Zenobia Third Century

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Third Century

Zenobia lived in the third century ce in Palmyra (historically known as Tadmor), a city in the Syrian Desert. From about 114 ce Palmyra was part of the Roman Empire. It was located on the caravan routes running from the seaports of Phoenicia, Syria, and Egypt to Seleucia. Inscriptions allude to Zenobia as the daughter of a man named Zabbai, which means merchant, although Greek inscriptions refer to him as Antiochus. She was probably an Arab, but may also have been of Aramaean descent.

Zenobia was the second wife of Odainat, ruler of Palmyra, who aided the Romans in their struggles against the Persian Sasanians. One story tells of her riding into battle at Odainat's side against the Sasanians after their capture of Valerian in 260 ce. Zenobia had at least three sons by Odainat, and when he and his heir were assassinated, she assumed the regency on behalf of her own young son, Vallabathus, in 267 ce.

Rome did not grant Zenobia the same authority as her husband, and one of her first actions on her accession to power was to annex Egypt, where she had local support. At around the same time, she also secured most of Syria, and established a large independent kingdom, which extended as far north as the Bosphorus, and incorporated many major trade routes. Political shrewdness consequently drew many scholars to her court, including the rhetorician and philosopher Cassius Longinus and the historian Callinicus Sutorius. Historians depict Zenobia as an intelligent woman who knew the Egyptian language as well as Greek and Aramaic.

Zenobia is one of thirty so-called pretenders to the status of Roman ruler between 117–284 ce, as noted by "Trebellius Pollio" in an anecdotal work possibly written in the fourth century. She certainly invoked the image of Roman authority for herself in tetradrachms (silver coins) that depicted her likeness along with the honorific Augusta. She also claimed to be descended from Cleopatra, and compared herself to Dido, Queen of Carthage, and to the legendary Assyrian warrior queen Semiramis.

Zenobia's empire did not last long. Early in the sixth century, Zosimus reports that under the emperor Aurelian the Romans quickly reconquered Egypt and Ankara. Near Antioch, they defeated the Palmyrenes, whom Zenobia had commanded on horseback. Zenobia's last battle took place at Emesa in 272 ce. She escaped on a female camel, only to be captured as she boarded a boat to cross the Euphrates. Some accounts assert that she was attempting to secure aid from the Persians. In an astonishingly brazen act, considering her exploits, Zenobia claimed immunity on the grounds that she was a woman.

There are variant accounts of Zenobia's subsequent history. Zosimus claims that she committed suicide on the journey to Rome. Other historians state that, after her safe arrival in Rome, she was made to parade in golden chains in Aurelian's Triumph of 274. Aurelian then released her and she lived in a villa in Tibur (Tivoli) as a Roman matron, married to a Roman senator with whom she had children.

Zenobia fascinated ancient chroniclers, who admired her as noble and beautiful, with "the courage of a man" and the stamina of a soldier (Fraser [2004 p. 114f]). Later Arabic tales depict her as possessing similar qualities. Pollio's reference to Zenobia's chastity—that she never slept with Odainat except when she was likely to conceive—was repeated as a mark of respect by subsequent male historians, such as Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), who presents Zenobia as a Diana-like virgin hunter and warrior in his De Claris Mulieribus Claris (c. 1361–1375, Of illustrious women).

English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400) relied on Boccaccio's description when composing Zenobia's story in The Monk's Tale (1386–1400). He portrays Zenobia as a wise, skilled, and daring queen of Persian descent, whose ultimate humiliation at the hand of the Romans involved replacing her regnal scepter with a distaff—an implement used for spinning, which was a more fitting tool for a woman, according to prevalent medieval mores. Zenobia subsequently appears as a divinely-inspired, helmet-clad representative of heroic virtue in English dramatist Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens (1609), in which she is the ninth of the eleven queens elevated to the House of Fame.

see also Queens.


Fraser, Antonia. 2004. The Warrior Queens: The Legends and Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War. New York: Knopf. (Orig. pub. 1989.)

                                                  Jenny Rose

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