A Syrian Precedent

In 64BC, Roman general Pompey annexed a potentially volatile Syria. Then, as now, where Western concerns are paramount, intervention needs to be diplomatic and risk-taking

Daisy Dunn

Syrian rebel groups recently attacked the ancient village of Maaloula, near Damascus, one of the few places where Aramaic is still spoken, and where Muslims and Christians had been living in peaceful coexistence. Among the buildings said to have been hit in the struggle is the convent of St Thecla, a follower of the Apostle Paul, whose vision famously took place when Saul of Tarsus (as he still was) travelled the road from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Jewish-Christians. It has been reported that the rebels in Maaloula ordered Christian residents to convert to Islam. 

The incident has sounded a further cautionary note against Western support of rebels opposing Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But the ancient history of the region complicates the question of how far our involvement in Syria can be dictated by the potential reaction of rebel forces.

In 64BC, about a century before Thecla made her pilgrimage with St Paul to Antioch, then part of Syria, the Roman general Pompey faced a dilemma. After the collapse of the Seleucid Empire, Syria had come under the control of Armenia, but was allowed to keep its king, Antiochus XIII. Predictably, there were rulers in Syria’s city-states who threatened Antiochus’s power, and therefore the stability of his kingdom. If Syria became less stable than it already was, there was a danger it could fall to the Parthians, and threaten Rome’s dominion. Considering, also, that Pompey hoped to make the coasts of Asia Minor and the southern Black Sea a blanket of new Roman provinces, he deemed it necessary to intervene. 

There are few similarities between Pompey’s position and the options which confront us over Syria today. For one thing, unlike Assad, Antiochus felt indebted to the West, and was compliant when Pompey deposed him after acquiring Armenia, on the basis that he was incapable of defending his country from Jewish or Arab incursions.

But Pompey’s annexation of Syria does show that even where Western concerns were paramount, intervention did not have to be protracted. What it did have to be was diplomatic, calculated and risk-taking.

There was no guarantee that Syria’s inhabitants would not rebel on a significant scale. That was the risk Rome ran by deciding to leave it five years before stationing her first official governor in the province. Rather than flood the place with arms and troops, Pompey made overtures to client kings, including that of ancient Homs, in the hope they would be grateful enough for the independence to rule their capitals to be loyal to Rome. He was helped by the fact that he also maintained many of the city-states which were open to Western influence. 

Pompey’s reorganisation of Syria did not proceed without error, execution of so-called “bandits”, or experience of opposition, but in this particular situation, and for this time, it was shrewd to keep power in the hands of those who could potentially rebel.  

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