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The royal family of Emesa, also known as the Emesani Dynasty or the Sempsigerami of Emesa (Arabic: آل شميس غرام), sometimes known as The Sampsiceramids were a ruling Roman client dynasty of priest-kings in Emesa, Syria Province (modern Homs, Syria). They can be viewed both as Arameans and Arabs.
Emesa was famous for the worship of the strong ancient pagan cult El-Gebal, also known as Elagabal. The city was renowned for El-Gebal’s place of worship the Temple of the Sun. El-Gebal was worshipped in the form of a conical black stone. El-Gebal was the Aramaic name for the Syrian Sun God and means God of the Mountain.
A resident of Emesa could be called an Emesan, Emesani or Emesene (plural Emesenes). Sampsiceramus I was the founding Priest-King of the Emesani dynasty who lived in the 1st century BC and was an Aramean chieftain or Phylarch. The ancestors of Sampsiceramus I were Bedouins who had travelled the Syrian terrain, before deciding to settle in the Orontes Valley and South of the Apamea region. Sampsiceramus I, his family and his ancestors in Syria had lived under the Greek rule of the Seleucid Empire. Sampsiceramus I was a son of Aziz (Azizus, c. 94 BC); paternal grandson of Iamblichus (c. 151 BC) and there was a possibility he may have had a brother called Ptolemaeus (c. 41 BC) who may have had descendants through his son.
In Emesa, Aramaic and Greek were commonly spoken languages and later Latin was probably commonly spoken in the city. Through the rule and influence of the Seleucid dynasty and Greek settlement in the Seleucid Empire, Emesa was assimilated into the Greek language and culture of the Hellenistic period. Hence, Sampsiceramus I and his ancestors became Hellenized through the Greek rule of Syria and the surrounding territories.
The father of Sampsiceramus I, Aziz also known as Azizus the Arab and Azizus the Phylarch of the Arabs was an ally to the last Seleucid Greek Monarchs of Syria. Aziz is associated with the rule of the Seleucid Kings Philip I Philadelphus and his brother Demetrius III Eucaerus. Aziz may had assisted Philip I some years before about 87 BC, in the defeat of Demetrius III who ended his days in Parthian exile. Aziz assisted in putting the last Seleucid King Philip II Philoromaeus, the son of Philip I on the throne, by arranging to meet him and putting the Diadem on his head. However Philip II realised that Aziz befriended him to murder him to gain a portion of a divided Syrian Kingdom, realised the plot and fled to Antioch.
Sampsiceramus I like his father, continued to an ally to the last Seleucid Greek Monarchs of Syria. Like his father, Sampsiceramus I was also known as the Phylarch of the Arabs. By this time, the Seleucid Empire had become very weak and always appealed to the Roman Republic to help solve political or succession problems. Around 64 BC, the Roman General and Triumvir, Pompey had reorganised Syria and the surrounding countries into Roman provinces. Pompey had installed client kings in the region, who would become allies to Rome. Among those client kings was Sampsiceramus I (whose name is also spelt Sampsigeramus). The Roman politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, nicknamed Pompey ‘Sampsiceramus’ to make fun of Pompey’s pretensions as an eastern potentate. At the request of Pompey, Sampsiceramus I captured and killed in 64 BC, the second last Seleucid King Antiochus XIII Asiaticus.
After the death of Antiochus XIII, Sampsiceramus I was confirmed in power and his family was left to rule the surrounding region under Roman suzerainty. Client rulers such as Sampsiceramus I could police routes and preserve the integrity of Rome without cost to Roman manpower or to the Roman treasury; they were probably paid for the privilege.
Emesa was added to the domains of Sampsiceramus I, but the first Emesani capital was Arethusa, a city north of Emesa, along the Orontes River. The kingdom of Sampsiceramus I was the first of Rome’s client kingdoms on the desert’s fringes. The kingdom’s boundaries extended from the Beqaa Valley in the West to the border of Palmyra in the East, from Yabrud in the South to Arethusa in the North and Heliopolis. During his reign, Sampsiceramus I built a castle at Shmemis on top of an extinct volcano and rebuilt the city of Salamiyah which the Romans incorporated in the ruling territory. In time Sampsiceramus I established and formed a powerful ruling dynasty and a leading kingdom in the Roman East. His Priest-King dynasty ruled from 64 BC until at least 254.
