22 December 2010

We Twelve Kings of Orient Are

... following yonder star.

And the names of the 12 kings who followed yonder star

1. Zaharwandad
2. Hōrmizd
3. Auštazp
4. Aršak
5. Zarwand
6. Arīhō
7. Artahšišat
8. Aštanbōzan
9. Mihruq
10. Ahširaš
11. Nasardīh
12. Merōdak

Twelve kings?  And Persians all.  Or not?

First of all, what happened to Three Magi (aka Three Wise Men, or Three Kings)?

Are we facing a Magus bubble this Christmas?

Let's clarify the record.  The earliest story about the Magi is, course, Matthew 2:1-12 (go back to 'The Magi and Christmas' to get the scoop on Matthew, Magi, Marco Polo and that star, as it appeared to this blogger in 2007).  Matthew -- most likely writing between 85-90 AD -- tells of a visit by wise men (Greek: μάγοι; magoi)* from the East; to be precise: 
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
He says nothing about their homeland -- other than that it is east of Jerusalem -- nor about their being kings, nor even how many men made the trip. 

Nonetheless, the belief in the early church was that the Magi were Persians (with a minority rooting for Arabians; hence all those camels).  They were pictured dressed in belted tunics and trousers, and wearing pointed Phrygian caps which, in the Graeco-Roman world, signified Easterners (left).  It was in Europe, too, that the tradition of three kings was created -- simply because one gift [gold, frankincense, and myrrh] = one king.  But the number could fluctuate: in the Roman Catacombs, where more than 20 representations occur, the number of gift-bearing Magi varied from three to six.

A much later Persian source (al-Tabari, ninth century, citing Wahb ibn Munabbih, born about 654 CE) is similarly ambiguous as to their number, but adds some local details: (1) they were indeed Persians; (2) not themselves kings, but the king's messengers; (3) and suggests they were true Magi (not simply 'wise men') because they were astrologers:
The sovereign in Jerusalem at the time was Caesar, and it was on his behalf that Herod the Great reigned in Jerusalem. Messengers of the king of Persia came to him. Sent to Christ, they came to Herod by mistake. They informed Herod that the king of Persia had sent them to offer Christ the gifts they carried, gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. They told him that they had observed that Christ's star had risen - they had learned through computation.

Twelve Good (Wise) Men and True

Now, into the old, old story, comes a completely new ancient version from a manuscript dubbed the 'Revelation of the Magi'.  This text, written in Syriac (Middle Aramaic), purports to be an eye-witness report of events that took place in the year 0:
An account of the relevations and the visions which the kings, [sons of kings], of the great East spoke, who were called Magi in the language of that land.... 
The 'Revelation' has just been translated into English by Brent Landau, Professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an expert in biblical languages and literature.  The text (920 lines long) had been copied into a larger history of the world from the Creation onwards, compiled by a monk named Joshua in the Zuqnin Monastery (today, south-eastern Turkey) in 775/776 AD.  The whole manuscript later made its way to the Monastery of St Mary of the Syrian in the Scete Desert (Egypt), where it was discovered in the 18th century and taken to the Vatican Library.  There, it lay on the shelves almost unnoticed.  Prof. Landau dates the original 'Revelation' portion of the manuscript to possibly as early as late-second or third century AD; in any case, not later than the 5th century.**

The Personal Testimony of the Magi

The fantastical story told by the twelve Magi frequently departs from the common ancient Christian interpretations of Matthew 2:1-12.  

These Magi -- despite their Persian names -- do not come from Persia but from a semi-legendary country on the eastern edge of the world known as Shir.  Jewish, Christian and pagan traditions knew of a land called 'Seiris', a mysterious country on the shore of the great Ocean, sometimes identified with China or with the mountain where Noah's ark comes to rest.
And so there were those wise men, who were called Magi in the language of the land because in silence, without a sound, they praised the God of all....
'Magoi' cannot be derived from a word for 'silence' in any likely language.  Possibly the author hints at a Syriac monastic practice in which silence and solitude are means for inducing mystical experience.  Certainly, the Magi of this text are mystics ... but they are far from 'silent'; to call them 'loquacious' is putting it mildly.
the land of Shir... east of the land of Nod, that place in which dwelt Adam, head and chief of all the families of the world.  And these sons of kings received commandments, laws, and even books from their fathers.  And generation by generation, one by one, they received them, from the time of Seth, [third] son of our father Adam....
Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous. Seth writes the commandments down in books -- without a doubt the first books ever to appear on earth:
And those books of hidden mysteries were placed on the Mountain of Victories in the east of Shir, our country, in a cave, the Cave of Treasures of the Mysteries of the Life of Silence.
These books contained instructions for Seth's offspring to wait for the appearance of a star which would signal the birth of God in human form. This star had initially hovered over the tree of life in the Garden of Eden before Adam’s sin caused it to disappear.  Now, Adam revealed to Seth that the star would one day return.  Adam, don't forget, had tasted of the forbidden fruit -- a sin, but a useful one which, in some traditions, gave him the power to foretell the future.  Really, Eve should get the credit for this, but she doesn't; only the blame (Adam hasn't forgiven her -- or the serpent; not for a moment).  Anyway, Seth wrote down his father's prophecy and generations of Magi awaited its fulfilment over thousands of years.  In expectation of the event, on the 25th of every month, the Magi purified themselves in a sacred spring and then, on the first day of the new month, ascended the sacred mountain  in silent prayer.  

