22 April 2007

Zenobia: the musical and Conquest's Law

The all-star, all-singing, all-dancing Zenobia: the musical, written by Lebanese composer and poet Mansour Rahbani, which I talked about last week, is now playing to an enthusiastic reception at Dubai Studio City.

Kinan Jarjous of Dubai was there:

Drums, trumpets, lights, fog [fog? in the desert?], and 3 hours passed away without anyone noticing. We were all mesmerized by the play. Perfect execution, well-written script... my god, the script... the most powerful words were spoken on that stage that night. You could not know if it was a tragedy play, or a comedy, or a musical, or a dance... it was all yet not one exclusively. I have never attending anything like it.

It sounds spectacular. And Carole Samaha, I've been told, delivers a passionate performance as the brave Palmyran Queen who fought off the Roman legions, and Ghassan Saliba was heart-rending as her Leader of Knights. Veteran stage actor Antoine Kerbaje drew thunderous applause when he appeared onstage as the imposing Roman Emperor Orleanos [Aurelian]....

Wait a minute. They cheered the bad guy - who conquered Zenobia, obliterated Palmyra (leaving the city as little more than cold ashes), and plumbed depths of cruelty even beyond the exceptional cruelty of the age! Never mind, I don't intend to talk about Aurelian. Instead, I am wondering how far you can go in simplifying or altering history for the stage. After all, a musical is designed to reach many who never read ancient history, so any adulteration will be taken as the real thing. Zenobia: the musical is being pitched precisely as based on fact.

This, according to the play's director, Marwan Rahbani (Mansour's son) is the background to Zenobia's story [from an interview by Kate McAuley for Dubai TimeOut; my thanks to Margôt Hover for sending this to me]:
It’s around 260AD and the Roman Empire, led by fearsome emperor Orleanos [Aurelian}, is advancing ever eastward. The rich and sparkling city-state of Palymra (located in modern day Syria) has been under Roman influence for over a hundred years. But the Palymrans, including their newly crowned queen Zenobia, have had enough. ‘She’s the first lady who said no to Rome,’ says Marwan Rahbani. ‘She was the first Arab voice in history to say no against a superpower.’ The feisty young lady did a lot more than just say no to the bullying empire – she actually sent her armies into battle and temporarily took control of large parts of Egypt right the way through to Armenia in Asia. All of which was not bad for a women who ascended to the throne at the ripe old age of 25.

Well, not exactly. Far from advancing ever eastward, the Empire was almost on the ropes. Emperor followed emperor in rapid succession, and it was all they could do to secure the nearer provinces: Gaul and Spain were lost to an usurper; northern Italy had been invaded by German tribes and Rome itself was briefly threatened; Goths breached the Danube frontier and attacked the Balkans and Greece. And, of course, there wasn't just one superpower: the Romans were reeling from their recent encounters with the new Sassanian Persian empire on both sides of the Euphrates (I'll be writing about the beginning of these wars in Julia Mamaea's next post, 'Mamaea's Travels').

This is the dynamic that gave Zenobia her chance (she was well over 25, by the way, when she came to the throne [closer to 40! but old ladies, I guess, can't dance]) - and she took it. Only after her armies had conquered Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia, Aurelian, finally beating off the Goths, came east to reclaim these lands for Rome. Not that I approve of him (I don't!) but we should at least get the order of battle right.

The Empress has no (Palmyran) clothes

It makes my blood boil. Not the lack of historical accuracy in the play (I'm used to that) but Carole's costume in the photo at the top of this post. What is Zenobia doing prancing about in a short red dress and long black boots? This is an opportunity badly missed. Palmyran clothing is gorgeous and unlike anything worn by Greeks or Romans.

Palmyran Style

This is Odenathus, the great warrior king of Palmyra and Zenobia's husband. The mosaic, which comes from a house immediately north-west of the Great Colonnade, and found in 2003, shows us for the first time Palmyran clothes in all their many colours. The scene was surely created to celebrate his victories over the Persians (262-266/7 AD).

