Zenobia (r. 267–272)
Zenobia (r. 267–272)
Queen of Palmyra who challenged Roman authority in the Middle East. Name variations: (Latin) Septimia Zenobia; (Aramaic) Bat Zabbai or Bath-Zabbai; Zabaina. Born probably between 230–240 ce and died around 300 ce in Palmyra (northeast Syria); married first husband, name unknown; married Septimius Odenathus (Odainat, Odenath); married an unnamed Roman senator; children: (first marriage) at least one son, Vaballathus Athenodorus (Vaballath, Wahballat); (second marriage) stepson Hairun, sons Herennius and Timolaus, and at least two daughters, names unknown.
Ruled the eastern portion of the Roman Empire for several years and claimed the region for her own.
Zenobia is one of the most illustrious and captivating women of ancient times. Like Boudica of the Britons and Cleopatra VII of Egypt who lived long before her, Zenobia became a warrior queen and challenged the might of the Roman Empire. Each woman initially was successful at statecraft and war, and each eventually was defeated by a talented and vigorous Roman general or emperor. Yet, while the lives of Boudica and Cleopatra ended in suicide, Zenobia lived out her days respected and in comfort in the homeland of her conquerors.
Although no extant source records the exact year of her birth, Zenobia probably was born between 230–240 ce in the city of Palmyra, the ruins of which are located in the northeastern corner of modern-day Syria. Her family belonged to the wealthy merchant-aristocratic class.
Palmyra, which the ancients also knew as Tadmor or the "city of the palms," was a bustling city-state which at least theoretically had been incorporated into the Syrian province of the Roman Empire about 114 ce under the Roman emperor Hadrian. The Romans allowed the Palmyrenes considerable freedom within the imperial structure. They collected their own taxes, and by the turn of the 3rd century they elected their own senators who governed Palmyra under the Roman banner. In turn, the city-state recruited highly skilled archers who helped defend the elastic Roman frontier against the Parthian Empire in the east.
Existing tariff records from 137 demonstrate the impressive extent of Palmyran commercial contact. The Palmyrenes traded as far as Gaul and Spain in the west, Egypt in the south, and as far as India and China in the east due to their trading stations on the Tigris and to their naval flotilla which cruised the length of the Euphrates into the Persian Gulf. Thanks to this trade, Palmyra was a sophisticated international city of wealth founded upon the sands of the Syrian desert.
Zenobia, therefore, came from a privileged background. She was Arab, but claimed through her father Amru to be related to the Macedonian Ptolemaic monarchs of Egypt which included the fabled Cleopatra. Zenobia was well educated, having been tutored by a famous Greek, Cassius Longinus. Further, she patronized Neoplatonist philosophers and compiled an epitome of the works of Homer and other renowned historians. Reputedly, she knew the Greek, Syriac, and Egyptian languages equally well and understood some Latin.
Zenobia was also known for her radiant beauty. In the words of master historian Edward Gibbon:
Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of dark complexion (for when speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. Her voice was strong and harmonious.
For all her external beauty, Zenobia was no porcelain doll, and international events would soon test her mettle in high affairs of state and in the lists of war. The eclipse of the Parthian Empire in 227 and the subsequent rise of the Sassanid Persians in its stead ended the pleasant status quo Palmyra had long enjoyed as a favored Roman satellite. The Persians began pressing the Roman frontiers in the east and menacing Palmyra in the 240s under their redoubtable king, Shapur I.
The 3rd century also was a time of tumultuous and disruptive change for the Roman Empire. A cast of would-be rulers sometimes known as the "barrack-room emperors" who each had the backing of at least one provincial army rose to challenge the imperial seat in Rome. This internecine rivalry crippled the once vital Rome even as a new and dangerous threat appeared along the Rhine and Danube frontiers: the Goths. The Goths were a numerous, mobile, and war-like tribe bent on plunder rather than permanent settlement. Further, the Romans periodically were at war with the German tribes along the Rhine River.