Finally, just as they are gathering to commence their monthly rituals, the star appears as an ineffable pillar of light in the sky, descends from the heavens, and enters the Cave of Treasures.  This, the Magi's yonder star, is not a star, a comet, a planetary conjunction, not even an angel, but Christ himself in celestial form -- a 'star-child'.  Christ tells the Magi that he has been sent by the Father for the salvation of humanity and instructs them to follow the star to Bethlehem to see his birth in human form.

The journey from Shir to Bethlehem does not take two years -- as surmised by commentators on Matthew 2 -- but is accomplished in the blink of an eye by miraculous means.  The power of the star's light levels mountains and hills under their feet, they walk across rivers, and food supplies are constantly refreshed by the same magic.  For some reason, they, too, are sidetracked to Jerusalem, which they reach in the month of April, in the month of flowers -- thus, not within the December 25th tradition of Christmas.  Neither Herod nor the Jewish elders will listen to them (the star is visible only to the Magi) so they move on to Bethlehem.  At Bethlehem, the star enters a cave and transforms itself into a luminous infant.
We took our crowns and put them under his feet, because the everlasting kingdom is his.... And we brought forth our treasures before him.
Disappointingly, these gifts, the entire treasure that was deposited in the cave, which had been hidden away since the time of Seth, are not described: no gold, myrrh, or frankincense; not even silks from China!

Having met Mary and Joseph and heard invisible angels singing, the Magi make their wondrous journey back to Shir under the same guidance of the star. They proclaim the Gospel of Christ in their country.  Everyone is joyful.  Everyone eats from the magical provisions and has visions.  And no one is silent about what they have seen; not for a minute. 

As we come to the end of this story, we have to admit that it has not advanced the quest for the historical Magi by even a jot.  But it tells us some things none of us knew about the beliefs of an early group of Christians somewhere in old Mesopotamia. That's a lovely way to end the year.  

Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays to all.

I am grateful to the Paleojudaica blog for first highlighting the 'Revelation' and for continuing to update reviews and comments on Landau's book.  See especially the discussions on the Patheos blog and Landau's responses to some.

Translation of al-Tabari from M. Perlmann, The History of Al-Tabari, Volume IV, The Ancient Kingdoms, State Univ. New York, Albany 1987, 124-5.

* Besides meaning 'wise men', magoi can also be translated as magicians, teachers, Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, seers, or interpreter of dreams.

** The text presents the Holy Spirit as grammatically feminine, a practice in Syriac Christianity that dies out in the fifth century; online: Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem, 2010,


Above left:  Syriac icon now in Berlin (Preuss. Bibl. Sachau 220 fo 8v.);  note the kings ride horseback, not on camels.  My thanks to Hanna Hajjar for this link and notes.

Middle left: 2nd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Upper centre: 3rd C Painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. Photo credit: Edicolaweb.

Lower centre: from the doors of Basilica di Santa Sabina, Rome (2nd half 5th C). Photo credit: Gliscritti Gallery.

Lower left: ancient Roman map of the world, produced by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, commissioned by Augustus: Appiuslucretiusmartius Audax Alma (I've added arrows to indicate Seres (China) and Judea). Turn the map 90 degrees clockwise to get our more familiar view of the world.

15 December 2010

The Secret Language of Palmyra (Part II)

(Click here for Part I)

My soul is in this stone

I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living.  I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, a ram for [the sun-god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.

So spoke Kuttamuwa, a high official in Sam'al (modern Zincirli near the Turkish-Syrian border), the capital city of a Neo-Hittite kingdom which was ruled during his lifetime -- late 8th century BCE -- by kings of a native dynasty, among whom was his lord Panamuwa.

The well preserved basalt stele (95 x 70 cm [ca. 3' x 2']) shows Kuttamuwa enjoying his own future funerary banquet.  He sits before an offering table laden with loaves of bread, a big meatball, and a cooked duck.  In one hand, he grasps a pine-cone -- symbol of eternity -- and, in the other, a fluted metal cup from which he will either drink or libate to his gods.  The words he uttered were recorded in Samalian Aramaic, the local West Semitic dialect of the language spoken throughout northern Syria and parts of Mesopotamia at this time.  

