Zenobia, a Palmyrene warrior queen, daringly declared independence from Rome and sought to establish her own united kingdom in the East.
Great physical strength, tremendous beauty, respected intellect and chastity, all overlaid with the suspicion of murder and betrayal, have come to stand for the third-century warrior queen of Palmyra. The scarcity of detail concerning all but five historic years of her life has not helped to demystify her image nor shed light upon her true character. Even the course of her five ruling years differs enormously from one account to another, and the majority of these accounts come from the pens of those whom she ambitiously opposed, the Romans. The Scriptores Historiae Augustae, a collection of biographies attributed to the fourth century, details the Roman emperors from 117 to 284, and most existing information concerning Zenobia can be traced to this source. Though the Scriptores was apparently authored by six, only two, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus, are credited with the period of the queen's rule. The discrepancies between these two accounts alone point to the impossibility of separating Zenobia from the legend that surrounds her.
Where most contemporary historians have resisted the urge to fill in missing details, the Eastern nomads of Zenobia's day did not show comparable discretion. One popular story told of her great desert-chief father who was blessed with numerous wives and sons. Though from time to time he needed a daughter to seal contracts with neighboring tribes, Zenobia's arrival in the family was not one such occasion. When her father tried to dispose of her, she was hidden away and grew up with the household's many boys, thus accounting for what were considered her manly talents of hunting, shooting for the kill, and enduring physical hardships. This scenario, however, does less to provide a credible summation of the queen's childhood than it does to illuminate the tradition of ascribing a powerful woman's strength to masculine influences.
Under whatever conditions she was raised, and by whom, Zenobia's native tongue was Aramaic. She was most likely of Arabic descent, though Pollio wrote that she "claimed to be of the family of the Cleopatras and the Ptolemies." But if her ancestry remains uncertain, at least she can be accurately placed in history.
Following the death of Severus Alexander in 235, the Roman power center was losing its capacity to control a farflung empire extending from the Cadiz to the Euphrates and from Britain and the Danube to Libya and Egypt. Though Emperor Alexander had fully committed his armies in an attempt to maintain law and order throughout the kingdom, his death heralded a period of great disturbance; one short-lived emperor followed the next. Consequently, in the north of Syria, the people of Palmyra realized that they would be unable to rely on the Empire for protection, and as the safest caravan route in the region ran through their city, along an avenue lined with more than 375 Corinthian columns, lack of such protection could greatly jeopardize their wealth. Thus, the Palmyrenes both strengthened their local army and took charge of their own political administrative affairs, which actions seem to have well-suited the decentralized Empire.
As Palmyra became increasingly autonomous, Septimius Odainat emerged as the city's uncrowned king. When Roman Emperor Valerian was held captive and killed by Sapur I of Persia, Odainat aligned himself with the Empire in a war against Persia which lasted eight years until the Palmyrenes defeated King Sapur in 260. Having preserved the Empire's eastern frontier and reconquered Mesopotamia for Rome, Odainat was rewarded by the incoming emperor Gallienus in 262 with a title hitherto born only by emperors, Restitutor totius Orientis, Corrector of all the East.
However, there was another title Odainat desired. Taking on the Persian style, he deemed himself "King of Kings." Because the Empire had been busy on other fronts and Odainat had shown such loyalty in driving back the Persians, Rome did not object to such grand displays of autonomy. As it was, no one turned a wary eye toward Palmyra until 267, the year Odainat was murdered along with his son and assumed heir Hairan. Though the murder was attributed to Odainat's nephew Maeonis, many did not believe him responsible and blamed instead someone they thought a more likely candidate, his wife, Bat Zabbai— better known as Queen Zenobia. Whether she was suspected because her son Vaballath became heir in her stepson's stead, or because she was actually guilty, will never be known. History has neither relieved nor condemned her.
Whereas Emperor Gallienus recognized the boy-king Vaballath as heir to the throne, and Zenobia his regent, in 268 Gallienus's successor Claudius set aside the decision. Claudius's actions could not have pleased the queen, who was busy assembling a court known both for its material riches and intellectual prowess. The Greek philosopher Cassius Longinus became her most trusted advisor and would serve in such capacity until his death; it is likely that he tutored Vaballath while assisting Zenobia in her study of Greek and Roman authors. Though she is known to have most often used Arabic or Greek in conversation, the queen was versed in five languages including Aramaic, Egyptian, and Latin. Another trusted advisor was her chief general Zabdas and two other names appear to figure prominently in her court, the historian Callinicus Dutorius and one Nicomachus.
