Zenobia was a 3rd century warrior queen who claimed she was descended from none other than Cleopatra. She is known for conquering Egypt and thwarting the Roman Empire.
Born in Palmyra in Syria, Zenobia’s given Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia. It’s reported that as a child she learnt the riding skills which would serve her well in her warrior future.
Sources recount that not only was Zenobia a very beautiful woman, but that she was also highly intelligent – speaking at least four languages, with an interest in philosophy, literature and poetry. She was also not like the other women of her time, reputedly riding, hunting and drinking with the best of the men.
In adulthood Zenobia became the second wife to the King of Palmyra and had a son with him. When her husband was assassinated their son was only one year old and too young to take the throne, so Zenobia rose to the occasion and declared herself Queen. In her first years as ruler she began to extend the Palmyrene territories, growing the Empire. She soon set her sights on Egypt – which she felt was somewhat of a spiritual home, calling it her ‘ancestral city’.
Egypt was in Roman hands, but Zenobia soon saw to that, sending her armies in to take it from them. When one Roman prefect tried to expel them, she had him beheaded! Unlike other queens, who took a more hands-off approach, Zenobia is said to have led her army on horseback and marched alongside them for many miles at a time.
Until this point Zenobia’s expansion had been fairly respectful of the Roman Empire, but now she took key trade routes from them, put her face on their coins and named her son and herself ‘Augustus’ and ‘Augusta’ – names usually reserved for Roman royalty. It wasn’t too long before the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, started to get a bit peeved, and needless to say a mite embarrassed, that a woman was quite successfully stomping all over his patch!
A letter from Aurelian includes this sentence about his adversary: “Those who speak with contempt of the war I am waging against a woman, are ignorant both of the character and power of Zenobia.”
Aurelian wanted to reunite the Roman Empire and sent armies to face Zenobia head on in Syria. Zenobia’s forces put up a good fight but were ultimately defeated. Zenobia initially escaped with her son on a camel, but they were soon captured and taken to Rome.
Accounts seem to agree that her son did not survive the journey, but differ as to Zenobia’s ultimate fate. Some say that she also died soon after arriving – either through illness or at her own hand (echoing her predecessor Cleopatra’s final decision.) However, there is good evidence that her story ended in a somewhat happier fashion, with Zenobia marrying a Roman senator and living a luxurious life in Tibor for the rest of her days.
Whichever way her story ended, Zenobia’s name is one that has lived on down the centuries, alongside the likes of Boudicca, as a fearless female leader who took on the Romans.
Find out more…
This profile of Zenobia will appear in the Illustrated Women of History Zine, available here. The fantastic illustration accompanying this post is by Geen Jones an illustrator and jewellery maker based in Birmingham. You can see more of her work on her Tumblr, Facebook or Instagram.
Check out the brilliant profile of Zenobia on the Rejected Princesses website.
This In Our Time Podcast with Melvyn Bragg is all about Zenobia’s life and times.