Queen Zenobia of Palmyra: How One Woman Stood Against Two Empires | History Hit

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra: How One Woman Stood Against Two Empires

History Hit

07 Aug 2023
Image Credit: Public Domain

Zenobia, queen regent of the Palmyrene Empire, claimed her imperial title in 272 AD as a bloody showdown unfolded at the confluence of two empires: the Sassanian empire in the east and the waning Roman empire in the west. 

Incorporating breakaway provinces of Roman Syria, Arabia and Egypt, her own empire was the product of her exceptional ambition and capability. Though she faced a war on two fronts, Zenobia was determined that her son Vaballathus would inherit his birth right. This is the story of Zenobia’s meteoric rise and fall.

The Split

Ten years before, the unthinkable had happened. A Roman army had been completely wiped out by the Sassanians and the emperor Valerian taken captive. Beset by invasion and plague, the Roman empire already hung by a thread. With the capture of Valerian, all hope of central imperial authority vanished. Roman governors realised that authority in Rome was not longer required to become emperor. With an army behind them, all might be for the taking. Enter Postumus, governor of Germania.

By the end of 260 AD, Postumus had seized control of Gaul, Raetia, Batavia and Britannia. He had set up his capital at Trier and even established his own senate and praetorian guard. Preoccupied with the Frankish invasion of Italy, Gallienus – Valerian’s son and co-emperor –was powerless to react to Postumus until it was too late. At least the news from the east was slightly less bleak. 

Palmyra Appoints a King

The city of Palmyra lies at the heart of the Syrian desert. For two thousand years it has been subject to the volatility of the Middle East. In antiquity, it was prosperous trading hub which swore allegiance to Rome. In return, Rome granted Palmyra a degree of autonomy, allowing the city to keep its own assembly. But Rome’s instability and repeated Sassanid invasions had forced Palmyra’s assembly to take drastic action to protect its trade network. They proclaimed the city’s leader, Odaenathas, king. 


In less than a year Odaenathas succeeded in pushing the Sassanids back across the Euphrates. Next, he turned on the brothers Quietus and Macrianus who had tried to usurp control in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Having done so, Odaenathas aligned himself with emperor Gallienus. In doing so Odaenathas was bestowed the title corrector totius orientis, which referred to his de facto control over Syria, Judaea, Arabia and parts of Asia Minor.

Odaenathas assassinated

But Odaenathas didn’t last long. In the winter of 267 AD he was assassinated and the ten-year old Vaballathus was proclaimed King of Kings under the regency of his mother.  Odaenathas’ assassination remains a mystery. The unknown author of the Augustan History believes Zenobia devised overthrow, desperate to prevent her stepson Herodianus from assuming the throne.

However, this work is notoriously unreliable. Indeed this theory draws some suspicion for fitting a little too cleanly with the stereotype of a power-hungry wife scheming against her husband to install her son as ruler – much as Olympias or Livia are said to have done to promote Alexander and Tiberius, respectively. Scholars have alternately suggested that Odaenathas was assassinated by Palmyrene plotters who sought to restore the city’s assembly. 

Who was Zenobia?

Zenobia had nevertheless positioned herself perfectly. A likely noble of uncertain heritage, she had been married since around age 14 to Odaenathus as he elevated Palmyra to supreme power in the Near East.  Thanks to contradictory sources, it is hard to get a sense of the real person. The most detailed description we have portrays Zenobia more like a caricature than a woman: 

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 though 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. Generous with prudence, she conserved her treasures beyond the wont of women.

Augustan History, The Thirty Pretenders, 30.16-17

Following Odaenathas’ death, Zenobia emerged as regent and de facto ruler of the empire. But the question remained: was her son’s kingship assured?

The Romans expected Vaballathus to defer to the emperor in Rome, and on a whim the emperor could strip Zenobia and Vaballathus’ royal prerogative. In the past 50 years, there had been no fewer than 19 emperors. The next one might not take kindly to Zenobia or her son. Meanwhile, to the Palmyrenes the monarchy was now hereditary and any affront to its legitimacy was an insult to the city itself. The question was which city held the greater authority: Rome or Palmyra?

Both Zenobia and Roman officials in the eastern provinces ask this of themselves. The answer had two possible outcomes: peace or war. Though Palmyra had only appointed its first king seven years before, there was no open resistance to Vaballathus’ succession amongst the Roman provincial governors. But their support for Zenobia’s regency was tenuous, borne from the necessity to maintain stability in the Near East.

