Funerary bust showing two veiled women wearing robes, from Palmyra, Syria, AD 217
British Museum
Carole Raddato CC BY-SA
Palmyra, Roman Portraiture, Syria

The ancient people of Palmyra, Syria

The recent developments in the Middle East have drawn the attention of the world to the magnificent ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. Its impressive remains were brought to light by travellers, first in 1678, and by archaeologists in more recent times. Equally impressive are the numerous representations of the inhabitants of the city in the form of funerary sculptures in the distinctive Palmyrene style.

From the 1st century BC the city grew in both wealth and population with the name Palmyra (city of palms) coming to replace the older Tadmor. It flourished as a caravan oasis on the trade route linking the Mediterranean with the West and Central Asia (the Silk Road). It was incorporated into the Roman Empire in the early years of Tiberius’ reign and became a metropolis with “free” status (civitas libera) under Hadrian, who visited the city in 129 AD and renamed it “Hadriana Palmyra”. Caracalla declared Palmyra a Roman colony in 212 AD and exempted the city from paying taxes on luxury items.

Palmyra on Vici.org

Many members of Palmyra’s prosperous merchant class commissioned funerary busts depicting fashionably dressed individuals and family groups. These stone faces, representing Palmyrenes who lived between 50 AD and 270 AD, came from tombs outside the city in the so-called Valley of the Tombs. Their fashion were Syrian but they were shown in a Greco-Roman style with Parthian elements. Tombs built for wealthy citizens took the form of towers of several storeys rising more than 20 m high, single-storey temple or house tombs, or underground rock-cut tombs called hypogea. They were richly decorated with wall paintings and each tomb contained several chambers (cubicula). Each cubiculum had funerary portraits with a brief dedicatory inscription (often in Aramaic and Greek) carved on limestone slabs that sealed the niches (loculi) in which the mummified bodies of the deceased were laid to rest. Palmyrenes called their tombs “houses of eternity” and took great pride in their construction. Altogether, about 300 funerary monuments have been discovered in Palmyra.

Funerary bust showing a deceased couple, from Palmyra, Syria, about AD 50-150, British Museum

Palmyrenes were portrayed wearing elaborate clothing, jewellery and accessories with accompanying inscriptional genealogies to honor their deceased ancestors. The men wore a chiton (tunic) and himation (cloak) of linen or wool. The cloak was usually draped so as to provide a support for the right hand. The women also wore a long tunic over which a cloak was draped. The cloak was held by a fibula (brooch) on the left shoulder, and over it all a long veil covering the head, shoulders and arms. They wore jewelry such as ornate necklaces, rings, and earrings.

Palmyran funerary sculpture is the largest corpus of portrait sculpture in the Roman world outside Rome. Today, more than 1500 funerary portraits are scattered through many museums and private collections across the world. Here is a small collection of these portraits I have collected during visits to various museums.

Limestone bust from a Palmyrene funerary relief depicting a matron with smaller figure of a child, 84 AD British Museum
Limestone bust of a veiled woman, ca. 80-100 AD Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Limestone portrait of a Palmyrene lady, the lion’s head door knockers symbolize the entrance to the world of the dead, ca. 120 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Limestone portrait of a Palmyrene lady called Aha, Daughter of Zabdila, 149 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Limestone portrait of a Palmyrene couple, ca. 150 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Limestone portrait of a lady from Palmyra, 2nd century AD Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne
Limestone funerary bust of Aqmat, late 2nd century AD Victoria and Albert Museum (on loan from the British Museum)
Limestone bust including head and upper torso of a clean-shaven man wearing a toga and holding a feather, ca. 150-200 AD British Museum
Funerary portrait of a lady from Palmyra, 2nd century AD Civico museo archeologico di Milano
The lady Marti, funerary portrait of a woman from Palmyra, ca. 170-190 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Funerary bust of a man from Palmyra, Roman Imperial period, 2nd century AD Vatican Museums, Rome
Funerary bust of a man from Palmyra, Roman Imperial period, 2nd century AD Vatican Museums, Rome
Limestone portrait of a Palmyrene man called Yedibel and shown with a full beard (following the fashion in Rome), c. 170-190 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Limestone funerary bust of a unknown woman from Palmyra wearing an elaborate hair ornament, 150-200 AD British Museum
Limestone funerary bust so called ”The Beauty of Palmyra”,  190-210 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Funerary bust showing two veiled women wearing robes, 217 AD British Museum
Funerary bust of a man from Palmyra, Roman Imperial period, 3rd century AD Vatican Museums, Rome
Funerary bust of a woman from Palmyra, Roman Imperial period, 3rd century AD Vatican Museums, Rome
Funerary bust of a man from Palmyra, Roman Imperial period, 3rd century AD Vatican Museums, Rome
Funerary bust of a woman from Palmyra, she is holding a writing tablet on her left hand Roman Imperial period, 3rd century AD Vatican Museums, Rome
Limestone funerary relief carved with bearded man reclining on richly covered couch with wife seated beside and Palmyrene inscription 200-273 AD British Museum

Besides portrait busts in relief, Palmyrene tombs might have also contained portrait statues. Very few have been recovered from the city and whether they were funerary elements or honorific statues is not known.

Limestone portrait of a Palmyrene notable, ca. 210-230 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Limestone portrait of a leading Palmyrene, ca. 230-250 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Limestone funerary portrait of a Palmyrene priest (identified by his cylindrical hat -modius-), ca. 190-200 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Bibliography and links:

  • Smith II, Andrew M (2013). Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation
  • Malcolm A. R. Colledge, The Art of Palmyra, London, 1976
  • Andrade, Nathanael J. (2013). Syrian Identity in the Greco-Roman World
  • A. Henning, The tower tombs of Palmyra: chronology, architecture and decoration,
    Studia Palmyreńskie 12, 2013 (pdf).
  • Palmyrene Funerary Sculptures at Penn by Michael Danti, 2011 (pdf)
  • The Palmyra Portrait Project by Andreas J. M. Kropp and Rubina Raja, Syria 91 (2014) p. 393-408 (pdf)

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