Empress Zenobia is an example of a strong and ambitious woman of the ancient world. Unfortunately, not many sources survive to tell her story. Zenobia ruled the city-state of Palmyra from around 267 AD to 272 AD and, after leading a rebellion, she united much of the Eastern portion of the Roman empire under her banner. Though she was defeated in the end, her legacy lives on throughout history and she is viewed as an iconic leader.
The city of Palmyra was a trade center. It was located in modern day Syria and benefitted from the use of the silk road. The land surrounding the city was also fertile and good for farming. Many different cultures and ethnicities settled in Palmyra which created a melting pot of languages, traditions, and religions. The city became very wealthy from the silk road trade, tradesmen who ran businesses there, and from agricultural production. Most of the wealth was made through taxes and tariffs on those who traded within the walls. In 64 B.C.E., Palmyra was conquered by Rome and became a Roman city state. This left the city in a very privileged position within the empire. They were left mostly independent and profited off exclusive trade with Rome. A Roman garrison was located in the city which boosted its popularity and brought more traffic to spend cash at local businesses.
Zenobia was likely born in the 240s CE to a wealthy and powerful family. She claimed she was a descendant of Cleopatra and the Ptolemy dynasty of ancient Egypt. At a young age, she married the King of Palmyra, Septimius Odenathus. Being born in a privileged position, Zenobia was well educated. She was fluent in at least three languages (Palmyrene, Greek and Egyptian) and had a grasp on politics. King Odenathus became King of one of the most powerful cities in the Eastern Empire. Rome relied on these border groups and city-state allies to protect them from outside invaders ( at this time, the Persians). Rome was have problems by the 250s/260s CE. Rome had trouble holding together their Eastern borders as their enemies began to pick at their territory. It was the same at the Northern border as well. This was part of the difficulty of maintaining such a large empire and why key allies were important. In 260 CE, Emperor Valerion was captured by the Persians which was a huge blow to the empire. As a result, many terrirotirs found an opportunity to rebel and finally break away from Rome. Confidence in the Empire began to dwindle. King Odenathus proved his loyalty and united some of the smaller groups to support the new Roman emperor and defeat the Persians. This approach was successful and Palmyra was viewed as a loyal province.
In 267 CE, Odenathus was assassinated along with his eldest son from his first marriage. The reason for this has been lost to history. Some suspect that Zenobia may have had cause (with the death of her husband and his eldest son, then her own son would be next in line), but Odenathus likely made many enemies with his support of Rome and the new emperor. After the sudden death of her husband, Zenobia acted quickly. This was key to prevent a sudden power vacuum. She quickly brought the assassins to trial and then execution. Her son, Vaballathus, was then set up as King. Since he was a minor, Zenobia ruled in his stead as regent. It seemed the popular support was there for Zenobia to become Empress. It is clear that she was ambitious (especially with her later rebellion against Rome). She also likely had a lot of influence during her husband’s rule and definitely learned much about governing Palmyra. She was to become Empress during Palmyra’s prime years.
From what is known of Zenobia, she was a very capable leader. One of her most famous achievements is creating a larger empire independent from Rome. She was in charge of a large and strong army and had the wealth to back them up. She was very involved with her generals and they were one of her most important counselors. Apparently, she may even had drank, socialized, and rode with them for battle and training. Beginning in 270 CE, Zenobia and her armies (led often by her general Zabdus) invaded some of the most prosperous Eastern provinces. She controlled Arabia, Judea, and Syria. One of her biggest wins was the conquering of Egypt, where her army of 70,000 defeated 50,000 Roman soldiers. Alexandria was now part of her empire. By 271, Zenobia controlled an empire that stretched from Libiya/Sudan to northern Turkey. Yet, Zenobia was very successful at ruling such a large empire and mix of people.
As stated earlier, Palymyra had always been a melting pot of various languages and cultures. She worked to understand and appease different groups of people within her empire. She successfully was able to intigrate herself into the different religious groups, political groups, and ethnic groups. She also portrayed herself in different ways depending on what groups held sway. Sometimes she may be portrayed as a Syrian monarch, or a Roman empress, or a Hellenistic Queen. She also created images that associated herself with her alleged ancestor, Cleopatra. Zenobia was also very interested in education and the continuation of learning. She gathered many intellectuals to her court and surrounded herself with new ideas and differing perspectives.
Due to the lack of sources, it is difficult to know exactly why Zenobia turned against Rome. There are some theories, but we may never know for sure. One theory posed by historians is that she wanted to prevent universal domination of Rome, but there is no evidence to back this up. She could have been looking to protect the commercial interests of Palmyra due to the instability of Rome and its northern borders. Another reason would be for independence from Rome. Palmyra was strong enough and in a good position to leave and form their own empire. I believe it is likely that latter reason for her break from the Roman empire. I think she likely realized that they could be independent and did not need to rely on another for protection. They did not need to share their wealth with another. There were probably many other reasons that were lost to history.
With great power comes those who wish to take it from you (or in this case, take it back). Naturally, Rome was not happy with what was going on in their former Eastern Empire. They had lost control over some of their wealthiest provinces and their former city-state ally was now their enemy. The new emperor, Aurelian, was not going to let this stand. Emperor Aurelian gathered his troops to start an invasion in the year 272. The Romans quickly took back many of the provinces that had been lost as Zenobia quickly began to gather her troops towards her to focus on Egypt and Syria (where Palmyra was located). At Antioch, Zenobia and Aurelian met to commence the Battle of Immae. This ended in Zenobia’s defeat where she fled to Emesa. To keep her image strong and, likely, to boost moral, she began to spread the rumor that they had captured Aurelian.
Aurelian quickly caught up to her and they fought again at the Battle of Emesa. This was a close battle as the Palmyrene heavy cavalry forced the Roman cavalry into a defeat. High on the feeling of victory, the Palmyrene’s chased after the Romans and broke formation only to fall into their trap as the Roman infantry was waiting for them. They were slaughtered. Zenobia and what remained of her army had to retreat back to Palmyra in order to regroup. Naturally, the Romans followed and laid siege to the city. In the end, Zenobia and her son were captured and transported to Rome where they were paraded through the streets in humiliation. It is not known what became of Zenobia and her son after this. There has been some theories that she was forced into a retirement and lived her life in a comfortable villa, but the most likely ending is that she was executed.
Palmyra’s citizens did attempt to revolt again after coming back under Roman rule, but it was never successful again. Aurelian made sure that its citizens were forever put back in submission. He destroyed much of the city, looted its temples, and even murdered its residents. Rome would rebuild Palmyra to its own standards.
Despite the unfortunate ending to Zenobia’s career, she has had a long lasting legacy to the modern era. She has become an icon of Syrian nationalism and is on one of their bank notes today. She is remembered as a brave, strong, and virtuous queen She is remembered for her enthusiasm and ambition. She is remembered for fighting for independence and standing up to a goliath of the ancient world. She is also an example of a strong woman in a time when this was not necessarily the norm. She proved to be a strong and intelligent ruler in her own right. I found her acceptance and willing to adapt to many different cultural groups as very impressive and forward thinking. She did not try to change their ways, but tried to work with them to create a more united empire.
Palmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia’s Revolt against Rome by Richard Stoneman
“Zenobia: The Warrior Queen of Palmyra.” Documentary by History Time. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtyDxe6bSIo&ab_channel=HistoryTime