Palmyra was originally an oasis settlement, called Tadmor, in the northern Syrian Desert. Although the Roman province of Syria was created in 64 B.C., the inhabitants of Tadmor, primarily Aramaeans and Arabs, remained semi-independent for over half a century. They profited from their control of the caravan routes between Roman coastal Syria and Parthian territory east of the Euphrates, which allowed them to provide the Roman empire with goods coming from all directions. Palmyra was strategically located on two of the most important trade routes in the ancient world: one extended from the Far East and India to the head of the Persian Gulf, and the other—the Silk Road—stretched across the Eurasian continent to China.
Under the Roman emperor Tiberius (r. 14–37 A.D.), Tadmor was incorporated into the province of Syria and assumed the name Palmyra, or “place of palms.” After the Roman annexation of Nabataea in 106 A.D., Palmyra replaced Petra as the leading Arab city in the Near East and its most important trading center. About 129 A.D., during the reign of Hadrian, Palmyra rose to the rank of a free city, and in 212 A.D. to that of a Roman colony. With the foundation of the Sasanian empire of Iran in 224 A.D., Palmyra lost control over the trade routes, but the head of a prominent Arabian family who was an ally of the Roman empire, Septimius Odaenathus, led two campaigns against the Sasanians and drove them out of Syria. When Odaenathus was murdered in 267 A.D., his Arab queen, Zenobia, declared herself Augusta (empress) and ruled in the name of her son, Vaballathus. She established Palmyra as the capital of an independent and far-reaching Roman-style empire, expanding its borders beyond Syria to Egypt and much of Asia Minor. Her rule was short-lived, however; in 272 A.D., Emperor Aurelian reconquered Palmyra and captured Zenobia, whose subsequent transport to Rome bound in chains of gold is legendary.
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Palmyra.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/palm/hd_palm.htm (October 2000)