The Arab Queen Who Took on the Roman Empire

I’ve recently become fascinated with the ancient historical figure of Zenobia, a third century Arab queen who is the only woman to almost rule the Roman Empire.

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An idealized portrayal titled Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Zenobia came to power as regent to her ten year old son, who inherited the throne of Palmyra, an ancient Mesopotamian city that was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the ancient world. (You may recall it was targeted by ISIS for destruction, which led to literally millennia of history being lost.)

By the time it came under Roman control in the first century, Palmyra was already a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, mostly Arab but with large minorities of Greeks, Armeans, and other ethnic groups. Multiple languages were spoken, a variety of faiths were tolerated, and there was even a Greco-Roman style senate that ran various civil affairs. Its incredible wealth and beauty—including cutting edge urban planning and numerous monuments and public works—earned it the moniker “pearl of the desert”. Situated at the crossroads between the Roman Mediterranean and the Western Asia, its caravans went across Europe, Africa, and even the Silk Road, making it a huge asset to Rome—and allowing its rulers uniquely significant autonomy under Roman imperial rule.

In fact, by the time Zenobia became the de facto queen of Palmyra in 267, the desert city-state had essentially become an allied power rather than a province; not only did it bring commercial goods and revenue, but it offered protection against unruly Arab tribes and eastern rivals, most of all the old nemesis, the Persians. Hence when the Roman Empire began to unravel during its “Crisis of the Third Century”, Zenobia apparently saw an opportunity for her people to attain well deserved greatness.

The Palmyrene Empire she founded spanned most of the Roman east, from central Turkey into western Iraq and down to Egypt (then one of the richest provinces of Rome). While she declared both herself and her son as emperors of all of Rome, she was never able to extend her rule past these territories, though her conquest of Egypt and managing to keep the Persian at bay (who had detected Roman weakness) had been impressive enough. Zenobia was definitely a product of her city: She spoke four languages, received a comprehensive education, and was steeped in the latest philosophy and science. Her reign was characterized by a policy of religious tolerance and intellectualism. While she worshipped a pantheon of Semitic gods, she was familiar with other faiths and cultures, and accommodated all religious groups, from the small but controversial cult known as Christianity, to the Jews who had long been in conflict with Rome. She invited scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers from all over the known world to her royal court, seeking to turn Palmyra into the next Athens.

While her empire barely lasted three years before it was subdued by Rome—her ultimate fate remaining unknown—Zenobia left a lasting legacy.

The Augustan History, a fourth-century Roman collection of biographies of emperors and usurpers lamented that “all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth. . . a foreigner, Zenobia by name . . . proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle [and ruled] longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.” She is also a point of pride to the people of Syria (where the Palmyrene kingdom was located) and remains a role model to women across the Arab world and beyond. Even Edward Gibbon, the famous seminal historian of the Roman world, remarked that few women in history were as influential as her.

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