In October of 2009, Travel Dynamics International will undertake a strikingly original cruise called Remarkable Women of Antiquity and their Times. In it, we’ll be traveling into Syria, to the splendid ruins of Palmyra, to have a look at the reign of Queen Zenobia.
What’s that? Who’s she?
Shame on you. Clearly you’ve not recently delved into Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Granted, not many of us these days have time for a ramble through a three-volume, 2700-page epic filled with lots of obscure names, arch diction, and an occasionally tedious rendering of centuries of appalling, unmitigated slaughter. But, hey, that’s what we at the TDI blog are here for. Here are the tasty bits for your robust historical delectation, to whet your wanderlust. Here’s the story of Palmyra and Queen Zenobia, which takes place in the middle of the 3rd century A.D. It’s pretty good prose, right?
Amid the barren deserts of Arabia a few cultivated spots rise like islands out of the sandy ocean. Even the name of…Palmyra, by its signification in the Syriac as well as in the Latin language, denoted the multitude of palm-trees which afforded shade and verdure to that temperate region. The air was pure, and the soil, watered by some invaluable springs, was capable of producing fruits as well as corn. A place possessed of such singular advantages, and situated at a convenient distance between the Gulf of Persia and the Mediterranean, was soon frequented by the caravans which conveyed to the nations of Europe a considerable part of the rich commodities of India. Palmyra insensibly increased into an opulent and independent city, and, connecting the Roman and the Parthian monarchies by the mutual benefits of commerce, was suffered to observe an humble neutrality, till at length, after the victories of Trajan, the little republic sunk into the bosom of Rome, and flourished more than one hundred and fifty years in the subordinate though honourable rank of a colony. It was during that peaceful period, if we may judge by a few remaining inscriptions, that the wealthy Palmyrenians constructed those temples, palaces, and porticos of Grecian architecture, whose ruins, scattered over an extent of several miles, have deserved the curiosity of our travellers. The elevation of Odenahus and Zenobia appeared to reflect new splendour on their country, and Palmyra, for a while, stood forth the rival of Rome; but the competition was fatal, and ages of prosperity were sacrificed to a moment of glory.
Continue below the fold to read The Grand Yet Lamentable History of Queen Zenobia, who defied the powerfully potent purple-garbed panache of the Roman Emperor Aurelian. Note, this is Edward Gibbon we’re talking about here, who’s a man, and Englishman, and a 19th-century Englishman to boot. So we earnestly entreat you to read any perceived sexist, classist, racial, nationalistic, or any other presumptions as the author’s and NOT our own. Hey. Give him a break. He’s just a man.
Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire…but if we accept the doubtful achievements of Semiramis, Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia. She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. Her voice was strong and harmonious. Her manly understanding was strengthened and adorned by study. She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages. She had drawn up for her own use an epitome of oriental history, and familiarly compared the beauties of Homer and Plato under the tuition of the sublime Longinus.
(We hear some Gibbony blather about how she achieves the throne when her husband, Odenathus, gets killed in a stupid hunting accident that doesn’t at all involve Dick Cheney, however old he may be.)
….The steady administration of Zenobia [who governed with manly (sic — Ed.) counsels Palmyra, Syria, and the East for above five years] was guided by the most judicious maxims of policy. If it was expedient to pardon, she could calm her resentment; if it was necessary to punish, she could impose silence on the voice of pity. Her strict economy was accused of avarice; yet on every proper occasion she appeared magnificent and liberal. The neighboring states of Arabia, Armenia, and Persia, dreaded her enmity, and solicited her alliance. To the dominions of Odenathus, which extended from the Euphrates to the frontiers of Bithnya, his widow added the inheritance of her ancestors, the populous and fertile kingdom of Egypt. The emperor Claudius acknowledged her merit, and was content that, while he pursued the Gothic war, she would assert the dignity of the empire in the East… She blended with the popular manners of Roman princes the stately pomp of the courts of Asia, and exacted from her subjects the same adoration that was paid to the successors of Cyrus. She bestowed on her three sons a Latin education, and often showed them to the troops adorned with the Imperial purple. For herself she reserved the diadem, with the splended but doubtful title of Queen of the East.
However she falls afoul of the new emperor Aurelian, as she tries to maintain control of her territories while he tries to consolidate the crumbling Empire.
The siege of Palmyra was an object far more difficult and important, and the emperor, who, with incessant vigour, pressed the attacks in person, was himself wounded with a dart [arrow]. “The Roman people,” says Aurelian, in an original letter, “speak with contempt of the war which I am waging against a woman. They are ignorant both of the character and of the power of Zenobia. It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations, of stones, of arrows, and of every species of missile weapons. Every part of the walls is provided with two or three balistae, and artificial fires are thrown from her military engines. The fear of punishment has armed her with a desperate courage. Yet still I trust in the protecting deities of Rome, which have hitherto been favourable to all my undertakings.” Doubtful, however, of the protection of the gods, and of the event of the siege, Aurelian judged it more prudent to offer terms of an advantageous capitulation; to the queen, a splendid retreat; to the citizens, their ancient privileges. His proposals were obstinately rejected, and the refusal was accompanied with insult.
Zenobia evidently believed that the Roman army would begin to starve during the protracted siege, and she could obtain relief from Persia. But all the relief efforts were intercepted by the Romans. She tried to flee, alone, on a dromedary, but was captured by Roman light cavalry.
When the Syrian queen was brought into the presence of Aurelian, he sternly asked her, How she had presumed to rise in arms against the emperors of Rome? The answer of Zenobia was a prudent mixture of respect and firmness. “Because I disdained to consider as Roman emperors and Aureolus or a Gallienus. You alone I acknowledge as my conqueror and my sovereign.”
According to Gibbon, Zenobia however grew afraid of the clamors for her immediate execution, and decided to spare her own life by sacrificing her supporters, including the scholar Longinus. Gibbon says of Palmyra after her defeat,
The seat of commerce, of arts, and of Zenobia, gradually sunk into an obscure town, a trifling fortress, and at length a miserable village. The present citizens of Palmyra (in the 19th century), consisting of thirty or forty families, have erected their mud cottages within the spacious court of a magnificent temple.
Gibbon finally describes Aurelian’s triumphant return to Rome:
The pomp was opened by twenty elephants, four royal tigers, and above two hundred of the most curious animals from every climate of the North, the East, and the South. They were followed by sixteen hundred gladiators… The victories of Aurelian were attested by the long train of captives who reluctantly attended his triumph – Goths, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alemanni, Franks, Gauls, Syrians, and Egyptians. But every eye, disregarding the crowd of captives, was fixed on the Emperor Tetricus and the queen of the East. The beauteous figure of Zenobia was confined by fetters of gold; a slave supported the gold chain which encircled her neck, and she almost fainted under the intolerable weight of jewels. She preceded on foot the magnificent chariot in which she once hoped to enter the gates of Rome…
But, in the end, the Emperor treated the Queen of the East with clemency:
The emperor presented Zenobia with an elegant villa at Tibur or Tivoli, about twenty miles from the capital; the Syrian queen insensibly sunk into a Roman matron, her daughters married into noble families, and her race was not yet extinct in the fifth century.