ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Enemy of Rome - Zenobia

Updated on June 8, 2014

Queen Zenobia in Chains

Famous statue of Queen Zenobia in Chains by Harriet Hosner in 1859
Famous statue of Queen Zenobia in Chains by Harriet Hosner in 1859 | Source

Who was Queen Zenobia?

Zenobia, Queen of the Palmyrans, is thought to be of Arab and Persian descent, although she claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra and Queen Dido of Carthage. She did have knowledge of the Egyptian language and culture and may have learned this from her mother, lending veracity to her claims.

Zenobia was born in Palmyra, a city in Syria, in the third century. Zenobia, Queen from about 267 or 268 CE, died sometime after 274 CE.

Queen Zenobia rose from relative obscurity, as the second wife of a subjugated client king (Septimus Odaenathus), to ultimately challenge the might of the Roman Empire. She had two sons, Vaballathus and Septemius Antiochus.

Zenobia was called 'Septima Zenobia' which in Aramaic is Znwbyā Bat Zabbai. Her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and she was by all accounts a woman of wit, education and talent. Zenobia has been called a political and military genius, a rare thing for a woman of her times.

Queen Zenobia Addressing her Soldiers, c. 1725–30.

Painting by Tiepolo
Painting by Tiepolo | Source

Queen Zenobia

Zenobia spoke many languages and surrounded herself with educated people. Her court included writers, poets and philosophers. Like many women who have captured history's imagination, Zenobia was extremely beautiful. Even more beautiful than Cleopatra, she was described as lovely and heroic. Zenobia had a dark complexion, pearly white teeth and dark sparkling eyes. Her voice was strong and harmonious.

Zenobia was also a military commander. She is revered to this day by Arabic peoples as a figure of fascination and Arabic success against oppression.

Zenobia took the title 'Queen of the East' and in her career and carved out an empire including Egypt and Anatolia, before the Romans crushed her. The Romans had never suffered so much at the hands of a woman.

Map of Ancient Roman and Palmyrene Empires 271 CE


Palmyra rebels against Rome

Palmyra, meaning city of palm trees, is what the Romans called the ancient palm oasis and meeting place of Tadmor on the Silk Road trading route in the Syrian desert. Tadmor (Palmyra) is said to date back 2000 years BCE. Palmyra officially became a Roman colony in 212 CE. It was used as a buffer against Parthia in the earlier days of Rome.

The city of Palmyra was located between the Roman and Persian Empires (in the third century). It was an outpost occupied by Rome to offer protection to the frontiers of the Roman Empire.

The mid-late third century was an unsettled and challenging time for the Roman Empire. Rome was attacked by Germanic and Gallic tribes, suffered civil and internal strife, and was beset by repeated and devastating plague epidemics. There were at least 18 legitimate Emperors during those years and the average reign was only 2.5 years. Until Aurelian became Emperor after the death by plague of Claudius II, there was no stability. Roman forces were spread thinly across the vast Empire (due to fighting the tribes) and when Palmyra suffered incursions from enemies (often Persians) she called on Rome for protection. Rome did not or could not assist Palmyra, sowing the seeds of the rebellion to come.

Map showing location of Palmyra in Syria


The Palmyrene Empire - late third century

In 269 CE Zenobia seized Egypt. Zenobia and her general Zabdas conquered the Roman occupiers of Egypt with help from an Egyptian ally, Timagenes. Tenagino Probus, the Roman Prefect of Egypt, tried to resist Zenobia, but she captured and beheaded him.

Egypt was the 'bread-basket' of Rome and Italy. Zenobia cut off grain supplies to Rome and Italy, resulting in starvation and food-rioting in Rome. This was an emergency that the Roman Emperor Aurelian, could not afford to ignore for very long.

Shortly after her conquest of Egypt, Zenobia took Anatolia and other parts of Asia Minor and declared her independence from Rome.

Zenobia was said to be a fair and just ruler, treating Jews and Christians with respect. She is also said to have had a great sense of humour. There is a story about her having sentenced a corrupt merchant to fight against a wild beast in the arena for his crimes. The merchant entered the arena shaking in fear. The wild beast that left its cage to devour him turned out to be a chicken.

