Why Was the Ancient City of Palmyra So Important

Map Showing Ancient Trade Routes with Palmyra in the Middle

Life in the ancient world often revolved around cities, which much like today, served as political capitals and economic centers. Some of the more notable ancient cities, such as Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, are still in existence, although they would be scarcely recognizable if their original inhabitants were to see them today. Other ancient cities fell victim to natural or manmade disasters, or a combination of both, and can be seen today only as a ruins. Carthage, Hattusas, and Palmyra are all ancient cities that fall into this category.

Among all of the ancient cities that were once important, but not longer exist, Palmyra may be the least understood by the majority of modern peoples. During the first two centuries of the common era, Palmyra rivaled Rome in importance and was arguably more economically powerful. It was Palmyra’s economic endeavors that made it one of the most important cities in the ancient world; but several factors contributed to make the city the premier economic center of its time. Palmyra was located in a desert oasis that proved to be an optimal location for trade, as it was the conduit for all trade routes that connected the Roman Empire in the west with the Parthian Empire in the east. More important than its location, though, was Palmyra’s culture that placed a premium on trade and merchant activities. By the late third century AD, when the Romans officially incorporated Palmyra into their empire, it was the wealthiest of all ancient cities.

Background of Palmyra

The Amphitheater of Palmyra

At first glance, Palmyra’s location and surrounding environment would seem to be factors that would inhibit its growth and productivity. Located approximately 143 miles northeast of the modern city of Damascus, Syria, Palmyra sprawled across a desert oasis that was the halfway point between the Levantine city of Emesa and Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River. [1] Although surrounded by nothing but the vast Syrian Desert, which is unable to sustain much life, Palmyra’s immediate environment was a lush oasis that was capable of supporting a large population. By the late first century BC, public fountains and springs were common in Palmyra, which were supplied by an aqueduct. [2]

Palmyra’s industrious and sometimes avaricious population is almost as important as its location. Essentially, the Palmyrenes, much like many people in the Levant throughout all periods of history, were a mixture of different ethnic groups who spoke a variety of languages. The people who originally settled in what would become Palmyra were ethnic Arabs, but once the city grew in size and stature it incorporated cultural influences and genetics from surrounding peoples, such as the Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans.

Linguistically, the Palmyrenes spoke and wrote in the Aramaic language, which was the lingua franca of the region during the period, but modern scholars point out that there were Greek and Latin influences in their particular dialect of the language. [3] Although it was the Romans who would most profoundly influence the historical course of Palmyra in the first two centuries of the common era, before that time the city was more firmly in the realm of the ancient Near East.

Assyrian sources from the early first millennium BC mention Palmyra as a not very important city known as Tadmor and in the Old Testament book of II Chronicles (8:4), Tadmor is mentioned as a city built by Solomon, although most modern scholars believe this is legend more than anything. [4] Tadmor’s status did not seem to improve much during what is commonly known as the Hellenistic Period (300s BC until establishment of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the common era) because the textual and archaeological evidence shows that trade routes avoided the city at the time. [5] Tadmor/Palmyra’s fortunes would change, though, when the Romans became the preeminent power in the Mediterranean basin.

Roman interest in Palmyra began around the time of the first century BC Civil Wars when the Roman general Pompey claimed the city as part of the Syrian province in 64-63 BC. The name “Palmyra” was first mentioned in Roman accounts during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (ruled AD 14-37), who invested Roman funds to protect the trade caravans that were by that time coming in and out of the city, as well as construction of its temple and agora or marketplace. [6] Roman investment into Palmyra proved to be an economic and population boon to the city. Its population reached its peak of between 150,000 to 200,000 in the first two centuries of the common era while for the most part retaining its autonomy. [7] With official Roman protection and patronage, the Palmyrenes were able to do what they did best – business and merchant activities.

Palmyra As a Trade Center

The Ruins of the Agora(Marketplace) of Palmyra

Palmyra became one of the most important cities in the ancient world because its culture promoted trade. In particular, the Palmyrenes benefited from caravans that took exotic items from the east to the west and vice versa. The oldest inscription in Palmyra that refers to trade caravans has been dated to AD 10/11, [8] but they more than likely began sometime before that date. As the trade caravans became more numerous and plied with greater and more expensive types of merchandise, the Romans decided to lend their services as the flow of free traded benefited them as well. Along with the efforts made by the Emperor Tiberius discussed earlier, the Emperor Trajan (reigned AD 98-117) had a paved road built that connected Palmyra to the Euphrates River. [9] Another road was built that ran from Palmyra to city of Petra and river and sea routes were established that brought Palmyrene merchants down the Euphrates River to the Persian Gulf and east to Asia. [10]

