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Enemy of Rome - Zenobia

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Queen Zenobia in Chains

Famous statue of Queen Zenobia in Chains by Harriet Hosner in 1859

Famous statue of Queen Zenobia in Chains by Harriet Hosner in 1859

Who was Queen Zenobia?

Zenobia, Queen of the Palmyrans, is thought to be of Arab and Persian descent, although she claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra and Queen Dido of Carthage. She did have knowledge of the Egyptian language and culture and may have learned this from her mother, lending veracity to her claims.

Zenobia was born in Palmyra, a city in Syria, in the third century. Zenobia, Queen from about 267 or 268 CE, died sometime after 274 CE.

Queen Zenobia rose from relative obscurity, as the second wife of a subjugated client king (Septimus Odaenathus), to ultimately challenge the might of the Roman Empire. She had two sons, Vaballathus and Septemius Antiochus.

Zenobia was called 'Septima Zenobia' which in Aramaic is Znwbyā Bat Zabbai. Her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and she was by all accounts a woman of wit, education and talent. Zenobia has been called a political and military genius, a rare thing for a woman of her times.

Queen Zenobia Addressing her Soldiers, c. 1725–30.

Painting by Tiepolo

Painting by Tiepolo

Queen Zenobia

Zenobia spoke many languages and surrounded herself with educated people. Her court included writers, poets and philosophers. Like many women who have captured history's imagination, Zenobia was extremely beautiful. Even more beautiful than Cleopatra, she was described as lovely and heroic. Zenobia had a dark complexion, pearly white teeth and dark sparkling eyes. Her voice was strong and harmonious.

Zenobia was also a military commander. She is revered to this day by Arabic peoples as a figure of fascination and Arabic success against oppression.

Zenobia took the title 'Queen of the East' and in her career and carved out an empire including Egypt and Anatolia, before the Romans crushed her. The Romans had never suffered so much at the hands of a woman.

Map of Ancient Roman and Palmyrene Empires 271 CE

Palmyra rebels against Rome

Palmyra, meaning city of palm trees, is what the Romans called the ancient palm oasis and meeting place of Tadmor on the Silk Road trading route in the Syrian desert. Tadmor (Palmyra) is said to date back 2000 years BCE. Palmyra officially became a Roman colony in 212 CE. It was used as a buffer against Parthia in the earlier days of Rome.

The city of Palmyra was located between the Roman and Persian Empires (in the third century). It was an outpost occupied by Rome to offer protection to the frontiers of the Roman Empire.

The mid-late third century was an unsettled and challenging time for the Roman Empire. Rome was attacked by Germanic and Gallic tribes, suffered civil and internal strife, and was beset by repeated and devastating plague epidemics. There were at least 18 legitimate Emperors during those years and the average reign was only 2.5 years. Until Aurelian became Emperor after the death by plague of Claudius II, there was no stability. Roman forces were spread thinly across the vast Empire (due to fighting the tribes) and when Palmyra suffered incursions from enemies (often Persians) she called on Rome for protection. Rome did not or could not assist Palmyra, sowing the seeds of the rebellion to come.

Map showing location of Palmyra in Syria

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The Palmyrene Empire - late third century

In 269 CE Zenobia seized Egypt. Zenobia and her general Zabdas conquered the Roman occupiers of Egypt with help from an Egyptian ally, Timagenes. Tenagino Probus, the Roman Prefect of Egypt, tried to resist Zenobia, but she captured and beheaded him.

Egypt was the 'bread-basket' of Rome and Italy. Zenobia cut off grain supplies to Rome and Italy, resulting in starvation and food-rioting in Rome. This was an emergency that the Roman Emperor Aurelian, could not afford to ignore for very long.

Shortly after her conquest of Egypt, Zenobia took Anatolia and other parts of Asia Minor and declared her independence from Rome.

Zenobia was said to be a fair and just ruler, treating Jews and Christians with respect. She is also said to have had a great sense of humour. There is a story about her having sentenced a corrupt merchant to fight against a wild beast in the arena for his crimes. The merchant entered the arena shaking in fear. The wild beast that left its cage to devour him turned out to be a chicken.

Roman Ruins - Palmyra

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The Warrior Queen - Zenobia

After the conquest of Egypt, Zenobia was hailed as the 'Warrior Queen". Zenobia had shown herself to be an excellent horse rider and was also happy to march alongside her soldiers. Zenobia continued her conquests, carving away a significant chunk of the Roman Empire for her own including the rest of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine as well as Anatolia.

At the time, the Romans had other fish to fry and seemed to accept the new Palmyrene Empire. However, the Romans were incensed at the loss of the Egyptian grain supply and the lucrative trade routes of Asia Minor. Emperor Aurelian was merely accomplishing one thing at a time. First he defeated the Alamanni and Germanic tribes and put down the independence of the Gallic Empire and only then did he move against the Palmyrenes to re-establish Roman dominance.

