Ancient Palmyra Could Have Fallen Because of Hunger, New Study Shows
05:45 GMT 23.09.2022 (Updated: 06:52 GMT 23.09.2022)
In AD 273, emperor Aurelian destroyed the city of Palmyra, putting an end to the short-lived Palmyrene Empire which defied Rome. Its majestic ruins were only rediscovered at the end of the 17th century.
A team of Scandinavian researchers from Norway and Denmark have challenged the received wisdom about the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra, which is in present-day Syria, adding more depth to the overall picture.
Until recently, Roman might has been seen as the sole cause for the destruction of the historic city nearly 2,000 years ago, as the short-lived Palmyrene Empire was brought to an end. Although the Palmyrene rebellion was one of the most serious in the long history of the Roman Empire, it also happened at a time when the climate in the Middle East became noticeably drier. This led researchers to think that a lack of food was one of the reasons for losing the war.
One of the questions they asked was how much food could have been grown for a big landlocked city in the middle of the desert. Even using advanced techniques such as collecting rainwater with the help of dams and reservoirs, the researchers found - using computer models and factoring in data about known rainfall - that Palmyreans could only grow enough food for about 40,000 people in the area around the city each year.
“Our calculations show that the Palmyreans' opportunities to feed their own population deteriorated during this period. We therefore believe that [Queen] Zenobia and the inhabitants of Palmyra were in a hopeless situation. The choice was between war against the Romans or a situation where parts of the city's population risked starvation,” Eivind Heldaas Seland, a professor at the University of Bergen, told national broadcaster NRK.
According to Iza Romanowska of Denmark's Aarhus University, food safety has always been the priority for big cities in inhospitable environments.
“We can now see how the situation became progressively more difficult as the climate deteriorated and the population grew”, Romanowska told NRK.
Rubina Raja, a professor of classical archeology at Aarhus University, argued that this method not only presents the history of Palmyra from a new angle, but also allows us to assess how essential food security is to historical development. According to Seland, the same method can be extrapolated to apply to other historic cities, areas and times.
Between AD 260 and AD 273, Palmyra was a thriving metropolis in the Syrian desert and the capital of a short-lived breakaway state from the Roman empire. From AD 272 it was ruled by Queen Zenobia who challenged the Romans. At the time, the empire - under the control of a new emperor, Aurelian - was plagued with civil war and Zenobia felt this was the perfect time to agitate to advance the interests of her own son Vaballathus.
She lost the fight and in AD 273, Aurelian destroyed the city. Its majestic ruins were rediscovered by western travelers at the end of the 17th century, only to be partially destroyed by Daesh* terrorists in 2015 during the war in Syria.
*Daesh is a terrorist organization banned in Russia and many other countries.