Like the Parthians to the East, the men wore trousers. Over a linen tunic, they draped woolen garments in vivid colours - reds and blues, browns and purples and gold - often in floral or geometric patterns, and in the elaborate and distinctive brocades of Palmyran costume. Countless tomb reliefs display every detail of Palmyran dress and the wealth of their jewellery. But it is the tiny surviving fragments of silken garments that are the most evocative of all - shimmering and ornate, with woven bands of flowers and beasts - demonstrating the Palmyrans’ love of the soft, and the gorgeous, and the intricate. Here are two views of women's attire, once painted (as were the textiles) with colours imitating the entire rainbow, and embellished with gold and silver highlights; but this is all now lost:

I'm not such a crusty old traditionalist that I insist on authentic costume. But to dress Zenobia as if for a night out at a Beirut disco is tiresomely banal. Imagine what a top couturier could have done (absolutely! I'd have chosen the inimitable Mary McFadden) - stunning stuffs in a fusion of Palmyran style and modern chic.

Jarjous falls asleep in Dubai with Zenobia's last words ringing in his ears:
I am the first cry of freedom,
the first cry from an Arabian land.
I am to give my blood for freedom.
In the Middle East, I don't think it mere pedantry to criticize a play for rewriting history: Zenobia lived hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of Syria so it's worse than nonsense to make her cry from 'an Arabian land'.

Let me put it this way. It gives me a bad case of Conquest's Law (which has nothing to do with the Arab conquest, or Aurelian's conquest of Palmyra, but, rather, Robert Conquest's immortal dictum): Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.

19 April 2007

More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's (Part IV) ... continued

Some Deadly (Female) Sins


Julia Mamaea was notorious for her love of money. Although she was, according to the Life of Alexander, "a woman greatly revered", she was also, alas, "covetous and greedy for gold and silver."

This unlovely trait in her character brought her into disrepute and provoked one of the few recorded disputes between mother and son:
Alexander found fault with his mother and was very much upset to see her avarice and absolute obsession with money.... This cast a certain cloud upon his reign, though Alexander opposed and deplored her forcible confiscation of some people's inherited property.
But was she, as the usually reliable Herodian tells us, simply piling it up for her own private hoard? Or, as she herself alleged, was she saving money for a rainy day: "in order to enable Alexander to make a generous ex gratia payment to the troops"? One would have thought that personal experience had taught her that the Praetorians not only could be bought but must be bought as the only way to maintain their loyalty. More on this after the second (female) sin.


Orbiana Augusta in the left corner


Mamaea mater Augusti et castrorum et senatus et patriae
in the right corner

In autumn 225 AD, when Alexander was 17, his mother chose a bride for him, the delightfully named Gneia Seia Herennia Sallustia Barbia Orbiana, a girl of impeccably aristocratic family. Marital bliss was short-lived:
though [Alexander] lived with her and loved her, Mamaea banished her from the palace with insults. Wishing to be the only empress, Mamaea was jealous of the title of Augusta going to the girl.
It is difficult to imagine that it came as a surprise to Mamaea that the Emperor's wife was given the title of Empress ... but women are jealous creatures so the explanation has always sufficed.

Is there no other way to explain her behaviour? If we start from the assumption that Mamaea was a rational being - despite her sex - and hardly likely to risk the empire in a fit of pique, one lies to hand.

Remember that Ulpian, her right-hand man, had been murdered by the Praetorians more than a year earlier. Mamaea would certainly have chosen her son's wife on the basis of her father's ability to lend needed support. Honours for him = more backing for her. This is what seems to have happened: Orbiana's father, L. Seius Sallustius, who held consular rank, was given the title of Caesar in 224/225. This may have been meant as an honorific title since the reigning Emperor was so much younger and Seius (now) Caesar was unlikely to succeed him in the normal course of nature. But the Caesar was ambitious, too, and betrayed his trust some time in 227.

Not that you would know it from Herodian. For him, it's a mother-in-law tiff that got out of hand:
Seius Caesar could not stand the insults Mamaea offered him and his daughter. He took refuge in the military camp and, though he acknowledged his gratitude to Alexander for his honours , he laid charges against Mamaea for her insults. Furious at this, the empress ordered him to be executed and the girl, already turned out of the palace, was exiled to Libya.*
What really seems to have happened is an attempted coup d’état, with Seius Caesar trying to rouse the ever-restless Praetorians against Mamaea, no doubt intending to replace her as regent himself (hence his claim that he had no quarrel with the Emperor, just with his mother). If he hoped to draw a distinction between the two, Alexander disappointed him.

A fragment from the Greek historian Dexippus (writing a generation or so later) confirms as much: the Caesar, he says, tried to kill [the Emperor] by treachery but Alexander detected the plot, had him put to death on a charge of attempted murder, and divorced his wife.

