Picking up where the Greeks had left off, the Roman Empire embarked on its own journey to establish a Hellenistic legacy in the Near East. Though it may have been unintentional, the creation of Roman city-states and the annexation of Syria in 64 BC brought additional elements of Greco-Roman language, religion, industry, and political structures to the former Seleucid Empire. Like the Greeks before them, this was a process of give and take where the indigenous Syrians were influenced by Hellenistic culture and vice versa. Even Powerful kingdoms such as Judea, who put up a fight in the form of massive revolts, were eventually hellenized. Through its important trade routes, skilled artisans, and valuable exports, Syria became a major player in the Roman Empire and one worth establishing a huge military presence to defend.
The Near East refers to Syria, a region from the northeastern portion of the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean and onward to the Euphrates. Syria was called ‘all Aram” by its ancient Aramean inhabitants, which later changed to Coele Syria with the arrival of the Greek Hellenizers. A satrapy under Alexander the Great, Syria became caught in the succession crisis that followed his death in 323 BC. It was a strategic region that tied Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and Iran to the Mediterranean world; a fact recognized by leaders such as Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and Antigonos Monophthalmus who vied for control. When Antigonos died in 301, Ptolemy I took control of Phoenicia and Syria’s southern half. Upon his death in 283 BC and Seleucos I’s death in 281 BC, wars ensued that drove the Ptolemies out and left Antiochus III with the the Seleucids prized possession once again.
Due to its location, Syria became the center of the Seleucid Empire with a capital at Antioch. Changes were made to existing political structures and it became a region familiar with distant rule. During the fourth century, a Nabatean kingdom existed in Transjordan and began to expand north, controlling most of southern Syria that had previously belonged to the Ptolemies. A rapidly spreading state known as the Hasmoneans formed in Judaea in 150-140 BC due to the revolt of Judas Maccabaeus which sought to rid Jerusalem of the Seleucids and Hellenized Jews. In 132, the Greek city of Edessa fell to Arab forces, creating more difficulties for the Seleucids. However, Greek culture continued to influence Syria’s social structure. In the fifth century, Greeks joined Achaemenid armies in Syria and Phoenicia and began appearing on local coins. An undeniable taste for Greek art aso developed, marking the beginnings of Hellenization in Syria.
Many colonizers came to Syria from Greece and the Mediterranean world. In some regions, tens of thousands of Greeks established themselves, exposing locals to their traditions. The Greeks were unconcerned with Hellenizing these people and the adoption of Greek culture was not obligatory. However, its spread was undeniably successful, with Syria being considered a “New Hellas” by prominent Greek thinkers of the day. Those who did not adopt Greek practices did so out of indifference, not stark rejection, which was inconsequential to the foreign tax collectors anyway. One source of rebellion towards Hellenization came from Judaea. Many Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem were part of the governing class, leading to its transformation into a polis in 175. Some Jews wanted to maintain independence from Greek rule and tradition, which eventually culminated into the Maccabean revolt and the formation of the imperialist Hasmonean kingdom. Seleucid troops were ousted, allowing for a newly Independent Jewish state. However, despite resistance, this new state was highly Hellenized.
In the third century or possibly earlier, a Nabatean state was formed. It is possible that they were a dominant force in the central Negev during this time and competed with the Hasmoneans and Seleucids for power in the Mediterranean. They moved north, expanding in 160-150, taking advantage of the weakened Seleucid dynasty. At this same time they were dominant in Transjordan and the Hauran, with intentions to control the Golan. Little is know about their rulers, but one possible succession pattern includes Aretas (100), Obodad I (93), Rabbel I (85), and Aretas III (84). Aretas III was crowned in the Seleucid capital of Damascus, showing that he had a significant amount of control over the region. However, he was overthrown by the Armenian king Tigranes II who was chosen by the Seleucids to protect their venerable kingdom. Tigranes fled Syria in 69.
When Tigranes withdrew from Syria he left the region in a state of instability. Rampant piracy and lawlessness due to lack of a central authority gave rise to tyrant rulers, many of which were the sons of Hellenistic indigenous farmers. Before Rome stepped in, it was unpredictable whether the Hasmonaeans, Nabataeans, Parthians, or Arab emirs would attempt to claim the tumultuous former Seleucid Empire as their own. However, Pompey, a military and political leader from Rome, annexed Syria in 64, adding it to Rome’s eastern provinces and setting up client kingdoms.
