Hostile Friends: Zenobia and the Roman Imperial Court

Summary of the Nathanael Andrade's lecture 07.02.2017, by Nathalia B. Kristensen and Jesper V. Jensen.

2017.02.08 | Christina Levisen

By Nathalia B. Kristensen and Jesper V. Jensen by Nathalia B. Kristensen and Jesper V. Jensen  

Nathanael Andrade, PhD, from Binghamton University gave an enlightening lecture on the female Palmyrene ruler Zenobia and her tumultuous relations with the Roman imperial court.

Zenobia of Palmyra assumed power in Roman Syria after her husband, Odainath, was murdered in AD 267 or 268. The circumstances surrounding his murder have been widely discussed by scholars over the course of history, as the identities of the murderers remain unknown.

Odainath was the Roman governor of Syria and held the old Persian title King of Kings. Because of the unstable state of the Roman Empire at the time, Odainath enjoyed a large degree of autonomy over his territory. This led to unease in the Roman imperial court who feared that he would secede from the Empire. Greek and Byzantine literary sources claimed that Zenobia herself was part of the assassination plot, in order for her own son Wahballath to succeed her husband instead of her stepson. This, however, seems unlikely, as there is no evidence of a stepson. Andrade thinks it likely that the Roman imperial court, combined with local forces in Palmyra, were behind the assassination of Odainath. Coinage could suggest that Zenobia was of the same opinion, as coins minted in Antioch did not portray Roman emperor Gallienus shortly after Odainath’s death.

After her husband’s death, Zenobia became the guardian of her son, the new king, and the household of Odainath, which entailed being the keeper of his political position. It was a Palmyrene custom that a widow would act as a matriarch until the male heir would come of age. She reigned from AD 268–272, and throughout this entire period, she was at odds with the Roman imperial court, even though she made serious attempts to reconcile with them. It seems that the imperial court sought to displace her from the very start. The coinage clearly show that after the death of Emperor Gallienus, she began minting coins with the portrait of his successor Claudius II. This did not appease the new emperor either, and as she grew more desperate of the hostile situation, she invaded the Roman territories of Arabia and Egypt in the hopes of gaining leverage in future negotiations. This tactic had the opposite effect and made Rome even more hostile towards her and her son. In response to this, she took the title of Augusta and named her son Augustus (emperor) between December AD 271 and May 272 and portrayed herself as a Roman noblewoman on coins.

Zenobia was eventually defeated and captured by Emperor Aurelian and displayed in his triumph in Rome. Her later fate is unknown, but it is unlikely that returned to her ancestral home of Palmyra.

History and achaeology, Lecture / talk