Once upon a time, when the Roman Empire was falling apart, a warrior Queen nearly defeated the Romans. I’m not even joking, this actually happened.
Because this is ancient history, we have no idea when exactly Zenobia was born. She was likely born around 240 CE in Palmyra, which is in modern-day Syria when Rome’s Third Century Crisis was in full swing. Her full name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia, which is a really cool name. You probably clicked on this article because it’s titled “The Rebel Empress Who Nearly Ruined Rome”, so you’re probably wondering: how the heck did Zenobia end up on a throne?
Well, we don’t really know. Who was Zenobia’s mother? We have no idea. Zenobia’s father, then? He could maybe-possibly-plausibly trace his lineage back to a Roman Emperor, but we know nothing else. Zenobia also might have been a descendant of the Ptolemies, the rulers of Egypt, which would mean that she was a descendant of the legendary Pharaoh, Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra to people of Zenobia’s time was pretty much what Queen Victoria is to us: that great female ruler everybody knows about, and that one lady from two hundred years ago that everyone wants to be like. And Cleo would pretty much become Zenobia’s idol, as we’ll see in a moment.
Zenobia was probably not a regular girl, because she was educated pretty well by 3rd century standards, and that means she got a really, really good education. She learned tons of languages but also learned how to hunt, which became a favorite pastime of hers. Zenobia pretty much became the ideal military commander, which she loved to be. She was also very beautiful, like more beautiful than anyone else I’ve heard of. Apparently, Zenobia also loved to drink.
So, let’s talk about where and when this future Empress lived. Palmyra, where Zenobia would rule, was by then a part of the Roman Empire. The Sassanids over in Persia, under Shapur I, was constantly attacking Rome, and the closest area to attack was, of course, Palmyra. But there was Odaenathus, this really cool leader in the east who defeated the Sassanids on multiple occasions. He also became really super powerful, but never betrayed Rome and always stayed a vassal. Palmyra was a much richer place than the Italian peninsula (where Rome is).
And, during Zenobia’s teens, she was married off to Odaenathus, the Lord of Palmyra. He had probably been married before, but we know nothing about his first wife. He was around twenty years older than Zenobia, as he would’ve been born around 220 CE. Again, we don’t know exactly when Zenobia or Odaenathus were born, these are just estimates. We do know that Zenobia probably married Odaenathus before 258 CE. According to one source, Zenobia was a really chaste woman and refused to sleep with her husband for anything other than conceiving children. She and her husband had three children, all sons: Septimius Vaballathus, the future Palmyrene Emperor; Hairan II, who was most likely Odenathus’s child, but we don’t know if he was Zenobia’s or not; and Septimius Antiochus. Vaballathus is the only one out of those three who was definitely Zenobia’s son.
I just said that Rome and Persia were constantly fighting each other. Well, by 260 CE, nothing had really changed. Valerian was the Emperor of Rome by now. After Shapur I had taken Antioch, a really valuable city, from the Romans, Valerian attacked the Sassanids. To say that it was a “crushing defeat” would be a serious understatement. Valerian was actually captured by the Sassanids, and molten gold might have been poured down his throat, causing him to die. He also might have been used as Shapur’s footstool during his years in prison.
Valerian’s son, the new Emperor, was just as useless as he was. When Shapur attacked again, it was actually Odaenathus who fought back, chasing Shapur across the Euphrates and out of Syria. Odaenathus might not actually have wanted to be an ally of Rome: he might have been pissed at the Sassanids for not agreeing to ally with him. But still, he fought for Rome. To thank him, the Emperor made Odaenathus the governor of Rome’s eastern provinces, and also got the title “King of Palmyra”. So, our Zenobia is now the Queen of Palmyra, and the wife of a military genius. She either learned from him or he from her because Zenobia would soon prove that she was a better leader.
Palmyra increasingly became independent as Odaenathus became more and more loyal to the Roman empire, and, in 263, Odaenathus even got the title “King of Kings of the East”. That title was probably just the Romans insulting the Sassanids, though. But, that gave Zenobia a cool new title! She was Queen of the East! Everything is going absolutely amazing for Zenobia.
But then there’s a section of her Wikipedia page that says, “Possible role in Odaenathus’s assassination.” Uh-oh. So, basically, if Zenobia was involved in Odaenathus’s upcoming assassination, she was probably mad that he wanted to have his son from his first marriage, Herodes, succeed him and be his co-ruler. Again, we have no idea if this actually happened. So, Zenobia was really angry, because she obviously wanted her son to be King of Palmyra, not this other dude from her husband’s first marriage. So, what did Zenobia do? She did the only sensible thing a 3rd-century version of Cleopatra would do: she teamed up with her husband’s cousin (who also hated him) and together, they killed Odaenathus. Again, probably all not real. That section of her Wikipedia page also says that she might have not liked him because he was really loyal to Rome, like really loyal. That actually makes sense, because of her later actions.
