In the Third Century AD, the current nation of Syria produced a soul-crushingly-badass warrior woman from hell who spear-hunted panthers from horseback, spoke four languages fluently, wrote an in-depth textbook documenting a thousand years of Asian history, recited Homerian epic poetry from memory, bloodily avenged the murder of her husband and stepson, annihilated a Roman legion, conquered Egypt, beheaded a dipshit Christian-persecuting Latin governor, ruled an Empire stretching from India to Alexandria, and then mysteriously vanished into history never to be heard from again. Her impressive classical-style oasis palaces and temples in Palmyra might have been blown to hell by ISIS earlier this year, but the story of one of the Middle East's – no, fuck that, one of history's – most white-knuckled badass women rulers can never be forgotten.
Julia Aurelia Zenobia was born sometime around 240 AD in the amazingly-advanced Syrian oasis paradise city of Palmyra. She was tall and beautiful, with dark eyes, dark complexion, and perfect white teeth (I mention this only because British historian Edward Gibbon, in his definitive history written during the 18th century, hilariously jokes that, "in speaking of a lady, these trifles become important"). From a wealthy, powerful family, she is believed to have been a mix of Semetic, Arab, Macedonian and Egyptian descent – she claimed direct descent from both Cleopatra and Dido of Carthage, which is kind of dubious because Dido of Carthage totally wasn't actually even a real person. Regardless, she was very well-educated, spoke fluent Latin, Syrian, Greek, and Egyptian, studied Homer and Plato in the original ancient Greek, and used to keep a running book documenting Asian history so she could refer to it for her own personal use any time she needed to come up with a bomb-ass multi-layer burn while dealing with some idiot rival king.
At some point, Zenobia married Septimius Odenathus, a badass dude with a bitchin' gigantic lumberjack beard who had just taken over a big-time army that was stomping balls in the general vicinity of Palmyra. These two apparently hit it off like something out of a white trash romantic comedy, because instead of taking long walks on the beach and buying each other a new Lexus for the holidays they used to enjoy going out into the fucking wilderness with bows, spears, and javelins and hunting shit like bears, panthers, and wild lions. Odenathus was famous throughout the land for being a hardcore murderer of man-eating wild animals, and “the ardor of Zenobia in that dangerous amusement was not inferior to his own”. She also refused to ride in those prissy carriages that princesses like to weld out of giant pumpkins, and instead would always be seen galloping around on ultra-fast Arabian war horses while wearing an awesome cape made out of a fucking jaguar she'd killed with an arrow to the dome.
sure, something like that I guess
Now Odenathus's family had been granted Roman citizenship by the Emperor Septimius Severus in the 190s, but Rome was in some serious fucking shit during the Third Century. It's so bad they call it "The Crisis of the Third Century", when they write textbooks about it, so you can kind of get the idea that this wasn't exactly the sort of era were legions were racking balls up from the Indus to the Elbe. Well, at one point, the famous Christian-murdering Emperor Valerian tried to fight the mighty Persian Empire and got his dick smashed with a ten-ton ball-peen hammer. Valerian was taken prisoner, and all hell broke out. All told, there were 26 different emperors over the course of about a hundred years, and most of them were about as competent as a slice of pepperoni pizza (and lasted about as long as well).
On the surface, Odenathus and Zenobia stayed loyal to Rome in the Crisis, but basically a weak Roman Empire meant these guys could go off and do whatever the balls they wanted without having to worry about some dipshit Emperor telling them to slow their roll. Odenathus and Zenobia personally led armies across Persia, winning a big battle at Carrhae and besieging their capital. They conquered lands from the Turks in Anatolia, and fought off a full-scale invasion of a Gothic horde that showed up across the Bosporous with a bunch of long hair and wallet chains and Slipknot albums. And the best part is because they were doing all of this technically as a Roman Ally, they were both recognized by the Roman Senate as "great defenders of the Empire."
Well one day Odenathus and Zenobia were out knife-hunting for tigers or some shit when Odenathus's nephew Maeonius was a total dick and took the first shot of the hunt (note: this is always the job of the King). Odenathus told this kid he fucked up, but Maeonius was a spoiled entitled fucking brat about it, so Odenathus took Maeonius's horse away and made the teenager walk home from the hunt, which is like the ancient equivalent of having to walk home from the roller skating rink because you accidentally said the word "bitch" to your mom. Maeonius got all butthurt, found a couple disgruntled noblemen, and they all murdered Odenathus and his son (Zenobia's stepson) at a dinner party. Then Maeonius had the fucking balls to declare (at the party!) that he should be emperor now because he was next in line anyway.
Big mistake, kid.
Zenobia didn't just have this kid beheaded. That would have been letting him off too easily. No, instead she personally sacrificed him and all of his co-conspirators on the altar of the Temple of Baal, offering them up as human sacrifices to appease the spirit of her husband in the underworld.
Zenobia then immediately assumed control of the Palmyran Empire she had helped create, and prepared to ram it into the ram-hole of anyone who fucked with her. As Septimia Zenobia Augusta, she ruled over an empire that stretched from Persia to Rome. From her oasis city of Palmyra, she built temples, palaces, and massive buildings in the Greek columned style of architecture. She balanced the economy, forged alliances with Arabia, Armenia, and Persia, and established trade caravans that ran from India to Rome to Parthia. She even got her image on a coin, which is something that never happened with women rulers in ancient history, so that should show you how cool everyone thought she was.
