Septimia Zenobia (Palmyrene: (Btzby), pronounced Bat-Zabbai; AD c.240–c.274) was a third-century queen of the Syria-based Palmyrene Empire. Many legends surround her ancestry; she was born to a noble Palmyrene family and married the ruler of the city, Odaenathus. Her husband became king in 260, elevating Palmyra to supreme power in the Near East by defeating the Sassanians and stabilizing the Roman East. After Odaenathus' assassination, Zenobia became the regent of her son Vaballathus and held de facto power throughout his reign.
In 270, Zenobia launched an invasion which brought most of the Roman East under her sway and culminated with the annexation of Egypt. By mid-271 her realm extended from Ancyra, central Anatolia, to southern Egypt, although she remained nominally subordinate to Rome. However, in reaction to Roman emperor Aurelian's campaign in 272, Zenobia declared her son emperor and assumed the title of empress (declaring Palmyra's secession from Rome). The Romans were victorious after heavy fighting; the queen was besieged in her capital and captured by Aurelian, who exiled her to Rome where she spent the remainder of her life.
Zenobia was a cultured monarch and fostered an intellectual environment in her court, which was open to scholars and philosophers. She was tolerant toward her subjects, and protected religious minorities. The queen maintained a stable administration which governed a multicultural multiethnic empire. Zenobia died after 274, and many tales have been recorded about her fate. Her rise and fall have inspired historians, artists and novelists, and she is a national hero in Syria.
Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual wont, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible. So white were her teeth that many thought that she had pearls in place of teeth.
Zenobia was born c. 240–241. She bore the gentilicium (surname) Septimia,[note 1] and her native Palmyrene name was Bat-Zabbai (written "Btzby" in the Palmyrene alphabet, an Aramaic name meaning "daughter of Zabbai"). In Greek—Palmyra's diplomatic and second language, used in many Palmyrene inscriptions—she used the name Zenobia ("one whose life derives from Zeus"). The ninth-century historian al-Tabari, in his highly fictionalized account, wrote that the queen's name was Na'ila al-Zabba'. Manichaean sources called her "Tadi".[note 2]
In Palmyra, names such as Zabeida, Zabdila, Zabbai or Zabda were often transformed into "Zenobios" (masculine) and "Zenobia" (feminine) when written in Greek. Historian Victor Duruy believed that the queen used the Greek name as a translation of her native name in deference to her Greek subjects. No contemporary statues of Zenobia have been found in Palmyra or elsewhere, only inscriptions on statue bases; most known representations of Zenobia are the idealized portraits of her found on her coins. Palmyrene sculptures were normally impersonal, unlike Greek and Roman ones: a statue of Zenobia would have given an idea of her general style in dress and jewelry but would not have revealed her true appearance. British scholar William Wright visited Palmyra toward the end of the nineteenth century in a vain search for a sculpture of the queen.
In addition to archaeological evidence, Zenobia's life was recorded in different ancient sources but many are flawed or fabricated; the Augustan History, a late-Roman collection of biographies, is the most notable (albeit unreliable) source for the era. The author (or authors) of the Augustan History invented many events and letters attributed to Zenobia in the absence of contemporary sources. Some Augustan History accounts are corroborated from other sources, and are more credible. Byzantine chronicler Joannes Zonaras is considered an important source for the life of Zenobia.
Palmyrene society was an amalgam of Semitic tribes (mostly Aramean and Arab), and Zenobia cannot be identified with any one group; as a Palmyrene, she would have had Aramean and Arab blood. Information about Zenobia's ancestry and immediate family connections is scarce and contradictory. Nothing is known about her mother, and her father's identity is debated. Manichaean sources mention a "Nafsha", sister of the "queen of Palmyra", but those sources are confused and "Nafsha" may refer to Zenobia herself: it is doubtful that Zenobia had a sister.
The Augustan History contains details of Zenobia's early life, although their credibility is doubtful. According to Augustan History, the queen's hobby as a child was hunting. Apparently not a commoner, she would have received an education appropriate for a noble Palmyrene girl. According to the Augustan History, in addition to her Palmyrene Aramaic mother tongue, Zenobia was reportedly fluent in Egyptian and Greek and spoke Latin. Around age 14 (c. 255) she became the second wife of Odaenathus, the ras (lord) of Palmyra.
Based on archaeological evidence, several men have been suggested by historians as Zenobia's father: Julius Aurelius Zenobius appears on a Palmyrene inscription as a strategos of Palmyra in 231–232; based on the similarity of the names, Zenobius was suggested as Zenobia's father by the numismatist Alfred von Sallet and others. Another argument in favor of Zenobius' identification as the father is that his statue was opposite that of the queen on the Great Colonnade. However, the only gentilicium appearing on Zenobia's inscriptions was "Septimia" (not "Julia Aurelia", which she would have borne if her father's gentilicium was Aurelius), and it cannot be proven that the queen changed her gentilicium to Septimia after her marriage.
On the basis of Zenobia's Palmyrene name, Bat Zabbai, her father may have been called Zabbai; alternatively, Zabbai may have been the name of a more distant ancestor. Historian Trevor Bryce suggests that she was related to Septimius Zabbai, Palmyra's garrison leader, and he may even have been her father.