Zenobia’s conquest

Zenobia exploited chaos in Rome to establish her authority. Back in Europe, Gallienus had been assassinated and the resulting power vacuum had caused trust in Rome’s central authority to collapse. This allowed Zenobia to justify a military campaign throughout the Levant, designed to shore up the weaknesses the Sassanids might exploit with a second invasion. In other words, she subjugated anyone who refused to accept Palmyrene dominance.

Zenobia’s army subjugated Judaea, crushed economic rivals – the Tanûkids of Bostra – and killed Trassus, the Roman governor of Arabia (probably to force the other Roman governors to comply). In short time, Zenobia secured Petra and all the territory up to the Egypt. But Zenobia was playing a dangerous game.

Palmyra at its zenith in 271.

Image Credit: User Attar-Aram syria on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

In the summer of 270 AD, she seized control of Antioch’s mint. It stopped producing coins with the name of the current emperor, Claudius Gothicus, and instead made coins declaring her son imperator. This was not, however, tantamount to a declaration of war against Rome: the term imperator referred to Vaballathus’ command over the troops, while Zenobia could still claim that she was acting as Rome’s representative. But the emperor, who had become emperor through force of arms, knew the game Zenobia was playing.

In August 270 AD, news of Claudius Gothicus’ death reached Zenobia. In Europe, Claudius’ brother Quintillus competed for power with Aurelian, a soldier of modest origins. With the backing of the Danubian legions, Aurelian brushed aside Quintillus’ challenge and installed himself as the new emperor. Probus, the prefect of Egypt, had meanwhile left Alexandria to eliminate Gothic pirates threatening trade in the eastern Mediterranean. The timing was perfect. A pro-Palmyrene faction emerged within Alexandria to encourage Zenobia to invade. 

Why did Zenobia invade Egypt?

A Palmyrene invasion would cripple Rome, which relied on Egypt’s grain supply, and would inevitably provoke war between Zenobia and Aurelian. In September 270 AD, Zenobia decided it was worth the risk. With 70,000 soldiers, the Palmyrene soldiers under general Zabdas caught the Roman garrisons off-guard; by the winter Probus was dead and Egypt was under Palmyrene control.   

The following year, Zenobia’s general invaded Galatia and annexed the city of Ankara. According to the 5th-century Byzantine historian Zosimus, the Palmyrenes attempted an unsuccessful annexation of all of Asia Minor up to Chalcedon on the Bosporus. In the summer of 271 AD, the Palmyrene Empire stood at its height. 

Zenobia had so far avoided provoking Aurelian. This was because Aurelian was preoccupied with Germanic tribes. To safeguard Rome from the Alemanni, Aurelian built massive fortifications around the city. Aurelian was also forced to abandon the province of Dacia to defend against a Gothic invasion. On the southern bank of the Danube, he regrouped the legions and won a decisive victory by killing the Goths’ leader Cannabaudes. Aurelian was powerless to respond to Zenobia.  

To consolidate her territory, Zenobia resumed minting coins with Aurelian’s visage and the title imperator on the obverse and Vaballathus’ face and the title of rex on the reverse. The symbolic gesture was designed to portray her loyalty to Rome despite her aggressive use of force against Roman provinces. The numismatic evidence and papyri documents are all that remain of Aurelian’s response to Zenobia’s invasion of Egypt.

It seems certain that Aurelian would not have formally accepted Palmyrene authority over Egypt, but in the short-term he would have been forced to cooperate with Zenobia to retain access to Egypt’s grain. Zenobia’s decision to keep these supply lines at all, however, was a crucial miscalculation.

Rome or Palmyra?

The literary sources covering Zenobia’s regency can sometimes be contradictory. Did Zenobia always intend to establish the Palmyrene Empire as independent of Rome? Or did she conduct an invasion of Egypt to protect Palmyra’s trade network? It’s hard to believe Zenobia would have risked turning Rome against her if she was happy for Palmyra to remain subordinate to Rome. It’s perhaps more plausible that early in her regency Zenobia envisioned a separate Palmyrene empire and collapsing Roman authority presented an ideal opportunity. 

In the spring 272 AD, Zenobia officially signalled her attempt to break away from Rome. She minted coins which omitted Aurelian’s visage entirely and recognised Vaballathus as Augustus and herself as Augusta. Aurelian had long anticipated this move. After defeating the Goths, he proceeded to Byzantium. During the winter of 271-2 AD, he prepared an invasion. There was nothing Zenobia could do but wait. The incursion into western Asia Minor described by Zosimus would have proved her armies could not wage an offensive war against Rome. Zenobia ordered her forces there to retreat to Palmyra. 

