Zenobia – The rebel Empress who fought against Rome

empress zenobia
(public domain)

Empress Zenobia was legendary for her defiance of Rome. She was also a strategic warrior queen. She conquered many territories from Egypt to the Black Sea. Empress Zenobia managed to transform her client Roman kingdom into a powerful empire that rivalled the Roman Empire. It is no wonder why Emperor Aurelian viewed her as a threat.

Empress Zenobia was born circa 240 C.E. She was also called Bat-Zabbai or Na’ilah.[1] She was from a noble family in Palmyra.[2] Her father was Julius Aurelius Zenobius, who was a soldier.[3] Zenobia was said to be a very beautiful woman whose best feature was her long hair.[4] Zenobia was also well-educated. She was fluent in Greek, Latin, Egyptian, and Aramaic languages.[5]

In 258 C.E., Zenobia married the Roman governor of Syria, Lucius Septimius Odaenthus. Lucius Septimius Odaenthus was a widower and already had a son and heir named Septimius Hairan from his first marriage. Zenobia bore a son named Septimius Vaballathus in circa 260 C.E.[6] She may also have borne him more sons: Septimius Antiochus, Herennianus, Timolaus and another Hairan.[7] She also bore him two unnamed daughters.[8]

In 260 C.E., Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persian king, Shapur I. This left the eastern Roman provinces defenceless.[9] In 261 C.E., Lucius Septimius Odaenthus defeated King Shapur I’s forces and took control of the eastern Roman provinces, which included Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant, Eastern Anatolia, and Ancyra.[10] Because of his massive Eastern territories, Lucius Septimius Odaenthus became the Roman client king of Palmyra.[11] Thus, Zenobia became queen of Palmyra.

In 267 C.E., King Odaenthus and his heir, Prince Septimius Hairan, were assassinated by their bodyguard.[12] It is currently unknown who hired the assassin. Some accounts claim that Queen Zenobia may have hired the assassin, but modern historians dismiss this accusation.[13] They claim that there is very little evidence that Queen Zenobia was involved.[14] They believe that the most likely person to hire the assassin was King Odaenthus’s nephew, Maeonius, because he was angry with his uncle for briefly sending him to prison for disrespect.[15] Nevertheless, this left Zenobia’s son, the ten-year-old Prince Vaballathus, as the next king of Palmyra.[16] Queen Zenobia became regent.[17] Unlike her husband, who was loyal to Rome, Queen Zenobia wanted her client kingdom to be independent.[18]

In 270 C.E., Queen Zenobia marched into Egypt with 70,000 troops and attacked Alexandria.[19] She was then proclaimed the heir of Queen Cleopatra VII.[20] Thus, Queen Zenobia had total control of Egypt.[21] In 271 C.E., Queen Zenobia had her own coins minted with the inscription “S. Zenobia Aug”,[22] which is translated to “Septimius Zenobia Augusta, Empress of the East” [23]. This meant that she saw herself as an independent sovereign and was equal to the Roman emperor.[24] As a ruler, Empress Zenobia established a court full of writers, intellectuals, and philosophers.[25] One of them was Cassius Longinus, who wrote a funeral oration for King Odaenthus and encouraged her to break away from Rome.[26] There were also Genathlius of Petra and Nicostratus of Trapezus, both of whom wrote histories about Roman eastern provinces.[27] Another one was Callinicus, who wrote about the history of Alexandria.[28]

In 271 C.E., Empress Zenobia angered Rome by cutting off the exports of Egyptian wheat to Rome.[29] This forced the Roman politicians to give free bread to the plebeians.[30] Emperor Aurelian began to see Empress Zenobia’s empire as a threat because it stretched from Egypt to the Black Sea.[31] In 272 C.E., Emperor Aurelian launched a war against Empress Zenobia. He conquered Egypt and Anatolia.[32] Empress Zenobia and her army fought him in Antioch but were defeated at the Battle of Immae. She and her army retreated to Emesa, where they were again defeated by the Romans.[33] Leaving their treasury behind, Empress Zenobia and King Vaballathus retreated to await the Roman siege of her city.[34]

