BMCR 2024.02.35

Exchange and reuse in Roman Palmyra. Examining economy and circularity

, , Exchange and reuse in Roman Palmyra. Examining economy and circularity. Studies in Palmyrene archaeology and history, 8. Turnhout: Brepols, 2023. Pp. x, 132. ISBN 9782503603421.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


Exchange and Reuse in Roman Palmyra is the eighth volume in the Studies in Palmyrene Archaeology and History series, which aims to make the various research traditions focussed on Palmyra conveniently available in one place for a wider audience. While, with some exceptions, this series has so far concentrated on the portraiture of Palmyra, this current volume presents a new avenue of discussion for the series as a whole. In the volume’s opening chapter, the editors Nathanael Andrade and Rubina Raja neatly outline the goal of providing a new way of thinking about the ancient economy—and especially the economy of Palmyra—shifting the focus from more traditional models. In particular, this volume puts forth a concrete case study to evaluate questions recently raised by the series Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. This volume arose out of the conference ‘Exchange and Reuse: Economy and Circularity at Roman Palmyra’, where scholars of Palmyra, each expert in the many forms of evidence that has survived from the ancient city, were asked to consider how each type of evidence might further contribute towards this goal. Accordingly, the volume consists of ten chapters, including the introductory chapter, each focusing on a different type of evidence or area within Palmyra.

This discussion begins with chapter two, ‘Modelling an Urban Hinterland. The Case of Roman Palmyra.’ In this chapter, the authors, Joan Campmany Jiménez, Iza Romanowska, Raja, and Eivind Heldaas Seland, evaluate the production capacity of Palmyra’s hinterland in an attempt to accurately determine the population of Palmyra. The chapter also aims to create a standardised method for estimating the carrying capacity of ancient cities. The population of Palmyra has been widely debated in scholarship, with scholars putting forth wildly varying figures across the decades. While, by the authors’ own admission, the figure given in this chapter is not concrete, the fully explained methods and transparent equations employed in this chapter seem to have provided a far more likely figure that can be easily adapted in the future. The strength of this chapter lies in its thorough explanations of decisions and assumptions made while simultaneously openly stating both the limitations of this and ways forward for future refinement. Equations, tables, and colour figures are helpfully supplied throughout the chapter to aid the reader’s further understanding of the findings. Accordingly, this chapter’s contribution to the broader understanding of the Palmyrene economy is evident.

In the third chapter, ‘Circuits of Exchange: Palmyrene Coins and Roman Monetary Plurality’, Kevin Butcher discusses the coinage of Palmyra and its place within the economy. Unlike the more extensive and better-defined imperial and provincial coinage seen elsewhere across the Empire and the Near East, the coinage of Palmyra is physically small and, in many cases, lacks any definitive hint of the authority behind the coin. Through his discussion, Butcher challenges the traditionally held ideas on coinage within the Roman Empire as being the sole preview of the state. Instead, Butcher carefully explains how these small coins of Palmyra—in line with other small coins of the Near East—were something entirely different: evidence for a ‘Third Market’ in Palmyra, which provided a low-value currency for exchange that was separate from the ‘official’ Roman and provincial issues which also circulated in the city. Butcher’s chapter moves the discussion of Palmyrene coinage away from merely the physical aspects of the coins to illuminate the often under-discussed area of local exchange and markets within Palmyra.

Chapters four, five, and six then move the focus of the volume to the religious and funerary sphere of Palmyra. In chapter four, ‘Palmyrene Temples: Economic Institutions,’ Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider examines the economic organisation of the Palmyrene urban sanctuaries. Through the lens of Douglas C. North’s definition, Kubiak-Schneider shapes her discussion around the characterisation of the urban sanctuaries of Palmyra as economic institutions as they managed exchange across both the human and divine spheres. While the religious life and temples of Palmyra have been well-discussed in scholarship over the last two decades, Kubiak-Schneider’s discussion of the economic function of the temples is both new and much-needed. The key to her discussion lies in the need for human support for the temples to operate in the first place, as material goods were crucial to the function of temples. The exchange of such goods enabled cultic rituals and exchange with the deities, which, in turn, contributed towards the function of the city as a whole. The discussion in this chapter is supported with epigraphic evidence and shines a light on the importance of the Palmyrene tesserae to understanding the temple economy in Palmyra. Once more, this chapter contributes well to the volume’s overall aim of understanding the economies within Palmyra.

In chapter five, ‘Circular Economy in Palmyra in Light of the Sale and Reuse of Funerary Spaces’, Eleonora Cussini continues the volume’s exploration into the Palmyrene economy by using the relationship between the cession texts and dipinti to shine a light on the sale and exchange of funerary properties. As outlined by Cussini, these inscriptions are the only extant records for sales transactions within Palmyra and, therefore, are crucial to understanding this aspect of the economy. A particular strength of Cussini’s discussion are the elements of comparison she provides for the texts concerning known expenses in Palmyra (such as the cost of leading one of the famous long-distance caravans), which expands on our understanding of the use of silver coins within Palmyra  supplementing Butcher’s contribution. For some of the sections, it may have been helpful to provide the text and translations of some of the inscriptions discussed, particularly the al-Bazuriya cession text (PAT 1791). However, in every case, Cussini provides the PAT reference for those readers interested in pursuing this.[1] Cussini’s examination of the cession texts and dipinti reveals how little is known about this area of the economy of Palmyra. However, she has raised many interesting questions for scholars of Palmyra to consider.