Rome got more involved with Syria due to the “piracy and ambition” of Mithradates VI Eupator, king of Pontus. The political instability in second and third centuries caused the whole Mediterranean coast to become increasingly overrun by pirates who maintained their bases on islands in the Aegean. This threatened commerce between Rome, Greece, and the East. Mithridates VI allied with pirates to stop Pontic troops from reaching Asia, causing the Rome to rethink its hands-off policy in regards to Syria. A law against piracy was passed in 100, urging eastern collaboration with Rome; however, it was weak and did not last. After the failed peace at Dardanos in 85, Servilius Vatia attacked the root of the problem in the interior between 77-75. Mediocre results were achieved and all campaigns were proven ineffective. M. Antonius “Creticus” was given imperium infinitum, allowing him to attack the eastern problem on all fronts. When he was defeated, Pompey was given this same decree in 67, approaching the issue with severity.
When Mithridates had become the king of Pontus in 120, he attempted to control a vast region that included Crimea, the Caucuses, and the Aegean. In 88, he attacked the province of Asia and then the Greece city-states. Lucullus of Rome led the offensive after second Pontic invasion of Bithynia in 74. With Roman troops weary from winter, Lucullus seized Pontus and force Mithridates to flee to Armenia in 71. Syrian affairs got more complicated when Tigranes went against his truce with Rome and sided with Mithridates VI, his father-in-law. Lucullus spent 69 in Armenia and Mesopotamia, conquering Tigranocerta. Confused by what to do with his new conquest and distracted by his fatigued army, he put Antiochus XIII on the throne that same year, reinstating Seleucid control over the region. Once again, Antioch was a vassal state of Rome. While Lucullus was away, Mithridates reoccupied Asia Minor, reclaiming Pontus. These issues made Syria only a minor concern to Lucullus and communications with Rome were minimal.
In 74, Lex Gabinia gave Pompey the command to mount a campaign, taking control of the sea from the pirates. He succeeded in taking most of the Mediterranean. The last bit of resistance was in Cilicia and by 67 the pirate problem was resolved. Between 67-66, Lex Manila gave Pompey authority to move against Mithridates. Beginning in 64, he attempted to capture Mithridates, who was hiding in Crimea at the time, and went to Antioch to settle things with the Seleukids, making the decision to annex Syria. Pompey refused to acknowledge the puppet Antichos XIII as rightful ruler because he felt that he couldn’t defend the territory against attackers and only sat on the throne due to Roman intervention.
Rome had two problems with Syria: It could not administrate alone and Syria had become accustomed to autonomy during the years of chaos. However, the latter was to Rome’s benefit. Syria’s city-states formed a backbone for the region and saw territorial increases under Pompey. These city-states were nurtured to make up for thin Roman administration and provided financial incentives to rebuild after years of piracy and terror. While cities such as Garara was reconstructed by Pompey, he primarily relied on local rulers to used financial incentives to convince them to rebuild themselves. Pompey also recognized the importance of client states, acknowledging powerful Arab chiefs and granting Ptolemy, son of Mennaios the Iturean Dynasty. Simpsigerams was granted power over Emsesa and Arethusa, and desert emirs were also made into allies in order to secure the borders. This cooperation and delegation of power to the provincia and client states constituted the“Pompeian” era of 64-62, ending just after Pompey left Syria in 63 BC.
Syria was the most heavily armed province in the eastern Mediterranean and considered a imperial consular province, leading to visits from many Roman emperors including Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, among others. These emperors visited for military purposes, but also to honor cities such as Antioch. When Hadrian (117-138) visited Syria sometime between 125-130, he remained in Antioch and northern Syria, including Palmyra which were renamed Hadriana Palmyra in his honor. These official nonmilitary visits showed that Rome and its supreme imperial authority was more directly involved in Syria’s affairs than ever before.
When Syria’s governor Pescennius Niger took power after a succession crisis in 193, the organization of the province was shaken. The governor’s unchecked power became clear to Septimius Severus (193-211) and he moved to regain control, splitting Syria into two provinces: Syria-Coele to the north and Syria- Phoenice to the south. The northern province had its borders realigned with Arabia, which had been a Roman province since 105-106. Some of the Arabian lands were absorbed into Syria-Coele and vice versa, but most details of these land distributions remain unclear. The Severan era was marked by the creation of new provinces beyond the Euphrates. The first province, Osrhoene was established in 195 with other nearby client kingdoms integrated in. Severus campaigned in Mesopotamia in 198 and allowed Abgaros VIII “The Great” of Edessa (177-211) to have privileges as a client prince. He was titled “king of kings” by Severus himself. This, as well as an elaborate reception in Rome shows that Abgaros was probably not just the king of Edessa, but allowed to rule the whole principality. In 198, the province of Mesopotamia was created from what had been Osrhoene.
