Ancient Syria

A Three Thousand Year History

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 394 p
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 Trevor Bryce 2014

The Tale to be Told
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told . . .
(Shakespeare, Macbeth )

The purpose of this book is to tell a story, more precisely a series of
stories and sometimes stories within stories. All of them are about
Syria, have Syria as their focus, or start from or end there. With just one or
two exceptions (plus a ghost encounter you can make up your own mind
about), our stories are about people who really existed and events that
really happened. At least if we can trust the sources from which they come.
The tales they tell are woven into a continuous historical narrative that
extends over three thousand years—from the Early Bronze Age kingdom
of Ebla where excavations have produced written records dating to the
24th century bc and indicate a line of kings going back at least to the 27th,
to the reign of the emperor Diocletian, who held sway over the Roman
world at the turn of the 3rd–4th century ad . Ebla’s records are the earliest
documents we have in Syria’s history, and thus mark our story’s startingpoint.
Diocletian’s reign, though we shall touch only briefl y upon it, provides
a convenient book-end to the last major period of Syrian history
prior to the Byzantine era. 2 Within this period, the city of Palmyra built an
empire that for a brief time rivalled the might of Rome. Its rise and fall will
be our story’s climax.

The nature of the written sources on which ancient Syria’s history is based
varies greatly. For much of the fi rst half of this history, we have to rely very
largely on offi cial documents, notably the often voluminous collections of
clay tablets unearthed from the palaces, temples, administrative buildings,
and private residences of the sites where they were produced or stored.
Other forms of documents include sealings from these and other locations,
and also, importantly, inscriptions carved on stone stelae, 3 built walls, and
rock-faces. Most of the documents are written in a cuneiform syllabic script,
but no small number are in other scripts, including an alphabetic one and the
distinctive hieroglyphic script carved on the public monuments that dot the
Hittite and Neo-Hittite landscapes. The great advantage of the majority of
these documents is that they are contemporary records. That is to say, the information
they contain and the events they record belong to the actual period
of composition. They are in the main offi cial records—produced by or on
behalf of an elite administrative class, refl ecting the interests of that class, and
putting their own political spin on the particular event or set of events they
report. There is an obvious downside to this. From the documents themselves,
we generally learn very little about the men and women whose personal
attributes, with all their strengths and weaknesses, are masked by the offi cial
pronouncements made by them or in their names. More we sometimes learn
from the collections of letters, of various periods and regimes, that passed
between a king and members of his family, a king and his vassal rulers, kings
of equal status, and between bureaucrats, merchants, and other beings of a
lower order. These letters sometimes have much to tell us about the personalities
of their senders and recipients, and the dynamics of their relations with
one another—information that is excluded from the decrees, dedications, and
records of achievements that are produced for more public display.

Particularly from the period of the Persian Achaemenid empire to the end
of our narrative, we are served with a much greater array of written sources.
Inscriptions, coin legends, and other forms of offi cial documents continue to
provide a valuable repository of contemporary information about their
respective periods. But we have an abundance of ‘literary’ sources as well.
These have the advantage of being, for the most part, independent, nonoffi
cial records, and thus, in theory at least, provide more detached views of
the events and the persons whose stories they relate. Of course they are
themselves often highly biased, both in the cast they give to particular events
and in the motives and behaviour they assign to the persons involved in
them; and what they report is often infl uenced more by a desire to entertain
and titillate (sometimes under the guise of moral outrage) than to inform in
an objective way. Too, many of the literary sources date many years, sometimes
centuries, after the events they deal with. They are themselves dependent
on earlier sources which are often no longer extant. On the other hand,
we are frequently blessed (sometimes to excess!) with a range of ancient
writers from whom we can draw our information on such matters as the
internecine squabbles of the Seleucid dynasty, the contests for the imperial
succession in the Roman period, particularly as they affected Syria, and the
struggles to win sovereignty over Syria—from the Achaemenid through the
Roman era. Sometimes multiple sources for a particular episode agree with
one another, sometimes they are at complete variance. The historian’s task is
to assess the credibility of each as a basis for reconstructing the history of the
period or periods with which they deal. And indeed the reliability of the
various sources has been the subject of much learned research by scholars, in
their quest for truth, promotion, and funding for conference travel.

I should single out here one source of which we should be especially
wary. It is the one commonly known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae (‘the
writers of the Augustan History’), or the Historia Augusta for short. Supposedly
covering the reigns of all Roman emperors from Hadrian to Diocletian’s
predecessor Numerian (i.e. the period ad 117–284), the work is really
a literary concoction put together by one person, who lived probably in the
reign of the 4th-century emperor Theodosius I. Much of it is a mixture of
pseudo-historical episodes and characters, fake documents (including many
letters), and pure fantasy. It has to be said that Edward Gibbon draws extensively
on this work for the relevant section of his grand Decline and Fall—
which means in effect that the Gibbonian masterpiece is based, for a large
part of its narrative, on an elaborate ancient literary confi dence trick. But
amid the dross of pure invention which liberally covers the pages of this
reputed history a nugget of genuine fact does sometimes gleam forth. Like
all the best hoaxes, literary and otherwise, the Historia Augusta contains some
half truths or even full truths, so we cannot entirely discount everything it
says. Indeed, though lots of disparaging noises are made about the HA , it is
rare to fi nd a scholar who completely dismisses it. Besides, some of its stories
are too temptingly entertaining to discard altogether, fantastic though they
may be. Most scholars who refer to these stories, albeit with some scepticism,
really do want to have their cake and eat it too. I am no different.
I shall be alluding to the HA on a number of occasions in my chapters on
Roman history, including the section on Palmyra, but always on the understanding
that my piece of cake will be seasoned with a good deal more than
just the one proverbial grain of salt.

