Septimia Zenobia (Palmyrene:
(Btzby), pronounced Bat-Zabbai; c.240–c.274) was a third-century queen
of the Syria-based Palmyrene Empire. Many legends surround her ancestry;
she was certainly born to a noble Palmyrene family and married the ruler
of the city, Odaenathus. Her husband became king in 260, elevating
Palmyra to supreme power in the Near East by defeating the Sassanians and
stabilizing the Roman East. After Odaenathus' assassination, Zenobia
became the regent of her son Vaballathus and held de facto power throughout
In 270, Zenobia launched an invasion which brought most of the Roman East
under her sway and culminated with the annexation of Egypt. By mid-271
her realm extended from Ancyra in the north to southern Egypt, although
she remained nominally subordinate to Rome. However, in reaction
to Roman emperor Aurelian's campaign in 272, Zenobia declared her son emperor
and assumed the title of empress (declaring Palmyra's secession from Rome).
The Romans were victorious after heavy fighting; the queen was besieged
in her capital and captured by Aurelian, who exiled her to Rome where she
spent the remainder of her life.
Zenobia was a cultured monarch and fostered an intellectual environment
in her court, which was open to scholars and philosophers. She was
tolerant toward her subjects, and protected religious minorities.
The queen maintained a stable administration which governed a multicultural,
multiethnic empire. Zenobia died after 274, and many tales have been
recorded about her fate. Her rise and fall have inspired historians,
artists and novelists, and she is a national hero in Syria.
Name and appearance:
"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 thought that she had pearls in place of teeth."
Zenobia was born c. 240–241. She bore the gentilicium (surname) Septimia,
and her native Palmyrene name was Bat-Zabbai (written "Btzby" in the Palmyrene
alphabet, an Aramaic name meaning "daughter of Zabbai"). In Greek—Palmyra's
diplomatic and second language, used in many Palmyrene inscriptions—she
used the name Zenobia ("one whose life derives from Zeus"). The ninth-century
historian al-Tabari, in his highly fictionalized account, wrote that
the queen's name was Na'ila al-Zabba'. Manichaean sources called her
In Palmyra, names such as Zabeida, Zabdila, Zabbai or Zabda were often
transformed into "Zenobios" (masculine) and "Zenobia" (feminine) when written
in Greek. Historian Victor Duruy believed that the queen used the
Greek name as a translation of her native name in deference to her Greek
subjects. No contemporary statues of Zenobia have been found in Palmyra
or elsewhere, only inscriptions on statue bases. Most known representations
of Zenobia are the idealized portraits of her found on her coins.
Palmyrene sculptures were normally impersonal, unlike Greek and Roman ones:
a statue of Zenobia would have given an idea of her general style in dress
and jewelry but would not have revealed her true appearance. British
scholar William Wright visited Palmyra toward the end of the nineteenth
century in a vain search for a sculpture of the queen.
addition to archaeological evidence, Zenobia's life was recorded in different
ancient sources but many are flawed or fabricated; the Augustan History,
a late-Roman collection of biographies, is the most notable (albeit unreliable)
source for the era. The author (or authors) of the Augustan History
invented many events and letters attributed to Zenobia in the absence of
contemporary sources. When an Augustan History account deals with
an event corroborated from other sources, however, its details are more
credible. Byzantine chronicler Joannes Zonaras is considered an important
source for the life of Zenobia.
Early life and family:
The Augustan History contains details of Zenobia's early life, although
their credibility is doubtful. According to Augustan History, the queen's
hobby as a child was hunting. Apparently not a commoner, she would
have received an education appropriate for a noble Palmyrene girl.
According to the Augustan History, in addition to her Palmyrene Aramaic
mother tongue, Zenobia was reportedly fluent in Egyptian and Greek and
spoke Latin. Around age 14 (c. 255) she became the second wife of
Odaenathus, the ras (lord) of Palmyra.
Palmyrene society was an amalgam of Semitic tribes (mostly Aramean and
Arab), and Zenobia cannot be identified with any one group; as a Palmyrene,
she would have had Aramean and Arab blood. Information about Zenobia's
ancestry and immediate family connections is scarce and contradictory.
Nothing is known about her mother, and her father's identity is debated.
Manichaean sources mention a "Nafsha", sister of the "queen of Palmyra",
but those sources are confused and "Nafsha" may refer to Zenobia herself:
it is doubtful that Zenobia had a sister.
Contemporary epigraphical evidence:
Based on archaeological evidence, several men have been suggested by historians
as Zenobia's father: Julius Aurelius Zenobius appears on a Palmyrene inscription
as a strategos of Palmyra in 231–232; based on the similarity of the names,
Zenobius was suggested as Zenobia's father by the numismatist Alfred von
Sallet and others. Another argument in favor of Zenobius' identification
as the father is that his statue was opposite that of the queen on the
Great Colonnade. However, the only gentilicium appearing on Zenobia's
inscriptions was "Septimia" (not "Julia Aurelia", which she would have
borne if her father's gentilicium was Aurelius), and it cannot be proven
that the queen changed her gentilicium to Septimia after her marriage.
