Nathanael Andrade on a fascinating figure from the ancient world.
Woman warrior. Vengeful queen. Chaste matron. Selfish despot. Courageous ruler. Eastern potentate. Arab nationalist. These are just some of the memories of Zenobia of Palmyra that have found homes in Roman, European, and Middle Eastern literature from the past 2000 years. They reflect how people living long after Zenobia’s reign remembered her and added new layers to her tale. But they are also based on invented traditions or dubious testimony. They communicate much about the social worlds of the people who told such stories, but they are far removed from Zenobia and her Palmyra. Despite being one of the most famous women of the ancient world, we actually know little about her.
Zenobia’s regnal years (268-272) were very turbulent. They also represent the only stage of her life that we remember at all. Her surviving inscriptions and coins come only from her governance of the Roman East. Even then, Zenobia’s conduct as ruler is hard to determine. The textual sources that describe it are erratic in their accuracy. The Historia Augusta, the most detailed and influential narrative, is famous for its fabrications, inventions, and gossip. Testimonies for her life before her reign are virtually non-existent. Her fate after her defeat is controversial. The passage of time has indeed cast shadows on Zenobia’s life.
So who was Zenobia really? What can we know about her, especially before her reign? As I argue in Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra , the recently imperiled material culture of Palmyra has much to offer. It enables us to glimpse what it was like for women to come of age there. The funerary portraits that adorned its tombs communicate various social expectations linked to gender and age. They provide insights into clothing, jewelry, status, and familial bonds. Palmyra’s inscriptions cast light on social organization, kinship relations, guardianship, slave-owning, labor, and other phenomena. Its excavated tombs and houses help us reconstruct funerary and domestic spheres. From such evidence, we can glimpse how Palmyra’s women, and thus Zenobia, experienced life in their city.
Such an effort to situate Zenobia’s life in the material and social context of ancient Palmyra, which Zenobia’s compatriots called Tadmor in their native Aramaic language, is immensely important. In various ways, western imperial powers and the Assad regime have created narratives of Zenobia and her Palmyra (modern Tadmur) that serve their motives. Among modern Europeans, Zenobia has often been depicted as an exotic queen whose courage and masculine temperament stood in stark contrast to an indolent, inert “Orient.” For the repressive Assad regime, Zenobia has been trumpeted as a beacon of Arab nationalism in the face of western aggression. The Islamic State, which brutally murdered the renowned archaeologist Khaled al-As‘ad and so many others at Tadmur, has sought to erase memories of Zenobia’s Palmyra altogether. Narratives about Zenobia based on the contemporary Palmyrene evidence enable us to keep her memory alive, but with proper controls determined by what we know about her social and cultural world.
Zenobia’s Early Years
Born roughly in 240, Zenobia had the Aramaic name Bathzabbai (daughter of Zabbai). When she acquired her famous Greek name at Zenobia is unclear. Her home city of Palmyra was a thriving caravan city located on an oasis in the eastern Syrian desert. Her father was named Antiochus, presumably a minor member of Palmyra’s elite. Her immediate and extended family belonged to a clan and, more broadly, a tribe. It lived in a traditional courtyard house, where cisterns collected Palmyra’s limited rain water. There she enjoyed the smells of baking bread and roasted meat. She took pleasure in rooms decorated with vivid colored paintings and patterns or animal shapes made of stucco. While a child, her tunic and short hair distinguished her little from boys her age, but she wore earrings. As a maiden, she wore longer hair and an assortment of jewelry. When she prayed, she did so with her arms raised toward the sky.
Zenobia’s social universe was shaped by Arabian and Syro-Mesopotamian traditions that determined local culture at the frontier city of Palmyra. Even so, she conceived of herself as Roman, and no evidence supports that she understood herself to be an Arab nationalist. While young, she spoke Palmyrenean Aramaic as her native language and became conversant in Greek. She apparently learned Latin as an adult, but spoke it with discomfort. She allegedly learned to speak Egyptian, but this cannot be verified.
In roughly her late teens, Zenobia was betrothed to the dynast Odainath, then Palmyra’s ruler and the father of a son named Hairan. Once married, Zenobia concealed her hair beneath her mantle whenever in public or among men not her relatives. When involved in religious rites, she veiled her face as well. She managed household affairs, including the textile production of slaves, and she also maintained her own property. This included rent-producing rural estates and pasturage, slaves, and maybe even tomb properties. She soon had a son named Wahballath, a name that meant “Gift of Allat” (Allat was an Arabian goddess). She also apparently had daughters. The other sons identified by the Historia Augusta are probably spurious.