Roman Ruins - Palmyra


The Warrior Queen - Zenobia

After the conquest of Egypt, Zenobia was hailed as the 'Warrior Queen". Zenobia had shown herself to be an excellent horse rider and was also happy to march alongside her soldiers. Zenobia continued her conquests, carving away a significant chunk of the Roman Empire for her own including the rest of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine as well as Anatolia.

At the time, the Romans had other fish to fry and seemed to accept the new Palmyrene Empire. However, the Romans were incensed at the loss of the Egyptian grain supply and the lucrative trade routes of Asia Minor. Emperor Aurelian was merely accomplishing one thing at a time. First he defeated the Alamanni and Germanic tribes and put down the independence of the Gallic Empire and only then did he move against the Palmyrenes to re-establish Roman dominance.

In writing about his war against Zenobia, Aurelian said this, "Those who speak with contempt of the war I am waging against a woman, are ignorant both of the character and power of Zenobia. It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations of stones, of arrows, and of every species of missile weapons and military engines."

Queen Zenobia - as she might have been


Rome crushes Queen Zenobia's armies

in 271, the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, marched east and defeated Zenobia's armies at the Orontes River, near Antioch in Turkey. The Romans and Palyrenes were evenly matched but Roman tactics won out, as they often did. The Romans pretended to flee and the Palmyrenes excitedly pursued them until they were exhausted, at which point the Romans turned on them and crushed them.

Zenobia and the remains of her army fled to Emesa in Syria and stood to face the Romans again. Again they were defeated. Zenobia fled 100 miles back to Palmyra, leaving her army. Aurelian pursued her and besieged Palmyra.

Palmyra was not a greatly fortified city, they had only hastily erected some defenses at the last minute and did not hold out for long against the Roman siege.

Zenobia Escapes

Zenobia slipped out of Palmyra in the night on a camel, along with her son Vaballathus, her general Zabdas and her philosopher and adviser Cassius Longinus. They were all captured at the Euphrates River.

Aurelian kept Zenobia alive but executed her support staff to make sure that it was not easy for her to get away. He wanted to keep her as a sort of ornament.

Aurelian thought that he had subdued Palmyra as he had taken Zenobia from them and entered the city after a short-lived siege. However the Palmyrans revolted shortly after he left in 273, massacring the Roman garrison of 600 soldiers. Aurelian returned and put Palmyra to the sword and the torch, desecrating the city and leaving it ruined in ashes, never to rebel against Rome again.

History Book Review - Palmyrene Empire

Queen Zenobia - Roman Captive

There are conflicting accounts of Zenobia's fate after her capture at the Euphrates riverbank. Some accounts say she died either en route to Rome or shortly after arrival, by starvation, beheading or suicide. Her son Vaballathus is said to have died on the way to Rome.

Other accounts have her marching in Aurelian's victory triumph through the streets of Rome in 274 as a trophy or spoil of war before being killed. She is said to have been held in golden chains (hence the statue made by Harriet Hosner in 1859).

Yet still other accounts say that Aurelian took a liking to her independent spirit and beauty and that he allowed her to live out her life in a Roman villa at Tibur (modern Tivoli). There are accounts of Zenobia living a life of luxury at her villa, marrying a prominent Roman and having several daughters. Zenobia is said to have become a philosopher and taken on the role of a Roman matron and socialite. There is some evidence of her having descendants down to the 4th and 5th centuries.

Although no one really knows the true story of the end of her days, Zenobia has captured hearts and imaginations as a beautiful woman who defied Rome.

Zenobia, Palmyrene Empress - Poll

Was Zenobia one of History's Great Women?

See results

How much do you know about Zenobia?

view quiz statistics


  • Wikipedia
  • Encyclopaedia Brittannica:
  • Zenobia,, Women's History:
  • History of Palmyra, Lonely Planet:
  • Egypt, Greece and Rome - Civilisations of the Ancient Mediterranean, 2nd Ed, Charles Freeman, Oxford University Press, England, 2004
  • Women of Royalty, Zenobia Queen of Palmyra:


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      5 years ago from Australia

      A really interesting hub - I knew nothing about this woman! Voted up, thanks for sharing

    • Mel Jay profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Jay 

      7 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for your comment ziyena :) Cheers, Mel

    • ziyena profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere in Time ...

      Zenobia was a remarkable woman in her time, and unfortunately not as celebrated as the likes of women of her calibre such as Cleopatra and Nefertiti. I did not know her Roman name was Julia! Nice hub and Voted up!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)