The stele was discovered in 2008.  What caused the most excitement (and was even written up in the New York Times) was the extraordinary line saying that he offered up a ram 'for my soul that is in this stele', a totally unexpected insight into the purpose of this -- and presumably similar -- funerary monuments: Kuttamuwa's soul is thus not only independent of his body but resides within the stone.  Professor David Schloen of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and director of excavations, explains that this idea results from the fusion of two different traditions:
... a fascinating mixture of non-Semitic and Semitic cultural elements including a belief in the enduring human soul  -- which did not inhabit the bones of the deceased, as in traditional Semitic thought ... [but that] the soul of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.
 Semitic religions traditionally held that a person's soul adhered to the bones of the deceased (which is why, to this day, Jews may not be cremated).  But, in north-Syria in the Iron Age, elite Samalians clearly believed that an individual's identity, his personal soul, resided apart from the bones -- and held court within his funerary monument.

The word used for 'soul' in Kuttamuwa's inscription is nebesh, which, as Schloen points out, is a variant of the same word for soul used in the Bible, nephesh.  This  Hebrew word, however, broadly describes the tomb as the house of dead souls (a widespread belief in the Semitic Near East).  There is a world of difference between that belief and the notion that a soul lives on, if I may put it so, in the commemorative stone.

The Palmyrene nefesh

Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (2nd C CE)
Palmyrans certainly shared the Semitic view of the tomb as the place of the souls of the dead.  In Palmyrene, naphsa (related to Hebrew nephesh and Samalian nebesh) refers to the 'spirit' or 'soul': two inscriptions on early tower tombs describe these tombs as nps, the same word used to describe funerary sculptures or reliefs.  So naturally, I am wondering if, so many centuries after Kuttamuwa, Palmyrans, too, believed that the soul of the dead person resided in his or her funerary monument.  In short, is the individual portrait not merely an enduring image and memorial of the dead but, in fact, the actual residence of the soul of the person portrayed on the stone?

Such a possibility will affect the way we think about these portraits and, inevitably, their poses, attributes, and gestures.  It would make them, at least to some extent, no longer monuments of a 'visible absence' but rather 'visible presences'.  

As such, I think, they are actively directing our gaze.

My soul is in my stone?

Atenatan Gurai (133 CE) 
In the first part of this post, I discussed the different hand and finger gestures shown by women on their portrait busts.*  Most commonly (70%), a woman raised one hand, usually the right hand, to her face, chin, or to collarbone level, often touching her veil -- a gesture highly reminiscent of the Roman female pudicitia pose.  Men, on the contrary, never lift a hand to face or chin, although they do sometimes touch the area of the collarbone (upper left).  The great majority of men (78%) hold their right arms across the chests, resting in a sling created by the draping of their cloaks, with the right hand extended over the fold; this pose, too, is well-known on male funerary reliefs in Rome.

Yet, as we saw with the women, even those who pose their hands in more or less identical positions do not necessarily display the same finger gestures. 

Rather, it seems that, for both sexes, fingers are free to speak for themselves.

Boy Talk

Here are some numbers for what males are 'saying' with their fingers*:

Portrait of a man, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Gesture of Right Hand in Male Relief busts

195     All fingers clenched or extended
 60      Index finger extended
 50      Index and middle fingers extended
   3      Index and little fingers extended
   2      Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

Gesture of Left Hand in Male Relief Busts 

 89      All fingers clenched or extended
 81      Index finger extended
 63      Index and middle fingers extended
 48      Index and little fingers extended
 26      Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

Portrait of a priest, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
For reasons unknown the left hand displays more varied finger gestures than the right hand -- even though the left hand is very often holding an object as well.  Although it can be argued that the norm for both hands is for fingers to be extended or clenched,* the word 'norm' perhaps gives the wrong impression: these are, in fact, merely the most common gestures.  In my opinion, this does not make either clenched or extended into a 'default' gesture. It would be a mistake, I think, to imagine that when the hands are clenched (right: right hand) or spread (below left: both hands of the man pictured with his camel), the fingers are any less expressive than in the variant finger arrangements.   It may not be that he hasn't anything to say, he's just repeating what the majority of men are saying.

Holding on for dear death

Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen
Just as the ladies are regularly portrayed holding an object in their hands, so are men -- for both sexes, almost always in the left hand.  The most common masculine object is the book roll, although no one really knows what the good book means; more rarely, they hold a stylus and writing tablet, a leaf, jug, or the pommel of their sword.  Men are, in any case, pictured in ways that sometimes suggest either their profession (a sword for a desert warrior; a camel for a caravan merchant, as left) or their status (the tall cylindrical cap of a priest, as above right).  When a woman holds an object, it is inevitably related to the domestic sphere, underlining her life (and death) as wife, housewife, or mother.  There is more variety in how men are portrayed: if one were to think in axioms, one might say 'male social identity is often constructed; whereas a woman simply is'.   

So, it seems natural that the sexes rarely share the same hand poses in death, and that most such poses are strongly gender-specific.

Why, then, do they so often share the same animated finger gestures? 

Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd C CE)
This magnificent bust of Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd century CE) is distinguished by the unusual opulence of his dress: the cloak has two bands of embroidered vine-shoots, amongst which a vigorous naked male is gathering the grapes -- an exuberance that contrasts with the simplicity of costume of so many other funerary figures at the time.  Quite unusually, Yarhai's head and eyes are not frontal, but show a somewhat Graeco-Roman naturalism.

