The Warrior Queen Is Born

The Warrior Queen Is Born

“On this day in 245, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, the Arab queen who led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire, was born.

Zenobia was born in Palmyra, present-day Syria to a father of Arab or Aramaic origins and an Egyptian mother. Historians describe the young girl as “”beautiful, chaste, and clever,”” with long black hair, dark eyes, pearly white teeth, and dark skin. Zenobia loved to hunt and ride horses, preferring the company and hobbies of other men to that of women. She spoke several languages, including Greek, Aramaic, Egyptian, and Latin. When she was around 15, Zenobia was married to Septimius Odaenathus, King of Palmyra, as his second wife. She bore him a son, Valballathus, but about ten years after their marriage, Odaenathus and his son from his first wife, Hairan, were mysteriously assassinated in 267. Some historians believe Zenobia was behind the assassinations.

As her son was still too young, Zenobia was now Queen of Palmyra, as regent for her son. She shocked the world immediately upon assuming the throne when she embarked on a campaign of expansion, first leading her armies into Egypt, which she took from the Roman Empire and added to her tiny but rapidly growing kingdom of Palmyra. Later in 269, she annexed Syria’s neighbouring lands and then large regions of Asia Minor as far as Ankara. Zenobia was proud, fearless, and defiant. She led her men into battle, galloping alongside them and shouting orders. She was called the Warrior Queen. When she became Queen, Palmyra was small and weak. Mere years into her reign, Palmyra stretched from the Nile in Egypt to the Bosphorus in Turkey. The Romans were enraged.

Aurelian, Emperor of Rome, was determined to reconquer Egypt and Asia Minor and rid his empire of the Palmyrene menace. In 274, the two armies, the Romans and the Palmyrenes, met at the Orontes River near Antioch. Zenobia was strong, confident, and defiant, as usual, leading her men into battle. As the fighting wore on, the Romans pretended to flee with the Palmyrenes in pursuit. After a time, the Palmyrenes, exhausted and thinking they had trounced their enemy, let down their guard to rest. It was then that the Romans returned and initiated a brutal slaughter. Zenobia and her remaining army fled to Emesa, with Zenobia eventually getting caught by Aurelian as she attempted to return to Palmyra. According to historical reports, Aurelian forced Zenobia to walk through Rome shackled in gold chains in a victory parade. The final chapter of Zenobia’s life is a mystery. One version states she committed suicide. Another that she was beheaded. Another, happier ending, suggests Zenobia married a Roman governor or senator and retired to quieter, domestic, family life in a villa in modern-day Tivoli, Italy.”

Credit: © Bettmann / CORBIS
Caption: A engraved portrait of Zenobia by William Sharp after a drawing by Michelangelo Buonarroti, circa 1799.