The Terror of Rome: Bat Zabbai
Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra
There were few like Bat Zabbai, and probably many who wished they could have been like her. After all, for a few short years she became the terror of Rome.
Married to King Odenath when she was fourteen, Bat Zabbai found herself the queen of Palmyra, a small country with a population of about 150,000, located in the Syrian Desert. Due to its strategic location along common trade routes linking Rome, Egypt, Phoenicia, Damascus, and Emesa (now Homs, Syria), Palmyra profited greatly from every merchant caravan that passed through there. The city was a cultural and educational wonderland, a true jewel of the desert, and Bat Zabbai loved it and its people as dearly as she loved her son.
Highly skilled in archery, Bat Zabbai could frequently be found avidly hunting in the surrounding deserts. She was trained as a warrior and commander, and was so tough that she was renowned for winning drinking contests against her own soldiers. She was a brilliant orator and negotiator, fluent in Egyptian, Greek, Aramaic and Latin and could discuss philosophy in any of them. She claimed descent from Queen Dido of Carthage and Cleopatra of Egypt, flaunted her wealth at elaborate feasts (like Cleopatra) and despised sex (unlike Cleopatra), saying that she slept with her husband only to procreate. They had only one son, named Vaballanthus, though it was recorded that Bat Zabbai also had a stepson from Odenath’s previous marriage.
Bat Zabbai and Odenath hated the Roman Empire—which was no surprise, really, since the majority of the world felt the same way. Bat Zabbai dreamed of the day when Rome would crumble and Palmyra could take its place as the new world power. She was sure that she could usher in a new age of prosperity free from Rome’s control, and fantasized a victorious chariot ride through the city’s Seven Hills.
Bat Zabbai and Odenath began their dream of conquest by invading the rapidly collapsing Persia, legitimizing the attack by claiming to be avenging the death of the Roman emperor Valerian, who had been killed there in 227 A.D. Seemingly happy with their show of loyalty, the Romans permitted Bat Zabbai and her husband to completely take over the country.
Then, in 267, tragedy struck—or maybe it didn’t: that year both Odenath and his eldest son were assassinated. By whom seems unclear, but either way now Bat Zabbai had all the power for herself and her year old son. Her first order of business as queen was to continue her expansion. With her dedicated General Zabdas at her side, Bat Zabbai rapidly conquered Egypt, Antioch, Eastern Anatolia, most of the Mediterranean down to the Bosphorus strait, and made alliances with Arabia and Armenia. Her grip was so tight on the land and sea trade that she was able to halt food shipments going into Rome. By 269, Bat Zabbai ruled over a quarter of formerly Rome-owned lands.
And still, Rome did nothing. Sure, having their food supply cut off was pretty irritating, seeing one of their legions stationed in Egypt be wiped out and its commander executed was embarrassing, but they didn’t think that a woman could really hold an empire that size for long.
And that’s when Bat Zabbai began to mint her own coinage with her face emblazoned on one side.
That’s when she went too far.
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, by Sir Edward Poynter
It was one thing to lose territories to a foreign power, but when that foreign power was a woman and she was very publicly announcing that she and her country were no longer property of the Roman Empire by minting her own coins, that’s when Roman Emperor Aurelian had to take action. Leaving the battlefields of Gaul, Aurelian gathered up a portion of his troops and rushed to the Syrian Desert. He was infuriated to see that not only was Bat Zabbai ready for him, but she was unafraid, riding to the head of her troops with her sword in hand. She was more than happy to see the Romans there.
Too bad Bat Zabbai didn’t realize that these Romans were fresh off the battlefield in Gaul, battle-hardened and ready, or that Aurelian was a sneaky little twerp; he told his army to flee. Thinking that they had the Romans running in terror, Bat Zabbai and her army pursued, only to make themselves so exhausted that the Romans were able to spin around and attack, eradicating most of the Palmyrans. Bat Zabbai escaped back to Palmyra and, to keep the suddenly concerned city’s spirits up, she paraded around a man she claimed to be the captured Aurelian. When the real emperor arrived at her gates and shouted for her to surrender and not suffer another embarrassing defeat, Bat Zabbai sneered back, “I have suffered no great loss, for almost all that have fallen were Romans.” It’s likely she was referring to the Roman mercenaries who had joined her army, but the remark stung all the same.
Bat Zabbai moved quickly, ordering her city’s walls to be refortified using marble and granite stripped from mausoleums, and unleashing her famous archers on the Roman legions to drive them back. It was not to be, however, and the Romans soon overran and pillaged the beautiful City of Palms. Again, Bat Zabbai fled, this time on camelback to seek help from the Persians. She was overtaken along the Euphrates River by Roman cavalry and captured.
Her army decimated, her city in ruins, her empire rent asunder, Bat Zabbai was brought back to Rome in chains. Eager to show the doubting senators that he could indeed defeat a woman in battle, Aurelian proceeded with a traditional victory parade through the heart of Rome, showing off his thousands of war captives and exotic animals. At the rear, so weighted down with golden chains that she needed a slave to help her stagger along the streets, was the fallen Queen Bat Zabbai. Following behind her was the ornate chariot she had planned to ride victoriously into Rome with, empty.
Bat Zabbai was going to die. She knew that, and the entire world knew that. She had defied her Roman overlords, and now had to pay the price. Though it’s not one hundred percent clear what happened, it’s widely agreed on that, after using her gift of negotiation to appeal to Aurelian and the Senate, Bat Zabbai was released from imprisonment, married a senator, was now called Septimia Zenobia, and gained a fabulous villa near the city.
Bat Zabbai works referenced:
Bad Girls, Jan Stradling 2008
Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Vicki Leon 1995
Hell Hath No Fury, Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross 2008
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 1997
Warrior Women, Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles 2011