On the basis of Zenobia's Palmyrene name, Bat Zabbai, her father may have
been called Zabbai; alternatively, Zabbai may have been the name of a more
distant ancestor. Historian Trevor Bryce suggests that she was related
to Septimius Zabbai, Palmyra's garrison leader, and he may even have been
One of Zenobia's inscriptions recorded her as "Septimia Bat-Zabbai, daughter
of Antiochus". Antiochus' identity is not definitively known: his
ancestry is not recorded in Palmyrene inscriptions, and the name was not
common in Palmyra. This, combined with the meaning of Zenobia's Palmyrene
name (daughter of Zabbai), led scholars such as Harald Ingholt to speculate
that Antiochus might have been a distant ancestor: the Seleucid king Antiochus
IV Epiphanes or Antiochus VII Sidetes, whose wife was the Ptolemaic Cleopatra
In historian Richard Stoneman's view, Zenobia would not have created an
obscure ancestry to connect herself with the ancient Macedonian rulers:
if a fabricated ancestry were needed, a more direct connection would have
been invented. According to Stoneman, Zenobia "had reason to believe
[her Seleucid ancestry] to be true". Historian Patricia Southern,
noting that Antiochus was mentioned without a royal title or a hint of
great lineage, believes that he was a direct ancestor or a relative rather
than a Seleucid king who lived three centuries before Zenobia.
In the Augustan History, Zenobia is said to have been a descendant of Cleopatra
and claimed descent from the Ptolemies. According to the Souda, a
10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, after the Palmyrene conquest of Egypt,
the Greek sophist Callinicus of Petra wrote a ten-volume history of Alexandria
dedicated to Cleopatra. According to modern scholars, by Cleopatra
Callinicus meant Zenobia. Apart from legend, there is no evidence
in Egyptian coinage or papyri of a contemporary conflation of Zenobia with
Cleopatra; it may have been invented by Zenobia's enemies to discredit
her. Zenobia's alleged claim of a connection to Cleopatra seems to
have been politically motivated, since it would have given her a connection
with Egypt and made her a legitimate successor to the Ptolemies' throne.
A relationship between Zenobia and the Ptolemies is unlikely, and attempts
by classical sources to trace the queen's ancestry to the Ptolemies through
the Seleucids are apocryphal.
Arabic traditions and al-Zabba':
Although some Arab historians linked Zenobia to the Queen of Sheba, their
accounts are apocryphal. Medieval Arabic traditions identify a queen
of Palmyra named al-Zabba', and her most romantic account comes from al-Tabari.
According to al-Tabari, she was an Amalekite; her father was 'Amr ibn Zarib,
an 'Am?l?q sheikh who was killed by the Tanukhids. Al-Tabari identifies
a sister of al-Zabba' as "Zabibah". Jadhimah ibn Malik, the Tanukhid
king who killed the queen's father, was killed by al-Zabba'. According
to al-Tabari, al-Zabba' had a fortress along the Euphrates and ruled Palmyra.
Al-Tabari's account does not mention the Romans, Odaenathus, Vaballathus
or the Sassanians; focusing on the tribes and their relations, it is immersed
in legends. Although the account is certainly based on the story
of Zenobia, it is probably conflated with the story of a semi-legendary
nomadic Arab queen (or queens). Al-Zabba''s fortress was probably
Halabiye, which was restored by the historic Palmyrene queen and named
Queen of Palmyra
During the early centuries AD, Palmyra was a city subordinate to Rome and
part of the province of Syria Phoenice. In 260 the Roman emperor
Valerian marched against the Sassanid Persian monarch Shapur I, who had
invaded the empire's eastern regions; Valerian was defeated and captured
near Edessa. Odaenathus, formally loyal to Rome and its emperor Gallienus
(Valerian's son), was declared king of Palmyra. Launching successful
campaigns against Persia, he was crowned King of Kings of the East in 263.
Odaenathus crowned his eldest son, Herodianus, as co-ruler. In addition
to the royal titles, Odaenathus received many Roman titles, most importantly
corrector totius orientis (governor of the entire East), and ruled the
Roman territories from the Black Sea to Palestine. In 267, when Zenobia
was in her late twenties or early thirties, Odaenathus and his eldest son
were assassinated while returning from a campaign.
The first inscription mentioning Zenobia as queen is dated two or three
years after Odaenathus' death, so exactly when Zenobia assumed the title
"queen of Palmyra" is uncertain. However, she was probably designated
as queen when her husband became king. As queen consort, Zenobia
remained in the background and was not mentioned in the historical record.
According to later accounts, including one by Giovanni Boccaccio, she accompanied
her husband on his campaigns. If the accounts of her accompanying
her husband are true, according to Southern, Zenobia would have boosted
the morale of the soldiers and gained political influence, which she needed
in her later career.
Possible role in Odaenathus' assassination:
According to the Augustan History, Odaenathus was assassinated by a cousin
named Maeonius. In Augustan History, Odaenathus' son from his first
wife was named Herodes and was crowned co-ruler by his father. The
Augustan History claims that Zenobia conspired with Maeonius for a time
because she did not accept her stepson as his father's heir (ahead of her
own children). The Augustan History does not suggest that Zenobia
was involved in the events leading to her husband's murder, and the crime
is attributed to Maeonius' moral degeneration and jealousy. This
account, according to historian Alaric Watson, can be dismissed as fictional.
Although some modern scholarship suggests that Zenobia was involved in
the assassination due to political ambition and opposition to her husband's
pro-Roman policy, she continued Odaenathus' policies during her first years
on the throne.
In the Augustan History, Maeonius was emperor briefly before he was killed
by his soldiers, however, no inscriptions or evidence exist for his reign.