His chest, however, is fully frontal.  Despite the richness of the garment and relative realism of his face, his large hands have the typical Palmyran swollen, undifferentiated look (which we talked about in Part I), with fleshly details omitted.  The fingers of his right hand are  extended in a comfortable pose, fingertips slightly curled; the left hand, which holds a palm frond -- perhaps a symbol of victory over evil powers -- has an over-long index finger pointing nowhere in particular;  three fingers are folded back but not held under the visible thumb.

Yarhai is clearly from the top-drawer, probably of a priestly family, though not himself a priest (priests are clean-shaven and identifiable by their special caps).  His finger gestures compare closely with those of the ladies Aqimat and in the Vatican portrait (lowest right) in Part I.  Just as close --  once one allows for the different placement of their right hands -- are the gestures of the gentleman now in the Hermitage Museum (third Palmyran portrait down) and those of Lady Haliphat (in Part I): the right hands show two fingers extended, two partly folded; and the left hands make the mano cornuta gesture.  We could make the same argument, one by one, for each group of finger gestures, but you get the idea.

So, why do men and women display the same finger gestures?  There may be a straightforward answer: both sexes face the same dangers (or utter the same postmortem wishes).  There does not seem to be a specific -- or at least not a stereotyped -- Palmyran mourning gesture so it seems likely that most (if not all) gestures are essentially protective.  If we add this simple idea to our earlier speculation -- that the naphsa, the soul, lives on in the portrait stele -- then it makes sense, I think, to situate the need for protection right there in the tomb and not in a distant underworld.  

Of course the souls of the dead want your dutiful food and drink offerings but, every time the door to the tomb is opened, dangerous elements may enter, too.

"Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here."

I warned you. It is you who are disturbing the dead in their 'house of eternity'. 

They are just reacting to your gaze. 

* As in Part I, all statistics and many arguments are from the new study by Maura K. Heyn, 'Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra', AJA (October 2010): more information in Part I. I hope I've made clear which are her ideas and which are mine.  You may be sure the crazier ones are mind but, if in doubt, kindly send me a comment.  There are, of course, also double funerary reliefs as well as the  large, elegant banquet scenes.  Hayn did discuss the double portraits (as well as the few 'duplicates') and they are certainly interesting.  But I won't have anything to say about them this year, perhaps sometime in 2011.

A paper (available online) by Harold Craig Melchert, 'Remarks on the Kuttamuwa Inscription'  really started me thinking about the possible migration of Kuttamuwa's beliefs to the farthest reaches of Syria over the centuries.  Further valuable discussions of the meanings of the word nefesh in M. Mouton, 'Les tours funéaires d’Arabie: nefesh monumentales', Syria 74 (1997) 81-98; and A. Henning, Die Turmgräber von Palmyra, diss. Köln (2001) 147-49.  Obviously, none of these scholars are responsible for my speculations on a naphsa-in-the-stele at Palmyra.

On Kuttamuwa, I've made use of discussions on Kris's Archaeology Blog; Eti Bonn-Muller, 'Insight into the Soul', in Archaeology magazine; and John Noble Wilford, Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul, New York Times, 17 November 2008.


Top left: Kuttamuwa stele.  Photo credit: Eudora Struble, University of Chicago.

First Palmyran man: Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: © 2006 David Monniaux.

Second Palmyran man (Atenatan Gurai ): Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek,  Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Third Palmyran man: State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller, St. Louis Community College.

Palmyran priest (right): State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller,  St. Louis Community College.

Palmyran man with camel:  Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia.  Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Bottom left: Yarhai son of Elahbe, Photo credit: © Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu.

30 November 2010

Queen Hatshepsut's First Tomb (Updated)

This is Wadi Sikkat Taka ez-Zeida* at the deadest dead end of the Valley of the Kings -- as remote today as it was ca. 1500 BCE when Queen Hatshepsut, Great Royal Wife of Thutmose II, chose this desolate spot to build her tomb. 

It's never been an easy place to find.  That's why it seemed the perfect spot to hide a queen's burial along with her treasures.  No other tombs are nearby so robbers would not be combing these cliffs looking for hidden tombs.  Even today, the area is rarely visited.  But now, Jane Akshar and photographer Richard Sellicks have made the long climb and published new photographs of the tomb's exterior on the Luxor News blog.

One cannot help but think that Hatshepsut was already a trifle ambitious.  While still a mere queen (if queens can ever be 'mere'), she planned her tomb's entrance at a robber-defying 70 metres (200') up an almost sheer side of the cliff.

A wide crack in the stone (left) provided a way for the royal workmen to dig into the mountainside. Although the tomb was never finished, its layout (plan, below left) was similar to that of tombs being built in the Valley of the Kings. 

A Queen's Tomb

After passing through the entrance, a short staircase led down to a doorway and into a gently sloping corridor 10 metres (33') long.  This led into an antechamber, a second corridor and then the burial chamber where a burial shaft had been cut but left unfinished. 

A crystalline sarcophagus was found in the burial chamber (right). It stands an impressive 2 metres (6.6') high.  The hieroglyphic inscription reads:
The Great Princess, great in favour and grace, Mistress of All lands, Royal Daughter and Royal Sister, Great Royal Wife, Lady of the Two Lands, Hatshepsut
This, then, was Hatshepsut's first tomb. 

She had once planned to be buried in that sarcophagus.  On the covering lid, under which the body of the queen would lie, she prayed to the goddess Nut:
Hatshepsut says 'O my mother Nut, stretch yourself over me, that you may place me among the imperishable stars which are in you, and that I may not die".
But the sarcophagus was empty.  Not because the tomb was found by robbers and looted, but because it had never been used.  For Hatshepsut had become king.  As Pharaoh, she needed a larger, more elaborate tomb, and it had to be located in the Valley of the Kings, like those of other kings.  So the inviolable tomb was left as it was and Hatshepsut built the tomb known as KV20 down in the valley.  When found in 1903, it had been thoroughly wrecked.  The fate of her mummy is still not 100% certain.  But that is another story (see Hatshepsut is Back for the current state of play).

After All, Robbers First

Hatshepsut' s first tomb was finally discovered (if truth be told) by local robbers in 1916.  Howard Carter -- he of future Tutankhamun fame, but then Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt -- was alerted to what was going on and, one night, followed the thieves.  Carter and his workmen made their way to the Wadi, the moonlight guiding their path.  On reaching the tomb they discovered a rope leading down the cliffside.  The tomb robbers were busy burrowing through the heaps of rubbish that blocked the corridor.  

In Carter's own words:
Listening, we could hear the robbers actually at work, so I first severed their rope, thereby cutting off their means of escape, and then, making secure a good stout rope of my own, I lowered myself down the cliff. Shinning down a rope at midnight, into a nestful of industrious tomb-robbers, is a pastime which at least does not lack excitement. There were eight at work, and when I reached the bottom there was an awkward moment or two.  I gave them the alternative of clearing out by means of my rope, or else of staying where they were without a rope at all, and eventually they saw reason and departed.  The rest of the night I spent on the spot, and, as soon as it was light enough, climbed down into the tomb again to make a thorough examination.
But the bird had flown the coop.  The tomb was abandoned and, except for the sarcophagus, entirely empty.  Work in the tomb had been halted before any wall decoration had begun.  It must have been a disappointment for the young archaeologist to have discovered an unlooted queen's burial -- with nothing in it.  

Carter, nonetheless, had the last word:
She would have been better advised to hold to her original plan. In this secret spot her mummy would have a reasonable chance of avoiding disturbance: in the Valley it had none. A king she would be, and a king's fate she shared.

Update: 2 December 2010

For those of you lucky enough to be in the Philadephia area this Saturday, this sounds like a great lecture (organized by the ARCE/Pennsylvania Chapter):

The Coregency Elite: Who Won & Who Lost in Hatshepsut's Rise and the Transition to Thutmose III
by Dr. J.J. Shirley, Egyptian Art & Archaeology Researcher; Managing Editor, Journal of Egyptian History

Followed by the ARCE-PA Winter Party.
date: December 4, 2010; 3:30pm
place: Classroom 2, University of Pennsylvania Museum,
3260 South St., Philadelphia, PA
costs: $5 for the general public, $3 for museum members, ARCE-PA members free.
info: pr@arce-pa.org

* A 'Wadi' is a dry riverbed cut into the rocks.

I am grateful to Tripod.com for much of the information regarding this tomb and the inscriptions on the sarcophagus: The Cliff Tomb of Queen Hatshepsut; and, of course, to Jane Akshar for publishing the superb new photographs of the tomb's exterior.


Top, upper left, lower left: © Jane Akshar's Luxor News, Hatshepsut's Cliff Top Tomb - photos Richard Sellicks

Middle left: Tomb plan from The Cliff Tomb of Queen Hatshepsut, at Tripod.com

Middle right: Hatshepsut's first sarcophagus, Egyptian Museum.  Photo by Egyptopia.com


14 November 2010

The Secret Language of Palmyra

Palmyra, year 108 CE. 

Yarhai son of Elahbel built this grandiose underground tomb, a 'house of eternity' (bt 'lm) as a dwelling place for his family, forever.

We're looking at just one of several chambers (left), with twelve funerary portraits carved on limestone slabs that sealed the  niches (loculi) in which the bodies of the dead were laid to rest.  

Seven men, one boy, and four women were buried in this section.

Altogether, more than 150 tombs have been discovered in Palmyra.  Some had space for as many as 300-400 dead, all commemorated by funerary sculpture.  By far the most common type of sculpture in  the tombs is the individual portrait bust in high relief  (as here, rectangular in shape, ca. 40 x 55 cm [16" x 22"]).  Many of the portraits are inscribed above the shoulder in Palmyrene-Aramaic with the name and genealogy of the deceased, and sometimes the date of death as well.  

