Zenobia – 240 – c.274 – Palmyrene Empire

Ancient Syria


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.


Coin featuring Zenobia (Source)

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.


Zenobia’s empire shown in yellow (Source)


Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (Source)

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.


The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717 (Source)

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.

In fiction:

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.

Zenobia, Queen of the East, Or, Letters from Palmyra, Volume 2 – William Ware

Empress Zenobia: Palmyra s Rebel Queen – Pat Southern

On Wikipedia:



Cleopatra II – c.185 – 116 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


The Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt was defined by infighting and incest as every member of the family battled fiercely for power and sole rule of the country.

Cleopatra II (not to be confused with Cleopatra VII) is a prime example of this turbulent era as a queen (and briefly sole ruler) who married two of her brothers, saw her daughter marry her Uncle and survived the murders of several of her children.


The young princess was married to her elder brother Ptolemy VI when she was 10. They had their first child together, Ptolemy Eupator when she was 19. He was followed by three sisters and a brother; Cleopatra Thea, Cleopatra III, Berenice and Ptolemy.

Cleopatra, her brother-husband and her second brother, Ptolemy Euergetes Physkon (Potbelly) ruled jointly together for seven years, until younger brother Potbelly deposed his siblings temporarily.

Ptolemy Eupator and his wife did regain power, but once Eupator died, Cleopatra wasted no time in remarrying immediately – this time to Potbelly.

By this time, Cleopatra II was 39, and while she did have a son with Potbelly – Ptolemy Memphites – the Pharaoh began to look elsewhere and married Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra III, three years later.

Ptolemy family tree

The two Cleopatra’s and Potbelly attempted to share power for a little while – but this was not a happy family. In 131 BCE Cleopatra II led a rebellion against her husband-brother and her daughter, driving them out of Egypt.

In retaliation, Potbelly murdered both his stepson and his son by Cleopatra, had them dismembered and sent the parts to Cleopatra as a birthday present.

Cleopatra II’s rule lasted only three years, from 130 BCE to 127 BCE when she was forced to flee to Syria, to join her other daughter, Cleopatra Thea, and her son-in-law Demetrius II Nicator.

A public reconciliation of Cleopatra and Ptolemy VIII was declared in 124 BC. After this she ruled jointly with her brother and daughter until 116 BC when ‘Potbelly’ died, leaving the kingdom to Cleopatra III. Cleopatra II herself died shortly after.

Other Ptolemy women in this project are: Arsinoë IIArsinoë III, Bilistiche


Ptolemy VIII Euergetes was popularly known as “Physkōn“, meaning sausage, potbelly or bladder, due to his obesity.

In Fiction:

Played by Elizabeth Shepherd in the 1983 BBC drama ‘The Cleopatras’ (on youtube).


The House of Ptolemy E. R. Bevan

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World Joyce E. Salisbury

On Wikipedia:

Image Credits:

Wall relief Kom Ombo15” by I, Rémih.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Ptolemy family tree – by myself

Ahhotep I – c.1560 – 1510 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt


It is 1563 BCE and Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao has died a violent death. Whether on the battlefield or by assassination, he receives an axe to the head only a few years into his reign. As Pharaoh Kamose is crowned his successor, Tao’s widow and sister takes charge of her children.

Ahhotep I (meaning the Moon is satisfied) was one of the most influential of the Great Royal Wives, the first dominant consort of Egypt. She also bore the titles Associate of the White Crown bearer and King’s Mother. Pharaoh Kamose did not live much longer than his predecessor, and five years after the death of her husband, Ahhotep saw her son Ahmose ascend to the throne along with her daughter, Ahmose Nefertari, who became his wife.

It is likely that Ahmose was very young, and that Ahhotep served as regent for her son during his childhood. It is evident that Ahmose had a great respect for his mother, whom he describes as a powerful woman and fearless leader on a stela in Karnack:

“She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters; she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”

“Ahhotep” via Wikimedia Commons

These statements appear to describe a time at which Ahhotep rallied troops and played some important role in the defense of Thebes – perhaps following the death of her husband.

It is not clear when these events took place, but it is known that she was buried with a ceremonial axe, golden dagger and military medals. These items are unusual in the grave of a queen, and may be there to commemorate Ahhotep’s successful campaign.

Queen Ahhotep is mentioned as living during the reign of Amenhotep I, her grandson, and again during the reign of Thutmose I, her great grandson. This indicates that she lived much longer than many other Egyptians of the time, outliving almost all of her children.


Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Hatshepsut: from Queen to PharaohMetropolitan Museum of Art

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:

Sobekneferu – c.1806 BCE – Faiyum, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt


The original Queen of the Nile…

The last pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, a golden age for Egypt, was Sobekneferu; Egypt’s first known female king. While Merneith had ruled on behalf of her son over a millennium earlier and queens (king’s wives) often had some administrative powers, Sobekneferu is the first woman to rule with the title of Pharaoh (king) in her own right.

She was the daughter of pharaoh Amenemhat III, whose greatest achievement was the construction of a man-made lake in Faiyum. The lake brought prosperity to the area by channelling the floods from the Nile into a reservoir. For this reason Amenemhat became closely associated with the crocodile-headed god of the Nile, Sobek.

A cult of crocodile worshippers developed around Faiyum, leading the Greeks to later name the area Crocodilopolis (Crocodile City).

Sobekneferu means ‘the Beauties of Sobek’ – cementing this family’s close ties with the city.

Amenemhat was succeeded by his son, Amenemhat IV, who was either Sobekneferu’s brother or step-brother. When Amenemhat IV died he left no children to inherit the kingdom, leaving to position open for Sobekneferu.

Unusually, Sobekneferu never took the title ‘King’s Wife’, so was probably not married to Amenemhat IV. There is very little explanation at all for how she rose to power, but there is evidence of a few shrewd political moves on her part.

She consistently emphasised her right to rule by associating herself with her father

Egyptian crocodile head from the Walters Art Museum (source)

rather than her brother, and was likely the reason Amenemhat III was deified (made a god) in Faiyum– being the daughter of a god meant that her right to rule was sacred.

Though she only ruled for four years and died childless, Sobekneferu is included on all later king’s lists in Egypt. This indicates that unlike many other female rulers, later historians considered Sobekneferu a legitimate pharaoh.

See also: Only three other women ruled Egypt as pharaoh’s in their own right. They are Hatshepsut, Tausret and Cleopatra VII.


The title Queen did not have the meaning it had today, but meant ‘the wife of a king’. There was no specific word for a female ruler in ancient Egypt, so women who did rule, like Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, took the title of King.


Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:

Merneith – c.2946 – 2916 BCE – Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt


It is the thirtieth century before the common era (BCE). The pyramids have not yet been built. The pharaohs of the first Egyptian dynasty are buried in Abydos, the capital of Upper Egypt.

Around 2916 BCE, a ruler dies there. A royal funeral is held, complete with the traditional solar boat to carry the soul safely to the afterlife; food and wine for the journey; and forty human sacrifices. There can be no doubt that a powerful person is being buried today. This is the tomb of queen Merneith.

Over 5000 years later, in 1900, archaeologist William Petrie discovers the tomb, which he believes must belong to a lost pharaoh. There is no record of this king in any of the new kingdom texts, and there is no name inside the tomb itself. This royal burial is a mystery.


Merneith’s funeral stele (source)

The smattering of archaeological clues left behind include various seal impressions and inscribed bowls linking the tomb with known pharaohs Djer, Djet and Den, all of whom are buried nearby. Just one sealing from the Saqqara cemetery provides the name of the mystery occupant; a woman – Merneith.

Merneith (whose name means beloved of the goddess Neith) was indeed a royal woman and while she was not a pharaoh in her own right, she is an extremely likely candidate for the first queen regent in history. Buried alongside her son, Den, and her brother-husband, Djet, Merneith remains the only consort afforded the honour of a burial among kings.

After king Djet (who may have been her brother or her husband, or both) died, it is believed than her son Den was only a small boy, too young to rule so that Merneith served as regent until he was old enough to take the throne.

Merneith’s regency sets a precedent for king’s wives rather than king’s fathers or brothers to wield power in the absence of a husband or son. A possible reason for this is that a mother would be considered the most trustworthy when it came to working on behalf of her child and that being of royal blood and having grown up in the political atmosphere of the royal court, she would also be the best equipped.

Though Merneith does not appear on the new kingdom’s ‘king list’, her name is present on a seal found in the tomb of Den. This seal includes Merneith on the list of first dynasty kings as the only woman noted; ‘King’s Mother, Merneith’. Her inclusion on this list demonstrates how seriously her position was taken by the early Egyptians. It is also a mark of the respect her son had for her.


  • Neith was a powerful early Egyptian goddess of creation, warfare and hunting.
  • The ancient Egyptians had no taboo around incest, but instead considered inter-family marriage a viable way to continue the royal bloodline. Kings often had a number of wives, though only one was the Great Royal Wife.

In fiction:

The Dagger of Isis by Lester Picker fictionalises the life and times of Merneith (called Meryt-Neith in the novel)


Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Early Dynastic Egypt – Toby A.H. Wilkinson

Information on the Abydos tombs

On Wikipedia: