Palmyra was the ancient jewel of the Roman near east. Situated deep into the Syrian desert, the city had from it’s very founding been particularly isolated from even its closest neighbors. This isolation engendered a strong sense of identity in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Protected by the shifting sands of the deep desert, Palmyra became a formidable stronghold of both military and economic stability in the Roman east. For all of this, the Palmyrenes would never fully submit to their Roman overlords. We intend to show, through primary, secondary, and visual sources that during the era of the Roman Principate, the ancient city of Palmyra never fully assimilated into Rome’s military, civic, and artistic culture but instead maintained a distinct Palmyrene identity that contributed to their rise, downfall, and ultimate destruction.
Palmyra: the Economic Powerhouse
Palmyra was “a city remarkable for its situation, for the richness of its soil and its pleasant streams” as described by Pliny the Elder (Compton, 1888, 1). Fortified by King Solomon, the city was originally called Tadmor and had a perceived value due to its placing in the most direct route between the east and the west, what would become the Silk Road, and its plentiful supply of water that could be procured. The city started to grow more and more due to all the trade traffic that would go through there between Rome and the east.
Rome, under the leadership of Marc Antony, in 40 BC saw this fast growth of wealth and decided to take it for themselves and plunder the city but Palmyra decided that “discretion [was] the better part of valor” (Compton, 1888, 2) and they moved all of their valuables to the other side of the Euphrates River, which ran to the North and East of Palmyra, closer to the land of Parthia. During this time, they were independent from other lands aside from the ones they traded with. This growth in trade and economy continued for around two hundred years before they submitted to Hadrian’s rule in 130 AD, after proving their superiority against the Parthians.
Palmyra served as a primary economic center between the east and the west gaining its wealth directly from commerce. This growth was not one that came out of thin air, no, it was one that depended on its management of human and material resources. This all required a law of the land on how it would participate in the trade. Many people from the outskirts of the city went to the center specifically to participate in the silk road trade. But although Palmyra was technically part of Rome, Palmyra grew on its own and didn’t really get help from the Romans to grow into the economic center that it became.
In 137 AD, the Palmyrenes introduced the Palmyrene Tariff Inscription, drawn up with the help of the Greeks, “the single most important document for understanding Palmyra’s local economy” (Smith II, 2013, 68). It’s a document that describes all of the regulations that had to do with flow of goods in and out of the city and the taxation for those items. This regulation scheme was made in order to avoid disputes between the tax collectors and the people who owed taxes. Anyone who sold anything for profit would be taxed on it.
This inscription also managed regional resources such as salt and water, of which the document made it clear that it was of great importance to regulate the exploitation and distribution of regional resources. For this it was also of great importance for Palmyra to have great relations with the countryside, of which Palmyra demonstrated. There was an integration of the city and the countryside as shown by the cooperation of the pastoralists and the people in the city, the city provided the pastoralists with security and assurances for their support in the domestic economy.
Trade was such an integral part of Palmyra that important contributors of the caravan trade would be honored by the city with a statue of themselves. Using this material evidence, we can look back and see how the caravan trade developed over time. Between the years 131 AD and 161 AD Palmyrene caravan trade seemed to skyrocket with the number of statues having gone up too. This increase in trade was most likely due to the pacification of the Roman Empire under the rule of Hadrian and his successor, who pacified in his expansion of foreign relations compared to how Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were in countering the aggressiveness of the Parthian ruler Vologeses 4th.
However, after the year 161 AD, we see a decline and lack of statues showing the caravan trade seemingly end. There are many reasons as to why this could have happened. One may have been the plague having been brought to Palmyra by the Romans as they were campaigning through Parthia, which caused a decline in the community leading to a decline in trade. Another reason may have been the aggressive tendencies of Vologeses 4th increasing in from 147 AD to 191 AD. This source of income and wealth did not survive the fall of the empire.
