28 October 2010

Zenobia on 'Zenobia of Palmyra'

If you need background information on Zenobia, click on Now All Shame is Exhausted.

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.

Re-assessing Zenobia

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
Rex Winsbury

published by Duckworth
ISBN 9780715638538
September 2010
£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.

  • 06 October 2010

    Queen Helena Returns to Jerusalem

    At last!  Helena is back in the city where she was buried.  This is her sarcophagus and Queen Helena was once resting inside.

    No, not that Helena.  

    I don't mean the mother of Constantine, FLAVIA JULIA HELENA AUGUSTA, who went to the Holy Land in 326 AD, found the True Cross, and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- and who, along with her son, became a saint in the eastern church.  Anyway, that Helena was an Empress, not a mere Queen.  She died in Rome (330 AD) and was interred in the imperial vault of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.  

    Where her body isn't to be found any more; but that's another story.

    There's no doubt about it.  This sarcophagus is inscribed (twice) with her name.* 

    So who is our Helena and why has she been returned to Jerusalem?

    Helena of Adiabene

    Nearly 3,000 km [2,000 miles] from Judea, east of the Tigris River, lies the ancient land of Adiabene -- nowadays more or less Iraqi Kurdistan (upper middle of map).  In Helena's time, during the early first century CE, Adiabene was a client kingdom of the Parthians.  According to the Jewish historian, Josephus,** it was also where the remains of Noah's ark were still visible and could be shown to anyone who was interested in such things.  

    Some time around 30 CE, Monobazus, king of Adiabene, married his sister, our Helena.  Brother-sister royal marriages were not uncommon in the Parthian and Persian east and no eyebrows were raised by the deed.  They had one son (also called Monobazus) and then Helena became pregnant again:

    But as [the king] was in bed with her one night, he laid his hand upon his wife's belly and fell asleep, and seemed to hear a voice, which bade him take his hand off his wife's belly, and not hurt the infant that was therein, which, by God's providence, would be safely born, and have a happy end. 

    This god-chosen younger son was given the name Izates (said to mean 'angel').  Despite having many other sons by a bevy of wives, the king loved his little angel best.   Naturally, Izates' half-brothers were jealous of his open affection for the last-born son.  Among Parthian princes, jealousy was not merely a private affair: the fight for the throne would be a fight to the finish.  Knowing this, Monobazus sent Izates away to the kingdom of Charax on the shores of the Persian Sea (lower-right black dot on the map) to keep him safe from the envy and hatred of his half-brothers.  The king of Charax received him gladly and gave him his daughter in marriage along with a country estate from which he received large revenues.   

    Something totally unexpected happened to Izates while he was at Charax: he was converted to Judaism.

    Izates, the God-Fearing Jew

    Now during the time that Izates resided at Charax, a certain Jewish merchant named Ananias visited the king's wives [the harem], and taught them to worship God after the manner of the Jewish tradition.  It was through their agency that he was brought to the notice of Izates, whom he similarly won over with the cooperation of the women.

    Luckily for the young man, Ananias did not insist that Izates be circumcised.  On the contrary, he said that the king could worship God without performing this rite as long as he otherwise followed the Jewish law entirely.  In short, according to Ananias, worship of God was of a superior nature to circumcision and, he added helpfully, God would forgive him this lapse.

    When the aged Monobazus realized he had but a short time to live, he recalled Izates to Adiabene.  Ananias went with him.  Imagine their surprise when they discovered that a (nameless) Mesopotamian Jew had also converted Queen Helena to Judaism and that she was highly pleased with the Jewish customs.  What a happy coincidence!  Or, as we may suspect, Josephus conflated two different stories of the conversions.  No matter.  It's certain that both queen and prince became Jewish proselytes and  established close contacts with Jerusalem and Palestinian Jews.

    You can't have too much of a good thing

    Monobazus now gave his son the western country of Carrae (perhaps because that was where Noah's Ark had come to rest).  Izates stayed in this land until after the king's death.

    On the very day that the king died, with Izates far away, Queen Helena called an assembly of noblemen, district governors, and army commanders in the royal palace at Arbela [modern Arbil]The grandees first of all paid their homage to the queen, as their custom was.  Then, she explained that Monobazus had chosen Izates to succeed him and had thought him worthy to do so.  She appealed for their support.  

    The fact that the queen summoned the council and had the honour of speaking first -- rather than her eldest son --  bolsters the idea that brother-sister royal incest increases the power and status of a queen [as recently discussed in my post on the incestuous Ptolemaic queen Arsinoë II].