Following her husband's death, Zenobia was preparing to continue Odainat's course of action by extending the limits of Palmyra further north and south, when Emperor Claudius died and was replaced by Emperor Aurelian who Vopiscus describes as a "comely man … rather tall … very strong in muscles … endowed with manly grace …a little too fond of wine and food." Regardless of these rumored excesses, he managed to strike commendable blows against the Goths who plagued the Empire in northern Italy; and, with such successes to his name, he began pulling the crumbling Roman power center back together again. Where Palmyra was concerned, Aurelian recognized Vaballath, conferring Odainat's titles upon him and allowing him to rule a small Armenian province. Most significantly, he ordered coins struck, bearing Vaballath's portrait on one side, and on the other, his own.
Though undoubtedly relieved to see Vaballath recognized, Zenobia intended that she, not Aurelian, command the east with her son. Thus, in 269, to the shock of the existing world, she sent Zabdas to invade one of the wealthiest provinces in the Roman Empire—Egypt. She had already acquired most of Syria which had simply been annexed to the Palmyrene kingdom. The following year, Egypt was hers. One key point of attack was the little-resisting Antioch in the north. There, the queen ordered the mints to halt production of coins in the name of Claudius. Instead, coins were issued bearing her name and the name of her son. The severity of such an insult to the Empire cannot be underestimated; it was, in fact, equivalent to a declaration of war. Twice during her reign, the Palmyrenes consulted oracles to discover if their good fortune would see them through. In Syria, their offering to the Venus Aphacitis floated on the surface of the goddess's cistern, indicating that she had rejected them. The Apollo Sapedonius at Seleucia was more succinct:
Accursed race! avoid my sacred fane Whose treach'rous deeds the angry gods disdain.
But the queen was not deterred. Not only had Palmyra's borders extended south and north, but the city was declared independent of Rome, and Aurelian was so occupied with internal unrest that he could not yet send his soldiers against her. When the arrogant woman could be ignored no longer, he sent his general Probus to take any necessary steps in order that Lower Egypt be restored to Rome. By autumn of 271, his orders had been carried out, and Aurelian headed across the Straits in pursuit of the infamous queen about whom he'd undoubtedly heard many rumors. She was said to walk for miles alongside her troops, rather than ride in her chariot. She wore a helmet, Pollio wrote, "girt with a purple fillet, which had gems hanging from the lower edge, while its center was fastened with the jewel called chochlis, used instead of the brooch worn by women, and her arms were frequently bare." She could drink with the best of men, but was said to do so only to get the better of them. Then, as Pollio confirms, there was the matter of her rumored chastity: "Such was her continence, it is said, that she would not know her own husband save for the purpose of conception." Also detailed by Pollio was the queen's well-known beauty: Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual wont, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible. So white were her teeth that many thought that she had pearls in place of teeth. Her voice was clear and like that of a man. Her sternness, when necessity demanded, was that of a tyrant, her clemency … that of a good emperor.
As Aurelian pursued Zenobia through the east, he met little opposition until reaching the city of Tyana which, under orders from Zenobia, bolted its gates against him. "In this city," cried Aurelian, "I will not leave even a dog alive." However, according to Vopiscus, Tyana's famous mystic, Apollonius, visited Aurelian's tent in ghostly form the night he took Tyana. Meanwhile, Zenobia passed through the city and was making her way to Antioch where she would be able to choose her battleground and make her stand. Vopiscus provides a narration of Apollonius's terrifying visitation which some have since ascribed to the queen's ingenuity:
Aurelian, if you wish to conquer, there is no reason why you should plan the death of my fellow-citizens. Aurelian, if you wish to rule, abstain from the blood of the innocent. Aurelian, act with mercy if you wish to live long.
According to legend, when the emperor announced his decision the following day to spare the city, his soldiers were so indignant that they reminded him of his threat not to leave even a single dog alive. Said Aurelian, "Well, then, kill all the dogs." And, as Vopiscus remarks:
Notable, indeed, were the prince's words but more notable still was the deed of the soldiers; for the entire army, just as though it were gaining riches thereby, took up the prince's jest, by which both booty was denied them and the city preserved intact.
Zenobia reached Antioch considerably ahead of Aurelian, in time to convince the populace that she and Zabdas could defend the city against the Romans. Aurelian approached from the east, and Zenobia's troops fell back on the line of the Orontes River, just outside Antioch, and there the two armies faced each other. Despite the desert heat, the queen's horses and men were weighted down with chain armor. Soon, in a reversal of his usual strategy, Aurelian sent his infantry across the river first, followed by his cavalry which, rather than engaging the enemy, feigned fright and retreated. Zabdas pursued the Romans some 30 miles near the village of Immae. With the enemy forces suitably exhausted beneath their heavy armor, Aurelian ordered his cavalry to attack and easily defeated them.
