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Zenobia, Queen of the East
By Invictus, June 2006; Revised
Categories: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Historical Figures, Ancient Mesopotamia and Near East: Historical Figures
In the third Century, the eastern realms of the Roman Empire fell one by one to the growing power of Palmyra. On the throne of this oasis city of Palmyra was Zenobia, the “Queen of the East”. Writers of the ancient world had no shortage of descriptions for this queen: “her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual wont, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible.” As queen of the east, she named herself the successor of Cleopatra. With Rome in a state of crisis, she style herself after Dido, the legendary antagonist of Rome’s ancestors. She could be stern as a tyrant, yet benevolent as a good emperor. She drank with her generals. She hunted like a Spaniard. She waged war against Rome.
These descriptions have survived the test of time. There were few, if any, queens of the near east comparable to Zenobia in both fame and power. Even in the end, as a captive to the Romans, she was paraded in Rome adorned by gold and gems as if she had lost none of her splendor that she sought after so much in her life. Now, centuries after her time, the story of Zenobia remains one of the most intriguing in history.
Palmyra was an ancient settlement built around an oasis in the desert. It was a place lingered with palm trees, from which its name, Tadmor (translated into “Palmyra”) is derived. By the first century B.C., Palmyra had become a metropolis full of trade caravans. At the crossroads between the Rome and Persia, Palmyra’s culture was blend of many different customs, including elements from Greek, Roman, nomadic, Mesopotamian, and Iranian cultures.
Through a great deal of its history, Palmyra was a bustling city independent of foreign rule. But bound between powerful neighboring states, the Roman and Sassanid Persian Empires, Palmyra was naturally involved in foreign diplomacy. In c. 230 AD, a member of the ruling family of Palmyra became a senator in Rome. His name was Septimius Odaenathus, whose family earlier had already received recognition of citizenship from the Roman Emperor. In 258, he became consul. In Palmyra, he consolidated his power, holding the title “Chief of Palmyra.”
While Palmyrene relations with Rome were largely friendly, the Roman Empire was in a state of crisis in what is now known as the “crisis of the third century.” For three decades, Rome had faced endless waves of civil war and usurpers. Emperors could come and go in a matter of months. The western provinces of the Empire had broken away from Rome, forming a rebel Roman state known as the “Gallic Empire.” In the east, Roman frontiers were under pressure from the Sassanid Persians.
In 260 AD, the Roman Emperor Valerian was defeated at Edessa and captured by the Persians. Since Palmyra had been favored by the Romans, Rome’s defeat could mean trouble for Palmyra. Taking a gamble, Oadaenathus threw his total support toward the Romans. He set out with his army and successfully fought against the Sassanid for several years, even reaching their capital Ctesiphon two times. For his outstanding success, he was awarded the titles Dux Romanorum (leader of the Romans) and Imperator (commander) by the Roman Emperor Gallienus. Riding on his victories, Odaenathus extended his influence over Palmyra, styling himself after the Persian rulers with the title King of Kings. Yet despite his glories in battle, Oadaenathus was murdered by his nephew.
It is here that Septimia Zenobia enters the story. Her name - Septimia Zenobia - is written on her coins as well as in Latin accounts (or Ζηνοβια in Greek). On inscriptions in Palmyra, she is also known by her Semitic name Bath Zabbai. She was the wife of Odaenathus and had accompanied him on his campaigns against Persia. Now with his death, she quickly realized the power ready for her grasp. Ruling as a regent for her infant son Vaballathus, Zenobia took the reigns of power with which she had already become so familiar.
Zenobia was described as the most beautiful and noble woman in the east. Besides such descriptions of beauty and extravagance, we are also presented with the image of an independent woman capable of performing any tasks of a competent ruler. The Historia Augusta tells that she was even braver than her husband, that she actively took part in military campaigns in person, and that she rode and drank with her generals. Her capabilities as a ruler and leader impressed even the Emperor Aurelian, who justified his honor in his “unmanly” task of defeating Zenobia, a woman, by citing her impressive feats on the field and in administration.
Above all, our descriptions of Zenobia strongly suggest a character of great ambition. Upon securing power, she first expanded her realm into Mesopotamia and nearby areas of Asia Minor. While taking part in conquests, she maintained her friendly relation with Rome, to which Palmyra had been an important ally in the east. However, with Rome’s rich provinces close to her borders, and the fact that Rome was crumbling under the rule of pretenders whom she did not consider as real emperors, it was a matter of time before she would break the alliance.