Up until the third century, Syria lacked a network of fortifications due to little threat from the Parthians and the support in the second century from Rome’s new client states across the Euphrates and Mesopotamia. Between the second and third centuries, Rome deployed many troops to Syria to aid expansion into Mesopotamia and beyond the Euphrates. In 106, Legio VI Ferrata entered Syria and occupied the Nabataean kingdom and Bostra, being replaced by III Cyrenaica in 123. Other legions were already present in the area surrounding Syria due to the Judaean conflict. By the time that Hadrian arrived, there were six legions in the Syrian province, which did not change until Severus created three Parthica legions and stationed them in the new Mesopotamian province. Empire expansion in 165 led to the need for defensive auxiliary troops. Between 175-176, 10,000 auxiliary soldiers were deployed in Syria. The city of Dura became a garrison, facing the Parthians due to the threat of invasion or the potential for the Romans to launch an attack and claim territory. Some soldiers in Dura lived amongst the civilians, where papyri dating back to 168 records them worshipping both Palmyrene gods and Greek gods. Cultural integration and military presence continued until the Parthian capture.
The most significant transportation project that Rome undertook in Syria was the via nova, running from Syria to the Red Sea. It was built upon portions of the old Royal Road and connected to cities such as Petra. The via militaris spanned further east, with posts built to protect the imperial fields and livestock. When war was impending in the east, it was necessary to divert focus to maintain the roads so that troops could get needed supplies. However, this was unnecessary during peacetime. Besides two strictly military projects in Syria (the road from Damascus to Bostra in the south and the road from Palmyra to Sura in the north) Sartre argues that the direction of Syria’s roads suggest a higher priority being placed upon Syria’s growing population centers rather than defense. Their maintenance might have been more for propaganda of visiting emperors than military practicality, but allowed the empire to expand westward. However, the Roman limes system was necessary during the Severan era due to a thin distribution of troops and a need for border protection
When the Parthians launched a counteroffensive in Mesopotamia that lead to Macrinus’ (217-218) defeat in 217, he paid them 50 million denarii to withdraw. Syria was transformed into seven provinces, with only Edessa and Hatra kept as client states. In three centuries, the administrative landscape had been transformed.
(Civic Life) (Differences between poleis and colonies with examples) (Compare and contrast three cities)
The ruins of hundreds of ancient Hellenistic villages found in the “Limestone Massif” region of Northern Syria and the Hauran below Damascus give some clues as to how the peoples of Roman Syria lived. These villages show remains of ancient rural life including stables, houses, tombs, cisterns, and hundreds of Greek inscriptions, as well as rural archaeology which corresponds to that mentioned in the New Testament and Talmuds.
After Roman conquest, Syria was transformed into ager publicus, with Imperial estates created from bequests or confiscated property from the Seleucids and others. The Lebanese forest was the most acclaimed imperial property in Syria and was depleted of its resources by Hadrian’s time. The emperor did not own soil, but valuable trees: cedar, juniperus excelsa, Cicilian oak, and pine. However, Hadrian does not seem to have been concerned with agricultural development. In 200 B.C Antiochus III granted Jews the right to harvest from the forest and it is possible that the Romans inherited this right from the Seleucid kings. In addition, the imperial villages to the south and west of the Dead Sea during the rule of Trajan and Hadrian seem to have been from the royal Nabataean inheritance. However, the exact legal statues of all these Seleucid, Nabataean, and Hasmonaean estates and their transfer to Rome is debatable. While vast properties belonging sanctuaries were never found in Syria, it does not disprove their existence. During the Hellenistic period, a sanctuary of Zeus in Baitokaike had some rights over the village. Sanctuaries probably possessed private property, making them interconnected, yet separate from the rural villages. Hierodula were peasants who worked on the sanctuary’s lands, but there is no proof that they were agriculturists.