Aurelian advances

Most cities in Asia Minor acquiesced to Aurelian without resistance, save for Tyana of Cappadocia. Up until that point, Aurelian had brutally sacked every city which had resisted. But at Tyana he had a change of heart. He is said to have dreamt of the 1st-century AD philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, who beseeched Aurelian not to sack his city. Heeding Apollonius’ words, Aurelian spared the city. Thereafter more cities submitted without a fight. 

Aurelian simultaneously opened a second front against Zenobia in Egypt. By summer, Alexandria’s garrison had fallen. This two-pronged assault was too much: less than three months after Zenobia had declared her opposition to Aurelian, her forces were in full retreat. Arabia and Judaea were abandoned in defence of the homeland. 

The battle for Syria

At Immae, 20 miles north of Antioch, Aurelian’s and Zenobia’s armies met. Despite Aurelian’s rapid advance to Syria, he was still wary. The Roman infantry was superior, but the Palmyrene cavalry was still a force to be reckoned with. Aware that Zabdas would seek to exploit his cataphracts, Aurelian devised a solution to draw the Palmyrene horses away from his infantry.

Aurelian and Zabdas drew up their forces the next day, with their infantry in the centre flanked by their cavalry. After some skirmishes, Zabdas ordered his cavalry to engage the Roman horses. With lighter armour, the Roman horses could not hope to win out so they retreated, drawing the Palmyrene cataphracts from the battlefield. After a protracted chase, the Palmyrene cavalry began to tire. But their determination meant they did not see the trap closing. 

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The Roman cavalry turned to face the exhausted Palmyrene cataphracts at last. Completely spent, the Palmyrene cavalry was decimated in hand to hand combat. When news reached Zabdas that only a handful of his cavalry had returned, he immediately withdrew his infantry to spare them from the same fate at the hands of the legionaries. 

Zenobia retreats

That night, exhausted and demoralised, Zenobia’s armies began a 250-mile retreat south to Palmyra. Antioch expected brutal retribution. Instead, when Aurelian entered the city, he pardoned all. The news of Zenobia’s decisive defeat and Aurelian’s mercy spread as cities swore allegiance to Rome once more. But Zenobia’s downfall was not yet sealed. She commanded great influence over the region and a decisive victory over Aurelian could force him to come to terms. At Emesa, 150 miles south of Antioch, Zenobia mustered her remaining troops to force one final, bloody showdown. 

Who defeated Queen Zenobia?

Aurelian called on detachments from the legionary garrisons which guarded the border with Sassanid Persia to join him, along with auxiliaries from Cappadocia and Palestine. It was the height of summer and the flat plain Zabdas chose was the perfect battleground for an honest fight. As at Immae, the strength of the Palmyrene cataphracts proved a strategic weakness. Once again, they routed the Roman cavalry and gave chase, leaving their infantry exposed. Both the Palmyrene infantry and cavalry were encircled and massacred. 

All that was left for Zenobia and her son was the city of Palmyra. A year earlier it had been the centre of a vast empire. Now it was blockaded on all sides by the Third Legion. In an attempt to bring a swift conclusion to the campaign , Aurelian proposed terms. He promising to spare Zenobia’s life and the independence of Palmyra. Zenobia retorted that she would sooner appeal for help from her Sassanid enemies than surrender to him. But the game was up. Sooner or later Palmyra would fall.

How did Queen Zenobia die?

By August 272 AD, Zenobia had accepted the futility of a bloody siege. Too proud to surrender, she and her son fled Palmyra for Persia. Before they could cross the Euphrates into Persia, Aurelian caught up with Zenobia. In later Roman accounts of Zenobia’s trial, authors would try to portray her as a coward who betrayed her loyal advisors. In the fervour of Zenobia’s capture, Palmyra was spared.

Zenobia’s fate is the subject of contradictory and far-fetched narratives. In the Augustan History and the chronicle of the 8th-century Byzantine scholar Syncellus, Zenobia goes on to marry a Roman senator and live in a villa outside Rome, bought for her by Aurelian. Zosimus, the 6th-century Byzantine historian describes a more heroic end for Zenobia, starving herself to death before reaching Rome. On the other hand, Zosimus’ contemporary John Malas claims Zenobia and her son were paraded through the streets of Rome in 274 AD and then beheaded. 

Why is Queen Zenobia important?

Queen Zenobia had ruled as regent for five years by the time of her defeat in 272 AD, and just a few months since she styled herself ‘Augusta’ in the spring of that year.

Amidst the controversy it is easy to forget how impressive Zenobia’s achievements were. Married at 14, a mother at 18, and a regent at 27, ruler of the Middle East and one of the most powerful women in the world. Palmyra’s ruins preserve the legacy of one the most extraordinary women of the ancient world. If Zenobia had prevailed, the world might look very different today. 

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