This leads to another of Palmyra’s sources of wealth in the Roman empire: a military one. As Pliny had described it, Palmyra sat in between the two empires so it became of great importance to Rome to obtain that city. This was “the primary reason Rome had supported [Palmyra’s] growth” (Stoneman, 1992, 52) and by the time Procopius had come around, the military was the main thing Palmyra was known for, it had been forgotten of its former glory as a commercial splendor, so much so that in the 6th century the Silk Road passed further up north, around Nisibis. Palmyra was home to a Roman garrison, unlike other cities which had a whole legion but even so, a garrison generates so much hard cash among the legionaries as they would be in need of the service of craftsmen and other services that the city could provide for them.
In all this servicing and “support”, Rome doesn’t seem like it had much of an impact on the economy and development of Palmyra. To Rome, Palmyra was just a way to generate money and to keep troops closer to their enemy, Parthia. Palmyra grew on its own and blossomed without needing the help of Rome. It was only when Rome started to interfere that things began to change and eventually led to their downfall. Yes, we do see an increase in trade because of the changes in governance that happened in Rome, with Rome being more pacific towards others but we also see that due to Parthia and Rome becoming aggressive to each other again, there was a decrease, and eventual halt of the caravan trade that happened in Palmyra. This trade and military use of Palmyra would eventually cause them to revolt against Rome.
Palmyra: the Meeting of East and West
Palmyra was heavily influenced by its contact with and rule by Greece and Rome in the area of civics. Through the process of transitioning from a Greek polis to a Roman colonia, there was a dynamic between Greek and Roman qualities that is distinct to Palmyra. The integrations of Romans into Palmyra is evidence of how accepted Rome was within Palmyra. Despite this influence and acceptance of Hellenism, Palmyra also retained many aspects of its local structures as well as drawing influence from outside of Rome and Greece. The overall outcome was a uniquely Palmyrene system that shows their flexibility in the face of foreign influence as well as their desire to remain Palmyrene.
Palmyra adopted several Hellenistic features during its time under Greek and Roman influence. This can be seen in the types of buildings present within the city. A Palmyrene gymnasium is mentioned in an inscription on an angora (Smith, 2013, 129). Gymnasiums served as important social centers in urban areas within Greece and Rome, making this a particularly Hellenistic feature of the city. It also shows a desire to fit into Hellenistic standards since “Any barbarian community which aspired to the status of Greek city must found a gymnasium” (Jones, 1940, 220). A further desire to fit in can be seen in some prominent Palmyrene citizens adopting Roman imperial names (Smith, 2013, 132). A few documents mention a house of public records (Smith, 2013, 132). This suggests that the city had a separate centralized location for public documents, which was common in Greek cities and would have been a change from storing these types of documents within cult temples. There was also an increasing similarity between Roman administrative positions and Palmyrene administrative positions. The strategoi position was introduced to Palmyra near the end of the second century (Smith, 2013, 130). Strategoi were high ranking military commanders in Rome and they held similar levels of power within Palmyra. A list of offices included in a tariff provides more evidence of Roman concepts of administration. It includes terms like archontes, syndikoi, and dekaprotoi (Smith, 2013, 128). The administration of tariffs is a high level civic function, showing that Roman style civics was affecting Palmyrene civics from the very top. Key elements of Greek and Roman influence can be seen within the structure of the city and the governmental and military positions of Palmyra.
The shift from Greek polis to Roman colonia produced an interesting dynamic between the two spheres of influence. At first glance, there seems to be a broad shift towards Rome. As wealthy patrons within the city increasingly became Roman rather than Greek, Roman ways began to be adopted under the influence of these benefactors (Smith, 2013, 120). They stop referring to themselves as a polis and begin to transliterate the word colonia when referring to Palmyra (Smith, 2013, 123). They show an increasingly willingness to flatter the Romans, demonstrated by an agora that says “the City (honors) Julia Maesa, sister of Julia Augusta” (Smith, 2013, 123), expressing their desire to be regarded by Rome as a part of the Roman whole. This is further shown by an inscription that identifies an important merchant as a citizen of Hadriana Palmyra (Smith, 2013, 124). This direct tribute to the Roman emperor is a clear appeal to being part of the Roman empire. Yet despite all of this, a few important threads of Greek influence stick around. Most of the designations for public officials retained their Greek origin rather than transitioning to Roman names (Smith, 2013, 130). In fact, Latin in general becomes increasingly less common among government documents after the transition to a more Roman administration (Bryce, 2014, 280). One would expect the exact opposite. The Palmyrenes seem to have not been beholden to any one system that they came into contact with. They certainly learned one way or another as power in the region shifted but they were not overly eager to change up everything as soon as a new power came into the picture, showing a strength within their administration.
