Septima Zenobia - Syria's Rebel Queen

Queen of Palmyra, mother of the 'King of Kings', adversary to the Roman Empire, yet her name is scarcely known in the western hemisphere. Queen Zenobia shares ranks with the likes of Boudica and Cleopatra. Each a Queen who stood to defy the might of Rome. Each subject to a tragic fate. Perhaps Queen Zenobia is less known than Boudica or Cleopatra because of where she is from. Perhaps it is because the ancient sources which recorded her life are scarce, flawed, or fabricated. Perhaps she has simply slipped through the gaps of time. Whatever the reason, her story is one we should all know, and her name is one we should all recognise.

A quote attributed to Queen Zenobia. It is unlikely she truly said it, but it captures the spirit of a powerful queen.

To understand the life of Queen Zenobia, we must first understand the city which she would grow to rule. The ancient city of Palmyra was subordinate to the Roman empire, although it mostly maintained its independence by operating as a client state of Rome. However, from 212 CE to 260 CE it held the status of a Roman colony. Located in what is now the Syrian desert, around 215km northeast of modern-day Damascus, Palmyra served as a rest station for the caravans which crossed the dessert from the silk road and Arabian Sea heading for Europe and North Africa. Consequently, Palmyra was an incredibly wealthy city - it once held the epithet 'The Pearl of the Desert', a title which it no doubt deserved. This wealth was used to construct monumental buildings, the ruins of which still exist.

Palmyra sat at the cross roads of major trade routes

Zenobia's origins are subject to speculation. Although some records suggest she claimed decent from Cleopatra, it is more likely that she was born into a wealthy Palmyrene family. Born around 240 CE her native Palmyrene name was Septimia Bat-Zabbai. However, as Greek was the second language in the region, and the diplomatic language, she commonly used the Greek translation - Septimia Zenobia. Is it uncertain who her parents are, as records are unclear, but her name Bat-Zabbai meant daughter of Zabbai which could indicate her father's name. Nevertheless, her mother and father are still unidentified. However, they were likely to belong to the nobility and Zenobia was probably well educated.

Around 258 CE Zenobia married Odaenathus, the Roman consul of the region, thus becoming his second wife. Odaenathus was a Romanised Arab who, following the defeat of Emperor Valerian by the Persian Empire, successfully campaigned against Persia and reclaimed the Roman territory in 260 CE. As a result, Odaenathus was granted the title of commander of the Roman military forces in the region thus Palmyra became a de facto independent state. Odaenathus, became an incredibly powerful individual and took the title of King. Since Rome was in a fragile position, due to various events which caused what is known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Emperor Gallienus acquiesced to Odaenathus' power. Despite functioning as an independent ruler, King Odaenathus maintained the image of a client ruler and relations with Rome were peaceful for the duration of his rule. As King Odaenathus' wife, Queen Zenobia will have probably taken a back seat - women were not expected to rule - but the historical records rarely discuss what influence a wife had so it is unclear whether her husband listened to her for advice.

King Odaenathus and Queen Zenobia

King Odaenathus was assassinated in 267/8 CE along with Septimus Herodianus, the king's oldest son by his first wife. There is some speculation as to whether Zenobia was involved in planning the assassination, however there is no solid evidence to suggest such. Nonetheless, she knew how to take advantage of the situation. Her son, Vaballathus, inherited his father's position as King but as he was young Queen Zenobia took position as Queen Regent. Zenobia encouraged her son to take the title 'King of Kings' and corrector totius Orientis ('governor of the east'). The former title was created by King Odaenathus and thus could be conceivably hereditary however, the title of governor of the east was a Roman title, and consequently was not hereditary. By encouraging her son to take the title of governor, Zenobia was showing disregard for Roman custom. King Odaenathus had maintained the position of a client ruler, albeit an immensely powerful one but Queen Zenobia had no desire to be subordinate to Rome.

In 270 Zenobia set about challenging Rome. Whilst Emperor Claudius was fighting the Goths, Queen Zenobia sent her armies to attack Arabia. At this point it was possible for Zenobia to claim she was acting in the interests of the emperor - consolidating power in the East whilst the emperor was busy in Europe. It has been suggested that Queen Zenobia was motivated to control the East by a desire to stabilise the region which was poorly defended by Rome. This makes sense, after all the stability of the region would affect trade which in turn would affect the wealth of Palmyra. Before long, the Queen's forces had seized control of Asia Minor, consolidating the power of Palmyra over the Eastern provinces.

Queen Zenobia addressing her soldiers by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Sometime around the summer or autumn of 270 CE Queen Zenobia switched her sights to Egypt. Emperor Claudius had recently died, and the Queen could have been taking advantage of the situation. The invasion has also been justified by some as an attempt by the Queen to secure more trade routes, thus avoiding the Euphrates River which ran through the Persian Empire. Unfortunately, Queen Zenobia's motives will never be fully known due to the lack of surviving records from the period. Led by Zabdas, Queen Zenobia's military commander, the Palmyrene army of 70,000 men defeated the Roman garrison of 50,000 men and took control of Alexandria. Following their victory, the Palmyrene's left Egypt with a garrison of only 5,000 men and the Roman prefect in charge of Egypt (Tenagino Probus), who had been battling Pirates, returned and attempted to reclaim Egypt. The Roman army failed to defend the province, however, and it became part of the Palmyrene Empire.

