The Roman garrison

For the last 70 years or more of its existence, Dura also became home to a substantial Roman imperial garrison. Archaeological survey and excavation reveal that the soldiers took over the northern part of the town, the old citadel and the inner wadi in its shadow which became a parade and training ground.

Dura's military quarter was literally at least that, and the garrison possibly occupied an even larger proportion of the walled area. This was something very different from the familiar Roman 'playing card'-shaped forts of Europe. Rather than demolishing everything to raise custom military buildings, the soldiers mostly took over and converted existing civil housing in which to live, while generally carefully preserving the sanctuaries now engulfed in the military zone. They did build several special military temples, and the baths found at almost all Roman bases. Later they also built a proper headquarters (principia), and a small amphitheatre--the easternmost example yet known.

The images, inscriptions and papyri recovered from the site also tell us much about the make-up of the garrison community. The soldiers were all long-service Roman regulars. Most were auxiliary infantry and cavalry with some dromedarii (camel troops), brigaded with detachments of legionaries outposted from their bases much further up the Euphrates. Together these formed a powerful force of 1500-2000 troops based in the city.

However, the soldiers were not alone. It is now understood that they formed the core of a much larger 'extended military community' including hundreds of paramilitary servants and family members: wives, children, other blood relatives, household slaves, freedmen and freedwomen. Together all these people constituted a virtual second city within the city.

What was the Roman garrison for? It was primarily to ensure military and political security for Rome's grip on the Middle Euphrates. But Dura also served as a forward base for further military aggressions against the crumbling Arsacid empire. However, these proved disastrous for Rome and for Dura. Rome could not conquer Parthia, but did cause collapse of the Arsacid regime in the 220s. In its place arose a new Iranian ('Persian') empire, under the Sasanid dynasty. This proved a powerful foe. By the 230s, Rome was on the defensive, and Dura was on the front line of a deadly new imperial confrontation.

Image: third-century Roman auxiliaries of cohors XX Palmyrenorum, in 'camp dress' as they would have been seen on the streets of the city. Reconstruction based on ancient paintings and artefacts from Dura. Centre, a military clerk. Right, the tribune (regimental commander). Left, a centurion. Swastikas were fairly common on Roman military dress at this period at Dura and elsewhere, perhaps badges of rank or office. Painting by Simon James.