In 270, Zenobia broke her friendly relations with Rome and advanced into Roman-held territories in the east. Zenobia’s army led by Zadbas arrived in Egypt and defeated the defending army of 50,000. Aided by agents loyal to Zenobia, the Palmyrenes took Egypt. Upon hearing the news of the loss of Egypt, the Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus sent his admiral Probus commanding an army raised in Egypt and North Africa against the Palmyrenes. In a hard-fought campaign, the Romans were defeated and Zenobia’s hold on Egypt was secured.
While the Romans were outraged by their loss of territory, they were largely powerless due to the chaos of the time. Roman failure and Palmyrene success made Zenobia bolder. In the August of 271, Zenobia’s army raised her as the “The Most Illustrious and Pious Queen.” In the same year, she declared his son Augustus (Emperor) and removed the image of the current Roman Emperor from the coins of Alexandria. She then declared herself Augusta (Empress) and also the title Regina (Queen).
At the height of her power, Zenobia held a significant portion of the eastern territories of the Roman Empire. She controlled the cities of Antioch and Alexandria, two of the three largest cities in the Roman Empire. Classical sources show that she lived in great magnificence. She dined and was worshipped like a Persian King. She dressed in royal Carthaginian purple and donned the gold and gems of an Egyptian queen.
But her greed for power, as a modern history reader might see it, eventually became her undoing. Her pompous declarations did not go unnoticed across the sea by the Emperor Aurelian, who had recently taken the throne. Unlike the previous emperors, Aurelian was talented and vigorous. He was a skilled commander and drove back the barbarians who had threatened Italy. He rebuilt the walls of Rome and slew all disloyal senators. As fast as Zenobia could build her empire, Rome revitalized its former power in the Mediterranean.
In 272, Aurelian set out in his campaign against Zenobia. When he reached Asia Minor, the former Roman-held cities of the area revolted in favor of Aurelian. Zenobia and her generals held onto Antioch, with their army positioned at the Orontes River. According to Zosimus, Aurelian caught sight of the heavily armored Palmyrene horsemen, which were superior to their Roman counterparts. He ordered his cavalry to position themselves separately, away from the infantry and avoid any direct engagements against the Palmyrenes. The strategy was successful, as the Palmyrene heavy cavalry soon exhausted themselves in the heat and were outflanked and routed by the counterattacking Roman cavalry. Dismayed at the loss, Zenobia retreated into Antioch. However, she did not want to admit defeat to the citizens of the city, for the fear of a riot. She took a man resembling the Emperor, dressed him up in Aurelian’s gear, and displayed him to the inhabitants of the city. But with Aurelian’s army far behind, Zenobia did not dare to wager another battle. At night, she withdrew from Antioch toward the city of Emesa. Following Zenobia’s withdrawal, Aurelian entered the city and was joyfully greeted by its people, according to Zosimus.
At the plains near Emesa, Zenobia played her second chance. Zenobia’s army boasted 70,000 men, according to Zosimus, with the Palmyrene cataphract heavy cavalry at its core, supported by infantry and allied units, against Aurelian’s eclectic army of Imperial regiments, frontier Legions, allies and axillaries. The battle opened with the Palmyrene cavalry attacking, driving back the Roman cavalry. However, as the Romans fell back, the Palmyrene broke rank into relentless pursuit. The Palmyrene cavalry became worn down in their heavy armor. Tired and disordered, the Palmyrenes were defeated by the Roman infantry. According to Zosimus, a great number of Palmyrene horsemen fell to Aurelian’s club-bearing Palestinian infantry, whose weapons were effective against heavy armor.
Upon the second defeat, Zenobia found herself in a near-desperate position. The city of Emesa was not particularly loyal to her and was not a safe place for refuge. Her advisors suggested that she withdraw back to Palmyra, the city from which her empire was built. During her withdrawal, Zenobia must have received news that the Roman Emperor had entered Emesa, whose citizens like those of Antioch greeted him warmly.
At Palmyra, Zenobia prepared the defenses of the city, which was soon under siege by the Romans. The city’s defense was formidable. Machines and archers lined the walls that seemed impregnable against the Roman assault. Exhausted, Aurelian sent his message to the queen, giving her lenient terms to surrender:
“For I bid you surrender, promising that your lives shall be spared, and with the condition that you, Zenobia, together with your children shall dwell wherever I, acting in accordance with the wish of the most noble senate, shall appoint a place. Your jewels, your gold, your silver, your silks, your horses, your camels, you shall all hand over to the Roman treasury. As for the people of Palmyra, their rights shall be preserved.”
Out of her pride, Zenobia refused the terms: “None save yourself has ever demanded by letter what you now demand. Whatever must be accomplished in matters of war must be done by valour alone. You demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a Queen rather than remain alive, however high her rank.”