At the time of Odaenathus' assassination, Zenobia might have been with
her husband; according to chronicler George Syncellus, he was killed near
Heraclea Pontica in Bithynia. The transfer of power seems to have
been smooth, since Syncellus reports that the time from the assassination
to the army handing the crown to Zenobia was one day. Zenobia may
have been in Palmyra, but this would have reduced the likelihood of a smooth
transition; the soldiers might have chosen one of their officers, so the
first scenario of her being with her husband is more likely. The
historical record is unanimous that Zenobia did not fight for supremacy
and there is no evidence of delay in the transfer of the throne to Odaenathus
and Zenobia's son, the ten-year-old Vaballathus. Although she never
claimed to rule in her own right and acted as a regent for her son, Zenobia
held the reins of power in the kingdom, and Vaballathus was kept in his
mother's shadow, never exercising real power.
Consolidation of power:
The Palmyrene monarchy was new; allegiance was based on loyalty to Odaenathus,
making the transfer of power to a successor more difficult than it would
have been in an established monarchy. Odaenathus tried to ensure
the dynasty's future by crowning his eldest son co-king, but both were
assassinated. Zenobia, left to secure the Palmyrene succession and
retain the loyalty of its subjects, emphasized the continuity between her
late husband and his successor (her son). Vaballathus (with Zenobia
orchestrating the process) assumed his father's royal titles immediately,
and his earliest known inscription records him as King of Kings.
Roman regions under Odaenathus (yellow) and the Palmyrene
(By Attar-Aram syria (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons)
Odaenathus controlled a large area of the Roman East and held the highest
political and military authority in the region, superseding that of the
Roman provincial governors. His self-created status was formalized
by Emperor Gallienus, who had little choice but to acquiesce. Odaenathus's
power relative to that of the emperor and the central authority was unprecedented
and elastic, but relations remained smooth until his death. His assassination
meant that the Palmyrene rulers' authority and position had to be clarified,
which led to a conflict over their interpretation. The Roman court
viewed Odaenathus as an appointed Roman official who derived his power
from the emperor, but the Palmyrene court saw his position as hereditary.
This conflict was the first step on the road to war between Rome and Palmyra.
Odaenathus' Roman titles, such as dux Romanorum, corrector totius orientis
and imperator totius orientis differed from his royal eastern ones because
the Roman ranks were not hereditary. Vaballathus had a legitimate
claim to his royal titles, but had no right to the Roman ones—especially
corrector (denoting a senior military and provincial commander in the Roman
system), which Zenobia used for her son in his earliest known inscriptions
with "King of Kings". Although the Roman emperors accepted the royal
succession, the assumption of Roman military rank antagonized the empire.
Emperor Gallienus may have decided to intervene in an attempt to regain
central authority; according to the Augustan History, praetorian prefect
Aurelius Heraclianus was dispatched to assert imperial authority over the
east and was repelled by the Palmyrene army. The account is doubtful,
however, since Heraclianus participated in Gallienus' assassination in
268. Odaenathus was assassinated shortly before the emperor, and
Heraclianus would have been unable to be sent to the East, fight the Palmyrenes
and return to the West in time to become involved in the conspiracy against
The extent of Zenobia's territorial control during her early reign is debated;
according to historian Fergus Millar, her authority was confined to Palmyra
and Emesa until 270. If this was the case, the events of 270 (which
saw Zenobia's conquest of the Levant and Egypt) are extraordinary.
It is more likely that the queen ruled the territories controlled by her
late husband, a view supported by Southern and historian Udo Hartmann,
and backed by ancient sources (such as the Roman historian Eutropius, who
wrote that the queen inherited her husband's power). The Augustan
History also mentioned that Zenobia took control of the East during Gallienus'
reign. Further evidence of extended territorial control was a statement
by the Byzantine historian Zosimus, who wrote that the queen had a residence
There is no recorded unrest against the queen accompanying her ascendance
in ancient sources hostile to her, indicating no serious opposition to
the new regime. The most obvious candidates for opposition were the
Roman provincial governors, but the sources do not say that Zenobia marched
on any of them or that they tried to remove her from the throne.
According to Hartmann, the governors and military leaders of the eastern
provinces apparently acknowledged and supported Vaballathus as the successor
of Odaenathus. During Zenobia's early regency, she focused on safegarding
the borders with Persia and pacifying the Tanukhids in Hauran. To
protect the Persian borders, the queen fortified many settlements on the
Euphrates (including the citadels of Halabiye—later called Zenobia—and
Zalabiye). Circumstantial evidence exists for confrontations with
the Sassanid Persians; probably in 269, Vaballathus assumed the victory
title of Persicus Maximus (the great victor in Persia); this may be connected
to an unrecorded battle against a Persian army trying to control northern
In 269, while Claudius Gothicus (Gallienus' successor) was defending the
borders of Italy and the Balkans against Germanic invasions, Zenobia was
cementing her authority; Roman officials in the East were caught between
loyalty to the emperor and Zenobia's increasing demands for allegiance.
The timing and rationale of the queen's decision to use military force
to strengthen her authority in the East is unclear; scholar Gary K. Young
suggested that Roman officials refused to recognize Palmyrene authority,
and Zenobia's expeditions were intended to maintain Palmyrene dominance.
Another factor may have been the weakness of Roman central authority and
its corresponding inability to protect the provinces, which probably convinced
Zenobia that the only way to maintain stability in the East was to control
the region directly. Historian Jacques Schwartz tied Zenobia's actions
to her desire to protect Palmyra's economic interests, which were threatened
by Rome's failure to protect the provinces. Also, according to Schwartz,
the economic interests conflicted; Bostra and Egypt received trade which
would have otherwise passed through Palmyra. The Tanukhids near Bostra
and the merchants of Alexandria probably attempted to rid themselves of
Palmyrene domination, triggering a military response from Zenobia.
