Jerry Toner, Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge and author of the latest Ideas in Profile book , writes about the recent devastation of Palmyra, Syria.

Palmyra reached its zenith in the early AD 270s. Its queen Zenobia took advantage of the chaos caused in the Roman empire by multiple barbarian invasions to take control of a great swathe of territory stretching from Egypt to modern Turkey. The Roman emperor, Aurelian, with other more important battles on his mind, ignored this upstart breakaway kingdom. But not for long. Once he had crushed enemies elsewhere he turned his attention to Palmyra and by 273 the Syrian Boadicea had been defeated.

Islamic State has successfully grabbed the world's attention with its destruction of the great polytheistic temple of Bel at Palmyra. Why did they do this? Is it just modern barbarism? One reason is that Zenobia became, like Boadicea did in Britain, an important symbol of Syrian nationalism. IS is keen to eradicate any kind of alternative loyalty within the region. Also, an attitude that dismisses the past as worthless paradoxically enables it to cash in by selling off many of what would otherwise be priceless artefacts to collectors.

But attacking the pagan past is above all a way of trying to stamp out other forms of Islam. Elsewhere, IS is demolishing Shia, Sufi and Sunni shrines. Here, though, the iconoclasts of IS are actually following in the footsteps of the Roman empire, which, after Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, sought to impose an increasingly orthodox view of the religion on the empire.

Islam grew up next to the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire where dramatic acts of state-sponsored terror were habitually used to enforce religious uniformity. The destruction of the temple of Bel is an attempt to try to enforce a centralised theocratic state in a way that is directly inherited from the late Roman empire (the Romans also cashed in on the suppression of pagan temples by confiscating the gold and riches that were kept within them).

Perhaps if Islamic State knew a bit more about the ancient world they would realise that their attempt to eradicate the past simply shows how their actions are shaped by it.