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 VII – 69 BCE – 30 BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt


Kleopatra VII Philopator, known commonly as ‘Cleopatra’, is perhaps the most well-known woman so far in this project, and one of the most famous figures in history.

Though she was not the first woman to rule Egypt (see Merneith, Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tausret), she was the last active pharaoh (only very briefly survived by her son) of Egypt as an independent country.

Cleopatra’s reputation precedes her. Thanks to hundreds of paintings, plays, operas, novels and films, the story of the ‘Queen of the Nile’ continues to be shared worldwide. She is remembered by turns as a great beauty, a seductress, a tragic lover, a passionate ruler and a cold, calculated femme fatale.

* * * * *

Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; a Macedonian Greek family who had ruled Egypt for three hundred years and could trace their lineage back to Ptolemy Soter, General to Alexander the Great. (See other Ptolemies in this project: Arsinoë II, Bilistiche, Arsinoë III, Cleopatra II).

The Ptolemaic dynasty was marked by corruption and power struggles. Before she was even fourteen years old, Cleopatra had seen both of her elder sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice overthrow their father – both were killed; one executed, one found dead in suspicious circumstances.


Ptolemaic princess, thought to be Cleopatra VII

Now the eldest living daughter, the teenage Cleopatra was elevated to co-regent beside her father.

Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes died when she was eighteen. As was tradition, Cleopatra married her younger brother, ten year old Ptolemy XIII, with whom she became joint ruler. It was clear that this arrangement was not a happy one. To assert her authority over her brother Cleopatra withdrew Ptolemy’s name from official documents and issued coins which showed only her face.

This sole reign caused uproar among certain factions in the royal court, and in 48 BCE Cleopatra was chased out of Egypt along with her younger sister, Arsinoë.

Cleopatra was not without supporters. An intelligent young woman with a

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

political mind, she was the first Ptolemy ruler who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. (In fact, including her mother-tongue, Greek, Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently, making her very popular with foreign diplomats as she rarely needed an interpreter). She also fully embraced the religion of Egypt like no Ptolemy before her, presenting herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis.

During Cleopatra’s exile, her thirteen year old brother-husband made a very powerful enemy. Julius Caesar had been at civil war with his General and co-ruler Pompey. When Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, the young pharaoh had him beheaded as he watched from a throne in the Alexandrian harbor.

Hoping that the execution would win him favor with Rome, Ptolemy cheerfully presented Caesar with the head of his enemy when the dictator arrived in Alexandria two days later. Caesar was furious. Though they had been political rivals, Pompey was a Roman consul and the widower of Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

At this point, Cleopatra famously had herself smuggled back into Alexandria – many stories describe her being rolled up in a carpet and carried to Julius Caesar’s bedroom by her servants. However she arrived, the twenty one year old queen quickly managed to charm the Roman ruler and the two became lovers.

Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Caesarion (little Caesar) and Julius Caesar sent his army after Ptolemy. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile and Cleopatra was married to her other brother, Ptolemy XIV with whom she became co-ruler.

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

The young queen travelled to Rome to visit Caesar with their son in the summer of 46 BCE. There she was invited to stay in one of Caesar’s luxury country houses, causing scandal as he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. The dictator had a golden statue of Cleopatra as Isis built and displayed in the Forum Julium, but he refused to acknowledge Caesarion as his heir, preferring instead his grandnephew Octavian.

Cleopatra was forced to return to Egypt with her family when Julius Caesar was assassinated in March 44 and Rome erupted in civil war. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV died – some say poisoned – and Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.

Three years later, Marc Antony arrived in Egypt.

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Marc Antony had come to ask Cleopatra for Egypt’s allegiance as he prepared to fight the Parthians. She promised this and more as the two greatest political figures of their time came together and fell in love.

The queen had the Roman solider enthralled – she took him on an exotic pleasure cruise down the Nile, held lavish banquets and showed off her immense wealth.

In time, Cleopatra gave birth to Marc Antony’s twins – Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. In return, Antony had Cleopatra’s younger sister and last remaining rival Arsinoë killed.

Four years passed before Antony returned to Alexandria. He had clearly missed Cleopatra because this time he stayed for good. Though he was still married to Octavian’s sister Octavia, he married Cleopatra in an Egyptian ceremony and they had a third child – Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

When Antony conquered Armenia in 34 BCE, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of both Egypt and Cyrprus, and the other children were made rulers of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Curenaica, Libya, Phoenicia, Syria and Cicilia. Cleopatra became ‘Queen of Kings’ and Caesarion was declared a god king.

The people of Rome were not pleased. It looked as through Cleopatra and Antony were planning war, and Octavian decided to strike first. The battle of Actium took place in 31 BCE between the Roman and Egyptian naval forces. Egypt fell when Marc Antony’s armies defected and joined Octavian.

The details of what happened next are not clear, and differ depend on who is telling the story. We do know that both Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide rather than face their defeat. Marc Antony probably fell on his sword, while Cleopatra famously allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (cobra).

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur


Caesarion was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but quickly killed by Octavian. The victorious Emperor returned to Rome triumphant with the three remaining children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in chains.

Cleopatra’s death marked not only the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but the end of all Egyptian pharaohs. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene, lived a long life and married Juba of Namidia, bringing a large dowry provided by Augustus. She and Juba went on to rule Mauretania. Their first son was named Ptolemy.

In fiction:

To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture…

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatta 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' 1945

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ 1945

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

A full list of depictions of Cleopatra VII on film can be found here.


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

The Reign of Cleopatra Stanley Mayer Burstein

Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff

Image credits:

Click here for the image credits for this post.