While land tenure was established under the Seleucids, parcel distribution to Greek and Macedonian colonists existed from the time of Augustus. The installation of veterans as colonists in Samaria, Gaba, and Bathyra by Herod and Emmaus by Vespasian also contributed to Roman land distribution. Large landowners, who often made their living growing olives, possibly through forced labor, were given parts of the Seleucid inheritance. According to Tchalenko, the village was an agricultural unit, organized around the property of these wealthy landowners. It is possible that there might have also been wealthy indigenous landholders. However, it remains unclear how most Syrian land was used by the Romans in regions besides Palestine. Slaves existed, but it is likely that most Syrian agriculture was not dependent on their labor. Records of Evangelists and Talmuds concerning Palestine show the existence of seasonal or year-round agricultural workers hired for specific tasks, including positions of inheritance for their offspring. However, there is simply not enough evidence to make these assumptions for Syria as a whole.
Grains, grapes, and olives were crops of primary importance. However, it is difficult to rank the importance of these crops and the practice of animal husbandry due to lack of evidence. Cultivation in Syria depended on biennial crop rotation due to fertilizer shortages. A reference in the Talmud is made to a man who divided his land into three parts: one-third grains, one-third olives, and one-third vines. However, self-sufficiency was never achieved due to the irregular climate and the cultivation of more risky crops such as grapes and olives, which were exported to other parts of the empire and took precedence over grains. Getting enough grain for cities was a constant preoccupation for Roman Syria, which created the need for interregional trade. Subsequently, Syria did not produce enough grain to export and presumably had to import grain from Egypt.
The trade flow in and out of Roman Syria represented the region’s rural economy. Syria was a net exporter of “cash crops” such as wine and olives, but evidence of a famine during Herod’s reign shows that the region never found a perfect balance between import and export since production barely met basic needs. Olive production began during Roman period and rice and fruits, such as peaches, apricots, and figs were imported from the east. These crops supplemented the Syrian diet and could be grown in arid places where grain could not. Areas such as Galilee yielded more olive oil than they needed, which gave the region “spending money” to buy goods from elsewhere. This, and the fact that Olives were grown by wealthy landowners to meet the demands of Rome, lead to the development of Syria’s open market. While indigenous people did not consume these crops to the same degree, they raised sheep and goats in a way similar to other Mediterranean cultures Evidence of livestock farming during the third century is found in Golan, where dwellings were built with mangers to house livestock.
Roman Syria was prosperous due to agricultural productivity, artisanal diversity, and extensive trade networks. Luxury products and agriculture formed the bulk of Syria’s economy, evolving into an interconnected system where peasants provided wool and other raw materials for skilled artisans to transform into luxury products which would be sold by merchants. Syria was known throughout the empire for its skilled labor, which stimulated both internal and external trade and gave the colony the means to purchase staples, such as grain, as well as luxuries that were being produced elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. This trade was facilitated by the Romans, who increasingly montetized Syria’s economy.
The Purple murex shell dye produced in Tyre and Sidon complemented Syria’s high quality textiles and added their worth when traded in Egypt and Asia Minor. Huge quantities of shellfish were used to make this dye, as evident in the massive hill of murex shells discovered south of Ptolemais. Members of the imperial court and members of the high order were known to wear purple clothing, which was dyed in Syria. However, textile manufacturing was even more important to Syria’s economy, with silk being the most renowned fabric. Other textiles were also produced, such as linens in Galilee and woolens in Judaea. Silkworms were only imported from China starting in the sixth century, so these other fabrics were inevitably produced first. Silk was manufactured in Cos and Galilee during the Hellenistic period and their is evidence that it was imported from China was dyed purple in Sidon, only to be stripped down in Egypt to better suit Roman tastes. Phoenician skills in silkworking and their ability to deconstruct and then reweave the fabric increased its value. Unique Syrian looms were used in Palmyra, a city located on a main caravan route, rather than Chinese-style looms, showing that Syria added regional touches to the silk weaving process. Small workshops throughout Syria developed around the textile industry and associations of weavers operated in Gerasa and Tiberius.
