Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The "Pompeii of the Syrian Desert"

Dura Europos was founded in 303BCE by the Seleucid Empire on the Euphrates River and was formally laid out in a Hellenistic manner in the second century BCE. It later came under Parthian control and had a multicultural population with close ties to the city of Palmyra. The city was captured by Rome in 165CE but fell to a Sassanian siege in 256-257CE. It was abandoned, fell to ruin and was covered by the shifting sands of the desert until the early 20th century when it was excavated by a joint American and French team of archaeologists. In recent years excavations have begun again but are currently suspended due to the political unrest in the region. Like the Roman city of Pompeii buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79CE, Dura Europos has proven to be a time capsule of life in a frontier town and Roman military garrison.

The Roman Army in Dura Europos
The number of military objects found at Dura Europos is remarkable. It is probably the largest coherent collection of Roman Army equipment from the early to mid-3rd century, the beginning of a time of great political upheaval which saw over 20 emperors in the span of 50 years.

The miles, or Roman soldier, of this period looked very different from his counterpart from the first century, the era commonly portrayed on film, television, and by reenactors. He no longer wore caliga (hobnailed sandals), a sleeveless tunic, or a military belt with a dangling apron, nor did he carry the gladius (short sword) or rectangular scutum (shield). Instead he wore a long sleeved tunic, long close-fitting trousers, closed boots, and carried a spatha (long sword) and oval scutum. Segmented iron armor was being discontinued in the period in favor of scale or mail. This remaking of the appearance of the Roman army has come to be called in scholarly circles the “Antonine Revolution,” and reflected the changes forced on the army by campaigns against the Parthians in the east and the Macromannic Wars along the Danubian frontier.

Dura Europos was garrisoned by the Cohors XX Palmyrenorum, a mounted unit of horsemen and dromedary troops which patrolled the borderlands adjacent to the Euphrates River. It was commanded by a tribune, perhaps the best known being Julius Terentius, who is shown in a fresco from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods performing a sacrifice.

The time capsule nature of Dura with its rich artifacts of all kinds makes it an ideal venue for exploring Roman military life, daily life in the region, and the Roman economy in the middle of the 3rd century and although artifacts contain many items of strictly local interest, many of them, especially the military ones, have connections to other artifacts found across the empire. This is an era not well studied by many people; it lies between the age of Augustus and the early empire, precedes the "Crisis of the Third Century," and the well-studied late empire that led to the early middle ages.

Tragically, modern political unrest may finally destroy Dura-Europos. Wholesale looting on an “industrial scale” has occurred over the past two years at the site, making the study of Durene artifacts all the more relevant. It will be years before the full extent of this “Heritage catastrophe” is fully known.

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