Two events irrevocably changed the course of Zenobia's life and the fortunes of Palmyra. The first epic event catapulted Palmyra onto the world stage as a new potent power embroiled in the war between the Romans and Persians. In
260, Shapur I advanced against the Roman domain in the eastern Mediterranean, defeating an imperial army under Emperor Valerian and taking him prisoner. The new emperor, Gallienus, called on a Palmyran leader, Septimius Odenathus, to gather up the remnants of the Roman forces and join these with the Palmyrenes, to counterattack Shapur. Equal to the task, Odenathus united his heavy cavalry and archers and drove the Persians back behind the Euphrates River. Although having suffered great losses, the Persians continued sporadic attacks on Palmyra. Odenathus assisted Rome again in 261 when he defeated a rebel force at Emesa (present-day Homs) in western Syria.
Secondly, Zenobia chose to marry Odenathus, probably in the late 250s. Odenathus would have seemed an excellent choice for a beautiful, educated woman with ambition. His grandfather had become a Roman senator, while his father Herodianus had been recognized as chief or prince of Palmyra. Odenathus himself had been made a Roman consul in 258 and had succeeded his father as prince. The Roman emperors continued to lavish titles upon him for the remainder of his life.
When it is understood that Zenobia was also a huntress of big game, a military tactician, and so tough that she would march for miles on foot at the head of her troops, it is difficult to grudge her the splendid title, which she herself assumed, of "Queen of the East."
Both Zenobia and Odenathus had been widowed in previous marriages. Zenobia had one son named Vaballathus Athenodorus. Odenathus also had one son named Hairun, who, unlike his father, was weak and had been spoiled by his luxurious surroundings. Their marriage would produce a further two sons, Timolaus and Herennius, and two daughters whose names have been lost, all probably born between 258–267 ce.
Zenobia and Odenathus seemed a perfect match. Both were ambitious, successful, and heroic. Wrote Ellen C. Clayton :
Odenathus early learned the rudiments of war in the exciting chase of wild beasts—a pastime which, to the last, he never wearied of, and in which he was joined with equal ardour by Zenobia. Together the royal pair, during the intervals of peace, hunted lions, panthers, or bears, through the woods and deserts of Syria.
Zenobia also accompanied her husband on the military expeditions against the Persians, forgoing a more comfortable chariot for a horse. Often, in a display of fortitude, she marched with the troops.
In fact, the admiring words of ancient historians made Zenobia much more than just a vigorous and courageous woman. They write that Zenobia preferred the presence of male eunuchs to the company of women and spoke in a clear and almost manly voice which is an attribute for commanders. She could drink with the best of men but was never drunk. Reputedly, except for the purpose of conception, she remained chaste, even with Odenathus. Whether any of these assertions were true, they testify that she held the imagination of her subjects and chroniclers in thrall. She became a legend and events soon assured her legend immortality.
In 267 ce, Odenathus, along with his son Hairun, was assassinated, ostensibly by his nephew Maeonius whom he recently had punished for insubordination. The exact details remain obscure, but Rome and Persia certainly had reason to fear this new power in the east. Zenobia stepped in as regent and proclaimed Vaballathus, her young son by her first marriage, heir. She executed Maeonius and immediately became effective ruler of Palmyra.
With power thus consolidated in her own territory, Zenobia's ambitions soared. Gothic attacks on the Roman Empire in 267–268 ce were particularly severe and seemed to leave a power vacuum unfilled in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Consequently, she sent her chief general, Zabdas, to conquer the province of Syria in 269. Next, Zenobia negotiated with an Egyptian military leader named Timagenes who was willing to help overthrow Roman rule in Egypt and hand the province over to Palmyra. Zenobia dispatched Zabdas to join Timagenes.
Zenobia's army, consisting of 70,000 Egyptians, Palmyrenes, and foreign mercenaries, struck in 270 ce. Egypt fell. After establishing a garrison of 5,000, most likely in Alexandria, Zabdas seems to have attempted to join with Zenobia's forces farther north. A time of turmoil, however, ensued in Egypt.
