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Queen Zenobia of Palmyra: Facts & Accomplishments

During Rome’s 3rd-century crisis Zenobia briefly elevated Palmyra, making it a superpower of the Near East. Her rapid rise and fall has inspired historians, artists, and novelists for centuries.

queen zenobia last look upon palmyra
Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888, via The Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

 

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (ca.240-274 AD) faced a power vacuum following the death of her husband and the disintegration of Roman power in the Near East. To ensure stability in the region she created a Palmyrene empire that incorporated most of the Roman Near East from Anatolia to Egypt. Zenobia was a cultured monarch who encouraged intellectual movements at court and ruled here multilingual and multi-ethnic subjects with fairness and tolerance. Yet after ruling for only a short time, this dynamic female monarch fell before a resurgent Roman Empire.

 

The Palmyra Of Zenobia

ruins of palmyra syria ron van oers
Ruins of Palmyra, Syria by Ron Van Oers, 3rd-4th century AD, via UNESCO

 

Palmyra was an ancient Semitic city, whose citizenry consisted of Amorite, Aramean, and Arab elements. The local language was a dialect of Aramean, though Greek was widely spoken as well. Greco-Roman culture exerted a great influence, especially on art and architecture, alongside local Semitic and Mesopotamian influences. Much of Palmyra’s wealth and it was famously wealthy, was derived from trade caravans moving along the Silk Road. Palmyra controlled the desert route of the Silk Road and its merchants were active as far afield as Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

 

In the 1st century AD, Palmyra became part of the Roman province of Syria, though it received little Roman oversight. Under the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD), Palmyra transitioned from a city-state into a monarchy. The Severans favored Palmyra, granting it privileges, a Roman garrison, and even making Imperial visits. At the same time conflict between Rome and the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties of Persia forced Palmyra to invest in its defenses and assume a more active military role.

  

Queen Zenobia’s Early Life

palmyrene funerary relief
Palmyrene Funerary Relief depicting a Brother and Sister, 114 AD, via The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

Little is known about Zenobia’s early life, and much of what is recorded in the sources are suspect. Zenobia was born to a noble Palmyrene family sometime around 240 AD, and as befitted her status received an extensive education so that she was fluent in not only Aramaic but also Egyptian, Greek, and Latin. Since it was not uncommon for the noble families of Palmyra to intermarry, she was likely a distant relative of the ruling family. As a young girl, the sources say that her favorite hobby was hunting. 

 

Beyond this, much of what we know about Zenobia’s origins and her early life is derived from linguistic, numismatic, and epigraphical evidence. The name Zenobia translates from Greek as “one whose life derives from Greek.” Her native Palmyrene name was Bat-Zabbai, or “daughter of Zabbai;” which may have been rendered as Zenobia in deference to her Greek-speaking subject. She also possessed a Roman gentilicium, or surname, which was Septimia. One inscription refers to her as Septimia Bat-Zabbai, daughter of Antiochus. Since Antiochus was not a common Palmyrene name, it has been suggested that this is a reference to real or imagined ancestors belonging to the Seleucid or Ptolemaic dynasties.   

 

Consort Of Palmyra’s Lord

limestone bust palmyrene funerary relief
Limestone bust of a woman from a Palmyrene funerary relief, 150-200 AD, Private Collection

 

At the age of fourteen, Zenobia was wed to Odaenathus, the lord of Palmyra, and became his second wife. Odaenathus was elected to the position of lord by the city council to strengthen the army and defend Palmyra’s trade routes against Persian encroachment. Zenobia is believed to have accompanied Odaenathus on many of his military campaigns, which would have raised the morale of the troops and allowed her to gain both political influence and military experience. Both would serve her well later on in her career.

 

It is unclear how many children Odaenathus had with his first wife; only one son Hairan I, who became co-ruler, is known. Zenobia and Odaenathus, however, are known to have had at least two children: Vaballathus and Hairan II. It is possible that they had two other children named Herennianus and Timolaus, but these are likely conflations or outright fabrications.

 

Roman Disasters

relief shapur I surrender philip
Relief of Shapur I receiving the surrender of Philip and capture of Valerian, Naqš-e Rustam, 260-72 AD, via SOAS University Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, London

 

Odaenathus was a loyal vassal of Rome and when called upon, mobilized his forces to assist the Roman Emperor Valerian’s attempt to thwart the Sassanid Persian invasion of Shapur I in 260 AD. The resulting battle was a disaster for the Romans, and Valerian was captured; he would die in captivity. Odaenathus had far greater success. In 260 AD he expelled the Persians from Roman territory, put down a rebellion in the east for the Roman emperor Gallienus in 261 AD, and launched an invasion that took him to the walls of the Persian capital in 262 AD. For his efforts, Odaenathus was granted many titles and wide authority over the Roman provinces of the east and crowned himself King of Palmyra, and King of Kings; a traditional Persian title.

