The Palmyra connection
by: John Lynch

Two inscriptions found at the site of Berenike attesting to the presence of Palmyrene soldiers in the city during the second and third centuries AD are the only pieces of evidence documenting a long and often violent rivalry between the two trading cities, a history which must be assembled from scattered historical and archaeological records. Their opposition originated during the Hellenistic era and continued into the early years of the Roman Empire, but the stalemate was broken during the second century AD, when an apparent increase in banditry along Berenike’s overland connection to the Nile prevented the flow of trade goods and shifted the port’s business into Palmyrene hands. Palmyra prospered for nearly a hundred years at Berenike’s expense, but eventually it, too, lost control of the caravan routes and turned back to its old rival in a last-ditch effort to save itself. Defeated, it sank into obscurity while Berenike experienced a renaissance that was to last nearly until the end of the Roman Empire.

Although excavation at Berenike has revealed little of the pre-first century AD strata, it is evident that, prior to the second century AD, Berenike was a thriving port community channeling trade between India and the western Mediterranean, but not the eastern Mediterranean. A Ptolemaic pottery dump and a few Ptolemaic coins demonstrate the early Ptolemaic presence at the site. During the early Roman period, “the large volume of sherds … indicates significant commerce through the port especially in the late first century BC and into the first century AD.” While these contacts are described as being “with many regions of the Mediterranean, both east and west, and the Nile valley,” a closer look at the amounts of pottery reveals that the vast bulk of the trade came from western ports. In an early analysis of the first-century AD Mediterranean pottery, it was noted that “[m]ost of the imports were of ill-defined origin (most likely Italy or the Aegean area), but also from Campania, Spain and Syria,” as well as Tripolitania. Judging from this, Syria represented just a very small percentage of Berenike’s Mediterranean commerce, compared with western European and North African areas, and other eastern areas were not represented at all.

Since it is certain that the eastern Mediterranean had a share in the lucrative trade in Eastern luxuries as far back as Phoenecian times, one must presume that their desire for the wonders of the East was being supplied by a source besides Berenike. There were three other main routes from India and Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean, all overland: first, the crossing of the Arabian Penninsula, monopolized by the Nabateans and their camel caravans; second, the northmost route, up the Euphrates to Anatolia and through the mountains into northern Mesopotamia; and third, to sail up to the middle Euphrates, and then to cross the steppe to Palmyra and other western cities. All three of these routes had belonged to the Seleucid Empire during the Hellenistic period and had supplied its people with trade goods from the East. Meanwhile, the Ptolemies had developed the Red Sea trade route (including Berenike) in order to supply their own royal courts with the same eastern luxuries. From there, the goods filtered into the Mediterranean, each empire supplying a share of the western market. When the two territories were incorporated into the Roman Empire, the evidence from Berenike suggests that both economics and tradition left those trading spheres unchanged: the Levant, Syria, and Asia Minor instinctively looked to Palmyra and Petra for trade opportunities, not to Egypt, and the western Mediterranean looked to both. This economic stalemate survived because the advantages and disadvantages of each route essentially balanced out;  it could not shift one way or the other without a major political or environmental change.

The middle of the second century witnessed such a change, attested in the archaeological sequence at Berenike. The booming commerce of the previous few centuries suddenly dried up, leaving little evidence that it had ever existed. During the course of the second century, into the mid fourth century, little activity seems to have taken place in the port. There is a dearth of ceramic and numismatic evidence for this period. Whatever Berenike’s economic health may have been throughout the second, third, and early fourth centuries, the epigraphic evidence suggests that the site remained occupied  by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds including Egyptians, Greeks, Palmyrenes, those of Mediterranean origin and others. This sudden “disappearance” of the site is both surprising and mysterious. Possible interpretations have included silting up of the harbor and the outbreak of a plague in 166 AD. If the harbor had silted up to the point that it could not accomidate naval traffic, however, the site would certainly have been abandoned in favor of another port on the Red Sea (Myos Hormos or the like) as it had no economic value except as a trading port. Instead, as the passage quoted above demonstrates, the city continued to exist, albeit with substantially less trade. There is also no epigraphic or other evidence either way for a plague. What the inscriptions do indicate is that a significant troop mobilization occurred at Berenike during this period, suggesting that some foreign force was in fact disrupting the passage of trade goods from Berenike up to the Nile, and perhaps further north. In addition to an inscription of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161-169 AD) mentioned by earlier excavators at the site, the recent excavations have unearthed two second-to-third century AD inscriptions commisioned by Palmyrene soldiers stationed in Berenike. The first, dated to 8 September 215 AD, belonged to a Palmyrene archer, possibly the commander of his unit. Another inscription from the same numerus is attested in nearby Coptos (the capital of the administrative region which included Berenike) one year later, additionally indicating that some or all of the unit was mounted. It was not uncommon to find Palmyrene archers abroad; from the time of Vespasian and Titus, Palmyrene archers were a common feature in Roman armies across the empire,  but the mounted archers belonged to a very special and important military category, independent from the normal chain of command.

