In Our Time: Queen Zenobia

I’m sure I’d heard the name of Queen Zenobia before, but I’m equally sure I’d got no idea who she was other than a vague sense of “classical era?”. After listening to the In Our Time episode about her I now know rather more. The experts who talked about her were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Kate Cooper (University of Manchester) and Richard Stoneman (University of Exeter).

Zenobia lived in the 3rd Century AD, and was the daughter of the Governor of Palmyra in Syria. Her family were Roman citizens and the experts suggested that they probably thought of themselves as Romans first & Syrians second. Zenobia claimed descent from the Ptolemies (so also from Cleopatra) and was also related to a previous Roman Empress (Julia, who was married to Septimus Severus who was Emperor around the turn of the 2nd Century AD). She was married to Odaenathus, as his second wife, who was Governor of Palmyra after her father’s death. Odaenathus died in suspicious circumstances, as did his eldest son (whose mother was not Zenobia). Stoneman said that there was no evidence that Zenobia had organised her husband’s murder, but there is also no evidence for it being someone else. His opinion was that it was a rival of her husband’s who had done the deed, but then Zenobia had taken charge before the rival could. She then governed Palmyra – at first on behalf of her son, but later in her own right.

Palmyra was an important city in the trading network that stretched from the Roman Empire across the lands to the east. It was situated in an oasis that had been a caravan stopping place for millennia, and the town had become rich from the control & protection of trade. By Zenobia’s time it had been a part of the Roman Empire for quite some time, and the experts seemed sure that Zenobia’s father would’ve regarded himself as a Roman keeping order for the benefit of Rome. By later in Zenobia’s reign it was clear she didn’t.

At this period the Roman Empire was in a bit of a shaky state – there’d been 19 Emperors in 30 years (by the late 260s AD) most of them having been assassinated. Unrest and barbarian incursions in the north and west of the Empire had distracted attention from the east, which was mostly left to its own devices. Zenobia took advantage of this and quite quickly conquered an empire of her own that ranged from parts of modern day Turkey round the east coast of the Mediterranean to Egypt. The experts suggested that her method of “conquering” was mostly to offer a more stable & powerful state to the leaders of the various towns & regions – capitalising on her family & personal networks of contacts & allegiances. The experts disagreed about whether conquering Egypt was a good idea or not – I think it was Hall who was suggesting it made strategic sense as the place to put her borders, but Stoneman thought that it unnecessarily antagonised Rome. Hall was also suggesting that Zenobia had sentimental reasons for including Egypt in her empire – due to her claimed descent from Cleopatra.

Unfortunately for Zenobia’s fledgling Palmyrene Empire the Roman Emperor Aurelian (who came to power in 270AD) was more effective than his predecessors. He recaptured the breakaway western parts of the Empire (in Gaul & Britain) and defeated some of Northern barbarians. He also regained a bit more control over the economy and political situation in Rome. So now he was free to turn his attention to the east, and deal with Zenobia. As I mentioned in the last paragraph Stoneman pointed out that Egypt was where a lot of the food for the Empire was grown, and so Zenobia had made herself a target that couldn’t be ignored.

There were two, or possibly three, major battles in Aurelian’s campaign against Zenobia & the Palmyrenes and Zenobia was defeated and forced to flee in all of them. After the last one Zenobia was captured, and Palmyra was eventually sacked (I think not immediately after Zenobia’s defeat but after it tried rebelling a subsequent time). Zenobia was to be taken to Rome, to be paraded as a captive through the streets of Rome in Aurelian’s triumph. There are doubts as to whether that happened or not, and what subsequently happened to Zenobia. Stoneman thought that after the triumph Zenobia was allowed to retire to a villa and live out the rest of her life in obscurity, rather than be executed. Hall & Cooper gave another couple of possibilities – Zenobia may’ve been executed, but she also may never’ve reached Rome. She might’ve died of disease on the way there, but Hall was convinced that Zenobia would’ve suicided rather than be paraded as a captive.

There was a bit more of a “herding cats” feel to Bragg’s moderation in this episode – Hall and Cooper were both very enthusiastic, and all three experts got a bit sidetracked from time to time with other subjects that weren’t quite the subject of the programme.