“The Dark-Haired Mistress of the Syrian Wild”
HER complexion was olive, her teeth pearly white, her eyes black and lustrous. She was well-educated and was a proficient linguist. This warrior queen was said to be greater in intellect than Cleopatra and perhaps equally beautiful. Because she dared to stand up to the dominant world power of her day, she fulfilled a prophetic role in a Scriptural drama. After she was long-dead, writers praised her, and painters idealized her. A 19th-century poet portrayed her as “the dark-haired mistress of the Syrian wild.” This highly acclaimed woman was Zenobia—queen of the Syrian city of Palmyra.
How did Zenobia gain prominence? What was the political climate that led to her rise to power? What can be said of her character? And what prophetic role did this queen fulfill? Consider first the geographic setting in which the drama unfolds.
A City at the Edge of a Desert
Zenobia’s city, Palmyra, was situated about 130 miles [210 km] northeast of Damascus, at the northern edge of the Syrian Desert where the Anti-Lebanon mountains drop off into the plain. This oasis city was about halfway between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Euphrates River to the east. King Solomon may have known it as Tadmor, a place that was vital to his kingdom’s welfare on two counts: as a garrison for the defense of the northern frontier and as a crucial link in the chain of caravan towns. Therefore, Solomon “rebuilt Tadmor in the wilderness.”—2 Chronicles 8:4.
The history of the thousand years following King Solomon’s reign is silent about Tadmor. If correctly identified with Palmyra, its climb to prominence began after Syria became an outpost province of the Roman Empire in 64 B.C.E. “Palmyra was important to Rome in two spheres, economic and military,” says Richard Stoneman in his book Palmyra and Its Empire—Zenobia’s Revolt Against Rome. Since this city of palms was on a major trade route connecting Rome to Mesopotamia and the East, through it passed the commercial riches of the ancient world—spices from the East Indies, silk from China, and other goods from Persia, Lower Mesopotamia, and Mediterranean lands. Rome depended on the import of these goods.
Militarily, the province of Syria served as a buffer zone between the rival powers of Rome and Persia. The river Euphrates separated Rome from its eastern neighbor during the first 250 years of our Common Era. Palmyra was just across the desert, west of the city of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates. Recognizing its pivotal position, such Roman emperors as Hadrian and Valerian visited Palmyra. Hadrian added to its architectural magnificence and made many generous donations. Valerian rewarded a Palmyrene noble named Odaenathus—Zenobia’s husband—by raising him, in 258 C.E., to the rank of consul of Rome because he had successfully campaigned against Persia and extended the boundary of the Roman Empire into Mesopotamia. Zenobia played an important part in her husband’s rise to power. Historian Edward Gibbon wrote: “The success of Odenathus was in a great measure ascribed to her [Zenobia’s] incomparable prudence and fortitude.”
In the meantime, King Sapor of Persia decided to challenge Roman supremacy and assert his sovereignty over all the former provinces of Persia. With a formidable army, he marched westward, captured the Roman garrison towns of Nisibis and Carrhae (Haran), and proceeded to ravage northern Syria and Cilicia. Emperor Valerian personally came to lead his forces against the attackers but was defeated and captured by the Persians.
Odaenathus considered it timely to send costly gifts and a message of peace to the Persian monarch. King Sapor haughtily commanded that the presents be thrown into the Euphrates and demanded that Odaenathus appear before him in the role of captive suppliant. In answer, the Palmyrenes assembled an army of desert nomads and the remnants of the Roman forces and began to harry the now retreating Persians. Against the hit-and-run tactics of the desert warriors, Sapor’s forces—campaign-weary and laden with plunder—had little defense and were forced into flight.
In recognition of his victory over Sapor, Valerian’s son and successor, Gallienus, gave Odaenathus the title corrector totius Orientis (governor of all the East). In time, Odaenathus gave himself the title “king of kings.”
Zenobia Aspires to Create an Empire
In 267 C.E., at the height of his career, Odaenathus and his heir were assassinated, supposedly by a vengeful nephew. Zenobia took over her husband’s position, since her son was too young. Beautiful, ambitious, capable as an administrator, accustomed to campaigning with her late husband, and fluent in several languages, she managed to command the respect and support of her subjects—no small feat among the Bedouin. Zenobia had a love for learning and surrounded herself with intellectuals. One of her advisers was philosopher and rhetorician Cassius Longinus—said to have been “a living library and a walking museum.” Author Stoneman points out: “During the five years after the death of Odenathus . . . Zenobia had established herself in the minds of her people as mistress of the East.”
On one side of Zenobia’s domain was Persia, which she and her husband had crippled, and on the other was foundering Rome. Concerning the conditions in the Roman Empire at that time, historian J. M. Roberts says: “The third century was . . . a terrible time for Rome on the frontiers east and west alike, while at home a new period of civil war and disputed successions had begun. Twenty-two emperors (excluding pretenders) came and went.” The Syrian mistress, on the other hand, was a well-established absolute monarch in her realm. “Controlling the balance of two empires [Persian and Roman],” observes Stoneman, “she could aspire to create a third that would dominate them both.”
