Zenobia: Warrior Queen of Palmyra

Painting depicting Zenobia

Fine Art Images / Getty Images

Zenobia, generally agreed to have been of Semitic (Aramean) descent, claimed Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt as an ancestor and thus Seleucid ancestry, though this may be a confusion with Cleopatra Thea (the "other Cleopatra"). Arab writers have also claimed that she was of Arab ancestry. Another ancestor was Drusilla of Mauretania, granddaughter of Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony. Drusilla also claimed descent from a sister of Hannibal and from a brother of Queen Dido of Carthage. Drusilla's grandfather was King Juba II of Mauretania. Zenobia's paternal ancestry can be traced six generations and includes Gaius Julius Bassianus, father of Julia Domna, who married the emperor Septimus Severus.

Zenobia's languages likely included Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. Zenobia's mother may have been Egyptian; Zenobia was said to be familiar with ancient Egyptian language as well.

Zenobia Facts

Known for: "warrior queen" conquering Egypt and challenging Rome, finally defeated by emperor Aurelian. Also known for her image on a coin.

Quote (attributed): "I am a queen; and as long as I live I will reign."

Dates: 3rd century C.E.; estimated as born about 240; died after 274; ruled from 267 or 268 to 272

Also known as: Septima Zenobia, Septimia Zenobia, Bat-Zabbai (Aramaic), Bath-Zabbai, Zainab, al-Zabba (Arabic), Julia Aurelia Zenobia Cleopatra


In 258, Zenobia was noted as being the wife of the king of Palymra, Septimius Odaenathus. Odaenathus had one son from his first wife: Hairan, his presumed heir. Palymra, between Syria and Babylonia, at the edge of the and the Persian empire, was economically dependent upon trade, protecting caravans. Palmyra was known as Tadmore locally.

Zenobia accompanied her husband, riding ahead of the army, as he expanded Palmyra's territory, to help protect Rome's interests and to harry the Persians of the Sassanid empire.

Around 260-266, Zenobia gave birth to Odaenathus' second son, Vaballathus (Lucius Julius Aurelius Septimius Vaballathus Athenodorus). About a year later, Odaenathus and Hairan were assassinated, leaving Zenobia as regent for her son.

Zenobia assumed the title of "Augusta" for herself, and "Augustus" for her young son.

War With Rome

In 269-270, Zenobia and her general, Zabdeas, conquered Egypt, ruled by the Romans. Roman forces were away fighting the Goths and other enemies to the north, Claudius II had just died and many of the Roman provinces were weakened by a smallpox plague, so the resistance was not great. When the Roman prefect of Egypt objected to Zenobia's takeover, Zenobia had him beheaded. Zenobia sent a declaration to the citizens of Alexandria, calling it "my ancestral city," emphasizing her Egyptian heritage.

After this success, Zenobia personally led her army as a "warrior queen." She conquered more territory, including Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, creating an empire independent of Rome. This area of Asia Minor represented valuable trade route territory for the Romans, and the Romans seem to have accepted her control over these routes for a few years. As ruler of Palmyra and a large territory, Zenobia had coins issued with her likeness and others with her son's; this may have been taken as a provocation to the Romans though the coins acknowledged Rome's sovereignty. Zenobia also cut off grain supplies to the empire, which caused a bread shortage in Rome.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian finally turned his attention from Gaul to Zenobia's new-won territory, seeking to solidify the empire. The two armies met near Antioch (Syria), and Aurelian's forces defeated Zenobia's. Zenobia and her son fled to Emesa, for a final fight. Zenobia retreated to Palmyra, and Aurelius took that city. Zenobia escaped on a camel, sought protection of the Persians, but was captured by Aurelius' forces at the Euphrates. Palmyrans who did not surrender to Aurelius were ordered executed.

A letter from Aurelius includes this reference to Zenobia: "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 Defeat

Zenobia and her son were sent to Rome as hostages. A revolt in Palmyra in 273 led to the sacking of the city by Rome. In 274, Aurelius paraded Zenobia in his triumph parade in Rome, passing out free bread as part of the celebration. Vaballathus may never have made it to Rome, likely dying on the journey, though some stories have him parading with Zenobia in Aurelius' triumph.

What happened to Zenobia after that? Some stories had her committing suicide (perhaps echoing her alleged ancestor, Cleopatra) or dying in a hunger strike; others had her beheaded by the Romans or dying of illness.

Yet another story—which has some confirmation based on an inscription in Rome—had Zenobia being married to a Roman senator and living with him in Tibur (Tivoli, Italy). In this version of her life, Zenobia had children by her second marriage. One is named in that Roman inscription, "Lucius Septimia Patavina Babbilla Tyria Nepotilla Odaeathiania."

Queen Zenobia has been remembered in literary and historical works for centuries, including in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and artworks.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Historia Augusta: Life of Aurelian.
  • Antonia Fraser. The Warrior Queens. 1990.
  • Anna Jameson. "Zenobia, Queen of Palymra." Great Men and Famous Women, Volume V. 1894.
  • Pat Southern. Empress Zenobia: Palmyra's Rebel Queen. 2008.
  • Richard Stoneman. Palmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt Against Rome. 1992.
  • Agnes Carr Vaughan. Zenobia of Palmyra. 1967.
  • Rex Winsbury. Zenobia of Palmyra: History, Myth, and the Neo-Classical Imagination. 2010.
  • William Wright. An Account of Palmyra and Zenobia: With Travels and Adventures in Bashan and the Desert. 1895, reprint 1987.
  • Yasamin Zahran. Zenobia Between Reality and Legend. 2003
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Zenobia: Warrior Queen of Palmyra." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/queen-zenobia-biography-3528385. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Zenobia: Warrior Queen of Palmyra. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/queen-zenobia-biography-3528385 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Zenobia: Warrior Queen of Palmyra." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/queen-zenobia-biography-3528385 (accessed June 10, 2023).