Julia Steding, in the sixth chapter, ‘Recarving of Palmyrene Funerary Portraits’, returns to the funerary world of Palmyra, where she examines the cases in which funerary portraits were recarved and then reused for the same purpose. While there is some evidence for this in Palmyra, these instances constitute only a tiny fraction of the funerary portraits found, a point highlighted by the author. Steding first situates this evidence within the broader trends seen in the ancient world before examining each recarved Palmyrene portrait in detail, alongside images for each. Steding’s discussion fits nicely into the current understanding of the individuality of Palmyrene portraiture and provides further evidence against the common idea of pre-produced portraits, which had been favoured until recently. Notably, Steding puts forth a model for commissioned production in Palmyra, which is neatly displayed in a diagram, ensuring ease of understanding of this often under-discussed process and further adding to the volume’s overall aim of understanding different aspects of the Palmyrene economy.

Olympia Bobou similarly examines the funerary portraiture of Palmyra in the volume’s seventh chapter, ‘The Jewellery of the Women of Palmyra: Inheritance and Reuse’ where she investigates the function of jewellery as inheritance in Palmyra. Bobou approaches this task by examining portraits of women who were depicted in two different reliefs, as well as the portraits of successive generations of women in the same family, to see whether the same pieces of jewellery appear. Unfortunately, as outlined by Bobou, there are several severe stylistic and practical limitations in understanding the function of jewellery through funerary reliefs. The issue is further compounded by the fact that it is unknown whether the women in the portraits owned the jewellery they were depicted wearing. Despite only one possible example found by Bobou in the limited evidence fitting the criteria, this approach does raise some interesting questions regarding jewellery in Palmyra.

The volume moves away from the funerary sphere to the textile economy in chapter eight, ‘Textile Economy of Roman Palmyra’, where Marta Żuchowska discusses the role textiles played within both the local economy of Palmyra and in the Palmyrene long-distance trade network. Żuchowska first comprehensively explains what fibres were available, how textiles were produced, and what evidence there was for this production and the fabrics produced in Palmyra. This chapter finds that the information about textile import is abundant compared to the information available for the local market and exporting textiles from Palmyra. While the evidence is limited in understanding the role textiles played in the local economy of Palmyra, Żuchowska crucially demonstrates in this chapter that textiles must have been an essential part of the goods carried by the Palmyrene long-distance caravans. This important and new insight can help further understand this often-discussed aspect of Palmyra.

Emanuele E. Intagliata returns to the reuse of architectural and sculptural elements as building material in chapter nine, ‘A Matter of Size: a Dimensional Approach to the Study of Reused Inscriptions and Sculptures from the Sanctuary of Baalshamin at Palmyra,’ though he situates the discussion firmly in the late antique and early Islamic periods of the city. Despite not having access to the site, Intagliata made use of pre-published material (with a concordance in the appendix) to frame his discussion, which itself constitutes the first thorough investigation of the reuse of materials in Palmyra in Late Antiquity. While Intagliata’s discussion falls outside the period of the volume’s other contributions, its focus on the use of material relative to size sheds an exciting light on the economy and practises in post-Zenobia Palmyra.

In the final chapter of this volume—chapter ten, ‘The Palmyrene Diaspora in Egypt: Dependency, Sustainability, and Reuse’—Matthew Adam Cobb similarly moves the discussion outside the scope set by the rest of the volume and instead focuses on the Palmyrenes living in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. That the Palmyrenes living in Egypt cannot be separated altogether from others living alongside them is a limitation of this approach, albeit one continually admitted by Cobb. Nevertheless, Cobb finds several critical pieces of evidence where the reuse of materials by Palmyrenes is visible to aid his discussion. Cobb first provides the contextual information for scholars unfamiliar with the Eastern Desert and Red Sea area before discussing the evidence at hand, which allows the chapter to sensibly raise questions that may provide a good point of comparison for future studies in Palmyra.

Overall, Exchange and Reuse in Roman Palmyra achieves its goal of providing new avenues to think about and discuss the economy of Palmyra, moving away from the traditional discussions that focus on the evidence for the long-distance caravan trade route and tax tariff. While the evidence for these more traditional routes is far more explicit than the evidence for these new avenues, this speaks to the need for these new approaches to consider the less direct evidence. The contributions within this volume do just that and have shown a path forward for future discussions of the Palmyrene economy.


Authors and Titles

  1. Economy and Circularity at Roman Palmyra: Reconsidering Aspects of the Ancient Economy on the Basis of Single-Site Analysis (Nathanael Andrade and Rubina Raja)
  2. Modelling an Urban Hinterland: The Case of Roman Palmyra (Joan Campmany Jiménez, Iza Romanowska, Rubina Raja, and Eivind Heldaas Seland)
  3. Circuits of Exchange: Palmyrene Coins and Roman Monetary Plurality (Kevin Butcher)
  4. Palmyrene Temples: Economic Institutions (Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider)
  5. Circular Economy in Palmyra in Light of the Sale and Reuse of Funerary Spaces (Eleonora Cussini)
  6. Recarving of Palmyrene Funerary Portraits (Julia Steding)
  7. The Jewellery of the Women of Palmyra: Inheritance and Reuse (Olympia Bobou)
  8. Textile Economy of Roman Palmyra (Marta Żuchowska)
  9. A Matter of Size: A Dimensional Approach to the Study of Reused Inscriptions and Sculptures from the Sanctuary of Baalshamin at Palmyra (Emanuele E. Intagliata)
  10. The Palmyrene Diaspora in Egypt: Dependency, Sustainability, and Reuse (Matthew Adam Cobb)



[1] PAT = Hillers, D. R., and E. Cussini. 1995. Palmyrene Aramaic Texts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.