History, Myth and the Neo-Classical Imagination
Review of Zenobia of Palmyra
by Rex Winsbury
This is a book for all Zenobia fans. Even before you open it, you know it will be something special. The cover places Harriet Hosmer's larger-than-life size statue of Zenobia In Chains (1859) right in front of the triple gate of Palmyra's Grand Colonnade, a leap of imagination across the centuries to unite two feminist icons: Hosmer's most admired work (and her own remarkable life*) and the history of the real-life Queen Zenobia.
Zenobia in Chains is considered Hosmer's masterpiece, and there's no doubt that the artist put her heart and soul into the monument. Bringing the two icons together, as Winsbury does, "makes the aesthetics of the statue and its symbolic and historical values impossible to separate one from another."
A Life in Legend
Most historical biographies begin at the beginning -- first what is known of the subject's early days (birth, childhood, education) -- and go on till they come to the end (death); then stop. Death need not always be the final page, of course: exceptional people and exceptional events often have a vigorous afterlife. Zenobia's story never died: that rare creature, a female ruler, continued to fascinate those who came afterwards. How was her reign understood by later generations? As an awful warning, or an inspiration? This afterlife, too, is part of a modern biography.
Normally, though, one expects to get the life story before its afterlife.
But 'heads becomes tails' in Rex Winsbury's diverting history of Zenobia.
He starts with a rather bushy tail, "Inventing Zenobias: pen, brush and chisel"; not so much the broad sweep of her 'afterlife' as an account very much focussed on the expatriate Ms Hosmer and her unconventional life in mid-19th-century Rome (lots more gossip at Zenobia is Back in America)
How her vision of Zenobia chimed with or was at odds with other people's visions of the famous Syrian queen, and with what we can say today about the historical Zenobia in the light of the latest evidence, is the main theme of this book. Hosmer's infatuation with Zenobia illustrates how easily fact and fiction came together in the person of this Syrian queen.Fact and Fiction
Facts about Zenobia are thin on the ground. Fiction abounds. Zenobia lived, strutted the stage, and battled in mid-third century CE, surely the worst documented period in the history of the Roman Empire. Every bit of information about her is contentious, fragmentary, or biased -- and often all three together.
Anyway, when ancient authors wrote about the past, they rarely had in mind what we think of as the aim of history ("things as they really were"), but rather mixed in generous dollops of myth and legend, gossip, hearsay, moralizing, ethnic stereotypes, political propaganda, and plain wishful thinking ("the way things should have been").
A bit like television news, really.
Except for a handful of contemporary inscriptions and some very rare coins, everyone who has ever made a Zenobia statement -- whether using pen, brush, or chisel -- is at the mercy of the same broken records. As Winsbury remarks a trifle wistfully, "interpreting events and people in the third century is often about using historical judgment to arrive at what may be the least worst interpretation of what we have....
Real-Life or Inventio
And so to Zenobia's 'life'.
'What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.
'Nothing,' said Alice.
'Nothing whatever?' persisted the King.
'Nothing whatever,' said Alice.
'That's very important,' the King said....In "Zenobia - 'a brigand, or more accurately, a woman'" (Chapter 2), Winsbury gives the background on Zenobia's life in a brisk but measured manner.**
Zenobia's father might (or might not) have been the J. Aurelius Zenobius who was governor of Palmyra when the Emperor Alexander Severus visited the city in 230-231 CE -- right before his disastrous Persian campaign. Zenobia was probably born soon after that visit (Winsbury suggests 240 AD but I would put her birth earlier).
We don't know her mother's name or family. He gives short shrift to the claim that "she was of the family of the Cleopatras and the Ptolemies", classing this as self-invention and political propaganda. I am not so sure. It doesn't seem to me improbable that she was descended on her mother's side from Ptolemies -- not especially the Great Cleopatra VII but quite possibly a lesser, still regal lady: Cleopatra Thea and her third husband King Antiochus VII (who ruled Seleucid Syria) are good candidates. That would even explain an inscription which refers to Zenobia as 'daughter of Antiochus'. The Palmyran upper class did marry out. Her husband, Odenathus, had two Emesene paternal ancestors whose names suggest they were part of Emesa's old royal family.
What I greatly like about this book is its emphasis on Odenathus, the warrior prince, who is rightly given almost as much space as his wife. This is hardly an anti-feminist position. Rather, it makes no sense to ask what Zenobia thought she was doing without first trying to understand the extraordinary career of her husband. Winsbury argues (correctly, I think) that Zenobia basically continued her husband's policies, albeit that road led her into still more rocky places.
Their choices were bleak. As Winsbury puts it succinctly, "Those were rough times and rough places.