Other regional industries included leatherworking, bronze metalworking in Sidon, gold and silver metalworking in Antioch, and glassmaking in Phoenicia. Numerous ceramic workshops also developed in Syria. The fine porcelain, Eastern Sigillata A, was produced in large quantities until the mid-second century. Thousands of fragments of Syrian Eastern Sigillata A have been found throughout the empire in places such as Cyprus, particularly the side of the island facing Syria, suggesting that ceramic products may have been the main source of income for some Syrian artisans. Nabataean ceramics were also produced in Petra, the cities of the Negev, Transjordan, and the Hauran. However they were not exported. Local Pottery was produced in workshops of varying sizes across Syrian cities with two pottery centers existing in Galilee that met the needs of the entire region. Complex trade existed during the Hellenistic period and the local marketplace was of central importance because it was where peasants and local artisans sold their wares.The market at Ramat al-Khali,l located north of Hebron, was rebuilt under Hadrian after destruction by the Bar Kokhba rebels. Ceramics were purchased in specialized city markets, and transported to trade centers by way of donkey or mule.
Money minted by cities disappeared in the middle of the third century and new currencies could only be issued with Roman authority. Imperial currency was designated the only redeemable currency in the perspective of the treasury, yet other municipal systems were permitted for some time, coexisting with the imperial system. Roman custom officials applied a 25% tax to all merchandise crossing the border from either direction, yet duties in certain Mediterranean ports were lower than those on the borders since they affected merchandise circulating in the empire. Custom posts were were called publicani, as mentioned in several inscriptions. It is unclear whether the Nabataean custom system was maintained by Rome, but is is evident that certain Nabatean custom posts, such as the one in Leuke Kome, was seized by Rome after the kingdom was annexed in 106. Internal customs and tolls were collected by tenant farmers from travelers and traders moving throughout the Syria. Rome was adamant about tax collection, as evident in the construction of a post to prevent goods from reaching Gaza without being taxed.
Syria was one of the most active trade centers in the empire, having the ability to both import and export goods. Syria’s high-quality manufactured goods preserved its trade balance. Syria was a significant supplier of food to Rome, yet its many legions and highly populated cities consumed most of the grain, leaving little to spare. This is why Syria’s agricultural exports were relatively small compared to Egypt, Africa, and Sicily. Long-distance goods were imported by the Herodians, such as wine from Italy and garum from southern Spain. Products traveled to Syria in amphorae, which are indestructible containers that give clues as to what goods Syrian’s consumed. Sarcophagi were imported from Rome, ten of which are found in Berytos, Sidon, Tyre, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. In addition, 250 sarcophagi have been found in the Galilee and may have been used by both Jews and pagans alike. Marble and stone, such as Egyptian pink granite, were imported and Syria also imported ceramics despite heavy local production. In regions such as Hama, African Sigillata makes up the majority of finds.
Despite playing an important role in the Roman era culturally, artistically, and religiously, Syrians were not held in high repute by the Romans. Livy claimed that cultural intermingling between the Macedonians and indigenous cultures had turned them into “barbarians” despite the overwhelming economic and cultural contributions of the colonies. In Syria’s case, this was worsened by its distance from Rome and vast size. A pointed example of this occured when Julia Soaemias begged her son, the emperor Elagabalus (218-222), to make a visiting Syrian priest discard his traditional garb in favor of a toga. This is significant considering that Julia herself was Syrian-born. These biases in Roman interpretations of Syrian Hellenism and indigenous cultures must be must be taken into account.
Syria was a diverse region inhabited by Greeks, Semites, Arabs, and a variety of peoples from the Semitic world. Arab groups influenced the development of cults and new languages, which challenged Greek and Aramaic alike. Aramaic inscriptions gradually disappeared from monuments in cities such as Edessa, Palmyra, and Petra, suggesting that Greek had replaced it and become natural to many citizens. While Latin was the official language of the government and army, spoken Greek was more predominant. However, these Greek-speaking spheres were still relatively small when looking at Syria as a whole. Numerous spelling and syntax errors on epithets in the Hauran show that the population was never completely fluent in Greek, but their ability to use it in the first place speaks for itself. Under Trajan, Greek replaced Latin on coins, a trend that continued through the Severan Period. Somewhere around 200, Syriac was born in Edessa, combining elements of late phase Aramaic and Arabic to become a major Syrian literary language.
