|Julia Domna of Homs and husband|
Today (Saturday March 3rd) the Syrian army has renewed its onslaught onto the rebel city of Homs, known to classicists by its ancient name, Emesa. One famous Emesan was Julia Domna, the philosopher whose marriage to Septimius Severus eventually made her Empress of Rome. Another was Heliodorus, author of the longest and most flamboyantly written of all the extant ancient Greek novels, the Ethiopian Story. Emesa made history again when the decapitated head of John the Baptist was miraculously rediscovered at a nearby monastery in the year 452.
But today bombs and shells are thundering down onto the terrified people of the south-western Homs suburb of Baba Amr. After a siege which lasted nearly four weeks, the government has sanctioned indiscriminate reprisals. Troops have been setting fire to houses with people in them. There are reports of every male over fourteen being rounded up, small children shot dead, torture, rape and public beheadings.
It makes it seem even worse that Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria with the petulant mouth and joyless eyes, was trained in a caring profession as a doctor. I wonder how his (publicly loyal) wife Asma really feels: although she was raised in Britain (she studied at King’s College London and worked as an investment banker) her own parents come from Homs.
|Black Rock of Emesa/Homs|
If al-Assad had studied history rather than medicine, he would be more careful what he did to Homs. Its people are tough. Under the Romans, the ancient Emesans succeeded in exporting their indigenous Syrian cult of the Sun, which centred on a sacred black rock (probably a meteorite). Subsequently, Homs has survived battering by countless brutes and tyrants.
In the mid-eighth century, it held out for months when besieged by the Damascene ruler Murwan II. It revolted continuously against the Baghdad-based Abassids, who sent innumerable punitive expeditions during the ninth. In the tenth, its people were terrorised, raped and slaughtered by the Byzantines. It resisted the Frankish First Crusaders, and then the Damascene Nur ad-Din in 1149. It survived endless Bedouin assaults between 1600 and 1800 under Ottoman rule. Homs rose up violently against Egyptian domination in 1839.
But al-Assad should also remember what happened to a tyrant whose family actually came from the rebel city. The juvenile Roman Emperor Elagabalus, the great-nephew of Julia Domna, also had a petulant mouth and joyless eyes. He survived as emperor for less than four years between 218 and 222. In that time he outraged both the Senate and the People, imposed unpopular religious ceremonies, devalued the currency, appointed his cronies to fabulously lucrative high offices, flaunted a decadent lifestyle and brutally suppressed opposition.
But he was assassinated by disaffected soldiers. His corpse was decapitated, stripped, dragged across the city, and thrown into the river. He had well deserved what Edward Gibbon in the sixth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire called his reputation for ‘inexpressible infamy’.
The people of Homs are amongst the poorest in Syria and have been subjected to some of the worst of the regime’s persecutions. Homs has become a magnet for defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces who have transferred their allegiance to the Free Syria Army. They may be temporarily in retreat but they will not give up. I very much doubt if al-Assad will last another four years. Inexpressible infamy is already his.