Is Dura-Europos the Missing Link of Ancient Art History?

By the time the Persians destroyed the Roman military garrison at Dura-Europos in 256 AD, the city high above the Euphrates River existed for almost six centuries since its founding by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. A cosmopolitan city standing between Syria and Mesopotamia and, therefore, at the crossroads of politics, commerce, cultures, and religions between the Mediterranean and the Near East, Dura-Europos disappeared from view, buried by time until rediscovered in 1920. In Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos, which through January 8, 2012 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, that city lives again and offers a snapshot of how the people in that time and place viewed their world and themselves. The art of Dura-Europos, sometimes called “Durene Art,” fills in an important “missing link” of art history—the elusive time known as Late Antiquity, or the gap from the third to the seventh centuries when Classical Antiquity disappeared and the Middle Ages, formerly known as the “Dark Ages,” emerged. By shedding light on how the glory of Rome faded into the shadows of the murky Middle Ages, Edge of Empires provides the final piece of a long-incomplete puzzle.


“This was a polyglot city, where Aramaic and Parthian could be heard alongside the Latin of the Roman legionaries and the Greek of the Roman imperial administration,” G.W. Bowersock writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalog. Abandoned after the Persian onslaught, Dura-Europos soon slept silently beneath the sands of time. Reawakened after World War I, the city amazed its discoverers with its fresco-filled synagogue, early Christian chapel, shrines and temples to the old gods, and lavish home of the Roman commander, complete with picturesque view of the Euphrates below. Dura-Europos captures a moment when all the faiths—old and new—coexisted in relative peace, just before the Middle Ages’ ceaseless contest for souls plunged the Western world into darkness.

Thelma K. Thomas of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts explains Dura-Europos’ significance in art history. Calling its vast spectrum of religious art and architecture “unparalleled,” Thomas believes that this bounty comes from a trend “characteristic of Late Antique culture across Eurasia: the stagy display of material wealth in self-presentation.” These people wanted to be known in their own time and adopted or adapted styles from every corner of the Roman Empire (and beyond) to tell their story. In addition to the Jewish, Christian, and Middle Eastern touches, elements of Celtic, Persian, and even Chinese art and culture found a home in the remote outpost at the edge of the empire.

Thomas doesn’t see a unified statement in Durene art. Instead, she sees representations of a community built up over time. A portrait of an elite family from the second century after Christ brings them to life again. A Roman tribune and commander chooses to be depicted with his soldiers while sacrificing to the male gods—a macho image for the ages. Thomas remarks on how some figures “turn from the sacrifice to face front and look through the ‘window’ of their pictorial space, as if to address their audience, members of their religious community.” This caught-in-the-act quality makes portraits such as that of Heliodoros (shown above), who worked as an Actuarius or Roman accountant of sorts, come alive not only with the freshness of their colors but with the clear humanity of their depictions. The people of Dura-Europos wanted to look up at the walls around them and remember earlier generations just as we look at them today: not just out of random curiosity but from a deep desire to see something of ourselves there.

“In the future, much more might be learned from Dura-Europos about the importance of military and frontier encounters for the arts of Late Antiquity,” Thomas concludes. Clearly, the Greco-Roman gods wrestled with the Judeo-Christian divinity in Late Antiquity Rome and its outposts, but, because the expanded reach of the Roman Empire allowed soldiers to travel far and wide and bring back home elements of Celtic, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and other cultures with them, we must widen our own horizons to see those “new” influences from millennia ago. By coining the term “Durene Art,” Thomas and others created a unique label before other labels could diminish the impact of this amazing find. With a true openness to discovery and amazing scholarship and passion, Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos shows us the face of a forgotten past preserved in art and architecture while simultaneously teaching how profound darkness can come out of an intolerance bred when diversity is denied.

[Image: Ceiling Tile with Portrait of Heliodoros, an Actuarius (Roman Fiscal Official). Clay, with a Layer of Painted Plaster, H. 30.5 cm, W. 44.0 cm, D. 6.7 cm. From the House of the Scribes, Dura-Europos, 200–256 CE. Yale University Art Gallery, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos: 1933.292. Photography © 2011 Yale University Art Gallery.]

[Many thanks to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World for providing me with the image above from and a review copy of the catalog to Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos, which runs from September 23, 2011 through January 8, 2012.]

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

How to flirt: 7 tips backed by science

When it comes to flirting, love meters have nothing on these researchers' findings.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Sex & Relationships
  • Flirting is an important part of life. It can be a fun, adventurous way to meet others and develop intimate relationships.
  • Many people find flirting to be an anxiety-ridden experience, but science can help us discover principles to be more relaxed while flirting.
  • Smiling and eye contact are proven winners, while pick-up lines are a flirty fallacy.
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.