“Family connections and religious life in Palmyra) opens the section dedicated to religious aspects in Palmyrene society. Through a selection of examples from Palmyra and Dura Europos, he gives an idea of how family connections are displayed outside the funerary context, like in religious ceremonies, banquets and, more relevantly, in the dedications to gods. In the last kind of representation, it is not rare for the dedicator to include in his dedication part of his family, thus providing interesting examples of how family relations were showed in religious contexts, beyond the funerary sphere.

The contribution that follows, by Rubina Raja (“It stays in the family: Palmyrene priestly representations and their constellations”), constitutes an excellent example of the extraordinary utility of the Palmyrene Portrait Project for modern scholars. A catalogue of more than one hundred portrayals of Palmyrene priests along with their inscriptions is presented. This limited selection of the entire project collects only the personalities holding religious offices, that is to say, a limited portion of Palmyrene society. Nonetheless, it shows already how the mere fact of having at their disposal a database of all the pieces of evidence, including all the information related to each piece, allows scholars to base their investigations of Palmyrene art and society on solid statistical data.

Sanne Klaver (“The participation of Palmyrene women in the religious life of the city”) deals again with the role of Palmyrene women in the religious life of the oasis city. Dialoguing with Kaizer’s contribution and basing herself on the most recent investigations on the topic, the author analyses the female presence in the religious ceremonies depicted on reliefs, in the dedications to the “Anonymous God” and in the epigraphical texts referring to benefactions to temples. Klaver concludes that the role of the women appears to have been more relevant and incisive than the Palmyrene funeral portraits would suggest.

Nathaniel Andrade (“Burying Odainath: Zenobia and women in the funerary life of Palmyra”) introduces to the audience the sort of “scholarly narrative” he has employed in his recent book on Zenobia, queen of Palmyra.[1] His paper focuses on the role played by the famous female leader in the burial of his husband Odainath and in the funerary ceremonies connected with it. Since specific information on this episode is lacking, Andrade’s solution consists in creating a “likeness” of Zenobia’s life and history, ingeniously filling the gaps with the information available about Palmyrene burial practice in general and the role of other women in their relatives’ funeral rituals and arrangements. The result is a plausible historical scenario that illustrates in detail the specific customs, as much as the sources at our disposal indicate how such events normally appeared. Andrade is very careful in explaining his method, in pointing out the elements he uses to reconstruct specific events and in marking the border between what we know for sure and what we can only suppose. Finally, he indicates with honesty and clarity what we do not know. The reconstruction of Odainath’s burial circumstances becomes then a narrative expedient to deal with what we know about Palmyrene burials and the role of Palmyrene women in them.

Mary T. Boatwright (“Model families in imperial Rome and Palmyra”) considers how the ways in which the imperial family in Rome promoted the display of women and their children could have influenced Palmyrene funerary representations. Finally, Ville Vuolanto (“Children and religious participation in Roman Palmyra”) further investigates the role of children in Palmyrene society. Vuolanto analyses portraits of children in funerary contexts, focusing in particular on the depiction of religious ceremonies where the young seem to play some assisting roles.

The most interesting element of the book as a whole is the new possibilities opened up by the results of the Palmyrene Portrait Project and its database, an extremely helpful instrument for the scholars of Palmyra and, as these articles show, for gender studies experts.

Authors and titles

Signe Krag and Rubina Raja: “Families in Palmyra – the evidence from the first three centuries CE”
Agnes Henning: “The representation of matrimony in the tower tombs of Palmyra”
Signe Krag: “Palmyrene funerary buildings and family burial patters”
Eleonora Cussini: “Daughters and wives: Defining women in Palmyrene inscriptions”
Ted Kaizer: “Family connections and religious life in Palmyra”
Rubina Raja: “It stays in the family: Palmyrene priestly representations and their constellations”
Sanne Klaver: “The participation of Palmyrene women in the religious life of the city”
Nathaniel Andrade: “Burying Odainath: Zenobia and women in the funerary life of Palmyra”
Mary T. Boatwright: “Model families in imperial Rome and Palmyra”
Ville Vuolanto: “Children and religious participation in Roman Palmyra”

[1] Nathanael J. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra. Women in Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.