Syria and the invasion of Arabia Petraea:
In the spring of 270, while Claudius was fighting the Goths in the mountains
of Thrace, Zenobia sent her general Septemius Zabdas to Bostra (capital
of the province of Arabia Petraea); the queen's timing seems intentional.
In Arabia the Roman governor (dux), Trassus (commanding the Legio III Cyrenaica),
confronted the Palmyrenes and was routed and killed. Zabdas destroyed
the temple of Zeus Hammon, the legion's revered shrine. A Latin inscription
after the fall of Zenobia attests to its destruction: "The temple of Iuppiter
Hammon, destroyed by the Palmyrene enemies, which ... rebuilt, with a silver
statue and iron doors (?)". The city of Umm el-Jimal may have also
been destroyed by the Palmyrenes in connection with their efforts to subjugate
After his victory, Zabdas marched south along the Jordan Valley and apparently
met little opposition. There is evidence that Petra was attacked
by a small contingent which penetrated the region. Arabia and Judaea
were eventually subdued. Palmyrene dominance of Arabia is confirmed
by many milestones bearing Vaballathus' name. Syrian subjugation
required less effort because Zenobia had substantial support there, particularly
in Antioch, Syria's traditional capital. The invasion of Arabia coincided
with the cessation of coin production in Claudius' name by the Antiochean
mint, indicating that Zenobia had begun tightening her grip on Syria.
By November 270, the mint began issuing coinage in Vaballathus' name.
The Arabian milestones presented the Palmyrene king as a Roman governor
and commander, referring to him as vir clarissimus rex consul imperator
dux Romanorum. The assumption of such titles was probably meant to
legitimize Zenobia's control of the province, not yet a usurpation of the
imperial title. Until now, Zenobia could say that she was acting
as a representative of the emperor (who was securing the eastern lands
of the empire) while the Roman monarch was preoccupied with struggles in
Europe. Although Vaballathus' use of the titles amounted to a claim
to the imperial throne, Zenobia could still justify them and maintain a
mask of subordination to Rome; an "imperator" was a commander of troops,
not the equal of an emperor ("imperator caesar").
Annexation of Egypt and the campaigns in Asia Minor:
The invasion of Egypt is sometimes explained by Zenobia's desire to secure
an alternative trade route to the Euphrates, which was cut because of the
war with Persia; This theory ignores the fact that the Euphrates route
was only partially disrupted, and overlooks Zenobia's ambition. The
date of the campaign is uncertain; Zosimus placed it after the Battle of
Naissus and before Claudius' death, which sets it in the summer of 270.
Watson, emphasizing the works of Zonaras and Syncellus and dismissing Zosimus'
account, places the invasion in October 270 (after Claudius' death).
According to Watson, the occupation of Egypt was an opportunistic move
by Zenobia (who was encouraged by the news of Claudius' death in August).
The appearance of the Palmyrenes on Egypt's eastern frontier would have
contributed to unrest in the province, whose society was fractured; Zenobia
had supporters and opponents among local Egyptians.
Color-coded map of Palmyra:
The Roman position was worsened by the absence of Egypt's prefect, Tenagino
Probus, who was battling pirates. According to Zosimus, the Palmyrenes
were helped by an Egyptian general named Timagenes; Zabdas moved into Egypt
with 70,000 soldiers, defeating an army of 50,000 Romans. After their
victory, the Palmyrenes withdrew their main force and left a 5,000-soldier
garrison. By early November, Tenagino Probus returned and assembled
an army; he expelled the Palmyrenes and regained Alexandria, prompting
Zabdas to return. The Palmyrene general aimed a thrust at Alexandria,
where he seems to have had local support; the city fell into Zabdas' hands,
and the Roman prefect fled south. The last battle was at the Babylon
Fortress, where Tenagino Probus took refuge; the Romans had the upper hand,
since they chose their camp carefully. Timagenes, with his knowledge
of the land, ambushed the Roman rear; Tenagino Probus committed suicide,
and Egypt became part of Palmyra. In the Augustan History the Blemmyes
were among Zenobia's allies, and Gary K. Young cites the Blemmyes attack
and occupation of Coptos in 268 as evidence of a Palmyrene-Blemmyes alliance.
Only Zosimus mentioned two invasions, contrasting with many scholars who
argue in favor of an initial invasion and no retreat (followed by a reinforcement,
which took Alexandria by the end of 270). During the Egyptian campaign,
Rome was entangled in a succession crisis between Claudius' brother Quintillus
and the general Aurelian. Egyptian papyri and coinage confirm Palmyrene
rule in Egypt; the papyri stopped using the regnal years of the emperors
from September to November 270, due to the succession crisis. By
December regnal dating was resumed, with the papyri using the regnal years
of the prevailing emperor Aurelian and Zenobia's son Vaballathus.
Egyptian coinage was issued in the names of Aurelian and the Palmyrene
king by November 270. There is no evidence that Zenobia ever visited
Although the operation may have commenced under Septimius Zabbai, Zabdas'
second-in-command, the invasion of Asia Minor did not fully begin until
Zabdas' arrival in the spring of 271. The Palmyrenes annexed Galatia
and, according to Zosimus, reached Ancyra. Bithynia and the Cyzicus
mint remained beyond Zenobia's control, and her attempts to subdue Chalcedon
failed. The Asia Minor campaign is poorly documented, but the western
part of the region did not become part of the queen's authority; no coins
with Zenobia or Vaballathus' portraits were minted in Asia Minor, and no
royal Palmyrene inscriptions have been found. By August 271 Zabdas
was back in Palmyra, with the Palmyrene empire at its zenith.