There was an integration of Romans into Palmyra. Citizenship could be given to people who were not natives of Palmyra. This is evidenced by an inscription from the temple of Bel that honors Roman commander G. Vibius Celer. He is described as being a citizen and on the city council (Smith, 2013, 124). This shows how accepted Romans were within Palmyra. The fact that he was on a city council takes this one step further. Not only were Romans assimilated into Palmyra, they were prominent citizens and actively took part in civic life. This integration also went in the reverse. A few Palmyrenes were able to rise to be figures of great importance within the Roman system, such as Odaenathus, who became a Roman senator (Smith, 2013, 132). Palmyrene soldiers who had served in the Roman army could gain citizenship, many settling in the places where they once served. Some even eventually became local elites, which allowed them to run groups of their fellow expats (Smith, 2013, 173-174). Palmyrenes had a role in the wider Roman world and could become quite successful in that world in the right circumstances. They also managed to maintain strong cultural and group connections even while abroad. Palmyrenes were participating in the Roman world and becoming romanized in several ways. However, there is much more to say about the nuanced dynamic surrounding Palmyrene-Roman interaction.
Despite all of the Greek and Roman influence that can be seen within Palmyra, there were a few factors that made them unique among other regions that were subjected to Hellenistic influences. Among these factors was their use of language. Palmyrenes displayed a varied use of language within their administrative systems that made them uniquely Palmyrene. Aramaic remained an official language alongside Greek in Palmyra through the third century (Jones, 1940, 290). It was uncommon for Roman coloniae to retain native languages at such a high level in administrative matters. Also, as mentioned earlier, Latin was not very common in Palmyra even after the transition to a colonia (Bryce, 2014, 280) while Greek remained an official language. This shows that while the Palmyrenes did make efforts to be like their Roman counterparts, they were not overwhelmingly occupied with fitting into a Roman model and were more focused on creating a system that worked for them. Since they had already translated much of their system to Greek, they chose to continue giving Greek a main role in government rather than having to change and transliterate everything into a foreign language again. In addition to continuing to use Greek while being a Roman colonia, they used their own language as well. Potter argues that one of the titles given to Odaenathus was a Palmyrene description of Odanaenathus’s Roman positions (Potter, 1996, 272). Using their own language in this way instead of merely giving the Latin name or even a similar Greek name shows the complex interweaving of language and governmental associations within Palmyra that led to its civic administrations being such a unique case in the realm of Roman coloniae. It also again shows that they were not preoccupied with Romanizing their systems. They even utilized concepts that were neither Palmyrene or western but rather eastern in origin. The title “king of kings” and other high official Palmyrene titles were derived from Persia (Potter, 1996, 281-282). This demonstrates how Palmyrenes were open to a variety of administrative influences and did not limit themselves to a purely western focus. The languages and concepts that the Palmyrenes drew upon is evidence of the mixed and unique nature of Palmyrene institutions.
