Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (240 – c. 275AD)
16″ x 20″ oil on canvas
Zenobia was a 3rd-century Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria, who led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire. The second wife of King Septimius Odaenathus, Zenobia became queen of the Palmyrene Empire following Odaenathus’ death. She expanded the empire, conquering Egypt and expelling the Roman prefect, Tenagino Probus, who was beheaded after he led an attempt to recapture the territory. She ruled over Egypt until 274, when she was defeated and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian.
Classical and Arabic sources describe Zenobia as beautiful and intelligent, with a dark complexion, pearly white teeth, and bright black eyes. She was said to be even more beautiful than Cleopatra, differing though in her reputation for extreme chastity. It was also said that Zenobia as carried herself like a man, riding, hunting and drinking on occasion with her officers. Well educated and fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian, with a working knowledge of Latin she is supposed to have hosted literary salons and to have surrounded herself with philosophers and poets.
In 267 Zenobia’s husband and stepson were assassinated. The titled heir, Vaballathus, was only one year old, so his mother succeeded her husband and ruled Palmyra. Zenobia bestowed upon herself and her son the honorific titles of Augusta and Augustus. Zenobia conquered new territories and increased the Palmyrene Empire in the memory of her husband and as a legacy to her son.
In 269 Zenobia and her army, with help from their Egyptian ally, Timagenes, and his army conquered Egypt. Tenagino Probus, the Roman prefect of Egypt and his forces, tried to expel them from Egypt, but Zenobia’s forces captured and beheaded Probus. She then proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt. After these initial forays, Zenobia became known as a “Warrior Queen”. In leading her army, she displayed significant prowess: she was an able horse-rider and would walk three or four miles with her foot soldiers.
Zenobia, with her large army, made expeditions and conquered Anatolias far as Ancyra (Ankara) and Chalcedon, followed by Syria, Palestina and Lebanon. In her short-lived empire, Zenobia took the vital trade routes in these areas from the Romans. The Roman Emperor Aurelian, who was at that time campaigning with his forces in the Gallic Empire, probably did recognise the authority of Zenobia. Aurelian and his forces left the Gallic Empire and arrived in Syria. The forces of Aurelian and Zenobia met and fought near Antioch. After a crushing defeat, the remaining Palmyrenes briefly fled into Antioch and then into Emesa.
Zenobia and her son escaped Emesa by camel with help from the Sassanids, but Aurelian’s horsemen captured them on the Euphrates River. Zenobia’s short-lived Egyptian kingdom and the Palmyrene Empire had ended. Aurelian captured those remaining Palmyrenes who refused to surrender and had them executed.
Zenobia was taken as hostage to Rome by Aurelian. In 274, Zenobia reportedly appeared in golden chains in Aurelian’s military triumph parade in Rome. What happened to Zenobia from this point on is unclear. One version is that she was put to death in Rome, a happier version is that Aurelian was so impressed by her beauty and dignity, that he freed Zenobia and granted her an elegant villa in Tibur. She supposedly lived in luxury and became a prominent philosopher, socialite and Roman matron. Zenobia is said to have married a Roman governor whose name is unknown. They reportedly had several daughters, whose names are also unknown.
For a short time Queen of Egypt and Empress of Palmyra, Zenobia was a fearless leader and courageous warrior – a remarkable woman.