The third century AD is known as a time of great uneasiness for the Roman empire. Tales of the vicious battles fought between the Legions and Barbarian warriors of the West remain a popular topic among fans of history, yet there is one formidable ruler of the East that is frequently left out of discussions involving this important time period. Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, gave the Emperors and Generals of Rome quite the challenge, as she pushed her way through their territories, growing her kingdom from a small Syrian vassal state to an empire that stretched from Northern Anatolia to Southern Egypt.
This video is part of Project Her Story, a YouTube collaboration involving many incredible History YouTube creators in celebration of Women’s History Month. Be sure to check out the other videos in the Playlist to discover more powerful women leaders through the ages, like Boudicca and Marozia. In the description below, you will find a link to the full playlist, and at the end of this presentation, I will provide links to the videos which appear before and after mine. We invite you to join our journey and discover the major impact that these women have had on the history of mankind from the most ancient times to our modern era.
Rome annexed the territories of Syria in 64 BC, after Pompey’s victory against Tigranes the Great of Armenia. The city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmor, created a buffer zone between the Roman Republic and Parthia. Though it was officially brought into the fold of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, the region was provided with a lot of independence. By the mid 3rd century, the citizens of Palmyra had become incredibly wealthy due to the popularity of the Silk Road, which ran directly through their Provence. The silks, spices and other luxurious goods from Asia were in high demand amongst the Roman Empire, placing Palmyra at the epicenter of international trade. Due to it’s bustling economy and important location, it rapidly grew into a metropolitan area with an interesting mixture of Aramean, Amorite, Arab, Judaic, Greek and Roman culture.
Zenobia was born around the year 240 AD. Though her parentage has long been debated by scholars, it is likely that they were members of the noble class. An inscription found in the Great Colonnade at Palmyra is often cited as evidence of the lineage of Julius Aurelius Zenobius, who many assume to be her father. Another inscription found on a milestone reads that she was a daughter of Antiochus. It is unsure which Antiochus this statement is referencing, and many debate whether the word “daughter” is to be taken literally, or the term is used to signify that she was a direct descendant of Antiochus Epiphanes or Antiochus Theos. Some ancient authors claimed that Zenobia thought herself to be a direct descendant of Cleopatra. If indeed Antiochus Theos was her ancestor, she may have had some familial connections to the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Herodians of Judea and Idumea, the Priest Kings of Emesa, and the Severan dynasty of Rome.
Regardless of the origin of her family, Zenobia soon became royalty in her own right when she married Odaenathus, a successful merchant and soldier who rose through the ranks of Palmyrene society and became the city’s highest ranked leader. She was said to be gifted with an intriguing personality and stunning beauty. As an author of the Augustan History states, “She lied in regal pomp. It was rather in the manner of the Persians that she received worship and in the manner of the Persian kings that she banqueted; but it was in the manner of a Roman emperor that she came forth to public assemblies, wearing a helmet and girt with a purple fillet, which had gems hanging from the lower edge…Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual wont, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible…Her sterness, when necessity demanded was that of a tyrant, her clemency, when her sense of right called for it, that of a good emperor. Generous with prudence, she conserved her treasures beyond the wont of women. She made use of a carriage, and rarely of a woman’s coach, but more often she rode a horse: it is said, moreover that frequently she walked with her foot-soldiers for three or four miles. She hunted with the eagerness of a Spaniard. She often drank with her generals…At her banquets she used vessels of gold and jewels, and she even used those that had been Cleopatra’s. As servants she had eunuchs of advanced age and but very few maidens. She ordered her sons to talk Latin…She herself was not wholelly conversant with the Latin tongue, but nevertheless mastering her timidity she would speak it; Egyptian, on the other hand, she spoke very well. In the history of Alexandria and the Orient she was so well versed that she even composed an epitome…”.
Odaenathus had been rewarded well and received great favor from the Romans due to his victory over the Sassanians, something that even Emperor Valerian had embarrassingly failed to do. However, at the height of his power, Odaenathus was assassinated alongside his son and heir, Herodes. There are multiple accounts from ancient authors about the cause of his death, but most of the tales involve conspiracy. In the Augustan History, the murderer is identified as Maeonius, a cousin of Odaenathus. Meonius may have acted alone out of jealousy. Some have accused Zenobia herself of directing his murder because Herodes had been chosen as heir over her own son. Others believe that Emperor Gallienus, son of the captured Valerian, was fearful of his rising power and popularity.
In any case, Zenobia seized power immediately after his death, placing their young son Vallabathus on the throne while she ruled as regent. She took the reigns of leadership during an extremely tumultuous period of Roman history, which has been labeled today as the Crisis of the Third Century. A combination of internal power struggles, rebellions, hostilities from European tribes and threats from Eastern neighbors, almost brought Rome to an end. Zenobia had little choice but to arm her soldiers and defend her territories, since the armies of Rome were busy defending their Western borders. Instability in the Empire caused a need for Zenobia to strengthen her own power and influence in the Eastern regions, and it also offered an opportunity to expand the territories she controlled. In 270, while the new Emperor Claudius waged war in Thrace, Zenobia sent her general Zabdas to the south and successfully captured the Arabian province.