 

As Rome was beset by civil war, usurpation, invasion, and economic decline there was little that it could do besides attempt to manage Odaenathus and maintain his subordinate position. Odaenathus ensured peace and stability in at least one part of the empire, until 266 AD. While returning from a campaign in Anatolia, he and Hairan I were assassinated. Some have suggested that Zenobia was involved, but many had motivations to assassinate Odaenathus including both the Romans and the Persians.     

 

Zenobia Conquers The East

tetradrachm zenobia
Tetradrachm of Zenobia, Minted in Alexandria, 271-72 AD, via The British Museum, London

 

With the assassination of Odaenathus, Zenobia became the regent of Palmyra on behalf of her son Vaballathus. Zenobia quickly moved to consolidate power across the east, much to the annoyance of Roman officials. With the Romans distracted by further invasions in Europe, Zenobia, in 270 AD, moved to crush her rivals. Syria was easily subdued, along with northern Mesopotamia, and Judea. The Roman governor of Arabia confronted the Palmyrenes but was killed in battle. Egypt put up more resistance but was also conquered; and a poorly documented campaign brought central Anatolia under Zenobia’s control. 

 

Zenobia and the Palmyrenes were careful not to go too far, however, and continued to present Vaballathus as a subordinate of the Roman emperor. Her goal was apparently to have Vaballathus recognized as an Imperial partner in the Eastern half of the empire. The existence of any formal agreement between Rome and Palmyra is unclear. It is possible that Gallienus’ successor Claudius Gothicus came to some sort of agreement, but he died in 270 AD and was succeeded by Aurelian. Zenobia minted coins bearing the images of Aurelian as emperor and Vaballathus as king, suggesting some sort of agreement. However, Aurelian required shipments of grain from Egypt to deal with Rome’s crisis in Europe; so for his part, any agreement may have been no more than a ruse to buy time. 

 

The Palmyrene Empire

divine trend of ba'alshamin
The Divine Triad of Ba’alshamin, Aglibol, and Malakbel, Bir Wereb, 3rd century AD, via Musée du Louvre, Paris

 

Zenobia ruled this Palmyrene Empire primarily from the city of Antioch, where she styled herself as a Syrian monarch, a Hellenistic Queen, and a Roman Empress. Despite the multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural nature of her empire, Zenobia was able to draw wide support. Zenobia left the Roman administrative system largely in place, but appointed her own governors; thus opening her government to the eastern nobility. In Egypt, Zenobia embarked on a program of building and restoration. The Colossi of Memnon, which in earlier centuries were to “sing,” were silenced when she repaired their cracks. 

 

An adherent of the Semitic gods of Palmyra, Zenobia tolerated and accommodated a wide variety of religious minorities. This included the Christians and Jews, whose rights, places of worship and clergy were treated with respect. Since many minority religions faced persecution from the Romans and Sassanids, such policies helped to win Zenobia more support. She also transformed Palmyra and her court into a center of learning which attracted many famed scholars. During this period, Syrian scholars argued that Greek and Hellenistic culture had been adapted from Egypt and the Near East. The Palmyrene court utilized this interpretation to present Odaenathus and his family as the legitimate rulers of the Roman Empire, tracing their claim back to Philip the Arab who had been emperor from 244-49 AD.  

 

Rome Resurgent

ruins of palmyra syria
Ruins of Palmyra, Syria, 3rd-4th century AD, via UNESCO

 

By 272 AD Rome was under the leadership of Aurelian, who set about reasserting Roman authority. Zenobia, who had been adopting more and more Imperial title, formally broke from Rome in response. Aurelian’s two-pronged invasion quickly recaptured Central Anatolia and Egypt, while the Palmyrenes retreated into Syria. After being defeated in battle, Zenobia took shelter in Palmyra, which Aurelian and the Romans besieged. Zenobia attempted to sneak out of the city and escape to Persia where she hoped to form an alliance and raise a new army. However, she was soon captured and Palmyra surrendered.

 

The Death Of Zenobia

 

Zenobia, her son Vaballathus, and her court officials were brought to the Syrian city of Emesa where they were put on trial. Convicted of treason and various other crimes, most of Zenobia’s supporters were executed. She and Vaballathus were spared as Aurelian wanted to display them during his triumph in Rome. During the journey to Rome Aurelian had her publically humiliated throughout the east, and though she was part of his triumph her ultimate fate is uncertain. Some claim that she starved herself to death or that she was beheaded. The far more likely scenario is that she was allowed to retire to an Italian villa. Her descendants appear to have assimilated into the Roman nobility and appear throughout the 4th and 5th centuries. Today, Zenobia is a national hero of Syria and a popular figure of film, literature, and art.

queen zenobia last look upon palmyra
Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888, via The Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

 

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (ca.240-274 AD) faced a power vacuum following the death of her husband and the disintegration of Roman power in the Near East. To ensure stability in the region she created a Palmyrene empire that incorporated most of the Roman Near East from Anatolia to Egypt. Zenobia was a cultured monarch who encouraged intellectual movements at court and ruled here multilingual and multi-ethnic subjects with fairness and tolerance. Yet after ruling for only a short time, this dynamic female monarch fell before a resurgent Roman Empire.