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

Arsinoë III – 220 – 204 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


Arsinoë III Philopater (father loving) embodied many of the traits common among the women of the Ptolemy family. Strong willed, intelligent, fearless and a born leader, Arsinoë was easily the most powerful woman in the world in her lifetime.

She and her brother Ptolemy IV were the fourth generation of Macedonian Greeks to rule Egypt since Alexander the Great – and things were getting ugly.

After the death of Arsinoë’s father, Ptolemy III, her brother quickly had their mother Berenike killed in order to rid himself of her influence in government. According to Ptolemaic royal tradition, Ptolemy then married his sister, proclaiming Arsinoë queen.

At 26, Arsinoë proved herself a formidable leader. She ruled on equal terms with her brother-husband, taking an active role in government, as her mother had. Arsinoë did not stop there; when Syrian king Antiochus the Great declared war on her family Arsinoë stepped forward.

She dressed for battle and rode at the head of the Egyptian cavalry in the 217 BCE defeat of Antiochus at the battle of Raphias.

Unfortunately, not everyone was impressed with the hands on queen. The reign of Ptolemy IV and Arsinoë III was beset by factions and in-fighting at court.

When Ptolemy IV died in 204 BCE, his two favourite politicians feared that Arsinoë would attempt to claim the throne as regent for her five year old son. Threatened, Agathocles and Sosibus had Arsinoë murdered before she even heard the news of her brother-husband’s death.


The House of Ptolemy: A History of Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty – Edwyn R. Bevan

On Wikipedia:

Bilistiche – fl. 264 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


The few pieces of information we have about Bilistiche (sometimes Belistiche) carve a mysterious figure of a complex and interesting woman.

A courtesan and mistress of Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadeplphus (brother-husband to Arsinoë II), she won both the tethrippon (four horse) and synoris (two horse) chariot races in the 264 BC Olympic Games.

She was clearly a wealthy and important figure in the Egyptian court as it was often only the rich who could breed and train horses for racing. Bilistiche also held a truly affectionate place in her lover’s heart – the Pharaoh deified her (made her a goddess) as ‘Aphrodite Bilistiche’.

The truth of who she was and where she came from, however, is uncertain. The historian Pausanias describes Bilistiche as ‘a woman from the coast of Macedonia’, and Athenaeus says she was in fact a Macedonian Princess. Plutarch offers the most intriguing backstory, one of rags to riches, as he calls her ‘a barbarian from the marketplace’. This suggests that she was purchased as a slave, and was not Greek or Macedonian at all.

Though she is mysterious to us, Bilistiche was apparently a celebrity in her own time, a visible member of the Egyptian Royal household and a champion athlete.


Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to CleopatraSarah B. Pomeroy

Description of Greece, 5.8.11Pausanias

On Wikipedia:

Arsinoë II – 316 BCE – 270/60 BCE – Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


It’s safe to say that the Ptolemy’s were not like other families. Rulers of Egypt for three hundred years, they were of Macedonian Greek heritage. Every male was called Ptolemy (pronounced ‘toll-uh-mee’) and every woman in the family was named Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinoë (Ahh-seen-oh-way).

And it wasn’t just names they kept in the family. The Ptolemy’s were notorious for intermarrying.

"ArsinoeII" by PHGCOM - self-made, photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Licensed  via Commons -

“ArsinoeII” by PHGCOM – self-made, photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Licensed via Commons –

Arsinoë II was the eldest daughter of Ptolemy II ‘the Saviour’, founder Greek rule in Egypt. A high ranking princess, she was married to King Lysimachus of Macedonia at the age of fifteen. She had three sons – Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Philip. However, Lysimachus had a son from an earlier marriage, meaning than Arsinoë’s boys were second in line for the throne. To improve their chances, Arsinoë had the first son poisoned for treason.

Lysimachus died in battle in 281, leaving Arsinoë widowed at thirty-five. The queen acted quickly and went to Cassandreia to marry her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos (Thunderbolt). The couple proclaimed themselves joint rulers of Lysimachus’ territories; Macedonia and Thrace.

The marriage was not a happy one. Displeased with the amount of power her brother-husband was amassing, Arsinoë conspired against him with her sons. Unfortunately, Ptolemy Keraunos found out and had the two younger boys killed.

Arsinoë fled back home to Egypt, while her eldest son escaped to northern Greece. Ptolemy Philadelphus (sibling-loving) was Arsinoë’s brother and King of Egypt. He granted his sister protection and she was soon conspiring again. First, she had her brother’s first wife, Arsinoë I exiled. Then she married him herself.

Now Arsinoë II was co-ruler of Egypt, the wealthiest country in the world at the time. She had all of her brother’s titles and became hugely influential, having towns dedicated to her, her own cult (as was Egyptian custom), and appearing on coinage.

Arsinoë did not rest once she was queen. She contributed to foreign policy,

"Oktadrachmon Ptolemaios II Arsinoe II" by User:MatthiasKabel - Pergamonmuseum Berlin. Licensed via Commons

“Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II” by User:MatthiasKabel – Pergamonmuseum Berlin. Licensed via Commons

including Ptolemy II’s victory in the First Syrian War (274-271 BC) between Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in the Middle East.

According to Posidippus, she won also three chariot races at the Olympic Games, probably in 272 BC.

Even after her death, Ptolemy II continued to refer to Arsinoë on official documents, as well as supporting her coinage and cult. He also established her worship as a Goddess, a clever move, because by doing this he established also his own worship as a god.


Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal LifeElizabeth Donnelly Carney

On Wikipedia:

Arsinoë II