Zenobia, third century queen of the Palmyrene Empire

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Sep 1, 2020, 11:50 AM EDT (Updated)

November is Warrior Women Month, and today we’re going to introduce you to Zenobia, Queen Regent of the Palmyrene Empire, which is in current-day Syria. Zenobia, who is also called Bat-Zabbai, is a national hero in Syria. While regent for her young son, she launched an invasion which allowed her to rule a large chunk of the Roman East and Egypt.

Zenobia, whose surname was Septimia (though the naming conventions were pretty complicated back then), was likely a noble woman, and was therefore very well educated. It certainly showed in the way she ran her court, which encouraged learning. She was probably born around 240 CE and died in 274 CE. One of the places we learn about her is the Augustan History, which has a number of biographies. It’s also pretty dicey in terms of accuracy, according to historians. Still, it gives us an actual description of her looks. (The only place we see a visual of her is on her coins.) It says:

“Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual wont, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible. So white were her teeth that many thought that she had pearls in place of teeth.”

We don’t know a lot about her for certain, however, because sources at the time are largely contradictory, and it’s thought by some that she may have been the source of a few public-relations-friendly stories herself. One of them claims her to be a descendant of Cleopatra. That one was from the Augustan History. She’s also been linked to the Queen of Sheba, which probably isn’t accurate either.

We do know that Zenobia was married to Odaenathus. He ruled Palmyra, which was a subordinate of Rome and part of the province of Syria Phoenice. There was a lot of political intrigue going on at the time, and Odaenathus was named King of Kings of the East in 263. He also had a bunch of Roman titles. The poor guy was assassinated along with his son with whom he was co-ruling in 267, when his wife Zenobia was either in her late twenties or early thirties. She and Odaenathus had a 10-year-old son named Valballathus, and Zenobia was quickly declared regent. Historians think it’s rather likely that Zenobia was actually on the military campaign with her husband at the time, since the transition was so smooth. It might not have been if the news had to go back and forth from the battlefront to Palmyra, and then back to the troops.

During the early years when Zenobia was regent, things were pretty quiet. The Roman rulers seemed to be okay with her, and things went along swimmingly. Zenobia fortified settlements on the borders and pacified her neighbors. She ruled Palmyra and Emesa largely without incident, but in 270 things changed. The Roman East wasn’t exactly super stable in terms of government, and Zenobia decided to try to control the region. She ordered her general Septemius Zabdas to the city of Bastra and took over. Then he marched south under her command, taking down Umm el-Jimal (probably, from the evidence, but it's not conclusive), then Petra, Arabia, and Judaea. Late that year, those coins with her image started circulating. Nothing says power like your face on money, right? In 271, her forces took Egypt. She was still under Rome’s rule, technically, but things were okay until she declared her son Emperor and herself Empress, succeeding from Rome. The Romans weren’t super jazzed about that, and ultimately took her down. Zenobia was exiled to Rome, where she lived for the rest of her life... maybe. Even tales of her death are many, including her starving to death before she even got there, being paraded in the Roman streets, committing suicide and marrying a nobleman or even a Senator.

During her rule, Zenobia’s court was a hot spot for scholars and intellectuals. She was tolerant of minorities and different religions. She also restored a number of artifacts in Egypt, including the Colossi of Memnon. A number of versions of her story have been portrayed in paintings by Giambattista Tiepolo and Herbert Gustave Schmalz, novels, plays, songs, and operas. A 1959 film was made called Nel Segno di Roma, which starred Anita Ekberg. Zenobia appears on money in modern Syria, and the TV series Al-Ababeed (The Anarchy) was wildly popular in the Arabic-speaking world.

Though Zenobia didn’t physically fight, she didn’t have to. She commanded an army and ruled part of the Roman East and Egypt. She declared herself Empress. For a few years, Zenobia ran the show, and may have created some of her own myths, just to cement her reputation. She definitely deserves the title of warrior woman.

Stay tuned for the rest of our series of women who kicked butt! Who’s your favorite warrior woman of the ancient world? Let us know in the comments or @SYFYFangrrls!

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