Zenobia’s appearance at this stage of her life has long attracted speculation. The Historia Augusta describes a marvelous beauty with brown skin, dark eyes, and teeth so white that they resembled pearls. Nothing corroborates this description, and archaeologists have shown that corpses excavated at Palmyra often have discolored teeth from the fluoride content of the local water. Realistically, Zenobia probably had discolored teeth too, and increasingly suffered from arthritis as she aged.
Zenobia’s coins have fueled further contemplations of her appearance. These were all minted at Syrian Antioch and Egyptian Alexandria in early 272. Most model her image on that of the former Roman empress Salonina (253-268). But some from Alexandria portray her with large ears and an aquiline nose. Might these represent Zenobia’s actual appearance? There’s no way to tell.
Zenobia’s Rise to Power
Zenobia’s life happened at a time of dramatic change. For decades, the Roman empire had been plagued by civil wars, usurpations, and frontier breaches. Then the Persians marched deep into Syria in 252 or 253. In 260, they routed an army of the Roman emperor Valerian, captured him, and moved deep into Syria again. In this period of instability, Odainath asserted himself as a commander of Roman forces in Syria, confronted the Persians, and suppressed imperial usurpers operating nearby. The imperial court responded to his increased autonomy, authority, and ostensible loyalty by recognizing him as governor of the so-called “East.” Protecting Syria and Arabia, Odainath successfully invaded Persia and assumed the title of “king of kings.” Zenobia was now the matron of the most powerful household in the eastern Roman empire.
Zenobia’s life took a sharp turn in 267-268. Odainath and his eldest son were assassinated under circumstances that remain mysterious. One rumor maintained that Zenobia was involved in the murder. It seems spurious, and it’s uncorroborated by the surviving sources. More probably, a disgruntled relative murdered him, perhaps as part of a conspiracy of Palmyrene notables who resented his authority. The imperial court, concerned with Odainath’s growing power, may have been involved too. The situation placed Zenobia’s son in serious peril. Since Wahballath was now Odainath’s obvious successor, Odainath’s killers would be sure to eliminate him too.
It was in this dire scenario that Zenobia seized power. How she did so is obscure. She presumably gained the support of Odainath’s immediate circle and had anyone involved in his assassination killed. At Palmyra, women sometimes became guardians of households in the absence of other adult men. Since Palmyrenes recognized Odainath’s household as the ruling family of the Roman East, Zenobia now governed it on Wahballath’s behalf. Inscriptions made by Zenobia’s government show that she defined her authority in such terms. Wahballath essentially had his father’s titles; Zenobia governed as “mother of the king.”
This was undoubtedly a tense, volatile time in Zenobia’s life. But she had concerns beyond her own transition to power. She also had to ensure that Odainath was buried with proper funerary rites. We can reconstruct various aspects of the funeral on the basis of Palmyra’s tombs, its contents, and excavated human remains. Zenobia had Odainath’s corpse, which may have been mummified in layers of cloth, interred in an above-ground tomb. Some have wondered whether a reconstructed tomb just west of Palmyra’s Great Colonnade (Tomb 86) is Odainath’s, but nothing links him to it explicitly. In the tomb, a sarcophagus lid displayed an image of Odainath reclining at banquet and surrounded by his family, with Zenobia seated at his feet. In anticipation of her own passing, a portrait of Zenobia perhaps appeared nearby. With her left hand raised to her mantle, which concealed her hair, her likeness would have been adorned with the jewelry that Odainath had given her. Even so, if Zenobia expected to buried with Odainath, her plans would be thwarted. She would die far away from her Palmyra and her husband’s tomb.
Zenobia’s Political World
For the first two years of her reign, Zenobia only conferred upon Wahballath the titles that Odainath had held. She also governed less territory than her husband. Then in 270, Zenobia’s activity took a dramatic shift. She may have been responding to provocation, or even a military offensive, by the imperial court. Or she may have decided that she needed more leverage in dealing with it. Either way, she had her armies invade Arabia, Egypt, and Anatolia. She also claimed the titles of imperator and Caesar for Wahballath.
