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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:3, Summer 2020

Strata: Maintaining Cultural Balance

Palmyrene Bilingual Inscriptions and Roman Imperialism

By Catherine E. Bonesho

Palmyra was a city at the intersection of empires, histories, and languages. Between the first century B.C.E. and the third century C.E., thousands of inscriptions were commissioned by Palmyrenes in the dialect we call Palmyrene Aramaic—both in the city of Palmyra and throughout the Mediterranean and ancient Near East. Some of these inscriptions are bilingual, including texts in both their native Palmyrene Aramaic and Latin, the language prominently associated with the Roman Empire. These bilingual inscriptions provide a window into the lives and culture of ancient Palmyra, especially into how the Palmyrenes responded to Roman influence and power.

Despite Roman expansion into the ancient Near East, there are few inscriptions marking the concurrent use of both Latin and Palmyrene Aramaic. Twenty bilingual inscriptions (some of them trilingual, with an additional Greek text) are known today, found throughout the reaches of the former Roman Empire, some from as far north as Roman Britain. They appear on funerary monuments, dedicatory altars, and as graffiti. Though few in number, these inscriptions help us understand how the ancient Palmyrenes understood themselves within the Roman Empire, balancing their newfound “Romanness” with their traditional local identity.1

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