Tuesday, July 9, 2019


Nathanael J. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra. Women in Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xvii, 284. ISBN 9780190638818. $35.00.

Reviewed by Gustavo A. Vivas García​, Universidad de La Laguna (gusgarvi@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site


In recent years, much ink has been spilt over the famous – although never thoroughly assessed – ruler of Palmyra. In 2005, the eminent Paul Veyne had already devoted a few insightful pages to the subject, with claims that are certainly open to debate, in one of his most enjoyable books.1

The Palmyrenean landowner Bathzabbai, the Roman citizen Iulia Aurelia Zenobia, more commonly known by her Greek name Septimia Zenobia or simply Zenobia (240-after 274 CE),2 head of a clan and from the middle of 272 Empress and Augusta, is one of the most fascinating female personalities of the third century. As head of the government of the caravanserai city of Palmyra, she played a leading role in a veritable saga of victories, first alongside her husband, the senator and consul Odainath, and then alone following his violent death in 268, thwarting the Imperial court of Rome itself.

Part of the important "Women in Antiquity" series, to which authors of the stature of Barbara Levick and Corey T. Brennan have previously contributed, Nathanael Andrade has written this admirable and well-articulated book on a woman whose character was "larger than life", like that other famous ruler from a couple of centuries earlier, Cleopatra, who was a conscious role model in some of the Palmyrene's political decisions, and with whom she has frequently been compared since Antiquity.3

The volume is divided into five parts and ten chapters, each part comprising two chapters except for the last, as well as three interesting appendices dedicated respectively to the monuments of the caravanserai city, the Aramaic spoken in Palmyra, and a collection of epigraphic inscriptions for Odainath's household.

The first chapter functions as an introduction and focuses on the sources and Zenobia's physical appearance. The author analyses the HA as one of the sources that refers to the Queen, rightly emphasising the text as an unreliable and misleading document, a veritable repository of what has recently become known rather aptly as "fake news". It is therefore strange that Andrade does not cite any of Sir Ronald Syme's important work on this pastiche, which was apparently composed at the end of the fourth century. Syme is not cited either in the notes dedicated to annotating the source (pp. 2ff.) nor in the large final bibliography (pp.245-278), yet the famous New Zealand historian is one of the scholars to have written most extensively and well on the HA.4

The second of the chapters takes the creative approach of describing the physical and urban environment of Palmyra by sharing Zenobia's perspective as she leads a religious procession that crosses the city from east to west and south to north, traversing its colonnades, porticos, and major buildings. Pertinently, Andrade specifies which of these has been destroyed in recent years through the barbaric acts of Daesh. The third chapter (pp.33-55), one of the best in the volume, describes the social composition of Palmyra, placing particular emphasis on the important concepts of household and kinship and how it was precisely these two key concepts that interwove and defined the social environment of Palmyra in the middle of the turbulent third century when the meteoric figures of Odainath and his wife rose. In the same chapter (pp.54-55), Andrade crystallises, almost in passing, one of the questions that to this reviewer seems to be among the most important in the book:

Zenobia embraced many Arab customs,(…) But she was not an Arab. (…) an Arab ethnic and national consciousness did not emerge until centuries after Zenobia lived. During the 3rd century, "Arabian" could have many different meanings. (…) But despite her Arabian heritage, Zenobia was not an ethnic Arab. The concept had not been invented yet.

The fourth chapter, a robust coda to the previous one, focuses more specifically on Zenobia's family and ancestors. The author guides us through a series of hypotheses, which appear frequently in the book and with which he plays to try to elucidate the points of uncertainty in the biography of the famous Queen, points of which as we know there are dozens. To these lacunae in the biography of the Queen of Aramaic origin, Andrade tries to give a judicious and balanced response, in the majority of cases meaning that the hypotheses formulated in the book, especially on the infancy and youth of Bathzabbai, are not unreasonable.

The fifth chapter addresses Zenobia's transition to adulthood: how she dressed and appeared in public, and what reasons led the Queen's parents and her extended family – clan – to seek a particular matrimonial choice for her, exploring whether Zenobia could have had any opportunity to comment on the decision. The sixth chapter introduces us to Bathzabbai already married to Odainath, conducting an excellent status quaestionis on the character and career of her husband before the Imperial venture, and on the number and gender of their progeny.