An enterprising Roman officer named Probus counterattacked from the sea and expelled Zenobia's garrison. Zabdas returned to the province to find Probus had raised an army of Egyptians and Africans to oppose him. Zabdas was defeated and driven out of Egypt. Probus pursued, but thanks to a stratagem worked out by Timagenes, the Palmyran army defeated the Roman-sponsored forces and returned to rule Egypt.
Zenobia's troops also spread north throughout 270 ce, entering Asia Minor, an area roughly corresponding to modern-day Turkey. Geopolitically by the end of the year, the Palmyrans administered a crescent-shaped territory around the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the points of the crescent pointing west. The commerce of the eastern Roman Empire effectively was in Zenobia's hands. Further, she controlled the Egyptian grain fleets which were so vital to the victualling of Rome.
Zenobia now enjoyed her halcyon days of splendor. Reputedly, her table was set with the golden fineries of Cleopatra taken from Egypt. She surrounded herself with scholars and philosophers such as Cassius Longinus and historians and sophists such as Callinicus Sutorius. Zenobia reigned as a potentate astride the worlds of the Romans and the Persians. In the words of Edward Gibbon:
She blended with the popular manners of Roman princes the stately pomp of the courts of Asia, and exacted from her subjects the same adoration that was paid to the successors of Cyrus. She bestowed on her three sons a Latin education, and often showed them to the troops adorned with the Imperial purple. For herself she reserved the diadem, with the splendid but doubtful title of Queen of the East.
Despite her undoubted majesty, Zenobia did not try to conquer the Roman Empire itself. Increasingly, however, her actions clarified her independence and the establishment of a new dynasty in the east. She minted coins with the image of herself and Vaballathus.
The emperors Gallienus and his successor Claudius II had been unable to meet her challenge, distracted as they had been with internal rebellion, the Germans and the Goths. The uneasy truce between Zenobia and the empire, however, broke down after Claudius II died of plague in 270 ce. The capable general Aurelian, known to his troops as "hand-to-sword" for his iron discipline and prowess, ascended to the imperial purple at the end of the year and determined to restore the integrity of Rome.
Aurelian had to stabilize his position in the west before he turned against Zenobia. First, he defeated the Germans who had invaded northern Italy. Next, Aurelian made a strategic decision. The renegade general Tetricus had made himself ruler in Gaul in the west, but the Goths were threatening the empire along the Danube River and Zenobia's forces lay farther to the east. Deciding to march east and deal with Tetricus later, Aurelian instead crushed the Goths and prepared to move into Asia Minor where he could make contact with the Palmyran army.
Zenobia's hold on Asia Minor had been brief and tenuous. Aurelian's Roman army was able to cross the Bosporus in 272 and move eastward to Ankara in the center of the province virtually without opposition. Zenobia, in fact, left no garrison at Ankara but sensibly withdrew over the Taurus mountains onto the Orontes River between Emesa and Antioch where she was closer to her base of operations. Aurelian swiftly overcame the small Palmyran holding force which had been left in the Taurus defiles at the city of Tyana and attacked her army at Antioch.
Zenobia nominally led her army in person although effective command was in the hands of her best general, Zabdas. She numbered among her infantry a part of two Roman legions which had been stationed in the east but above all, the renowned Palmyran archers. The cream of her cavalry was the heavily mailed eastern horsemen who fought with lance, sword and bow.
Aurelian counted on his highly trained and disciplined Roman infantry which included some Gallic legions and hand-picked imperial troops. Although they were not the equal of the Palmyran heavy cavalry, Aurelian nevertheless possessed an excellent body of Moorish and Dalmatian light horse. The two antagonists seem to have been almost equally matched.
As Zenobia's heavy cavalry charged, Aurelian's light horse deliberately gave ground, harassing their slower-moving opponents. As the
Palmyran cavalry became disordered, the Roman light horse counterattacked successfully. Meanwhile, Aurelian crossed the Orontes with his infantry, driving in the Palmyran left flank. Zabdas and Zenobia retreated through Antioch, abandoned the city and re-formed at Emesa. Aurelian followed and captured their rearguard which had been posted on a high hill near Daphne.
