You are here

Women, Children, and the Family in Palmyra

Women, Children, and the Family in Palmyra

Edited by Signe Krag and Rubina Raja (Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica 4.10; Palmyrene Studies 3). Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters 2019. Pp. 228. DKK 250. ISBN 978-87-7304-419-3 (paper).

Reviewed by

This collection of studies, part of the ambitious and fast-moving publication series Palmyrene Studies, publishes papers from the 2016 and 2017 Palmyra Portrait Project workshops. As such, it includes both new methods and results and some signs of undigested work in progress. After a useful historiographic introduction to studies of the family in Roman-period Palmyra, this volume presents the workshop papers, which are organized around the funerary sphere and the civic and religious sphere, plus two comparative studies. Many papers are quite specialized snippets of ongoing discussion and debate among the participants and other recent scholars of Palmyrene society, religion, and culture. The book belongs in academic collections interested in Roman-period Syria and Mesopotamia, trade, and acculturation, as well as family and women’s roles.

The roles of women as represented in Palmyra are overwhelmingly familial and predominantly private. In the funerary sphere, Agnes Henning’s study (ch. 1) of matrimony represented in the tower tombs finds that the inscriptions made by builders (also referred to here as “tomb founders”) on the exterior rarely mention wives, but wives and children are commonly shown and named in the family banquet scene of the exterior facade relief. However, if male cofounders show themselves in the banquet relief, the spouses are not shown. Henning interprets this as a sign of the marginal place of wives in public. Women appear in the private interior representations of family—for example, in the tomb of Elahbel and his three brothers—as wives of the founders and sons and as married and unmarried daughters of the family. Wives of the sons are daughters of their uncles, so also cousins of the sisters, which is not shown on the genealogical diagram. 

These portraits, and likely the missing portraits of the men from lower down on the interior walls, were not loculus slabs but a family gallery that may not have corresponded to eventual tomb membership. The same lack of correspondence between tomb portraits and burials occurs in hypogea and in banquet groups that may include ancestors buried elsewhere or living family members represented along with the dead. This is discussed by Eleonora Cussini (ch. 3) in a study of epigraphic designations of female roles (mother, wife, daughter, “foster mother”) and by Krag (ch. 2) in a prosopographical catalogue of the portraits from three family hypogea previously discussed elsewhere, by Anna Sadurska among others, with slightly different results in detail. The habit of listing patrilineal ancestors for both men and women allows for the reconstruction of genealogies and family alliances with resulting changes in tomb ownership and burial rights. Cussini’s study adds to her series of publications cautioning against drawing broad conclusions about social, legal, or religious limitations on female roles in Palmyra based on the stereotypical funerary representations of their idealized family roles. Specific inscriptions that she considers here recall some of these capacities: to own, buy, and sell property; to remarry; to act as legal guardian for children, including those not their own. The variety of relationships leading to different family assemblages in tombs documented in these chapters casts doubt on Nathanael Andrade’s (ch. 7) schematic reconstruction of an ideal funeral possibly organized by Zenobia for her husband Odainath, especially given the historical tradition that he died away from Palmyra.

Roles of Palmyrene women in religious life are documented primarily in the inscriptions on statue bases that honor some of them for donations to religious buildings and on small religious offerings naming them as dedicators or beneficiaries of the vow. Sanne Klaver shows they dedicate primarily “for the lives” of themselves and their children, but sometimes also for fathers and brothers, while they receive the good wishes of parents, spouses, and sons. Both kinds of inscriptions show women controlling expenditures for religious projects, as we know they also could do in the funerary sphere. The related survey by Ted Kaizer (ch. 4) of family depictions and family inscriptions in religious contexts finds women shown publicly as onlookers at sacrifices and privately as participants in banquets as well as votive dedicators. He points out that the larger, earlier donations are always by men and for the lives of themselves, their brothers, and their sons. Possible explanations of the later participation of women (and changing scale of donations) involve theories of Romanization, related to a suggestion by Mary T. Boatwright that increasing depictions of women with children in Palmyrene funerary art may emulate the increasing presence of imperial women and children in official Antonine and Severan art, including coins. Or, it may express a shift in the social organization of the city-state into household familial units superseding the older tribal kin structures. In the funerary sphere, however, neither the older tower tombs nor the more recent hypogea seem to emphasize nuclear family as opposed to patrilineal groups. Ville Vuolanto surveys the scanty Palmyrene evidence for participation of children in religious activities such as cultic practices and ceremonies, personal rites of passage, and votive offerings, in the context of almost equally scanty evidence empire-wide that children would naturally join in the domestic and public rituals of their communities, although specific activities or special roles are not documented.

Raja publishes a partially illustrated catalogue of 104 Palmyrene priest portraits, together with a brief discussion. Types include loculus relief busts, stelae, banqueting reliefs, and sarcophagus chests and lids. Not all are funerary. This is valuable material, but apparently a work in progress. From the statistics she gives, it appears the catalogue is not complete: for example, of 88 loculus priest portraits known to her, 25 appear in the catalogue, of which only 15 are illustrated. Some pieces receive extensive description of every bust and figure but are not illustrated. Others are illustrated but with only the basic database information. Still, this is a welcome foretaste of what the complete Palmyra Portrait Project has to offer.

Alice Christ
University of Kentucky

Book Review of Women, Children, and the Family in Palmyra, edited by Signe Krag and Rubina Raja 
Reviewed by Alice Christ
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Christ


Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.