The second inscription, a bilingual text in Greek and Palmyrene, was dedicated by the prefect and the second-in-command of the Ala Thracum Herculiana, a cavalry division which had been stationed at Palmyra until aproximately 185 AD, at which point it was transferred to Coptos by the emperor Commodus. This particular inscription dates from between that transfer and 212 AD. It is very possible (although currently not proven) that this inscription refers to the same numerus as the previously mentioned inscriptions, since (as mentioned before) the archers of Palmyra were not often mounted. This ala, composed of around 500 mounted soldiers, was a very powerful and significant military unit (its leader had also been the military governor of Palmyra and the Euphrates river, a major commercial and strategic area ) and would only have been transferred away from Palmyra to respond to a greater military need elsewhere, in this case, in Upper Egypt. Furthermore, the unit(s) stationed in Coptos were not regular soldiers, trained to fight against another army on the field, but faster, more flexible units, trained in the Syrian steppes and mountains to fight Parthian raiders. Such a specialized military force would only have been preferred over more traditional units if there was a significant need for their unusual skills.

All of this evidence suggests that, sometime in the middle of the second century, Berenike’s overland trade routes to Coptos began to experience a significant increase in raiders, which decreased the amount of trade passing through the city and prompted the emperor to relocate an significant military force to the area in order to counteract it. The best candidates for the caravan-robbers are the Blemmyes, a desert-dwelling society which controlled parts of the roads from Berenike to the Nile and “may well have regulated or at least had a hand in the commerce passing through the port.” We know that, by the middle of the third century, the Blemmeyes were certainly menacing the caravan trade between the sea and the river. It appears that the second century AD in Berenike witnessed the very beginning of this conflict, which almost completely shut down the Red Sea trade route for over one hundred years. A further test for this theory is found in the city of Palmyra. As argued above, as long as both the Red Sea and the overland trade routes remained open, the stalemate between Berenike and the caravan cities of the Near East continued. By extension, if one of the trade routes were suddenly closed, upsetting the balance, then the other route would reflect this with a dramatic increase in commerce and prosperity. This is, in fact, exactly what happened. In 106 AD, the Nabatean trade route collapsed along with the fall of Petra to Roman armies. The Anatolian route, meanwhile, was not extensively used during this period because of its length; it was apparently more economically practical to use the Middle Euphrates route. These factors left Palmyra in control of essentially all of the overland trade from India and Arabia to the Mediterranean. This important status caused the Emperor Hadrian to elevate it to a free city in 129 AD. After the middle of the second century, while Berenike rapidly declined, Palmyra grew steadily. This was its most prosperous period, demonstrated by the massive building projects that the city undertook at this time, and as a result it enjoyed the patronage of the Severan dynasty, becoming a Roman Colony in 211 AD. This prosperity continued until Ardachir I, the first king of the Sassanid dynasty, conquered the Parthians and occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates, cutting off Palmyrene access to the Persian Gulf and, therefore, to Eastern trade, sometime in the years preceeding 228 AD.

The next forty years comprise a tremendously interesting period of Palmyra’s history, most of which is irrelevant to the present discussion. Suffice it to say that, after a brief period of military triumph over the Persians and reuse of the trade routes, the assassination of the Palmyrene leader Odeinat the Younger (Oedenathus in Latin) by his cousin in 268 AD killed any hope of permanently wresting Mesopotamia away from the Persians. Berenike again reenters the historical picture at this time, when Odeinat’s second wife, Zenobia, suceeded him as regent for their young son. She recognized that, without the income from the eastern trade, Palmyra’s wealth and power would quickly dry up, and acted accordingly. Zosimos wrote that, around 270 AD, Zenobia seceded from the Roman Empire and sent an army south, to conquer Egypt. Although he did not record her motivation for invasion, Starcky has argued that she wanted to seize the Egyptian Red Sea trade route, a theory which has since been generally accepted by scholars of Palmyrene history. If that is the case, then her ultimate goal was Berenike, the port city by which the trade arrived from India, and which had potentially been guarded by her countrymen (since we have no evidence of the Ala Herculiana having been reassigned) for the past almost 100 years. Ultimately, her effort failed; she was defeated by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 272 AD, her short-lived Palmyrene empire came to an end, and Egypt was again in Roman hands. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider the pivitol role that the relatively small city of Berenike took in this conflict, a revolution which split the Roman Empire literally in half for three years.

