Now all shame is exhausted…for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth things came to such a pass that…a foreigner, Zenobia by name, proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle, [and was] ruling longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.
Thus begins the biography of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, in the Historia Augusta (History of the Emperors), written near the end of the fourth century A.D. And what we read there is almost all we know about the queen.
Sometimes, I think if it were not for her coins Queen Zenobia would be taken as a legendary figure. There could be a kernel of truth in the story, but it is a tale so fantastical, so gendered, with sources so unreliable, that it simply could not have historical value. Yet Zenobia did exist, and she did go to war against the Romans. And, as Empress of the East, she came within a hair’s breadth of victory.
What do we really know about her?
Zenobia lived, strutted the stage, and battled in mid-third-century A.D., surely the worst documented period in the history of the Roman Empire. Every bit of information about her is contentious, fragmentary, or biased.
And anyway, when ancient authors wrote about the past, they rarely had in mind what we think is the aim of history (“things as they really were”), but rather mixed in generous dollops of myth and legend, gossip, hearsay, moralizing, ethnic stereotypes, political propaganda, and plain wishful thinking (“the way things should have been”).
A bit like television news, really.
In any case, it can’t have been much fun being ruler of an eastern outpost of Rome just when the Romans were reeling from defeat after defeat delivered by the new Persian Empire across the Euphrates River. In 253 A.D., the Persians attacked Syria and looted Antioch, the greatest city of the East. Three years later, Dura Europos fell, the river stronghold garrisoned by Roman and Palmyran troops. Now nothing but empty steppe stood between the enemy and Palmyra itself, the richest surviving city of Syria.
Finally, in 260 A.D., Emperor Valerian marched with an army of 70,000 men against the Persians. His army was destroyed and Valerian himself was captured in the worst defeat the Romans had suffered in three hundred years.
In the chaos that followed, Zenobia’s husband, Odenathus—one of the great warrior princes of history—led his Palmyran troops in a counterattack. They chased the invaders out of Syria and harassed them all the way back to their own capital at Cteisiphon (near modern Baghdad). The Historia Augusta tells us that Zenobia was with him on this campaign:
For of a surety, he, with his wife Zenobia, would have restored not only the East . . . but also all parts of the whole world everywhere, since he was fierce in warfare. . . . His wife, too, was inured to hardship and in the opinion of many was held to be more brave than her husband, being, indeed, the noblest of all the women of the East, and . . . the most beautiful.
Odenathus probably would have been able to restore the whole world, if, after his victorious campaign, he had not stopped in Emesa (modern Homs) on his way home, where a cousin poured poison into his wine. He and his son by a previous marriage were dead.
On hearing the news, Zenobia seized the regency on behalf of her own son, Waballath, who was still a child. At the same time, in Italy, a deadly series of coups and counter-coups played out until, eventually, a tough Illyrian cavalry general, Claudius, emerged victorious.
Zenobia saw her chance. In 269, she sent her army into Egypt, seizing Alexandria. Nothing could have been more provocative, for the port was vital to Rome’s grain supply. Without Egyptian grain, Rome would starve. By March 270, Palmyra ruled all Egypt. During the course of that year, another Palmyran general extended Palmyran control through Syria and most of Anatolia, settling on Ankara as their border. Claudius meanwhile died of plague and another Illyrian cavalry general became emperor. That was Aurelian.
Almost simultaneously, the mints of Alexandria and Antioch began producing coins with, on the one side, Aurelian’s image, and, on the other, Zenobia’s son Waballath. Although the coinage reserved the most important imperial title of Augustus for Aurelian, there could be no clearer statement that Zenobia had set herself up as equal to Rome… and meant to rule an eastern empire.
Why Did Zenobia Do It?
In every book about her, one word is always used: She was “ambitious”—as if male aspirants to the Empire were not ambitious—suggesting, too, that she was scheming and foolish or imprudent. Yet why did so many men take the huge risk of rebellion on her behalf? Surely not to satisfy a woman’s frivolous dreams. No one even considers that she might have been right: The Romans could no longer defend the East.
Rome was corrupt. They had debased the currency; inflation was rampant; taxes had reached confiscatory levels. Emperor after emperor was murdered, unleashing civil wars as ambitious generals fought against each other, rather than against the common Persian enemy. Aurelian, who defeated her in 272 A.D., leaving a ruined Palmyra in his wake, cobbled the Empire back together, but none of the underlying problems were solved (and three years later, he too was murdered). Twenty years later, the Empire was being ruled by four Emperors; sixty years later, Constantine established his capital at Byzantium and it split into East and West.
So, rather than “ambitious,” she seems to me visionary.
For background information on Palmyra, its trade with India, and its language and monuments, see the Getty Research Institute’s online exhibition The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra. And for everything known or imagined about Zenobia, visit Zenobia: Empress of the East.