The dead man or woman is always depicted in a frontal pose, eyes staring straight ahead.  The men wear a tunic and cloak, with the draping of the cloak creating a sling for the right arm, and the women wear tunic and cloak with a headband and turban under a veil on their heads. Although there is a certain sameness to the images, they are far from identical.  We have to imagine that these people presented themselves -- at least to some extent -- as they wished to be seen by their descendants for all eternity.  There is good evidence that the tombs were regularly visited (water basins and lamps left at different times in the chambers).  The portraits thus remained visible to later generations, though, ideally, only to those who shared the same ancestors.   Of course, over the years, family circumstances might change.  This tomb of Yarhai, for example, was restricted to members of his family for almost 150 years; then, in 241 CE, perhaps because of straitened circumstances or reduced clan numbers, unused loculi in the entrance chamber were sold off to another line entirely. 

Hand in hand... 

"Beauty of Palmyra" (190-210 CE)
Among the many fascinating aspects of the portraits -- with their lavish details of clothing, jewellery, accessories, and indications of changing fashions -- are the varied hand gestures made by the deceased: for example, in Yarhai's tomb (above; click to make larger), the man on the upper left places his right hand flat on his chest while the man below him holds the fold of his tunic in his clenched right hand: both have their left hands with index and little fingers pointing forward, other fingers folded back, probably held under the thumb (looking, for all the world, like the famous Neapolitan gesture of a mano cornuta [cuckold's horns]).  Compare the left hand of the lad in the upper right column, whose index and middle fingers are extended and two fingers folded back.

Women pose their hands differently.  Like the women in Yarhai's tomb, the so-called 'Beauty of Palmyra' -- whose portrait is still embellished with some of its original colours: red, black (for the irises of her eyes), and real gold (at the arrows) on her golden jewellery -- holds the edge of her veil in her raised left hand.  The fingers of the Beauty's right hand rest slightly splayed in a natural, relaxed pose. Not all women are so relaxed: compare the lady in the centre of Yarhai's tomb who makes the same hand gesture (mano cornuta) as the man on her upper left.

Friends sometimes ask me to explain what the different gestures mean.  I have always replied that there is no way of knowing.  Like any other wilful bodily action, gestures are a kind of code that is embedded in the specific culture.  Without written records or living descendants, there is no way to crack the code.  

No wonder no one wants to study gestures

Until now!

Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra

Maura Heyn of the University North Carolina has just published the first study dedicated to Palmyran gestures (American Journal of Archaeology, October 2010).  Needless to say, I read it avidly.  We'll review her findings in just a moment but, first, I'd like to bring in two points based on my own observations of the hands of Palmyran portraits.

Lady Marti, 170-190 CE
Hands are almost always pictured larger than their normal proportions and without fine details (knuckles, veins, and tendons are scarcely or not at all shown).  Even when finger rings and bracelets on the wrist are intricately carved, the hands remain 'sketchy' and swollen in appearance.  Let's be frank: hands are not the sculptors' strong point.  Compared with the rest of the portrait, they often look gross.  

Why couldn't the local sculptors carve hands properly?  Admittedly, hands are difficult (Dutch Golden Age sitters had to pay extra for each hand portrayed), but fingernails, which are also hard to get right, are done quite well.  As far as I can see, the sculptors didn't even try to depict hands correctly.  Why not?

I think that the answer to this conundrum runs something like this:   
 The over-large size of the hands draws attention to them.  At the same time, their true physical representation was not important to the dead person; what was important was what those hands were saying.  
That is, the gestures (not the flesh) was what they wanted to communicate.

The Dead Speak

Professor Heyn put together a database of 585 bust-length portraits,* classifying the position of right and left hands, descriptions of the fingers (clenched, extended, folded), and any objects held by the dead person.  The database includes 323 males and 262 females -- for practical purposes, roughly equal in number.

Ummayat daughter of Yarhai ,150-200 CE
Ladies First 

For reasons of space (as well as inclination), I am going to focus on the female portraits today -- and get to the males in a later post, if I can. 

de mortuis nil nisi bonum

Palmyra is undoubted patriarchy country.  The wives, daughters, and mothers (whose descent is always reckoned in the male line, even onto three generations) are idealized images of domestic virtue.  This is not to denigrate Palmyran women.  In real life, they were demonstrably active agents in their own fate.**  After death, however, they are portrayed as perfect wives, housewives and helpmates.*** 

There is no rebellious Zenobia in sight.  

But, then, are funerary portraits anywhere ever 'true to life'?

The objects held by the women in the tombs are stereotyped symbols of feminine activity.  A third of the ladies are represented as devoted Penelopes: exactly 33% hold a spindle and distaff (always, rather limply, in the left hand), apparently content to die still spinning yarn for the family loom.  Jewellery boxes, balls of wool, house keys, and, surprisingly, even children are relatively rare.  But whatever the object, it is always appropriate to the private female, domestic sphere.   