In addition to this use of language, there was an interesting mixture of local and foreign organizational styles within Palmyra that was not seen in many other Greek and Roman influenced areas. Palmyra retained its local forms of organization alongside and sometimes instead of Hellenistic style institutions. Despite the institutional reforms that led to Palmyra looking more like a polis, extended family groups remained an important center of authority and power within the community (Smith, 2013, 83). There was also a continuing reliance on the many tribal systems functioning within Palmyra. The responsibility of organizing and funding the city’s trade was likely considered a tribal duty rather than something to be done by individual merchants (Bryce, 2014, 282). These were both unusual practices compared to other cities that made the transition to polis, which usually favored a heavier reliance on councils and magistracies to function as the main sources of power and planning. The Palmyrenes appear to have not been interested in doing a wholesale transition from Palmyrene institutions to Greek institutions. They opted for creating a mixture of local and foreign to best suit their needs. Bryce further demonstrates this point by arguing that a building commonly considered a senate house may have actually been a place for tribal chiefs or elders to gather and discuss rather than a meeting place for a Roman style senate (Bryce, 2014, 282). They could have been using the name as well as some of the concepts and procedures of a Roman senate but had their own system for deciding the members of these senates. This created a unique system that was more easily and better integrated into their existing systems. This concept can also be seen in Palmyra’s theaters. They did not even have an agnostic theater until the mid second century (Bowersock, 1996, 7). This was very unusual for a city undergoing a transition under Hellenistic influences considering how central theater was to Greek and Roman life. Unlike the introduction of a gymnasium, Hellenistic style theater appears not to have fit into Palmyrene culture and it was not forced to fit in with what was traditionally Roman or Greek. When they did start getting theaters, Bryce argues that they were not used for drama and were actually used more for political speeches and displays of oration (Bryce, 2014, 283). Again there is an example of Palmyrenes taking a Hellenistic concept and using it within the range of their local practices. The Palmyrenes created organizations that used Roman concepts but remained distinctly Palmyrene through their crosses of Hellenistic and Palmyrene qualities.
Palmyra was not the typical Hellenistic city. It used foreign and local language freely and it didn’t let go of its native institutions. It adopted many Greek and Roman structures and customs but only certain ones that appealed to them and fit within their existing systems. Palmyrenes welcomed Romans into their society while also making a reasonable impact abroad, something that can’t be said for all Roman territories. Their unique blend of Greek and Roman makes them stand out among Hellenistic cities. Palmyra was a rich city that took from many but remained itself through it all.
Palmyra culture was very important to their society and how they interacted with other foreign cultures. Trade was very important to the culture of this society and economy because it brought new goods and spices to trade with merchants in the city. It allowed for the people of the city to explore and learn about new goods from other cultures. The city was a trade centre developed in the Roman Period. It brought different cultures all over the region to this city to trade and sell goods native to their own area. Being located near the Mediterranean Sea, trade flourished into this city as sea travel allowed for quicker transportation. The city also controlled the desert road located near the northern edge of the Persian Gulf which led directly to the ports which allowed quick and easy access from goods being transported by carts or animals a direct path to the city. Goods such as spices and scents were imported and exported from Palmyrene caravans which allowed different cultures to interact and learn about new spices and scents from other cultures. Trade boosted culture development of Palmyra and caravan trade was the key to introducing exotic goods to this area.
Pearls and agate beads were found in Palmyra from western India and the Persian Gulf. Beads and jewelry are important to Palmyra culture because each item is unique in their own way and brings a piece of their culture into Palmyrene culture. One of the most important type of goods exported into Palmyra was fabric and silk. Chinese silk textiles brought in were worn by the citizens of Palmyra and allowed the people to experience and learn about different cultures. The different kinds of silk brought in are the Han damasks, jin brocades, embroidered silks, and plain silk consisting of monochrome and multicoloured silks. These silk textiles were very unique because they featured Chinese inscriptions, decorated with animal figures, and interesting patterns and colors on the silk. In Palmyrene culture silk was used to show a person’s class status and their richness.
Not only were the Palmyrenes merchants, they also produced goods used to export items. They produced wool and weaved woolen fabrics which was important to the culture, economy, and social life. It’s important to their culture because it shows the society’s art in the creation of the fabric and unique way of spinning and weaving the wool used for clothing. It helps the economy because the clothes and fabrics can be used to sell and trade in the town centres and merchants make a living by selling these goods. The wool and textiles were not only used to make clothing, it was also used to make pillows and house mattresses. These items could also be used to trade and sell to merchants and local people of the city for their own use.
