Forgotten Figures: Zenobia

Zenobia In Chains

Of all of the people to cross paths (and swords) with the Romans during their thousand year empire, Zenobia of Palmyra in particular stands out.  She has long been overshadowed by the more famous women who took on Rome: Cleopatra and Boadicea.  However, as you’ll see, she was every inch the political genius and warrior queen that her predecessors were.  If Emperor Aurelian (who we covered last time) had been a weaker man, she may have even succeeded in her venture.

Background

Palmyra was a desert city along the all-important trade routes to the east that would become the Silk Road in later years.  As such, it could have protection monopolies and charge tolls on the incoming and outgoing merchants.  It was a wealthy city nominally conquered by Rome but really the Romans let them govern themselves quite readily—not that they had a choice as you’ll see in a moment.

Rome of the third century A. D. was not the powerful imperial Rome of its glory days.  Rather, the empire was in chaos due to a game of musical chairs with Emperors, economic chaos as inflation ran unchecked and barbarian hordes seemingly coming from every direction.  Did I mention there was also a plague going around killing everyone too?  It was a tough time to be a Roman and eventually because of it, the emperors ruling in Italy just could not handle things.  The empire split into three sections, essentially.  Odaenathus in the east, Postumus in Gaul and Britain and Gallienus in central Italy.  Due to the revolving door of emperors during the third century, this situation would not last long though.

A map of the three different 'empires' that had split from Rome during the crisis years.

A map of the three different ’empires’ that had split from Rome during the crisis years.  Zenobia’s empire is in yellow.

Early Life and Marriage to Odaenathus

Unfortunately for us, the Romans destroyed Palmyra so thoroughly that very, very few parts of the city survive except for the religious buildings.  That means that we know very little about Zenobia’s background or childhood until she came into contact with Odaenathus.  All we really knew up until a few decades ago was that she had been born in Syria.

Antonia Fraser in her book The Warrior Queens tells us something that few scholars mention when speaking about Zenobia: she comes from a long pre-Islamic tradition of Arabic queens.  Some of them are quite unknown to us modern Westerners as well like Zabibi and Samsi.  Her very name, Zenobia is a Latinization of her true Arabic name Bat Zabbai, which was found in inscriptions within the city.  Whether or not she was noble is up for debate, but her family was likely wealthy or ruled a powerful tribe and that’s how she probably came to the attention of Odaenathus, who took her for his second wife.  The sources tend to vary quite a bit about this period, but the general consensus is that Zenobia had at least one son but probably had three sons with her husband.

Cataphracts like these made up the heavy cavalry of the Sassanid Empire.  Zenobia and Odaenathus would have campaigned against them in their war with Persia.

Cataphracts like these made up the heavy cavalry of the Sassanid Empire. Zenobia and Odaenathus would have campaigned against them in their war with Persia.

The Sassanid Campaigns

So far Zenobia sounds pretty unremarkable.  However, it was her campaigns in the east with her husband Odaenathus that would become part of her legend.

With the Roman Empire weak and the Sassanids for once not embroiled in their numerous and frequent dynastic struggles, the Sassanids were looking to peel off some territory for themselves.  After all, Rome had neither the resources nor really the inclination at this point to defend the eastern provinces when they were being kicked around by the various Germanic tribes in their home province of Italy.  Odaenathus had no real interest in letting Palmyra fall under Persian rule because it would be far more heavy-handed than the current Roman rule.  So off the husband and wife went to campaign against the might of the Sassanid empire.

Throughout history, it has not really been the norm for the wife of a ruler to go on campaign with him but there are many notable exceptions like Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Zenobia proved herself this notable exception by essentially acting like a man the whole time.  She did not travel in a litter or in the slow-moving baggage train but rather shared in the hardships of her soldiers along with her husband.  She rode horseback all day with the cavalry and took part in hunting parties with her husband and the men.  In essence, she was one of the guys and the common soldier loved her for it just as much as they loved her husband.

It is unclear where the main battles of the campaign are fought and there is still some pretty heated debate among scholars today about whether Odaenathus just won at Emesa in western Syria or whether he went on to sack the ancient city of Cteisphon.  Clearly Odaenathus knew what he was doing in a military sense so it’s not unlikely that he took the city, much like the Roman emperors and generals of old constantly did.  Either way, Odaenathus and Zenobia campaigned against the Sassanids and won decisively.

Odaenathus from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum "

Odaenathus from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum “

The Death of Odaenathus

The death of Odaenathus is one of the more odd ones in the chronicles of Roman history.  The story may or may not be apocryphal but it’s really the only story that has been passed down to us so I’m going to relate it anyway.

