24 March 2008

The Other Zenobia

Treachery in Armenia and the Musical Drama of Johann Adolf Hasse! (Updated)

Rhadamistes was the son of King Parsman I of Iberia (in the Caucasus, modern eastern Georgia) who ruled from ca. 35 to 58 AD. He was known from one mountain peak to another for his ambition and arrogance -- as well as for fine manly looks and courage. As the Roman historian Tacitus put it, the young prince was

tall and handsome, of singular bodily strength, trained in all the accomplishments of his countrymen and highly renowned among his [peers].

What more could you want in a son?

Loyalty, maybe.

The king had good reason to fear that his son was conspiring against him so, to keep himself safe in his old age, he persuaded the prince to seek the throne of Armenia instead. The only problem was that King Mithridates of Armenia (r. 35-51 AD) was Parsman's own brother -- as well as Rhadamistes' father-in-law. In fact, when Parsman had driven the Parthians out of Armenia in 35 AD, he himself had granted the Armenian crown to Mithridates. Duly grateful, his brother had, in turn, given his daughter Zenobia as wife to Rhadamistes. So the now expendable Mithridates was both uncle and father-in-law to his future usurper.

The plot thickens.

Open violence, said the prudent old king, must be deferred, the better to catch his brother unawares. So Rhadamistes pretended to feud with his father because of his stepmother's hatred for him [there's always a wicked stepmother handy to keep stories like this moving along], and went to take refuge with his uncle. Did Zenobia flee with him to her father's embrace? The story doesn't say. But Mithridates welcomed Rhadamistes like a son, we are told, and loaded him with honours, a generosity reciprocated by his son-in-law's plotting with the Armenian nobles against the king.

While this was going on, King Parsman was off fighting with the king of the Albanians and appealing to the Romans for aid. Apparently, he was in trouble. And why? His brother, he said, had opposed him, and had 'done him wrong' in some undefined way. With that as his pretext, he recalled his son and gave him a large army to lead against Armenia. The prince swooped down on his unsuspecting uncle, drove him from power, and forced him to flee into the fortress of Gorneas near the Armenian-Syrian border,* which held a sizeable Roman garrison.

Rhadamistes besieged the fort. Whether the blame goes to the camp-commander or his centurion, one of them or both was bribed. Consequently, the Romans threatened to abandon the fort entirely unless their unwanted guest agreed to surrender to his nephew.

And Tacitus, who tells us all this, keeps a straight face when he says, "the perfidy of the Armenians was notorious."

More silver changed hands. Mithridates had to be content with vague promises of 'bloodless negotiations' from Rhadamistes. He had no choice but to leave the fortress and meet his errant nephew in person.
Rhadamistes at first threw himself into his embraces, feigning respect and calling him father-in-law and parent. He swore an oath too that he would do him no violence either by the sword or by poison. At the same time he drew him into a neighbouring grove, where he assured him that the appointed sacrifice was prepared for the confirmation of peace in the presence of the gods. It is a custom of these princes, whenever they join alliance, to unite their right hands and bind together the thumbs in a tight knot; then, when the blood has flowed into the extremities, they let it escape by a slight puncture and suck it in turn.
Instead of sucking blood, Mithridates was knocked to the ground and put in chains. The now ex-king and his wife were then smothered 'under a mass of heavy clothes' -- since Rhadamistes had sworn not to use swords or poison; clearly, he was a stickler for good form. To round out a perfect day, Even the sons of Mithridates were butchered for having shed tears over their parent's murder.

Thicker and Thicker

Rhadamistes becomes King of Armenia. But the Roman governor of Cappadocia now invades the country -- apparently planning to recover it from the murderous usurper. Instead, his troops ravage Roman allies not enemies, and he ends up in Rhadamistes' pocket :
whose gifts so completely overcame him that he positively encouraged him to assume the ensigns of royalty, and himself assisted at the [coronation] ceremony, authorizing and abetting....
This brings the Roman governor of Syria with his legions into the fray; but they are recalled to Syria so as not to provoke a war with Parthia. Not to be outdone, the Parthian king joins the 'Great Game' anyway: Armenia had been a Parthian possession before King Parsman threw them out, so he invades (53 AD), chases Rhadamistes from his barely warm throne, and puts his own brother Tiridates in his place. Now it's winter up in the mountains and the cold or an epidemic forces the Parthians to withdraw from Armenia, allowing Rhadamistes to come back and punish people as traitors; but they soon rise again in revolt and and gather around the palace in arms, calling on Tiridates to return (55 AD).

Where was Zenobia while all this was going on?

We haven't a clue. But now, finally, she comes back into the story. Tacitus relates an uncharacteristically romantic tale:

Rhadamistes had no means of escape but in the swiftness of the horses which bore him and his wife [Zenobia] away. Pregnant as she was, she endured, somehow or other, out of fear of the enemy and love of her husband, the first part of the flight, but after a while, when she felt herself shaken by its continuous speed, she implored to be rescued by an honourable death from the shame of captivity.

He at first embraced, cheered, and encouraged
her, now admiring her heroism, now filled with a sickening apprehension at the idea of her being left to any man's mercy. Finally, urged by the intensity of his love and familiarity with dreadful deeds, he unsheathed his sword, and having stabbed her, dragged her to the bank of the Araxes [River] and committed her to the stream, so that her very body might be swept away.

Then in headlong flight he hurried to Iberia, his ancestral kingdom.

In this treacherous and precarious world, the only loadstar is survival. His father quite reasonably wasted no time in executing his prodigal son, who was presumably still avid for royal power. Armenia was re-taken by the Parthians. Tiridates got his crown back, to become the founder of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty in Armenia.**

But we're not finished with Zenobia yet! The best part is still to come.