One of Zenobia's inscriptions recorded her as "Septimia Bat-Zabbai, daughter of Antiochus". Antiochus' identity is not definitively known: his ancestry is not recorded in Palmyrene inscriptions, and the name was not common in Palmyra. This, combined with the meaning of Zenobia's Palmyrene name (daughter of Zabbai), led scholars such as Harald Ingholt to speculate that Antiochus might have been a distant ancestor: the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes or Antiochus VII Sidetes, whose wife was the Ptolemaic Cleopatra Thea.
In historian Richard Stoneman's view, Zenobia would not have created an obscure ancestry to connect herself with the ancient Macedonian rulers: if a fabricated ancestry were needed, a more direct connection would have been invented. According to Stoneman, Zenobia "had reason to believe [her Seleucid ancestry] to be true". Historian Patricia Southern, noting that Antiochus was mentioned without a royal title or a hint of great lineage, believes that he was a direct ancestor or a relative rather than a Seleucid king who lived three centuries before Zenobia.
In the Augustan History, Zenobia is said to have been a descendant of Cleopatra and claimed descent from the Ptolemies.[note 3] According to the Souda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, after the Palmyrene conquest of Egypt, the Greek sophist Callinicus of Petra wrote a ten-volume history of Alexandria dedicated to Cleopatra. According to modern scholars, by Cleopatra Callinicus meant Zenobia.[note 4] Apart from legend, there is no evidence in Egyptian coinage or papyri of a contemporary conflation of Zenobia with Cleopatra; it may have been invented by Zenobia's enemies to discredit her.[note 5] Zenobia's alleged claim of a connection to Cleopatra seems to have been politically motivated, since it would have given her a connection with Egypt and made her a legitimate successor to the Ptolemies' throne. A relationship between Zenobia and the Ptolemies is unlikely, and attempts by classical sources to trace the queen's ancestry to the Ptolemies through the Seleucids are apocryphal.
Although some Arab historians linked Zenobia to the Queen of Sheba, their accounts are apocryphal. Medieval Arabic traditions identify a queen of Palmyra named al-Zabba', and her most romantic account comes from al-Tabari. According to al-Tabari, she was an Amalekite; her father was 'Amr ibn Zarib, an 'Amālīq sheikh who was killed by the Tanukhids. Al-Tabari identifies a sister of al-Zabba' as "Zabibah". Jadhimah ibn Malik, the Tanukhid king who killed the queen's father, was killed by al-Zabba'. According to al-Tabari, al-Zabba' had a fortress along the Euphrates and ruled Palmyra.
Al-Tabari's account does not mention the Romans, Odaenathus, Vaballathus or the Sassanians; focusing on the tribes and their relations, it is immersed in legends. Although the account is certainly based on the story of Zenobia, it is probably conflated with the story of a semi-legendary nomadic Arab queen (or queens). Al-Zabba''s fortress was probably Halabiye, which was restored by the historic Palmyrene queen and named Zenobia.
During the early centuries AD, Palmyra was a city subordinate to Rome and part of the province of Syria Phoenice. In 260 the Roman emperor Valerian marched against the Sassanid Persian monarch Shapur I, who had invaded the empire's eastern regions; Valerian was defeated and captured near Edessa. Odaenathus, formally loyal to Rome and its emperor Gallienus (Valerian's son), was declared king of Palmyra. Launching successful campaigns against Persia, he was crowned King of Kings of the East in 263. Odaenathus crowned his eldest son, Herodianus, as co-ruler. In addition to the royal titles, Odaenathus received many Roman titles, most importantly corrector totius orientis (governor of the entire East), and ruled the Roman territories from the Black Sea to Palestine. In 267, when Zenobia was in her late twenties or early thirties, Odaenathus and his eldest son were assassinated while returning from a campaign.
The first inscription mentioning Zenobia as queen is dated two or three years after Odaenathus' death, so exactly when Zenobia assumed the title "queen of Palmyra" is uncertain. However, she was probably designated as queen when her husband became king. As queen consort, Zenobia remained in the background and was not mentioned in the historical record. According to later accounts, including one by Giovanni Boccaccio, she accompanied her husband on his campaigns. If the accounts of her accompanying her husband are true, according to Southern, Zenobia would have boosted the morale of the soldiers and gained political influence, which she needed in her later career.
According to the Augustan History, Odaenathus was assassinated by a cousin named Maeonius. In Augustan History, Odaenathus' son from his first wife was named Herodes and was crowned co-ruler by his father. The Augustan History claims that Zenobia conspired with Maeonius for a time because she did not accept her stepson as his father's heir (ahead of her own children). The Augustan History does not suggest that Zenobia was involved in the events leading to her husband's murder, and the crime is attributed to Maeonius' moral degeneration and jealousy. This account, according to historian Alaric Watson, can be dismissed as fictional. Although some modern scholarship suggests that Zenobia was involved in the assassination due to political ambition and opposition to her husband's pro-Roman policy, she continued Odaenathus' policies during her first years on the throne.
In the Augustan History, Maeonius was emperor briefly before he was killed by his soldiers, however, no inscriptions or evidence exist for his reign. At the time of Odaenathus' assassination, Zenobia might have been with her husband; according to chronicler George Syncellus, he was killed near Heraclea Pontica in Bithynia. The transfer of power seems to have been smooth, since Syncellus reports that the time from the assassination to the army handing the crown to Zenobia was one day. Zenobia may have been in Palmyra, but this would have reduced the likelihood of a smooth transition; the soldiers might have chosen one of their officers, so the first scenario of her being with her husband is more likely. The historical records are unanimous that Zenobia did not fight for supremacy and there is no evidence of delay in the transfer of the throne to Odaenathus and Zenobia's son, the ten-year-old Vaballathus. Although she never claimed to rule in her own right and acted as a regent for her son, Zenobia held the reins of power in the kingdom, and Vaballathus was kept in his mother's shadow, never exercising real power.