 

The Palmyra Of Zenobia

ruins of palmyra syria ron van oers
Ruins of Palmyra, Syria by Ron Van Oers, 3rd-4th century AD, via UNESCO

 

Palmyra was an ancient Semitic city, whose citizenry consisted of Amorite, Aramean, and Arab elements. The local language was a dialect of Aramean, though Greek was widely spoken as well. Greco-Roman culture exerted a great influence, especially on art and architecture, alongside local Semitic and Mesopotamian influences. Much of Palmyra’s wealth and it was famously wealthy, was derived from trade caravans moving along the Silk Road. Palmyra controlled the desert route of the Silk Road and its merchants were active as far afield as Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

 

In the 1st century AD, Palmyra became part of the Roman province of Syria, though it received little Roman oversight. Under the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD), Palmyra transitioned from a city-state into a monarchy. The Severans favored Palmyra, granting it privileges, a Roman garrison, and even making Imperial visits. At the same time conflict between Rome and the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties of Persia forced Palmyra to invest in its defenses and assume a more active military role.

  

Queen Zenobia’s Early Life

palmyrene funerary relief
Palmyrene Funerary Relief depicting a Brother and Sister, 114 AD, via The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

Little is known about Zenobia’s early life, and much of what is recorded in the sources are suspect. Zenobia was born to a noble Palmyrene family sometime around 240 AD, and as befitted her status received an extensive education so that she was fluent in not only Aramaic but also Egyptian, Greek, and Latin. Since it was not uncommon for the noble families of Palmyra to intermarry, she was likely a distant relative of the ruling family. As a young girl, the sources say that her favorite hobby was hunting. 

 

Beyond this, much of what we know about Zenobia’s origins and her early life is derived from linguistic, numismatic, and epigraphical evidence. The name Zenobia translates from Greek as “one whose life derives from Greek.” Her native Palmyrene name was Bat-Zabbai, or “daughter of Zabbai;” which may have been rendered as Zenobia in deference to her Greek-speaking subject. She also possessed a Roman gentilicium, or surname, which was Septimia. One inscription refers to her as Septimia Bat-Zabbai, daughter of Antiochus. Since Antiochus was not a common Palmyrene name, it has been suggested that this is a reference to real or imagined ancestors belonging to the Seleucid or Ptolemaic dynasties.   

 

Consort Of Palmyra’s Lord

limestone bust palmyrene funerary relief
Limestone bust of a woman from a Palmyrene funerary relief, 150-200 AD, Private Collection

 

At the age of fourteen, Zenobia was wed to Odaenathus, the lord of Palmyra, and became his second wife. Odaenathus was elected to the position of lord by the city council to strengthen the army and defend Palmyra’s trade routes against Persian encroachment. Zenobia is believed to have accompanied Odaenathus on many of his military campaigns, which would have raised the morale of the troops and allowed her to gain both political influence and military experience. Both would serve her well later on in her career.

 

It is unclear how many children Odaenathus had with his first wife; only one son Hairan I, who became co-ruler, is known. Zenobia and Odaenathus, however, are known to have had at least two children: Vaballathus and Hairan II. It is possible that they had two other children named Herennianus and Timolaus, but these are likely conflations or outright fabrications.

 

Roman Disasters

relief shapur I surrender philip
Relief of Shapur I receiving the surrender of Philip and capture of Valerian, Naqš-e Rustam, 260-72 AD, via SOAS University Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, London

 

Odaenathus was a loyal vassal of Rome and when called upon, mobilized his forces to assist the Roman Emperor Valerian’s attempt to thwart the Sassanid Persian invasion of Shapur I in 260 AD. The resulting battle was a disaster for the Romans, and Valerian was captured; he would die in captivity. Odaenathus had far greater success. In 260 AD he expelled the Persians from Roman territory, put down a rebellion in the east for the Roman emperor Gallienus in 261 AD, and launched an invasion that took him to the walls of the Persian capital in 262 AD. For his efforts, Odaenathus was granted many titles and wide authority over the Roman provinces of the east and crowned himself King of Palmyra, and King of Kings; a traditional Persian title.