Escaping back to Antioch, Zabdas and the survivors convinced the citizens that they had conquered the Romans by parading a man resembling Aurelian through the streets. Their ploy was successful. Zenobia and her general withdrew under the cover of darkness before the people of Antioch could awake to find themselves without protection. However, again Apollonius's ghost is said to have appeared to Aurelian, convincing him to spare the city. His men then tracked the queen to Emesa where, on the bank of the Orontes, Zenobia's last battle took place. Though some sources say she had by then a force of 70,000 men, Zosimus, a fifth-century Greek, reports that the slaughter inflicted upon her troops was "promiscuous" (unrestricted).
Zenobia and Zabdas escaped the massacre and headed the approximately 100 miles back to Palmyra. Aurelian followed and set up camp outside the city's walls. Thanks at least in part to Palmyra's famous sharpshooters and archers, the siege dragged on and on. Tired of watching their comrades picked off by Zenobia's arrows, many of Aurelian's soldiers rebelled and were replaced by slaves. But Aurelian had heard reports of the food and water shortages increasing within the walls. Ordering the siege suspended for two days, he forwarded the following letter, penned in Greek and later recorded by Vopiscus, to Palmyra's queen:
From Aurelian, Emperor of the Roman world and recoverer of the East, to Zenobia and all others who are bound to her by alliance in war. You should have done of your own free will what I now command in my letter. 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 … hand over to the Roman treasury. As for the people of Palmyra, their rights shall be preserved.
Zenobia's response, according to Vopiscus, was written by Nicomachus in Aramaic as dictated by Zenobia, then translated into Greek; however, the authorship of this historic letter has been the subject of great controversy with some believing it was actually inspired by Longinus, others believing he tried to dissuade the queen from ever sending it.
From Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. 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….If [the forces] we are expecting from every side, shall arrive, you will, of a surety, lay aside that arrogance with which you now command my surrender.
The siege was renewed, and Zenobia went to work securing aid from the Persians with whom the Palmyrenes had a common enemy in Rome. On a female camel, known for their fast flight, Zenobia set off for Persia. It is unclear when or how Aurelian learned of her escape, but as she was heading into a boat to cross the Euphrates, his men overtook and captured her. Once the citizens of Palmyra discovered their queen had fallen into Aurelian's hands, their defense crumbled.
A trial of Zenobia and her chiefs was held in Emesa where her life and that of Zabdas were spared. Longinus and Nicomachus, however, were not so fortunate. Zenobia has been accused of betrayal by faulting them for the proud letter sent to Aurelian. Some have gone so far as to say that she placed the entire blame for her uprising against the Empire on Longinus. Others, on the contrary, maintain she would not have turned against her councillors. Regardless, at Emesa, Aurelian ordered them beheaded. "But the woman," wrote Vopiscus, "he saved for his triumph."
Aurelian had to return to Palmyra to quell another revolt in which Sandarion, the governor he'd left behind, had been killed along with his 600 bodyguards. Evidently when the emperor reached the city, he gave his men free reign as is evident by a letter to his deputy Bassus:
The swords of the soldiers should not proceed further…. We have not spared the women, we have slain the children, we have butchered the old men, we have destroyed the peasants.
Upon his return to Rome, Aurelian was granted the highest honor the Roman Senators could grant, a triumphal entry through the imperial gates in which his army, booty, and prisoners would be displayed. "It was," wrote Vopiscus, "a most brilliant spectacle." Chariots, wild beasts, tigers, leopards, elephants, prisoners, and gladiators paraded through the streets. Each group was labeled with a placard identifying captives and booty from 16 conquered nations for the spectators. One placard identified Odainat's chariot, another that of Zenobia. But, as she had often walked with her soldiers on foot, Zenobia did not ride that fateful day. Rather, she walked, without a placard, though the expectant crowd had no trouble recognizing her, "adorned with gems so huge that she labored under the weight of her ornaments." Pollio continues:
This woman, courageous though she was, halted very frequently, saying that she could not endure the load of the gems. Furthermore, her feet were bound with shackles of gold and her hands with golden fetters, and even on her neck she wore a chain of gold, the weight of which was borne by a Persian buffoon.
Aurelian later returned yet again to Palmyra, putting down another rebellion; eventually, repeated plundering and a shift in the trade routes put an end to Palmyrene civilization. How long Vaballath survived after his mother's capture will never be known. It is popularly believed that Zenobia's life was spared by her adversary, and that, adapting remarkably well to her new circumstances, she married a Roman senator, living in the manner of a Roman matron on a Tibur estate presented to her by the very Empire against which she'd so daringly risen.
Further Reading on Zenobia
Browning, Iain. Palmyra. Chatto & Windus, 1979.
Fraser, Antonia. Boadicea's Chariot. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Vaughan, Agnes Carr. Zenobia of Palmyra. Doubleday, 1967.
Stoneman, Richard. "The Syrian Cuckoo," in History Today. December 1988.