Home > B. The Living Artifact, D. Religion: Received and Interpreted > Palmyra, Valerian, Shapur, Mani–the Crisis, Part 3

Palmyra, Valerian, Shapur, Mani–the Crisis, Part 3

File:L-a80 2005-12-29 0050.jpg

Ah, Palmyra! Fabled city in the desert, hub of a vast commercial empire, home to some of the most stunning classical architecture to survive.

This is what we know: the city’s site was first occupied in the 2nd millennium B.C. and gained its independence from Seleucid Syria about 320 B.C. It flourished as a caravan hub for centuries, but its residents apparently engaged in no monumental building. The city came under Roman control in 50 B.C., and the building boom began. The city’s importance grew as a part of the last leg of the Silk Road, and Palmyra managed to maintain its cultural independence while taking on a veneer of Roman culture.


The city worshiped a triad of gods: 1) Baalshamin, Lord of the Skies; 2) Aglibol the Moon God; and 3) Malakbel (or Yarhibol) the Sun-God. Palmyra’s pantheon also included the standard Mesopotamian gods, including Marduk and Hadad, and Allat, an Arabian female deity. Not surprisingly, we are looking at a syncretic (i.e., one that combines elements from other belief systems) religion.

The building program that started in the last century B.C. included: 1) a massive temple of Baal; 2) the Great Colonnade, which included a triumphal arch; 3) the Baths of Diocletian; 4) a Roman theater, and 5) a large agora (marketplace).

Things started falling apart in 260: the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured, along with his entire army, after the Roman defeat at the Battle of Edessa; Valerian, the only Roman Emperor ever to be captured in battle, died in captivity, perhaps having been humiliated by Shapur I, –the second emperor of the Sassanian Empire (established, AD 224)–beforehand.


A more blatant sign of Roman weakness is hard to imagine, and the Palmyreans (under Zenobia) and the Gallic empire (under Postumus) seceded during the reign of Valerian’s son, Gallienus.

And now things get really interesting, with religious considerations coming into play. Shapur I gave protection and support to the prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism. Shapur, leader of a new empire, was evidently an innovator. The empire he ruled had been Zoroastrian for centuries, but Shapur may well have been struggling with the power of the Zoroastrian priesthood and seen Mani as a counterbalance to the threat to his throne the priesthood presented.

Who was Mani (216-274), and what was the new religion he founded? Mani was born near Ctesiphon, capital of the Sassanian Empire, in 216. Mani’s father belonged to a Christian-Jewish sect; at 12 and again at 24, Mani had visions of a cosmic twin telling him to leave the sect of his father and preach the true message of Christ. Mani traveled to Afghanistan to study Hinduism in 240 (and possibly Buddhism as well), and by 242 had joined Shapur I’s court. He fell from favor during the reign of Bahram 1, who imprisoned him. Mani died in prison.

Mani taught a dualistic theology featuring three creations and containing elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Mani viewed himself as the successor of Zoroaster, Jesus, and Buddha and wrote several scriptural books, most of which have been lost. It is known that Mani also created artworks to accompany his teachings, and some of the surviving Manichean psalms are quite beautiful.


At its height, Manichaeism had spread from its Persian origin to include adherents (among them, St. Augustine before his conversion to Christianity) from western Europe to China.


That’s it for Part 3, folks. Still to come: Part 4: Aurelian and Zenobia and Part 5: The Effects of the Crisis.    RT

RT’s Related Posts: 1) Crisis of the Third Century–Part 1, Rome; 2) Crisis of Third Century, Part 2: The Gallic Empire


Photo, Top: The Palmyrean Triad; Author: Emmanuel PIERRE. CC 1.0 Generic. Middle Photo: Palmyran Closeup; author: Zaledia. CC 3.0 Unported. Middle Drawing: The Humiliation of Valerian; Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1521). Public Domain. Bottom: Manichean Priests (8th-9th cent.). Public Domain. All Illustrations: WikiCmns.


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  1. October 8, 2013 at 7:16 pm

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