Five Things You Didn’t Know: Zenobia of Palmyra
By: Lyric Ludwig/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Reigning from 260 to 272 CE as Queen, Zenobia is well known in the Arab world and by people in general for being one of many influential women rulers and generals of antiquity, alongside the likes of Cleopatra or the lesser known Mavia of the Tanukhid tribe. However, despite her near mythical legacy within world history, not many details regarding the context of Zenobia’s reign are widely known outside of scholarship. This fun and easy list should provide a small window into the turbulent world of one of history’s most accomplished women.
- Odaenathus, the King of Kings- Zenobia is well known to have been on the campaign trail during her life, but this is also true of her husband, Septimius Odaenathus, who ruled before her. Odaenathus was the Roman governor of Syria, who effectively set the foundation for Zenobia’s rule. Odaenathus did have ambitions for autonomy, but was surrounded by the aggressive Sassanian Persians to the east and the Roman Empire to the west. However, the Persian Emperor Shapur I managed to capture the Roman Emperor Valerian, which worked in Odaenathus’s favor. The Palmyrene King defeated Sassanian armies in Mesopotamia, and was subsequently declared governor of Rome’s territory in all of West Asia.
- A Cosmopolitan Queen- The provinces in the Middle East were some of the most important in the Roman Empire, with the cities of Syria and Palestine being important trading hubs, and Egypt most famously being the breadbasket of the empire. Being at such an important crossroads, Zenobia managed a cosmopolitan region of her own, containing religious minorities from the Roman Empire (such as Christians) and people from all over the Mediterranean and Arab world as well. Palmyra was a region rich with trade from Europe and Asia. Zenobia herself was fluent in Greek, Latin, Egyptian and her native language of Aramaic. Ideologically, Zenobia practiced her native polytheist religion, but she also connected herself to the greater Mediterranean world by claiming descent from Dido of Carthage and the Macedonian Cleopatra.
- Queen and General- Zenobia is well known for her exploits in war, fighting three major battles against the Roman Emperor Aurelian. However, it is also worth noting how unique and well adapted Palmyra’s army at the time was, having encountered both the Sassanians and Romans. Zenobia’s army would have relied heavily on cavalry, both on camel and horseback, using the bow and lance. Foot soldiers were also used, both heavy infantry and archers. Perhaps the most prestigious unit would have been Palmyrene cataphracts, fully armored cavalry, man and horse completely covered. This unit would be capable of inflicting significant damage in a charge. It is worth noting that Zenobia herself led the army personally, riding and marching alongside her soldiers.
- A Clever Tactician- Being a skilled Queen as well as a warrior, Zenobia is often portrayed as boldly asserting herself against Palmyra’s larger neighbors. However, Zenobia was careful to avoid fighting on too many fronts. She had engaged the Sassanians in trade relations, and showed diplomatic savvy in her conquest of Rome’s eastern provinces. In name, she recognized Aurelian as Emperor, naming herself as the champion of Rome’s interests in the Middle East. However, this was merely a ruse for Zenobia herself to extend her authority into the Roman East. In this regard, Zenobia was capable of using politics and warfare in equal measure.
- Unknown Fate- It is well known that Zenobia ultimately lost to the Roman Emperor Aurelian, Palmyra met a tragic fate as it was sacked and destroyed. Zenobia herself was brought back to Rome and likely displayed in a triumphal parade alongside Rome’s other enemies. Some say she was spared from execution as Aurelian was impressed with the Queen’s beauty and strength. There are also stories that she committed suicide or was executed by Rome. The more optimistic and plausible story is that she was allowed to live out her days in a Roman villa.
Ultimately, Zenobia’s legacy lives on, remembered by people of Arab heritage and people around the globe for her bravery, leadership and defiance of neighboring empires. This small list of Zenobia’s accomplishments serves as a mere intro to her complex and illustrious reign.