When Sampsiceramus I died in 48 BC, he was succeeded by son, Iamblichus I. In his reign, the prominence of Emesa grew after Iamblichus I established it as the new capital of the Emesani dynasty. The economy of the Emesani Kingdom was based on agriculture. With fertile volcanic soil in the Orontes Valley and a great lake, as well as a dam across the Orontes south of Emesa, which provided ample water, Emesa’s soil was ideal for cultivation. Farms in Emesa provided wheat, vines and olives. Emesa in antiquity was a very wealthy city. The city was a part of a trade route from the East, heading via Palmyra that passed through Emesa on its way to the coast. An example on how wealthy Emesa was, ancient pieces of jewellery has been found at the necropolis of Tell Abu Sabun, suggests that the engineering work demanded to be constructed along the lake. Apart from Antioch a very important city for the Romans, this port city, prospered under its Roman vassal rulers.
Each year neighbourhood princes and rulers sent generous gifts honoring and celebrating Emesa’s cult and its Temple of the Sun. The priesthood of the cult of El-Gebal in Emesa was held by a family that may be assumed to be descended from Sampsiceramus I or the later Priest-King Sohaemus, either by the Priest-King or another member of the dynasty. The priest that served in the cult of El-Gebal wore a clad costume. The dress of an Emesene Priest was very similar to the dress of a Parthian Priest. An Emesani priest wore a long-sleeved and gold-embroidered purple tunic reaching to his feet, gold and purple trousers and a jewelled diadem on his head.
Prior to succeeding his father, Iamblichus I was considered by Cicero in 51 BC (then Roman Governor of Cilicia), as a possible ally against Parthia. Shortly after Iamblichus I became priest-king, he had become prudent and supported the Roman politician Julius Caesar in his Alexandrian war against Pompey. Iamblichus I sent troops to aid Caesar. Pompey was the patron for the family of Iamblichus I, who was later defeated and killed. The Emesani dynasty had proven from the late Republic into the Imperial era that the dynasty were loyal to the Roman state.
After the death of Julius Caesar, for a brief period Iamblichus I supported the Roman Governor of Syria who was one of Julius Caesar’s assassins. In the period of the Roman civil wars, Iamblichus I supported the Roman triumvir Octavian. Iamblichus I became suspect to Roman Triumvir Mark Antony. Antony encouraged Iamblichus I’s brother Alexio I, to usurp his brother’s throne and had Iamblichus I executed. Octavian, after defeating Antony and reorganising the Eastern Roman provinces, had Alexio I executed for treason in 31 BC. From 30 BC until 20 BC, the Emesani Kingdom was dissolved and became an autonomous community free of dynastic rule though under the supervision of the Roman governor of Syria.
Later in 20 BC, Octavian, now as the Roman emperor Augustus, restored the Emesani Kingdom to Iamblichus II, the son of Iamblichus I. It was either Iamblichus I or his son, Iamblichus II, that received Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar or Augustus, as the Emesani dynasty took the Roman gentilicium Julius to be added to their Aramaic, Arabic, Greek and later Latin names. Iamblichus II ruled as a Priest-King from 20 BC to 14. Iamblichus II’s reign was stable and from it emerged a new era of peace, known as the Golden Age of Emesa. Iamblichus II died in 14 and his son Sampsiceramus II succeeded him as priest-king. Sampsiceramus II ruled from 14 until his death in 42. According to a surviving inscription at the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, dating from the years 18/19 he may have acted as an intermediary between Palmyra and Rome. In the inscription he is mentioned alongside the Roman general Germanicus, the adoptive son and nephew of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Emesa was closely linked for its prosperity with its neighbor Palmyra. Before he died, Sampsiceramus II was convened by the Herodian King Agrippa I at Tiberias.
