Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Septimia Zenobia

Episode Summary

Zenobia (c. 240-c. 274) was leader of the Palmyrene Empire. She was an ambitious woman whose powerful presence made her a famous subject for artists and historians alike.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan, and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s leader was an ambitious woman who sought to accumulate power and territory, while refusing to kneel to authority. Her powerful presence made her a famous subject for artists and historians alike. Let’s talk about Zenobia, queen of the Palmyrene Empire.

Septimia Zenobia was born around the year 240 in the Palmyrene Empire in Syria. The exact circumstances of her birth are up for historical debate, but most scholars agree she was probably of noble descent.

Palmyra was a sort of independent kingdom located inside the bounds of the Eastern Roman Empire. Zenobia married Palmyra’s ruler, Odaenathus. Palmyra was situated between the warring Roman and Persian empires. Odaenathus helped the Romans defeat the Persians and drove them out of Syria. Palmyra and Rome were already on friendly terms, and this strengthened their bond further. In response, the Romans made Odaenathus the governor of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Zenobia and Odaenathus had a son together, and enjoyed an extravagant royal lifestyle. Odaenathus started to call himself “king of kings.” But those glory days didn’t last long -- Odaenathus was assassinated by a relative, leaving the young Vaballathus to inherit the throne.

Since Vaballathus was too young to rule, Zenobia took the position of his regent and held de facto power. Though Zenobia took care to maintain an amicable relationship with Rome at first, the bond between the two territories became strained. In 270, Zenobia invaded Egypt and took control of most of the Roman east. Within a year, she had amassed new swaths of territory. She also started to conduct trade with the Persians, the shared enemy that had earned Palmyra favor from Rome in the first place.

Zenobia was intellectual. She stressed the importance of scholars and philosophers at her court. In general, her territories were stable, peaceful, and diverse, populated by  people of a variety of ethnicities. She passed laws that protected religious minorities.

Zenobia is memorable for her ambitious takeover of the Eastern Roman Empire, and for her attitude as a ruler. Historians depict her as stern and beautiful, with an authoritative, decisive presence. Legends say she occasionally drank with her military generals -- and with the leaders of other countries, if she wanted to strategically outdo them.

Eventually, Rome had enough of Zenobia’s ambition and decided it was time to fight back.   In the year 272, Emperor Aurelian launched a campaign to defeat Zenobia’s forces. In response, Zenobia declared that Palmyra would secede from Rome, appointed her own son as emperor, and assumed the title of empress.

The Romans, known for their military prowess, eventually emerged victorious. Soldiers stormed Palmyra,  captured the empress, and took her to Rome in chains. There, she spent the remainder of her life.

Zenobia died around the year 274. Her ambition and meteoric rise to power  inspired countless historians and artists, making her one of the most famous figures of her era.

Tune in tomorrow to hear the story of another leader from history.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!