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Zenobia Queen of the Palmyrian Empire

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0


Famous queens were courageous women of accomplishment. Queen Zenobia, the Syrian desert queen, was a striking figure who messed with the history of ancient Rome. She refused to be conquered as long as she could, and maybe that had something to do with the legend of her beginnings.

Imagine being brought up as a boy while you are a girl. A daughter thought nothing of, disregarded by your father because there was little use for you until you could be married off to a chief.  Your father being a successful desert chief with many wives and sons. Your mother hid you among the boys in your home, and raised you to endure hardships as well as ride horses in the desert, hunt, use bow and arrows, and have the schooling to enable you to speak 5 languages. All this in the 3rd century A.D. There may be some truth to this legend, but for now it is a great mystery.

We do know that dear Zenobia was married off at age 15, to a king of Palmyra. He was, Septimius Odaenathus, a Romanized Arab. She was not his first wife, but they had 3 sons, and the firstborn, Vaballath, was the heir to the throne. She was reputed to be quite a beauty:

Her face was dark and of a swarthy blue, 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 she had pearls in place of teeth. Her voice was clear and like that of a man. Her sterness, when necessity demanded, was that of a tyrant, her clemency, that of a great emperor. (Ten Queens by Meltzer, pg 38).

Palmyra Street

Palmyra, Syria (her eventual queendom)

The ancient city was a major trade route in the Syrian desert. It was almost centered between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River. The Roman empire was connected from Palmyra to the Persian empire, and beyond, so the Romans forced Palmyra to be subjects in the 1st century A.D. This meant that Rome controlled the caravan routes, and although neighboring Parthia and Persia greatly disliked that fact, the desert oasis, Palmyra, remained a safe route.

Palmyra means “city of palm trees,” and so it was, as well as beautiful architecture with a Grand Colonnade of 375 marble columns. Traders came from Egypt, India, the Persian Gulf, and the Orient. The merchants from Palmyra became very rich. Surviving art sculptures portray wealthy gowned men and women in embroidered clothes and wearing rich, weighty jewelry.

Roman Syria (saved by Zenobia and Odaenathus)
Meanwhile the Roman empire was beginning to crack somewhat, and Roman Syria was the goal of Rome’s arch enemy, Sapor 1, king of the Sassanid Persians. Odaenathus and Zenobia were very aware that Palmyra could be captured by Sapor 1, or at least could be on his “to be conquered” list. So, since Odaenathus had control of the Roman legions stationed in the East, he and his lovely Zenobia warred against much of Asia minor for several years. They protected and expanded Roman Syria, together.

Imagine the daring Zenobia dressed in armor, riding a horse behind her king, and using all her formidable skills to slay the enemy. She probably walked miles with her foot soldiers and matched them in strength. She spoke Latin (the official language of the region), Aramic, Arabic, Egyptian and Greek. The queen to be knew how to communicate.

The Roman bigwigs were thrilled with the king of Palmyra’s work in preserving Roman Syria, so he was granted a new title: Governor of all the East. Alas, his glory was short lived because Odaenathus was assassinated.

Queen of Palmyra
The king’s death has many suspects, one of them being Zenobia. Did she or didn’t she? Know one knows for sure, in fact most of what is known about her (mainly her ruling years, which are not the same from all accounts), are from the Romans who were her enemies.

So, her 11 year old firstborn, Vaballath, became the king. Zenobia was his regent, major helper governor. Think about this: what a sham this must have been for the vibrant and intelligent woman who had done so much to keep her Palmyra and all of Roman Syria a great kingdom, safe from neighboring despots, and her son is passed the keys to the kingdom. So unfair, so wrong. Nevertheless, historically she is given the credit as the ruler of the Palmyrene Empire.

The time was ripe for Zenobia to get out from under Roman authority. The Roman emperor at the time was an accomplished general, Aurelian. He was busy with the corrupt Roman government, so Zenobia figured she should begin uniting Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia under her queenship.

She succeeded in Egypt by sending her troops to invade. Unfortunately they only left a small force behind to control it. Aurelian found out, and marched East to put a halt to Zenobia’s mischief. Eventually Aurelian defeated Zenobia, but she didn’t retreat, she fled. She made it back to Palmyra and held her defense from there. Her soldiers were expert bow and arrow marksman and they held off the Romans initially. Also, they used fire from the ramparts to hurt the enemy. As all sieges continue, the matter of food and water becomes of highest importance. The queen’s people were getting slim on supplies so she and her son left the city (snuck out) to appeal to help from the king of Persia (Sapor’s son). She was hoping he would ally with her so the Roman rule would die out. On a personal note, I think he would have joined her because he probably despised the Roman control too.

Zenobia was captured before she made it to see the Persian ruler. The warrior queen was a great prize for the Roman emperor. He could have had her killed, as was common in those times, but instead he made her captive in a cage on a high platform in the public square in Antioch (on the return to Rome). She had to stay there for 3 days, exposed and humiliated by the viewers. When the cavalcade arrived in Rome she was made to walk with a golden collar around her neck, her arms bound in gold chains, and a helmet on her head. She had a purple ceremonial robe on as she walked at the end of Aurelian’s procession.

She was a remarkable, classy woman who was spared because she had performed admirably in service to Rome.

photo courtesy - Palmyra Street (www.traveladventures.org

                        Zenobia bust (www.britannica.com)



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