The Praetorian Guards had rioted in 223, murdered Ulpian in 224, and now joined a plot against Mamaea in 227 (and were again on the verge of revolt in 229). It is as sure as anything in the third-century can be that Mamaea and her son came through again unscathed because some of the money she had stashed away paid off the mutineers. The waverers returned to their allegiance and the revolt fizzled out.

Avarice can serve a purpose.

Still more to come.

* Exile to Libya was not as terrible then as it would be now. The old Phoenician and Greek coastal cities were still prosperous, and Lepcis Magna, the birthplace of Septimius Severus, had been much embellished by him and was positively flourishing; perhaps that's where Orbiana was sent. I wonder if the choice of Libya does not indicate some kinship between the Severans and Orbiana's family. Septimius had always favoured his fellow Libyans (or Syrians from Julia Domna's orbit). Enriched and ennobled, they formed the nucleus of a new aristocracy that was prominent for generations. You could trust these men ... but, then again, as the ancient saying has it, Periculosum est credere et non credere: It is dangerous to trust and dangerous not to trust.

18 April 2007


When I wrote that Mansour Rahbani's Zenobia "is not the first play about Zenobia, although it's probably the first that sets her to music", I prudently did say 'probably'. An anonymous reader then drove a coach & horses through the gap in my knowledge: Chicago’s favourite 19th-century composer, Silas Gamaliel Pratt (I’m not even tempted to laugh) composed an opera in 4 acts, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, having written his own libretto, too. Zenobia was staged on 26 March 1883 at the McVickers Theater in Chicago, and never – as far as I know – again.

For afficionados of US opera, Pratt wrote three more pieces (Antonio, Lucille, and Ollante), none of them ever fully performed. More positively, he was the first to put to music the hymn ‘America the Beautiful’,* but, sadly, this is not the version sung today. I wonder if Pratt’s music for this most popular patriotic song still exists (it can’t have been less singable than the 'Star Spangled Banner'). The only other noteworthy event recorded about him is that he conducted three bands on the Fourth of July, 1893 – the Second Regiment Band, Pullman Band, and the Chicago Band – "in national airs" at the Chicago World's Fair, and led a 100,000-person sing-along with the Columbian Chorus of 1,500 men and women (I didn’t make this up: it’s in the New York Times, 5 July 1893).

* the words were written in 1895 by Katharine Lee Bates, poet & teacher

13 April 2007

More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's (Part IV)

The Fourth Julia: Julia Mamaea

When [Elagabalus] had been put out of the way, Alexander, the son of Mamaea ... inherited the supreme power. He immediately proclaimed his mother Augusta, and she took over the direction of affairs and gathered wise men about her son, in order that his habits might be correctly formed by them....

Of course, the appellation 'son of Mamaea' was not official, but its use is significant as denoting his entire subordination to his mother. Nor was this a mere literary conceit: some inscriptions also traced his lineage through the maternal line, ‘son of Julia Mamaea, grandson of Julia Maesa’. While he took on the name of Severus to stress the connection with the founder of the dynasty (the emperor Septimius Severus), that prestige, too, flowed through the female line, as great-nephew of that emperor's wife, Julia Domna.

The three surviving ancient biographies of (now) Severus Alexander – the eulogistic, almost entirely fictitious Life of Alexander in the Hist. Augustae, and the contemporary histories of Cassius Dio and Herodian – all confirm the influence of his mother and grandmother in the imperial administration.

...he possessed the trappings and the name of emperor, but the control of administration and imperial policy was in the hands of his womenfolk, who tried to bring back a complete return to moderate dignified government.

So, for the first time in its imperial history, the Roman empire was de facto, though not de iure, governed by women.

Ten Good Years (222-231 AD)

As long as she lived, Maesa exercised supreme power.

Her first moves were astute: she hastily presented the young emperor to the Senate, to have his elevation to the purple confirmed before the mutinous Praetorians could substitute a candidate of their own. She even persuaded the senators to confer on the boy-emperor titles such as Pater Patriae (Father of his Country), borne by earlier Emperors but not usually assumed till a later stage in the reign. Her means of persuasion was simple: she chose sixteen senators as advisers to the emperor, treating them with respect, while herself informing them of all that had to be done. She thus restored the old dignity of the senate without, in fact, giving them any authority: she was free to accept or reject advice as she chose. Maesa survived but a short time to enjoy her role as female regent, dying no later than August 224, and, as we have said, she was deified.