While Palmyra’s defenses were capable, the situation did not look too optimistic. With the cities she originally conquered now loyal to the Romans, the Romans appeared to have an endless supply chain to maintain the siege while Palmyra’s supply diminished. Even if the city could survive the siege, the empire had already crumbled. Egypt had already been reconquered by a Roman general sent by Aurelian. In an act of desperation, Zenobia mounted on a female camel, riding toward the Euphrates in hopes of personally beseeching help from her former enemy the Persians. Unfortunately, while trying to cross the Euphrates Zenobia was overtaken and captured. She was brought before Aurelian, who was a little dismayed that “in future ages it would not redound to his honour to have conquered a woman.”
But of course, she was now a captive. Zenobia was deprived of her great city of Palmyra, which had surrendered after her flight. At Emesa, Zenobia was brought to trial where she defended herself vigorously, as if not all had been lost. But no amount pleading could excuse her from her capture. Certainly, nothing she could do could return to her the empire that she built.
In 274, Aurelian paraded in Rome in an unprecedented triumph for the reconquest of all the lands lost to Palmyra and defeat of the “Gallic Empire” rebels. Envoys from all parts of the world attended his celebration – as did Zenobia, who was paraded through the streets as Aurelian’s victory trophy. Her feet were adorned with shackles of gold and her outfit embellished with so many gems that she could hardly bear the weight to walk. Far away from the parade, Palmyra laid in much ruins, sacked by Roman soldiers after a failed rebellion to expel the Roman rule that had been asserted over the city after Zenobia’s capture.
Some say that Aurelian was lenient to Zenobia and gave her an estate on the Tiber where she spent the rest of her life. Whether or not this was the case we can never know. But at the very least, as one scholar suggests, Zenobia enjoyed almost as much fame as did Cleopatra, but without the tragic end.
When Aurelian paraded Zenobia in his triumphal celebration, he sent a letter to the senate and people of Rome, justifying his honor in performing the unmanly deed of defeating a woman. Zenobia, he explain, was a great leader who inspired fear and won great victories, a leader who planned wisely, who had a firm grasp on her army, and knew when to use discipline and generosity.
To many, the story of Zenobia is one about the ambitious quest for power and the responsibilities that power entails. The ultimate failure of Zenobia need not undermine her fame and accomplishments. Throughout history, many have failed in the end, including Hannibal and Boudicca. But not many women in history, especially in ancient history, have had a career of conquests like that of Zenobia and a story so vivid. As Rome’s antagonist, Zenobia stands among the most prolific, and at the very least, was certainly the greatest woman who ever challenged Rome.
In history, Palmyra’s rise and fall fits into the chaotic timeframe of Rome’s crisis of the third century. Palmyra is notable in that it stood between two powerful empires: Rome and Persia, and yet it rose to threaten both. Although Zenobia’s defeat was a fall from which Palmyra never recovered, they city would have never reached its fame without her. Today, Zenobia’s rule remains a celebrated event in history in the Middle East, not only in Syria, but also in Byzantium and post-renaissance Europe..
While Zenobia’s story is vivid, it is far from complete, for a character of such a dynamic life. In her time, she enjoyed great fame, but surviving accounts are not in abundance. Today, while sources like the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta have left us with a few exaggerated descriptions of Zenobia, the reader can easily see that each hyperbole has a basis, and in this case, behind the extravagant passages of the Historia is a figure of once great achievement and splendor.
Zosimus, Historia Nova Bk. 1, c. 500 AD. Translation: Green and Chaplin (1814), (http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/zosimus01_book1.htm). Zosimus’ account provides the most through history on the time of Zenobia. Most of what we know about Aurelian’s campaign comes from Zosimus.
Historia Augusta, sections on Aurelian and Zenobia. Translation by David Magie. (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/home.html) The Historia Augusta, also known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, is a series of imperial biographies of uncertain origin. The Historia Augusta contains a great deal of descriptions about Zenobia along with quotations. The Historia Augusta is notorious for having fictitious content, but due to the scarcity of sources, its descriptions of Zenobia have often been retold nearly word for word, as was essentially done in this article.
Abbott, Nabia. Pre-Islamic Arab Queens. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures > Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), pp. 1-22
Macurdy, Grace Harriet, Vassal-queens and some contemporary women in the Roman Empire. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1937.
G. Downey, Aurelian's Victory over Zenobia at Immae, A.D. 272
Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association > Vol. 81 (1950), pp. 57-68
Seyrig, Henri. Palmyra and the East. The Journal of Roman Studies > Vol. 40, Parts 1 and 2 (1950), pp. 1-7
Knox, George. Giambattista Tiepolo: Queen Zenobia and Ca' Zenobio: 'una delle prime sue fatture'The Burlington Magazine > Vol. 121, No. 916 (Jul., 1979), pp. 408-418 (Picture source)
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