Zenobia (240 – 274, or later in Rome), queen of Palmyra, is certainly one of the most fascinating women of Ancient History. Her husband Odaenathus was an ally of Rome and served as a buffer against the Persians. After his assassination in 267 AD, she took over his position – and extended her empire, much to the dismay of the Romans. But as the Romans had to face various crises in the West, there was little they could do and for the moment they thought it best to keep her as a guard against the Persians. She was not anti-Roman, but tried to keep a good relationship with Rome. This intention was not reciprocal and it was Aurelian (270- 275) who defeated and captured her in 274. Instead of killing her, he saved her life and had her displayed in a triumph at Rome. This was not to everyone’s liking: a woman in a triumph?!, but Aurelian defended himself by sending a letter in which he praised her capacities as a leader. This letter is found in the Historia Augusta, but as this source ill-famed for its unreliability, the genuineness of this letter is doubtful. Her fate after the Triumph is not certain: according to most sources she was killed, but the Historia Augusta states that she was spared and was granted to live in a villa near Rome. I wish I could believe that.
In the Historia Augusta her life is described in the section about the life of the Thirty Pretenders – those who strove to be emperor, but did not succeed. Grudgingly the writer has to admit that she, though a woman, reigned very well. The link below gives more information
Historia Augusta: Zenobia 4-12.
4 Exstat epistula Aureliani, quae captivae mulieri testimonium fert. nam cum a quibusdam reprehenderetur, quod mulierem veluti ducem aliquem vir fortissimus triumphasset, missis ad senatum populumque Romanum litteris hac se adtestatione defendit: 5 "Audio, patres conscripti, mihi obici, quod non virile munus impleverim Zenobiam triumphando. ne illi, qui me reprehendunt, satis laudarent, si scirent quae illa sit mulier, quam prudens in consiliis, quam constans in dispositionibus, quam erga milites gravis, quam larga, cum necessitas postulet, quam tristis, cum severitas poscat. 6 possum dicere illius esse quod Odaenathus Persas vicit ac fugato Sapore Ctesiphonta usque pervenit. 7 possum adserere tanto apud orientales et Aegyptiorum populos timori mulierem fuisse ut se non Arabes, non Saraceni, non Armenii commoverent. 8 nec ego illi vitam conservassem, nisi eam scissem multum Romanae rei publicae profuisse, cum sibi vel liberis suis orientis servaret imperium. 9 sibi ergo habeant propriarum venena linguarum ii quibus nihil placet. 10 nam si vicisse ac triumphasse feminam non est decorum, quid de Gallieno loquuntur, in cuius contemptu haec bene rexit imperium? 11 quid de divo Claudio, sancto ac venerabili duce, qui eam, quod ipse Gothicis esset expeditionibus occupatus, passus esse dicitur imperare? idque consulte ac prudenter, ut illa servante orientalis fines imperii ipse securius quae instituerat perpetraret." 12 haec oratio indicat quid iudicii Aurelianus habuerit de Zenobia.
reprehendo reprehendi reprehendum: to rebuke, find fault, reprehend (subject: Aurelian)
triumpho: to lead in triumph
missis litteris: with a letter sent (ad)
patres conscripsi: the Senators
mihi obici: to be hold against me
virile munus: a manly deed
impleo: to fulfil
ne illi…satis lauderent: in order that they…would not praise enough
quae: what kind of
dispositio –onis (f.): management, handling
gravis –is: severe
largus: giving abundantly, liberal
tristis –is: harsh
illius esse quod: that it is thanks to her that
Sapor: king of the Persia (241 – 272). This event took place in 243, but the next year he defeated the Romans.
Ctesiphon: capital of Persia (Ctesiphonta usque = usque Ctesiphonta)
assero asserui assertum: to add
tanto…timori mulierem: that the woman was (till) such a terror (predicative dative)
conservo: to spare
prosum: to be useful
cum...servaret: as she kept/saved
quid de: what about
Galienus: Roman Emperor (252 – 268), who had to deal with many insurgences
Claudio: Emperor Claudius Gothicus (268 -270) He designated Aurelianus as his successor before his death.
Gothicis …expeditionibus: in 268 or 269 Claudius defeated a Gothic army at Naissus (modern Niš, a place in Serbia)
eam…passus esse dicitur imperare: is said that he endured/allowed her to reign
idque: and this even
illa servante: abl abs. with orientalis fines imperii as object of servant
quae instituerat perpetraret = perpetraret (ea), quae instuerat: he could accomplish, what he had planned
Translation by David Magie (1932)
4 There is still in existence a letter of Aurelian's which bears testimony concerning this woman, then in captivity. For when some found fault with him, because he, the bravest of men, had led a woman in triumph, as though she were a general, he sent a letter to the senate and the Roman people, defending himself by the following justification: 5 "I have heard, Conscript Fathers, that men are reproaching me for having performed an unmanly deed in leading Zenobia in triumph. But in truth those very persons who find fault with me now would accord me praise in abundance, did they but know what manner of woman she is, how wise in counsels, how steadfast in plans, how firm toward the soldiers, how generous when necessity calls, and how stern when discipline demands. 6 I might even say that it was her doing that Odaenathus defeated the Persians and, after putting Sapor to flight, advanced all the way to Ctesiphon. 7 I might add thereto that such was the fear that this woman inspired in the peoples of the East and also the Egyptians that neither Arabs nor Saracens nor Armenians ever moved against her. 8 Nor would I have spared her life, had I not known that she did a great service to the Roman state when she preserved the imperial power in the East for herself, or for her children. 9 Therefore let those whom nothing pleases keep the venom of their own tongues to themselves. 10 For if it is not meet to vanquish a woman and lead her in triumph, what are they saying of Gallienus, in contempt of whom she ruled the empire well? 11 What of the Deified Claudius, that revered and honoured leader? For he, because he was busied with his campaigns against the Goths, suffered her, or so it is said, to hold the imperial power, doing it of purpose and wisely, in order that he himself, while she kept guard over the eastern frontier of the empire, might the more safely complete what he had taken in hand." 12 This speech shows what opinion Aurelian held concerning Zenobia.