A Queen's Gamble
People of Palmyra - King Odainat

Septimius Odenathus, or Odainat, was the head of the Julii Aurelii Septimii tribe.  He rose to power in Palmyra, and then quickly proved himself to be an amazing general and a fearless leader.  His wife, Semptimia Zenobia, Bat Zenabai, or Queen Zenobia, was said to hunt and ride with him.  His death at Emesa, after either a battle with Parthian renegades, or possibly a hunt, is known to be an assassination, possibly by his cousin.  While Zenobia has been blamed for his death, there is really very little to support that, other than the fact that she took the power when her son inherited the throne.

People of Palmyra - Prince Vaballathus

  Zenobia is said to have had no children, three sons and a daughter, or one son, depending on which historical reference you find.  If she had the three sons attributed to her, there is no record of Vaballathus’ younger brothers; only he appears on her coinage, and only he was attributed - through her greed - with the name “Augustus.”  Also called Wahballat, Vaballathus’ future after the fall of Palmyra is entirely unknown.  Some say he died in Egypt, of fever.  Some that Aurelian either killed him, or died on the way to Rome.  Either way, other than a few coins bearing his face, and a war started in his name, the young king of Palmyra vanishes from historical records entirely before reaching adulthood.

People of Palmyra - Queen Zenobia

  Zenobia’s life has been edged in marble, recorded in books, and studied by historians.  Her personality has undergone in-depth research, her actions immortalized in an array of contradictory accounts, written and refuted by scholars and writers alike.  Why did she do what she did?  What made an Arabian woman, with unprecedented arrogance – and valor – face off with the world’s largest superpower?  While Roman dominance was shaken by Shah Poor and other barbarians on its borders, the Empire had held unchallenged superiority in most of the known world for almost three hundred years.  But not only did this daughter of the desert challenge that power, dare it to overcome her army and her grit – she even flew in the face of Roman pride by conquering lands that they had held for centuries, marching her army both north and south to take over most of Asia Minor and Egypt, and everything formerly Roman-controlled east of that.  The entire eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea was claimed by this upstart queen. Then she minted coinage in her own name, declared her son “Augustus,” and turned down the Empire’s flattering attempts to conciliate her.  It was as if she was literally daring someone to stop her.

  Only three women are said to have challenged Rome – all three were eventually vanquished, but all three lived on to achieve fame few of the Roman Emperors themselves can lay claim to.  While only fiends like Nero, or conquerors like Augustus and Hadrian are even known by name, Cleopatra of Egypt, Boudicea of Britain, and Zenobia of Palmyra appeal to our sensibilities of the romantic and the daring.

  Cleopatra used her wit and her ability to seduce some of the greatest men in Rome to achieve her ends – and though she failed in the end, it was a dramatic failure, and not an infamous one.  Only a few years later, Boudicea was brought to bay by the uncalled-for severity and barbarity of her oppressors, and struck back much as a cornered animal strikes – not to win, but to cause as much pain as possible in defeat.

  But Zenobia was different.  Her campaign across the East was unprecedented, perhaps unwise, and certainly unnecessary.  There was no reason she could not have sat on the throne Rome would have allowed her, but she chose to spit in their faces, chase out their garrison, and declare herself superior to their rule.  She might have been able to stop at the defeat of Heraclianus, and still survive the tempestuous times.  Even Aurelian would have hesitated to leave his all-but besieged capital to march on a rebelled ally at the furthermost reaches of Syria-Phoenicia.  Her queenship of Palmyra, and the trade-routes would more than likely have survived to be passed on to posterity.  And yet something drove her – pride, ambition, perhaps even another human hand – to take up the offense, and gall the Empire into action.

  Zenobia is depicted as beautiful woman, an incredible leader, a veritable genius, and a wildly successful – at first – general.  While Cleopatra used her woman’s arts to bring generals to her side, and Boudicea used the strength of a British war-queen, Zenobia went beyond either to a strange combination of womanly supplication and battle ingenuity that made her soldiers love her, her people trust her, and her generals follow her – to the death.  In fact, even after her defeat and capture, they rose up once more to dare their captors, and paid the ultimate price for their rebellion.  What kind of queen would it have taken to lead a people so inflammatory that they even bit the hand that had conquered them?  By what was she motivated, inspired, or goaded?  Historians still argue the point, but her life remains a testimony to the power – and danger – of a leader who knows her own strengths, and is unafraid to use them.

  Her end is obscured in mystery.  One account has her starving herself, or drinking poison, to commit suicide like her acclaimed model, Cleopatra.  Another says she was executed by Aurelian.  But an unlikely story persists through the veil of myth and legend, repeatedly affirmed by contemporary writers – and its very strangeness leads a credibility to its truthfulness.  The story goes that she was taken back to Rome, marched in Aurelian’s Triumph, married to a Roman (perhaps a senator), and retired to a villa in Italy, where she bore him children and kept his house.