Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Consort Profile: Queen Zenobia of Palmyra

From Hannibal of Carthage and Attila the Hun to Queen Boudicca in Britain it often seems that Romans attributed as much fame to their enemies as to their own heroes and one of those famous for her opposition to the power of Rome was Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Born in 240, in Palmyra (in what is now Syria) Zenobia was known for her beauty, intelligence and athletic physique. Mostly of Arabian descent she was also extremely proud of Ptolemy connection through her mother, a relative of the famous Cleopatra of Egypt and who taught the young Zenobia to speak fluent Egyptian. The country was to play a major part in her future and her first step on the road to world fame came when she entered into an arranged marriage with King Odaenathus of Palmyra. The country took its name from the wealthy merchant city of Palmyra which had broken away from the Roman Empire and tried to grow to rival them with their own Palmyrene empire.

Queen Zenobia fully embraced this vision of the future and was just as aggressive and determined as her husband was. She was also known for accompanying the King on hunting trips and bagging more than her share of game. However, she was less enthusiastic about accompanying her husband to bed and would only share his company for the purposes of procreation. Widely revered and respected among her people there was no controversy when she took control of Palmyra herself following the assassination of the King and his son by his first wife in 267. Officially ruling on behalf of her own son by the King, Vaballathus, she showed her ambition by assuming the titles of Augusta and Augustus for herself and her son. Determined to carry on the goals of expansion and greatness, Queen Zenobia shocked the world when she invaded Egypt, a shock which only increased when she succeeded in conquering the ancient country and making herself Queen of Egypt.

The Romans had been wary but hopeful about Zenobia and the rising power of Palmyra. Early on she had taken the Palmyrene line that their goals were benevolent towards the Romans; to protect the Eastern Empire from their old enemy the Sassanids. However, her violent conquest of Egypt (carried out with the aid of a faction of Egyptian sympathizers) and her defeat of the Roman prefect, who was captured and beheaded, caused horror and outrage across the Roman Empire. The Romans tried to make peace with her and bring her back on side, but Queen Zenobia was having none of that, she was doing quite well all on her own. With her realm already stretching from Syria to Egypt she launched further campaigns north, eventually reaching as far as Ankara, Turkey. She marched with her infantry and rode with her cavalry and became quite a celebrity by the standards of the day. After taking control of what is now Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, half of Turkey and the vital trade routes that passed through this area the warrior Queen of Palmyra finally attracted the attention of the Emperor himself.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian had been fighting Gaul, defeating the Alamanni in northern Italy and the Goths in the Balkans. Deciding to take the situation in hand himself, he embarked his legions and headed for Syria. Queen Zenobia was determined to meet them despite an oracle warning her that her forces would be driven off by the Romans like doves chased by hawks. Nonetheless, she led her troops into battle herself against Emperor Aurelian near Antioch. The result was a crushing defeat for Zenobia and another victory for the Romans. Her forces fled and Zenobia was taken prisoner. Turning on the charm, she pretended to be no more than beautiful dupe, an innocent used as a figurehead by her advisors who were responsible for the war. Sadly for her, the Emperor was not so gullible. He took her back to Rome and draped her in gold chains and heavy jewels as he paraded the captured queen consort in his celebratory triumph. What became of the famous Queen of Palmyra after that low point is a matter of some dispute.

Some say the Romans had her beheaded, others that the proud queen starved herself to death rather than live with defeat. Probably the most accepted account, however, is not so dramatic. According to this story she was released by Emperor Aurelian who had mercy on the beautiful, brave queen and gave her a villa in Trivoli. She later married a Roman senator and lived the good life for the rest of her days as a popular socialite and dabbling in philosophy. She had several daughters by her husband and died of natural causes sometime after 274 AD. This would have been quite a step down for a woman who had once dominated the near east, but compared to most of those who set themselves against the Roman Empire and lost, she came out pretty well.


  1. As far as enemies of Rome go, Zenobia makes an interesting comparison and striking contrast with the Belgic chieftain mentioned earlier.

  2. I'm more familiar with Zenobia's case and though she was more successful overall she seems to have been less so at actually fighting the Romans. I just love her 'story' after being defeated and captured, here was a woman ready to do whatever it took to survive. I can just imagine her fluttering her eyelashes so innocently while giving the 'poor little ol' me' speech to the Emperor. She was playing on stereotypes in the hope that they would not believe a woman could be so ambitious and effective. Of course, having dealt with the likes of Cleopatra and Boudica the Romans weren't buying it.

  3. I've been reading your blog for years now. Good to see like minded views.

    May I suggest some profiles on the Hellenistic Kings and Kingdoms/Empires?

    It's a lot harder to find anything interesting to read about them.


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