Female Gestures

The great majority of females (71%) are shown, as the Beauty (above), with one hand raised to chin or collarbone level.  This gesture never occurs among males so it is a clear marker of gender.

Aqimat, daughter of Wahbi, and her daughter; 200-225 CE
Raising the hand to the face or veil is similar to the woman's gesture of modesty and fidelity (pudicitia) well known in Roman funerary statuary.  

Has it the same meaning in Palmyra?  

There's no real reason to think so.  As Prof. Heyn notes, "It could just have been a conventional way to portray women, modelled on Roman example without the concomitant social baggage." 

But what about the variations in the finger gestures?  In her article, Heyn does not quantify female finger positions nor correlate them with hand poses (unlike for the male busts, where she does exactly that).

But, look carefully.  Some women are touching their veils ('Beauty of Palmyra', Lady Marti), others their cheeks (Ummayat), and still others simply raise a hand without touching either (Aqimat).  Are we to assume that these gestures are mere variations on feminine pudicitia?  Perhaps, but it's not a safe assumption.  For example, only half of the women (51%) who hold spindle and distaff -- clearly, a very domesticated bunch -- also raise their hand in a pudicitia pose.  Thus, the prime domesticity symbol and pudicitia -- if that is what it is -- only partly overlap.  So, more may lurk behind this gesture (or gestures) than first meets the eye.

Palms Up and Out

The second most common gesture made by women (6.5%) is called the 'palm out' gesture -- raising the right hand with the palm facing outward.  Heyn catalogues 18 'palm out' portraits -- 17 women and only one man. So, though not exclusively female, the 'palm out' gesture is disproportionately made by women, a gender bias  underscored by the fact that all of these women (when intact), also hold spindle and distaff in their left hands.

'Palm out' is usually considered an apotropaic  gesture (that is, meant to ward off evil). Heyn thinks it more likely to indicate the person's prior involvement in ritual activities: full-length figures of both men and women on votive altars are sometimes depicted with both hands raised up and palms held outward.   The gesture might thus indicate an act of worship or prayer. 

Just these two gestures cover 77% of Heyn's (intact) female portraits.  Since no other female pose is described in any detail, the remainder presumably are either too varied or too isolated for any pattern to emerge.***

The Sign Language

As mentioned, Heyn did not publish figures for the positions of fingers on women's portraits.  Yet anyone looking at these busts will find their eyes quickly drawn, first to the hands and then to the fingers.  Although hand gestures are not usually shared, both men and women do share the same animated finger gestures.  These are the finger-signs that she lists for men:

1. All fingers clenched or extended; 
2. Index finger extended;
3. Index and middle fingers extended; 
4. Index and little fingers extended; 
5. Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

So here we go, ladies.

Two women, Tamma (left; dated 100-150 CE), and Akmath (right; 2nd C) have identical hand gestures -- a raised right hand holding the edge of their veils and left hand below, held fairly flat against the body; but their fingers are saying quite different things.  Tamma holds her veil with two fingers extended, two folded back; Akmath holds hers with the index finger extended, three fingers folded.  I am willing to admit that this could be meaningless: you have to hold a veil somehow.  But Akmath's left hand is clearly making an intentional gesture: two fingers extended, two folded.  Both women hold spindle and distaff in the left hand (thumbs not indicated), so it is not the object that determines a different finger gesture.

The right-hand touching-face gesture is shared by Lady Haliphat (left; 231 CE) and a nameless woman now in the Petit Palais, Paris, a suitably aristocratic home. Haliphat touches her cheek with two fingers extended, two partly folded -- lending her a slightly coquettish air; her left hand shows the mano cornuta gesture, a particularly unnatural gesture if you are holding an object between your fingers and thumb. The nameless lady touches her face with a slightly extended index finger; the fingers of her left hand, which holds no object, are extended (with a large thumb).

The Point of it all 

These two women have their hands differently posed but both right hands have index finger extended in what looks like a straightforward pointing gesture. The lady in front of two lion-headed door knockers (symbolizing the entrance to the world of the dead) points to the spindle and distaff held in her other hand.  The bejewelled lady points at something perhaps near her waist or beyond the frame of the slab, or at nothing at all.  Compare Aqimat (above) whose overly large index finger points downward and away into nothingness, too. 

My main point, however, is clear by now: that there is no fixed correlation between specific hand poses and finger gestures.  So, are hands and fingers really communicating a message, albeit one that we cannot easily read? 

Grabbing Attention

Or is their purpose purely decorative?  For example, some scholars argue hands and fingers are simply contributing to drapery arrangements, "grasping here, pulling there, and altogether creating a degree of movement...."  As such, they lend animation to the figures and give the portraits "a greater sense of physical presence".  

Prof. Heyn comes down in the middle: gestures have a dual function.  Yes, they are decorative, but they are also 

drawing attention to attributes that enhanced the [subject's] standing in the local community, whether that status was conveyed by ... wealth (jewelry), or family status (spindle and distaff).