Zenobia meanwhile (this was her name), as she yet breathed and showed signs of life on the calm water at the river's edge, was perceived by some shepherds, who inferring from her noble appearance that she was no base-born woman, bound up her wound and applied to it their rustic remedies. As soon as they knew her name and her adventure, they conveyed her to the city of Artaxata, whence she was conducted at the public charge to Tiridates, who received her kindly and treated her as a royal person.

Enter Johann Adolf Hasse

"Let music be clear, simple, but sublime."

No other composer enjoyed as unanimously high a reputation across Europe during his lifetime as Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). Hasse was maestro di cappella at the Polish-Saxon courts of Augustus II the Strong and Augustus III for 33 years and was known from one end of Europe to another as the divine Saxon (divino Sassone). He was given this honourable title by the highly demanding 18th century Italian music lovers for his supreme command of the Italian operatic idiom. It was Italian opera -- more precisely, dramma per musica -- which was the European genre at the time -- and the yardstick against which all composing skills were measured.

He wrote 63 operas, one of which is Zenobia, loosely based on the story preserved by Tacitus, but more attuned to 18th century taste: his heroine is a veritable apotheosis of marital love and fidelity. The libretto by Pietro Metastasio, the Imperial Poet, was written in 1737 and the first opera of that title (with music by Giovanni Bononcini) premiered in Vienna in the same year. In the remaining decades of the 18th century, at least 20 other composers made use of Metastasio's text. Hasse himself began work on the score of Zenobia in 1761. What made this libretto so popular?

His Zenobia is a woman of super-human character, a paragon of female virtues -- and a lesson to us all. In the opera, she is in love with Tiridates! but her father obliges her to marry Rhadamistes. When his father, Parsman, murders her father, Mithridates, suspicion for the deed falls on Rhadamistes ...who has to run for his life along with Zenobia to avoid being killed by the Armenians. Then follows the stabbing by the riverside. Tacitus stops at this point but Metastasio is just getting started. Zenobia's subsequent adventures make a bedroom farce look true to life. Yet, whatever the extreme situation, she never hesitates. She puts obedience to her father (even if he behaves soullessly and deceitfully to her) and loyalty to her husband (notwithstanding the cruel man's readiness to kill her) above her great and reciprocated love to the truly noble Tiridates. Yet it all ends happily, or at least high-mindedly.

Hasse's Zenobia had its premiere on 7 October 1761 at the Warsaw Opera House to grace the birthday of Augustus III. It enjoyed a run of 17 performances, yet was one of Hasse's few operas which had no revivals in other theatres. Until, that is, 30 June 1997, when it was performed in the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Castle in Warsaw. The exquisite CD of that concert is available on the Pro Musica Camerata website. Zenobia is Olga Pasiechnyk, whose voice you hear on the recording above.

And, by the way, Johann Adolf Hasse was born on 23 or 24 March and baptized on 25 March 1699. So I'll take a middle date and wish him Happy Birthday today -- and many, many happy revivals.

Update 27 June 2008: A little-known pen and brown ink drawing of The Finding of Queen Zenobia on the Bank of the River Araxes by one of the rarest artists of the 17th C, Nicholas Poussin, will be auctioned at Sotheby's sale of Old Master Drawings in London on 9 July 2008.

As Poussin’s drawings rarely appear at auction, the emergence of this important, double-sided sheet, which has been in the possession of the same American family for more than half a century is of great significance. One side of the drawing is a very rapid pen study for a composition showing the finding of the queen, while on the other side there are various partial studies of figures – a type of drawing that is hardly ever seen in Poussin’s oeuvre.

Six drawings of 'The Other Zenobia' by Poussin are in various museums (none other is thought to remain in private hands). The composition of the present drawing is very different from that of the Hermitage painting (reproduced, above, in this post) and from the other drawings -- except for one in the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf -- in that a non-canonical group of horsemen has replaced the shepherds surrounding the body of Queen Zenobia. This may well be Poussin's own late reworking of the Tacitus story, given that the Düsseldorf drawing is latest in the series, ca. 1649-50; for stylistic reasons as well, that must also be very close to the date of the drawing which is to be sold.

Two painted versions of The Rescue of Queen Zenobia have been attributed to Poussin: one is lost -- and, anyway, now thought to be by Charles Dufresnoy [1611- 1668] -- while the other, in the Hermitage, is accepted as by Poussin.

Sotheby's estimate for the double-sided drawing is £70,000-90,000.

* Remember that Armenia at this time was larger and more to the south than Armenia today. See it on this map

** This is the same Tiridates whom we saw at Nero's court in 66 AD in our post on The Magi and Christmas.

The paintings are (1) Rhadamisto uccide Zenobia, by Luigi Sabatelli, (2) Queen Zenobia Found On the Banks of the Arax, by Nicholas Poussin , (3) Zenobia Retrouvee by Paul Baudry.

Update: 2 August 2008

As part of Prague's summer celebration of Old Music, the Wrocławska Orkiestra Barokowa (conducted by Jarosław Thiel) will perform arias from Johann Adolf Hasse's opera, Zenobia.

In the summer refrectory of the 800 year old Strahov Monastery (left) on Friday, 8 August 2008 at 20:00.

Not to be missed if you are in or near Prague!


  1. By the operations of serendipity I stumbled over this review in the NY Times of a performance of Handel's Radamisto.

  2. Thanks, RWMG, I'll certainly incorporate this into my last Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day post, 'Zenobia as Opera Heroine'.

  3. Hello everyone! My name is Zenobia. I have always been fascinated with seeing my name in print,as a child & now as a 37 yr.old. I am a fashion designer researching at the moment, how many companies are using my name. I loved this story, & yet a bit eerie how it reflects me, my regal attitude & my life experiences. I hope you enjoy my book when I write it.


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