Palmyran Funerary Portraits
Situated between the two mighty empires of Rome and Parthia, halfway between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean Sea, Palmyra’s special role and character have long been recognised as a pillar of the region’s culture. Its languages, society, religion, art and architecture speak of a rich and varied heritage, a unique synthesis of East and West.
Palmyra functioned essentially as the Babylon of the Roman Empire. An intersection between east and west; a centre point that rivalled Rome. While it now lays trapped in rebel controlled Syrian territory, we have these funerary portraits in fine museums across the globe.
One may look at these magnificent pieces and wonder of its significance. They were functional as grave markers outside the large Hellenistic towers distinctive only to Palmyra. They mentioned the name, date of death and family of the deceased. Similar to the Fayum Mummy Portraits. These not only show us as viewers the extent to which eastern cultures coagulated but also the extent of Roman Empire that hosted so much diversity.
Palmyra being the epicentre of trade between the junctions of east and west led to the development of society, infrastructure and a powerful class of aristocracy often holding high bureaucratic positions in the senate. This inflow of economic prosperity allowed for the commissioning of these famed grave markers.
Most Classicists will have glimpsed in the general literature images of wide-eyed Palmyran gods or citizens lined up in stiff postures, looking back at the viewer; but despite the familiarity of this kind of sculpture, academic ground work is still lacking.
Its funerary portraiture constitutes the largest corpus of portraits in the Roman world outside Rome. There are well over 2,000 pieces scattered across the world’s museums, private collections, and antiquities markets.
These lids for burial niches may look contemporary in style at first glance but strives for the idealist look that Roman portraiture strives to achieve. They were a way for people to remember the dead and a way for the dead to speak to the viewers that this is how they wanted to be remembered after passing.
These burial techniques are unique to Palmyra but also share similar practices to the Phoenicians that lived in Palmyra before.
As for the huge number of funerary portraits, by far the most numerous and best-known kind are locally produced bust reliefs carved on a loculus of slabs. These roughly square-shaped slabs were used to cover the opening of individual burial slots.
Palmyran portraiture occurred in a relatively narrow time bracket, namely the first three centuries AD. Of the relief busts, up to 10% are also explicitly dated by accompanying inscriptions. These precise dates are invaluable fix points for the study of key features.
These stylised portraits represent the diversity of the Roman Empire. Not only did it span millions of miles across Crimea to Gibraltar, it encompasses a plethora of cultures that received citizenship. Almost like the predecessor to the EU. These showcase that economic prosperity and the free flow of trade and ideas leads to apathetic commission of beautiful art. These portraits are representative not only of the deceased but of a union of ideas and cultures. A melting pot of artistic excellence and the Roman ideal of striving for perfection.