HISTORY by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
Zenobia: warrior queen, thorn in Rome's side
, July 4, 2015
The capture and threatened destruction by ISIS of the vast and majestic third-century ruins of Palmyra in Syria may re-awaken interest in Zenobia, the warrior Queen of Palmyra.
Bust of Zenobia
Palmyra was founded in an oasis athwart an ancient East-West trade route, and its relics are of historic importance to several civilisations.
Zenobia, originally a Roman puppet like Cleopatra, had a love-hate relationship with Rome, admiring its achievements but chafing under its rule. Dates are uncertain but she was born about 240 AD and became Queen Regnant about 267. Finally she revolted and, leading her troops, thrashed the Romans in battle, quite an achievement in the ancient world.
According to some accounts she claimed descent from Cleopatra’s family, and perhaps even from Cleopatra herself, though she also claimed descent from Dido, Queen of Carthage. She seems to have been interested in ancient Egyptian culture, already thousands of years old, as well as in things Greek and Roman.
There are conflicting accounts of her antecedents. According to one history, an imperial declaration by her in 269 was sent to the citizens of Alexandria, in Egypt, describing it as “my ancestral city”. Here she may have been hedging her bets. Her father was a Roman citizen and at one time Roman governor of Palmyra. There is an inscription to her father on one of Palmyra’s standing columns.
Zenobia has been the subject of no fewer than five operas, mainly by Continental writers in the 18th and 19th centuries (one in 2007), and was mentioned by Chaucer, but has never had a place in the Anglo-American literary and historical imagination like that of Cleopatra, possibly because she was overlooked by Shakespeare, and also because her private life seems to have been somewhat strait-laced.
She had a formidable war machine. The future Emperor Aurelian, no coward, wrote to the Senate in Rome, which had accused him of being faint hearted in his prosecution of the war against her: “The Romans tell me that I am waging war against a woman, as though Zenobia were contending against me by her own strength alone, and not with that of a host of foes. I cannot describe to you how many engines of war she has. There is no part of her ramparts that is not furnished with two or three ballistas. Torrents of fire pour down upon us. …
“My accusers would not know how to praise me enough if they knew this woman, if they knew her prudence in council, her firmness of purpose, the dignity with which she directs her army, her munificence when need requires it, her severity when it is just to be severe. … I can assert that such was the dread of this woman that she held in check Arabians, Saracens and Armenians …”
A film of her life is crying out to be made, but she would need to be played by someone somehow more serious and less hedonistic than Elizabeth Taylor was as Cleopatra. There is enough uncertainty about the key facts of her life to provide a scriptwriter with plenty of scope for imagination.
Zenobia is mentioned in several texts from antiquity. According to one historian she was Jewish. She expanded the Palmyrene Empire into Egypt, and into much of the Middle East. She is also said to have enjoyed the company of philosophers and poets. The most important of these was the philosopher, Cassius Longinus, whose reputation as a literary critic was immense. He became a teacher, and subsequently chief counsellor to Zenobia, and it was by his advice that she broke from Rome.
Zenobia was the second wife of the Palmyrene king Septimius Odaenathus, after whose death in 267 she reigned as queen. Within two years she had expanded the Palmyrene Empire into Egypt. She expelled the Romans, who of course had taken Egypt over from Cleopatra. If she believed herself to be Cleopatra’s descendant one can imagine her wishing to restore the line of the Ptolemys, and indeed the Pharaohs on herself.
Classical and Arabic sources describe Zenobia as beautiful and intelligent, with a dark complexion, pearly white teeth, and bright black eyes.She was said to be even more beautiful than Cleopatra, “differing though in her reputation for extreme chastity”.
Old sources also describe Zenobia as carrying herself like a man, riding, hunting and drinking on occasion with her officers. She may in this have been part of the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ novel Till we Have Faces. She is said to have been fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian, and had some knowledge of Latin.
Smarting over their defeat, and unable to tolerate such a usurpation, especially of Egypt, “the granary of the Empire”, the Romans returned in force some time between 271 and 275. This time Zenobia’s army was beaten and she was taken to Rome as a prisoner (some say in golden chains) before the Emperor Aurelian. Palmyra, like Carthage, was razed, but the destruction was incomplete, leaving the magnificent ruins that have stood until today.
Accounts of her end differ: some say she was beheaded, others that she was given a villa and lived out her days in comfort as a Roman matron, consoled by her study of philosophy. Some sources say she had children. Cassius Longinus was executed by Aurelian for his advice to her.
Dr Hal G.P. Colebatch shared the Australia Prime Minister’s $80,000 History Prize for the book Australia’s Secret War: How Unions Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books, Sydney).