Since trade was what made Palmyra so powerful and important, its organization in the ancient merits a closer look. Although the Palmyrenes engaged in free enterprise, it would be a mistake to confuse their economy with modern forms of capitalism. There were no stock markets or corporations as there are today and the government took a very active role in the organization and maintenance of the trade caravans. Although Tiberius dedicated Roman resources toward protecting the caravans and Trajan used imperial funds to build roads to and from Palmyra, the Roman Empire was often unstable in the first two centuries of the common era; because of that, the government of Palmyra found itself organizing paramilitary groups to protect the caravans. [11] The situation only seemed to strengthen the Palmyrenes, who developed a merchant culture that was quite unique in the ancient world.

Unlike most ancient cultures that commemorated warriors as heroes in historical texts and art, the Palmyrenes celebrated merchants as the heroes of their culture. Commemorative statues and inscriptions were erected and left throughout Palmyra that heralded merchants who led successful trade caravans to the east and west. One such inscription relates how a merchant named Soados led caravans into both Parthian and Roman territories:

“(In honour of) Soados son of Boliades son of Soados, for his piety and love of his city, and for the nobility and munificence that the has on many important occasions shown to the merchants and the caravans and citizens at Vologesias. He was ever unsparing of his person and property in matters of importance to his city and for this was honoured by decrees of council and people and by public statues and letters and by a proclamation of Publicius Marcellus the most distinguished consular governor. In that he saved the recently arrived caravan from Vologesias from the great danger that surrounded it, the same caravan, in gratitude for his virtue, generosity and piety set up four statues of him, one here in the temple of Zeus (Baalshamin), one in the sacred grove, one in the shrine of Ares and the fourth in the shrine of Atargatis, through the agency of Agegos son of Iariboles and Theaimarsos son of Thaimarsos, caravan leaders. In the year 443, the month Peritios (February 132).” [12]

Although Palmyra only briefly became an empire in the true sense of the word in the third century, just before it officially became part of the Roman Empire, its merchants developed diaspora communities in the east that were able extend the city’s influence over a greater geographic area. [13] With the wealth that the Palmyrenes acquired from their trade caravans, they were able to make Palmyra into a first class city. Beside the mandatory taxes, Palmyra’s leading merchants also dedicated generous amounts of their personal incomes to maintain the city’s fountains, amphitheater, and general infrastructure. [14]

The Decline of Palmyra

Roman Coin Commemorating the Emperor Aurelian’s Victory over Zenobia

Although Palmyra’s rise to prominence in the ancient world was gradual, its demise was especially quick. As Palmyra grew in wealth and economic importance, some of the city’s leaders also wanted to taste greater geo-political power. Many Palmyrenes believed that they were little more than puppets of Rome, so when Queen Zenobia (ruled 267-272) embarked on an ambitious military campaign to conquer the Levant, Egypt, and most of Asia Minor, she was supported by the city’s leading merchants. But the merchant city was ill-prepared to confront the world’s greatest military power, so after several months of fighting the Palmyrenes were defeated by the Roman Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275) in 272. [15] After the defeat, Palmyra was a shadow of itself and would never again be an important city.

For nearly the first three centuries of the common era, Palmyra was one of the most important cities of the ancient world. Palmyra rose in prominence not through military might, but through the industrious actions of its inhabitants who made it the focal point of trade routes that connected the east and west. Palmyra’s culture was one where shrew business practices were seen as the highest ideals and it was the profits made from business that made the city beautiful, prosperous, and among the most important in the ancient world.


  1. Browning, Iain. Palmyra. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1979), p. 13
  2. Mathews, J.F. “The Tax Law of Palmyra: Evidence for Economic History in a City of the Roman East.” Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984) p. 171
  3. Smith, Andrew M. Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 16
  4. Matthews, p. 160
  5. Browning, p. 21
  6. Browning, pgs. 24-25
  7. Matthews, p. 171
  8. Gawlikowski, M. “Palmyra as a Trading Center.” Iraq 56 (1994) p. 28
  9. Smith, p. 22
  10. Browning, pgs. 13, 26
  11. Gawlikowski, p. 32
  12. Matthews, p. 167
  13. Matthews, p. 166
  14. Gawlikowski, p. 29
  15. Vaughan, Agnes Carr. Zenobia of Palmyra. (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175-184