So, the pointing finger must be understood as an attention-getter: "Look at my spindle", "Look at my jewels".  But what, I wonder, are they telling us to look at when they are pointing at nothing at all?  Heyn suggests that this calls attention to the portrait as a whole -- a "LOOK AT ME" gesture.  This could be meant, then, to emphasize the individuality of the deceased.

That leaves us, though, with the unhappy flip-side of this argument, to wit, that the most common gestures -- with all the fingers being extended or clenched -- were meant not to draw particular attention to the dead person.  The 'Beauty of Palmyra' -- and many more of her ilk -- would surely demur.  

And so must I.  

For you have only to enter an underground tomb with its sculpture still in situ -- at the tomb of the brothers, Bwlh and Bwrp (aka the Japanese tomb, in honour of its excavators) -- to realize that you are being looked at, and called by, every single person in stone.  Hands seem to come towards you, figures are gesturing, nothing is still. You have entered their house of eternity, a place where the living and dead confront each other.  If they are gesturing, they are, I think, gesturing at you.

Benedica! mal-uocchie non ce pozzano. ("Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here.") 

Until a century or so ago, any Neapolitan who uttered this wish would have immediately accompanied it with the mano cornuta gesture -- with this difference: the fingers would not be positioned vertically toward the forehead (the cuckold's horns) but directed edgewise.  The flat, rather than vertical gesture, was a way of protecting another person from the evil eye or is meant to drive away someone who might have the evil eye. As such, it works as an amulet against evil spells in general, and can be traced back to the Roman period (Andrea de Jorio, Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity). Have we any reason to think that it might have the same meaning in Palmyra?  That's rather a stretch, I admit, but warding off the evil eye does rather make sense within the context of your entering into a tomb.

More gestures, more thoughts, and very possibly even more speculation, when we come to Part II (Gestures in Male Relief Busts)

Heyn estimates that this covers a little less than half of the existing corpus -- a consequence of the fact that most reliefs were looted from Palmyran tombs in the late-19th and 20th centuries, and now dispersed, are, for the time being at least, inaccessible. 

** In contrast to the demure image of females restricted to household matters, as suggested by the funerary reliefs, Palmyran women were actually capable of buying and selling properties, erecting funerary reliefs or columns for themselves and relatives, and could issue dedicatory inscriptions, altars, and ex-voto inscriptions to celebrate the gods.  See E. Cussini, 'Beyond the Spindle: Investigating the Role of Palmyrene Women', in (D.R. Hillers, E. Cussini, eds), A Journey to Palmyra, 26-43.  This study is available through Google Books.

*** A rare exception shows a woman  baring her breast to feed an infant
(late 2nd C); not because her breast is bare -- though that is extremely unusual -- but because her hair is completely dishevelled ... which seems to me a serious breach of funerary decorum: National Archaeological Museum, Damascus (Fig. 96, catalogue of the exhibition Zenobia, Il Sogno di una regina d'Oriente, Palazzo Bricherasio, Torino, 2002). 

Illustrations (in descending order)

Tomb of Yarhai (built 108 CE) , Palmyra: detail of loculi.  Photo credit: Demetrius @ Australian National University

The so-called "Beauty of Palmyra"( 190-210 CE) from Carlsberg Glyptotek. This bust retains an unusual amount of its original paint, which gives a wonderful idea of how vividly the statues were painted: imagine, now, walking into the entrance chamber of Yarhai's tomb, pictured at the top of this post.

Lady Marti, 170-190 CE, Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek

Ummayat daughter of Yarhai , 2nd half 2nd century CE, Photo © Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu

Mother and daughter, who may both have died in childbirth: 'Aqimat, alas! Wahbi's daughter', and her daughter 'Alas, Jehiba's daughter, Shalmat'. 200-225 CE.  Traces of blue and red paint.  Photo: RMO Leiden.

2nd century. Right hand: palm out; left hand: index finger extended (holding spindle and distaff).  MMA 01.25.1.  Photo credit: FlickRiver.com  (also available from MMA ).

Left: Tamma, daughter of Shamshigeram, son of Malku, son of Nashum. 100-150 CE. Photo: © Trustees of British Museum.
Right: Akmath, 2nd C. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.  Photo: Via Wikimedia Commons

Left: Haliphat,  231 CE. Smithsonian: Freer-Sackler Gallery. Photo: Ann Raia, 2006.
Right: Funerary relief of a lady, early 2nd C. Petit Palais, Paris.  Photo: Via Wikimedia Commons.

Left: Funerary relief of a lady. 120 CE.  Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek.
Right: Funerary relief of a lady. ca. 220-230 CE (this dating is mine, based on an almost twin relief in National Archaeological Museum, Damascus, of Bat-Habbai, Daughter of Zebida, 226/27 CE).  Vatican Museum, Coll. Federico  Zeri, from Zenobia, Il sogno di una regina d'Oriente (Palazzo Bricherasio, Torino, 2002) Pl. 36.


Aha, daughter of Zabaila (149 CE).  Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek

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.

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