Of course, all historical reconstruction is largely a matter of interpreting
and assessing what our original sources tell us, and then piecing together a
narrative from the information they contain. So too my history of Syria is
based on my interpretation of the relevant sources, and my assessment of
how reliable each source is, whether it be an offi cial document on a clay
tablet, a sealing or coin legend, a monumental inscription on a rock-face, a
passage from the Old Testament, 4 or an item from the literature of the Classical
period. The endnotes contain a select number of the ancient sources
I have used in compiling my story, the bibliography a selection of the secondary
literature, books and articles by modern scholars who have dealt at
greater length with the various periods my story covers, and often provide
a critical assessment of the sources on which they are based.
It is important to stress that in writing this historical narrative I have
confi ned my attention almost entirely to the political and military events of
the periods in question. My focus is above all on the human characters who
instigated, participated in, and became the victims of these events. Inevitably,
a history of this kind is fairly narrowly based. For the specifi c individuals
who inhabit its pages come from a very select group—those who sat atop
the power structures of their societies. It is they who made the news, and
had their names and deeds preserved because of it. It is their lives and careers
that dominate Syria’s recorded history, almost to the exclusion of the ordinary
people of Syrian society, who mostly went about their daily affairs
unheralded and unheeded—except when they were caught up in the wars
that engulfed their communities, or rose up in rebellion, or became the
victims of massacres (sometimes all three of these things in rapid succession)
as their leaders set about the task of plotting and fi ghting against and murdering one another.

But when all is said and done, our human characters strut but briefl y on
life’s stage, and often exit it as abruptly as they enter it. The cities they
inhabit or conquer generally live much longer, their lifespan sometimes
extending across several of the periods traversed by our story, and occasionally
across all of them. Some cities fl ourish, decline, and then rise once more
before sinking into oblivion fairly early in our narrative, like Ebla and Mari.
Others are more enduring—like Carchemish, which appears fi rst in the
Ebla archives, reaches its peak in the Late Bronze Age as a Hittite viceregal
kingdom, then re-emerges in the Iron Age as an archetypal Neo-Hittite
state before it too disappears forever. Some cities are late starters—like Antioch,
born in the early Seleucid period then growing to become one of the
greatest cities of the Roman empire. Other cities like Sidon and Tyre remain
with us throughout our story. So too Damascus, which waxes and wanes
across the ages until in the epilogue to our tale it rises supreme as the capital
of the new Muslim empire.

In focusing primarily on the political and military events of the ages
covered by this tale, and particularly on the ‘big people’ who inhabited
these ages, I have concentrated on but one aspect of Syria’s history. There
are other complementary stories to be told—of the great works of art and
architecture that were created, of fl ourishing international trade and commerce
in and beyond the Syrian region, 5 of the multifaceted cultures that
gave Syria its distinctive character, and of the archaeological investigations
that have contributed so much to what we know about Syrian history and
the societies of which it was composed. Each of these is important to a full
understanding of ancient Syria. On each of them books could be, and
have been, written. A fully comprehensive history of the region would
embrace them all. That is an ambitious undertaking, well beyond the scope of this book.

Which brings us to the question of what we actually mean by Syria. First
attested in Greek in the Histories of Herodotus, the name is almost certainly
a variant of ‘Assyria’, the Bronze and Iron Age kingdom based in northern
Mesopotamia. In its ancient context, ‘Syria’ is used by many scholars in a
broad geographical sense to cover a conglomerate of lands extending southwards
from south-eastern Anatolia to Arabia, through the Amuq plain of
modern Turkey, the modern country of Syria west of the Euphrates, and the
territories of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan, 6 and eastwards from the
Mediterranean littoral to the western fringes of Mesopotamia. 7 It should of
course be stressed that ancient Syria as so described excludes the large and
economically important triangular area of modern Syria that is delineated
by the Euphrates on the west, the Habur river and its tributaries on the east,
and the mountain-lands to the north. (In the pages that follow, this area will
be included in the region broadly referred to as northern Mesopotamia.)
Whatever their compass, the lands comprising ‘ancient Syria’ retained
throughout the ages a high degree of ethnic and cultural homogeneity,
despite their populations being intermixed with constant infl uxes of immigrants
into their communities and cities—new settlers sometimes forcibly
transplanted from other parts of the Near Eastern world. At different
times in its history, and with varying degrees of success, Syria’s conquerors
tried to impose some degree of administrative coherence upon the
cities and kingdoms of the region, like the Hittites and Egyptians in the
second millennium bc , and the Assyrians and Babylonians in the fi rst.....

Table of Contents
List of Maps ix
List of Figures xi
Abbreviations xiii
The Tale to be Told 1
1. The First Kingdoms 11
2. The International Intruders 23
3. The Amorite Warrior-Chiefs 46
4. The Empires Collide 62
5. The End of an Era 86
6. The Age of Iron 97
7. The Wolf upon the Fold: The Neo-Assyrian Invasions 114
8. From Nebuchadnezzar to Alexander 138
9. The Rise of the Seleucid Empire 159
10. The Seleucid Empire in its Prime 179
11. The Maccabean Rebellion 199
12. The Decline and Fall of the Seleucids 207
13. The Coming of the Romans 221
14. Nabataean Excursus 241
15. The Syrian Emperors 247
16. The Crisis Years 258
17. From Desert Oasis to Royal Capital: The Story of Palmyra 275
18. Syria’s ‘King of Kings’: The Life and Death of Odenathus 286
19. Zenobia, Queen of the East 294
The Last Farewell 319
Appendix I: Chronology of Major Events and Periods 324
Appendix II: King-Lists 332
Appendix III: Literary Sources 339
Notes 341
Bibliography 364
Picture Acknowledgements 368
Index 369


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