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In an era when men believed women weren't fit for war or politics, Zenobia nearly brought the Roman Empire to its knees.
It was 240 A.D. The Roman Empire ruled over most of the known world. People from the edges of Persia, to Northern Africa, the Spanish Peninsula, Western Europe, and even the future Great Britain acknowledged the power of the Roman Caesar. Syria was one of many provinces that the Romans had long since annexed, ruled, and taxed...heavily.
This was the world Zenobia of Palmyra was born into. Though the daughter of a family of shepherds, she was allowed an education. She grew up speaking four languages, including Greek and Latin as well as the languages of her people.
Outside school, she learned how to ride horses and command her family's flocks. All these skills would serve her well in the years to come.
Palmyra was then capital of Syria. It was highly strategic for the Romans, as it lay on the Silk Road: the trade route that connected China to Europe. At the age of 18, Zenobia married the Roman Governor of Syria, Lucius Septimus Odaenthus. Soon after, the two had a son. Because Zenobia spoke the languages of her people and the Roman Odaenthus did not, she quickly became a popular co-ruler with her husband.
Then in 260, when Zenobia was only 20, the unthinkable happened: King Shapur I of Persia captured the Roman Caesar, Valerian, along with 70,000 Roman legionnaires. Valerian was made to lie on all fours and be used a footstool by the victorious Persian king. An embarrassing end for a Roman Caesar!
After Valerian’s fall, Roman authority in Syria disintegrated. Chaos ruled as Valerian’s potential successors fought each other. Zenobia’s husband, Odaenthus, became ruler of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, only to meet his end in 267 at the hands of a jealous cousin. By Roman law, women were not allowed to govern, but Zenobia’s son, Vaballathus, was still just a child. So Zenobia became his Regent, ruling Syria in Vaballathus's name in the midst of a Roman Empire being torn apart by greedy, ambitious men.
Palmyra was a cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city, and Zenobia won the love of her people by ruling fairly over Syrians, Greeks, and Romans alike. She turned her court into a center of learning, inviting great writers and philosophers to Palmyra, eager to distance herself from the warring Caesars. In the minds of ordinary Syrians, Zenobia was no longer a Roman governess, but their queen.
Zenobia was also very proud of her Syrian heritage. As the Romans continued to squabble, she questioned whether Rome had any right to rule the people of the Middle East. In 269, now aged 29, Zenobia marched into the Roman Province of Egypt. When the Romans sent an army to capture her, she and her generals cleverly ambushed it. The Romans would never underestimate her again!
As the new ruler of Egypt, Zenobia instigated a series of reforms that the Romans, too busy with constant wars and infighting, had neglected for centuries. She restored the ancient Colossi of Memnon statues on the Nile, which were near collapse. She also granted greater freedoms to Christians and Jews, who had been bitterly persecuted by the Romans. By 270, Zenobia ruled over one-third of the Roman Empire, making her one of the most powerful women in Ancient History!
In 272, a new Roman Caesar named Aurelian finally united Rome and marched east to defeat Zenobia. Zenobia declared herself Empress of Palmyra and prepared her people to resist the Roman advance. The Palmyrenes nearly won, but at the Battle of Emesa, they were flanked, surrounded, and vanquished.
The Roman army captured Zenobia and her son. Fortunately, Aurelian worried that if the Romans executed Zenobia, that would only acknowledge that Rome had nearly been bested by the daughter of shepherds. Instead, Aurelian brought Zenobia back to Rome, where she was acquitted of any crime and allowed to live in peace.
Zenobia was brave, smart, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and incredibly confident. She represents all that women are capable of and for this reason she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Team TTT&T member, Jane Dixon-Smith for bringing Zenobia to our attention. If you'd like to learn more about this bad-ass woman from antiquity, you should read Jane's books. Highly recommended!
"Zenobia led the greatest, most threatening rebellion the Roman Empire ever faced. For that, I am enormously inspired by her, not just because of her accomplishments, but because history is written by the victors. Alas, she was no victor, thus her story remains largely untold. And yet, her legendary deeds and actions live on."