To mark International Women’s Day this week, HH tweeted the word Zenobia, defined as “a powerful and determined woman”:
Palmyra now stands in modern-day Syria (and as such has been making headlines recently for all the wrong reasons), but in Zenobia’s time it was a grand city and province of the eastern Roman Empire. Her husband, Odaenathus, was the founder king of the Palmyrene Kingdom, and via a series of successful conflicts essentially gained control of a Roman splinter state occupying an impressive stretch of the Middle East between the Black, Red and Mediterranean Seas.
All that came to an abrupt end in 267, when Odaenathus was assassinated along with his first-born son and heir, Hairan I. Next in line to the throne was the couple’s second son, Vaballathus, but he was just 10 years old and so unable to rule effectively. So, faced with a vacuum of power that threatened to spark the collapse of the kingdom, Zenobia took de facto control of Palmyra—and soon proved a more than capable leader.
Over the years that followed, Zenobia greatly extended the reach of her kingdom, pushing further into Arabia and Asia Minor, taking control of Egypt and the Nile corridor, and establishing a vast Palmyrene Empire. As empress she stood up to the might of Rome, and took advantage of crises in the western Roman Empire to proclaim Palmyra independent of the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 271. At its peak, Zenobia’s Palmyrene Empire stretched from Ankara in the north to modern-day Aswan, in central Egypt, and Medina, on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, in the south.
But it wasn’t to last. In 272, Aurelian’s Roman army headed east and defeated Zenobia’s forces at Antioch. Palmyra was besieged, and Zenobia and Vaballathus were captured before they could escape. Their fates are unknown (though much debated), but in their absence Palmyra eventually fell and by 273 was once more under Roman control.
Zenobia’s place in history nevertheless was assured: she had taken control of a vast kingdom at a critical point in its history (at a time when it was all but unheard of for a woman to wield such power) and not only proved herself to be an astonishingly effective leader, but succeeded in extending her empire’s range and influence to its greatest extent.
Educated, intelligent and benevolent, she made her court a seat of learning and willingly accommodated all the different faiths and cultures of those who came under her influence. And, quite rightly, she’s remembered in the dictionary as a fitting byword for any powerful, determined woman.