    Meanwhile, the assembled grandees said that they confirmed the king's determination, and would submit to it.  Following protestations of joy, they advised the queen to slaughter all of Izates' half-brothers and kinsmen -- a brutal but effective way, as they pointed out, to avoid future and fratricidal civil wars.  Helena thanked them for the advice but said that the decision to murder all and sundry belonged to Izates; she agreed, however, to hold their relatives-in-law in prison until he should arrive.  Her next move was unexpected, perhaps even naive: she entrusted her eldest son, Monobazus, with the diadem and insignia of office until Izates could get to Arbela and begin his reign.  

    Perhaps  Helena knew something that  cynics didn't know: Monobazus duly surrendered his temporary powers, and Izates was crowned king in 36 CE.  Inspired by his religious scruples, we are told, Izates acted with a clemency extraordinary for the age: rather than kill his kinsmen, he sent them away as hostages to Rome and Parthia.

    A man's got to do what a man's got to do

    Afterwards, Josephus tells us, another Jew  named Eleazar came to Adiabene from Galilee to pay his respects to the  Jewish king.  Eleazar had a reputation for being extremely strict concerning the ancestral laws.  He entered the Royal Palace, possibly at the request of the increasingly pious but hesitant Izates, and persuaded Izates to become circumcised.  When he found the king reading the law of Moses, Eleazar admonished him:
     In your ignorance, O King, you are guilty of the greatest offence against the laws and thereby against God.   How long will  you continue to be uncircumcised?
    Shortly thereafter, Izates agreed.  And the deed was done.  

    When his brother Monobazus and other relatives saw that the people admired Izates due to his zeal, they also abandoned the ancient Parthian gods and adopted Judaism and the Jewish way of life.  The high nobles in Adiabene reacted negatively to their conversion and made political and military moves to have them removed, but in vain.  The rebels were executed by King Izates.

    Now that all was peaceful in the land and the throne secure, in 46 CE Helena decided to go to Jerusalem, in order to worship at that temple of God which was so very famous among all men, and to offer her thank-offerings there

    Helena's pilgrimage to Jerusalem

    When Helena reached the Holy City, she found that a terrible famine was spreading in Judea -- the same famine as mentioned in Acts xi.28 -- and people were starting to die of hunger.  

    The queen immediately sent some of her servants to Roman Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of grain, and others of them to Cyprus, to bring a cargo of dried figs. The food arrived quickly and was distributed under the queen's direction.

    But it wasn't her only good deed.   The queen also made offerings to the Inner Sanctuary of the Great Temple (the Kodesh).  The Talmud remembers one such item thus:
    Over the doorway of the Kodesh was a carving of a golden menorah donated by Queen Helena, a convert to Judaism. The morning service could not begin before sunrise.  The Temple was surrounded by high walls, and it was not possible to see the rising sun, so a priest had to be sent outside to see if it was time for the service to begin.  After Queen Helena donated the Menorah, it was no longer necessary to send a priest outside the Temple.  As the sun rose in the east it shone against the menorah and the reflected light was cast into the [courtyard].   (Yoma 37b; Tosefta Yoma 82)

    Since the queen had decided to remain for a time in Jerusalem, she built herself a palace. Its location in the lower City of David (above left) was only discovered in 2007.  Two thousand years ago, this area was home almost exclusively to the city's poor.  The palatial building is by far the largest and most elaborate structure yet discovered in the vicinity.  

    Since Josephus mentions just one wealthy family living in the area -- the family of Queen Helena -- it's more than likely the archaeologists have indeed uncovered her palace.

    The remains of the building (left) includes massive foundations, some walls built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms, halls preserved to a height of at least two stories, remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations and ritual baths (miqve’ot).  

    The palace was destroyed along with the temple and the rest of the city when Roman legions crushed the first Jewish revolt against the Romans (66-70 CE). That ghastly event was still some years in the future. 

    Last Act in Jerusalem

    In 55 CE, Helena received news that Izates had died.  Despite the political turbulence on all sides of Adiabene (wars, rebellion, pressure from Rome through Armenia; the ups and downs of Parthian imperial rule), the king had managed to stay in power for 24 years and died a natural death at the age of 55 years.  He gave an order that his older brother, Monobazus, should be king after him.
    When Helena, his mother heard of her son's death she was greatly distressed , as was but natural, upon her loss of a most dutiful son.  Yet it was a comfort to her that she heard that the succession came to her eldest son.  Accordingly she went to him in haste, and after she arrived in Adiabene, she did not long outlive her son Izates [died 56 CE].  But Monobazus [II] sent her bones, as well as those of Izates, his brother, to Jerusalem and gave an order that they should be buried at the tombs which their mother had erected.

