Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Being in Lebanon has put in my mind once again the legend of Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, of Syria and Lebanon, or as she styled herself, “Queen of the East.”
I first came across Zenobia in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. He introduces her as follows — and once you get past the prejudices unsurprising in an 18th century Englishman, you can sense Gibbon’s admiration for Zenobia in the striking portrait he paints of her:
Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire. . . . But. . . Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia. She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. Her voice was strong and harmonious. Her manly understanding was strengthened and adorned by study. She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages.
She married Odenathus (or Odaenathus), the king of Palmyra and Rome’s vassal in the Middle East. When the Roman emperor Valerian was defeated and taken captive by Persia in 260 A.D., Odenathus took up arms against Persia on Rome’s behalf, successfully avenging Roman honor. In these campaigns Zenobia often rode alongside her husband, and his success “was in a great measure ascribed to her incomparable prudence and fortitude.”
But Odenathus’s nephew plotted against him and assassinated him. Zenobia immediately avenged her husband and “filled the vacant throne, and governed with manly counsels Palmyra, Syria, and the East, above five years.”
The vassalage that Rome granted Odenathus, however, was for him alone, and there was no provision for his widow to take over. Her claim of authority thus amounted to usurpation, and so Emperor Gallienus sent an army against her, which she easily defeated. After that, Gallienus’s successor Claudius decided to leave her alone to rule her own empire rather than to challenge a woman whose valor he esteemed.
Instead of the little passions which so frequently perplex a female reign, the steady administration of Zenobia was guided by the most judicious maxims of policy. If it was expedient to pardon, she could calm her resentment; if it was necessary to punish, she could impose silence on the voice of pity. Her strict economy was accused of avarice; yet on every proper occasion she appeared magnificent and liberal. The neighbouring states of Arabia, Armenia, and Persia, dreaded her enmity, and solicited her alliance. To the dominions of Odenathus, which extended from the Euphrates to the frontiers of Bithynia, his widow added the inheritance of her ancestors, the populous and fertile kingdom of Egypt.
But then came the turn toward tragedy and ruin. And the story of Zenobia’s defeat at the hands of Aurelian is a tragedy in the truest sense. On the one hand, a courageous queen jealously guarded her independence and dignity against an empire that would condescend to hold itself as her superior. On the other, an austere soldier desperately sought to restore the security and welfare of his country. And history pitted the heroine and the hero against each other in inevitable conflict.
And Aurelian was one of the most remarkable of the late Roman emperors. Aside from Julian the Apostate, he might be my favorite. When Claudius died of the plague, the army proclaimed Aurelian, one of Claudius’s generals, the new emperor. He then consolidated his position by defeating Quintillus, Claudius’s brother and a rival claimant to the purple. The son of a peasant, Aurelian had risen up through the ranks of the Roman army from private to general on sheer merit, and he would do more than anyone else to end Rome’s crisis of the third century. Though he only ruled for four years and nine months, according to Gibbon, “every instant of that short period was filled by some memorable achievement.” The Romans came to call him “Restitutor Orbis” — the Restorer of the World.
Aurelian marched into Asia to recover Rome’s eastern provinces that Zenobia had usurped. After some initial victories, Aurelian laid siege to Palmyra. And unlike other men who might have dismissed Zenobia on account of her sex, Aurelian knew to take her very seriously. “The Roman people,” Aurelian wrote in a letter, “speak with contempt of the war which I am waging against a woman. They are ignorant both of the character and of the power of Zenobia.” Unsure that he would emerge victorious against such an adversary, he offered her peace terms, which she “obstinately rejected, and the refusal was accompanied with insult.”
Zenobia had hoped that her erstwhile enemy, Persia, would come to her aid against its age-old rival Rome. But Shapur, the Shah of Persia who had captured Valerian, died around this time, so that the Persian court was too distracted to send reinforcement. In the end Palmyra surrendered to Aurelian, who took Zenobia back to Rome in captivity.
The once magnificent city of Palmyra never recovered after this war. In 2015, ISIS dynamited some of the ruins remaining from Zenobia’s time.
As for Aurelian, almost as soon as he returned to Rome in triumph, he had to march east again, this time against Persia. On his way, he discovered that a secretary had been guilty of corruption. The secretary, knowing the emperor’s severe discipline, feared for his own life. So he forged a document in Aurelian’s hand ordering the execution of some top officers. Then the secretary showed the forged paper to those officers. Out of self-preservation, they murdered their chief. Thus ended the joint tragedy of Zenobia and Aurelian.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."