I'm going to show you a couple pictures of the Palmyran Empire that will probably blow your mind.
During this time, Rome was even more fucked, with Emperors stabbing each others' rectums every time they turned around, so Zenobia decided fuck this, I'm not even going to pretend any more. She declared her own Empire, made herself the Queen of the East, and fucking invaded goddamn Egypt with a tremendously-gigantic army. Tens of thousands of light infantry, all armed with arrows and javelins, stormed ahead, supported by fucking badass Cataphract Heavy Cavalry decked out in the biggest, baddest full suits of armor you can imagine. Trampling around the desert like second-century T-72s, she demolished the Egyptian army, took Alexandria (which she claimed was her "ancestral home" due to her descent from Cleopatra), and sent a second army north to capture Ankara in Turkey.
At a time when women rulers weren't exactly normal or accepted or not-brutally-murdered-in-their-sleep, Zenobia's soldiers actually totally super loved her – because instead of hiding in a palace behind a pile of gold she would lead from the front. Riding up and down the lines on horseback to encourage the men, she would scream pump-up words to get them inspired to fight. During the marches, she would get on foot and walk miles alongside the troops, realizing that staying in sight would help the warriors win victories for their Queen.
Ok, well, capturing Egypt kind of pissed off Rome. They sent a Legion after her, commanded by Legate Probus, a guy we really don't know a whole lot about except that he was the military commander of North Africa. He attacked, but his forces were no match for Zenobia's battle-hardened troops – his army was smashed, the Roman governor of Egypt was beheaded, and Probus went back to Rome as one of the few men from his legion to not die gloriously in the field of battle.
In 272 AD the situation settled down a little, and a badass Roman infantryman named Aurelian clawed his way to the throne of the Empire. Aurelian had gone from soldier to general to emperor, consolidated Roman power, and now he was going after the riches of the Palmyran Empire. He invaded with a huge number of front-line Roman troops, all battle-hardened from conflicts with the Goths and the Gauls, and headed out into the desert. Zenobia personally took command and faced Aurelian a few hundred miles from her capital. Her heavy cavalry overran the Roman horsemen, but her archers weren't effective against the infantry – the legions were simply too powerful and too well-armored. She was defeated twice. Then she "retired within the walls of her capital, made every preparation for a vigorous resistance, and declared with the intrepidity of a heroine that the last moment of her reign and her life should be the same.”
Her defensive strategy was fantastic. She forced Aurelian to marched his army a hundred miles through the desert, and she had her light cavalry hit him every step of the way. Arabian horsemen attacked the baggage trains and supply convoys. Horse archers took shots during the day and set fires at night. It was honestly the same strategy that Saladin would use a thousand years later to defeat Richard the Lionheart in the Third Crusade.
By the time Aurelian reached the walls of Palmyra, he saw a humongous fortress bristling with archers and giant siege weapons that could hurl high-explosive Greek fire bombs hundreds of yards with pinpoint accuracy.
Aurelian immediately offered incredibly favorable terms for surrendering the city. Zenobia told him to fuck off.
“The Roman people speak with contempt of the war which I am now waging against a woman.
They are ignorant of both the character and the power of Zenobia.
It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations, of stones, of arrows,
and of every species of missile weapons. Every part of the walls is provided
with two or three ballista, and artificial fires are thrown from her military engines.
The fear of punishment has armed her with desperate courage.”
- Emperor Aurelian
The Romans set up for a siege, but Zenobia held out hope that they wouldn't last long in the desert. She sent riders to Persia asking for help, but only heard that the Persian king had just died and the Empire was in a civil war over who should succeed him. That news got worse when she received word from her men in Egypt – not only was Egypt not sending help, but they'd rebelled against Zenobia and were now sending a huge army to reinforce Rome.
Zenobia knew she needed to get out and personally appeal for help, so she got on her fastest camel and made a break for it, riding right through the Roman siege lines in the middle of the night to try and get help.
She didn't make it. The Romans got word of her escape and sent horsemen after her. She was captured near the Euphrates River and brought back to Aurelian to negotiate terms.
We don't really know exactly what happened to Zenobia at this point. One story says that in a defiant last act of queenly heroism she killed herself by drinking poison rather than submit to the will of Rome. Another story says that Aurelian was so damn impressed with her composure, intelligence, beauty, and regalness that he actually set her free, gave her a big estate in Rome, and that she ended up marrying a wealthy Roman aristocrat, had a bunch of daughters, and lived happily ever after. Both are equally credible stories from equally credible sources, so we have no idea.
We do know what happened to Palmyra. Aurelian was actually pretty lenient with the city – he looted some riches, set up a governor and a garrison, and left the city and the people unharmed. Of course, as soon as he turned around the Palmyrans murdered the entire garrison and decapitated the governor, so Aurelian turned back around and burned the whole place to the ground. I guess these things happen sometimes.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
Homage to Zenobia
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol 2. Tourneisen, 1787.
Southern, Pat. Empress Zenobia. AC & Black, 2008.