    Helena's royal sepulchre was the subject of both enthusiastic literary descriptions and archaeological investigations. Josephus tells us that Helena in her lifetime built three pyramids (which no longer exist) over the intended tomb. Pausanias (Description of Greece 8, 16, 5), mentions a unique mechanism that opened the tomb automatically at certain times and sealed it at others:
    They have contrived to make the door of the tomb, which is stone like all the rest of it, so that it opens only on a certain day of the year at a particular season: at that moment the machinery opens the door on its own, holds it open for a little while, and then closes it up again.  At the time you can get in like that, but if you tried to open it at any other time it would never open -- you would have to break it down first.
    The tomb was re-discovered in 1863 by the French archaeologist Louis Félicien Caignart de Saulcy who conducted the first systematic archaeological dig in Jerusalem.  De Saulcy thought the magnificent facade looked royal enough to associate the monument with the kings of Judah; hence, erroneously referred to as the Tomb of the Kings, it should, of course, be called 'The Tomb of the Queen'.  

    The stone sarcophagus, weighing almost  1,200 kilograms [more than a ton] wound up in France after it was discovered almost by accident.  On the third day of the dig -- which was undertaken after the Ottoman authorities issued a firman, or formal permit, for it -- one of the workers stepped on a tile in the floor of a structure. The tile moved, revealing an alcove beneath the floor that contained the sarcophagus.  During the troubles of the Second Jewish War (132-135) it had been hidden in this small chamber. In order to bring it to its hiding place the corners of the chest were knocked off. 

    Helena in Exile

    News of the discovery of human bones, and from a Jewish queen moreover, inflamed the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The community petitioned prominent figures in Europe and lobbied the Ottoman authorities. De Saulcy was forced to suspend his excavation, but not before managing to send the sarcophagus and his other findings to France.  Since then the queen's coffin has languished, largely unseen, in the basement of the Louvre in Paris.

    And Now She's Back 

    The sarcophagus arrived at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on 21 September 2010 on special loan from the Louvre Museum.  It will be on display for four months in the Museum’s newly re-opened Archaeology Wing as the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition: Breaking Ground: Pioneers of Biblical Archaeology.

    Breaking Ground revolves around the stories of three European explorers: Félicien de Saulcy of France, Sir Flinders Petrie of Great Britain (pictured on the museum wall) and Conrad Schick of Germany, who together with members of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund, were among the first archaeologist-researchers to reach the Holy Land in the mid–late 19th century. They were the first to photograph, document and report on their excavations, laying the foundations for modern archaeological research.

    Our Helena

    If you have a chance to visit Jerusalem and see the show, take a walk afterwards down to the centre of Jerusalem to the street called 'Helena the Queen' (Heleni HaMalka).  In the time of the British Mandate, this street was already known by this name but it was meant to honour that Helena: Saint Helena, empress of Rome.  It has since been re-baptised (if one may put it so) in honour of a queen altogether more favourable to the Jewish people -- and another reading of history. 

    * The centred fainter inscription is written in Palestinian Aramaic in a 1st C script; the second, that runs a bit across the first, is Syrian Aramaic (Syriac) perhaps of somewhat later date.  Both read Tzadda[n] Malka[ta], Sadan the Queen; that is, a Semitic transcription of the Greek 'Helena'.

    ** Citations and further direct quotations in the text from Josephus, Antiquities 20.17-96, unless otherwise noted.  The chapters of Josephus give us the most elaborate texts on a conversion to Judaism in all of ancient literature.  The passages are available on-line in Lawrence H. Schiffman, Texts and Traditions: a source reader, via GoogleBooks

    I am grateful to Antonio Lombatti of the Pseudoscienze blog for alerting me to this exhibition of Helena's sarcophagus.

    My sources for this post include: on Adiabene, Encyclopaedia Iranica; John P. Dickson, Mission-commitment in Ancient Judaism, 33-46 (partly available via GoogleBooks ); P. Borgen, Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism, 52-55 (via GoogleBooks).


    Top centre:  Sarcophagus of Queen Sad(d)an.  Photograph (via Archeogate.org): © Ch. Larrien/Museo del Louvre

    Middle centre: Aramaic inscriptions on a 1st century Sarcophagus of Queen Helene that was excavated in 1863 at the 'Tombs of the Kings' in Jerusalem and now on loan from the Louvre Museum at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Photo: Getty Images

    Top left: map of Parthian Empire and eastern Roman Empire, adopted from WorldNews.com 

    Middle left: Rock relief at Bātās, Iraq, depicting Izates II (r. 36-62 CE); drawing by H. von Gall.  Via WithinLandofKurda blog.

    Lower left:  Aerial view of Temple Mount and City of David: Bible Places.com (Palace of Queen Helena Found?)

    Still lower left: Skyview of the excavation of Helena's palace.  Photo: IAA (via Ferrell's Travel Blog)

    Lower centre: Reconstructed facade of Helena's tomb (J. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament, page 315)

    Lowest left: Helena's sarcophagus in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Photo: Haaretz Daily Newspaper, by: Michal Patael

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