The Palmyrene monarchy was new; allegiance was based on loyalty to Odaenathus, making the transfer of power to a successor more difficult than it would have been in an established monarchy. Odaenathus tried to ensure the dynasty's future by crowning his eldest son co-king, but both were assassinated. Zenobia, left to secure the Palmyrene succession and retain the loyalty of its subjects, emphasized the continuity between her late husband and his successor (her son). Vaballathus (with Zenobia orchestrating the process) assumed his father's royal titles immediately, and his earliest known inscription records him as King of Kings.
Odaenathus controlled a large area of the Roman East,[note 6] and held the highest political and military authority in the region, superseding that of the Roman provincial governors. His self-created status was formalized by Emperor Gallienus, who had little choice but to acquiesce. Odaenathus's power relative to that of the emperor and the central authority was unprecedented and elastic, but relations remained smooth until his death. His assassination meant that the Palmyrene rulers' authority and position had to be clarified, which led to a conflict over their interpretation. The Roman court viewed Odaenathus as an appointed Roman official who derived his power from the emperor, but the Palmyrene court saw his position as hereditary. This conflict was the first step on the road to war between Rome and Palmyra.
Odaenathus' Roman titles, such as dux Romanorum, corrector totius orientis and imperator totius orientis differed from his royal eastern ones because the Roman ranks were not hereditary. Vaballathus had a legitimate claim to his royal titles, but had no right to the Roman ones—especially corrector (denoting a senior military and provincial commander in the Roman system), which Zenobia used for her son in his earliest known inscriptions with "King of Kings". Although the Roman emperors accepted the royal succession, the assumption of Roman military rank antagonized the empire. Emperor Gallienus may have decided to intervene in an attempt to regain central authority; according to the Augustan History, praetorian prefect Aurelius Heraclianus was dispatched to assert imperial authority over the east and was repelled by the Palmyrene army. The account is doubtful, however, since Heraclianus participated in Gallienus' assassination in 268. Odaenathus was assassinated shortly before the emperor, and Heraclianus would have been unable to be sent to the East, fight the Palmyrenes and return to the West in time to become involved in the conspiracy against the emperor.[note 7]
The extent of Zenobia's territorial control during her early reign is debated; according to historian Fergus Millar, her authority was confined to Palmyra and Emesa until 270.[note 8] If this was the case, the events of 270 (which saw Zenobia's conquest of the Levant and Egypt) are extraordinary. It is more likely that the queen ruled the territories controlled by her late husband, a view supported by Southern and historian Udo Hartmann, and backed by ancient sources (such as the Roman historian Eutropius, who wrote that the queen inherited her husband's power). The Augustan History also mentioned that Zenobia took control of the East during Gallienus' reign. Further evidence of extended territorial control was a statement by the Byzantine historian Zosimus, who wrote that the queen had a residence in Antioch.[note 9]
There is no recorded unrest against the queen accompanying her ascendance in ancient sources hostile to her, indicating no serious opposition to the new regime.[note 10] The most obvious candidates for opposition were the Roman provincial governors, but the sources do not say that Zenobia marched on any of them or that they tried to remove her from the throne. According to Hartmann, the governors and military leaders of the eastern provinces apparently acknowledged and supported Vaballathus as the successor of Odaenathus. During Zenobia's early regency, she focused on safegarding the borders with Persia and pacifying the Tanukhids in Hauran. To protect the Persian borders, the queen fortified many settlements on the Euphrates (including the citadels of Halabiye—later called Zenobia—and Zalabiye). Circumstantial evidence exists for confrontations with the Sassanid Persians; probably in 269, Vaballathus assumed the victory title of Persicus Maximus (the great victor in Persia); this may be connected to an unrecorded battle against a Persian army trying to control northern Mesopotamia.[note 11]
In 269, while Claudius Gothicus (Gallienus' successor) was defending the borders of Italy and the Balkans against Germanic invasions, Zenobia was cementing her authority; Roman officials in the East were caught between loyalty to the emperor and Zenobia's increasing demands for allegiance. The timing and rationale of the queen's decision to use military force to strengthen her authority in the East is unclear; scholar Gary K. Young suggested that Roman officials refused to recognize Palmyrene authority, and Zenobia's expeditions were intended to maintain Palmyrene dominance. Another factor may have been the weakness of Roman central authority and its corresponding inability to protect the provinces, which probably convinced Zenobia that the only way to maintain stability in the East was to control the region directly. Historian Jacques Schwartz tied Zenobia's actions to her desire to protect Palmyra's economic interests, which were threatened by Rome's failure to protect the provinces. Also, according to Schwartz, the economic interests conflicted; Bostra and Egypt received trade which would have otherwise passed through Palmyra. The Tanukhids near Bostra and the merchants of Alexandria probably attempted to rid themselves of Palmyrene domination, triggering a military response from Zenobia.
