Latin Over Aramaic?

How the Ancient Palmyrenes Responded to Romanization

The ancient oasis city of Palmyra—located northeast of Damascus in present-day Syria—abounds with archaeological treasures of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Owing to its crucial location on the trade route connecting the Roman Empire with Persia, India, and China, Palmyra became one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. To this day—despite the recent sectarian vandalism—Palmyra boasts impressive ruins of temples and other public monuments.

City of Palmyra

THE CITY OF PALMYRA ranked among the wealthiest and most important centers of the ancient world. The grand colonnaded street that dominates this image formed the axis of the city. In the background is the great temple of Ba’al, built in the first century C.E. Photo: Ron Van Oers; © UNESCO; CC-BY-3.0

But Palmyra offers also a much less conspicuous, yet historically significant, group of monuments. Written in the local dialect of the Aramaic language, called Palmyrene Aramaic, thousands of inscriptions remain—both in the city and throughout the Roman world. A particular group among these epigraphic sources represents inscriptions that provide a Latin text in addition to the native Aramaic. “These bilingual inscriptions provide a window into the lives and culture of ancient Palmyra, especially into how the Palmyrenes responded to Roman influence and power,” posits Catherine E. Bonesho of the University of California, Los Angeles.

ERECTED IN ROME in the second century C.E., this marble altar bears four sculptural reliefs (one per side) and two inscriptions. Representing the Roman sun god Sol and featuring an inscription in Latin, the left image presents the frontal side of the altar that was meant as the visually primary one. The inscription reads, “(This monument) is consecrated to the most holy Sun. Ti(berius) Claudius Felix, Claudia Helpis, and their s(on), Ti(berius) Claudius Alypus, from the third courtyard of the apartment house in the Galban complex, gratefully (offer this) in fulfillment of a vow to (the Sun,) who has earned it.” <em>Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont; CC-BY-3.0</em>
THE PALMYRENE GOD MALAKBEL is riding in a chariot in the right relief from the same dedicatory altar. Both the image and the inscription (in Palmyrene Aramaic) on this side of the altar are visually secondary. Not a translation of the Latin text, the inscription reads, “This is the altar (which) Tiberius Claudius Felix and the Palmyrenes offered to Malakbel and the gods of Palmyra. To their gods. Peace!” <em>Photo: Musei Capitolini, Rome, MC 107; inv. no. NCE 2412</em>

Writing for the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Bonesho claims that the physical appearance of these bilingual inscriptions can tell us which of the two inscriptions was meant as the visually primary one. A specialist in the imperial contexts of Judaism during the Second Temple and Rabbinic periods, Bonesho in her column “Maintaining Cultural Balance: Palmyrene Bilingual Inscriptions and Roman Imperialism” explains that the Latin element is primary in all 20 Latin-Aramaic inscriptions—whether they come from Palmyra or Rome.
To find out what this and other observations tell us about the Palmyrenes’ attitudes to Roman power and the process of cultural Romanization, read “Maintaining Cultural Balance: Palmyrene Bilingual Inscriptions and Roman Imperialism,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full column “Maintaining Cultural Balance: Palmyrene Bilingual Inscriptions and Roman Imperialism,” by Catherine E. Bonesho, in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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From Ebla to Damascus: The Archaeology of Ancient Syria Eight thousand years in the history of ancient Syria are on display in a magnificent exhibit that is touring six American cities.a Collected under the title “From Ebla to Damascus,” its objects vividly illustrate a sweep of civilizations ranging from the simple settlements of the Neolithic seventh millennium B.C. to the great Mesopotamian cultures eventually conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Alexander the Great, to the rise of Christianity and the impact of Islam. The objects have been assembled from museums throughout Syria, and generously loaned by the Syrian government to form one of the most comprehensive shows of ancient art to travel to American museums in recent years. Together these artifacts—whether scraps of clay with imprints of seals or writing, or large statues and wall paintings—allow us to take our own trip into the antiquity of a country that was, to the ancient Near East, the site of the Garden of Eden.

Reactivating Remembrance: Interactive Inscriptions from Mt. Gerizim What went on in ancient sanctuaries? In spite of the information we get from texts such as the Hebrew Bible, from inscriptions and iconography, and from archaeology, we know precious little about what “ordinary people” did when they visited a temple in ancient Palestine. Yet we do have some clues. The dedicatory inscriptions from the Yahweh temple on Mt. Gerizim help us envision what a visit to an ancient sanctuary may have entailed.

Biblical Views: Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female How would we live together in an ideal society? In his letters, the apostle Paul formulated something of an answer to this question. Paul expected an imminent cosmic change, a new creation ushered in by the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Prominent in his vision of this new creation was the fact that all the nations of the world would worship the one true God, together with Israel. Consequently, the apostle called upon gentiles to abandon their gods, to accept God’s Messiah, and to live “in Christ,” in expectation of what was about to happen. “In Christ,” Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” (Galatians 3:28).

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