Zenobia, the Warrior Queen of Palmyra, Syria

Zenobia, the Warrior Queen of Palmyra, Syria

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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.

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