In the spring of 270, while Claudius was fighting the Goths in the mountains of Thrace, Zenobia sent her general Septemius Zabdas to Bostra (capital of the province of Arabia Petraea); the queen's timing seems intentional. In Arabia the Roman governor (dux), Trassus (commanding the Legio III Cyrenaica),[note 12] confronted the Palmyrenes and was routed and killed. Zabdas destroyed the temple of Zeus Hammon, the legion's revered shrine. A Latin inscription after the fall of Zenobia attests to its destruction: "The temple of Iuppiter Hammon, destroyed by the Palmyrene enemies, which ... rebuilt, with a silver statue and iron doors (?)". The city of Umm el-Jimal may have also been destroyed by the Palmyrenes in connection with their efforts to subjugate the Tanukhids.
After his victory, Zabdas marched south along the Jordan Valley and apparently met little opposition. There is evidence that Petra was attacked by a small contingent which penetrated the region. Arabia and Judaea were eventually subdued. Palmyrene dominance of Arabia is confirmed by many milestones bearing Vaballathus' name. Syrian subjugation required less effort because Zenobia had substantial support there, particularly in Antioch, Syria's traditional capital. The invasion of Arabia coincided with the cessation of coin production in Claudius' name by the Antiochean mint, indicating that Zenobia had begun tightening her grip on Syria. By November 270, the mint began issuing coinage in Vaballathus' name.
The Arabian milestones presented the Palmyrene king as a Roman governor and commander, referring to him as vir clarissimus rex consul imperator dux Romanorum. The assumption of such titles was probably meant to legitimize Zenobia's control of the province, not yet a usurpation of the imperial title. Until now, Zenobia could say that she was acting as a representative of the emperor (who was securing the eastern lands of the empire) while the Roman monarch was preoccupied with struggles in Europe. Although Vaballathus' use of the titles amounted to a claim to the imperial throne, Zenobia could still justify them and maintain a mask of subordination to Rome; an "imperator" was a commander of troops, not the equal of an emperor ("imperator caesar").
The invasion of Egypt is sometimes explained by Zenobia's desire to secure an alternative trade route to the Euphrates, which was cut because of the war with Persia; This theory ignores the fact that the Euphrates route was only partially disrupted, and overlooks Zenobia's ambition. The date of the campaign is uncertain; Zosimus placed it after the Battle of Naissus and before Claudius' death, which sets it in the summer of 270. Watson, emphasizing the works of Zonaras and Syncellus and dismissing Zosimus' account, places the invasion in October 270 (after Claudius' death). According to Watson, the occupation of Egypt was an opportunistic move by Zenobia (who was encouraged by the news of Claudius' death in August). The appearance of the Palmyrenes on Egypt's eastern frontier would have contributed to unrest in the province, whose society was fractured; Zenobia had supporters and opponents among local Egyptians.
The Roman position was worsened by the absence of Egypt's prefect, Tenagino Probus, who was battling pirates. According to Zosimus, the Palmyrenes were helped by an Egyptian general named Timagenes; Zabdas moved into Egypt with 70,000 soldiers, defeating an army of 50,000 Romans. After their victory, the Palmyrenes withdrew their main force and left a 5,000-soldier garrison. By early November, Tenagino Probus returned and assembled an army; he expelled the Palmyrenes and regained Alexandria, prompting Zabdas to return. The Palmyrene general aimed a thrust at Alexandria, where he seems to have had local support; the city fell into Zabdas' hands, and the Roman prefect fled south. The last battle was at the Babylon Fortress, where Tenagino Probus took refuge; the Romans had the upper hand, since they chose their camp carefully. Timagenes, with his knowledge of the land, ambushed the Roman rear; Tenagino Probus committed suicide, and Egypt became part of Palmyra. In the Augustan History the Blemmyes were among Zenobia's allies, and Gary K. Young cites the Blemmyes attack and occupation of Coptos in 268 as evidence of a Palmyrene-Blemmyes alliance.
Only Zosimus mentioned two invasions, contrasting with many scholars who argue in favor of an initial invasion and no retreat (followed by a reinforcement, which took Alexandria by the end of 270). During the Egyptian campaign, Rome was entangled in a succession crisis between Claudius' brother Quintillus and the general Aurelian. Egyptian papyri and coinage confirm Palmyrene rule in Egypt; the papyri stopped using the regnal years of the emperors from September to November 270, due to the succession crisis. By December regnal dating was resumed, with the papyri using the regnal years of the prevailing emperor Aurelian and Zenobia's son Vaballathus. Egyptian coinage was issued in the names of Aurelian and the Palmyrene king by November 270. There is no evidence that Zenobia ever visited Egypt.
Although the operation may have commenced under Septimius Zabbai, Zabdas' second-in-command, the invasion of Asia Minor did not fully begin until Zabdas' arrival in the spring of 271. The Palmyrenes annexed Galatia and, according to Zosimus, reached Ancyra. Bithynia and the Cyzicus mint remained beyond Zenobia's control, and her attempts to subdue Chalcedon failed. The Asia Minor campaign is poorly documented, but the western part of the region did not become part of the queen's authority; no coins with Zenobia or Vaballathus' portraits were minted in Asia Minor, and no royal Palmyrene inscriptions have been found. By August 271 Zabdas was back in Palmyra, with the Palmyrene empire at its zenith.