The First Mr Zenobia
It can't have been much fun being ruler of an eastern outpost of Rome just when the Romans were reeling from defeat after defeat delivered by the new Persian empire across the Euphrates. In 253, the Persians attacked Syria and looted Antioch, the greatest city of the East. Three years later, Dura Europos fell, the river stronghold garrisoned by both Roman and Palmyran troops. Now, nothing but empty steppe stood between the enemy and Palmyra itself, the richest surviving city of Syria. There are hints, and Winsbury stresses them, that Odenathus, although a Roman subject, tried to treat with the Persians. He calls this "double-dealing". I call it the better part of valour. Not only was Palmyra itself in grave danger but the Persians were in control of the trade routes that had made the city so wealthy in the first place.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Shapur, the Persian King-of-kings, turned him down. A bad decision, as it turned out, for both sides. If the Palmyran army had been added to Persian forces at this pivotal moment, the history of the East would have been very different. Instead, with no room for negotiation, Odenathus led the Palmyran army against the invaders, chased them out of Syria and harassed them all the way back to their own capital at Cteisiphon. Winsbury rather underplays the strength of those Palmyran troops. In a sense, he is right: Odenathus may have been just another local 'war-lord' who stepped into a temporary vacuum ... but that is not how he was remembered in the 4th century:
Festus (writing ca. 370) called him 'the avenger of the Roman Empire', a remark Winsbury judges too grand in the light of some admittedly damned-by-slight-praise from other sources. For what it's worth (which isn't much) Historiae Augustae, sings his praises too (probably copying from the same earlier history as Festus). Still, there is an important witness whom Winsbury doesn't quote: Libanius, the great orator of Antioch. In a letter written ca. 391, Libanius says that Odenathus was everywhere victorious, that "his name alone shook the heart of the Persians"; and that, as a final flourish, he must have been a son of Zeus because he could not have accomplished so much if he were merely mortal (Letter 1006). High praise indeed from one who knew, if anyone did, what had happened in the East.
While returning from his victories in the Persian realm (267/268 CE) Odenathus and his son from an earlier marriage were both murdered at Emesa; the assassin is described as a cousin. Although Winsbury toys with the idea, there is very little justification (other than the wicked step-mother motif) for suspecting Zenobia of involvement in the murder. Gallienus, the Roman emperor at the time, had plenty of reason to want Odenathus terminated (with extreme prejudice) and the wherewithal to get it done. If Zenobia plotted against her husband, she would have needed backing from high-ranking Palmyrans; why would they have wanted to kill Odenathus and his eldest son in favour her under-age boy? Odenathus was victorious on every front; he was riding high.
Zenobia: Empress of the East
In the next three chapters, Winsbury recounts in concentrated (but not potted) fashion the story of Zenobia that is reasonably well known to readers of this blog: how she came to the throne in 268 as regent for her son Waballath and became the ruler of all the East, then Empress of the short-lived Palmyran Empire and, finally, her defeat by Aurelian in 272 CE. Winsbury tells it well. Naturally, I disagree with some of his emphases but, to keep this review at a reasonable length, I give just one example, but an important one: What happened to Zenobia after her defeat?
There are, as we know, three different versions of her fate.
Zosimus, one of the last pagan historians (writing ca. 500 CE, almost certainly copying the 4th-century history of Eunapius,) says she died on the way to Rome either by starvation or illness.
Malalas, 6th-century Byzantine chronicler, says that Aurelian paraded her in his triumph in Rome (274 CE), and then "beheaded her in the traditional manner".
All other writers essentially follow the exotic description best known from the Historiae Augustae. In this account, Zenobia is:
led in triumph with such magnificence that the Roman people had never seen a more splendid parade. For, in the first place, she was adorned with gems so huge that she laboured under the weight of her ornaments.... Furthermore, her feet were bound with shackles of gold and her hands with golden fetters, and even on her neck she wore a chain of gold....That is the moment Harriet Hosmer envisaged, her marble Zenobia in chains but, even in defeat, erect and majestic (and, as Winsbury rightly notes, sexless). Now Historiae Augustae goes further into la-la land ... and I am surprised that Winsbury chooses to follow.
Aurelian, that most cruel of emperors, pardoned Zenobia
and they say that thereafter she lived with her children in the manner of a Roman matron on an estate that had been presented to her at Tibur, which even this day is called Zenobia, not far from the palace of Hadrian...And so she lived happily ever after.
I don't think so. The writer(s) of Historiae Augustae seem to have conflated our Zenobia with another, earlier Zenobia, queen of Armenia. As preserved by Tacitus, this Other Zenobia, too, was taken to a hostile king who received her kindly and granted her life and living, and treated her with royal honours.
That two queens named Zenobia shared a common fate seems more than coincidence. I remain extremely sceptical.
Putting aside Neo-classical notions of the sublime feminine and the romantic sultry desert-queen of the fabled east, Winsbury concludes that the real Zenobia was not even a feminist icon, but no less -- and no more -- than:
the ruler and head of state of a remarkable city at a remarkable period of history who won praise from her natural enemies for some of her qualities and odium among her admirers for some of her faults, and who just happened to be a woman.And so we are left with a Zenobia for our disenchanted times: "Her actions were the actions of a ruler, doing what rulers do, for good or ill."
Pragmatic, not visionary.
You have to read this book, well-written, clear, and quite thorough. Then, we can go on arguing, probably forever.
Zenobia of Palmyra
published by Duckworth
£16.99 / Paperback, 192 pages
* We have written about Hosmer's monumental statue and its creator a number of times: Zenobia is Back in America; The Huntington Makes Space -- for Zenobia; and (Hosmer sharing top billing with Patricia Cronin) Zenobia Lost and Found.
** For more elaborate detail, see Pat Southern's Empress Zenobia, reviewed here.