Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, May 22, 2015

An Extra Post for 22 May: Remembering Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra

Zenobia, the Warrior Queen (b. c. 240 CE - d. after 274)

After an offensive that began a week earlier, SIL fighters captured the Syrian city of Tadmur, including the ruins and monuments of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

While there are many reasons to lament the fall of the Syrian city of Palmyra to ISIL fighters, there may be additional notes of sadness for those of us who are familiar with the third-century Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, remembered for her revolt against the empire of Rome. 

A coin issued by Zenobia, 271-72;
left, Zenobia as "augusta";
the reverse, with Juno Regina
The historical Zenobia claimed descent from both Dido, queen of Carthage, and from the famed Cleopatra, both of whom she regarded as models for her role as queen. 

After the assassination of her husband in 267, Zenobia assumed power in the name of her infant son, designating herself as Augusta

But she was not content merely to hang on to the throne for a male heir--she went to war to expand the Palmyran empire. In 269 she conquered Egypt and claimed the title of queen of Egypt for herself.

She extended her territory into Asia Minor, conquering parts of Anatolia, the Roman provinces of Palestina and Syria, and Lebanon. She also declared herself and her empire independent, no longer a client state of Rome.

Initially her new empire was recognized by the Roman emperor Aurelius, who was fully occupied fighting in Gaul. But once he had reestablished Roman power there, he turned his attention to Zenobia.

A view of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site,
before its fall to ISIS
Zenobia's forces met the Emperor Aurelius on the field of battle near Antioch. 

About his conflict with this remarkable woman, Aurelius wrote, "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."

In the summer of 272, Zenobia's armies were defeated, and she was captured. She was sent to Rome and endured the humiliation of being paraded through the city in Aurelius's 274 triumph.

Her ultimate fate is not clear. Some claim that she followed her model, Cleopatra, in committing suicide, others than she starved herself to death. Some claim she was beheaded, others that she remarried and quietly settled down to an "appropriate" life as a Roman matron.

The Romans sacked and destroyed Zenobia's capital city, Palmyra, in 274.

Among the extraordinary women whose history she relates, Christine de Pizan writes about Zenobia in The Book of the City of Ladies. But rather focusing on the defeat of Zenobia, as her male predecessors have done, Pizan ends her narrative at the moment of Zenobia's triumphs.

Another view of the ancient city of Palmyra

[For my scheduled post for 22 May 2015, on another warrior woman, Fran├žoise de Cezelli, click here.]

Update, 2018: Although ISIL claimed that no destruction would follow its capture of Palmyra, a series of demolitions, targeting the ancient city's cultural treasures, was undertaken, and statues, temples, funeral monuments, towers, and a Roman theater, were reduced to various states of rubble. A program of restoration is now underway.

Update, 22 May 2023: The restoration of the city of Palmyra continues, and a quick google will reveal the many projects that have been undertaken since my last post in 2018. Here's one (click here) published just today--on the restoration of the Arch of Triumph.

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