Zenobia, Queen of the Desert

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Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01snjpp)

The excitement in my world so far this week has been about Queen Zenobia, the third-century Syrian princess – a descendent of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt – who ruled an independent empire spanning the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Zenobia’s empire reached from Ankara in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) south as far as Egpyt, and extended East from the Holy Land to the Euphrates.

Zenobia’s empire was short-lived, spanning five years from the death of her husband in 267 to the arrival – in person – of the Roman Emperor Aurelian, builder of the Aurelian Wall that still circles Rome, in 272.

Kate at BBC House

A kind passer-by took this of me as I left BBC House after broadcasting the Zenobia episode of ‘In Our Time’

On Thursday,  I participated in a lively debate about Zenobia at BBC House in Central London, as part of the In Our Time programme on Queen Zenobia, which was hosted by Melvin Bragg.

One of the most fascinating questions about Zenobia is what she thought she was doing.  Was the establishment of her empire intended as a revolt against Rome, as many believe? Or was she simply, like so many after her, trying to bring peace to the Middle East?

Zenobia’s husband Odenathus had been the Roman governor in the region, and had maintained peace in the region on the emperor’s behalf for the best part of a decade.  The coins issued by Zenobia and her son and co-regent, the child-emperor Vahballath, indicate that  she initially saw herself as running a client kingdom on behalf of Rome.

Palmyra is in the middle of the desert along the trade route linking Antioch and Damascus to the river-ports of the Euphrates, and thus to the Persian Gulf.  In the second and third centuries it was a free city, made impossibly wealthy by its ability to levy taxes on the caravan trade bringing spices and silks west toward Rome, and Roman manufactured goods east toward Persia and the East.  Pamyra was an indispensable node on merchant networks that reached from Rome to Persia and India, and it was there that small private militias were routinely organized to protect the richly laden caravans.

There is every reason to believe that Zenobia was seen, by the business leaders of the Eastern Mediterranean, as a known quantity, a business-friendly ruler who could guarantee the military stability needed to keep the profits flowing. We know, for example, that when her trusted general Zabdas arrived in Egpyt, a powerful contingent of local supporters played a decisive role in his success.

What nobody counted on, however, was Aurelian. After more than a half-century of chaos in which each short-lived emperor could expect to be challanged by dozens usurpers, Aurelian (270-275) was an emperor with a difference. Although he was eventually murdered by his troops, he managed to re-unite the empire, recovering Gaul, Britain, and Spain before marching East to address the Zenobia Problem. (As a supreme illustration of his competence, he nipped back to Rome to organize the building of the Aurelian Wall before travelling East.) Aurelian is credited for laying the groundwork for the reunification of the Empire which would lead to its last great century under Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius the Great.

But I found myself asking, was Aurelian’s success really such a good thing? How would history have turned out differently if the zone of Eastern Turkey, Syria, the Holy Land and Egypt had been allowed to flourish as a unified empire, strategically positioned between Rome in the West and Sasanian Persia in the East?  Of course, it’s hard to say. But at a time when Syria is at the centre of tragic conflict, it is lovely to imagine a Syrian Empire punching far above its weight along the lines of Elizabethan Britain: tiny but indomitable thanks to the verve of its trading networks and a brilliant, unstoppable Queen.

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3 comments

  1. Gavin Harrow · · Reply

    I would simply like to express my gratitude for the introduction to a historical figure I knew nothing of. Your performance on the show was highly engaging, and though provoking. I live in the Middle East ( unfortunately, the ‘wrong end’ to visit the sites described ) but will take the chance to read more about Queen Zenobia and the relationship between Rome and the near east at this time. Sincere thanks.

  2. Andrew · · Reply

    While my research involves Constantine and the fourth century, I’ve become very fascinated with the third century context and Zenobia in particular. I wonder how modern Syrians view her in relation to how Westerners usually tell it from Rome’s perspective?

    1. I wish I knew more about this – what a great question. There is a sad and lovely post on the Leicester University website about the tragic situation in Palmyra, which mentions that Zenobia is widely revered in modern Syria – evidently she is on the bank notes. Here is the link, and if you find more about this, do please post! http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/think-leicester/politics-and-international-relations/2015/palmyra-islamic-state-layers-grief-upon-grief-for-syrians

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