Meet Zenobia — The Warrior Queen Of The Middle East

Published February 16, 2018
Updated October 9, 2018

In 267 A.D., Zenobia took over the Palmyrene Empire as Queen Regent. By 271, she had Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Levant under her control.

Zenobia On Coins

Wikimedia CommonsCoin of Zenobia as empress. 272 A.D.

Zenobia was the Queen of the Palmyrene Empire from 267–272 A.D. Under her rule, Palmyra expanded from modern Syria all the way from Iraq through Turkey and into Egypt.

Although not much is known of Zenobia’s ancestry, she is was of noble descent, and may have been a descendant of Cleopatra. She married to Odaenathus, the king of the Palmyrene Empire, and bore him a son named Vaballathus.

Palmyra was subordinate to the Roman Empire and under Odaenathus’s rule, the relationship between the two states remained friendly. Palmyra served as a border between the Roman and Persian Empires. The Sassanid Persians, however, had been causing a good deal of trouble for the Romans, as they had access to Eastern trade borders in and out of Rome.

In 260, the Roman emperor Valerian attempted to march against the Sassanids but was defeated. Following his defeat, Odaenathus went to battle against the Persians and was successfully able to drive them out of Syria and across the Euphrates River. This act greatly benefited the Romans and served the strengthened ties between the two empires. The Romans made Odaenathus the governor of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and was granted the title “King of Kings.”

However, Odaenathus and his first son were murdered by his nephew in 267. After his death, Zenobia’s son, Vaballathus, inherited the throne. At the time of his father’s death, Vaballathus was still a child, so Zenobia instead took control ruling the Palmyrene Empire as regent.

At the beginning of her rule, she followed in her husband’s footsteps, working along with Rome’s interests. However, the Roman Empire was undergoing its Imperial Crisis, and internal conflicts prevented the Empire from maintaining control far beyond the borders of Rome.

Aurelian Triumph Over Zenobia

Wikimedia CommonsThe Triumph of Aurelian.

With the center of Rome crumbling, Zenobia turned her focus to expanding her own empire. In 269, she focused on strengthening her own military and concentrating her power in the East. In 270, she broke off friendly relations with Rome and began taking over their lands.

She began by annexing Egypt in 270, defeating the Roman army led by Probus, admiral to Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. With her hold on Egypt secured, she turned her attention to securing Asia Minor and Phoenicia. She also focused on establishing diplomatic ties and negotiating trade agreements with neighboring lands to further strengthen her empire. With Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Levant under her control by 271, she broke all ties from Rome, declaring Palmyra an independent empire and herself its Empress.

In 271, the Roman emperor Aurelian set out on a campaign to defeat Zenobia and reclaim the lands now under her rule. Bringing his strongest forces, the two clashed at the Battle of Immae in the city of Daphne in 272.

Aurelian’s military overpowered Zenobia’s forces and she retreated to the city of Emesa to regain supplies and manpower. There, the two armies clashed again, with Aurelian again emerging victorious. With no other place to seek refuge, Zenobia fled back to Palmyra to regroup and shore up its defenses in preparation for another attack.

Queen Zenobia Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsQueen Zenobia’s last look upon Palmyra.

Upon entering Palmyra, Aurelian laid siege to the city. Queen Zenobia attempted to flee towards Persia but was caught and brought back to Aurelian. There are several differing accounts of what happened following Zenobia’s capture.

Some accounts claim she was brought back to Rome and paraded through the streets in chains in Aurelian’s parade of triumph. Others say that she never made it to Rome, having either starved or poisoned herself on the journey back. However, the most reliable sources claim that she was taken back to Rome and released, eventually marrying a Roman man.

However her final days may have played out, Zenobia is still remembered today as one of history’s most powerful queens.


After reading about Zenobia, learn about Ching Shih, a Chinese prostitute who turned into the most powerful pirate ever. Then read about the Shieldmaidens, the women warriors of the Vikings.

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City.
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