Sir Edward Poynter, Zenobia Captive 1878

"Zenobia Captive" by Sir Edward Poynter 1878

Also known as Septima Zenobia and Bat-Zabbai. A 3rd century Syrian queen whose country was known as Palmyra at the time. She is best known for leading a famous revolt against the Roman Empire, then ruled by Emperor Aurelian, in 272 and 273 C.E. Zenobia was married to the Palmyrene noble Odaenathus, who was given the rank of consul of Rome in 258 C.E.

The City of PalmyraEdit

Palmyra was located 130 miles northeast of Damascus, at the Northern edge of the Syrian desert halfway between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Euphrates River to the East. Palmyra became a crucial province to the Roman Empire in economics and military. The city was a major trade route: it connected Rome to Mesopotamia and the East and connected Rome to the economic riches of the day. Syria was also the center of the military rivalry of Rome and Persia. Because it was closer to the Euphrates, Emperors Hadrian and Valerian visited Odenathus' kingdom regularly.

In 260 C.E. King Shapur I of Persia decided to challenge Roman rulership by taking back the former provinces of Persia. With his army, he marched westward and ravaged northern Syria and Cilicia. Emperor Valerian marched his army to fight against Shapur but was defeated and captured by the Persians.

In an act of diplomacy Odaenathus sent gifts and a message of peace to Shapur but the king refused them and demanded that Odaenathus appear before him as a captive. Instead the Palmyrenes gathered an army of Syrians, desert nomads and Roman forces and fought the battle-weary Persian soldiers, winning in the process. In gratitude for his efforts, Emperor Gallienus gave Odaenathus the title "Governor of all the East" (corrector totius Orientis). However it is believed that the reason behind Odaenathus' success in battle was due to the brillance of his wife Zenobia.

Background and PersonalityEdit

Zenobia herself claimed to have been distantly related to the famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt, Dido, Queen of Carthage and King Sampsiceramus of Emesa (modern day Homs, Syria). Zenobia was her Greek name while Bat-Zabbai was her Arabic name supposedly because she was the daughter of an Arabian merchant. However she may have had Aramean in her blood as well.

She was considered to be extremely beautiful, politically ambitious, with a love for hunting, horseback riding and education. She was fluent in Egyptian, Greek, Latin and Aramaic. She surrounded herself with scholars and philosophers among them rhetorician Cassius Longinus, "a living library and a walking museum".

Religious tolerance was also allowed under Zenobia's reign. Many Christians, Jews and sun and moon worshippers lived in Palmyra.

During Zenobia's reign, 22 Roman emperors came and went which may have made Zenobia doubt her submissive role in Rome's political affairs.

The Warrior Queen of PalmyraEdit


"Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. 1752

In 267 C.E. Odaenathus and his heir, Zenobia's stepson Hairan were assasinated, possibly by a vengeful nephew. Zenobia and Odaenathus had a son, Vaballathus, who was only a year old at the time. Zenobia became the new ruler of Palmyra.

On one side of Zenobia's domain was Persia and on the other side was Rome. Palmyra was a capital with a population that reached over 150,000 with buildings, temples, gardens, pillars and monuments that were confined within walls that were 13 miles in circumference. Statues and busts of heroes also decorated the city, among them a pair of statues of the queen and her late husband.

In 269 C.E. a prentender by the name of Tenagino Probus took the throne in Egypt and declared himself king, challenging Roman authority. Since Egypt was near Syria, Zenobia's army marched into Egypt, took possesion of the country, executed Probus and Zenobia proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt. Now her empire stretched from Egypt to Mesopotamia as well as Asia Minor (Anatolia, Palestine and Lebanon). Zenobia also took possesion of the vital trade routes of Rome.

800px-Map of Ancient Rome 271 AD.svg

The Roman Empire in 271. Zenobia's empire is in yellow.

In 270 C.E. Aurelian became emperor of Rome. In 271 dispatched his forces: one into Egypt and the other eastward into Asia Minor. Zenobia meanwhile dispatched her military forces under generals Zabdas and Zabbai. Aurelian successfully took Egypt and then continued into Asia Minor. The battle between Zenobia's and Aurelian's troops was fought in Antioch with Aurelian gaining the upper hand. Zenobia was defeated at Emesa (Homs) and she retreated to Palmyra.

Aurelian captured Zenobia, executed any Palmyrene who refused to surrender (including, among them Zenobia's advisor Cassius Longinus), and plundered the Syrian capital. The Palmyrenes surrendered their city in 272 C.E. marking the end of the Palmyrene Empire.

In 274 C.E. Aurelian made a triumphant return to Rome with all his Palmyrene booty and captives-among them Zenobia in golden chains as a prize possesion and her son Vaballathus.
300px-Herbert Schmalz-Zenobia

"Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra" by Herbert Schmalz. 1888

It has been said that Zenobia lived out the rest of her life as a Roman matron.

Some months after Aurelian took Palmyra, the Palmyrenes massacred the Roman garrison he left behind. When news of this revolt reached Aurelian, he immediately ordered his soldiers to slaughter the remaining population, sell the survivors into slavery and sack Palmyra beyond repair.

Zenobia's reign lasted only five years.