In the third century CE, between the years 235 and 283 CE, the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined weight of invasions, civil war, plague, and economic depression. By the year 258, the empire had split into three states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire, and the Roman Empire between them. The three were not reunited until the rule of the Emperor Aurelian.
The Roman Empire as of 271 CE; Rome is in red, the Gallic Empire is in green, and the Palmyrene Empire is in yellow.
During this period, the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were governed by a man named Septimus Odaenathus. He chose to use the legions under his command to defend the provinces he controlled instead of committing them to the defense of the Roman Empire. Though he never officially rebelled against Rome, he held the title of “King,” and by 260 CE, he was the definitive ruler of the area which would be known as the Palmyrene Empire between the years 267 and 273 CE.
Septimus Odaenathus was assassinated in 267. He was succeeded by his infant son Vaballathus, with his wife Zenobia (240-?) ruling in their son’s stead. Zenobia quickly assumed the honorific title of Augusta.
Coin baring Zenobia’s likeness; on the left you can see her name and the title “Augusta,” and on the right you can see the word “Regina” indicating the fact that, though she used the Augusta title, she generally presented herself as a queen.
She was of Arab descent, with her immediate ancestors being primarily highly placed generals and officials within the Roman Empire. However, Zenobia styled herself as the descendant of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Cleopatra VII of Egypt, showing her strong sense of history and literature and a clear understanding of the fact that people are easily impressed by the suggestion of illustrious ancestry.
Contemporary sources describe Zenobia as beautiful and intelligent, and, though ancient sources have a tendency to describe all notable women as “beautiful, intelligent, and chaste,” she was undoubtedly intelligent. In addition to her mastery of history and literature, and her understanding of the human psyche, she was fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian, with Latin as her native tongue.
Zenobia justified her rule by claiming to be acting in protection of Rome’s Eastern provinces from the Sassanid Empire. However, it was clear that her military operations served primarily to increase her own power at the expense of Rome. Because she was outwardly cooperative, and because Aurelian had his hands full in the Gallic Empire, he chose to recognize her authority for the time being, which allowed her to operate fairly unimpeded for about six years.
And what a six years they were. She conquered Egypt, and followed that up with conquests of Anatolia, and the Levantine provinces. With these conquests came the extremely valuable trade routes embedded within those territories.
However, after finishing up in the Gallic section of the Empire in 271, Aurelian turned his eyes to the reunification of the rest of the Empire. Aurelian’s forces met Zenobia’s in Antioch, and there the Palmyrene Empire suffered a crushing defeat and was rapidly re-incorporated into the newly reunited Roman Empire.
1717 painting by Giovanni Tiepolo titled “Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelianus” currently on display at the Museo del Prado.
Zenobia attempted to escape down the Euphrates to the Sassasnid Empire with Vaballathus, but they were quickly intercepted by Aurelian’s troops and taken to Rome as hostages; Vaballathus died along the way. Aurelian had a great victory parade through the streets of Rome to celebrate the reunification of the Empire, and he had Zenobia marched through the streets in chains as a part of this celebration.
1888 painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz titled “Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra” currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
However, Aurelian was so impressed by her dignity, intelligence, beauty, desire to be forgive for her transgressions that he not only allowed her to live,* but gifted her a villa in Tivoli. There she lived in luxury, and became a great and sought after philosopher and socialite. She remarried a Roman governor, had several daughters—all of whom married into great families—and had recorded descendants up into the fifth century.
If you’re going to rebel against the Roman Empire, that’s the way to do it.
*There is, in fact, some debate as to her actual fate. A few sources record that she died of starvation or beheading, however, the multitude of sources which suggest that she was allowed to live outweigh the sources which contain information to the contrary.
Images Courtesy of the Museo del Prado, the Art Gallery of South Australia, and romancoins.info; map courtesy of wikipedia.