Syrian decorative arts were heavily influenced by Hellenization, as evident in the storytelling sacophagi found with decorative themes of the Helleno-Roman tradition. Numerous third century mosaics appear seemingly untouched by local traditions and depict Dionysian motifs, among others. The quality and style of these mosaics varied, but always drew from repertoire of Greek (versus Roman) motifs, though these motifs meant different things to Arabs, Greeks, Jews, etc. Take, for example, a mosaic found in the largely-Jewish city of Sepphoris depicting Dionysos. Jews had borrowed grapevine symbols and tied them to biblical events. When Christians, Jews, and pagans met
in the Mambre sanctuary near Hebron, originally dedicated as a cult to the wine god, they did so for different reasons, yet rallied around the same iconography. In this way a Jew could use Dionysian iconography in mosaics to symbolize their own beliefs, showing that Syrian cultures could intermingle without becoming completely diluted. However, whether local artisan knew it or not, these mosaics were always produced in a characteristically Greek way. This was not the case for sculpture and dress, where Greco-Roman styles and themes were co-opted and given unique provincial twists. In the priest Rapsones’ tomb in northern Syria, his funerary relief depicts him wearing a toga and a pleated bonnet on his head absent from Greco-Roman traditions, suggesting indigenous origin. Sacophagi in the Palmyra necropolis also shown show a syncretism of Syrian and Greco-Roman fashion. While Greek styles were especially favored by the rich as a symbol of status and sophistication, Syrian women in the Huaran retained more traditional styles of dress, and, unlike Romans, wore a lot of jewelry.
Literature provides some of the best examples of Hellenistic culture in Syria. Hellenistic philosophy was popular in Edessa, with the Platonic and Neoplatonic schools being especially influential in Apamaea and central Syria. The tastes of these schools is manifested in mosaics completed between the Severan era and the mid-4th century, showing how city leaders adopted Neoplatonist culture and made adaptations that reflected local tastes. The Syrian-born and Rome-educated historian and philosopher Nicolaos gained acclaim in Syria and Rome, compiling a fragmented history of Syria during the early phases of Roman annexation. Syrians also contributed to the development of sciences, law, and history. Marinus of Tyre (70-130) produced a description of the earth, the measurements in which were used by Claudius Ptolemy during the second century. Iulius Africanus, a Jewish writer turned Christian, wrote the Chonography and Cesti during the Severan period, connecting miliary, arts, medicines, and other topics.
Despite these examples, it would be futile to claim that all of Syria accepted Hellenization. Most of rural Syria completely rejected Hellenization and even cities such as Antioch were not completely Hellenized: some citizens could not understand Greek in the 4th century. After several generations, it is possible that Hellenism was no longer seen as “foreign culture” in Syria, but simply another piece of Roman Syria’s diverse and interconnected cultural web.
Despite being the birthplace of monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Christianity, Roman Syria had many cults and sanctuaries dedicated to various gods. Local and imported Gods came to influence one another in the these innumerable cults, showing significant religious diversity and syncretism. At the same time a trend towards abstraction and the omnipotence of one god over the rest developed, promoted by Judeo-Christian ideas of salvation. Preexisting gods were often adapted to meet these new needs and the increasing use of magic and astrology in religion points to a growing obsession with salvation. These more spiritual interpretations of religion made Syrians more receptive to Judaism and Christianity. They were adaptive and viewed the various religions as something that could appropriated without losing their “pagan” identities.
Pagan Syrians worshipped their favorite ethnic or familial gods, the gods introduced by the Greeks, Romans or Arabs, and various syncretised forms of both including Heliopolitan Jupiter, who was identified with the local god Ball from Baalbek during the second and third centuries. However, indigenous gods remained supreme due to Syria’s comparative lack of influence from the colonizers. Religious life in Roman Syria was similar to other regions in the Mediterranean in that it had civic cults, gods of salvation, local gods, and the gods of the imperial court. Indigenous groups had many local pantheons that sometimes included the Triad (mother, father, and son god), Baal or Baalshamin, who was worshipped as a supreme god and venerated through Syria, and the goddess Leucothea who had semitic roots and could be easily adapted to fit the needs of Syrian Greeks. Additionally, Arabs that settled as far as Palmyra brought with them their gods such as Allat, Azizos, and Monimos who were all worshipped in popular cults.
