Z is for Zenobia

“Septima Zenobia governed Syria from about 250 to 275 AD. She led her armies on horseback wearing full armor and during Claudius’ reign defeated the Roman legions so decisively that they retreated from much of Asia Minor. Arabia, Armenia and Persia allied themselves with her and she declared herself Queen of Egypt by right of ancestry. Claudius’ successor Aurelian sent his most experienced legions to conquer Zenobia but it took almost 4 years of battles and sieges before her capital city of Palmyra fell and Zenobia along with nine other martial queens of allied provinces were paraded through the streets of Rome in chains. Aurelian exiled Zenobia to Tibur. Her daughters married into influential Roman families and her line continued to be important in Roman politics for almost three centuries. Mavia, was Queen of the Bedouin Saracens from 370 to 380 AD. She led her troops in defeating a Roman army then made a favorable peace and married her daughter to the Roman commander in chief of the eastern Emperor Valens.” [1]

Quote attributed to Zenobia: “I am a queen; and as long as I live I will reign.” She claimed to be a descendant from one of the early Cleopatras. This if true would have made her Macedonian Greek, Arab, and Aramaic. She admired other women leaders besides the Cleopatras such as Zabibi, Samsi, and Omm-Karja.


Known for: “warrior queen” conquering Egypt and challenging Rome, finally defeated by emperor Aurelian. Also known for her image on a coin.
Dates: 3rd century C.E.; estimated as born about 240; died after 274; ruled from 267 or 268 to 272
Also known as: Septima Zenobia, Septimia Zenobia, Bath-Zabbai, Zainab (Arabic), Julia Aurelia Zenobia Cleopatra


Zenobia, generally agreed to have been primarily of Semitic (Arab) descent, claimed Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt as an ancestor, though this may be a confusion with Cleopatra Thea (the “other Cleopatra”). Another ancestor was Drusilla of Mauretania, granddaughter of Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony. Drusilla also claimed descent from a sister of Hannibal and from a brother of Queen Dido of Carthage. Drusilla’s grandfather was King Juba II of Mauretania. Zenobia’s paternal ancestry can be traced six generations, and includes Gaius Julius Bassianus, father of Julia Domna, who married the emperor Septimus Severus.

Zenobia’s languages likely included Arabic, Greek, Aramaic and Latin. Zenobia’s mother may have been Egyptian; Zenobia was said to be familiar with ancient Egyptian language as well.


In 258, Zenobia was noted as being the wife of the king of Palymra, Septimius Odaenathus. Odaenathus had one son from his first wife: Hairan, his presumed heir. Palymra, between Syria and Babylonia, at the edge of the and the Persian empire, was economically dependent upon trade, protecting caravans. Palmyra was known as Tadmore locally.

Zenobia accompanied her husband, riding ahead of the army, as he expanded Palmyra’s territory, to help protect Rome’s interests and to harry the Persians of the Sassanid empire.

Around 260-266, Zenobia gave birth to Odaenathus’ second son, Vaballathus (Lucius Julius Aurelius Septimius Vaballathus Athenodorus). About a year later, Odaenathus and Hairan were assassinated, leaving Zenobia as regent for her son.

Zenobia assumed the title of “Augusta” for herself, and “Augustus” for her young son.

War With Rome

In 269-270, Zenobia and her general, Zabdeas, conquered Egypt, ruled by the Romans. Roman forces were away fighting the Goths and other enemies to the north, Claudius II had just died and many of the Roman provinces were weakened by a smallpox plague, so the resistance was not great. When the Roman prefect of Egypt objected to Zenobia’s takeover, Zenobia had him beheaded. Zenobia sent a declaration to the citizens of Alexandria, calling it “my ancestral city,” emphasizing her Egyptian heritage.

After this success, Zenobia personally led her army as a “warrior queen.” She conquered more territory, including Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, creating an empire independent of Rome. This area of Asia Minor represented valuable trade route territory for the Romans, and the Romans seem to have accepted her control over these routes for a few years. As ruler of Palmyra and a large territory, Zenobia had coins issued with her likeness and others with her son’s; this may have been taken as a provocation to the Romans though the coins acknowledged Rome’s sovereignty. More urgent: Zenobia cut off grain supplies to the empire, which caused a bread shortage in Rome.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian finally turned his attention from Gaul to Zenobia’s new-won territory, seeking to solidify the empire. The two armies met near Antioch (Syria), and Aurelian’s forces defeated Zenobia’s. Zenobia and her son fled to Emesa, for a final fight. Zenobia retreated to Palmyra, and Aurelius took that city. Zenobia escaped on a camel, sought protection of the Persians, but was captured by Aurelius’ forces at the Euphrates. Palmyrans who did not surrender to Aurelius were ordered executed.

A letter from Aurelius includes this reference to Zenobia: “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.”

In Defeat

Zenobia and her son were sent to Rome as hostages. A revolt in Palmyra in 273 led to the sacking of the city by Rome. In 274, Aurelius paraded Zenobia in his triumph parade in Rome, passing out free bread as part of the celebration. Vaballathus may never had made it to Rome, likely dying on the journey, though some stories have him parading with Zenobia in Aurelius’ triumph.

What happened to Zenobia after that? Some stories had her committing suicide (perhaps echoing her alleged ancestor, Cleopatra) or dying in a hunger strike; others had her beheaded by the Romans or dying of illness.

Yet another story — which has some confirmation based on an inscription in Rome — had Zenobia being married to a Roman senator and living with him in Tibur (Tivoli, Italy). In this version of her life, Zenobia had children by her second marriage. One is named in that Roman inscription, “Lucius Septimia Patavina Babbilla Tyria Nepotilla Odaeathiania.”

Zenobia was a patron of Paul of Samosata, Metropolitan of Antioch, who was denounced by other church leaders as a heretic.

Saint Zenobius of Florence, a 5th century bishop, may be a descendant of Queen Zenobia.

Queen Zenobia has been remembered in literary and historical works for centuries, including in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and art works.”[2]



[1] http://listverse.com/2008/03/17/top-10-badass-female-warriors/


[2] http://womenshistory.about.com/od/ancientqueens/a/Zenobia.htm


Uppity Women of Ancient Times by Vicki Leon

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