Zenobia: Queen of valor and chastity

Arabic News, 3 May 2001

By around the year 200 AD, the ancient Syrian kingdom of Palymra was honored with the title of Roman colony. Not long after, the family who both to created a Palmyrene empire and brought about the city's downfall appeared upon the political scene in the person of a certain Odenath, who was executed for rebellion.

Rebellious ambition was in the family blood, and found in the vast and sudden wealth of the foremost Palmyrenes a fatal stimulus. The dead man's son boldly styled himself Prince of Palmyra, and that prince's son was the great Odenath.

The last had further increased the family power and received the title of consul, when events occurred that seemed to favor Palmyrene independence. The Sassanians (now Iranians) erupted into the empire. Odenath, evidently a general of exceptional abilities, stepped into the breach, drove back the Persians and saved Syria.

After he was murdered, his widow, the romantic but less cautious Zenobia, proclaimed the independence of Palmyra in the name of her young son, Vaballath King of Kings. A Roman expedition was defeated, Egypt and Asia Minor invaded, and overnight a merchant empire appeared stretching from the Nile to the Caucasus.

In this empire the Queen was the ruler and the driving force. She seems to have been a remarkable woman and to deserve the aura of sentiment attached to her memory. She was described by a Roman historian as: She claimed her descent from the Macedonian Kings of Egypt, equaled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valor. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of dark complexion. her teeth were a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. He voice was strong and harmonious. Her manly understanding was strengthened and adorned by study. She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac and Egyptian languages. She had drawn up for her own use an epitome of oriental history, and familiarly compared the beauties of Homer, and Plato under the tuition of the sublime Longinus.

When it is understood that Zenobia was also a huntress of big game, a military tactician, and so tough that she would march for miles on foot at the head of her troops, it is difficult to grudge her the splendid title, which she herself assumed, of Queen of the East.

It is curious to contemplate what might have been the future of her caravan enterprise, had Zenobia not been unfortunate enough after 270 AD to come up against an emperor of Aurelian's mettle. As it was the Palmyrene armies were twice defeated in the field, and the city besieged and taken.

Zenobia herself was captured on the banks of the Euphrates, having penetrated the Roman lines at Palmyra in a vain attempt to get through to Persia (Iran) and obtain Sassanid help.

The sequel for the queen was the humiliation of participating in Aurlian's Roman triumph, though it seems that her claims were of gold and her eventual asylum a villa on the Tiber. For Palmyra the real end came in the following year when, as the result of a further uprising and the murder of the Roman garrison, Aurelian hurried back to raze the city walls and destroy the water supply.

Palmyra's grandeur was over, though the town retained a certain commercial importance in the Byzantine period.