Language is very important to different cultures across the region. The Palmyrene language continued to use the dialect of Aramaic as the language used by the government and administration. Its unique to Palmyrene society because the culture remains unparalleled in the Roman Empire. Their identity, community, and empire wide resiliency to the Roman level showed they were able to sustain away from Roman culture and was instead a hybrid form of Greek polis. Palmyra institutions had evidence of Greek nature such as government, magistrates, assembly, and council. They also had influences in Palmyrene institutions from societies from the east and incorporated these influences into their government. Proof of inscriptions are still being uncovered and recovered at Palmyra. Its noted that 2832 inscriptions of language in Palmyrene Aramaic have been published, 21 bilingual inscriptions in Palmyrene Greek, 9 bilingual inscriptions between Palmyrene Latin, and 2 trilingual inscriptions between Palmyrene, Greek, and Latin. This showed language and culture interacted with one another and proof of inscriptions have been discovered to better understand Palmyrene culture.
Palmyrene customs defined their way of culture and how their beliefs shaped their society. In funerary beliefs the clothing worn by family members varied between some wearing Roman clothing and other members wearing Parthian attire. This could be that different attire people wore represented different social roles. Culturally the Palmyrenes may have adopted more habits from Parthian and Rome but it the end they developed their own culture habits and ended up distinctly Palmyrene. An example of this is the lid of a sarcophagus features an individual wearing Sassanian trousers while the chest features Roman attire such as a toga. There is also evidence of a substantial number of pre-Islamic graffiti found inside and around Palmyra which shows the various cultures found in the city. The graffiti could be interpreted and provided details about the social landscape and its culture. There is also evidence of an aristocratic lifestyle that shifted towards more Mediterranean values. It was evident in the architecture of public buildings, tombs, temples, and theaters that would attest to the community. Social diversity in the city grew as Palmyra grew in population, economically, and the diversity culturally. The development of the city grew with the addition of amenities, monumental architecture, and attractions made the city grow from a small settlement. The city increasingly became more introduced to Mediterranean values and customs which increased the culture in the city. Although they were introduced to these new customs, they still continued to practice their beliefs without completely abandoning their ancestral habits.
Palmyra as a city grew exponentially culturally and economically. Having the city near the water allowed trade and many cultures around the region to meet and grow in the city. It invited many different cultures in with the addition of new buildings, architecture, and art throughout the city. Palmyra adopted and adapted to many different cultural beliefs and incorporated them into their beliefs. Clothing, goods, and spices are all different ways they increased diversity in the city with silk being very important. It could be used to express their culture through art design in the clothing. It represented who they are as a person and showed people their way of life through their customs and beliefs.
Zenobia and Empire
The rise of the Sassanids prior to 270 C.E. had left the Roman empire compromised at their near-eastern frontier and along the Levant. Odenathus, self-proclaimed “King of Kings” in Palmyra, had been instrumental in driving the Sassanids back and protecting the interests of the principate in the region. When he died, he left the throne in the hands of his wife, Zenobia, as queen regent until their son Vaballathus could come of age. Almost immediately after taking power, Zenobia built an alliance of other neighboring Roman client states and began to cement her power in the region.
In the year that followed, Zenobia and her coalition managed to bring the entire eastern portion of the Roman empire, the Levant and northern Egypt under her sway before the brutal new Emperor, Aurelian, could respond and with a long series of successful battles quickly managed to drive Zenobia back to her Palmyra stronghold. Undermining her alliances, Aurelian cut off her reinforcements and quickly captured the city and its queen (Vopiscus, 1932, 249-250). Zenobia herself was spared and returned to Rome in golden chains where she lived out the rest of her life.
Zenobia’s revolt and the Palmyrene Empire that it created may have been short-lived but there are several aspects of it that give us some insights into the sense of identity held by Palmyra during this time. We will focus on three specific aspects of Zenobia’s revolt, her propaganda campaigns particularly in Antioch and Egyptian Alexandria, her issuance of coinage, and her response to the Emperor Aurelian’s call to terms during the siege of Palmyra.
Zenobia did not have the forces to adequately maintain control over the vast territories that she had wrested from the Romans. In his article, Palmyra and the Roman East, Byron Nakamura points out that instead of relying on their sparse military forces for defense, the Palmyrenes depended on the goodwill of the local populaces (Nakamura, 1993, 134). To obtain this goodwill Zenobia relied on the time-honored practice of patronizing the arts and architecture in those regions and more notably a propaganda campaign that stressed a shared lineage.
