Obverse with Zenobia. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Amy-Jane Humphries

Zenobia (240–274 AD) was queen consort of Palmyra and then Empress of the Palmyrene Empire in her own right. Palmyra’s empire encompassed huge swathes of land in the Roman East including Syria Palestina, Arabia Petraea, Egypt, and much of Asia Minor.

Zenobia’s origins are obscure, though it is thought that she was born into Palmyra’s noble class. This has been inferred in part because when she married her husband, Odaenathus, he was already Ras (or, Lord) of Palmyra.

Odaenathus was declared King of Palmyra in 260 AD shortly after the defeat of the Emperor Valerian by the Persians. Odaenathus then launched a series of successful campaigns against the Persians which saw him crowned King of Kings in the East.

It is thought that Zenobia accompanied her husband during his many campaigns, but during her early years as queen she remained largely in the background. In 267, Odaenathus was assassinated by his cousin, Maeonius. It has been thought that Zenobia may have been involved.

The events immediately after the assassination are not clear within the sources. Some suggest that Maeonius declared himself Emperor, only to be killed on Zenobia’s orders—others imply that he was killed in the immediate aftermath of Odaenathus’s death.

Zenobia then became a regent for her sons, and it was during that time that the kingdom of Palmyra, under her direction, expanded into an empire. Palmyra became a centre of classical learning under her rule. The court thronged with intellectuals and sophists, recalling an earlier Greek age.

In 271, Palmyra officially broke with Rome and came into open conflict with the Emperor Aurelian. Eventually, Zenobia was defeated but her fate is uncertain due to conflicting accounts.

Some ancient historians claim she died before she reached Rome while others state that she was publicly executed. Another writer states that her life was spared, and Aurelian gave her Hadrian’s villa where, after marrying a Roman senator, she lived out her days with her children.

Recommended Reading

Nathanael J. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

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