01 June 2008

Now All Shame is Exhausted...

for in the weakened state of the commonwealth things came to such a pass that ... even women ruled most excellently. For, in fact, even a foreigner, Zenobia by name, proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle, [and was] ruling longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.

Thus begins the biography of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, in the unreliable and fantastical Historiae Augustae , written near the end of the 4th C. She is one of thirty-two usurpers described in the section The Thirty Pretenders (why we get two extra pretenders for our money is a mystery). And what we read here is really almost all we know about Zenobia. There are no contemporary historical texts and the short, later reports are just as dubious as Hist. Aug. when it comes to sources.

So who better to take us through this thicket of anachronisms, false letters, fictitious speeches, suspect anecdotes, and imaginary evidence than Diederik Burgersdijk, who is writing his doctoral thesis on the Hist. Aug? Diederik was one of the organisers of the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day and he began the Day with a triumphant 'The Triumph of Zenobia'.*

First, What we Need to Know.

Zenobia's story does not follow the normal rules of Roman biography --
which require some remarks about birth and ancestry, youth and education, deeds, and death, including age. The absence of these items may simply be explained by the author’s lack of information. If he didn't know much about her, he may have had little choice but to write a partly fictional piece. Fair enough, but you need a model even for writing fiction. Where did he find it? Portrayals of women from antiquity lie at two extremes: at one end, idealized nurturing figures; at the other, devouring hypersexualized monsters. There weren't many portraits of heroic women for him to follow (at least, very very few have come down to us). On the other hand, there are quite a lot of ancient misogynous portraits of wicked women.

Especially, the ever-popular Sixth Satire of Juvenal (d. 130 AD) The Ways of Women -- a brilliant and bitter mockery of the whole female sex. Juvenal is amazed at the decision of his friend named Postumus:

What! Postumus, are you who once had your wits, taking to yourself a wife? Tell me what snakes are driving you mad? Can you submit to a she-tyrant when there is so much rope to be had, so many dizzy heights of windows standing open, and when the Aemilian bridge offers itself to your hand?

Naturally, Juvenal takes him aside to offer some advice.

Or if none of all these modes of exit hit your fancy, how much better to take some boy-bedfellow, who would never wrangle with you of nights, never ask presents of you when in bed, and never complain that you took your ease and were indifferent to his solicitations!

Quite rightly, he backs this up by ripping to shreds the behaviour and pretensions of women, lambasting their loose sexual morals, clothing, pride in ancestry, vaunted skills in language and literature, and (when all shame was exhausted) their masculine activities like fighting and even preparing to show off their gladiatorial skills in the arena.

Was the author of The Thirty Pretenders thinking of the Sixth Satire, one of the most conspicuous portraits of women in Latin literature, when he sat down to write (what may nowadays be called) his herstory? If so, he would deserve credit for ingeniously turning its misogyny into a positive portrait of a successful warrior-queen. I am not convinced, but Diederik makes some strong points.

Juvenal topsy-turvy?

Of all Juvenal's charges against women -- and they are many -- two stand out heads and shoulders above the others.

Chastity: The central theme in Juvenal’s Sixth Satire is the deteriorated morals of his time, especially the almost complete disappearance of pudicitia (“chastity”). He's not talking about male chastity, of course -- if there is such a thing-- but about degenerate wives and indecent women. At quite the opposite pole, Zenobia is astoundingly chaste:
Such was her continence, it is said, that she would not know even her own husband save for the purpose of conception. Even when once she had lain with him, she would refrain until the time of menstruation to see if she were pregnant; if not, she would again grant him an opportunity of begetting children.
But chastity was a hot item by the 4th century, partly perhaps under the influence of Christianity. All the surviving Greek novels had amazingly chaste heroines (Think of that most popular tale of Leukippe and Kleitophon, celebrated for The acid taste of love combined with chastity). It was in the air.

Man-like Women: Needless to say, what we would today regard as healthy exercise, Juvenal finds despicable.
Why need I tell of the [coarse woollen cloak] and the wrestling-oils used by women? Who has not seen one of them smiting a stump, piercing it through and through with a foil, lunging at it with a shield...? Unless indeed, she is nursing some further ambition in her bosom, and is practising for the arena. What modesty can you expect in a woman who wears a helmet (galeata), abjures her own sex, and delights in feats of strength?
Pause a moment at that word for helmet': galeata is the rare female form which otherwise describes the helmet of the armed goddess Minerva. Juvenal uses the word to sneer at man-like women who might have gladiatorial longings. The same word appears in the description of Zenobia who approaches her troops “in the manner of a Roman emperor that she came forth to public assemblies, wearing a helmet (galeata).…

Evidence that he was reading Juvenal? I'm not sure. Since so few females (besides Minerva) wear helmets, it's hard to know; it might have been borrowed from some description of the goddess or her statues instead. It's true, though, that Hist. Aug. sees Zenobia as a fighter: She "fears like a woman, and fights like a man...." And again, "She hunted with the eagerness of a Spaniard." Not just that Spaniards were reputedly very keen hunters but the ancient hunt wasn't simply sport: it was training for military service as well.

