Empress Zenobia: Palmyra's Rebel Queen

April 16, 2009

I sometimes think that if it were not for her coins, Queen Zenobia would be taken as a legendary figure, at least as fanciful as Semiramis of Babylon, or Shirin, the Armenian princess who became the symbolic lady of Islamic mysticism. There may be a kernel of truth in the story, most would contend, but it would be considered a tale so fantastical, so gendered, with sources so unreliable that it simply couldn't have historical value. Yet Zenobia (c AD240-3) did exist and went to war against the Romans. And, as Empress of the East, she came within a hair's breadth of victory.

Pat Southern has written a scholarly biography of someone about whom almost nothing is known for certain. We don't know her year of birth, her lineage, when she married the great warrior prince Odenathus, or much about their children (she had one son at least, Waballath, who would become a short-lived Emperor of the East). More positively, I would note that we may have a real portrait of Zenobia - on her second Alexandrian coin issue. Although there is more information on her husband and his family, we don't know anything about how Odenathus became a great warrior, much less why the Emperor Gallienus appointed him Corrector Totius Orientis (if indeed he did) and gave him (or let him take) a slew of other prestigious titles. Odenathus appears on the Syrian scene almost as a deus ex machina, saving the day for Rome's eastern provinces and inadvertently setting in motion the forces that would destroy Zenobia and their city, Palmyra.

After Odenathus' murder, Zenobia seized the regency on behalf of Waballath, who was still a child. But of her later plans or intentions we are entirely ignorant. Southern admits this and concentrates instead on giving us a serious historical study of Palmyra, with few concessions to the romance of a beautiful queen leading her people against the power of Rome. Virtually every "fact" is disputed. Even Palmyra's incorporation into the Roman Empire floats over 200 years from Germanicus to Caracalla. Southern leans towards an early annexation (by Tiberius) - although Pliny the Elder remarks that Palmyra "had its own fate" between the Roman and Parthian empires. I prefer late, under Septimius Severus (AD193-211), which at least explains why Palmyra is ignored in Roman literary and epigraphic sources. Palmyra was a Roman ally, certainly, and maintained its own army - not just "desert fighters" but a heavily-armoured cavalry (clibanarii) adopted from the Persian enemy.

Southern tells Palmyra's history from the Roman side. A more easterly orientation might better fit the only Roman polis whose local language (Palmyrene Aramaic) is ubiquitous in public inscriptions. Palmyran men wore "Parthian" trousers (a pity the only man illustrated in this book is wrapped in a cloak; why not show the recently discovered mosaic of Odenathus on horseback, splendidly clothed in multicoloured Parthian style?). Vestis virum reddit. Most Palmyran deities, too, faced eastwards: Bel, great god of the city, was originally Babylonian and his temple - still Palmyra's cynosure - was dedicated on Babylonian New Year's Day, 6 April AD32.

Palmyra's lifeblood was its commerce with India. Southern clearly traces the ups and downs of this crucial trade to the Euphrates (as the crow flies, over 200km of rough stony desert) and downriver to Charax, near modern Basra. Until Severus carved out Roman Mesopotamia, Palmyra played the middleman between rival empires. In the end, it was Rome that destroyed Palmyra. In AD2, Aurelian defeated Zenobia and restored Rome's rule of the east. Southern claims that Aurelian's reconquest displayed clementia, yet a favourable Roman source decries him as "a stern, a savage, and a bloodthirsty prince".

This book is not for the general reader, and even the serious traveller making a first visit to Palmyra is better advised to pack Richard Stoneman's accessible (if more romantic) Palmyra and its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt against Rome (1993) - although neither book includes much on the topography and monuments of Palmyra itself. Southern's version is a detailed evaluation of current Zenobian studies, taking robust stands on disputed points, such as the lack of evidence for 3rd-century city walls protecting Palmyra, a Roman strategy of blockade rather than siege, and Zenobia's ultimate fate. It doesn't settle many questions. How could it?

Empress Zenobia: Palmyra's Rebel Queen

By Pat Southern
Continuum
224pp
£25.00
ISBN 9781847250346
Published 17 November 2008

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