Some Informal Historical Notes on Queen Zenobia

Zenobia’s family name was Zenobia bat-Zabbai. She was the daughter of Zabaii ben Selim, or Julius Aurelius Zenobius, an important chieftain or ruler in Syria. His Greek name was Antiochus. He had received Roman citizenship. Zenobia’s mother was possibly an Egyptian. Zenobia spoke Egyptian, and she always favored the Egyptian culture. She claimed descent from Queen Cleopatra and from Queen Dido of Carthage. She claimed her descent from Dido through Drusilla of Mauretania, the daughter of King Ptolemy of Mauretania and Queen Julia Urania of Mauretania. Drusilla’s mother was probably from the royal family of Emesa, and Drusilla married into that family. Drusilla’s paternal grandmother was Selene Cleopatra II of Mauretania, a daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.

Drusilla’s paternal grandfather was the African King Juba II of Mauretania, who claimed to be a descendant of the sister of General Hannibal. Hannibal’s family, the Barcids, claimed to be descended from Queen Dido’s younger brother.

Zenobia’s father was descended from the royal family of Emesa. He was related to Gaius Julius Bassianus, the high priest of Emesa, and the father of the Roman Empress Julia Domna (AD 170-217), the wife of the Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus.

Zenobia herself was beautiful and intelligent. She had a dark complexion, pearly white teeth, bright eyes that sparkled, and a beautiful face. She possessed a strong and melodious voice, with many other charms. She was very well educated. She spoke Greek, Aramaic, Egyptian, and Latin. She was versed in Homer, Plato, and other Greek writers. She enjoyed hunting, and was not above drinking with the men.

Zenobia came to be known as a Palmyrene after she married Odenathus, the ruler of Palmyra. Palmyra, sometimes called Tadmor, was located near the edge of the Syrian desert between Syria and Persian Babylonia. The city was at the center of caravan routes, and was located at an oasis, watered by the Efqa Spring. The Palmyrenes were Semitic, but the culture was Graeco-Roman, Parthian and Persian.

The Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) raised Palmyra to the status of a Roman colony and gave them citizenship.

Odenathus became a powerful military leader, and was quite important to the Romans in their defense of the East. He was an accomplished warrior and loved to hunt lions, panthers, bears, and other beasts. He spent much time in the forests, mountains, enduring hardships. His wife Zenobia also became inured to hardship, and in the opinion of many, was braver than Odenathus.

Both Odenathus and Zenobia had earlier marriages. Zenobia was married as a young teenager, but the marriage was dissolved. Odenathus’ first wife apparently died, but left him with a son Herodes. Cornelius Capitolinus said of this son, “(he was) the most beautiful and the most effeminate of men, wholly Oriental and given over to Greek luxury, (and in) the manner of the Persians he dwelt in embroidered tents and pavilions made of gold cloth.” When his father, Odenathus, conquered the Persian capital, he gave Herodes all the Persian concubines so that Herodes could go in unto them and prove he was a man, but the young man disdained them.

Zenobia was never close to Herodes, which caused his father to favor the boy even more vigorously.

After her husband was assassinated by a jealous family member named Maeonius, Zenobia took the reigns of the Palmyran kingdom. She became very powerful, ruling over a large area including the great city of Antioch about a 100 miles away. She would later conquer Syria, the area of Palestine including Judea, and Egypt. She became a threat to the Roman empire.

It was in Antioch that she unexplainably befriended the Christian Bishop Paul of Samosata. The relationship between the two has never been fully explained. Their friendship was interrupted by the great war which took place between Rome and Palmyra.

The Emperor Aurelian, after he had defeated Queen Zenobia, admired her, stating she was “wise in counsels, steadfast in plans, and stern in discipline. It was her doing that Odenathus defeated the Persians, and after putting Sapor (the Persian leader) to flight, they advanced all the way to Ctesiphon.”

Aurelian went on to say: “The fear that this woman inspired in the peoples of the East, and also in the Egyptians, caused that neither Arabs nor Saracens nor Armenians ever moved against her. Nor would I have spared her life, had I not known that she did a great service to the Roman state when she preserved the imperial power in the East for herself, or for her children…she kept guard over the eastern frontier of the empire.”

The war between the Emperor Aurelian and Zenobia resulted in her defeat and capture. She was taken prisoner and brought to Rome to grace Aurelian’s magnificent triumph in Rome. She remained there and was given a beautiful villa outside Rome where she married a prominent Roman and became a celebrity figure.

Her military staff, including General Zabdas, her advisors, Cassius Longinus, the renowned rhetorician; Callinicus Dutorius, the historian; Nichomachus, were put to death. It is possible that the Christian Bishop Paul of Samosata also died, although the details are not known.

Livius said of Zenobia: “Her face was dark and of a swarthy character, her eyes were black and powerful, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible. So white were her teeth that many thought she had pearls in place of teeth. Her voice was clear and like that of a man.