Zenobia, Palmyrene Queen
We are now are going to look at another female sovereign of the classical era, Septimia Zenobia, Queen of Palmyrene Empire. Palmyrene Empire was a splinter state of the eastern Roman Empire, breaking away in about 270 CE. Although it only lasted for three years, the distinction of both the empire, and the queen who led it, was that Zenobia took on the might of the Romans, and for while, Like Boudicca, it really looked as if she might pull it off.
Like Cleopatra, the only verifiable surviving image of Zenobia exists on coinage, and a minted coin of the third century can hardly be regarded as an excellent likeness. Nonetheless, she was reported to be a great beauty, but more importantly, a woman absolutely not to be messed with.
The simple facts of her background are this: Zenobia was born in 240 CE. She was a member of the Palmyrene nobility who married Odaenathus, ruler of the city-state that comprised Palmyra, and who fought a series of wars to stabilize the Roman east during a period of deep discord and division. When Odaenathus died in 267 CE, his son Vaballathus became king, but Zenobia assumed power in his name as regent. She then launched a series of invasions that brought most of the Eastern Roman Empire under her control.
It is unfortunate that so little is known about Zenobia, but Palmyra, or at least the center of the empire, was situated in what would today be Syria. A rather fanciful collection of biographies of the Roman period is contained in the Augustan History, and this states that Zenobia was descended from the Ptolemies. This would have related her to Cleopatra, but it is probably unlikely, and in fact, she was almost certainly of Arab descent.
Upon the death of her husband, Rome was ruled by Gallienus, a lackluster character, succeeded in 268 CE by Claudius Gothicus, neither of whom could really stand up to the will an ambition of a woman such as Zenobia. Her sovereignty was recognized over a region that encompassed most of what would today be Egypt, the Levant and much of Turkey. By 270 CE, it really was beginning to seem that Zenobia was unstoppable, and that the rest of the Roman Empire might soon fall under her control. In 271, Zenobia went so far as to declare her son Vaballathus as Ceasar, which was an extremely bold, but also a rather risky move.
In 270 CE, in the meanwhile, the seat of imperial power in Rome changed once again, and now Zenobia found herself dealing with Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, an entirely different character. During his brief reign of four years, Domitius pacified the Goths, repelled a Barbarian invasion and restored Roman rule in the rowdy provinces of Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania.
He then turned his attention to the ambitions of an extremely dangerous and powerful Syrian queen. When pushed back against the walls of her city, Zenobia wrote to the Roman Emperor: âYou demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a queen rather than remain alive, however, high her rank.’
Did she commit suicide? Who knows, but the record of her life and achievements ceases in 274 CE, and thus, for all intents and purposes, ended the life of an extraordinary woman.