After the campaigns in Persia, Odaenathus and Zenobia returned home to Palmyra in triumph.  As was their wont, they went on hunting trips into the desert but during the hunt Odaenathus’ nephew Maeonius did something he wasn’t supposed to.  Whether it was bring down an animal before his leader had a shot or some other slight, Odaenathus chastised his nephew and may have even had him kept in his custody for a few weeks to teach the young upstart a lesson.  As with lots of things during this period, it’s unclear (as I’m sure you’re sick of reading that phrase).  Maeonius was enraged at this and after a little while, carried out a successful plot to kill Odaenathus and his presumed heir Hairan by his first wife.

The nature of Odaenathus’ death is suspicious, but none of the blame for it seems to lay at Zenobia’s feet—a testament to the esteem in which she is held by her contemporaries.  When a man and his oldest son by a different wife die, suspicion usually falls on the second wife and her son but it’s really hard to say whether Zenobia had Odaenathus assassinated.  My personal theory says that she didn’t because she knew it would put her in a weaker position in a male-dominated society, but no one knows for sure.

Cleopatra depicted herself as Isis in reliefs and on temples as part of her propaganda campaign to get the native Egyptians on her side.

Cleopatra depicted herself as Isis in reliefs and on temples as part of her propaganda campaign to get the native Egyptians on her side.

The Cult of Personality

Zenobia was not a stupid woman—far from it as we’ve already seen.  She knew from the time she married Odaenathus that she had to legitimize her ascension somehow.  So she looked to the illustrious women of yore for inspiration, claiming such ancestors as Cleopatra and associating herself with Semiramis and Dido by dressing as them.  This may sound bizarre and juvenile to our modern ears, but Zenobia was doing exactly what Cleopatra had done in dressing up as Isis frequently: she was associating herself with powerful female deities, thus trying to legitimize her reign.  In Palmyra at least this seems to have worked in concert with her already strong personality to make sure there were no internal challenges to her new position as regent.

One of the odd things Zenobia is praised for by historians is for her ‘chastity’.  She had three sons, so how could she be chaste?  Well, apparently she would only admit Odaenathus to her bedchamber once a month, see if she got pregnant and only if she failed to become pregnant that month would let him in again the next month.  One has to wonder about her reasons for this.  Did she not like sex?  Was Odaenathus terrible in bed?  Or was it part of a sex control myth that she later spread to give her credibility as a human being, not just a broodmare?  Even Antonia Fraser in The Warrior Queens seems uncertain about, saying that it was the very fact of the myth that gave her more respect because despite her marriage she could be seen as a warrior queen, chaste and brave.  It’s hard to say but it earned her praise from Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour.  Zenobia was esteemed as the most heroic of her sex.”

Coins issued with Zenobia's face in Egypt.

Coins issued by Zenobia in Egypt.

Challenging Rome

Zenobia did not issue her challenge to the Roman Empire right away.  Instead, she consolidated what had before been a nominal hold over the eastern provinces and made sure that her regency was stable.  She knew that like many women before her, Rome would never recognize the rule of a woman whose husband had once ruled but Rome was still not in a position to do much about it.  Around this time, Aurelian had ascended to the throne and was still trying his best to kick the various tribes out of Italy and consolidate his own hold over the home province.  He was content to let Zenobia call herself whatever she wanted over in the east as long as the Sassanids did not see fit to invade the empire again.

However, Zenobia underestimated Aurelian and his rather famous determination to bring all of the Roman Empire back together.  She did not provoke him until she seized Egypt for herself and for her son.  Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire since Augustus incorporated it as the personal province of the emperors.  No Neo-Cleopatra claiming independence from Rome and invading Egypt could be tolerated, however.  In around 271

Zenobia’s reign over Egypt was very brief once Aurelian consolidated his current holdings, but Antonia Fraser says that her court there was known for its intellectual brilliance and its richness.  Zenobia was apparently fluent in Latin, Greek, Egyptian and Aramaic according to Gibbon.  She invited the intellectuals of the day to join her in Egypt and in addition to her friend Cassius Longinus, Callinicus Sutorius, who would write a history of Alexandria, also came.  It must have been an impressive court for the short time it existed not only because of the intellectual brilliance but the fact that Zenobia claimed to serve their very meals on treasure bequeathed by Cleopatra.

Aurelian was not going to stand for this, as I mentioned.  Once he was reasonably secure in Italy, he declared war and began to march on Palmyra.  Zenobia went back to Palmyra to plan her campaign and build up her army once more.  She knew the march to Palmyra would be long and hard, particularly with the desert nomads harrying Aurelian and his baggage train.  Unfortunately, most of her battle plan was predicated upon cities under Palmyrene influence holding out to Aurelian and stalling him.  She was confident that no cities would open up their gates to a man with a reputation for ruthlessness.