Luckily for the Severan dynasty, Mamaea inherited much of her mother’s ability. While Maesa was alive, both women held equal public honours as ‘Mother of Augustus’ and ‘Mother of the Camp’. Now, her daughter increased her prestige considerably, adding ‘Mother of Senate and of the Country’ to her titles. Her position in government was highlighted by becoming the first woman ever to receive the title consors imperii, usually translated as ‘imperial consort’ but better expressed as a ‘partner in [exercising] imperial power’.

Even as Severus Alexander grew to manhood, Mamaea still controlled and dominated him, though whether this was due to her strength of will or because her son was simply indolent and weak is uncertain. A golden glow seemed to bathe his reign. The frontiers of Empire remained quiet, the Roman world was at peace. For ten years, the empire throve.

The fly in the ointment

Despite such good government, Mamaea encountered serious trouble early on with the Praetorian Guards. Perhaps her rule was not as firm as that of Julia Maesa, or the flow of bribes to the troops had dried up, now that she no longer needed to outbid her sister for their support. This led to a revolt by the increasingly hostile Praetorians. At some point there was even fighting in the streets of Rome between the ordinary people and the Guards. This revolt might well have been the reason why the execution of two of their commanders was ordered. In their place, Ulpian, one of the great jurists of Rome and Mamaea's right-hand man in government, was appointed commander.

You may well wonder what a jurist has to do with the command of the city garrison, a large and formidable body of soldiers, most of whose recruits came from alien Danubian and Balkan lands (seemingly as violent then as now). Military experience might be a better requirement for the post. There was, however, a family precedent: Septimius Severus had made the Syrian jurist Papinian (perhaps a relative of Julia Domna's) commander of the Praetorians in 206 [he was killed by his son Caracalla five years later]. The difference was that Severus was himself a great general who had crushed any and all opposition to his rule. Without the backing of such a stern disciplinarian, a fine legal mind, tried loyalty, and the confidence of the ruler goes only so far.

Still, for a time, it seemed a good move. Ulpian imposed discipline on the Praetorians, anxious to show that a lawyer could be as firm as a soldier. And rewarded his patroness with two legal declarations, to wit:

"The Emperor is not bound by the laws."

"What pleases the prince has the force of law."

Adding the useful rider that, although the Empress is not above the law, she can acquire from the Emperor the same privileges that he possesses himself. [Ulpian was clearly the kind of top legal advisor that George W. Bush and Tony Blair would like to have behind them].

Who really ran the Empire?

Both ancient and modern writers have puzzled over who actually administered the Roman Empire during the reign of Severus Alexander. The ancient sources are contradictory. While I have stressed the the role of Julia Maesa and Julia Mamaea in the imperial administration, The Life of Alexander in the Hist. Augustae and Cassius Dio emphasize the role of Ulpian, although they give few supporting details. Modern historians, too, have traditionally sought a comfortable 'male' solution to the problem and the bias, if not the evidence, of the ancient sources has tended to support them. Based on a misreading of Dio, it was almost universally assumed that Ulpian had served as a kind of regent, in fact if not in name, during the first six years or so of Severus Alexander’s reign and thereby furnished the male guidance and direction so necessary for the smooth functioning of the government.

In full adulatory flow, The Life devotes two chapters to Alexander's imagined virtues (his shouldering the responsibilities of direct imperial rule himself, in the tradition of the great emperors of the past. A perfect counterplot, in fact, to the previous rule of the wicked Elagabalus, who could do no right).

Alexander always treated Ulpian as his guardian – a fact which called forth, first the opposition of his mother, but, later, her gratitude – and he frequently protected him from the soldiers’ ill-will by sheltering him under his own purple robe. In fact, it was because he ruled chiefly in accordance with Ulpian’s advice that he was so excellent an emperor.

As it happens, this tale is wrong -- dead wrong. Ulpian, we now know, was murdered by the Praetorians less than eighteen months after taking office (appointed commander on 1 December 222, dead as a doornail before May/June 224).

In summer or late 223, the Praetorians staged a serious mutiny under the leadership of a certain Marcus Aurelius Epagathus. Ulpian was the prime target, and he was slain by the Praetorians, who attacked him in the night; and it availed him naught that he ran to the palace and took refuge with the emperor himself and with the emperor's mother.

He thus had little time to be regent, still less for Mamaea to change her mind and think this a good idea, before the shelter of purple turned out to be utterly illusory.

