Posted by: Alastair Rosie | February 2, 2014

Zenobia – Queen of Palmyra

In a recent blog post we looked at Boudica who for a short period of time came close to throwing the Romans out of Britain, an action that would have changed the course of history. Barely two hundred years later on the other side of the Roman empire another woman came close to achieving the same outcome in the Roman province of Syria.
The Roman empire in the closing decades of the third century was beginning to succumb to the natural order that dictates all empires will either implode or be conquered. For the last two hundred years the borders had been continually harassed by other powers, the Picts to the north, Goths to the northeast and to the east the Parthian empire. The Parthians were a particularly troublesome lot because their territory butted up against the Euphrates river. The trade routes from India and the Far East came up the river and through Syria and the city of Palmyra to the Mediterranean. Thus it was for obvious reasons that the trade routes be kept open if Rome was to survive according to the accepted narrative of the times. Rome had been crippled in the previous century by civil war and runaway inflation. By the third century the costs of goods had increased by 1,000% thanks to the debasing of the silver denarius. In the time of Hadrian, 117 AD a denarius was 95% silver but by the latter half of the third century it was a mere 0.5% silver. Added to this mix were the plagues that swept through the region on a regular basis.
Zenobia was born around 240, the daughter of Julius Aurelius Zenobius, the governor of Palmyra in 229 and she herself claimed descent from the Egyptian Cleopatra VIII, Dido the queen of Carthage, and Sampsiceramus, the King of Emesa. There are however many who have pointed to other ancestors. I’ve stuck with the abovementioned simply because that’s what she claimed, this article isn’t long enough to discuss such details.
What isn’t in dispute is the fact she was trained in the arts of war and wealthy. She was reported to be strikingly beautiful although we have no likenesses of her. The paintings of Zenobia were all done many hundreds of years later.
Zenobia married Septimius Odaenathus, the king of Palmyra in 258 and became his second wife, she assumed guardianship of his son, Hairan and some later gave birth to Vaballathus, which literally means ‘gift of the goddess.’
Odaenathus was engaged for much of his reign in a continual struggle with the Sasanian Empire, which had swallowed the Parthian Empire and was intent on enlarging its borders to include all of the Middle East, an untenable prospect for a cash-strapped empire. At the tail end of one a successful campaign against the Persian king, Shapur he stopped off in Emesa for a birthday party and was murdered along with his son by Maeonius, his cousin.  An enraged Zenobia had him brought back and executed, probably by beheading.
She was now in an unenviable position. Her son was still in his minority and while Arabic queens were by no means uncommon, she was facing up against those who would Palmyra for themselves, the might of the Persian army and the ever present threat that Rome might march against her as well.  
In 269 with the help of her general, Zabdas she conquered Egypt. They were aided by their Egyptian ally, Timagenes and when the Roman Prefect, Tenagino Probus tried to expel them he was soundly defeated and beheaded. Over the course of the next few years she went on to conquer Anatolia, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. She had timed her conquests to take advantage of the civil unrest in Rome as one emperor was assassinated and the new emperor, Aurelius tried to hold back the Germanic tribes in the north. She now controlled the vital trade routes to the east as well as Egypt itself and in so doing pitted herself against Rome. The stage was now set for a dramatic confrontation with the greatest power the world had known.
The battle was fought somewhere near Antioch in either 272 or 273 and saw the Palmyrene army routed. Zenobia and her followers fled first to Antioch and then onto Emesa where she tried to save her treasury. In that she failed and was eventually captured on the banks of the Euphrates and brought back to Rome in chains.
There are different versions of her end, from the ubiquitous beheading through to death through disease or starvation. A somewhat happier version has her marrying into Roman nobility and there is some evidence to support that version as we have tombstones that could have been erected in honour of later children. There is also a St Zenobius from the 5th century.
In later centuries history has been a lot kinder to Zenobia and she has attained mythological status for her exploits. Indeed it’s been hard to write this blog post because there is quite a bit of disagreement between historians when it comes to Zenobia. All I’ve managed to do is provide a good basic backdrop. For those who want more you can pick up a copy of Palmyra and its Empire by Richard Stoneman. It’s a good book and will provide a lot more information but I found it hard going as he has a tendency to bounce around a lot between Zenobia and other Arab queens from hundreds of years in the past.
Most of my information came from the Wikipedia article
And with that we leave Zenobia. I’m not sure who I’ll cover next week, I’m leaving my options open.

Palmyra and its Empire by Richard Stoneman

Written by Alastair Rosie

An exiled queen, a band of elves and the warrior cult known as the she bears are all that stands between General Bolksta and his conquest of Haydutia. Rhianna will need the luck of the gods if she is to hold back the tide of evil as an imperial army invades her country intent on turning Haydutia into just another province.

The Deepening Dark on Smashwords
The Deepening Dark on Amazon

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