Sunday, April 29, 2018


Tracey Long, Annette Højen Sørensen (ed.), Positions and Professions in Palmyra. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica, 4 vol. 9; Palmyrene studies, 2. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2017. Pp. 136. ISBN 9788773044049. 200.00 DKK (pb).

Reviewed by Michael Sommer, Universität Oldenburg (

Version at BMCR home site

The papers collected in the present volume were presented at a workshop held at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, in 2017. They all deal with aspects of status and profession, seen from different angles and through a variety of evidence. The editors have both been involved in the Palmyra Portrait Project, an Aarhus-based project concerned with the collection, cataloguing and documentation of the surviving corpus of Palmyrene funerary sculpture scattered across collections in the world. Hence not surprisingly, one of the approaches this volume takes to "position and profession in the Syrian oasis city is through funerary portraits. The second one is more conventional and focuses on the epigraphic corpus, which has been the subject of several studies in the past.1

In their introduction (chapter 1), the editors aim at revealing how "social and cultural position could be constructed and expressed both visually and epigraphically" in Palmyra (p. 19). They identify Palmyra's distinct geographic and strategic position between Rome and Parthia as the oasis' unique selling point, making it interesting for scholars as a case-study in social organisation. In addition, they emphasise the peculiar setup of Palmyrene society, the elites in particular, who were global players at the fringes of a Mediterranean world that reached out to India and, indirectly, China. The editors take the visual and epigraphic evidence for "conscious decisions of representation"; each of the following eight chapters assembled in this volume explores a fascinating aspect of how the Palmyrenes defined themselves in their own society.

In her paper, Glenys Davies (chapter 2) explores the "body language of Palmyra and Rome". Comparing gestures from Palmyrene funerary sculpture with their counterparts in Greece and Rome, Davies concludes that the Palmyrenes appear to have borrowed a certain vocabulary of body language from Hellenistic and Roman funerary sculpture. The "arm-sling pose" common on Palmyrene reliefs representing men is also well-known from Roman republican sculpture. It had disappeared from the Roman West by the imperial period, when the Palmyrene reliefs were carved, but it remained popular in the East. Davies concludes that Palmyrene men were probably "aligning themselves with elite residents of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire" (p. 25)—people who took pride in their Greek- rather than in their Roman-ness. In the case of the so-called pudicitia-type reserved for women, Davies concludes that the occurrence of this type both in late- republican Rome and in Palmyra was due to the original Hellenistic model having been adopted by Romans and Palmyrenes alike, but in different manners.

Signe Krag in her chapter (3) focuses on jewellery as a reflection of "changing female roles" (pp. 39–42). While originally, few women wore large amounts of jewellery, the custom became more widespread from the 2nd century onwards. To Krag, jewellery is a marker of wealth and hence social status, but at the same time of cultural affiliation—both within the oasis society and the wider world of the Roman empire. While most papers investigate Palmyra's cultural bonds with the Mediterranean, Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (chapter 4) explores the links between Palmyrene and Parthian dress. She takes the omnipresence of the Parthian trouser-suit as proof that "Iranian costume was highly popular in the […] art of this caravan city" (p. 65). Such a conclusion is not entirely convincing: the assumption that a certain dress-style can be associated with a particular political entity (in this case the Parthian Empire) is circular, as long as we lack clear evidence on the origin of the dress-code (which may be hybrid anyway). The term "Parthian costume" is also employed by Tracey Long in her chapter (5), but according to her, it became popular due to its practical use to the "professional traveller and rider". Wherever "Parthian costume" originally came from, it probably bears witness to a cultural koinē forming across Syria and Mesopotamia and ignoring political frontiers.

Eleonora Cussini's piece (chapter 6) is a highly instructive survey of professional onomastics in the epigraphic record. While professions are largely absent from the honorific inscriptions, they appear in the corpus of religious dedications: teachers, butchers, physicians and craftsmen are mentioned, among others, in these inscriptions. Tommaso Gnoli, using the epigraphic record from Palmyra, evidence from the Roman West and a set of anthropological parallels, investigates professional associations and the importance of "ethnic" or "tribal" affiliation for professional identities (chapter 7), while Eivind Heldaas Seland analyses the "iconography of caravan trade" in visual representations from Palmyra and the Nabataean kingdom (chapter 8). Most of these images, however, do not represent caravan trade, but other activities associated with camels. In the final chapter (9) of the volume, Rubina Raja explores the portraits of priests, demonstrating how standardised images were used in order to display status, rather than profession: "The grave in Palmyra was not a place where the emphasis was put on the offices held in public life. It was rather a space in which the family status was underlined" (p. 129).

With this volume, the editors have made an important contribution towards the study of Palmyra. They have highlighted the importance of Palmyrene funerary art for understanding Palmyrene society and its intrinsic complexity. They also have further corroborated the assumption that, within the continuum of the wider Mediterranean world, but also within the frame of the Partho-Roman Near East, Palmyra was a unique city, a place sui generis, thriving on its frontier position and the stunning multiculturalism of its society. Scholars studying Palmyra and the Roman Near East, but also those interested in Roman history or art in more general terms, will greatly benefit from this collection of exquisite papers, whose main strength lies in bridging the gap between art and social history. This reviewer truly regrets that this comprehensive volume was not yet in print when he wrote his own history of Palmyra.


1.   Most recently, J.-B. Yon, Les notables de Palmyre, Beyrouth 2002.

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