 

As Rome was beset by civil war, usurpation, invasion, and economic decline there was little that it could do besides attempt to manage Odaenathus and maintain his subordinate position. Odaenathus ensured peace and stability in at least one part of the empire, until 266 AD. While returning from a campaign in Anatolia, he and Hairan I were assassinated. Some have suggested that Zenobia was involved, but many had motivations to assassinate Odaenathus including both the Romans and the Persians.     

 

Zenobia Conquers The East

tetradrachm zenobia
Tetradrachm of Zenobia, Minted in Alexandria, 271-72 AD, via The British Museum, London

 

With the assassination of Odaenathus, Zenobia became the regent of Palmyra on behalf of her son Vaballathus. Zenobia quickly moved to consolidate power across the east, much to the annoyance of Roman officials. With the Romans distracted by further invasions in Europe, Zenobia, in 270 AD, moved to crush her rivals. Syria was easily subdued, along with northern Mesopotamia, and Judea. The Roman governor of Arabia confronted the Palmyrenes but was killed in battle. Egypt put up more resistance but was also conquered; and a poorly documented campaign brought central Anatolia under Zenobia’s control. 

 

Zenobia and the Palmyrenes were careful not to go too far, however, and continued to present Vaballathus as a subordinate of the Roman emperor. Her goal was apparently to have Vaballathus recognized as an Imperial partner in the Eastern half of the empire. The existence of any formal agreement between Rome and Palmyra is unclear. It is possible that Gallienus’ successor Claudius Gothicus came to some sort of agreement, but he died in 270 AD and was succeeded by Aurelian. Zenobia minted coins bearing the images of Aurelian as emperor and Vaballathus as king, suggesting some sort of agreement. However, Aurelian required shipments of grain from Egypt to deal with Rome’s crisis in Europe; so for his part, any agreement may have been no more than a ruse to buy time. 

 

The Palmyrene Empire

divine trend of ba'alshamin
The Divine Triad of Ba’alshamin, Aglibol, and Malakbel, Bir Wereb, 3rd century AD, via Musée du Louvre, Paris

 

Zenobia ruled this Palmyrene Empire primarily from the city of Antioch, where she styled herself as a Syrian monarch, a Hellenistic Queen, and a Roman Empress. Despite the multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural nature of her empire, Zenobia was able to draw wide support. Zenobia left the Roman administrative system largely in place, but appointed her own governors; thus opening her government to the eastern nobility. In Egypt, Zenobia embarked on a program of building and restoration. The Colossi of Memnon, which in earlier centuries were to “sing,” were silenced when she repaired their cracks. 

 

An adherent of the Semitic gods of Palmyra, Zenobia tolerated and accommodated a wide variety of religious minorities. This included the Christians and Jews, whose rights, places of worship and clergy were treated with respect. Since many minority religions faced persecution from the Romans and Sassanids, such policies helped to win Zenobia more support. She also transformed Palmyra and her court into a center of learning which attracted many famed scholars. During this period, Syrian scholars argued that Greek and Hellenistic culture had been adapted from Egypt and the Near East. The Palmyrene court utilized this interpretation to present Odaenathus and his family as the legitimate rulers of the Roman Empire, tracing their claim back to Philip the Arab who had been emperor from 244-49 AD.  

 

Rome Resurgent

ruins of palmyra syria
Ruins of Palmyra, Syria, 3rd-4th century AD, via UNESCO

 

By 272 AD Rome was under the leadership of Aurelian, who set about reasserting Roman authority. Zenobia, who had been adopting more and more Imperial title, formally broke from Rome in response. Aurelian’s two-pronged invasion quickly recaptured Central Anatolia and Egypt, while the Palmyrenes retreated into Syria. After being defeated in battle, Zenobia took shelter in Palmyra, which Aurelian and the Romans besieged. Zenobia attempted to sneak out of the city and escape to Persia where she hoped to form an alliance and raise a new army. However, she was soon captured and Palmyra surrendered.

 

The Death Of Zenobia

 

Zenobia, her son Vaballathus, and her court officials were brought to the Syrian city of Emesa where they were put on trial. Convicted of treason and various other crimes, most of Zenobia’s supporters were executed. She and Vaballathus were spared as Aurelian wanted to display them during his triumph in Rome. During the journey to Rome Aurelian had her publically humiliated throughout the east, and though she was part of his triumph her ultimate fate is uncertain. Some claim that she starved herself to death or that she was beheaded. The far more likely scenario is that she was allowed to retire to an Italian villa. Her descendants appear to have assimilated into the Roman nobility and appear throughout the 4th and 5th centuries. Today, Zenobia is a national hero of Syria and a popular figure of film, literature, and art.

Robert C. L. Holmes
Robert C. L. Holmes
Robert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.

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