A Brief History of Zenobia
Zenobia was born in Palmyra, Syria around A.D. 241 (Stoneman, 1992). She was the daughter of Julius Aurelius Zenobios who was one of the generals of Palmyra in A.D. 242 (Stoneman, 1992). Zenobia’s journey to political power followed suit her marriage to Septimius Odenathus, senator, and self-proclaimed king of Palmyra (Stoneman, 1992). Despite this, Zenobia was a ruthless powerhouse in her ruling as Queen of Palmyra, and she is responsible for one of the most significant events in Roman history. As a result of her gender and achievements, Zenobia became a notable figure of the 3rd century.
Thankfully, her range of achievements have resulted in her being included in Arab histories, as well as a brief portion of the Jewish Talmud, and the Historia Augusta (Stoneman, 1992). These sources provide important information about Zenobia, specifically in the Historia Augusta, which details Aurelian’s military campaigns in which Zenobia was involved in as the opposition. There is also evidence of her reign in an archaeological aspect, as much of Palmyra was well-preserved throughout history. With these sources, we are able to understand a significant timeline of Zenobia’s life, and her downfall as Queen of Palmyra (Stoneman, 1992). We are also able to interpret the information in a way that allows us to assume the Roman’s perception of her power within her rebellion. Much of what we know about Zenobia’s life is related to her city and it’s history, we are able to uncover much of her story with the evidence and sources that still exist today.
Life, Origins, and Family
Zenobia was from the Palmyrene society, which was composed of Semitic tribes – the Aramean and the Arab. Because of this, Zenobia would not have been identified as either, and rather as both, because she would have had both Aramean and Arab blood (Southern 2008). Unfortunately, we can not confidently make these conclusions about Zenobia’s identity, as little is known about her ancestry and immediate family.
Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra, Herbert Gustave Schmalz. via Wikipedia Commons
According to a study of Zenobia’s early life by Richard Stoneman, she was not a commoner and received the level of education that seemed “appropriate” to a Palmyrene girl of noble family (Stoneman, p.113, 1992). Another study of her education claimed that she was fluent in many different languages, and was able to speak Latin (Ball, 2016).
Zenobia’s marriage to Septimius Odenathus in A.D. 255 was the starting point of her short, yet powerful reign. Although she was only around 14 years of age at the time of marriage, she became known quickly as the Queen of Palmyra. At the same time, Odenathus was at the height of his political importance as chief exarchos in Palmyra (Stoneman, 1992). Whether Zenobia was a commoner is a heavily debated topic. For example, one of the original sources of this information comes from a work called The Augustan History by Aelius Spartianus, Iulius Capitolinus, and Vulcacius Gallicanus around the 4th century. This work included information about Zenobia’s early life and her social class, in which they state she was not a commoner because she married the ruler of the city, Odaenathus. It is possible that she attracted attention of Odenathus as a commoner, but it is believed to be unlikely. Although there is no way of knowing what portion of the information we have is true, we can make gather information based on the appearance of her name in Palmyrene inscriptions. One of these honorary inscriptions named her as “daughter of Antiochus IV Epiphanes” (Stoneman, p.112, 1992). However, these inscriptions were how Zenobia fashioned herself, not historical fact, so we must take this into consideration with how we have come to understand her potential lineage today.
Apart from the little information discussed above, there is no evidence in Egyptian sources – apart from “legend” – of any correlation between Zenobia and Cleopatra (Southern, 2008). However, a much more believable reasoning for this claim of lineage would be if it was politically motivated, because it would have drawn a connection between her and Egypt, making it more likely that she was a possible successor to the Ptolemies throne (Southern, 2008). Although this information would provide new ideas of Zenobia’s potential lineage, chances are it is not true, as it is all assumed based on spurious claims made many centuries ago.
Her Reign as Queen
Although Zenobia’s early life and origins are unique and often debated, she is most notable for her reign as Queen of Palmyra and her accomplishments during it. Zenobia’s husband Odenathus proved himself to be allied with the Roman emperor by stopping two “pretenders” from revolt during the reign of Gallienus and after he deterred the invaders of Syria , he was deemed as Savior of the East (Stoneman, 1992). After this, Odenathus was murdered alongside his son from his first marriage (not with Zenobia) in some sort of dynastic quarrel (Stoneman, 1992). This meant that his son by Zenobia would take his title as King of Palmyra. Soon after this, coinage was created to honor her son Wahballath. There was also coinage created honoring Aurelian, Claudius’ successor who had previously replaced Gallienus, all of whom were Roman Emperors. This is important to Zenobia’s history because she is also included on the coins with her son, while Aurelian is later removed for her place in A.D. 271 (Stoneman, 1992).
Queen Zenobia Addressing her Soldiers, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. via Wikimedia Commons
Another oddity in Zenobia’s history is the technicality of her reign. As far back as evidence on her exists, there is no certainty about when she was officially named the Queen of Palmyra. For example, the first known inscription of her being given the title is dated two or three years after the assassination of her husband Odenathus (Southern, 2008). However, we can assume that she was given the title as designated queen when her husband was named King of Palmyra, as she would be the next in line to the throne beside him. Because Zenobia was the wife of a reigning king – also known as a “queen consort” – she was not included in any historical record, giving us little to no specific information of this event. Although everything is up to interpretation, some later accounts claim that she was allowed to join Odenathus on his campaigns, including claims by Giovanni Boccaccio, one of his most popular being On Famous Women (Franklin, 2006). If this happens to be true, Zenobia would have been able to grow her political reputation through boosting the morale of her soldiers, which she used to her advantage in her reign later on (Southern, 2008).
