An officer of Dura Europos honours Lucius Verus, the emperor who defeated the Parthians and returned Mesopotamia to Roman control.
Cumont, Franz, “Rapport sur une nouvelle mission à Sâlihîyeh,” in: Comptes- rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 68 (1924), p. 27 [SEG 2.817].
Dura Europos [https://pleiades.stoa.org/places/893990] lies on the banks of the river Euphrates, frontier between Mesopotamia and Syria. This elevated mound was said to have been founded by one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Nicanor, but was later controlled by the rulers of Parthia (see Cohen, The Hellenistic Settlements, p. 156-159). Hellenistic, Parthian, and Semitic heritages were therefore present in this melting pot of different cultures and extraordinarily well preserved site branded as “the Pompeii of the desert” (Rostovtzeff, Dura Europos and Welles, “The Population”).
The strategic crossroads played a key role in the Roman expansion in the Middle East. As an inscription relates, Roman soldiers occupied Dura Europos in the course of Trajan’s campaign against Parthia. This presence, however, was brief as the troops retreated after the accession of Hadrian who preferred a more conservative foreign policy from 117 CE. When Rome, led by the Antonine dynasty, returned to a more aggressive stance, Mesopotamian strongholds became important again and this short text carved on a round column illustrates this process.
In the year 162, Lucius Verus – adopted descendant of Antoninus Pius and brother of Marcus Aurelius – departed from the harbour of Brundisium with the intention of responding to the Parthian threat over Armenia. Imperial coinage announced the PROFECTIO AUGUSTI (“Departure of the Emperor”, RIC III, Marcus Aurelius 477-481, 1321-1323, 1356-1358), while the emperor crossed important provincial centres such as Athens and Ephesus. In Greece, he visited his tutor and benefactor Herodes Atticus (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists II.1.11), and was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries (IG II² 3592 (I.Eleusis 483), 3620 (I.Eleusis 503). Having arrived on the Asian continent, Ephesus is known to have hosted Lucius Verus on a further two occasions (I.Eph. 728, 3072), one of which was his wedding with Lucilla according to the Historia Augusta (Verus 7.7, cf. Marc. 9.4-6). Armenia soon returned to the control of Rome so the imperial army and commanders – most notably, Avidius Cassius – could continue the campaign towards the Euphrates. The Parthian king Vologases was defeated in 165 near Ctesiphon and immediately all the propagandistic media throughout the Empire announced the VICTORIA PARTHICA (RIC III, Marcus Aurelius 160-163, 533-534, 562-566, 571, 922, 929-936, 1436). Lucius Verus personally suggested to one of his former tutor and confidant, Fronto (Ad Verum Imp. II.3.), that these achievements (res gestae) “will seem as great as you want them to seem,” Lucian complained about the flocks of fraud historians magnifying the achievement (Quomodo Historia Conscribenda sit, see Jones, Culture and Society, p. 59-67), and the victory commemoration culminated with a triumphal celebration held in Rome in 166 CE.
The exact details of the campaign in Mesopotamia cannot be clearly elucidated since we are dependent on the biased reports provided by the Historia Augusta (see Strobel, “Zeitgeschichte” and Kemezis, “Lucian, Fronto”). This account presents a negative image of Lucius Verus that was replicated in modern historiography until scholars such as Lambrechts’s, “L’Empereur Lucius Verus” and Barnes’s, “Hadrian” tried to rehabilitate his role and rule. In order to support the more positive reception of Lucius Verus in the Middle East, Bowersock collected a significant number of epigraphic testimonies that show that the Roman victory was mainly attributed to this emperor by the provincial population. The inscription from Dura Europos belongs to this category as it was set up by a certain Aurelius Heliodorus who held the local position of ἐπιστάτης/epistatês. The text is brief and simply refers to the emperor in the accusative as is expected in the honorific inscriptions of the period (see Højte, Roman Imperial Statue, p. 19-25). As a personal initiative of Aurelius Heliodorus, nonetheless, one must be cautious of automatically interpreting that the entire community of Dura Europos found the Roman emperor praiseworthy from an early stage. Indeed, the nomenclature of the honouring individual seems to indicate that he had previously been granted Roman citizenship by Lucius (Aurelius) Verus himself. That said, it is certain that the inscription was later allowed to remain inside the sanctuary of Artemis, which was a major hub in the city (see Cumont, Fouilles, p. 169-216). At the same location, a statue base of Julia Domna was discovered during the modern excavations, so this religious centre remained connected to the imperial cult between the 2nd and the 3rd centuries (SEG7.332). This chronology is also supported by the discovery of a denarius of Lucius Verus and proves fundamental for the development of Dura Europos.
Unlike the aftermath of Trajan’s campaign, the Parthian victory of Lucius Verus was consolidated and Rome continued to rule over Mesopotamia until the Sassanid accession. Dura Europos flourished in this period as shown by multiple constructions from which splendid wall decorations still survive (see Perkins, The Art). One of such works was the Jewish synagogue, which blended with the artistic tradition of the city (see Bellinger, The Synagogue). Roman control also resulted in the permanent presence of troops and officials whose activities are known to us from an exceptional collection of papyri and parchments (see Welles, The Excavations). All this evidence illustrates the impact of a conquest that commenced with the honoured Lucius Verus and prevailed until 256 CE, the year in which Dura was eventually under siege, conquered, and destroyed by king Shapor (see Pollard, Soldiers, 44-58; Edwell, Between Rome and Persia, p. 115-148, Andrade, Syrian Identity, p. 211-241).