An opportunity for Zenobia to expand her regal powers came in 269 C.E., when a pretender disputing Roman rulership appeared in Egypt. Zenobia’s army swiftly marched into Egypt, crushed the rebel, and took possession of the country. Proclaiming herself the queen of Egypt, she minted coins in her name. Her kingdom now stretched from the river Nile to the river Euphrates. At this point in her life, she came to occupy the position of “the king of the south” spoken about in the Bible prophecy of Daniel, since her kingdom then dominated the area south of Daniel’s homeland. (Daniel 11:25, 26) She also conquered most of Asia Minor.
Zenobia strengthened and embellished her capital, Palmyra, to such an extent that it ranked with the larger cities of the Roman world. Its estimated population reached over 150,000. Splendid public buildings, temples, gardens, pillars, and monuments filled the city, within walls that were said to be 13 miles [21 km] in circumference. Colonnades formed of rows of Corinthian pillars over 50 feet [15 m] high—some 1,500 of them—lined the principal avenue. Statues and busts of heroes and wealthy benefactors abounded in the city. In 271 C.E., Zenobia erected a pair of statues of herself and her late husband. At the edge of the desert, Palmyra sparkled like a jewel.
The Temple of the Sun was one of the finest structures in Palmyra and no doubt dominated the religious scene in the city. Likely, Zenobia too worshiped a deity associated with the sun god. Syria of the third century, however, was a land of many religions. In Zenobia’s domain there were professed Christians, Jews, astrologers, and worshipers of the sun and moon. What was her attitude toward the various ways of worship in her realm? Author Stoneman observes: “A wise ruler will not neglect any customs that seem appropriate to her people. . . . The gods, it was . . . hoped, had been marshaled on Palmyra’s side.” Apparently, Zenobia was religiously tolerant. But had gods really been “marshaled on Palmyra’s side”? What was in the offing for Palmyra and its “wise ruler”?
An Emperor ‘Arouses His Heart’ Against Zenobia
During the year 270 C.E., Aurelian became emperor of Rome. His legions successfully repulsed and disciplined the barbarians of the north. In 271 C.E.—now representing “the king of the north” of Daniel’s prophecy—Aurelian ‘aroused his power and his heart against the king of the south,’ represented by Zenobia. (Daniel 11:25a) Aurelian dispatched some of his forces directly to Egypt and led his main army eastward through Asia Minor.
The king of the south—the ruling entity headed by Zenobia—‘excited himself’ for warfare against Aurelian “with an exceedingly great and mighty military force” under two generals, Zabdas and Zabbai. (Daniel 11:25b) But Aurelian took Egypt and then launched an expedition into Asia Minor and Syria. Zenobia was defeated at Emesa (now Homs), and she retreated to Palmyra.
When Aurelian besieged Palmyra, Zenobia, hoping to get help, fled with her son toward Persia, only to be captured by the Romans at the Euphrates River. The Palmyrenes surrendered their city in 272 C.E. Aurelian dealt magnanimously with its inhabitants, collected an immense quantity of plunder, including the idol from the Temple of the Sun, and departed for Rome. The Roman emperor spared Zenobia, making her the prize feature in his triumphal procession through Rome in 274 C.E. She spent the rest of her life as a Roman matron.
The Desert City Brought to Ruin
Some months after Aurelian took Palmyra, the Palmyrenes massacred the Roman garrison he had left behind. When the news of this revolt reached Aurelian, he immediately ordered his soldiers to retrace their steps, and this time they visited an appalling vengeance upon the population. Those who escaped the merciless slaughter were led off into slavery. The proud city was sacked and ruined beyond repair. Thus the bustling metropolis was reduced to its former status—“Tadmor in the wilderness.”
When Zenobia stood up to Rome, she and Emperor Aurelian unwittingly enacted their roles as “the king of the south” and “the king of the north,” fulfilling part of a prophecy recorded in great detail by Jehovah’s prophet some 800 years earlier. (Daniel, chapter 11) With her colorful personality, Zenobia won the admiration of many. Of greatest significance, however, was her role in representing a political entity foretold in Daniel’s prophecy. Her reign did not last for more than five years. Palmyra, the capital of Zenobia’s kingdom, today is nothing more than a village. Even the mighty Roman Empire has long since faded away and yielded to modern kingdoms. What will be the future of these powers? Their destiny too is governed by the sure fulfillment of Bible prophecy.—Daniel 2:44.
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Upon returning to Rome after defeating Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, Emperor Aurelian built a temple to the sun. In it he placed the statues of the sun-god that he had brought back from her city. Commenting on further developments, the magazine History Today says: “The most reverberant of all Aurelian’s actions is perhaps the establishment, in AD 274, of an annual festival of the sun falling on the winter solstice, December 25th. When the empire became Christian the birthday of Christ was transferred to this date to make the new religion more acceptable to those who enjoyed the festivities of the old. It is a curious thought, that it should be ultimately due to the Empress Zenobia that . . . [people] celebrate our Christmas.”
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(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
Colonnade: Michael Nicholson/Corbis
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Roman coin possibly depicting Aurelian
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Temple of the sun in Palmyra
The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck
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Queen Zenobia addressing her soldiers
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers, Samuel H. Kress Collection, Photograph © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington
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Detail of: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers, Samuel H. Kress Collection, Photograph © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington