06 January 2007

Why Did She Do It?

Before writing Chronicle of Zenobia, I of course read virtually every word written about her and all the surviving Greek and Latin sources. In every book (almost all written by men), one word is always used: she was “ambitious” – as if male aspirants to the Empire were not ambitious; suggesting, too, that she was scheming and foolish or imprudent. Yet, why did so many men take the huge risk of rebellion on her behalf? Surely not to satisfy a woman's frivolous dreams. No one even considered that she might have been right: the Romans could no longer defend the East. Rome was corrupt.

They had debased the currency; inflation was rampant; taxes had reached confiscatory levels. Emperor after emperor was murdered, unleashing civil wars as ambitious generals fought against each other, rather than against the common Persian enemy. The Emperor Aurelian, who defeated her in 272 AD, cobbled the Empire back together, but none of the underlying problems were solved (and three years later, he too was murdered). Twenty years later, the Empire was being ruled by four Emperors; sixty years later, Constantine established his capital at Byzantium and it was split into East and West.

So, rather than ‘ambitious’, she seems to me visionary.


  1. she was “ambitious” – as if male aspirants to the Empire were not ambitious
    "Caesar was ambitious", wrote the bard. And the same could be said of each of his successors.

    1. With the exception of Caligula, Nero, Caracala, Comodos ... but sure, most others.

  2. Even of your own adopted son?
    Or are we in revisionist mode about him too?

  3. Anonymous11/1/07 02:40

    More like happenstance then true ambition. She could not command the loyalty of the Legiones, they cooperated with her as long as they were being paid. Once a legitimate Roman Emperor confronted them at Antioch, the Romans joined him rather then fight him.

    Had the Romans felt Septimia Zenobia had legitimacy then they would have fought for her. She lost her "empire" as fast as she gained it. To say she wasn't ambitious though would be to mock her... One of the greatest compliments a classical writer could pay a subject is that he was ambitious. It must be the right kind of ambition, though. Most chroniclers believed hers was not.

  4. stephen f. phenow also sent the following comment (for some reason, not automatically posted)

    I think it fair to say that if Rome was not going through her Barracks Emperors period, the defeat and capture of P. Licinius Valerianus by the Sassanids in 260 allowed the major opening for Odenathus to seize control. Septimia Zenobia happened to be married to Odenathus and thus by default became ruler of the Palmyrene "Empire" after her husbands death. Had she not declared herself Augusta in 271, I suspect that Rome would have been glad for her to maintain a buffer state or client kingdom in the desert. But her direct defiance to the Romans with the invasion of Asia Minor left L. Domitius Aurelianus no choice but to put her down.

  5. Lol, Stephen's second comment posted on the fist blogpost, not this one.

    Seems Blogger had a moment again. :)

  6. [I'm not very experienced in the ways of 'blogger': sorry if I oughtn't to have placed Stephen's comment after this post :-)]

    Two points, if I may.

    First, I am not aware that legionary units were said to be in Zenobia's army at the battle of Antioch. While Odenathus reportedly swept up what was left of the Roman army after Valerian's defeat and capture in 260 (and used them against the Persians), would they still have been recognizable units in 272? Have you a reference for this?

    Second, I imagine that the Palmyran conquest of Egypt was of more concern to Rome than Anatolia: the capital would starve without Egyptian grain; Zenobia could have (and perhaps did) cut this lifeline. That would explain why Claudius, the previous Emperor, sent an army to recover Egypt even when in the thick of his own Gothic wars: the Palmyrans, after an initial defeat at Alexandria, trapped and destroyed this Roman army.

    I'm sure we'll all have a lot to say about her assumption of the title Augusta (and her regency in general). For another time....


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