Despite defining Wahballath as imperator and Caesar, she noticeably did not proclaim him Augustus. Her coins now featured images of the recently acclaimed emperor Aurelian and Wahballath, but only Aurelian wore a radiate crown. These symbols elevated Wahballath in stature while still marking him as slightly subordinate to the Roman emperor. Despite her warring, Zenobia was communicating that she and her son governed on behalf of the imperial court. It just could not dispense with her.
What do we know of Zenobia as a ruler? The reliable sources are few. The fascinating figure of al-Zabba in medieval Arabic literature, apparently based on her, reflects layers of legend. The Historia Augusta, which depicts her as both a courageous ruler and a selfish despot, is mostly unreliable. Later Iranian and Coptic texts seem to point to a visit made by Manichaean missionaries to Zenobia’s court, and fragments of letters written to her by Paul of Samosata, a very controversial bishop of Antioch, survive. But they only provide blurry glimpses of Zenobia at work. The image of Zenobia as a warrior who frequently engaged in military combat, very common in modern fiction, has no serious historical basis beyond the fanciful portrayal in the Historia Augusta.
A passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi is of unique importance, even if it’s hard to interpret. It describes how two Jewish rabbis petitioned Zenobia for the release of a captive. Zenobia responded that they should petition their Divinity, as he often performed miracles. A courtier then displayed a sword with which Odainath killed his brother. For some reason, this resulted in the captive’s release. The passage provides insight into how some of Zenobia’s subjects, particularly Jewish ones, perceived her. Displaying a typical regal confidence that could spill into arrogance, she was a reasonable figure of authority. The passage also shows that Zenobia was not a figurehead ruler who ceded actual governance to male courtiers. She managed petitions at court.
Other longstanding beliefs about Zenobia are harder to substantiate. It has often been surmised that Zenobia’s court attracted intellectuals from throughout the eastern Roman empire. In truth, we can only place the philosopher Longinus at her court or in the vicinity. The Historia Augusta asserts that Zenobia claimed descent from Cleopatra VII, the famous Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. It’s possible.
Zenobia’s Fall from Power
The end of Zenobia’s reign came in the summer of 272, when Aurelian’s army marched across Anatolia. Zenobia awaited his arrival at Antioch, in north Syria, and hastily had Wahballath proclaimed Augustus and herself Augusta. Near the city Aurelian’s forces defeated her army, and Zenobia had to feign a victory by parading a man resembling Aurelian as a captive in order to escape. Cities and military units throughout Syria began to defect, and at Emesa (modern Homs), Aurelian overwhelmed the remains of Zenobia’s army and soon invested Palmyra. Shortly after, Zenobia fled eastward on a camel but was captured while boarding a boat on the Euphrates river. Tried by Aurelian at Emesa, she was spared, but some men of her court, including Longinus, were executed after Zenobia apparently denounced them. This has often been deemed a disgraceful moment, but Zenobia had her son’s wellbeing to consider and may have shifted blame to men in her circle. Intent on sparing the queen, Aurelian accepted that men at court had disproportionately influenced her.
The sources vary in their reports of Zenobia’s fate. One tradition maintains that she starved herself to death or suffered a fatal illness. It seems spurious, however, and it may reflect a rumor circulated by Aurelian’s court to deter further insurgencies by Palmyrenes. The best corroborated tradition is that Aurelian brought Zenobia to Rome where he had her paraded in this triumphal procession in 274. Zenobia was allegedly adorned with so many golden chains and jewels that she struggled to walk. Married to a Roman senator, she was then settled at an estate at Tibur (modern Tivoli) where she lived a quiet life with her children. Her descendants could be found at Rome and in imperial service over the following century.
Zenobia has been romanticized in both ancient and modern literature. Even so, we can still glimpse a very human Zenobia. A powerful queen, she was also a mother. While motivated by grand aspirations, she was also driven by the basic need to survive and protect her children. Zenobia came into this world during one of the bloodiest periods of Roman politics, one that brought ruin to the empire’s most talented leaders. Zenobia and her children lived through it, and this took remarkable tenacity, poise, and acuity. May we remember this about Zenobia too.
Nathanael Andrade received his PhD in Greek and Roman history from the University of Michigan and has published extensively on the Roman and later Roman Near East along with other topics. He is the author of Syrian Identity in the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity: Networks and the Movement of Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is now an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Binghamton University. His book Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra has just been published by Oxford University Press