Sampsiceramus II is also known from other surviving inscriptional evidence. In one inscription dating from his reign, Sampsiceramus II with his wife Iotapa are known as a happy couple. Posthumously Sampsiceramus II is honored by his son, Sohaemus in an honorific Latin inscription dedicated to his son while he was a Patron of Heliopolis during his reign as King. In this inscription, Sampsiceramus II is honored as a Great King [Regis Magni]. Sampsiceramus II ruled as a Great King at least in local parlance.
After the death of Sampsiceramus II, his first son Azizus succeeded him. He was the namesake of his paternal ancestor Aziz (Azizus), the father of Sampsiceramus I and reigned from 42 until 54. Little is known on the reign of Azizus, however he is known for his childless marriage to the Herodian Princess Drusilla. Azizus married Drusilla after 51, on the condition that he was to be circumcised. She was briefly married to Azizus and Drusilla ended their marriage. She divorced him because she fell in love with Marcus Antonius Felix, a Greek Freedman who was the Roman Governor of Judea, whom she later married.
As Azizus died in 54, his brother Sohaemus succeeded him. Sohaemus reigned from 54 until his death in 73. Under the rule of Sohaemus, Emesa’s relations with the government of Rome grew closer. In 70 in the Roman Siege of Jerusalem, Sohaemus had sent Emesene archers to assist the Roman army. He also assisted the Roman emperor Vespasian in 72, in annexing the Client State of the Kingdom of Commagene.
Sohaemus had died in 73 and was succeeded by his son, Alexio II. Despite the fact that the Emesani dynasty was loyal allies to Rome, for unknown reasons the Roman State reduced the autonomy rule of the Emesani dynasty. Sohaemus was apparently the last king of the Emesene Kingdom and after his death, the Emesene Kingdom most probably was absorbed by the Roman Province of Syria, but there is no explicit evidence of this occurring.
Alexio II and his successors held only ceremonial authority. Alexio II died in 78 and was succeeded by his son, Sampsiceramus III. Little is known about the Emesani dynasty after the rule of Alexio II. By the 3rd century, the Emesani dynasty became Governors over Emesa, then Priest-Kings over a Roman Client Kingdom. Between 211-217, the Roman emperor Caracalla, made Emesa into a Roman Colony, as this was partly due to the Severan dynasty’s relations and connections to Emesa. Partly due to the influence and rule of the Emesani dynasty, Emesa had grown and became one of the most important cities in the Roman East. Despite the Emesenes were a warlike people; they exported wheat, vines and olives throughout the Roman world and the city was a part of the Eastern trade route which stretched from the mainland to the coast which benefited the local and the Roman economy. The Emesenes sent men into the Roman legions and contributing their archers to the auxiliary of the imperial army. In modern Syria, Emesa has retained its local significance as it is the market centre for surrounding villages.
The Royal family of Emesa is very imperfectly known. What is known about the Emesani dynasty and their kingdom is from surviving archaeological evidence, as the ancient Roman historical sources do not provide a lot of information about them. It is from surviving inscriptions that we know the names of the Emesani Priest-Kings; the Emesani Priests, their known relatives and the limited information about them. As a capital of a Roman Client Kingdom, Emesa shows attributes of a Greek city-state and traces of Roman town planning remain.
Archaeological evidence remains from the Emesani dynasty in the city of Salamiyah which was rebuilt by Sampsiceramus I. Surviving monuments built by the Emesani dynasty includes the castle at Shmemis which is on top of an extinct volcano built by Sampsiceramus I and the Emesani dynastic tomb. Among those who are buried there is Alexio I, Sohaemus and Julius Alexander. Another surviving monument is the monumental tomb built by Sampsiceramus III in 78/79.
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Coins have survived from the Emesani dynasty; the earliest known ones being issued for celebrating the cult of El-Gebal under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, 138-161. They depict an eagle perched on a black stone and an elaborate monumental altar being shown. Two superimposed row of niches, between two pilasters stand on a massive base; with statues in each of the six niches. Above is a smaller altar, surmounted by the great stone itself, ornamented with mysterious markings.
The known Emesene Priest-Kings were: