Poor Sylvia, could you not have been
a little smaller than a queen —
a river, not a tidal wave
engulfing all you tried to save?
~~ Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson ~~
Anne Stevenson`s poem about Sylvia Plath is a potent image of a strong personal presence as an overwhelming, elemental force of nature sweeping all before it like a tidal wave of destructive emotion.
Queen Zenobia of Palmyra lived and died, like one quarter of the world`s population, under the rule of the Caesars; but this was a woman who had bigger fish to fry than being the wife of an oriental client king of the Roman Imperium. She would take on the greatest super power of the ancient world and smash it`s invincible legions into the Arabian sands of her ancestors.
“Before God the Listener, I shall remember Tadmor of the high walls and lofty towers. And I shall remember Tadmor`s illustrious Queen, Zenobia, direct descendant of Antiochus , King of Syria, and Cleopatra Thea, great — hearted daughter of Ptolemy of Egypt. Glorious Zenobia, Queen of Tadmor, may God remember her for good.”
So speaks Simon, son of Barabas, in the prologue of Judith Weingarten`s novel, Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen. Tadmor was, and is, present day Palmyra, which was in the days of Rome a vital strategic choke point of trade and control; without Palmyra the Imperium could not exert it`s formidable power across the region deep into Persia and Arabia.
But this was the declining years of a 3rd century which had seen the iron grip of Rome on it`s dominions gradually turning to rust; the once sparkling diamond of empire had become one of fragile glass and paste. Rome had lost control of Gaul and Germany, which was ruled by a rival emperor who controlled it`s legions for as long as he remained a battle winner and paid them well. The east was protected by King Odenathus of Palmyra ( north–east of present day Damascus in Syria) as an ally who had been given carte blanche by a militarily enfeebled Rome to act as he saw fit in order to maintain control over the eastern provinces for the emperor.
In A.D. 267, Odenathus mysteriously died, and into the spot light of world history stepped his wife — Zenobia.
Following her husband`s death, Palmyra suffered repeated incursions from Persia and called upon Rome for assistance; however, the legions were dangerously over — stretched in trying to defend territory which was coming under increasing, and sustained pressure from the Barbaricum beyond the frontiers……..Rome ignored Zenobia.
In A.D. 269, Zenobia launched her armies under her general Zabdas against Roman controlled Egypt; the Roman Prefect, Tenagino Probus tried to resist, but was captured and beheaded. This was a disaster for Rome; Egypt was the empire`s bread basket which fed that great parasite of the ancient world — the city of Rome itself. It was the world`s greatest metropolis; a cosmopolitan smorgasbord of nationalities from every corner of the known world. A teeming super — hive of humanity which required daily sustenance to placate it`s bilious and disruptive inhabitants; the Roman mob was a greater and far more immediate and potent enemy for the emperor than the largest force of barbarians. When aroused, it was feral, savage and mindlessly vindictive in it`s choice of sacrificial victim to placate it`s anger and spite. The two requirements for any emperor to survive were to keep the army and the mob sweet — at any cost.
“From Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. None save yourself has ever demanded by letter what you now demand. Whatever must be accomplished in matters of war must be done by valour alone. You demand my surrender as if you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a Queen rather than remain alive, however high her rank……If the forces we are expecting from every side, shall arrive, you will, of a surety, lay aside that arrogance with which you now command my surrender.”
It`s unfortunate for Zenobia that while she chose the right place to carve out an empire for herself, she had run foul of the law of averages: sooner or later a man who actually knew what he was doing would become emperor and put a stop to the rot which had spread throughout the Roman imperial apple……….
The man was called Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus, modestly known to his contemporaries as Restitutor Orbis — Restorer of the World, and Zenobia had just managed to get herself on his wrong side. The world wasn`t big enough for the two of them, so the face — off proceeded apace with Aurelian marching his re-invigorated legions east and crushing Zenobia`s forces on the Orontes River in Turkey in 271. The Roman army had pulled the old “pretended to flee trick” on the Palmyrenes, who chasing after them, lost control and discipline, whereby the legions swung round and crushed a disorganised enemy with ruthless and murderous efficiency.
“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.”
Aurelian wasn`t taking any chances; he would hunt her down beyond the Pillars of Hercules if necessary.
Zenobia rushed back to her power base in Syria where she faced Aurelian again; again she was crushed and retreated behind the walls of Palmyra to await the inevitable.