Zenobia ruled an empire of different peoples; as a Palmyrene, she was accustomed
to dealing with multilingual and multicultural diversity since she hailed
from a city which embraced many cults. The queen's realm was culturally
divided into eastern-Semitic and Hellenistic zones; Zenobia tried to appease
both, and seems to have successfully appealed to the region's ethnic, cultural
and political groups. The queen projected an image of a Syrian monarch,
a Hellenistic queen and a Roman empress, which gained broad support for
Zenobia turned her court into a center of learning, with many intellectuals
and sophists reported in Palmyra during her reign. As academics migrated
to the city, it replaced classical learning centers such as Athens for
Syrians. The best-known court philosopher was Longinus, who arrived
during Odaenathus' reign and became Zenobia's tutor in paideia (aristocratic
education). Many historians, including Zosimus, accused Longinus
of influencing the queen to oppose Rome. This view presents the queen
as malleable, but, according to Southern, Zenobia's actions "cannot
be laid entirely at Longinus' door". Other intellectuals associated
with the court included Nicostratus of Trapezus and Callinicus of Petra.
From the second to the fourth centuries, Syrian intellectuals argued that
Greek culture did not evolve in Greece but was adapted from the Near East.
According to Iamblichus, the great Greek philosophers reused Near Eastern
and Egyptian ideas. The Palmyrene court was probably dominated by
this school of thought, with an intellectual narrative presenting Palmyra's
dynasty as a Roman imperial one succeeding the Persian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic
rulers who controlled the region in which Hellenistic culture allegedly
originated. Nicostratus wrote a history of the Roman Empire from
Philip the Arab to Odaenathus, presenting the latter as a legitimate imperial
successor and contrasting his successes with the disastrous reigns of the
Zenobia embarked on several restoration projects in Egypt. One of
the Colossi of Memnon was reputed in antiquity to sing; the sound was probably
due to cracks in the statue, with solar radiation interacting with dew
in the cracks. Historian Glen Bowersock proposed that the queen restored
the colossus ("silencing" it), which would explain third-century accounts
of the singing and their disappearance in the fourth.
The Palmyrenes were pagans and worshiped a number of Semitic gods, with
Bel at the head of their pantheon. Zenobia accommodated Christians
and Jews, and ancient sources made many claims about the queen's beliefs;
Manichaeist sources alleged that Zenobia was one of their own. It
is more likely, however, that Zenobia tolerated all cults in an effort
to attract support from groups marginalized by Rome.
Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that Zenobia did not "hand over churches
to the Jews to make them into synagogues"; although the queen was not a
Christian, she understood the power of bishops in Christian communities.
In Antioch—considered representative of political control of the East and
containing a large Christian community—Zenobia apparently maintained authority
over the church by bringing influential clerics, probably including Paul
of Samosata, under her auspices. She may have bestowed on Paul the
rank of ducenarius (minor judge); he apparently enjoyed the queen's protection,
which helped him keep the diocesan church after he was removed from his
office as bishop of Antioch by a synod of bishops in 268.
Less than a hundred years after Zenobia's reign, Athanasius of Alexandria
called her a "Jewess" in his History of the Arians. In 391, archbishop
John Chrysostom wrote that Zenobia was Jewish; so did a Syriac chronicler
around 664 and bishop Bar Hebraeus in the thirteenth century. According
to French scholar Javier Teixidor, Zenobia was probably a proselyte; this
explained her strained relationship with the rabbis. Teixidor believed
that Zenobia became interested in Judaism when Longinus spoke about the
philosopher Porphyry and his interest in the Old Testament. Although
Talmudic sources were hostile to Palmyra because of Odaenathus' suppression
of the Jews of Nehardea, Zenobia apparently had the support of some Jewish
communities (particularly in Alexandria). In Cairo, a plaque originally
bearing an inscription confirming a grant of immunity to a Jewish synagogue
in the last quarter of the first millennium BC by King Ptolemy Euergetes
(I or II) was found. At a much later date, the plaque was re-inscribed
to commemorate the restoration of immunity "on the orders of the queen
and king". Although it is undated, the letters of the inscription
date to long after Cleopatra and Anthony's era; Zenobia and her son are
the only candidates for a king and a queen ruling Egypt after the Ptolemies.
Historian E. Mary Smallwood wrote that good relations with the diaspora
community did not mean that the Jews of Palestine were content with Zenobia's
reign, and her rule was apparently opposed in that region. The Terumot
tells the story of Rabbi "Ammi" and Rabbi "Samuel bar Nahmani", who visited
Zenobia's court and asked for the release of a Jew ("Zeir bar Hinena")
detained on her orders. The queen refused, saying: "Why have you
come to save him? He teaches that your creator performs miracles
for you. Why not let God save him?" During Aurelian's destruction
of Palmyra, Palestinian conscripts with "clubs and cudgels" (who may have
been Jews) played a vital role in Zenobia's defeat and the destruction
of her city.
There is no evidence of Zenobia's birth as a Jew; the names of her and
her husband's families belonged to the Aramaic onomasticon (collection
of names). The queen's alleged patronage of Paul of Samosata (who
was accused of "Judaizing"), may have given rise to the idea that she was
a proselyte. Only Christian accounts note Zenobia's Jewishness; no
Jewish source mentions it.