While awaiting her siege of Palmyra, Empress Zenobia and Emperor Aurelian tried to make negotiations.[35] Emperor Aurelian offered her a peaceful retirement if she surrendered.[36] However, Empress Zenobia refused. This is because Empress Zenobia did not trust Emperor Aurelian’s promises and believed it to be a trick.[37] She still had support from many of her Palmyrene allies.[38] She even planned to have an alliance with King Shapur I of Persia.[39] Empress Zenobia believed she still had a chance of defeating Emperor Aurelian.[40]

Emperor Aurelian sent a small force of Roman troops to invade Palmyra. During the siege, Empress Zenobia escaped for safety to Persia.[41] However, on the road to Persia, she was captured by Roman patrols and taken back to Rome.[42] Palmyra surrendered to Emperor Aurelian. On the way to Rome, Empress Zenobia was paraded in cities throughout the Eastern Roman provinces.[43] She rode a camel and was covered in heavy gold chains.[44] Therefore, the Romans used her punishment as a symbol to show the East that this is what happens if any ruler dares to defy Rome.[45]

It is unclear if Empress Zenobia ever made it to Rome.[46] An account by Zosimus claims that she died en route to Rome.[47] However, in Historia Augusta, Empress Zenobia was paraded in Emperor Aurelian’s Roman triumph in 274 C.E.[48] One source claims that after the triumph, she was beheaded.[49] However, one claims that she retired to a villa in Tibur, where she lived with her surviving children.[50] Two other sources claim that she married either a Roman nobleman or a senator.[51] Thus, her ending still remains unclear.

Empress Zenobia became one of the most powerful and famous women in ancient Rome. She became regent for her young son and expanded her empire so that it matched the Roman Empire. She was known as a warrior and an intellectual queen who hosted her own literary salon. Yet, she is most known for her defeat against Emperor Aurelian. It is no wonder why Empress Zenobia has become a popular icon throughout millennia.


Dahm, M. (2022, September). “ZENOBIA WARRIOR QUEEN: How the self-proclaimed heir to Cleopatra and Queen Dido of Carthage forged herself an empire amid Rome’s troubles”. All About History, (121), 42+.

Fraser, A. (2014). Warrior Queens. United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Nakamura, B. J. (2023). Zenobia. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia.

[1] Dahm, 2022

[2] Dahm, 2022

[3] Nakamura, 2023

[4] Nakamura, 2023

[5] Fraser, 2014

[6] Nakamura, 2023

[7] Dahm, 2022

[8] Dahm, 2022

[9] Nakamura, 2023

[10] Nakamura, 2023; Dahm 2022

[11] Nakamura, 2023

[12] Dahm, 2022

[13] Dahm, 2022

[14] Dahm, 2022

[15] Dahm, 2022, Fraser, 2014

[16] Nakamura, 2023

[17] Nakamura, 2023

[18] Nakamura, 2023

[19] Nakamura, 2023

[20] Dahm, 2022

[21] Nakamura, 2023

[22] Dahm, 2022, para. 21

[23] Dahm, 2022, para. 21

[24] Nakamura, 2023

[25] Nakamura, 2023

[26] Nakamura, 2023

[27] Nakamura, 2023

[28] Nakamura, 2023

[29] Dahm, 2022

[30] Dahm, 2022

[31] Dahm, 2022

[32] Dahm, 2022

[33] Dahm, 2022

[34] Dahm, 2022

[35] Dahm, 2022

[36] Dahm, 2022

[37] Dahm, 2022

[38] Dahm, 2022

[39] Dahm, 2022

[40] Dahm, 2022

[41] Dahm, 2022

[42] Dahm, 2022

[43] Dahm, 2022

[44] Dahm, 2022

[45] Dahm, 2022

[46] Dahm, 2022

[47] Dahm, 2022

[48] Dahm, 2022

[49] Dahm, 2022

[50] Dahm, 2022

[51] Dahm, 2022

About Lauralee Jacks 183 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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