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Change, Continuity, and Roman Religion at Palmyra

Nathanael Andrade


As Roman provincial subjects, the Palmyrenes accommodated the Roman imperial cult alongside the worship of their traditional divinities. Their activity enables broader reflection on the relationship between continuity and change in ancient religion. For example, in 167 CE a Palmyrene priest named Rabbel had statues raised for the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. In an accompanying Greek inscription (IGLS 17.1.351), he identified himself as the “grand-priest and symposiarch of the priests of the greatest god Bel, and also priest of these same emperors.” He also claimed that when he was symposiarch, the Palmyrenes received a letter from the emperors regarding gifts for the establishment of incense sacrifices (Gawlikowski and As’ad 2010: 44-46; Delplace 2005: 312-13). In such ways, Rabbel’s inscription celebrates how he worshipped both Roman emperors and the Palmyrene divinity Bel.

Rabbel’s inscription is not isolated. At Palmyra, other grand-priests and symposiarchs for Bel are known to have officiated the imperial cult or to have arranged for honorific statues to be raised for emperors (for example: IGLS 17.1.157; Kaizer 2002: 148-51; Gawlikowski and As’ad 2010; Bru 2011: 101-5). In certain respects, Rabbel’s inscription anticipates the career of the grand-priest and symposiarch Septimius Haddudan, whose priests celebrated in Palmyrenean inscriptions how he had accommodated the emperor Aurelian and earned senatorial rank in 272-73 (Gawlikowski 1971: 412-21; PAT 1358 and 2812). The Palmyrenes even apparently “exported” the imperial cult outside the Roman empire itself (PAT 1062=SEG 7.165). But Rabbel’s example invites broader exploration of how or whether the Palmyrenes expressed subjectivity as Romans through their religious practices. This is a complicated issue. Cult and culture at Palmyra have long been recognized as definitively local, sui generis, and indebted to an array of Arabian, Aramaean, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Parthian traditions. The Palmyrenes also expressed their religious orientations primarily in Palmyrenean or to a lesser extent Greek.

A diachronic perspective on Palmyrene religion helps us delve into such a topic. The Palmyrenes’ unique religious life is notable for its seeming lack of Roman influences (for example, Sommer 2005: 190-91) even after Palmyra became a Roman colonia in the third century (Smith 2013: 130-32). But practices that appear to be longstanding Near Eastern traditions may have been newly constituted during Palmyra’s integration into the Roman empire (Kaizer 2002: 25-27). Moreover, the semantic values of the Palmyrenes’ religious practices arguably transformed at various stages of Roman imperialism (Andrade 2013: 1-35 and 171-210). When we probe the continuities and changes of Palmyrene religion over time, we encounter certain cues through which the Palmyrenes demonstrated cognition of their place in the Roman imperial system even as they nurtured a critical mass of distinctly local or regional religious practices. The activity of Rabbel as priest for both Bel and Rome’s emperors is just one example of this phenomenon. By delving into Palmyrene inscriptions and material culture, this presentation will explore others.

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Change in Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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