Syrian warrior queen Zenobia was another in a long line of women to cause trouble for the Roman Empire.
Born in Palmyra, her origins are mysterious – the Greeks called her Zenobia, her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and in Arabic she is called al-Zabba (الزباء). Some historians describe her as having Jewish heritage, others that she was the daughter of a sheikh, or that her father was the Roman Governor of Palmyra.
Wherever she came from, Zenobia had no problem coming up with her own family history. She claimed to be a descendant of the Ptolemies – related to queen Cleopatra herself, as well as Dido, the legendary goddess-queen of Carthage.
Her lineage is uncertain, but Zenobia definitely did speak the ancient Egyptian language, and may have learnt from her mother who is thought to have been part-Egyptian. Zenobia was also described as very beautiful and highly intelligent, just like Cleopatra. She was well educated and spoke Latin, Greek and Aramaic fluently. In addition, Zenobia was physically strong, being an accomplished horsewoman and huntress.
She was married to the king of Palmyra, Septimus Odaenathus when she was about eighteen. He already had a son from a previous marriage, and in 266 Zenobia gave birth to her own son, Vaballathus.
When Varballathus was only a year old, the king and his eldest son were assassinated. Zenobia became the sole ruler of Palmyra until her son came of age.
She lost no time in securing her power, and immediately began planning conquests to expand the limits of her empire. At this time, Zenobia had the full backing of Rome as a client queen. She was expected to protect her borders and the eastern empire from the neighbouring Sassanid Empire – so it was within her remit to attack on these fronts.
In 269, she went too far.
Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and her General Zabdas marched their army into Egypt, violently defeating the Roman forces. They captured the Roman Prefect in charge of the region and beheaded him, proclaiming Zenobia queen of Egypt.
From there, she pressed on into Anatolia, then Palestine and Lebanon. These were all hugely important trade routes in the classical world, which the Roman Empire depended upon. Zenobia claimed them for herself and for her son.
Emperor Aurelian had finally had enough in 272. His forces clashed with Zenobia’s army in Antioch and defeated the Palmyrenes, who retreated to Emesa, where Zenobia had a treasury. Aurelian was hot on her heals and besieged the city, forcing Zenobia to escape with Varballathus on the back of a camel.
This last desperate attempt at escape failed, and Aurelian’s cavalry captured the Queen before she could get home to Palmyra. Zenobia’s Empire came to an end. She was taken back to Rome in chains and eight year old Varballathus is presumed to have died on the voyage.
It’s not clear what happened next for this fierce ruler. One version of her story claims that she either committed suicide or was excecuted in Rome. Another that she happily married a Roman senator and became a prominent philosopher and socialite.
Geoffrey Chaucer gives a short version of the story of Zenobia in The Monk’s Tale.
A number of operas have been written about the life and exploits of queen Zenobia by various authors including: Tomaso Albinoni (1694), Leonardo Leo (1725), Johann Adolph Hasse (1761), Pasquale Anfossi (1789), Giovanni Paisiello (1790), Gioachino Rossini (1819) and Mansour Rahbani (2007).
Lebanese singer Fairuz performed a song called Zenobia in 1977.
Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker is a historical romance novel fictionalising the life of Zenobia.
BBC’s In Our Time featuring a discussion on Zenobia.
Empress Zenobia: Palmyra s Rebel Queen – Pat Southern