Zenobia has several other masculine traits. She rarely rides in a woman's coach but goes about on horseback. She "conserved her treasures beyond the wont of women." "Her voice was clear and like that of a man." She was as stern as any tyrant. She attended public gatherings "in the fashion of a man." This last is something that Juvenal excoriates in Roman women:
rushing boldly about the entire city, attending men's meetings, talking with unflinching face and hard breasts to Generals in their military cloaks.
We don't know if Zenobia flinched or the state of her breasts, but she certainly talked to generals, and then went one better:
She often drank with her generals, though at other times she refrained, and she drank, too, with the Persians and the Armenians, but only for the purpose of getting the better of them.
Why, even a man might do that! So she holds her wine like a man -- unlike the rest of the female sex: What decency does Venus observe when she is drunk? None! for women other than Zenobia, wine = drunkenness = lewdness.

Roman women cannot hold their drink. Juvenal memorably depicts a lady who comes home from the baths
with thirst enough to drink off the vessel containing full three gallons [12 litres] ... and from which she tosses off a couple of pints [half-litres] before her dinner to create a raging appetite: then she brings it all up again and souses the floor with the washings of her inside. The stream runs over the marble pavement; the gilt basin reeks of Falernian [wine], for she drinks and vomits like a big snake that has tumbled into a vat.
Did the pseudonymous author of The Thirty Pretenders really read that and decide that his Zenobia was the flip side of the coin?

The Other Zenobia

When, after a mighty effort, Aurelian conquered that most powerful woman, Zenobia, our author almost certainly finally conflates her story with that of The Other Zenobia of Tacitus to come up with a happy ending. He describes in great detail Aurelian's triumph, with Zenobia paraded in golden chains, and then tells us (in the most repeated version of her fate, but not the only one!) that the Emperor granted her life:
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...
The 'Other Zenobia', too, as we told in our post, was taken to a hostile king who received her kindly and granted her life and living: "she was escorted to Tiridates, and, after a kind reception, was treated with royal honours."

That two queens named Zenobia share a common fate seems more than coincidence. As may also be, as Diederik suggests, the author's little joke when he places our Zenobia's estate near Juvenal's own Tiburtine farm (Eleventh Satire, 65).

What is left of Zenobia?

In history, she is 'a blaze of colour against the rather bleak background of the mid-third century.' ** We can be sure that Zenobia lacked neither courage nor conviction but the woman herself is now largely shrouded in legend. This process probably began in her lifetime; it was taken to all sorts of lengths by the Hist. Aug. and, largely under the influence of this source, has continued down to the present day.

In more ways than one, Zenobia is 'one of the most romantic figures of history'.

(I'll continue my reports on the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day as soon as other work allows).

* For this post, I also make use of Diederik Burgersdijk's article, 'Zenobia's Biography in the Historia Augusta', Talanta 36-37 (2004-2005) 139-152.

** A. Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century, 87.


At top of post, left: fragment of an arch carved with the figure of Victory, Palmyra, mid-third C (Palmyra Museum).

Above, right: cover of manuscript of Hist. Aug. made for Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1479 , by Mariano del Buono di Jacopo (1433-1504). The scribe, Neri di Filippo Rinuccini, signed the fine script with his customary motto from Terence: omnium rerum vicissitudo est ('how all things do change'). State Library of Victoria.

Above, left: Messalina by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896, intended to illustrate Juvenal's 6th Satire.


  1. Anonymous8/6/08 20:35


  2. Anonymous8/7/08 16:48

    Dear Miss Weingarten,

    A new Zenobia sighting on Youtube! Zenobia's aria from Aureliano in Palmira by Rossini, the opera I presented at Mr Burgersdijk's seminar. It is sung Luciana Serra, the Zenobia in the first 20th Century revival of the opera.

    Kind regards,
    Hein van Eekert

  3. Dear Hein (if I may: bloggers are notoriously informal),

    Many thanks for this luscious Rossini aria. Luciana Serra has a magnificent presence, even on youtube! Do you know anything about the production (when, where, who)?

    I'll certainly put this on my blog when I get to 'Zenobia as Opera Heroine'.

  4. Anonymous19/8/08 22:15

    Dear Judith,

    The Youtube excerpt with Luciana Serra (playing Zenobia adressing her fellow Palmyrians who have been taken prisoner by Aureliano right before she leaves his camp and returns to her city to raise an army against him) is taken from the very first 20th century production of Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira in Genoa, 11. September 1980. The previous production of the opera had been given as long ago as 1831 in Padua. Alongside Luciana Serra (who spent a part of her career in the Middle East, if I'm not mistaken) were mezzo-soprano Helga Mueller-Molinari in the castrato role of her Persian lover Arsace and tenor Paolo Barbacini as Aureliano. Just like the original Zenobia in this opera, Lorenza Correa (who premiered the role in 1813 in Milan), Miss Serra is noted for, among other roles, her interpretation of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute.


  5. Very many thanks, Hein. I can certainly use this information. Coming soon (September): Zenobia as Opera Heroine.


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