The rise and fall of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra is a figure of legendary resilience and ambition, and her life story charts a remarkable trajectory from Palmyrene noblewoman to challenger of the Roman Empire.

Here’s a concise overview of the rise and fall of Queen Zenobia:

Rise to power

Zenobia was born around 240 AD in Palmyra, a city in modern-day Syria. She married Odaenathus, the ruler of Palmyra, and they had a son named Vaballathus.

Following the assassination of Odaenathus and his eldest son in  267 AD, Zenobia took the reins of power as the regent on behalf of her young son, Vaballathus.

Zenobia proved to be a skilled leader and diplomat. She managed to keep Palmyra autonomous from Rome by positioning the city as a buffer against the Persian Empire.

The Palmyrene queen then embarked on a series of military campaigns to expand Palmyra’s territory. By 269 AD, she had successfully annexed large portions of the Roman East, including Egypt. She struck coins with her image and her son’s, highlighting her dominance.

Given her successes, Zenobia began to assert her independence from Rome. She started to be called the “Empress,” and there are claims she even envisioned a Palmyrene Empire that could rival Rome.

Coin of Palmyrene queen Zenobia as empress with Juno on the reverse, AD 272

Her defeat and ultimate fall

Rome could not ignore Zenobia’s growing power and assertion of independence. Emperor Aurelian saw her as a direct challenge to Roman authority and embarked on a campaign to bring the Eastern provinces back under direct Roman control.

Aurelian’s forces clashed with Zenobia’s in a series of battles. By 272 AD, Roman forces had recaptured most of the territories, and Palmyra itself was besieged. Despite a spirited defense, the city fell.

Image: Roman Emperor Aurelian in his radiate crown, on a silvered bronze coin struck at Rome, 274–275

The Palmyrene queen tried to flee but was captured by Aurelian near the Euphrates River.

After her capture, the historical accounts diverge. Some suggest that Zenobia was taken to Rome and paraded in a golden chain during Aurelian’s triumph. However, instead of being executed, she was supposedly granted a villa in Tivoli, where she lived out her days in comfort. Other accounts hint at less favorable outcomes, but her exact fate remains a subject of debate.

Zenobia’s last look on Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


Through her audacity and leadership, Zenobia challenged the might of the Roman Empire and carved out a short-lived but significant Palmyrene Empire. Although she ultimately couldn’t stave off Roman retaliation, her legacy as one of the most powerful women of the ancient world endures.

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