''Today I will tell you about a Syrian woman, not an ordinary one but the queen of Palmyra. She is one of the two most important figures of this country, along with Saladin Eyyubi.. I was not aware of her until this trip, but amazed, when I learned that she was almost bringing an early end to Roman Empire.
Zenobia’s father was a Bedouin, Roman citizen and a senator at Palmyra. Her mother died when giving birth to her and her father gave great importance to her education. She was especially interested in history, enjoyed Homer and Plato and talked Egyptian, Greek, Latin and Aramaic. She traveled to nearby countries by caravans. She was also a beautiful, smart and a very attractive woman, who was very fond of hunting and drinking.
In the year 258, at the age of 20, she married to King of Palmyra, Septimus Odaenathus who was 60, as his second wife. Zenobia who hated Romans took this marriage as means to power. Her stepson Hairan was the heir of the throne. In 266 Zenobia gave birth to her own son named Vaballathus – gift of the goddess. A year later in 267, both the king and the heir assassinated. Zenobia’s involvement in these affairs was unknown.
Her son announced as the new king but as he was not old enough to rule, Zenobia succeeded his father and ruled on his behalf. She learned about politics when her husband alive by joining the parliament meetings and even ruling the meetings when her husband was sick.
During this period Romans had problems of their own. Siege of Goths, were blocking their lifelines. Zenobia saw the opportunity and started to invade new areas in the name of Roman Emperor with the claim of protecting the region from Sassanid Empire. She took the vital trade routes in these areas from Romans. She rode at the head of her army and became known as the Warrior Queen. It was written that she was a very talented horse rider and easily walked 5-6 km.
She went as far as Ankara, Chalcedon, Palestine and Lebanon. When she invaded Antakya she sent a message to Roman Emperor that this invasion was fulfilled under his name. Later she took Alexandria and there she made her unforgivable mistake and cut coins for her and her son’s name. It was a rebellion against Romans. Later she stopped the transportation of grains to Rome. Her goal was to defeat the Roman Empire and carry the political power to Palmyra.
As always said with a twist of fate (its definitely not fate, there should be some reasons but I don’t know what they are..) Goths lifted the siege of Rome. When Zenobia heard of this, she immediately sent her allegiance message to Rome but it was too late. Rome did not trust her anymore.
Roman Emperor Aurelian moved towards Palmyra with an army of 100.000. Zenobia was waiting him in Anatolia but the size of her army was only 20.000. Zenobia forced to retreat. Finally Romans sieged Palmyra but Zenobia was ready for them. Every night she ordered big feasts in the centers of the city where people were eating, drinking and enjoying themselves. She was teasing the Romans and showing them that her city was ready for a long siege. But when Romans made alliance with the Bedouins, Zenobia’s plans were doomed. One night she and her son secretly escaped from the city on camel back with the help of her old enemies Sassanids but they caught them near the Euriphes River.
She swallowed her pride and kneeled down in front of Aurelian and begged not for her life but for Palmyra. The destruction and plunder of her beloved city was her biggest nightmare. Aurelian granted her wish but took her and her son to Rome as hostages. Her son was killed when the Roman army was passing the Bhosphorus. In the year 274 she was in Rome in gold chains. Aurelian who was impressed with her beauty and intelligence gave her a villa near Tivoli.
From then on there are two different stories about Zenobia. In the first and the most accepted one, Zenobia married a Roman governor and senator and lived in luxury and became a prominent philosopher, socialite and Roman matron. The two had several daughters who married into Roman noble families.
In the second story, Zenobia forced to live as the mistress of the Emperor and committed suicide after she organized the assassination of Aurelian in Thrace when he was on a new Sasaniad campaign.
Palmyrenes rebelled against Romans after the army left. The Emperor, who initially showed mercy, became furious after the news. Roman army came back invaded, destroyed and plundered the city and left it in ruins.
While certain historical evidences are supporting the first story about Zenobia, I want to believe the second one. I find it quite difficult to imagine a woman who was as smart and as ambitious as her, in entertaining with Romans who killed her son and destroyed her beloved city.
Palmyra established in the 1. Century and had a life of 250 years. While it was a typical Roman city with its own gods, it succeeded in creating its own style and philosophy in a rich and refined way. If you have an opportunity to visit just one place in Syria, my advice is; make it Palmyra. It is definitely an oasis in the desert with its pillars, temples and tombs.
Picture of Zenobia is from Herbert Schmalz. A queen observing Rome, in gold chains.