Zenobia ruled an empire of different peoples; as a Palmyrene, she was accustomed to dealing with multilingual and multicultural diversity since she hailed from a city which embraced many cults. The queen's realm was culturally divided into eastern-Semitic and Hellenistic zones; Zenobia tried to appease both, and seems to have successfully appealed to the region's ethnic, cultural and political groups. The queen projected an image of a Syrian monarch, a Hellenistic queen and a Roman empress, which gained broad support for her cause.
Zenobia turned her court into a center of learning, with many intellectuals and sophists reported in Palmyra during her reign. As academics migrated to the city, it replaced classical learning centers such as Athens for Syrians. The best-known court philosopher was Longinus, who arrived during Odaenathus' reign and became Zenobia's tutor in paideia (aristocratic education). Many historians, including Zosimus, accused Longinus of influencing the queen to oppose Rome. This view presents the queen as malleable, but, according to Southern, Zenobia's actions "cannot be laid entirely at Longinus' door". Other intellectuals associated with the court included Nicostratus of Trapezus and Callinicus of Petra.
From the second to the fourth centuries, Syrian intellectuals argued that Greek culture did not evolve in Greece but was adapted from the Near East. According to Iamblichus, the great Greek philosophers reused Near Eastern and Egyptian ideas. The Palmyrene court was probably dominated by this school of thought, with an intellectual narrative presenting Palmyra's dynasty as a Roman imperial one succeeding the Persian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers who controlled the region in which Hellenistic culture allegedly originated. Nicostratus wrote a history of the Roman Empire from Philip the Arab to Odaenathus, presenting the latter as a legitimate imperial successor and contrasting his successes with the disastrous reigns of the emperors.
Zenobia embarked on several restoration projects in Egypt. One of the Colossi of Memnon was reputed in antiquity to sing; the sound was probably due to cracks in the statue, with solar radiation interacting with dew in the cracks. Historian Glen Bowersock proposed that the queen restored the colossus ("silencing" it), which would explain third-century accounts of the singing and their disappearance in the fourth.
The Palmyrenes were pagans and worshiped a number of Semitic gods, with Bel at the head of their pantheon. Zenobia accommodated Christians and Jews, and ancient sources made many claims about the queen's beliefs; Manichaeist sources alleged that Zenobia was one of their own. It is more likely, however, that Zenobia tolerated all cults in an effort to attract support from groups marginalized by Rome.
Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that Zenobia did not "hand over churches to the Jews to make them into synagogues"; although the queen was not a Christian, she understood the power of bishops in Christian communities. In Antioch—considered representative of political control of the East and containing a large Christian community—Zenobia apparently maintained authority over the church by bringing influential clerics, probably including Paul of Samosata, under her auspices. She may have bestowed on Paul the rank of ducenarius (minor judge); he apparently enjoyed the queen's protection, which helped him keep the diocesan church after he was removed from his office as bishop of Antioch by a synod of bishops in 268.[note 13]
Less than a hundred years after Zenobia's reign, Athanasius of Alexandria called her a "Jewess" in his History of the Arians. In 391, archbishop John Chrysostom wrote that Zenobia was Jewish; so did a Syriac chronicler around 664 and bishop Bar Hebraeus in the thirteenth century. According to French scholar Javier Teixidor, Zenobia was probably a proselyte; this explained her strained relationship with the rabbis. Teixidor believed that Zenobia became interested in Judaism when Longinus spoke about the philosopher Porphyry and his interest in the Old Testament. Although Talmudic sources were hostile to Palmyra because of Odaenathus' suppression of the Jews of Nehardea, Zenobia apparently had the support of some Jewish communities (particularly in Alexandria). In Cairo, a plaque originally bearing an inscription confirming a grant of immunity to a Jewish synagogue in the last quarter of the first millennium BC by King Ptolemy Euergetes (I or II) was found. At a much later date, the plaque was re-inscribed to commemorate the restoration of immunity "on the orders of the queen and king". Although it is undated, the letters of the inscription date to long after Cleopatra and Anthony's era; Zenobia and her son are the only candidates for a king and a queen ruling Egypt after the Ptolemies.
Historian E. Mary Smallwood wrote that good relations with the diaspora community did not mean that the Jews of Palestine were content with Zenobia's reign, and her rule was apparently opposed in that region. The Terumot tells the story of Rabbi "Ammi" and Rabbi "Samuel bar Nahmani", who visited Zenobia's court and asked for the release of a Jew ("Zeir bar Hinena") detained on her orders. The queen refused, saying: "Why have you come to save him? He teaches that your creator performs miracles for you. Why not let God save him?" During Aurelian's destruction of Palmyra, Palestinian conscripts with "clubs and cudgels" (who may have been Jews) played a vital role in Zenobia's defeat and the destruction of her city.
There is no evidence of Zenobia's birth as a Jew; the names of her and her husband's families belonged to the Aramaic onomasticon (collection of names). The queen's alleged patronage of Paul of Samosata (who was accused of "Judaizing"), may have given rise to the idea that she was a proselyte. Only Christian accounts note Zenobia's Jewishness; no Jewish source mentions it.
