Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zenobia - Queen of Palmyra

As news reaches us that the ancient citadel of Palmyra is under siege (see The Australian newspaper article), here is a small piece I have written on one of its most notable citizens, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.

Born c240AD, Zenobia was named Septimia Zenobia in Latin, or Bat Zabbai in her native Aramaic. She was a woman of distinctive appearance: it was said that she was of dark and swarthy complexion, with black eyes and teeth that resembled white pearls. Her strong and forceful personality led her to be alternatively called a tyrant and good emperor. She was an incredible beauty, and this may have been brought her to the attention of Odaenathus, ruler of Palmyra; but it was her character and intelligence (she spoke several languages - Egyptian, Greek and her native Aramaic) that kept her by his side throughout his reign. Zenobia was extremely knowledgable on the history of Alexandria, and was said to have written an account of the city. Zenobia claimed to be directly descended from Cleopatra, and made her her role model. This identification with this great Egyptian Queen may have also fuelled her own ambitions.

In 260AD when the Persians captured the Emperor Valerian and threatened the Empire itself, Odaenathus, son of a ruling Palmyrene family (Julii Aurelii Septimii) and Imperial Consul, assumed the defence of the Asian provinces, and backed by his family, recruited his own troops. Accompanied by Zenobia, he set out against the Persian King, and ultimately defeated the persian army, securing Mesopotamia for Rome. After crushing a rebellion against the Emperor, Odaenathus was made Governor of all the Roman provinces in the East; he then proclaimed himself King of Palmyra.

Odaenathus reigned for seven years. Zenobia endured the same rigors as her husband, and supported and embellished his court with artists and writers. Despite this seeming closeness of relationship, Zenobia conspired to have her husband assassinated (2767AD). It was said that she feared that Herodes, Odaenathus' eldest son by a previous marriage, would succeed. Zenobia viewed Heodes as a worthless, spoilt boy for whom she had not time. Odaenathus was duly murdered by his cousin Maeonius, who was then killed by Zenobia's own soldiers. Conveniently soon after the death of his father, Herodes disappeared. Zenobia's young son, Vaballathus was proclaimed, but as he was not old enough to rule in his won right, Zenobia was entrusted with the regency, aided by her late husband's friends. There was never any direct reference to Zenobia being involved in either of these two actions, though she did indeed reap the rewards.

Soon after taking control of Palmyrene affairs, Zenobia received an invitation to take direct control of Egyptian affairs by Timagenes, a dissatisfied military and political commander, originally appointed by Rome. Zenobia accepted this opportunity and though she was concerned about an open confrontation with Rome, she was advised that the risks and the prize (being the Nile) were well worth it. At this time the Romans were distracted by the Gothic invasion of Greece and Asia Minor. Zenobia's army numbered 70,000 and was under the command of her general Zabdas; he joined the Egyptian army and together they defeated a much smaller Roman-Egyptian army. Zabdas re-established Timagenes and left a garrison behind. The outraged Emperor sent his vetran admiral Probus to Alexandria - the Palmyrenes were ousted but Timagenes rallied, and in a surprise attack defeated Probus. Egypt was now loyal to Palmyra. It was at this stage that Zenobia began entertaining thoughts of establishing her own empire rivalling Rome.

Hot on the heels of her success in Egypt, Zenobia sent an army into Asia Minor, establishing herlf in Ankar and Chalcedon (opposite Constantinople on the Bosphorus). But her rule was short-lived. A new Emperor had come to power (270AD) and not just any Emperor; this was Aurelian, a ferocious conqueror who, on coming to power, ruthlessly crushed all rebellions and incursions - rebels fled, cities capitulated before him. But he was also human and often acted with greaat clemency, which made Zenobia's resistance to him very difficult. By the time of Aurelian's accession to power, Zenobia's fame was widespread, and it would not be long before a confrontation between the "Iron Lady" and the Emperor would be forthcoming.

Aurelian advanced to Antioch (272AD) but the Palmyrene army blocked his way - nevertheless, Aurelian shrewdly noted that Zenobia's army consisted mainly of heavily armoured cavalry - both horse and rider encased in mail and plate armour. Standing aside his infantry, Aurelian ordered his cavalry to make an ordered retreat sufficiently long enough to tire the palmyrene cavalry, whereupon they were attacked by the Romans. The Palmyrenes retreated within the walls of Antioch but the people wanted to turn them over to the Romans. Under cover of night, the remnants of the Palmyrene army fled to Emesa where Zenobia was awaiting news.

Upon receiving news of the defeat, Zenobia decided to lead the bulk of her army personally. Zenobia donned her mail tunic which was then draped with purple cloth, secured by a large brooch; on her head was a Persian style helmet. She decided to face Aurelian at Emses (modern Homs). Her army of 70,000 warriors consisted chiefly of her elite "clibanarii" (noblemen), Arab mounted archers and Lebanese-Syrian footsoldiers. Aurelian was quite content to let the heavily armoured horsemen subject themsleves to the steadily increasing heat. Again Aurelian ordered retreat but it was not so orderly this time. The Roman cavalry was easily defeated by the palmyrene cavalry but they in turn was easily overcome by the awaiting disciplined Roman footsoldiers. Zenobia fled back to Palmyra, pursued by Aurelian who besieged the fortified city. Aurelian demanded Zenobia surrender, she in turn defied him. Though well equiped for a long siege, Zenobia's advisors urged her to flee to the Persian Empire, and so under cover of night she left, on camel and accompanied by only a few faithful bodybguards.

Furous at her flight, Aurelian sent Arab horsemen after Zenobia. She was captured just as she was about to set foot in Persia - Palmyra surrendered on receiving the news of her capture. Zenobia was taken to Emesa and tried for crimes against the Empire. Zenobia blamed her actions on bad counsellors, chiefly the Greek philosopher Longinus - they were duly executed. Zenobia's own life was spared only because Aurelian wished to have her lead his triumphant parade through Rome. Thus, laden with many jewels and bound with gold chains, Zenobia was paraded through Rome before a hysterical crowd, the symbol of Aurelian's supremacy over the East (274AD). It was claimed that Zenobia, faithful to her role model Cleopatra, took her own life. It was also said that, although she considered suicide, she in fact married a Roman nobleman and spent the remainder of her life in Tivoli, her notoriety ensuring her celebrity status among the Roman aristocracy.

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