Zenobia of Palmyra: The Unrelenting Queen

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Zenobia (c.231- after 274), full name Septimia Zenobia, in Aramaic, Znwbyā Bat Zabbai; in Jewish sources Zenobia Julia Aurelia Septimia, was queen of the Roman colony of Palmyra. Palmyra is located in present day Syria. She ruled from 267 or 268 to 272. Palmyra was an important trading location for caravans crossing the Syrian desert, serving as a caravan oasis.  

Zenobia’s husband, Septimius Odaenathus, was Rome’s client ruler of Palmyra. By 267, he recovered the Roman East from Persian conquerors. Unlike her husband, however, Zenobia would not be content with remaining a Roman client ruler. In 269, she sent her chief general Zabdas to invade of all places, Egypt. The following year, Egypt was hers to rule. Most of Syria also technically was hers due to the annexation by the Palmyrene kingdom.

Zenobia also had a son with Odaenathus, Wahballat (Vaballathus in Latin, Athenodorus in Greek).  After the assassination of her husband, Zenobia became regent for her son. She would have her son adopt his father’s titles of “king of kings” (sound familiar?) and corrector totius Orientis—“governor of all the East”.

She was able to conquer several of Rome’s eastern provinces before being subjugated by the Emperor Aurelian. Her empire basically challenged Roman authority in the east. Aurelian would remain one of her major adversaries throughout her struggle to wrest power. At one point, Aurelian even demanded, via letter, her surrender.

She responded with a clear refusal to.

From Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus...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….If [the forces] we are expecting from every side, shall arrive, you will, of a surety, lay aside that arrogance with which you now command my surrender.

Zenobia was also said to refuse to ride in her chariot; instead, she would follow her own troops on foot. Her beauty was also claimed to be legendary.

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. So white were her teeth that many thought that she had pearls in place of teeth. Her voice was clear and like that of a man. Her sternness, when necessity demanded, was that of a tyrant, her clemency … that of a good emperor.

Besides her beauty, interestingly, her insistence on remaining chaste save for having conjugal relations to conceive children was also documented. She was also noted to be a linguist. The historian Edward Gibbon wrote that she “was not ignorant of the Latin tongue”, but she also knew Syriac, Egyptian and even Greek.

The days leading up to Zenobia’s death were widely debated. Some sources claim she drowned in the Bosphorus with her son. But Western sources mostly agree that Aurelius spared her life, with her remaining in Rome and even marrying a Roman senator. However Arabic sources such as Al-Tabari claim she took poison and was executed. Either way, Zenobia remains a fascinating historical figure; for she defied social norms and the odds. She would even serve as inspiration for future female rulers such as Catherine the Great of Russia.