The Ancient World is packed with brilliant women and queens, but few other than Cleopatra seem to have become famous names in themselves.
In the 3rd century AD, Queen Zenobia, natively know as Bath Zabbai, was a fierce ruler of Palmyra, a region in modern day Syria.
Throughout her life, Zenobia became known as the ‘warrior queen’. She expanded Palmyra from Iraq to Turkey, conquered Egypt and challenged the dominance of Rome.
Although she was eventually defeated by Emperor Aurelian, her legacy as the brave warrior queen who fostered cultural tolerance among the people of Syria is very much alive today.
An expert horsewoman
Many legends have arisen about Zenobia’s identity, but it seems she was born into a family of great nobility who claimed the notorious Queen Dido of Carthage and Cleopatra VII of Egypt as ancestors.
She was given a Hellenistic education, learning Latin, Greek, the Syriac and Egyptian languages. According to the Historia Augusta her favourite childhood hobby was hunting, and she proved to be a brave and brilliant horsewoman.
Despite this, many ancient sources seem to gravitate to one quality – that she was an exceptional beauty who captivated men across the whole of Syria with her ravishing looks and irresistible charm.
An ally – and threat – to Rome
In 267, 14 year old Zenobia was married to Odaenathus, the governor of Syria known as the ‘King of Kings’ amongst his people. Odaenathus was ruler of Palmyra, a buffer state subordinate to Rome.
Odaenathus had fostered a special relationship with Rome after he drove the Persians out of Syria in 260. This enabled Odaenathus to levy his own taxes. One of these, a 25% tax on camel-carried items (such as silk and spice), enabled Palmyra to boom in wealth and prosperity. It became known as ‘The Pearl of the Desert’.
Odaenathus’ power superseded the Roman provincial generals in the East as he took the title of Corrector totius orientis – a position responsible for the entire Roman East. However, conflict arose as to where this power derived. Was it was from the emperor (at this time Valerian) or, as the Palmyrene court saw it, from his divine heritage?
Zenobia takes her chance
Odaenathus’ ambitions to cement his claim as true leader of his empire were thwarted when he and his heir, Herodes, were murdered in 267 AD. In some accounts, Zenobia herself was suggested as a conspirator.
The next surviving heir was the young child, Vaballathus. Zenobia took her chance to declare herself regent. She seized control of the territories in the East and determined to prove Palmyra as equal or even superior to Rome’s authority.
At this time, the Roman Empire was in political and economic crisis. Claudius Gothicus acceded as Emperor in 268 and was plagued with troubles from the Goths in Thrace (modern Greece).
Zenobia took advantage of Rome’s vulnerablity, and slowly but surely started to undermine Palmyra’s once unbreakable bond with Rome.
With astuteness and the strength of a loyal general, Zabdas, she quickly annexed various neighbour states including all of Syria, Anatolia (Turkey) and Arabia.
Whether for sentimental connection to the region, economic protection of Palmyra or in spite of Rome, in 269, she seized Alexandria and a year later had Egypt under her control. This struck at the belly of Rome, as Egypt’s grain and wealth were the lifeblood of the Roman Empire.
By December 270, coins and papyri were being printed in her name as Queen of the East: ‘Zenobia Augusta’. At this point, her power seemed boundless.
It was Emperor Aurelian who was to be her undoing. By 272 the Goths were subdued and Aurelian had prevented a barbarian invasion in northern Italy. Now, he could turn Rome’s focus to subduing this troublesome warrior queen.
Aurelian was a hardened soldier and master of military tactics. He refused to stand by as Zenobia openly objected to Roman authority, minting coins with ‘Zenobia Augusta’, and naming her son, Vaballathus, as Caesar.
In retaliation, Aurelian advanced through Asia Minor and defeated Zenobia’s legion of 70,000 at Immae near Antioch. Zenobia’s forces were forced to retreat to Palmyra as she fled by camel in a narrow escape.
The Historia Augusta notes the defiant exhortation she dispatched to Aurelian:
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.
Bolstered with indignation, Aurelian gathered his ranks and captured Zenobia by the Euphrates River, forcing her surrender.
The exact result of this is unclear. Most accounts say she was led in a triumph through Antioch in 274, while some allude to a grisly execution. The Historia Augusta records that Zenobia was provided with a villa in Tibur, which, at just 30km from Rome, became a popular tourist attraction for those in the capital.
A modern legacy
Zenobia was renowned as a ‘warrior queen’ yet her legacy also includes impressive management of subjects.
She ruled an empire of different peoples, languages and religions and she astutely projected an image of a Syrian monarch, Hellenistic queen and Roman empress, which gained broad support for her cause. Her court was famed for prioritising education and accepting people from all religions.
Since her death she has been hailed as an ambitious and courageous role model, standing alongside the likes of Cleopatra and Boudicca. Even Catherine the Great liked to compare herself to Zenobia, taking inspiration from a woman who had military might and an intellectual court.
In Syria, her face adorns bank notes and is held up as a national symbol. Although the few accounts that survive tend to contradict and romanticise her story, she was a queen who rebelled against Rome and established the Palmyrene Empire – a dynamic and powerful force to be reckoned with.