Zenobia of Palmyra – Great Warrior Queen Who Stood Up to a Roman Emperor

Zenobia | Herbert Gustave Schmalz [Public domain] (This is a guess by a German artist – no images of Zenobia exist except on coins.)
Zenobia was a queen of the Palmyrene Empire (modern Syria).  She was called “The Pearl Necklace” in the history of the Syrian kingdom.

“Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual…, 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.” 

These were the words of a Roman historian around 270 A.D. describing Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, the city of Tadmor in today’s Syria, and also the name for the empire she ruled.

There have been many queens who went to war. In my reading about amazing women and a recent focus on warrior queens, I discovered Zenobia. She was tremendously brave and a fierce fighter, meeting and – for a time – beating Roman emperor Aurelius (Lucius Domitius Aurelianus).

To Set the Stage:

Palmyra | James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
It was the 3rd century of the Common Era. Zenobia, sometimes called Septimia or Bat-Zabbel, was born around 240 CE in the Palmyrene Empire in Syria. She married Odeanathius, ruler of the city of Palmyra (sometimes called Tadmose), and when he was assassinated, she became the regent for her young son Wahballat. Some said she had him killed, but it’s difficult to know.

Zenobia claimed that she was a Ptolemy (the last ruling dynasty of Egypt) and a direct descendant of Cleopatra. She certainly was ambitious, and in 269 she decided to conquer Egypt. Within a year, her general Zabdas has secured most of Egypt and at the same time, Zenobia with other troops had taken most of Syria, as far as the Black Sea, under her control. At this point, she truly had an empire. But it wasn’t to last long.

Zenobia’s Battles Against Aurelian

The Romans didn’t like having territory taken away from them. The emperor Aurelian was a skilled military leader, and he immediately took back much of Zenobia’s empire, reconquering Egypt first.

Zenobia met him in battle, riding on her horse. The battle resulted in a horrible slaughter of Zenobia’s troops, and they fley to Palmyra. Aurelian besieged the city, cutting off trade and travel.

During the siege, Aurelian seems to have something of a grudging admiration for Zenobia. He sent her a message asking her to surrender, telling her he would save her city if she agreed. She responded with defiance.

Finally, in desperation, Zenobia tried to escape from the city to get help from the Persians. She got through a city gate and rode on a female camel (supposed to be faster than horses) to the Euphrates River, where she was captured as she tried to board a boat.

Zenobia was brought before Aurelius as a captive. When she was confronted with her “treasonous” (to the Romans, anyway) actions, she said she was just a “simple woman” who had been misled by her advisors. Against advice, Aurelian decided not to kill her, but he took her to Rome as his captive. I’m sure he saw the political capital to be gained from showing off his beautiful prize to the Romans.

In Rome, she was supposedly shackled with gold chains and paraded through the streets of Rome in Aurelian’s triumphal procession. Later, he went back to Palmyra, sacked the city, and ended the Palmyrate empire forever.

What Happened to Zenobia

After the parade, there are several versions of events, depending on which Roman historian you read. The most likely but, for me, the least palatable, outcome was that she Zenobia was allowed to live in an estate near Rome. She was said to have married a Roman senator and lived (relatively) happy ever after.

Zenobia’s Legacy

Zenobia has become something of a symbol for other women adventurers. Lady Hester Stanhope was determined to go to the ruins of Palmyra in 1911, where she styled herself as Zenobia reborn. She expected to be hailed as another Zenobia and “was not disappointed.”

Zenobia still shows up in popular culture. I’m not sure how I feel about these commercializations; for example, see this Zenobia T shirt, and this toy, in revealing garments.

 

Sources:

Most of my information comes from Zenobia of Palmyra, by Agnes Carr Vaughan (1967). Because there is little known about Zenobia, Vaughan says she used her “imagination liberally.” Much of her information comes from the Roman historian Pollio. So, I guess this is a 3rd hand source.

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