The queen probably spent most of her reign in Antioch, Syria's administrative
capital. Before the monarchy, Palmyra had the institutions of a Greek
city (polis) and was ruled by a senate which was responsible for most civil
affairs. Odaenathus maintained Palmyra's institutions, as did Zenobia;
a Palmyrene inscription after her fall records the name of Septimius Haddudan,
a Palmyrene senator. However, the queen apparently ruled autocratically;
Septimius Worod, Odaenathus' viceroy and one of Palmyra's most important
officials, disappeared from the record after Zenobia's ascent. The
queen opened the doors of her government to Eastern nobility. Zenobia's
most important courtier and advisers were her generals, Septemius Zabdas
and Septimius Zabbai; both of whom were generals under Odaenathus and received
the gentilicium (surname) "Septimius" from him.
Odaenathus respected the Roman emperor's privilege of appointing provincial
governors, and Zenobia continued this policy during her early reign.
Although the queen did not interfere in day-to-day administration, she
probably had the power to command the governors in the organization of
border security. During the rebellion, Zenobia maintained Roman forms
of administration, but appointed the governors herself (most notably in
Egypt, where Julius Marcellinus took office in 270 and was followed by
Statilius Ammianus in 271).
Agreement with Rome:
Zenobia initially avoided provoking Rome by claiming for herself and her
son the titles, inherited from Odaenathus, of subject of Rome and protector
of its eastern frontier. After expanding her territory, she seems
to have tried to be recognized as an imperial partner in the eastern half
of the empire and presented her son as subordinate to the emperor.
In late 270, Zenobia minted coinage bearing the portraits of Aurelian and
Vaballathus; Aurelian was titled "emperor", and Vaballathus "king".
The regnal year in early samples of the coinage was only Aurelian's.
By March 271, despite indicating Aurelian as the paramount monarch by naming
him first in the dating formulae, the coinage also began bearing Vaballathus'
regnal year. By indicating in the coinage that Vaballathus' reign
began in 267 (three years before the emperor's), Vaballathus appeared to
be Aurelian's senior colleague.
The emperor's blessing of Palmyrene authority has been debated; Aurelian's
acceptance of Palmyrene rule in Egypt may be inferred from the Oxyrhynchus
papyri, which are dated by the regnal years of the emperor and Vaballathus.
No proof of a formal agreement exists, and the evidence is based solely
on the joint coinage- and papyri-dating. It is unlikely that Aurelian
would have accepted such power-sharing, but he was unable to act in 271
due to crises in the West. His apparent condoning of Zenobia's actions
may have been a ruse to give her a false sense of security while he prepared
for war. Another reason for Aurelian's tolerance may have been his
desire to ensure a constant supply of Egyptian grain to Rome; it is not
recorded that the supply was cut, and the ships sailed to Rome in 270 as
usual. Some modern scholars, such as Harold Mattingly, suggest that
Cladius Gothicus had concluded a formal agreement with Zenobia which Aurelian
Empress and open rebellion:
An inscription, found in Palmyra and dated to August 271, called Zenobia
eusebes (the pious); this title, used by Roman empresses, could be seen
as a step by the queen toward an imperial title. Another contemporary
inscription called her sebaste, the Greek equivalent of "empress" (Latin:
Augusta), but also acknowledged the Roman emperor. A late-271 Egyptian
grain receipt equated Aurelian and Vaballathus, jointly calling them Augusti.
Finally, Palmyra officially broke with Rome; the Alexandrian and Antiochian
mints removed Aurelian's portrait from the coins in April 272, issuing
new tetradrachms in the names of Vaballathus and Zenobia (who were called
Augustus and Augusta, respectively).
The assumption of imperial titles by Zenobia signaled a usurpation: independence
from, and open rebellion against, Aurelian. The timeline of events
and why Zenobia declared herself empress is vague. In the second
half of 271, Aurelian marched to the East, but was delayed by the Goths
in the Balkans; this may have alarmed the queen, driving her to claim the
imperial title. Zenobia also probably understood the inevitability
of open conflict with Aurelian, and decided that feigning subordination
would be useless; her assumption of the imperial title was used to rally
soldiers to her cause. Aurelian's campaign seems to have been the
main reason for the Palmyrene imperial declaration and the removal of his
portrait from its coins.
The usurpation, which began in late March or early April 272, ended by
August. Aurelian spent the winter of 271–272 in Byzantium, and probably
crossed the Bosporus to Asia Minor in April 272. Galatia fell easily;
the Palmyrene garrisons were apparently withdrawn, and the provincial capital
of Ancyra was regained without a struggle. All the cities in Asia
Minor opened their doors to the Roman emperor, with only Tyana putting
up some resistance before surrendering; this cleared the path for Aurelian
to invade Syria, the Palmyrene heartland. A simultaneous expedition
reached Egypt in May 272; by early June Alexandria was captured by the
Romans, followed by the rest of Egypt by the third week of June.
Zenobia seems to have withdrawn most of her armies from Egypt to focus
on Syria—which, if lost, would have meant the end of Palmyra.
