The camel trains that passed through Palmyra were enormous, often numbering 2000 with a further 300 donkeys used to carry surplus baggage. The caravans carried oil, spices, grain, straw, salted fish, wax, dyed fleeces, wools,bronze and marble statuary, wine, skins, fresh and smoked meat, slave girls, almonds, pottery and much else..
Life in the desert was dangerous especially for those not familiar with the trade routes. In winter, the camels could go for maybe three months without water but in summer the margin of safety shrank to two weeks.The caravans, therefore, were usually led by an experienced horseman whose job it was to locate water supplies and wells en route, making sure that water skins were adequately filled for the next stage of the journey. If not, there would be many bones left to whiten in the desert sun, vultures circling overhead marking the spot.
Guides too were needed for the sandstorms that blew up without warning brought the whole caravan to a halt, leaving everyone except the most experienced guides disorientated. Thus the traders, camel drivers, merchants and guides of Palmyra were considered the best of their kind and moreover, because they were used to travel and to dealing with foreigners, they were adept at adapting to Greco-Roman and Persian languages and customs.
Small wonder then that Palmyra was such a coveted if distant outpost of the Roman Empire, one that had to be watched in case its rulers should get ideas above their station and strive to extend their boundaries of power.
Palymyrans lived well. The main avenue was lined with some 375 colonnaded pillars built of porphyry, the capitals decorated with acanthus leaves, pomegranates and pine cones, the whole column gilded with bronze. The theatre had special raised seats for senators and visiting dignitaries. The Tariff court, with its huge rectangular doors was imposing and its baths and banqueting halls spoke of prosperity and power
Along the colonnaded streets, the pillars still have the brackets which once supported statues of local notables – judges, merchants and owners of khans. One such man had no less than fourteen statues erected in his honour and a look at the tax system reveals just how carefully life was monitored. Slave owners were taxed according to the age of the slave and whether or not they were to be exported. It cost 25 dinarii to bring a camel load of aromatic oil into the city and 13 dinarii for a donkey load. If the oil was transported in alabaster containers it cost more than if it came in goatskins the latter being of inferior quality. Prostitutes were required to pay a monthly tax which was based on the equivalent value of one night’s work.
Water rates were charged at 800 dinarii per month for, in the desert, water is a most precious commodity but with up to 1000 animals in a camel train each carrying a profitable load this tax provided a regular income for Rome..
There was little doubt, therefore, that the people of Palmyra were seen as influential merchants with Syrians generally regarded as the leading bankers of the region to the point where an exasperated Juvenal made the often quoted complaint that “the Orontes ( Atissi) is encroaching on the Tiber.”
But Rome benefited greatly from Palmyra’s prosperity and it was the Emperor Hadrian during his visit to Palmyra in 129CE who recognised this by conferring on the city the title of Hadriana thus granting it free status, the ensuing and lavish celebrations paid for by a local entrepreneur.
And while the male citizens of the upper classes went about their business in the senate and the market place, their wives and daughters also conducted themselves as only highborn women can. Slaves were employed in abundance with the clear distinction between freeborn and slaves underlined by the varied use of the veil – as important in pre-Islamic society as now.
Highborn women as well as women given the status of official concubines were expected always to veil themselves while slaves were forbidden to do so. There was even a code – the Ashur Code – which laid down strict rules about the veil in which, as usual, women of lower status came out worst: “ A harlot must not veil herself…he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest her, produce witnesses and bring her to the palace tribunal; they shall not take her jewellery away but the one who arrested her may take her clothing; they shall flog her fifty times with staves and pour pitch on her head….”
This is from my book on Syria. Have a look at it by clicking here: