Zenobia, the Warrior Queen of Palmyra, Syria

Zenobia, the Warrior Queen of Palmyra, Syria

(Read the article on one page)

In 30 BC, the last active Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, was dead. According to the written sources, she committed suicide by holding a poisonous snake to her breast, so as to avoid being paraded in Rome by the victorious Octavian (known as Augustus after 27 BC), although this account is also disputed . The humiliation of being paraded by the conquering Romans was a fate that befell another ‘Eastern’ queen three centuries after the death of Cleopatra. According to the Historia Augusta , the Palymerene queen, Zenobia was captured by the emperor Aurelian and paraded through the streets of Rome in gold chains and jewellery during his triumph parade. Who was this Zenobia, and why was she treated by the Romans in such a manner?

Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelianus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelianus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo ( Wikimedia Commons )

Zenobia was born around 240 AD in Palmyra, at that time a Roman province. As she was given the name Julia Aurelia Zenobia, it can be said that she was a Roman citizen. Roman citizenship was granted to her father’s family at an earlier date, perhaps during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in the latter part of the 2 nd century AD. The Historia Augusta even makes the claim that Zenobia’s father could trace his lineage to Julia Domna, the wife of the emperor Septimius Severus.

By 258 AD, she was married to Septimius Odaenathus, an influential member of Palmyrene society. The exact position of Odaenathus, however, is slightly unclear. Whilst Odaenathus was honoured with Roman titles, thus making him a sort of ‘Roman governor of Palmyra’, he was also retrospectively given the title ‘King of Kings’. The latter title, however, may not be an indication that Odaenathus desired to carve an independent kingdom for himself, as it was conferred onto him for his defeat of the Sassanian king, Shapur.

Regardless of Odaenathus’ role in Palmyra, he was dead by 267 AD. Odaenathus and Hairan, his son from his first wife, were assassinated. According to some sources, their deaths were engineered by Zenobia herself, so as to allow her to seize power. This view, however, has been rejected by modern scholars, as it was the Emperor Gallienus who was responsible for Odaenathus’ death. Nevertheless, Zenobia’s son, Vaballathus, became king of Palmyra, whilst Zenobia ruled as regent. As Rome was gripped by the Crisis of the Third Century, it was the perfect opportunity for Zenobia to extend Palmyrene rule.

Coins depicting Zenobia

Coins depicting Zenobia. 271-272 AD. ( Wikimedia Commons )

In 269/70 AD, Zenobia sent her general, Zabdas, to claim the Roman province of Egypt as her own. With help from their Egyptian ally, Timagenes, the Palmyrenes were able to defeat the Roman prefect of Egypt, Tenagino Probus and his army. To consolidate her position in Egypt, she claimed that she was a descendent of Cleopatra. Like the Ptolemies, Zenobia was a patron of scholarship, and even during her early reign, surrounded her court with intellectuals and philosophers. Following the conquest of Egypt, Zenobia then marched her army into Anatolia, conquering Roman territory as far west as Ancyra. Subsequently, she conquered Syria, Palestine and Lebanon using a blend of military might and ideological propaganda.

Zenobia by Carlo Antonio Tavella

'Zenobia' by Carlo Antonio Tavella (1668–1738). ( Wikimedia Commons )

Initially, the Palmyrene Empire was recognised by the new Roman emperor, Aurelian, who was occupied with the campaign against the Gallic Empire in the west. This recognition is evident in Palmyrene ‘Imperial’ coinage struck in Antioch, which showed that Vaballathus and Aurelian were of equal rank. At the last moment, however, Aurelian’s name disappears from the coins, and only that of Vaballathus and Zenobia remained. Having defeated the Gallic Empire, Aurelian turned his sights on the East. Thus, the Palymerene decision to break away from the Roman Empire may be seen as a reaction against Aurelian. Alternatively, it may also be possible that the Palmyrene decision to break away from Rome triggered Aurelian’s campaign in the East. Nevertheless, the Palmyrenes were defeated by Aurelian’s army, first near Antioch, and then at Emesa.

Zenobia and Vaballathus then fled to Palmyra, where they prepared to defend the city. It is recorded that Zenobia was expecting aid from the Sassanians. When this failed to arrive, however, Zenobia and her son attempted to flee to Sassanian territory on a camel. They were captured by Aurelian, however, whilst trying to cross the Euphrates River. The fate of Zenobia becomes a mystery after this. One source records that Zenobia and Vaballathus drowned in the Bosporus whilst being transported back to Rome, while another records that she was paraded in Rome by Aurelian, following which she was given a villa near Rome. Yet another source reports that Zenobia was brought to Rome, but never paraded by Aurelian. Instead, she marries a wealthy Roman man. Regardless of the ending, Zenobia’s life is indeed an eventful and colorful one that may even rival that of Cleopatra VII. After all, operas and literature about Zenobia’s life have been written as early as the 14 th century.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed in Two Parts.
A perverted "sex manual" featuring shocking magical and mythical X-rated content will be sold at a UK auction next month. The first edition of this sordid book entitled Aristotle's Masterpiece Completed In Two Parts, The First Containing the Secrets of Generation, was published in London in 1684.

Myths & Legends

An illustration of Vasilisa the Beautiful, by Ivan Bilibin.
[…] In the evening the girl laid the table and began waiting for Baba-Yaga. It grew dark. The black horseman swept by and it was night. The skulls’ eyes began to shine. The trees creaked, the dead leaves crunched, the earth trembled, and there was Baba-Yaga…

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

The Lycurgus Cup.
A strange chalice made its way into the British Museum’s collection in the 1950s. It is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman artifact called the Lycurgus Cup. The image on the chalice is an iconic scene with King Lycurgus of Thrace...

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article