Both in Antioch and Alexandria, by far the two most important cities that she held, Zenobia played upon the idea that they were not Roman but Hellenic cities. Antioch, like Palmyra, had been closely associated with the Seleucid dynasty and the queen drew upon this Hellenistic identity. Likewise in Alexandria, which had been ruled by the Ptolemaic line, Zenobia spread the idea that she was a modern-day Cleopatra (Nakamura, 1993, 146). The truth of either of these arguments is immaterial compared to the message that she was encoded in the propaganda: Zenobia and her son represented the ancient Hellenic lines, the rightful rulers of the east, and in this sense the Romans were to be viewed as invading barbarians and usurpers.
The capture of Antioch also meant the capture of one of the major trading centers in the near east and one of the Roman mints. Here Zenobia must have realized that in order to bring legitimacy to her budding empire, she could utilize that mint to issue her own currency. Here, she issued coinage that pictured the Roman Emperor Aurelian on one side, and the face of her son Vaballathus on the other (Nakamura, 1993, 144). The Palmyrenes were putting forth the idea that they too had the right to empire. No longer were they yet another client state in a principate full of other client states, they were on equal footing with the Roman emperor in the West. Similarly, after the capture of Alexandria in Egypt, Zenobia had the coinage changed with coins now bearing the faces of the Queen and her son individually (Nakamura, 1993, 145). The Palmyrenes were no longer interested in sharing power with the Roman barbarians, they were now the only power in the near east.
As the war wound down, Aurelian had all but reclaimed what the Romans had lost and he had chased Zenobia all the way back to her city-stronghold of Palmyra. Throughout the march through the sands of the Syrian desert, his forces suffered significant losses at the hands of Syrian brigands. He arrived at Palmyra only to find the city well-defended and defiant. Exacerbated by his growing losses he dispatched a missive to the queen asking for her surrender. Zenobia responded with contempt and defiance, trusting that her allies and the city’s defenses would keep the invaders at bay (Vopiscus, 1932, 249).
What is most telling about her response is not the content of the letter, which does continue her personal narrative as a modern-day Cleopatra, but that the language used to compose the letter was in Syrian (Vopiscus, 1932, 249). In choosing her native tongue over Greek she was both insulting the emperor, who would need to have it translated to him, and sending a final message about about their identity. By using syrian, Zenobia displayed that the Palmyrenes were both hellenic by lineage and a near-eastern people by blood.
Through Zenobia we have gained further insight into the complex identity of the Palmyrene people. There considered themselves hellenic, heirs to the royal Seleucid and Ptolemaic lines and therefore fit to rule their own destiny apart from Rome. They also saw themselves as an eastern people, a people other than Roman. Above all, the Palmyrenes were a pragmatic people. Even if Palmyra did not truly believe any of this, they most definitely used these concepts to their own advantage when it suited them. Their propaganda campaigns and coinage would have cemented loyalty in their newly conquered cities and the use of syrian would also have displayed to Palmyra’s eastern allies of their solidarity and perhaps enraged Aurelian into making a rash attack upon their walls.
The Palmyrenes after the capture of Zenobia, still found that they could not submit to their Roman overlords. In 272 C.E. they elected a new leader, a relative of Zenobia’s named Achilleus, rejected Roman rule and killed the local magistrate. Emperor Aurelian responded by personally returning to the city, razing it to the ground, and slaughtering women and children (Vopiscus, 1932, 255). Palmyra would never recover from this and quickly faded into the annals of history. For much more than a millenium now, the driving sands of the Syrian desert have continued the work of erasing the memory of this once great city begun by the Aurelian. For all those years, the ruins of Palmyra have been left as a bleak testament to the defiant undermining and outright resistance of an eastern people to western foreign imperialism. It is perhaps not just a little ironic that the self-proclaimed, religious ultra-fundamentalist Islamic State who also fear the effects of western influence in the middle east, caused further irreparable damage to those same monuments.
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