Zenobia's political and military fortunes continued to decline. Egypt, always divided in loyalty between Palmyra and Rome, defected to Aurelian. Her appeals to Shapur I of Persia for assistance fell on deaf ears. Moreover, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, Syrian, and Palestinian troops loyal to Rome reinforced Aurelian.
Zenobia fought her final large-scale pitched battle in the plains before Emesa in 272 with an army estimated at about 70,000. The Romans essentially repeated their tactics employed at Antioch. However, this time the Palmyran heavy cavalry so pressed Aurelian's light horse that they fell back disordered and were driven from the field with heavy losses.
The crucible of war now devolved upon the main line of Palmyrenes and Aurelian's skilled infantry. Seizing upon a gap in Zenobia's line which no doubt had been caused by the advance of her cavalry, Aurelian wheeled his infantry and seems to have taken the enemy horse or at least a significant portion of the Palmyran infantry in the flank or rear. According to the Greek historian Zosimus, Aurelian's Palestinian mace and clubmen played an important part in the ensuing victory which escalated into a virtual rout.
Signally defeated, Zenobia retreated 80 miles to her city state of Palmyra while harassing Aurelian's advance with her Arab light cavalry. She spared no effort to prepare her defenses as the Romans encircled Palmyra. Aurelian undertook the siege of her city in person and even sustained a wound from one of the arrows or darts which the Palmyrans hurled from their walls. In a letter sent to Rome, he paid tribute to the determination of this eastern queen:
The Roman people speak with contempt of the war which I am waging against a woman. They are ignorant both of the character and of the power of Zenobia. It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations of stone, of arrows, and of every species of missile weapons. Every part of the walls is provided with two or three balistae, and artificial fires are thrown from her military engines. The fear of punishment has armed her with a desperate courage.
Aurelian offered respectable terms for surrender but Zenobia obstinately refused them, hoping that she could outlast the Romans who had to gather provisions in order to sustain the siege. Soon she began to realize that these needed provisions were getting through and that her own supplies were dwindling. Taking a wild gamble, Zenobia secretly left Palmyra on a fleet camel and tried to obtain aid from the Persians who had been traditional enemies of Rome. She was captured by Roman cavalry 60 miles from Palmyra near the Euphrates River and subsequently taken before Aurelian at Emesa. The Palmyrenes capitulated and their city was spared.
Zenobia the warrior queen now faced a personal decision. Earlier in history, her rebellious counterparts queens Boudica and Cleopatra chose suicide to eventual capture and humiliation by the Romans. Already captured, Zenobia chose to live. She submitted to Aurelian and declared that she had been led astray by advisors such as Longinus.
According to his chroniclers, Aurelian had been embarrassed by the fact that his most recent campaigns had been fought against a woman, and he had been persistent in recording the exceptional qualities of this particular woman so that his victories would not be seen by posterity as trifling affairs. Probably, he saw no glory in taking the life of this queen. Possibly, he admired her several qualities and remarkable beauty. Instead, Aurelian executed the advisors she had named, including Longinus who bore his death nobly.
Aurelian took Zenobia to Rome to feature in his triumphal parade celebrating his many military victories. Exotic animals from every corner of the empire were presented along with the chariot of the king of the Goths and the chariots of Odenathus and Zenobia. She marched in front of her chariot fettered in a mass of her own jewelry.
After the spectacle, Aurelian granted Zenobia a pleasant villa at Tivoli, 20 miles from the city of Rome. The emperor allowed her only surviving son, Vaballathus, to rule over a small principality in Armenia. Her daughters married into the Roman aristocracy: ultimately, Zenobia married a Roman senator and died approximately in 300 ce.
Zenobia's legend has spanned the ages. Unfortunately for Palmyra, her legacy was decisive. Soon after her capture by Aurelian, the Palmyrenes again revolted and this time the Romans put them down with fire and sword. Their city sacked, their wealth gone, the Palmyrenes slowly sank into the desert until today all that remains is the memory of a once-illustrious legend.
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