The queen probably spent most of her reign in Antioch, Syria's administrative capital. Before the monarchy, Palmyra had the institutions of a Greek city (polis) and was ruled by a senate which was responsible for most civil affairs. Odaenathus maintained Palmyra's institutions, as did Zenobia; a Palmyrene inscription after her fall records the name of Septimius Haddudan, a Palmyrene senator. However, the queen apparently ruled autocratically; Septimius Worod, Odaenathus' viceroy and one of Palmyra's most important officials, disappeared from the record after Zenobia's ascent. The queen opened the doors of her government to Eastern nobility. Zenobia's most important courtier and advisers were her generals, Septemius Zabdas and Septimius Zabbai; both of whom were generals under Odaenathus and received the gentilicium (surname) "Septimius" from him.
Odaenathus respected the Roman emperor's privilege of appointing provincial governors, and Zenobia continued this policy during her early reign. Although the queen did not interfere in day-to-day administration, she probably had the power to command the governors in the organization of border security. During the rebellion, Zenobia maintained Roman forms of administration, but appointed the governors herself (most notably in Egypt, where Julius Marcellinus took office in 270 and was followed by Statilius Ammianus in 271).[note 14]
Zenobia initially avoided provoking Rome by claiming for herself and her son the titles, inherited from Odaenathus, of subject of Rome and protector of its eastern frontier. After expanding her territory, she seems to have tried to be recognized as an imperial partner in the eastern half of the empire and presented her son as subordinate to the emperor. In late 270, Zenobia minted coinage bearing the portraits of Aurelian and Vaballathus; Aurelian was titled "emperor", and Vaballathus "king". The regnal year in early samples of the coinage was only Aurelian's. By March 271, despite indicating Aurelian as the paramount monarch by naming him first in the dating formulae, the coinage also began bearing Vaballathus' regnal year. By indicating in the coinage that Vaballathus' reign began in 267 (three years before the emperor's), Vaballathus appeared to be Aurelian's senior colleague.
The emperor's blessing of Palmyrene authority has been debated; Aurelian's acceptance of Palmyrene rule in Egypt may be inferred from the Oxyrhynchus papyri, which are dated by the regnal years of the emperor and Vaballathus. No proof of a formal agreement exists, and the evidence is based solely on the joint coinage- and papyri-dating. It is unlikely that Aurelian would have accepted such power-sharing, but he was unable to act in 271 due to crises in the West. His apparent condoning of Zenobia's actions may have been a ruse to give her a false sense of security while he prepared for war. Another reason for Aurelian's tolerance may have been his desire to ensure a constant supply of Egyptian grain to Rome; it is not recorded that the supply was cut, and the ships sailed to Rome in 270 as usual. Some modern scholars, such as Harold Mattingly, suggest that Cladius Gothicus had concluded a formal agreement with Zenobia which Aurelian ignored.
An inscription, found in Palmyra and dated to August 271, called Zenobia eusebes (the pious); this title, used by Roman empresses, could be seen as a step by the queen toward an imperial title. Another contemporary inscription called her sebaste, the Greek equivalent of "empress" (Latin: Augusta), but also acknowledged the Roman emperor. A late-271 Egyptian grain receipt equated Aurelian and Vaballathus, jointly calling them Augusti. Finally, Palmyra officially broke with Rome; the Alexandrian and Antiochian mints removed Aurelian's portrait from the coins in April 272, issuing new tetradrachms in the names of Vaballathus and Zenobia (who were called Augustus and Augusta, respectively).
The assumption of imperial titles by Zenobia signaled a usurpation: independence from, and open rebellion against, Aurelian. The timeline of events and why Zenobia declared herself empress is vague. In the second half of 271, Aurelian marched to the East, but was delayed by the Goths in the Balkans; this may have alarmed the queen, driving her to claim the imperial title. Zenobia also probably understood the inevitability of open conflict with Aurelian, and decided that feigning subordination would be useless; her assumption of the imperial title was used to rally soldiers to her cause. Aurelian's campaign seems to have been the main reason for the Palmyrene imperial declaration and the removal of his portrait from its coins.
The usurpation, which began in late March or early April 272, ended by August. Aurelian spent the winter of 271–272 in Byzantium, and probably crossed the Bosporus to Asia Minor in April 272. Galatia fell easily; the Palmyrene garrisons were apparently withdrawn, and the provincial capital of Ancyra was regained without a struggle. All the cities in Asia Minor opened their doors to the Roman emperor, with only Tyana putting up some resistance before surrendering; this cleared the path for Aurelian to invade Syria, the Palmyrene heartland. A simultaneous expedition reached Egypt in May 272; by early June Alexandria was captured by the Romans, followed by the rest of Egypt by the third week of June. Zenobia seems to have withdrawn most of her armies from Egypt to focus on Syria—which, if lost, would have meant the end of Palmyra.
In May 272, Aurelian headed toward Antioch. About 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of the city, he defeated the Palmyrene army (led by Zabdas) at the Battle of Immae. As a result, Zenobia, who waited in Antioch during the battle, retreated with her army to Emesa. To conceal the disaster and make her flight safer, she spread reports that Aurelian was captured; Zabdas found a man who resembled the Roman emperor and paraded him through Antioch. The following day, Aurelian entered the city before marching south. After defeating a Palmyrene garrison south of Antioch, Aurelian continued his march to meet Zenobia in the Battle of Emesa.
