Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Zenobia |
Rise and fall of a desert queen

Zenobia is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 217, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Zenobia could ride with her cavalrymen and out-drink her generals, and some regard her playboy bishop as Arius’s doctrinal ancestor

Zenobia - Rise and fall of a desert queen

Zenobia – Rise and fall of a desert queen
Queen Zenobia poses regally with a servant in this marble panel on display at Syria’s National Museum in Damascus.

During a time of great turmoil in the affairs of Rome (between 235 and 284, more than twenty emperors came and went, some within months of each other) a powerful personage moved unexpectedly to center stage. That she was a woman, and a beautiful one at that, makes her story all the more compelling.

It was a period when the Pax Romana seemed to be collapsing from within, and although the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth still lay more than a century in the future, Rome was beginning to look more and more vulnerable to its subject nations. The warrior emperors Gallienus, Claudius and Aurelian ultimately defeated the challenges from the barbarians to the north, but another challenge to Roman authority during this period came from Syria in the east, in particular from the fabled queen of the desert oasis of Palmyra.

Perhaps because her death came neither early nor dramatically, or because there is no famous Shakespeare play about her, Zenobia has not achieved the historical staying power of her idol, Cleopatra. But she was certainly no less interesting, physically and politically. She was acclaimed a great beauty, with flashing teeth, penetrating black eyes and rich, dark skin. She could march and ride as well as her cavalrymen, and she could out-drink her generals. In 267, after the death of her husband, the powerful soldier king Odenath, a death in which, according to some reports, she conspired, she became regent of Palmyra, wielding the real power behind the throne of her ten-year-old son Vaballath.

The emperors had become dependent on King Odenath to hold the Persians at bay. After an early attempt to gain favor with the Persian king was arrogantly rebuffed, he had enthusiastically complied. When Odenath died, Rome lost its foremost ally against the Persians and was ready to support his spouse if she proved to be as ready to do the emperor’s dirty work.

Zenobia then showed herself to be a great warrior and a great queen, although not the kind Rome was hoping for. Her power grew until, by 270, she controlled Egypt, most of Asia Minor and all of Syria. She drew first-rate thinkers to her desert court; the eminent philosopher Longinus became her foremost adviser. And she sponsored her own interesting heretic, Paul of Samosata, bishop of the great metropolis Antioch in ancient Syria. While there is little direct evidence of the alliance between Paul and Zenobia, he was appointed bishop in 260 over the son of the former bishop, probably because the local clergy knew he would be able to relate more effectively with Zenobia. He remained in place even though he was kicked out of his church and excommunicated after bishops met in Antioch three times to deliberate on his fate.

In Paul, Zenobia had a kindred spirit. When he arrived in Antioch from Samosata (today, Samsat in Turkey), an ancient town on the Euphrates, he was poor and had no apparent skills. But he managed to become the rich and powerful bishop of one of the greatest sees in the East. At the same time, he got himself appointed procurator ducenarius, the Roman equivalent of chief financial officer of the city, and it was as procurator, rather than bishop, that he wished to be known. He would stroll through the marketplace, surrounded by his entourage, officiously reading and dictating letters, seemingly oblivious to those around him.

Nevertheless, and much to the disgust of his fellow bishops, he had a flair for religion. His theology is described primarily in the letter of the bishops excommunicating him, so it is difficult to tell exactly what he espoused, but it is clear the bishops believed he taught that Jesus Christ was but a man, a man inspired by the Word, but just a man nevertheless. As Origen had once suggested, he banned hymns to Christ. Unlike Origen, he had his congregation sing his own praises instead. Even worse, said his opponents, the hymns were sung by attractive female “deaconesses,” a practice upon which the bishops frowned. And while he refused to declare that Jesus came from heaven, Paul allowed some of his own more enthusiastic followers to declare him an angel from above, without correction.

Some historians believe that Paul tailored his theology to suit Zenobia, who may have been Jewish or influenced by Jewish thought. By downgrading the divinity of Christ, he may have been leaving the door open for the declaration of a new messiah, perhaps even one sponsored by a desert queen. It has been argued that his greatest legacy was his influence upon Arius, who seems to have borrowed heavily from his theology, although scholars are careful to point out that there are significant differences in the ideas of the two legendary heretics. To the bishops, however, Paul declared his orthodoxy, and it wasn’t until Malchion, a priest skilled in rhetoric, was brought in to interrogate him, that his true beliefs were exposed.

In their audacious, even outrageous behavior, Paul and his queen seemed to neither fear nor heed the authority of a local council of bishops. Despite his excommunication in 268 or 269, Paul continued to run his church as if nothing had happened, counting on Zenobia’s sponsorship to keep the bishops from physically ejecting him. Meanwhile, Zenobia finally threw off the thin cloak of fealty to Rome, and declared her son augustus and herself augusta in 271, effectively establishing an independent Eastern empire.

The real emperor, Aurelian, was not amused, and led a powerful force to face and subdue the augusta of the East. Regaining Egypt first, Aurelian routed Zenobia’s army outside Antioch. However, Zabdas, her general, still had a trick up his sleeve. He retreated to Antioch and paraded a “captured” look-alike of the Roman emperor before the people, allowing them to think that Zenobia’s forces had won the day. That gave Zenobia enough time to retreat across the desert to Palmyra, with Aurelian in hot pursuit.

As her forces were pushed back, and the emperor laid siege to Palmyra, Zenobia took one last wild ride, on a fast she-camel, in a desperate attempt to meet with the Persians and negotiate for their aid. The Romans pursued and captured her when she was on a boat about to cross the Euphrates. At that moment, Zenobia’s dream of empire was over.

Returning to Antioch, Aurelian took time to settle the affair of Paul of Samosata, the historian Eusebius reports. Conscious that Rome was, after all, the capital, he declared that the bishops in Rome and Italy should make such decisions. It is the first recorded case of a Roman emperor endorsing the authority of the bishop of Rome. Perhaps that is Paul’s most enduring legacy.

While Paul was executed brutally, with “the utmost indignity,” Zenobia fared comparatively well. In 272, she was taken to Rome, where the emperor had her bound in chains of gold and paraded before the enthralled mob. But once her humiliation was complete, she was given an estate in what is now Tivoli, and after marrying a senator, she lived a long and prosperous life, content perhaps to reminisce now and then about the days when her power and fame could be compared to Cleopatra’s.

This is the end of the Zenobia category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 217, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Zenobia from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info