In May 272, Aurelian headed toward Antioch. About 40 kilometres (25
mi) north of the city, he defeated the Palmyrene army (led by Zabdas) at
the Battle of Immae. As a result, Zenobia, who waited in Antioch
during the battle, retreated with her army to Emesa. To conceal the
disaster and make her flight safer, she spread reports that Aurelian was
captured; Zabdas found a man who resembled the Roman emperor and paraded
him through Antioch. The following day, Aurelian entered the city
before marching south. After defeating a Palmyrene garrison south
of Antioch, Aurelian continued his march to meet Zenobia in the Battle
The 70,000-strong Palmyrene army, assembled on the plain of Emesa, nearly
routed the Romans. In an initial thrill of victory they hastened
their advance, breaking their lines and enabling the Roman infantry to
attack their flank. The defeated Zenobia headed to her capital on
the advice of her war council, leaving her treasury behind. In Palmyra,
the queen prepared for a siege; Aurelian blockaded food-supply routes,
and there were probably unsuccessful negotiations. According to the
Augustan History, Zenobia said that she would fight Aurelian with the help
of her Persian allies; however, the story was probably fabricated and used
by the emperor to link Zenobia to Rome's greatest enemy. If such
an alliance existed, a much-larger frontier war would have erupted; however,
no Persian army was sent. As the situation worsened, the queen left
the city for Persia intending on seeking help from Palmyra's former enemy;
according to Zosimus, she rode a "female camel, the fastest of its breed
and faster than any horse".
Captivity and fate:
Aurelian, learning about Zenobia's departure, sent a contingent which captured
the queen before she could cross the Euphrates to Persia; Palmyra capitulated
soon after news of Zenobia's captivity reached the city in August 272.
Aurelian sent the queen and her son to Emesa for trial, followed by most
of Palmyra's court elite (including Longinus). According to the Augustan
History and Zosimus, Zenobia blamed her actions on her advisers; however,
there are no contemporary sources describing the trial, only later hostile
Roman ones. The queen's reported cowardice in defeat was probably
Aurelian's propaganda; it benefited the emperor to paint Zenobia as selfish
and traitorous, discouraging the Palmyrenes from hailing her as a hero.
Although Aurelian had most of his prisoners executed, he spared the queen
and her son to parade her in his planned triumph.
Zenobia's fate after Emesa is uncertain, since ancient historians left
conflicting accounts. Zosimus wrote that she died before crossing
the Bosporus on her way to Rome; according to this account, the queen became
ill or starved herself to death. Chronicler John Malalas wrote that
Aurelian humiliated Zenobia by parading her through the eastern cities
on a dromedary; in Antioch, the emperor had her chained and seated on a
dais in the hippodrome for three days before the city's populace.
Malalas concluded his account by writing that Zenobia appeared in Aurelian's
triumph and was then beheaded.
Most ancient historians and modern scholars agree that Zenobia was displayed
in Aurelian's 274 triumph; Zosimus was the only source to say that the
queen died before reaching Rome, making his account questionable.
A public humiliation (as recounted by Malalas) is a plausible scenario,
since Aurelian would probably have wanted to publicize his suppression
of the Palmyrene rebellion. Only Malalas, however, describes Zenobia's
beheading; according to the other historians, her life was spared after
Aurelian's triumph. The Augustan History recorded that Aurelian gave
Zenobia a villa in Tibur near Hadrian's Villa, where she lived with her
children. Zonaras wrote that Zenobia married a nobleman, and Syncellus
that she married a Roman senator. The house she reportedly occupied
became a tourist attraction in Rome.
The queen owed her elevated position to her son's minority. An inscription
on a milestone on the road between Palmyra and Emesa, dated to Zenobia's
early reign, identifies her as "illustrious queen, mother of the king of
kings"; this was the first inscription giving her an official position.
A lead token from Antioch also identifies Zenobia as queen. The earliest
known attestation of Zenobia as queen in Palmyra is an inscription on the
base of a statue erected for her by Zabdas and Zabbai, dated to August
271 and calling her "most illustrious and pious queen". On an undated
milestone found near Byblos, Zenobia is titled Sebaste. The queen
was never acknowledged as sole monarch in Palmyra, although she was the
de facto sovereign of the empire; she was always associated with her husband
or son in inscriptions, except in Egypt (where some coins were minted in
Zenobia's name alone). According to her coins, the queen assumed
the title of Augusta (empress) in 272.
In addition to Vaballathus, Zenobia had other children; the image of a
child named Hairan (II) appears on a seal impression with that of his brother
Vaballathus; no name of a mother was engraved and the seal is undated.
Odaenathus' son Herodianus is identified by Udo Hartmann with Hairan I,
a son of Odaenahtus who appears in Palmyrene inscriptions as early as 251.
David S. Potter, on the other hand, suggested that Hairan II is the son
of Zenobia and that he is Herodianus instead of Hairan I.
Herennianus and Timolaus were mentioned only in the Augustan History.
Herennianus may be a conflation of Hairan and Herodianus; Timolaus is probably
a fabrication, although historian Dietmar Kienast suggested that he might
have been Vaballathus.
A controversial Palmyrene inscription records Septimius Antiochus, "Zenobia's
son". He may have been Vaballathus' younger brother, or was presented
in this manner for political reasons; Antiochus was proclaimed emperor
in 273, when Palmyra revolted against Rome for a second time. If
Antiochus was a son of Zenobia, he was probably a young child not fathered
by Odaenathus; Zosimus described him as insignificant, appropriate for
a five-year-old boy.
According to the Augustan History, Zenobia's descendants were Roman nobility
during the reign of Emperor Valens (reigned 364–375). Eutropius and
Jerome chronicled the queen's descendants in Rome during the fourth and
fifth centuries. They may have been the result of a reported marriage
to a Roman spouse or offspring who accompanied her from Palmyra; both theories,
however, are tentative. Zonaras is the only historian to note that
Zenobia had daughters; he wrote that one married Aurelian, who married
the queen's other daughters to distinguished Romans. According to
Southern, the emperor's marriage to Zenobia's daughter is a fabrication.
