Queen Zenobia: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over a little known ruler from the ancient world: Queen Zenobia. Find out some of what we know about her life and reign and read some of her quotes.

Queen Zenobia

For about a millennium, one of the most advanced and powerful civilizations in all of history rose, conquered all, and then slowly fell to pieces. It was the Roman Empire. And back near its zenith, you'd be absolutely crazy to try and cross it or its powerful rulers. But there were a few such brave or crazy, however, you see it, people that tried to challenge Rome. One of them was Zenobia, a queen of the Eastern reaches of the Roman Empire.

Very little is known about her life and sources conflict on the little we do know, but this lesson will summarize this knowledge.

Early Life

What we know of Zenobia's early life comes from questionable stories of her day. She was either of Arabic or Ptolemaic (Greco-Egyptian) descent and spoke Aramaic.

Zenobia's father was apparently a very important chieftain in the Eastern Roman provinces. As was customary back then, he'd give away a daughter to another chieftain in order to seal something, like a military alliance. Zenobia was going to be given away in such a manner as well but somehow managed to escape her fate. Instead, she grew up in the household of her father alongside her brothers. As she did so, she learned different skills, including hunting.

Septimius Odanait

There is a huge gap between the hearsay in the last section and her final years on Earth. We know pretty much nothing about this gap when it comes to Zenobia but it must be discussed to put Zenobia's final years into context.

Around 235 CE, the Roman Empire entered a period of political and military instability. People living in the city of Palmyra, in what is now Syria, were worried. See, they were lucky in that their city lay in an important trade zone. As a result, they had a good deal of wealth to protect, wealth they were afraid to lose to Roman enemies. So, they decided to take matters into their own hands and take charge of their own politics and army to do what the Roman Empire had trouble doing for them at the time: protecting them!

You'd think Rome would take issue with this, but it didn't have the power to care too much as it had become increasingly decentralized by then. This allowed Palmyra to name its own de facto king, Septimius Odanait. Odanait didn't turn against Rome, however. Instead, he actually helped save it! See, the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured and killed by Sapur I of Persia. Odanait decided to side with the Roman Empire and fight against Persia for eight whole years until Sapur was defeated in 260.

For his alliance and contribution, the emperor Gallienus gave Odanait a very important title of the day 'Restitutor totius Orientis, Corrector of all the East'. Odanait wasn't satisfied, however. He wanted to be called 'King of Kings'. The Roman Empire let him call himself that because it was too busy with its own problems and because Odanait had done little to show anything but loyalty to Rome.

Later Life

Everything started coming to a head around 267 CE. Odanait and his son and heir from a former consor Harain, were murdered. Sources dispute who killed them. Some say it was Odanait's nephew, Maeonis, but other say it was his wife Bat Zabbai, otherwise known as Queen Zenobia. She had reason to murder her husband; her son Vaballath would become heir to the throne instead.

In 268 CE, Zenobia rattled the known world when she decided to use her forces to, instead of serving Rome as she was expected to, attack one of Rome's most critical provinces, Egypt. Why she did this is unclear, perhaps personal glory and arrogance. See, the emperor at the time, Aurelian, recognized her son as the rightful heir to her de-facto throne. So it's not like Zenobia had much to fear in terms of political or military persecution for her supposed murder of her husband.

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