Her chief advisor killed, Julia Mamaea found herself humiliatingly forced to 'reward' the mutinous Epagathus with the post of governor of Egypt. But there was an iron fist in her velvet glove: he "was sent to Egypt, ostensibly as governor, but really in order to prevent any disturbance from taking place in Rome, as it would if he were punished there. From Egypt he was taken to Crete and executed."

How do we know when this happened?

A papyrus from Egypt (P. Oxy. 2565) preserves two texts that change the presumed date of Ulpian’s death. The first is dated in the Egyptian month of Payni (May 26 to June 24) of the year 224 and provides indisputable evidence that Epagathus, the murderer of Ulpian, was serving as prefect of Egypt on this date. Hence, by June of 224 Ulpian had already been dead for some time. One must imagine that, for the sake of decorum, Epagathus was kept at his post as prefect of Egypt for at least a few months before getting his one-way ticket to Crete

In fact, that is what happened. The second text reveals that by a date within the same year another person, Tiberius Claudius Herennianus, had assumed the duties of the prefecture of Egypt as acting prefect, which means that Epagathus was terminated with extreme prejudice some time before the end of 224. Under the circumstances, it would have been extremely important to present his powerful friends in Rome with a fait accompli, in order to prevent further trouble from developing there. Dio says as much. Also, a few weeks or months will have been required after the death of Ulpian to arrange successfully for the transfer of such a dangerous man as Epagathus out of Rome to Egypt. Thus the murder of Ulpian could not have occurred much later than the summer of 223 and may well have occurred even earlier.

Exit Ulpian. Welcome back Julia Mamaea.

Much more to come.


05 April 2007

Zenobia Receives Royal Patronage

Zenobia Gets a Royal Boost from His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Sadly, this doesn't mean that the HH of Dubai is backing my novel (Chronicle of Zenobia: the rebel queen) but rather, according to the press release, boosting a "Massive Mansour Rahbani Musical Play".

Music on an epic scale
The play [written and directed by the composer Mansour Rahbani] is truly a megaproduction: Zenobia will run from April 18 to 23 at a specially-constructed 70, 000 square metre [± 210K sq ft] venue at Dubai Studio City. It will feature 130 actors, who will reenact dramatic battles between Palmyra and Rome on the gigantic stage. 150 technicians will be flown in from Lebanon and Europe. Dozens of trained horses from the Dubai Police will take part, and several camels. Seating capacity will be 3000 per night.
Rahbani adds, “We have all poured massive amounts of energy into Zenobia --- in fact, 700 people have contributed to this production. We are building Rome and Palmyra in the desert, and construction has been under way for several weeks already. The audience will witness history reenacted, as Zenobia, one of the greatest Arab leaders of all time, fights for freedom from imperial oppression.”

The only problem with this is that Zenobia was not an Arab. She was a Syrian, certainly, but lived hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of Syria; and a descendant (on one side) of Macedonian Greeks, most probably. But her language was Aramaic (Palmyrene dialect) and not an early form of Arabic. While it's no longer fashionable to see Palmyra as "an Aramaic island in an Arab sea", it is just as erroneous to give her the wrong ethnicity entirely. The political use of history in the Middle East has a lot to answer for. But I don't want to nag (even if Rome wasn't built in a day, nor ever in the desert) Anyway, an anti-imperialist Arab queen, one might think, is a deserved Eastern revenge for the grotesque misreading of history in the film 300.

This is not the first play about Zenobia, although it's probably the first that sets her to music. In 1995, the Royal Shakespeare Company gave us playwright Nick Dear's slightly camp Zenobia at the Young Vic -- with Penny Downie as the queen, and Colin Farrell as her husband, Odenathus. It was not a great success ("A warrior queen goes soft" opined The Times) and, as far as I know, it has not been revived. One unremarked oddity: it had 24 male roles and only one female part. What kind of life did Dear think she led? But, then, as the critic said at the end, "Nothing is dull, much is fun, little is serious." At a guess, much the same will be said of Zenobia the Arab.

Meanwhile, for those who don't make it to Dubai, you might want to read the epic book behind the musical. Julia Mamaea, too, is coming soon.

Just in: Carole Samaha, the popular Lebanese singer and actress, will play Zenobia.

Lebanon Links gives more details: "The Talent of Carole to act and sing at the same time allowed her to perform many songs written by great composers in the Middle East such as Mansour Rahbani and perform them on Stage."

I'll update if I get more pictures.

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