Roman soldiers in the City: Dura-Europos, Syria

A project examining the rich archaeological remains of one of Rome's eastermost garrisons in the city of Dura on the Euphrates.

Dura sml

Simon James is engaged in long-term research on the archaeology of Dura-Europos, Syria, with particular reference to the Roman garrison resident in the city in the 3rd century AD. His work involve a combination of research into the records and object collections from the extensive campaigns of excavations conducted by the French and Americans during the 1920s and 1930s, now mostly housed in Yale University Art Gallery, and also new fieldwork on the site itself, under the generous auspices of the recent  Franco-Syrian expedition. The fieldwork component of SJ's project was completed in 2010, before the expedition's activities had to be suspended due to the tragic events in Syria.

Dura-Europos, often called 'the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert' is an abandoned Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates in Eastern Syria which, in its latter years, displayed great cultural complexity. Long retaining Greek institutions, its population was largely Aramaic-speaking Syrians, but included many special groups—Palmyrenes, Hatrenes, Jews and a Christian community—during its century under Roman rule.

Its well-preserved archaeological remains, largely sealed after the city was destroyed by the Sasanian Persians c.AD256 never to be reoccupied, have provided remarkable insights into life in the region during the classical period.

Simon James’s current work builds on past research into the arms, armour and equipment—the martial material culture—of the site, primarily Roman, but also including important Partho-Sasanian elements—previously published. There are two strands to this: study of the life of the Roman garrison involving both archival research and new fieldwork; plus continuation of work on the arms, armour and the final siege of the city, primarily based on reappraisal of museum collections and the excavation archive. Recent work on the last has uncovered evidence suggesting use of 'chemical warfare' during the final siege.

A major monograph on the Roman military base, the garrison which occupied it, and how the imperial military presence impacted on the city, was published in 2019.

Current work focuses on how the Roman garrison community and the townsfolk interacted, and on the economy of the city.

Since 2012, like many other famous sites in Syria, Dura has been subjected to industrial-scale illegal excavation and looting by armed groups exploiting the chaos of civil war. The Heritage catastrophe at Dura and elsewhere in Syria underlines the value of the world's archaeological archives and study of them, in this case preserving vital information and material to help future generations of Syrians reclaim something of their threatened and vanishing history.

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