In writing about his war against Zenobia, Aurelian said this, "Those who speak with contempt of the war I am waging against a woman, are ignorant both of the character and power of Zenobia. It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations of stones, of arrows, and of every species of missile weapons and military engines."

Queen Zenobia - as she might have been

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Rome crushes Queen Zenobia's armies

in 271, the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, marched east and defeated Zenobia's armies at the Orontes River, near Antioch in Turkey. The Romans and Palyrenes were evenly matched but Roman tactics won out, as they often did. The Romans pretended to flee and the Palmyrenes excitedly pursued them until they were exhausted, at which point the Romans turned on them and crushed them.

Zenobia and the remains of her army fled to Emesa in Syria and stood to face the Romans again. Again they were defeated. Zenobia fled 100 miles back to Palmyra, leaving her army. Aurelian pursued her and besieged Palmyra.

Palmyra was not a greatly fortified city, they had only hastily erected some defenses at the last minute and did not hold out for long against the Roman siege.

Zenobia Escapes

Zenobia slipped out of Palmyra in the night on a camel, along with her son Vaballathus, her general Zabdas and her philosopher and adviser Cassius Longinus. They were all captured at the Euphrates River.

Aurelian kept Zenobia alive but executed her support staff to make sure that it was not easy for her to get away. He wanted to keep her as a sort of ornament.

Aurelian thought that he had subdued Palmyra as he had taken Zenobia from them and entered the city after a short-lived siege. However the Palmyrans revolted shortly after he left in 273, massacring the Roman garrison of 600 soldiers. Aurelian returned and put Palmyra to the sword and the torch, desecrating the city and leaving it ruined in ashes, never to rebel against Rome again.

History Book Review - Palmyrene Empire

Queen Zenobia - Roman Captive

There are conflicting accounts of Zenobia's fate after her capture at the Euphrates riverbank. Some accounts say she died either en route to Rome or shortly after arrival, by starvation, beheading or suicide. Her son Vaballathus is said to have died on the way to Rome.

Other accounts have her marching in Aurelian's victory triumph through the streets of Rome in 274 as a trophy or spoil of war before being killed. She is said to have been held in golden chains (hence the statue made by Harriet Hosner in 1859).

Yet still other accounts say that Aurelian took a liking to her independent spirit and beauty and that he allowed her to live out her life in a Roman villa at Tibur (modern Tivoli). There are accounts of Zenobia living a life of luxury at her villa, marrying a prominent Roman and having several daughters. Zenobia is said to have become a philosopher and taken on the role of a Roman matron and socialite. There is some evidence of her having descendants down to the 4th and 5th centuries.

Although no one really knows the true story of the end of her days, Zenobia has captured hearts and imaginations as a beautiful woman who defied Rome.

Zenobia, Palmyrene Empress - Poll

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How much do you know about Zenobia?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Did Zenobia live in the...?
    • First Century BCE?
    • Third Century CE?
    • Second Century CE?
  2. How many sons did Zenobia have?
    • 2
    • None
  3. Was Zenobia a descendant of Cleopatra and Dido?
    • No, she was from Arabic stock.
    • The answer is not clear, although she claimed to be descended from Cleopatra and Dido.
  4. Did Zenobia betwitch the Roman Emperor Aurelian with her beauty?
    • No, he killed her anyway
    • Yes he married her
    • It is uncertain, but it seems to be true that he admired her.

Answer Key

  1. Third Century CE?
  2. 2
  3. The answer is not clear, although she claimed to be descended from Cleopatra and Dido.
  4. It is uncertain, but it seems to be true that he admired her.

Sources

  • Wikipedia
  • Encyclopaedia Brittannica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/656544/Zenobia
  • Zenobia, About.com, Women's History: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/ancientqueens/a/Zenobia.htm
  • History of Palmyra, Lonely Planet: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/syria/palmyra/history
  • Egypt, Greece and Rome - Civilisations of the Ancient Mediterranean, 2nd Ed, Charles Freeman, Oxford University Press, England, 2004
  • Women of Royalty, Zenobia Queen of Palmyra: http://royalwomen.tripod.com/id16.html

Comments

Anne Harrison from Australia on February 08, 2015:

A really interesting hub - I knew nothing about this woman! Voted up, thanks for sharing

Mel Jay (author) from Australia on July 13, 2013:

Thanks for your comment ziyena :) Cheers, Mel

ziyena from the United States on July 13, 2013:

Zenobia was a remarkable woman in her time, and unfortunately not as celebrated as the likes of women of her calibre such as Cleopatra and Nefertiti. I did not know her Roman name was Julia! Nice hub and Voted up!