So very often women’s rights and powerful women are thought to be limited to the very recent past, and powerful, strong women in history get forgotten. I think that it’s not only important to remember the Alexander the Great’s, or Napoleons of the past, but also the Cleopatra’s, Joan of Arc’s, and in this case: Zenobia’s of the past.
Zenobia was known to her followers as “the Warrior Queen”. She drank with her generals and marched with her soldiers, she spoke 4 languages and knew her place in the world: at the top. While her family tree cannot be perfectly traced, she herself claimed lineage to both Cleopatra, and Dido, the Queen of Carthage. One thing was certain: she was well educated in both the ways of combat and in the classroom, and she commanded respect both on and off the battlefield, from friend and foe alike.
By the year 258, Zenobia had married Odaenathus, the King of Palmyra. As his second wife, she bore him a child and raised his first son Hairan until both he and his father were assassinated. Zenobia, a woman who was not satisfied with her role as queen, and was ready to take the world by force if necessary is believed by some to have orchestrated the conspiracy that cost both her husband and her stepson their lives. According to Historia Augusta, Maeonius killed them both during a celebration due to a conspiracy arranged by the queen. However, according to others the more accepted version was that Maeonius killed the king as revenge for a short imprisonment imposed as punishment for disrespect of the king. My guess is that the truth would fall somewhere in the middle and that Zenobia might have pushed an already angered Maeonius over the edge in some way. Either way, her son Vaballathus was only one year old in 267, when his father and step-brother were killed, and so Queen Zenobia herself took control of the kingdom of Palmyra, coming in with an immediate desire for expansion.
Queen Zenobia immediately began to conquer territories “in the name of her slain husband and stepson”, with the stated goal of protecting her kingdom from the Sasanian empire. While her wars certainly did do that, they also had the bonus of adding greatly to her own personal power, drastically expanding her empire. When she set her sights on Egypt however, she quickly pushed the Roman Empire a little too far. In 269, after conquering Egypt, she had the Roman prefect Probus beheaded. By the year 271, she began minting coins in her empire with the image of her son, bearing the words “Augustus” and “Imperator” on them. The Roman empire had had enough. When Aurelian came to Palmyra to accept her surrender, after a crushing defeat at Antioch, he found a queen who stated she would rather die a queen than live a slave. Aurelian laid siege to the city, and Zenobia was captured in 273, trying to ford the Euphrates, attempting to seek help and provisions for her army, whose supplies were dwindling under the siege.
Her son died en route to Rome, where she was lead clad in “such a weight of jewels that she sometimes had to pause” in the Roman triumph procession, as was the custom in the Roman empire. Where she went from there is something of an ending left to the creative mind. Some say she was sent out to sea to die, others that she died of starvation or disease shortly after the triumph, and still others that she was beheaded or beaten to death. The most heart warming ending has her living out her days as a matron in Rome, quietly in a large house. This is quite possible, and was something that Roman leaders did to the leaders of conquered armies and countries, depending on the relationship between the leaders. While it’s impossible to say how her life ended, the way it was lived makes Zenobia a woman to be remembered, respected, and looked up to in many ways. A powerful woman who made her mark by conquering men in a world truly ruled by men, in a time truly dominated by men, in battle, on the battlefield, toe to toe with men. I cannot imagine too many women that deserve more respect than Zenobia: The Warrior Queen.