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.
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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!