Palmyra’s cosmopolitan nature was not unique: Even in Greek cities such as Apamea very un-Greek gods such as Zeus Belos were worshipped. More mention to Greek rather than Roman gods have been found in various inscriptions from cities such as Bertos, with foreign cults being even less important by comparison. However, the Egyptian cult of Apis brought to Syria in the second and third centuries, along with the cult of Serapis, whose image is featured on coins from Bostra, gained prominence in Syria. Isis and Neotera were honored in Gerasa Laodicea, with a Laodicean council passing a law in 175-174 to dedicate a sanctuary in their honor. Evidence of Mithra has also been found, including the discovery of a mithraeum in parts of the secularized horrea storage facilities. In this mithraeum, nine marble statues were dedicated to Mithra in the fourth century. In 165, a mithraeum in Dura was transformed into a Roman encampment and two mithric reliefs were discovered found in Canatha. However, Mithras presence contrasted starkly from place to place. Depending on the city, a mithraeum could be located in a port, an army camp, or village that lacked a military presence altogether. This shows that the cult of Mithra had grown beyond military exclusivity.
Numerous local gods who were associated with natural phenomenon were combined with corresponding Greek gods such as Zeus, taking on new identities. In the Hauran, many of these adopted gods even retained their traditional Greek names. Zeus often replaced similar local gods and was associated Hadad in Damascus, Bel, Baalshamin, and Dashura. These local Zeus figures borrowed his characteristic symbols such as the lightning bolt, throne, and eagle. Other gods were also easily assimilated with Greek gods due to similar traits and mythical stories. Nabataeans, who did not represent their gods through statues, began to create anthropomorphic representations in the Greco-Roman style. However, many regions in Syria stayed faithful to their traditions and allowed for less assimilation. This is occured in Palmyra, even though local gods were eventually dressed as Roman soldiers.
The Destruction of the temple in 70 interrupted Jewish ritual sacrifice for the first time sinc 586 BC. The once prominent kingdom of Judaea was suddenly demoted into just another Roman province, leaving the Jews as exiles in their own land. The position of High Priest had disappeared, yet the Diaspora remained and preserved their Judaism. The Torah gained more importance during this period as it provided guidance for daily life and reinforced the Jewish identity in absence of the temple. Pharisee rabbis naturally transitioned into community leaders. One of these leaders, Rabbi Yohanna b. Zakkai, fled Jerusalem during the siege whilst hidden in a coffin, eventually founding a school for Torah study in the city of Imamnia with Roman consent. There he issued decrees pertaining to the observance of holidays and other important events such as marriage, thus transferring the power of the High Priest to his own circle of Pharisaical leaders. They formed an assemblee, lead by a patriarch or nasi who became the new spiritual leader of the Jews and represented them before the Romans, who did not hesitate to acknowledge their authority.
Rabbi Yohannan’s interpretation of the temple’s collapse was that it was necessary for the Jews to regain Yahweh’s approval and free themselves from sin, which had put them in their predicament in the first place. This idea and doctrines pertaining to the afterlife gained more importance to the Jews as it gave them hope in a time of relative disunity and despair. Factors such as the Bar Kokhba Revolt and Rome’s repressive measures, which prohibited circumcision, worshipping on the sabbath, ordaining rabbis, and studying law threatened the reorganization of Judaism. Under Antoninus (138-161), circumcision was reauthorized, yet conversion was forbade by imperial edict. Despite these challenges, Judaism prevailed. Even during the ban, Rabbis had been initiated and courts of justice began to operate again where imperial courts had no control, causing the Romans to give in and and grant de facto recognition.
Galilee replaced Judaea as the center of Jewish life in Palestine, which was made possible by its relative agricultural and artisanal prosperity. Regions such as Judaea-Samaria saw the disappearance of many Jews, allowing for an influx of pagans. The once prominent city of Jerusalem became a pagan domain and its very existence symbolized Roman oppression, making it inhospitable for Jews. Jewish people were forbidden to live in the city from 135 until the third century, but small communities eventually crept back in, led by Rabbis who followed strict religious rules similar to the Essenes. Even in this fallback zone of Galilee, the Jewish population declined due to oppression. Mixed, yet predominantly pagan villages across Syria became the norm. Propaganda to get Jews to return to ancestral lands was heavily pushed by rabbis, who claimed that Palestinian residency equated to observing all laws of the Torah combined. It is possible that Jews didn’t want to live amongst pagans due to concepts of purity, but had to adapt as the environment around them changed, making it impossible to separate themselves from their pagan neighbors.