Anyways, Odaenathus was dead, and by the way, Odaenathus’s son from his first marriage had also been assassinated (poor kid). So, what did that mean? It meant that Zenobia’s eldest son, ten-year-old Vaballathus, was king. Of course, he was supposed to be a vassal of Rome and all that stuff, and he was never supposed to be the king of his own independent country. Our smart and simply amazing Zenobia was his regent because the kid was ten.
So, Zenobia’s husband has been assassinated, and she was maybe-plausibly involved, and now her little son was king. If you know any history and not much about Zenobia, then you might think that everything’s going to go to hell, and this post is about to conclude because Zenobia will be in her grave soon. Well, that’s not really how it’s going to go. We’re just getting started.
So, Zenobia’s son’s new title was “King of Kings”, just like his father’s old title because Rome still hated the Sassanids and had fun insulting them. Zenobia was also not so fond of the Romans and had always hated Odaenathus for being so loyal to them, but she knew that the only way for people to accept her as their new ruler (because Zenobia was just doing all the ruling on her own because she wanted to) was to do what Odaenathus had been doing. This worked because it seems like nobody revolted. By the way: Zenobia’s cool new title was Queen Mother of Palmyra, and she liked this title a lot because she had a ton of new power she loved.
So, Zenobia quietly stayed an ally of Rome, but at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the Third Century Crisis. And that Valerian, the literal EMPEROR of Rome had maybe been used as Shapur I’s footstool. So, yeah, things weren’t going so well for Rome. Zenobia had never liked the Romans, so she must have been laughing at them until 269 when she had an idea. In Rome, the emperor was being assassinated nearly every year, and being replaced with a new one. With all that going on in Rome, it’s not like they’d be able to deal with Zenobia if she decided she didn’t want to be friends with them anymore.
We don’t know exactly why, but Zenobia sent a general to invade the wealthy Roman Egypt in 269, and even though it seemed like Rome would win at first, Zenobia walked away with a nice, rich Egypt, even though it took a couple of years. This was pretty much her saying, “Hey, Rome, I don’t like you anymore.” Zenobia continued to expand, and the Romans couldn’t do much about it. Zenobia ended up getting a lot of lands, including Egypt, Asia Minor, and of course, Syria. What was Rome doing? Well, it was dealing with someone else in Gaul who was giving them trouble, so they didn’t have much time for Zenobia.
So, yeah, Zenobia was slowly taking parts of Rome away from the Romans, and starting to make her own new empire. And Rome already had too many problems, they couldn’t really do anything about Zenobia. And everything was going Zenobia’s way. The new Palmyrene Empire was pretty darn large, but it doesn’t seem like Zenobia had any problems keeping everyone under control. By the way, Zenobia was probably pagan, because Rome wasn’t really that Christian yet. Later, she would be called a Jew, but she probably wasn’t a Jew.
As a child, Zenobia had gotten a good education by the standards of her time, so, now that she was empress, she felt like learning more. Intellectuals and philosophers came to her court. There’s one thing we haven’t talked about yet, though: how good of a ruler was Zenobia? She was pretty darn amazing. She knew how to rule over a diverse empire, and because she was so great, most people were perfectly fine in Zenobia’s new empire. She even restored the Colossi of Memnon. Zenobia was a really good military commander and probably led her army herself. She would often walk on her own feet with her army. People also respected Zenobia.
Zenobia only quietly stole some parts of Rome and tried to make sure Rome didn’t notice. She still pretended to be loyal to Rome and said that she was trying to fighting for Rome in the Middle East (while stealing Rome’s territory for herself). She had the title “Augusta”, and her son had the title “Augustus”. The first Roman Emperor was Augustus, and he was a relative of Julius Caesar (great-grandnephew? Adopted son? I kinda forgot), so these titles were a huge deal to the Romans. Zenobia’s title meant that she was an independent empress. It’s important to note that Zenobia wasn’t actually sole monarch, and was ruling in her son’s name this whole time. So, what was Zenobia’s cool new name? Septimia Zenobia Augusta. Amazing.
Zenobia and her son got their faces on coins. Coins were a big thing, and if you had your face on a coin, you were certainly very important. Coins in Zenobia’s empire no longer minted coins with the image of the Roman Emperor, Claudius, and instead minted coins with her and her son’s faces. By the way, do you remember Zenobia’s son’s name? No? That’s because he’s literally not important, Zenobia was doing everything.
And Rome still couldn’t fight Zenobia. Zenobia continued expanding her empire, and she was pretty confident that her empire could do whatever the heck it wanted now. She even pretty much officially declared that Palmyra was its own empire that didn’t need Rome (she’d been trying not to fight them until now, so she’d never formally done this).
After Claudius, Rome got a cool new emperor named Aurelian. Aurelian was famous for bringing the trashed-up Rome back together, but at first, he couldn’t do anything about Zenobia. Emperors were still being assassinated every year or so (Aurelian was the third emperor since Valerian), so the empire wasn’t super stable and all was not well.