The twilight of Palmyra however, was a new dawn for Berenike. Zenobia’s push into Egypt proves that the Red Sea trade route was more economically and practically viable after the rise of the Sassanians than the overland routes through Mesopotamia. A rather difficult entry in the Historia Augusta indicates that, in the period just after Palmyra’s defeat, extensive Indian trade was already passing through Berenike again. This transformation is reflected in the archaeological record at Berenike, which experienced major renovation and expansion during the middle to late fourth century AD. Furthermore, the ceramics indicate that the trade at this period was primarily with the eastern Mediterranean, an area which Palmyra had previously monopolized. The explanation for this change is simple: without Palmyra as a competitor, Berenike became the only source of Indian luxuries for the entire Roman Empire, especially the eastern half, which soon superseded the west as the economic and cultural center of the empire, cuminating with the movement of the Roman capital to Byzantium a century later. This meant that twice as much trade was passing through it; in all likelihood, its harbor facilities had not been designed for such a volume of trade and needed to be expanded, explaining the additional construction. It is even possible that this renovation was responsible for some of the lack of ceramic evidence for the period between the first century and the fourth, if the process included any levelling. Whatever the cause, Berenike filled in the void left by Palmyra’s collapse, enjoying two more centuries of prosperity before finally also falling into ruin when the birth of the Islamic empire reopened the overland trade routes which Palmyra had once dominated.

Through a combination of archaeological data and historical comparison, it is possible to shed light on both Berenike’s rather shadowy history and its tangled relationship with Palmyra. Berenike and Palmyra were originally equal competitors, but as the balances of war and empire shifted, so did the cities’ prosperity and relative importance. The archaeolgical record at Berenike documents these shifts, and even suggests a few compelling reasons for them. It also provides an illuminating window into the final years of the Roman Empire, namely its decadence and the slow transfer of power to the East. In conclusion, these two merchant cities, locked in an economic war, played a very significant role in the history of the Roman Empire, their struggle culminating in a war which nearly tore the Empire itself in half and left its mark on both cities forever.

Palmyra: History, Monuments and Museum; by: Bounni Adnan and Khaled Al-As’ad. Damascus 2000 (fourth edition).

"Palmyre et l’Opposition à Rome en Égypte"; by: J. Schwartz. In: Palmyre: Bilan et Perspectives. Strasbourg, AECR, 1976.

Palmyre; by: J. Starcky. Paris, Librie A. Maissonneuve, 1952.

Zosimos, Nova Historia I 44:1-2

"Interpretive Summary and Conclusion"; by: S.E. Sidebotham and W.Z. Wendrich. In: Berenike 1995: Preliminary report of the excavations at Berenike (Egpytian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert. Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1996.

"The Pottery"; by: R.S. Tomber. In: Berenike 1996: Report of the excavations at Berenike (Egpytian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert. Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1998.

"The Coins"; by: S.E. Sidebotham. In: Berenike 1996: Report of the excavations at Berenike (Egpytian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert. Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1998.

"Interpretive Summary and Conclusion"; by: S.E. Sidebotham and W.Z. Wendrich. In: Berenike 1996: Report of the excavations at Berenike (Egpytian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert. Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1998.

"Greek and Latin Textual Material"; by: A.M.F.W. Verhoogt. In: Berenike 1996: Report of the excavations at Berenike (Egpytian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert. Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1998.

"The Coins"; by: S.E. Sidebotham. In: Berenike 1997: Report of the excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert including excavations at Shenshef. Leiden, Research School CNWS, Leiden. 1999.

"The Greek-Palmyrene Inscription"; by: M. Dijkstra and A.M.F.W. Verhoogt. In: Berenike 1997: Report of the excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert including excavations at Shenshef. Leiden, Research School CNWS, Leiden. 1999.

"Interpretive Summary and Conclusion"; by: S.E. Sidebotham and W.Z. Wendrich. In: Berenike 1997: Report of the excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert including excavations at Shenshef. Leiden, Research School CNWS, Leiden. 1999.

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