Zenobia, generally agreed to have been primarily of Semitic (Arab) descent. Zenobia’s languages likely included Arabic, Greek, Aramaic and Latin. In 258, Zenobia was noted as being the wife of the king of Palymra, Septimius Odaenathus. Palymra, between Syria and Babylonia, at the edge of the and the Persian empire, was economically dependent upon trade, protecting caravans. Palmyra was known as Tadmore locally. Zenobia accompanied her husband, riding ahead of the army, as he expanded Palmyra’s territory, to help protect Rome’s interests and to harry the Persians of the Sassanid empire. After her husband was assassinated, Zenobia assumed the title of “Augusta” for herself, and “Augustus” for her young son.
In 269-270, Zenobia and her general Zabdeas conquered Egypt, ruled by the Romans. When the Roman prefect of Egypt objected to Zenobia’s takeover, Zenobia had him beheaded. Zenobia sent a declaration to the citizens of Alexandria, calling it “my ancestral city,” emphasizing her Egyptian heritage. After this success, Zenobia personally led her army as a “warrior queen.” She conquered more territory, including Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, creating an empire independent of Rome. This area of Asia Minor represented valuable trade route territory for the Romans, and the Romans seem to have accepted her control over these routes for a few years. Zenobia cut off grain supplies to the empire, which caused a bread shortage in Rome.
In 272, Zenobia and her son fled to Emesa, for a final fight with Roman Emperor Aurelian. Zenobia retreated to Palmyra, and Aurelius took that city. Zenobia escaped on a camel, sought protection of the Persians, but was captured by Aurelius’ forces at the Euphrates. A letter from Aurelius includes this reference to Zenobia: “Those who speak with contempt of the war I am waging against a woman, are ignorant both of the character and power of Zenobia. It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations of stones, of arrows, and of every species of missile weapons and military engines.”
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