As news of Claudius’ death circulated, the ambitious Queen became bolder, pushing her forces further into Egypt and Asia Minor, gaining victory after victory. She had coins minted with images of herself and her son, using titles normally reserved for rulers of Rome. It seemed that the most powerful empire on Earth was on the verge of collapse, and with each subsequent failure, Zenobia might continue annexing the whole of the Mediterranean for herself. However, the Empress would soon meet her match when the Emperor Aurelian came to power.
The dashing Moesian rose from humble beginnings, having proven himself on the battlefield against many of Rome’s most formidable enemies. When Claudius died, his brother Quintillius attempted to seize control and even had the full support of the Senate behind him. Yet the army refused to recognize his authority and instead pledged their loyalty to their commander. The two men fought vigorously for the role, but Quintillus’ troops were soundly defeated. The senate officially declared Aurelian to be emperor and he immediately set out to restore the strength and integrity of the once great Empire. After claiming several victories against the Vandals, Sarmatians, Alamanni and Goths, he chose to pull back the border of Dacia to below the Danube and was finally afforded the time and resources necessary to reclaim the Eastern provinces.
In 272, the Emperor led his troops into Asia Minor, and the loyalty of the territories protected by Zenobia were put to the test. In most cases, the mere presence of the Roman legions scared the cities into submission. Most of the provinces gave their allegiance without a fight, and the few who resisted were swiftly captured. While Aurelian made his way toward Antioch in the North, another army had been sent to recapture Egypt and Alexandria was back under Roman control in June of 272. Aurelian and Zenobia came face to face in battle, and the Queen was forced to retreat toward Emesa.
Zenobia gathered her force, putting all her military strength to guard Emesa. With 70,000 troops and a strong cavalry, she felt sure of her victory. In the Augustan History, it is claimed that Aurelian sent word to the young Empress asking for her to surrender her territories and treasures to the Romans in exchange for sparing the lives of her family and those who had sworn allegiance to her. Her response may not have been what he was expected, “From Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. None save yourself has ever demanded by letter what you now demand. Whatever must be accomplished in matters of war must be done by valor alone. You demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a Queen rather than remain alive, however high her rank. We shall not lack reinforcements from Persia, which we are even now expecting. On our side are the Saracens, on our side, too, the Armenians. The brigands of Syria have defeated your army, Aurelian. What more need be said? If those forces then, which we are expecting from every side, shall arrive, you will, of a surety, lay aside that arrogance with which you now command my surrender, as though victorious on every side.” Though modern scholars often reject the authenticity of these letters, the words of correspondence between the two powerful rulers give a glimpse into the perception of Queen Zenobia and have certainly inspired countless fans of history over the past two millennia.
Yet, perhaps surrender would have been the wiser choice. Despite her confidence, her army was severely beaten, having been attacked not only by the full force of the Romans, but also a large group of Palestinians who wielded clubs and maces. The surviving forces, along with Queen Zenobia and her son, retreated to Palmyra in a rush, leaving behind her treasury.
The Romans quickly broke through Palmyra’s defenses, and Zenobia fled on the back of a racing camel, known as a dromedary. Her hope was to reach the Euphrates and escape safely to the Persians, where she could ask for help from her former enemies. However, she was spotted boarding a boat, seconds away from freedom and brought back to Aurelian. After her capture, many members of her war council were put on trial and executed. The fate of Zenobia and her son have many theories, none of which can be proven. One account claims that the captured enemies drowned on the way to Rome, her son being the only survivor. Most renditions recount a grandiose victory parade, where the fallen Queen was led through the streets of Rome. “And so, she was led in triumph with such magnificence that the Roman people had never seen such a splendid parade…she was adorned with gems so huge that she labored under the weight of her ornaments…her feet were bound with shackles of gold and her hands with golden fetters…Her life was granted her by Aurelian, and they say that thereafter she lived with her children in the manner of a Roman matron on an estate that had been presented to her…which even to this day is still called Zenobia, not far from the palace of Hadrian…”
While the details of her birth and death may remain questionable, the boldness of the actions she took in her lifetime have provided the world with great tales for more than 2,000 years. Through the ages, her story has inspired countless works of art, from paintings and 19th century couture, to operas. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia frequently compared her own reign to that of Zenobia, causing the world to nickname St Petersburg, the Palmyra of the North. Sadly, many sites in ancient city of Palmyra has recently been reduced to rubble by members of ISIL. Hopefully, what remains of this incredible city will continue to be preserved for future generations to visit and explore.
What do you think about the reign of Queen Zenobia? Did she die on the way to Rome, or did she spend the rest of her days walking through garden villas in the Roman countryside? Let us know in the comments below. If you liked this video, don’t forget to like, subscribe and click the notification bell so you don’t miss future content. Also, keep watching the other amazing videos created for Project Her Story, including the story of the Celtic Queen Boudicca and Marozia, the Papal mistress. You can find links here on the end screen, and in the comments below. Thank you for watching.