So, a bit of background on Aurelian, because he’s about to become our main antagonist: he’d been just a regular soldier in the Roman infantry, but quickly rose up the ranks, and now, he was emperor. Because the Italian Peninsula, which contained Rome, was closer to the Goths and Vandals in Western Europe, and there were people just like Zenobia causing trouble there, Aurelian dealt with that threat first and won. His only goal was to reunite the Roman Empire, which was on the brink of collapse. And part of that goal was getting rid of Zenobia.
Aurelian, unlike lots of gullible emperors, realized that Zenobia wasn’t a loyal vassal, and all that time she had been saying she had been defending the eastern part of Rome, she was just taking it for herself. Previous emperors hadn’t noticed that Zenobia had given herself the title “Augusta”, and that she had stopped minting coins with their faces and started minting coins with her and her son’s faces on them, but Aurelian did. And he didn’t like it one bit.
Aurelian marched through Zenobia’s empire WITH ROME’S WHOLE HUGE ARMY, and there was little opposition because when you’re marching with the entirety of one of the world’s greatest empire’s armies, people get scared. He sacked and destroyed various cities in Asia Minor, and some cities, who were pretty darn afraid of Aurelian and Rome’s entire army and I cannot emphasize how big that is, sent Aurelian letters in advance that said stuff like: “Hey dude, I know you’re coming for us, but like, you could take our city if you want.”
And that was a disaster for Zenobia, I cannot emphasize how big of a disaster. Cities kept falling or opening their gates to Aurelian and his freakin’ huge army. Until Tyana, the only city in Asia Minor that decided to resist Aurelian. That city decided to close its gates in Aurelian’s face. “Nope,” said Aurelian, “I’ll kill everyone and everything here, even all the dogs.” No, really, he actually said that he wouldn’t spare anyone, not even the city’s many dogs. Aurelian ended up winning there, and Zenobia was like, “What the hell do I do now??”
More and more cities opened their gates to Aurelian because they didn’t want all their dogs (and people) to be killed. We don’t know if Zenobia and Aurelian had contacted each other because they’d have to negotiate stuff. But by June 272, the Romans had taken Egypt and Asia Minor, and all that was left was Syria, where Zenobia’s very important Antioch was. Antioch was Aurelian’s next target because if Antioch fell, there wasn’t anything else Zenobia could do. Zenobia rushed to Antioch because remember, people respect her, and only a few years earlier, cities were opening their gates to her, not Aurelian. Zenobia went to Antioch and told everyone that she was better than Aurelian, so they should fight for her, not him.
The two large armies met in a small village called Immae, so this battle would be known as the Battle of Immae. At first, Aurelian dealt a few punches that made Zenobia worried. By the way, I forgot to mention that all this time, since she’d conquered Egypt, she’d had a general she could trust named Zabdas. Even though she had her amazing self and the equally amazing Zabdas (he seems like a pretty good guy to me), Aurelian defeated her. Zabdas and Zenobia fled to the city of Emesa one night, and the Roman forces soon found her there.
They had to fight back, and now came the Battle of Emesa. Aurelian won a huge victory, again. Zenobia escaped, but she couldn’t take her treasury. “Oh, is that money??” said Aurelian as his eyes lit up. Of course, he and his still-big scary army took it all.
After Aurelian’s victory, we can’t say for sure what happened to Zenobia. It’s possible that she was attempting to get Persian aid, but we don’t know for sure if she was actually trying to do this, or if this was coming from the Romans who hated her and the Sassanids. We know that Zenobia attempted to flee again, but once again, Aurelian’s army caught up to her and this time, she was captured.
We have literally no idea what happened to Zenobia after all this. There are a few possibilities, and because deaths intrigue me, let’s explore them all briefly.
#1: Aurelian Shows Mercy
One possibility is that Zenobia was taken to Rome in chains and paraded through the streets, as all prisoners of war are. Aurelian would’ve looked on with pride at his accomplishment. After all, he’d just dethrone the third century’s most amazing woman. This may not have actually happened, even though in Zenobia’s most famous sculpture, she’s in chains.
#2: Possibility #1 + A Long and Sorta Happy Life
After Aurelian paraded her through the streets, Zenobia may have been allowed to live out the rest of her days in a nice little villa, and her children may have been allowed to marry high-ranking Romans. Zenobia may have also married a wealthy Roman and lived out the rest of her life in Italy. Even though this is the best ending Zenobia could possibly get, I kind of like #3.
#3: Zenobia Pulls A Cleopatra
Aurelian might have had some of Zenobia’s supporters killed, and might have planned to take her back to Rome and have her paraded through the streets, but Zenobia would not let herself be defeated, and just like how Cleopatra had had a poisonous asp bite her three hundred years earlier, Zenobia may have starved herself to death before even making it to Rome. I like this possibility the best because it’s just so Zenobia.
The most probable possibility is #1. Zenobia just kinda disappears at this point, around 274, if you know what I mean. So, that’s probably-possibly-maybe the end of Zenobia’s life, because we really don’t know what happened to her after.
We have no idea who Zenobia was the daughter of, but in her late teens, she married one of the most powerful men in Rome, and soon became one of the most powerful women that Rome had to get rid of. She might have been a descendant of Cleopatra, but there’s no doubt she would’ve made Cleo proud.