Who was Queen Zenobia and what did she do?

Zenobia of Palmyra was a formidable leader. Fiercely independent, she was an astute political operative, and a master tactician. Here is the remarkable story of Empress Zenobia.

History Rulers
15 May 2023

Zenobia of Palmyra, a prominent figure of the third century, was a beacon of strength and resilience in a time marked by war and turmoil.

As a skilled politician and master tactician, she led her people to triumphs, expanding the Palmyrene Empire to its zenith. However, she played a high-risk game of survival that ultimately led to her capture and downfall. Despite her defeat, Zenobia’s unwavering determination and cultural impact left an indelible and enduring mark on history.

Her successes and failures showcase the complexity of her character, while her legacy endures as an emblem of resilience, ambition, and leadership, as she skillfully navigated the challenges of her time and elevated the Palmyrene Empire to remarkable heights. Join us as we delve into the captivating life and career of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.

The Early Life of Queen Zenobia

Zenobia, Queen of the Palmyrene Empire (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The early life of Septimia Zenobia is shrouded in conjecture. Indeed very little is known with any degree of certainty and facts are scarce. It’s believed she was born in the late 230s AD or early 240s AD in Palmyra, modern-day Syria. Zenobia’s native name at birth was said to have been written BTZBY in the Palmyrene alphabet, translated to Bat-Zabbai, or ‘daughter of Zabbai’.

The available information about her youth is primarily from Historia Augusta, a largely unreliable book of Roman biographies written by authors unknown in the fourth or fifth century. It says she enjoyed hunting and aside from her mother tongue, believed to be Palmyrene Aramaic, she could speak Greek, Egyptian and Latin.

According to a later, ninth century version of the story of Septimia Zenobia, she was charged with tending the family’s sheep and supervising the shepherds, which is where she learned to confidently rule.

In around 255 AD when she was around fourteen or fifteen, she became the second wife of Odaenathus, the founder-king of the Palmyrene Kingdom. They had a son named Vaballathus.

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra

Queen Zenobia (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Life in Palmyra during Queen Zenobia’s time was characterised by cultural diversity, economic prosperity primarily driven by trade between the Roman Empire and the east, and intellectual vigour. The city stood as a beacon of stability amidst a tumultuous political landscape.

Odaenathus was a powerful ruler in the region, and held a significant amount of territory. He was an influential figure, but was still theoretically a client king under Roman authority. Despite his client status, he named Herodianus, his son from his first marriage, as co-ruler. However in approximately 267 AD or 268 AD, Odaenathus and Herodianus were killed – there remains unsubstantiated rumours that Zenobia was somehow involved in their deaths – and the baton of rule passed to Vaballathus.

Since he was too young to rule, Zenobia declared herself his regent and immediately began taking advantage of the chaos and uncertainty in Rome during the tumultuous Crisis of the Third Century.

Queen Zenobia, often referred to as Empress Zenobia, set about consolidating a vast power base in the east. While the Romans were busy with internecine struggles and border wars in Europe, Zenobia gained control of Syria, Mesopotamia and Judea. Later, in around 269 AD, she extended her influence and control to Egypt and Anatolia, alongside the Levant and much of Asia Minor. All without consulting with, or seeking the approval of, Rome.

Unlike her husband, Zenobia of Palmyra wasn’t content to remain a client of Rome, though she stopped short of declaring Palmyrene independence. Zenobia was crafting a careful narrative of plausible deniability. In fact to placate Rome, she minted coins with her son on one side and Emperor Aurelian on the other. She also had Aurelian’s name printed on official correspondence.

In practical terms however, by 271 AD, she ruled a significant portion of the Eastern Roman Empire. Yet as quickly as the Palmyrene Empire had risen, and at the point where Zenobia’s realm seemed virtually unstoppable, the power-play factors of the Roman world were about to shift once more.

The Fall of One of History’s Greatest Mavericks

Aurelian in battle (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

During the late 260s AD and early 270s AD, Rome’s emperors were either indifferent to what was happening in the east, or lacked the resources to address Zenobia’s empire-building due to their internal crises and external threats. But when Aurelian came to power in 270 AD, he vowed to reunite the fractured Empire under a single banner.

Aurelian didn’t hand around. He subdued a barbarian invasion in northern Italy in early 272 AD, then swiftly turned his attention east to deal with Zenobia of Palmyra. Aurelian didn’t send envoys, nor did he wait for her to contact him, he took his full army to her empire with one aim.

His troops destroyed every town that opposed him on their way through Asia Minor, and word soon permeated that the Romans were coming. Subsequent cities surrendered meekly and pledged their allegiance to Aurelian.

There were reports of correspondence between Queen Zenobia and Emperor Aurelian as the latter reached Palmyra, as well as letters from Aurelian before he set off for the east, but these are believed to have been fabricated in Historia Augusta.

The Battle of Immae

The ancient city of Palmyra (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

Sometime in 272 AD, the forces of Emperor Aurelian and those of Empress Zenobia, led by her loyal general Zabdas, faced off near Antioch, believed to be near the town of Reyhanli in modern-day Turkey.

After intense fighting, the Romans emerged victorious and the Palmyrene army was forced to flee. Zenobia and her army retreated to the city of Emesa, swiftly followed by Aurelian. They met again on the battlefield and, just as at Immae, the Romans were the victors.

The queen escaped for a second time to her home city of Palmyra and after the Romans besieged the city, she was apprehended attempting to cross the Euphrates River.

Zenobia: Death & Legacy

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The exact details of Queen Zenobia’s fate after her capture are unclear. Some sources suggest she was paraded through Rome in golden chains during Aurelian’s triumphal procession, while others claim she married a wealthy Roman and lived out her days in a villa in Tivoli, Italy. The only date mentioned in relation to her death was ‘sometime after 274 AD.’

Queen Zenobia’s legacy endures as a symbol of resilience, ambition, and political skill. As a skilled leader, astute politician, and enlightened patron of arts and sciences, she elevated the Palmyrene Empire to unprecedented heights. Her unyielding spirit and ambitious determination serve as a testament to the profound impact one individual can have on the course of history.


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