The scarce artifacts found in the city dating to the Bronze Age reveal that, culturally, Palmyra was most affiliated with western Syria.Classical Palmyra had a distinctive culture, based on a local Semitic tradition, and influenced by Greece and Rome.[note 8] To appear better integrated into the Roman Empire, some Palmyrenes adopted Greco-Roman names, either alone or in addition to a second native name. The extent of Greek influence on Palmyra's culture is debated. Scholars interpreted the Palmyrenes' Greek practices differently; many see those characters as a superficial layer over a local essence. Palmyra's senate was an example; although Palmyrene texts written in Greek described it as a "boule" (a Greek institution), the senate was a gathering of non-elected tribal elders (a Near-Eastern assembly tradition). Others view Palmyra's culture as a fusion of local and Greco-Roman traditions.
The culture of Persia influenced Palmyrene military tactics, dress and court ceremonies. Palmyra had no large libraries or publishing facilities, and it lacked an intellectual movement characteristic of other Eastern cities such as Edessa or Antioch. Although Zenobia opened her court to academics, the only notable scholar documented was Cassius Longinus.
Palmyra had a large agora.[note 9] However, unlike the Greek Agoras (public gathering places shared with public buildings), Palmyra's agora resembled an Eastern caravanserai more than a hub of public life. The Palmyrenes buried their dead in elaborate family mausoleums, most with interior walls forming rows of burial chambers (loculi) in which the dead, laying at full length, were placed. A relief of the person interred formed part of the wall's decoration, acting as a headstone.Sarcophagi appeared in the late second century and were used in some of the tombs. Many burial monuments contained mummies embalmed in a method similar to that used in Ancient Egypt.
Although Palmyrene art was related to that of Greece, it had a distinctive style unique to the middle-Euphrates region. Palmyrene art is well represented by the bust reliefs which seal the openings of its burial chambers. The reliefs emphasized clothing, jewelry and a frontal representation of the person depicted, characteristics which can be seen as a forerunner of Byzantine art. According to Michael Rostovtzeff, Palmyra's art was influenced by Parthian art. However, the origin of frontality that characterized Palmyrene and Parthian arts is a controversial issue; while Parthian origin has been suggested (by Daniel Schlumberger),Michael Avi-Yonah contends that it was a local Syrian tradition that influenced Parthian art. Little painting, and none of the bronze statues of prominent citizens (which stood on brackets on the main columns of the Great Colonnade), have survived. A damaged frieze and other sculptures from the Temple of Bel, many removed to museums in Syria and abroad, suggest the city's public monumental sculpture.
Many surviving funerary busts reached Western museums during the 19th century. Palmyra provided the most convenient Eastern examples bolstering an art-history controversy at the turn of the 20th century: to what extent Eastern influence on Roman art replaced idealized classicism with frontal, hieratic and simplified figures (as believed by Josef Strzygowski and others). This transition is seen as a response to cultural changes in the Western Roman Empire, rather than artistic influence from the East. Palmyrene bust reliefs, unlike Roman sculptures, are rudimentary portraits; although many reflect high quality individuality, the majority vary little across figures of similar age and gender.
Like its art, Palmyra's architecture was influenced by the Greco-Roman style, while preserving local elements (best seen in the Temple of Bel).[note 10] Enclosed by a massive wall flanked with traditional Roman columns, Bel's sanctuary plan was primarily Semitic. Similar to the Second Temple, the sanctuary consisted of a large courtyard with the deity's main shrine off-center against its entrance (a plan preserving elements of the temples of Ebla and Ugarit).