Anyone luckily enough to have visited Masada in present day Israel will have seen an example of Roman siege engineering par excellence; a huge ramp of earth methodically constructed over a period of several months up a sheer rock face, in order to enable the legions to march up to the top behind their shield wall, and destroy the Jewish rebels sheltering there. Nothing was beyond Roman engineering techniques; Palmyra was poorly fortified compared to the seemingly impregnable Masada, and so Zenobia made a bolt for freedom on a camel before the inevitable happened.
She was captured and brought before Aurelian.
The emperor wanted to take her back to Rome to grace his Triumph, and then keep her as an ornament to be displayed for popular consumption as an example of the limitless power, majesty, and mercy of Rome and it`s present imperator — Aurelian Augustus Restitutor Orbis.
“Surely, the gods have decreed that my life should be a perpetual warfare. A sedition within the walls has just now given birth to a very serious civil war………..
~~ Aurelian Augustus ~~
It`s not known for certain what actually happened to Zenobia: legends tell of her killing herself on the sea voyage to Rome; or Aurelian had her murdered after his Triumph — as was the usual way with defeated enemy captive war leaders; others say she was pensioned off in comfortable retirement with her family in an old Hadrianic villa.
It would be nice to think that Aurelian was a big enough man to show a bit of respect to this remarkable woman, and allow her a life in a gilded cage as reward for her sheer nerve and bravura. But perhaps he was too hard bitten and tough an operator to allow her mercy after she had cost Rome so much to bring her to heel.
“Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire……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 equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour.”
~~ Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire ~~
The Historia Augusta tells of her being at the head of Aurelian`s Triumph in a golden chariot she had originally commissioned for her own triumphal march into Rome as conqueror, and bound in golden chains, which are probably more as an expression of her wealth and “bigging up” the triumph of Aurelian in capturing this most deadly enemy of Rome.
I tend to think that she committed suicide rather than be dragged through Rome as a very public display for the plebs to ogle and preen themselves at how glorious, mighty and superior Roman civilization was. She claimed direct descent from Cleopatra, and like the great queen she so admired, she would have followed her example and committed suicide rather than feel the deep, impenetrable sense of shame of being a publicly ridiculed prisoner of war. She was not about to give Aurelian that pleasure.
The Triumph was without doubt held in 274, and was probably the most impressive Triumph ever held: 800 gladiators; the entire Populus Romanus of over a million souls; the entire Roman military; a vast quantity of captives from every barbarian tribe Aurelian had reduced in his career of carnage…..But I don`t somehow think that she was there.
Compared to Cleopatra, you have to ask yourself why she doesn`t get the same afterlife: her reputation was a big draw in the Middle Ages; Chaucer wrote about her, but the big reason must be that perhaps she didn`t show up on Shakespeare`s radar. It might be a flippant explanation for her lack of a popular public profile, but I can`t think of a better one.
Zenobia was an Arabic noble woman born around A.D.240 who was the daughter of the governor of Syria, who then married another governor of Syria, and although an Aramaic speaker, was extremely Greek in culture, because this was still the era of the great Hellenizing of the East, and because of her background,she was also at home in the Roman imperial administration, speaking Latin, Greek and Aramaic fluently. So, she was extremely well educated, highly intelligent, sophisticated, an excellent horse woman and military commander, a legendary beauty, comfortable in her cultural skin, and very brave.
Shakespeare may not have written about her simply because there wasn`t a decent romantic angle between her and the emperor Aurelian; the undoubted frisson in their long range relationship comes to a head as they eventually collide head on like two runaway juggernaughts, but there was no romantic or psychological tension to muddy the waters.
She is simply one of those great, strong women of history who has been sadly over looked by the latent, subversive mentality of later writers, who mostly being men, saw fit to place her on the back burner. A woman who personally led armies into battle and possessed more brain power and ability than men; who took on, humbled, and almost won against the mightiest military super – power in history…..Surely some mistake there? No, it happened. She made Rome buckle at the knees and almost – almost, made it eat dirt.
It was her misfortune to come up against one of history`s greatest generals, who had burst upon the scene and pulled the Roman Imperium out of the gutter after 50 years of enfeeblement from internal civil war. It was one of the longest suicide notes in history, and if it wasn`t for Aurelian, the Imperium would have disintegrated long before it`s time.This is a strange tale of two remarkable people who have both lived long in the deep shadows. One restored the world, while the other almost conquered it.
Strange Days Indeed.