The final four chapters of the book are dedicated to the Queen and future self-declared Empress, governing single- handedly after the plot that ended with the assassination of her husband in early 268, to which Andrade devotes an extensive analysis in the seventh chapter. The eighth chapter focuses on the defiance with which Zenobia confronted Rome and the different inspiring models with which the Queen and her court circle encouraged themselves, consciously or not, to undertake their project of conquest and subsequent rule. Cleopatra has already been mentioned above, but let us here briefly digress about another of her models: that of Elagabalus/Varius (p.168f.). It is an interesting extrapolation which Andrade rightly develops. The bibliography on this emperor, however, perhaps should mention some of the works by Dr. Leonardo Arrizabalaga de Prado, little known and debatable in some of their ideas, but which since their publication have contributed, I suggest, to illuminating some aspects of the biography of this problematic ruler.5

The ninth chapter, another of the most important in the book, acutely investigates some of the features of Aurelian's conflict with Zenobia. It is acute because, in the part dedicated to the "propaganda" surrounding the conflict – which glosses the false letters that the two leaders never exchanged in reality but which appear in the HA – Andrade rightly asserts that various factors conspired that Aurelian should hate a government of Zenobia's. Describing these with a large dose of perspicacity (p.193), our author states:

Her unsanctioned bid for power (…) and military campaigns were among them. But another was gender (…). The Roman Empire had known its powerful women. But as we have learned, Roman jurists reckoned women too feeble to manage household property without oversight. So many regarded Zenobia´s rule a strange anomaly. They praised her for it, but they derided her too.

Echoes and influences of what passed between Octavian and Cleopatra more than two centuries previously may be perceived here. Zenobia's "otherness" is the same as Cleopatra's. The concept of Zenobia that we have inherited only allows us to identify her as the adversary, "the other". As was the case for the Queen of Egypt, her otherness is double: she is Eastern, and she is a woman. No serious author today questions the fact that, in seeking to unite will and opinion in the West, Octavian presented Cleopatra as a dangerous foreign threat. The real historical image of the Ptolemaic Queen could never be recovered. It is the same with the Palmyrene: "The 'real' Zenobia is beyond the grasp of any single person (…) We may never fully grasp who Zenobia was".6 To turn Antony into a bad Roman, his lover had to become a monster. Exactly the same occurred from 270 to Queen Zenobia, to the Palmyrene Bathzabbai. Both were women, and both foreign, Eastern: :sequiturque (nefas) Aegyptia coniunx (Aen. 8,688).7

After her venture failed in 272, Aurelian achieved something that Octavian could not. He paraded the Queen, captive and in chains, in a triumph through the streets of Rome in 274. Although never again able to return to her native land, Zenobia and her children lived in exile in Tibur (modern Tivoli). Her descendants continued to lend lustre to Rome and serve her faithfully for generations. We do not know either how or when Zenobia died. But what we do know is that she was at the fore of a fertile legacy and influence over the following centuries, a legacy that Andrade analyses in the final chapter of his book, which ends with a discussion on the occupation of Tadmor by the vicious mobs of Daesh in 2015, which would demolish a large part of the artistic and archaeological richness of the site.

Neither Odainath, nor of course Zenobia or her son, intended to separate from the Empire nor to break with Rome or usurp the Imperial throne. Nathanael Andrade's book is clear in this respect. Zenobia behaved like a Hellenistic queen who surrounded herself with men of letters like Callinicos, and who had Cassius Longinus as her chief philosopher, who was rapidly eliminated by Aurelian after the Queen's defeat. An Empress who conquered Egypt and in passing subdued Arabia, inserting her name onto all the milestones along the kingdom's roads. A woman who was interested in religious questions and who built a contact with the Christian bishop, Paul of Samosata. A monarch whose objective was to try to obtain a place in the Empire, even on equal terms with Aurelian in the West. In 272, however, Zenobia's Imperial and dynastic dream met an abrupt end. Aurelian proved himself to be her match and made-to-measure rival.

Andrade's book, intended both for the specialist and the educated reader in general, analyses each of these events with objectivity and rigour, and presents a highly fitting approximation to the attractive figure of this singular woman. We should congratulate ourselves on its publication and congratulate the author on his work. ​


1.   Veyne, Paul, L`Empire Gréco-Romain, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2005.
2.   Andrade, 2018, 59 and 209 ff.
3.   On this, Andrade, id., 166ff., provides a good starting point. Also Veyne, id., 313, for an indication on the subject.
4.   Thus, among others: R. Syme, Ammianus and the Historia Augusta, Oxford,Clarendon Press, 1968; id., Emperors and Biography, Oxford,Clarendon Press, 1971 and id., The Historia Augusta. A call of* clarity, Habelt, Bonn, 1971 (*of [sc. for]). It is well known that Syme's perspective on this text encountered serious opposition among other specialists, notably from Arnaldo Momigliano.
5.   For example: L. Arrizabalaga y Prado, The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction?, Cambridge, Cambridge U.P., 2010.
6.   Andrade, id., 12 and 229.
7.   See G. Vivas García, Octavia contra Cleopatra. El poder de la mujer en la propaganda política del Triunvirato (44-30 a.C.), Madrid, Liceus, 2013, esp. 220 ff. ​

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