The 70,000-strong Palmyrene army, assembled on the plain of Emesa, nearly routed the Romans. In an initial thrill of victory they hastened their advance, breaking their lines and enabling the Roman infantry to attack their flank. The defeated Zenobia headed to her capital on the advice of her war council, leaving her treasury behind. In Palmyra, the queen prepared for a siege; Aurelian blockaded food-supply routes, and there were probably unsuccessful negotiations. According to the Augustan History, Zenobia said that she would fight Aurelian with the help of her Persian allies; however, the story was probably fabricated and used by the emperor to link Zenobia to Rome's greatest enemy. If such an alliance existed, a much-larger frontier war would have erupted; however, no Persian army was sent. As the situation worsened, the queen left the city for Persia intending on seeking help from Palmyra's former enemy; according to Zosimus, she rode a "female camel, the fastest of its breed and faster than any horse".
Aurelian, learning about Zenobia's departure, sent a contingent which captured the queen before she could cross the Euphrates to Persia; Palmyra capitulated soon after news of Zenobia's captivity reached the city in August 272.[note 15] Aurelian sent the queen and her son to Emesa for trial, followed by most of Palmyra's court elite (including Longinus). According to the Augustan History and Zosimus, Zenobia blamed her actions on her advisers; however, there are no contemporary sources describing the trial, only later hostile Roman ones. The queen's reported cowardice in defeat was probably Aurelian's propaganda; it benefited the emperor to paint Zenobia as selfish and traitorous, discouraging the Palmyrenes from hailing her as a hero. Although Aurelian had most of his prisoners executed, he spared the queen and her son to parade her in his planned triumph.
Zenobia's fate after Emesa is uncertain, since ancient historians left conflicting accounts. Zosimus wrote that she died before crossing the Bosporus on her way to Rome; according to this account, the queen became ill or starved herself to death. The generally unreliable chronicler, John Malalas, wrote that Aurelian humiliated Zenobia by parading her through the eastern cities on a dromedary; in Antioch, the emperor had her chained and seated on a dais in the hippodrome for three days before the city's populace. Malalas concluded his account by writing that Zenobia appeared in Aurelian's triumph and was then beheaded.
Most ancient historians and modern scholars agree that Zenobia was displayed in Aurelian's 274 triumph; Zosimus was the only source to say that the queen died before reaching Rome, making his account questionable. A public humiliation (as recounted by Malalas) is a plausible scenario, since Aurelian would probably have wanted to publicize his suppression of the Palmyrene rebellion. Only Malalas, however, describes Zenobia's beheading; according to the other historians, her life was spared after Aurelian's triumph. The Augustan History recorded that Aurelian gave Zenobia a villa in Tibur near Hadrian's Villa, where she lived with her children. Zonaras wrote that Zenobia married a nobleman, and Syncellus that she married a Roman senator. The house she reportedly occupied became a tourist attraction in Rome.
The queen owed her elevated position to her son's minority. An inscription on a milestone on the road between Palmyra and Emesa, dated to Zenobia's early reign, identifies her as "illustrious queen, mother of the king of kings"; this was the first inscription giving her an official position. A lead token from Antioch also identifies Zenobia as queen.[note 16] The earliest known attestation of Zenobia as queen in Palmyra is an inscription on the base of a statue erected for her by Zabdas and Zabbai, dated to August 271 and calling her "most illustrious and pious queen". On an undated milestone found near Byblos, Zenobia is titled Sebaste. The queen was never acknowledged as sole monarch in Palmyra, although she was the de facto sovereign of the empire; she was always associated with her husband or son in inscriptions, except in Egypt (where some coins were minted in Zenobia's name alone). According to her coins, the queen assumed the title of Augusta (empress) in 272.
In addition to Vaballathus, Zenobia had other children; the image of a child named Hairan (II) appears on a seal impression with that of his brother Vaballathus; no name of a mother was engraved and the seal is undated. Odaenathus' son Herodianus is identified by Udo Hartmann with Hairan I, a son of Odaenahtus who appears in Palmyrene inscriptions as early as 251. David S. Potter, on the other hand, suggested that Hairan II is the son of Zenobia and that he is Herodianus instead of Hairan I.
Herennianus and Timolaus were mentioned only in the Augustan History. Herennianus may be a conflation of Hairan and Herodianus; Timolaus is probably a fabrication, although historian Dietmar Kienast suggested that he might have been Vaballathus.
A controversial Palmyrene inscription records Septimius Antiochus, "Zenobia's son". He may have been Vaballathus' younger brother, or was presented in this manner for political reasons; Antiochus was proclaimed emperor in 273, when Palmyra revolted against Rome for a second time. If Antiochus was a son of Zenobia, he was probably a young child not fathered by Odaenathus; Zosimus described him as insignificant, appropriate for a five-year-old boy.
According to the Augustan History, Zenobia's descendants were Roman nobility during the reign of Emperor Valens (reigned 364–375). Eutropius and Jerome chronicled the queen's descendants in Rome during the fourth and fifth centuries. They may have been the result of a reported marriage to a Roman spouse or offspring who accompanied her from Palmyra; both theories, however, are tentative. Zonaras is the only historian to note that Zenobia had daughters; he wrote that one married Aurelian, who married the queen's other daughters to distinguished Romans. According to Southern, the emperor's marriage to Zenobia's daughter is a fabrication. Another descent claim is the relation of saint Zenobius of Florence with the queen; the Girolami banking family claimed descent from the fifth century saint, and the alleged relation was first noted in 1286. The family also extended their roots to Zenobia by claiming that the saint was a descendant of her.