After the first century, Josephus noted that Jews were “densely interspersed” throughout Syria both inside and outside of the Holy Land. The actual boundaries of Eretz Israel, the land promised to the Jews by Yahweh, were blurred by the Romans and different interpretations by rabbis. The largest Jewish communities were in the Golan and the Hauran, where ritual baths have been found and in cities such as Antioch and Apamea, Edessa and Dura. Jews had been living in Antioch for a very long time, but it is unclear when they first moved in. The same goes for the city of Apamaea, but a Jew is known to have terrorized the region at the time of Pompey’s arrival. In Edessa, 12% of the population was Jewish and an ancient synagogue was discovered in Jura. The synagogue itself could only seat 40, but graffiti and inscriptions suggest that Jews occupied the nearby houses. When Dura became a garrison city in the third century, the Jewish population grew and the synagogue was rebuilt, eventually seating 124 people and covered in beautiful paintings, suggesting the wealth of Dura’s Jewish community.
Roman urbanization pushed Jews closer to Hellenization, with even Rabbis leaving Jewish cities such as Usha or Beth She’arim for pagan cities such as Sepphoris and Caesaria. Many Jews fled Jerusalem and settled in Sepphoris, which became the residence of Rabbi Judah hanasi as he compiled the mishnah. A large Jewish presence remained in the city even after Hadrian’s visit, which appealed to pagan sentiments. They even adopted many Hellenised traditions, such as visiting public baths that contained statues of pagan gods, and lived openly amongst the pagans. Even the rabbis did not denounce this, believing that a balance could be struck between integrating with mainstream society, yet maintaining personal Jewish beliefs. A lot had changed since Jews disapprovingly watched the Greeks from beyond the temple walls.,
Christianity was born in Syria and its surrounding regions, becoming a significant and highly visible part of Syrian society by the third century. However, this group left very little physical evidence through the fourth century, making it difficult to assess what aspects of society and religion they actually influenced. Jesus of Nazareth preached his message in the half-century leading up to the Revolt, but was executed in 33 due to the insistence of temple leaders. A core group of his followers carried on his tradition, using his message and stories from his life to gain followers. The first Christian congregation was formed in Jerusalem and the term “Christian” was created in Antioch. However, the first Christian communities were established in the Syrian cities such as Apamaea, Damascus, and Antioch, showing how deeply connected Christianity was to Syria.
The early Christian church suffered due to the disappearance of Jesus’ closest associates whether by choice, or in Peter’s case, execution. Additionally, Jews in Jerusalem wanted to remain Jewish and resisted conversion, forcing Christians to look elsewhere and gain the majority of their converts from the pagan cultures of Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome. Christians were numerous in Northern Syrian cities, but also lived in villages in region such as the Golan, eventually spreading throughout the entire country. Despite contemporary portrayals, the Romans typically left Christians alone and did not oppose their proselytizing. One of the few acts of violence towards Christians occurred 115 when the martyr Ignatius of Antioch was sent away by Trajan to be executed in Rome. By the third century, Christian bishops and followers could practice openly once again, ushing in an era of renewed peace. In 251, Decius (249-251) persecuted the Christians, but this did not last very long or significantly hurt the order. Written in Syriac, The Didascalia of the Apostles describes third century Christianity as hierarchical ecclesiastical organization that was headed by a bishop, showing that it was a legitimate religion with an established structure.
In 224 the Arsacid dynasty that had maintained relations with Rome was replaced by the Persian Sassanids. They did not intend to conquer the entirety of the Achaemenid Empire, but ended up waging immediate war with Rome, possibly indicating otherwise. After a year of failed negotiations Alexander Severus (222-235), had to fight as the Sassanid army threatened northern Syria and Antioch. He deployed three legions and defeated the Sassanid leader Ardashir’s forces in at Media, yet was forced to withdraw to Antioch due to illness. Persian raids continued through the third century while local authorities simultaneously pushed for autonomy from Rome.
While the Roman campaign in 198-199 had failed, Hatra and Edessa were both brought into an alliance with the empire. Hatra was made part of the empire and fought alongside them against the Parthians. However, this alliance lead to Hatra’s demise as it was considered an enemy to the Persians who attacked in 229 and took the city in 240. This was an important step for the Sassanids to control Arabian Mesopotamia and simply another problem for the empire to deal with. Internal strife usurped imperial power on several occasions, with the Palmyrene Queen Zenobia (267-272) rising up and annexing almost the entirety of Roman Syria. White Roman general Aerelian sacked Palmyra in 272 and ended her rule, Roman Syria was in decline and unable to protect itself from the Sassanids and other surrounding opposition, a trend that would eventually lead to the Arab conquest.
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