The Palmyrene Empire (yellow) under the regency of Queen Zenobia

Initially Queen Zenobia had continued the trend of Palmyra being subordinate to Rome. In 270 CE Queen Zenobia minted coins depicting Emperor Aurelian (successor to Claudius) and her son Vaballathus. However, Aurelian was titled Emperor whilst Vaballathus was only 'king', thus depicting the emperor as superior. It is unclear how the emperor felt about Palmyrene power, but since the grain supply from Egypt to Rome did not stop following its invasion by Queen Zenobia it is possible that Rome's tolerance was intended to ensure the supply continued. Inscriptions dated to 271 CE equated Vaballathus to the Roman Emperor by using the term Augusti to refer to them both. Likewise, another inscription referred to Queen Zenobia as 'sebaste' - the Greek equivalent of Empress. Finally, in 272 CE Zenobia formally broke from Rome and removed the face of Emperor Aurelian from coinage. This signified independence and open rebellion against Rome.

Coinage bearing Aurelians's (left) and Vaballathus's (right) portraits

Queen Zenobia's rebellion from Rome, which began in April 272 CE, was short lived. What is now Turkey fell easily to the Roman army and all the cities in Asia Minor opened their doors to the Romans except Tyana which was easily defeated. By early June 272 CE, the Romans had reclaimed Alexandria - the rest of Egypt was captured by the end of June. In May 272 CE, Roman forces moved from Asia Minor towards Syria - the Palmyrene heartland. At the Battle of Immae, which took place around 40km north of modern-day Antakya, the Romans confronted and defeated the Palmyrene army. Queen Zenobia and her remaining troops were forced to withdraw to Emesa where a second battle saw the Romans defeat 70,000 Palmyrene soldiers. Queen Zenobia abandoned her treasury and withdrew to Palmyra. In Palmyra, the queen prepared for a siege. Emperor Aurelian blocked food supplies to force the city into surrender. Queen Zenobia left the city and headed for Persia on a camel which was claimed to be the "fastest of its breed and faster than any horse".

The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Queen Zenobia's camel was not fast enough. When Aurelian learnt of her escape, he sent a contingent of men to capture her. They reached her before she could cross the Euphrates into Persia. Soon after news of her captivity spread, the city of Palmyra capitulated. The Queen and her son were put on trial at Emesa, yet they were not executed. Instead, Aurelian planned to have them paraded in Rome as part of his triumph. The fate of Queen Zenobia is unclear since ancient accounts are conflicting. Some suggest that the Queen made it to Rome and was beheaded following the triumph whilst others suggest she starved herself before she made it to Rome. Some accounts even suggest that her life was spared and that she was given a Roman villa and even married a Roman senator. The truth may never be known.

Zenobia in chains, Harriet Hosmer, 1859

Queen Zenobia has inspired scholars, academics, musicians and artists. It is even said that Catherine the Great liked to compare herself to the Syrian Queen. The legend has turned her into an idol and although her fame has waned in the West, she is still supreme in the East - there was even a popular Syrian TV show which was based on her life story. She has been portrayed as a freedom fighter, a hero of the oppressed and a national symbol. Queen Zenobia has become an icon for Syrian nationalism with her image even appearing on bank notes. She was a courageous woman, who took her role as mother to the king seriously. She was not a powermonger nor a selfless hero; she was a woman with a job to do and the determination to make Palmyra an eastern power and to uphold responsibility on behalf of her son.

The fate of Palmyra - the Pearl of the desert - is clearer than that of Queen Zenobia. Although initially spared following Zenobia's defeat in 272 CE, the city was devastated by the Romans following an uprising in in 273 CE and, although the city would stumble along for a few centuries, it would never reach the same level of grandeur as it had known under the rule of Odaenathus and Zenobia. Palmyra's significance ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries from the 16th century onwards it was not much more than a village. In 1929, Henri Seyrig began excavating the ruins of Ancient Palmyra and persuaded the remaining villagers to relocated to the newly French-built village nearby. The relocation was completed by 1932 - Palmyra was officially abandoned. The city's story did not end there, however. Palmyra had been a part of the Roman, Palmyrene, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, as well as the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, but its final fate was decided in 2016 when the city was occupied by terrorist group ISIS. During their occupation of the site the ancient theatre was used for executions and Palmyra's retired antiquities expert, Khaled al-Asaad was tortured for information about the site's treasures. He was beheaded having refused to give up information. Nonetheless, following intense fighting to reclaim the site, and accounting for the iconoclastic nature of ISIS, Palmyra suffered immense damage. over 1700 years after Queen Zenobia declared independence from Rome, Palmyra now stands in ruins - it is hard to imagine what the Queen herself would think if she saw her mighty city today, her desert pearl.

The ruins of Palmyra before (left) and after (right) occupation by ISIS.