In 269, she launched an invasion of Egypt the effected the north of the Arab peninsula, Palestine, Asia Minor and Ancyra (Stoneman, p.2, 1992). At this point, Zenobia had organized her forces directly in opposition to Rome and managed to acquire stronger, and larger forces across a wider area than any ruler of an eastern principality had done before (Stoneman, p.3, 1992). Soon after her invasions, Aurelian counterattacked against her plans, and reclaimed Asia Minor. This allowed him to also besiege the Palmyrene empire until the city chose to yield (Stoneman, p.3, 1992). This conflict between these rulers only grew more and more over time, and it would only end if either Palmyra was destroyed, or if the Roman Empire was split in two (Stoneman, 1992).
Outside of this quarrel, a significant event in Zenobia’s life was that she may have experienced a love interest in Aurelian. Although this idea goes beyond evidence as well as what is likely, there are pieces of many stories that can be put together to make this make sense. Many historians have related this possible relationship to that of Anthony and Cleopatra, where Aurelian and Zenobia could have taken the entirety of the Roman Empire into their ruling, which is what Zenobia desired, which we can base on her initial plans of invasion (Stoneman, 1992). According to Richard Stoneman, Zenobia is credited with saying to Aurelian upon their first meeting, “I desired to become a partner in the royal power, should the supply of lands permit.” Along with this, she had compared herself and her lineage to that of the Cleopatras, making this somewhat more believable. However, if this had fully proceeded, the outcome of the Roman Empire would have been entirely different, as well as our own history (Stoneman, 1992).
During her reign as queen, Zenobia had turned her entire court into a center of learning, which resulted in many intellectuals in Palmyra (Stoneman, 1992). This was monumental for history, because as the intellectuals of Palmyra migrated towards urban centers, Palmyra managed to replace the top centers of learning at the time – Syria and Athens (Stoneman, 1992). It is proven that Zenobia had a tutor during this time named Longinus, who entered during Odenathus’ reign, but later became Zenobia’s tutor in aristocratic education (Southern, 2008).
It is also believed that this tutor may have influenced Zenobia to oppose Rome, which was an incredibly monumental moment in her career. (Southern, 2008). Although this theory is interesting and would consider her to be “malleable”, according to many historians, her actions cannot accurately be attributed to his influence, as she has proven her political and tactical
Expanding the Empire
While Gallienus’ successor Claudius was defending Italy and the Balkans against invasions in A.D. 269, Zenobia’s authority was only becoming stronger. At this time, Zenobia was organizing an increase in demands for allegiance, forcing Roman officials to be torn between their loyalty to their emperor, and to Zenobia (Watson, 2004). It is still unclear as to why she chose to strengthen her authority at this time and at this rate. Some historians believe that most Roman officials did not recognize Palmyrene authority, and for that reason, many of Zenobia’s expeditions held intent to maintain dominance within the empire (Young, 2003).
At this time, the general Roman authority was incredibly weak, meaning it struggled to protect even its own provinces. This is also a possibility for why Zenobia was convinced that the best way to maintain viability in the East was to focus on controlling the region directly (Young, 2003). One approach to understanding her actions is that of historian Jacques Schwartz, who compared Zenobia’s actions to her intent of protecting the economic interests of Palmyra, which were no longer stable considering their failures in protection (Young, 2003). It is also believed that the Tanukhids – a confederation of Arab tribes – and merchants of Alexandria attempted to escape Palmyrene domination, and this is what triggered a military response from Zenobia (Young, 2003).
Queen Zenobia taken from river Araxes by shepherds, by Francesco Nenci, 1809. via Wikimedia Commons
In A.D. 270, Zenobia sent the general of Palmyra, Septemius Zabdas, into the capital of the province of Arabia Petraea while Claudius was occupied fighting in the mountains of Thrace (Stoneman, 1992). Many believe that her timing was intentional, considering that Claudius was out of the area when she sent her general into the province (Southern, 2008).
Soon after, in Arabia, the Roman governor at the time – Trassus – chose to confront the Palmyrenes and was killed by them after a short routing (Watson, 2004). This allowed for the general of Palmyra – Zabdas – to sack the city, destroying the temple of Zeus Hammon in the process, which was considered the legion’s most admired and honored shrine (Watson, 2004). This can be proven by a Latin inscription from after the fall of Zenobia that commemorates its destruction (Southern, 2008).
After the successful overthrow of the province, Zabdas crossed the Jordan Valley, apparently facing no opposition, even after the destruction of the shrine (Watson, 2004). Along with this, Zenobia was incredibly keen in that she understood where she could thrive in terms of gaining power. For example, subjugation of Syria took her much less effort, as she had previously gained substantial support there, especially in Antioch (Watson, 2004). The invasion of Arabia also lead to the decrease of coin production (in Claudius’ name) at the Antiochean mint, “indicating that Zenobia had begun tightening her grip on Syria” (Watson, 2004). After this, the mint began creating coins in Waballathus’ name rather than Claudius’ (Southern 2008).
Zenobia. Usurper, AD 268-272; Antioch Mint. via Wikimedia Commons
Zenobia in Literature
As time progressed, many writers, artists and historians have written works that reference Zenobia and her life. Of course, these works are open to complete interpretation due to their potential lack in accuracy, however they should be taken into consideration in how we understand Zenobia’s influence. The most popular work that features Zenobia is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, where she is mentioned in the short story called The Monk’s Prologue and Tale. The Monk’s Prologue and Tale is a collection of short stories within The Canterbury Tales, and it makes reference to many historical figures like Zenobia, Lucifer, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Hercules. Although this work does not provide us with any new information on Zenobia, it does give us an idea of her influence in literature, and provides a unique standpoint from the author of how he perceived her life and achievements. Another work that features Zenobia is The Queen of the East by Alexander Baron. In this novel, Zenobia is the heroine, and it is a persuasive fictional account of her conflict with the Roman Emperor Aurelian.
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