However, once Aurelian took a city that had held out and ordered there be no sacking, Zenobia’s strategy was undone almost overnight.  She had misplayed her hand and so had to march out near Immae to take on Aurelian’s legions.  However well trained her army was, it was no match for Aurelian’s veteran legions and his superior strategic thinking.  She lost the battle near Immae and so had to fall back closer to Palmyra in Emesa, where Aurelian again fought her and after a fierce battle, the Palmyrene army lost.  The east was back under Roman control.

Zenobia

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.

Triumph and Loss

Zenobia had tried to flee east to the Sassanid empire where she hoped to gather up support and an army to take Palmyra back, but Aurelian’s cavalary caught her.  This prompted one of the pivotal meetings in history when she was brought before Aurelian to answer for her actions.  The formidable old general-emperor meeting the woman who had almost taken complete control of the east?  That’s something that I would have liked to see and evidently historians writing only a few centuries later felt the same because they felt the need to make up dialogue between the two opponents.

One of the only stains on Zenobia’s record is the fact that when she was captured, she went into immediate survival mode, blaming the man around her for giving her bad advice and claiming that as a woman she could not possibly have resisted them.  (At this point I imagine Aurelian holding back an incredulous snort.)  Still, Aurelian seems to have allowed her this fiction and thus executed or exiled her advisers, including poor Cassius Longinus the writer.

While one writer has her dying on the way back to Rome, Zenobia was marched in Aurelian’s Triumph once Aurelian took back Gaul and Britain.  The gold she had loved to wear was now all placed on her, weighing her down so much that she nearly fainted during the Triumph.  Still, she walked tall and proud as much as she could and the Roman crowd apparently did not jeer her as was common practice; they seemed almost to respect her bravery.  Even Aurelian made her one concession: she was not labelled with the humiliating placards his other prisoners of war were.

A bust of Zenobia's implacable foe, Aurelian.

A bust of Zenobia’s implacable foe, Aurelian.

Life Post-Triumph

Aurelian, unlike previous Roman general and emperors, did not execute his captives after his Triumph as was the custom.  Instead, Zenobia seems to have married again, this time choosing a Roman senator and retired to a villa in Tivoli.  She also seems to have held quite a popular salon there, fascinating the senatorial classes with her wit, grace and apparently outlandishly accented Latin.  Even though she was defeated, Zenobia also seems to have gotten the last laugh.  The two sons that were with her in Aurelian’s Triumph were left alone and Antonia Fraser mentions that the fifth century Bishop of Florence may have owed the unusual name Zenobius to his ancestor.  Aurelian, however, had no living descendants and died in 275 A. D.  Zenobia’s date of death, however, remains as unclear as her date of birth, which is usually placed around 240 A. D.  She was only 30 years old when she was beaten so it’s not impossible that she outlived Aurelian as well although some scholars place her death around the same time as his.

Zenobia’s Legacy

Zenobia is a very human legend to my mind.  She was incredibly brave, seizing the eastern provinces in her son’s name and riding out with her army against Aurelian to give orders and plan battles.  At the same time, her survival instinct overrode her pride when she blamed all of her advisers for her actions so that she might live.  She was incredibly brave, but she was not a martyr for her cause like Cleopatra or Boadicea.  She was politically savvy, but not enough to out-politic a man like Aurelian.

One of the more interesting thought exercises one can go through in Roman history is to suppose that Aurelian had been killed before clearing Italy of barbarians and then subsequently reuniting the fractured empire.  Would Zenobia have gotten away with stealing that much Roman territory?  It’s hard to say, but in truth I think she would have.  The emperors before Aurelian and many of them after him up until Diocletian were weak, indecisive and were too busy fighting to keep a hold of Italy, let alone the rest of the empire.  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that had Zenobia faced any other Roman at the time, she likely would have came out the victor.

Zenobia has been immortalized in many paintings, stories and even operas.  She was admired by even a cynic like Edward Gibbon in his monumental work about the fall of the Roman empire.  Contemporary and later historians alike held her in high esteem and she seems to remain unmarred by events like the death of her husband that would have cast suspicion on most women in her position.  In short, she was a complicated woman that you cannot put into this box or that.  She really was in a class all of her own.


Sources:

(All pictures are linked back to their original sites.)

1.  The History of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan:

  • Episode 117: Aurelian’s Walls
  • Episode 118: The Palmyrene Wars
  • Episode 119: Restitutor Orbis

2.  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, unabridged Everman’s Library edition.

3.  The Warrior Queens: Boaedicea’s Chariot by Antonia Fraser.

4.  Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East by William Woods Cotterman

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