An evaluation of Zenobia is difficult; the queen was courageous when her husband's supremacy was threatened and by seizing the throne, she protected the region from a power vacuum after Odaenathus' death. According to Watson, she made what Odaenathus left her a "glittering show of strength". In the view of Watson, Zenobia should not be seen as a total powermonger, nor as a selfless hero fighting for a cause; according to historian David Graf, "She took seriously the titles and responsibilities she assumed for her son and that her program was far more ecumenical and imaginative than that of her husband Odenathus, not just more ambitious".
Zenobia has inspired scholars, academics, musicians and actors; her fame has lingered in the West, and is supreme in the Middle East. As a heroic queen with a tragic end, she stands alongside Cleopatra and Boudica. The queen's legend turned her into an idol, that can be reinterpreted to accommodate the needs of writers and historians; thus, Zenobia has been by turns a freedom fighter, a hero of the oppressed and a national symbol. The queen is a female role model; according to historian Michael Rostovtzeff, Catherine the Great liked to compare herself to Zenobia as a woman who created military might and an intellectual court. During the 1930s, thanks to an Egyptian-based feminist press, Zenobia became an icon for women's-magazine readers in the Arabic-speaking world as a strong, nationalistic female leader.
Her most lasting legacy is in Syria, where the queen is a national symbol. Zenobia became an icon for Syrian nationalists; she had a cult following among Western-educated Syrians, and an 1871 novel by journalist Salim al-Bustani was entitled Zenobia malikat Tadmor (Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra). Syrian nationalist Ilyas Matar, who wrote Syria's first history in Arabic in 1874, (al-'Uqud al-durriyya fi tarikh al-mamlaka al-Suriyya; The Pearl Necklace in the History of the Syrian Kingdom), was fascinated by Zenobia and included her in his book. To Matar, the queen kindled hope for a new Zenobia who would restore Syria's former grandeur. Another history of Syria was written by Jurji Yanni in 1881, in which Yanni called Zenobia a "daughter of the fatherland", and yearned for her "glorious past". Yanni described Aurelian as a tyrant who deprived Syria of its happiness and independence by capturing its queen.
In modern Syria, Zenobia is regarded as a hero; her image appeared on banknotes, and in 1997 she was the subject of the television series Al-Ababid (The Anarchy). The series was watched by millions in the Arabic-speaking world. It examined the Israeli–Palestinian conflict from a Syrian perspective, where the queen's struggle symbolized the Palestinians' struggle to gain the right of self-determination. Zenobia was also the subject of a biography by Mustafa Tlass, Syria's former minister of defense and one of the country's most prominent figures.
Harold Mattingly called Zenobia "one of the most romantic figures in history". According to Southern, "The real Zenobia is elusive, perhaps ultimately unattainable, and novelists, playwrights and historians alike can absorb the available evidence, but still need to indulge in varied degrees of speculation."
She has been the subject of romantic and ideologically-driven biographies by ancient and modern writers. The Augustan History is the clearest example of an ideological account of Zenobia's life, and its author acknowledged that it was written to criticize the emperor Gallienus. According to the Augustan History, Gallienus was weak because he allowed a woman to rule part of the empire and Zenobia was an abler sovereign than the emperor. The narrative changed as the Augustan History moved on to the life of Claudius Gothicus, a lauded and victorious emperor, with the author characterizing Zenobia's protection of the eastern frontier as a wise delegation of power by Claudius. When the Augustan History reached the biography of Aurelian, the author's view of Zenobia changed dramatically; the queen is depicted as a guilty, insolent, proud coward. Her wisdom was discredited and her actions deemed the result of manipulation by advisers.
Zenobia's "staunch" beauty was emphasized by the author of the Augustan History, who ascribed to her feminine timidity and inconsistency (the reasons for her alleged betrayal of her advisers to save herself). The queen's gender posed a dilemma for the Augustan History, since it cast a shadow on Aurelian's victory. Its author ascribed many masculine traits to Zenobia to make Aurelian a conquering hero who suppressed a dangerous Amazon queen. According to the Augustan History, Zenobia had a clear, manly voice, dressed as an emperor (rather than an empress), rode horseback, was attended by eunuchs instead of ladies-in-waiting, marched with her army, drank with her generals, was careful with money (contrary to the stereotypical spending habits of her gender) and pursued masculine hobbies such as hunting. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a fanciful 14th-century account of the queen in which she is a tomboy in childhood who preferred wrestling with boys, wandering in the forests and killing goats to playing like a young girl. Zenobia's chastity was a theme of these romanticized accounts; according to the Augustan History, she disdained sexual intercourse and allowed Odaenathus into her bed only for conception. Her reputed chastity impressed some male historians; Edward Gibbon wrote that Zenobia surpassed Cleopatra in chastity and valor. According to Boccaccio, Zenobia safeguarded her virginity when she wrestled with boys as a child.
Seventeenth-century visitors to Palmyra rekindled the Western world's romantic interest in Zenobia. This interest peaked during the mid-nineteenth century, when Lady Hester Stanhope visited Palmyra and wrote that its people treated her like the queen; she was reportedly greeted with singing and dancing, and Bedouin warriors stood on the city's columns. A procession ended with a mock coronation of Stanhope under the arch of Palmyra as "queen of the desert". William Ware, fascinated by Zenobia, wrote a fanciful account of her life. Novelists and playwrights, such as Haley Elizabeth Garwood and Nick Dear, also wrote about the queen.