Evaluation and legacy:
An evaluation of Zenobia is difficult; the queen was courageous when her
husband's supremacy was threatened and by seizing the throne, she protected
the region from a power vacuum after Odaenathus' death. According
to Watson, she made what Odaenathus left her a "glittering show of strength".
In the view of Watson, Zenobia should not be seen as a total powermonger,
nor as a selfless hero fighting for a cause; according to historian David
Graf, "She took seriously the titles and responsibilities she assumed for
her son and that her program was far more ecumenical and imaginative than
that of her husband Odenathus, not just more ambitious".
Zenobia has inspired scholars, academics, musicians and actors; her fame
has lingered in the West, and is supreme in the Middle East. As a
heroic queen with a tragic end, she stands alongside Cleopatra and Boudica.
The queen's legend turned her into an idol, that can be reinterpreted to
accommodate the needs of writers and a historians; thus, Zenobia has been
by turns a freedom fighter, a hero of the oppressed and a national symbol.
The queen is a female role model; according to historian Michael Rostovtzeff,
Catherine the Great liked to compare herself to Zenobia as a woman who
created military might and an intellectual court. During the 1930s,
thanks to an Egyptian-based feminist press, Zenobia became an icon for
women's-magazine readers in the Arabic-speaking world as a strong, nationalistic
Her most lasting legacy is in Syria, where the queen is a national symbol.
Zenobia became an icon for Syrian nationalists; she had a cult following
among Western-educated Syrians, and an 1871 novel by journalist Salim al-Bustani
was entitled Zenobia malikat Tadmor (Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra).
Syrian nationalist Ilyas Matar, who wrote Syria's first history in Arabic
in 1874, (al-'Uqud al-durriyya fi tarikh al-mamlaka al-Suriyya; The Pearl
Necklace in the History of the Syrian Kingdom), was fascinated by Zenobia
and included her in his book. To Matar, the queen kindled hope for
a new Zenobia who would restore Syria's former grandeur. Another
history of Syria was written by Jurji Yanni in 1881, in which Yanni called
Zenobia a "daughter of the fatherland", and yearned for her "glorious past".
Yanni described Aurelian as a tyrant who deprived Syria of its happiness
and independence by capturing its queen.
In modern Syria, Zenobia is regarded as a hero; her image appeared on banknotes,
and in 1997 she was the subject of the television series Al-Ababid (The
Anarchy). The series was watched by millions in the Arabic-speaking
world. It examined the Israeli–Palestinian conflict from a Syrian
perspective, where the queen's struggle symbolized the Palestinians' struggle
to gain the right of self-determination. Zenobia was also the subject
of a biography by Mustafa Tlass, Syria's former minister of defense and
one of the country's most prominent figures.
Myth, romanticism and popular culture:
Harold Mattingly called Zenobia "one of the most romantic figures in history".
According to Southern, "The real Zenobia is elusive, perhaps ultimately
unattainable, and novelists, playwrights and historians alike can absorb
the available evidence, but still need to indulge in varied degrees of
She has been the subject of romantic and ideologically-driven biographies
by ancient and modern writers. The Augustan History is the clearest
example of an ideological account of Zenobia's life, and its author acknowledged
that it was written to criticize the emperor Gallienus. According
to the History, Gallienus was weak because he allowed a woman to rule part
of the empire and Zenobia was an abler sovereign than the emperor.
The narrative changed as the Augustan History moved on to the life of Claudius
Gothicus, a lauded and victorious emperor, with the author characterizing
Zenobia's protection of the eastern frontier as a wise delegation of power
by Claudius. When the History reached the biography of Aurelian,
the author's view of Zenobia changed dramatically; the queen is depicted
as a guilty, insolent, proud coward. Her wisdom was discredited and
her actions deemed the result of manipulation by advisers.
Zenobia's "staunch" beauty was emphasized by the author of the Augustan
History, who ascribed to her feminine timidity and inconsistency (the reasons
for her alleged betrayal of her advisers to save herself). The queen's
gender posed a dilemma for the History, since it cast a shadow on Aurelian's
victory. Its author ascribed many masculine traits to Zenobia to
make Aurelian a conquering hero who suppressed a dangerous Amazon queen.
According to the Augustan History, Zenobia had a clear, manly voice, dressed
as an emperor (rather than an empress), rode horseback, was attended by
eunuchs instead of ladies-in-waiting, marched with her army, drank with
her generals, was careful with money (contrary to the stereotypical spending
habits of her gender) and pursued masculine hobbies such as hunting.
Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a fanciful 14th-century account of the queen in
which she is a tomboy in childhood who preferred wrestling with boys, wandering
in the forests and killing goats to playing like a young girl. Zenobia's
chastity was a theme of these romanticized accounts; according to the Augustan
History, she disdained sexual intercourse and allowed Odaenathus into her
bed only for conception. Her reputed chastity impressed some male
historians; Edward Gibbon wrote that Zenobia surpassed Cleopatra in chastity
and valor. According to Boccaccio, Zenobia safeguarded her virginity
when she wrestled with boys as a child.
Seventeenth-century visitors to Palmyra rekindled the Western world's romantic
interest in Zenobia. This interest peaked during the mid-nineteenth
century, when Lady Hester Stanhope visited Palmyra and wrote that its people
treated her like the queen; she was reportedly greeted with singing and
dancing, and Bedouin warriors stood on the city's columns. A procession
ended with a mock coronation of Stanhope under the arch of Palmyra as "queen
of the desert". William Ware, fascinated by Zenobia, wrote a fanciful
account of her life. Novelists and playwrights, such as Haley Elizabeth
Garwood and Nick Dear, also wrote about the queen.
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