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The Rise And Fall Of Palmyra In The 3rd Century Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

Palmyra was set around an oasis in the desert a busy trading place on the Silk Road full ‘of the camel caravans.’[1]  Palmyra had a great deal of history and became a bustling city independent of foreign rule, set between two very powerful Empires; Rome and the Sasanid Persian Empire, Palmyra became adapt at balancing peace between the two rival Empires. Due to this ability a member of the ruling family, Septimius Odaenathus, was made a senator in Rome.

While Palmyrene relations were mostly friendly with Rome in the third century, Rome had faced three decades of civil wars and usurpers, the Western provinces of the Empire had broken away from Rome, forming a rebel Roman state known as the ‘Gallic empire,’[2] in the east Roman frontiers were under pressure from Sasanid Persians, ‘Rome needed Palmyra.’[3]

When Emperor Valerian was defeated in Edessa and captured by the Persians in AD260 the prospect of trouble for Palmyra was very real as they had been so favoured by the Romans. So Odaenathus decided to give his full support to the Romans, taking his army, Odaenathus fought against the Sasanid for many years successfully, reaching their capital Ctesiphon two times. ‘The Persians in the East were overthrown by Odaenathus, who, having defended Syria and recovered Mesopotamia, penetrated into (enemy) territory as far as Ctesiphon.’[4] He was rewarded for his success and was given ‘the title of commander-in-chief (strategos) of the East by Gallienus.’[5] Due to his success Odaenathus was able to extend his position and moulded himself in the style of the Persian rulers with the title of king of kings, ‘He assumed, therefore, as the first of his line, the title of King.’[6]

Despite the battles Odaenathus won and the glories he obtained Odaenathus and his first born son were assassinated, ‘about this time (i.e. as the invasion of the Scythians), Odaenathus was treacherously slain by his cousin, and with him his son Herodes, whom also he had hailed as emperor.’[7]

On Odaenathus death his wife, Septimia Zenobia, took control as regent for her infant son Vaballathus, prior to his death Zenobia had accompanied Odaenathus on his campaigns against Persia. It didn’t take long for Zenobia to realise how much power was within her grasp taking control without hesitation the political rise of Palmyra had begun.

The impressions left by ancient sources are that of a woman fiercely independent, capable of performing all the tasks required of a competent ruler. The Historia Augusta states that Zenobia was even braver than her husband, that she took active part in campaigns and that she rode and drank with her generals, ‘frequently she walked with her foot-soldiers for three or four miles. She hunted with the eagerness of a Spaniard. She often drank with her generals.’[8]

When some found fault with Emperor Aurelian ‘because he the bravest of men, had led a woman in triumph, as though she were a general,’[9] Aurelian sent a letter to the senate defending his actions stating ‘did they but know what manner of woman she is, how wise in counsels, how steadfast in plans, how firm toward the soldiers, how generous when necessity calls and how stern when discipline demands.’[10] This letter shows how impressed Emperor Aurelian was with Zenobia’s capabilities as a ruler and leader.

If nothing else Zenobia had great ambition, ‘It is just possible that Zenobia had been extending fingers of control into Palestine as early as 260. Emesa was also under Palmyrene sway by the end of the 260s.’[11] Whether this was the case or not upon securing control Zenobia expanded her empire into Mesopotamia and other areas of Asia Minor. At the same time Zenobia was making these conquests she was still on friendly terms with Rome as Palmyra had been an important ally in the east. What changed this was all the unrest and the fact that Rome was crumbling under the rule of pretenders whom Zenobia didn’t feel were emperors, ‘Gallienus and Aureolus and the others I never regarded as emperors.’[12] Add to this the rich province’s of Rome near her boarders it was only a matter of time before Zenobia had Palmyra break away from Rome completely and  severe their alliance with each other.

Zenobia had her general Zabdas invade Egypt ‘the invasion of Egypt is likely to have taken place in late AD269 rather than early AD270.’[13] Zabdas and his troops defeated the 50,000 strong army of Egypt and aided by people loyal to Zenobia the Palmyrenes took Egypt, where ‘Zenobia presented herself as the new Cleopatra.’[14] This was upsetting news to Rome and on hearing about Egypt’s defeat to Zenobia the Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus sent Admiral Probus with an army which had been raised in North Africa and Egypt against the Palmyrenes, the fighting was fierce and there was a great loss of life, including Probus, ‘Probus was among those taken prisoner but he killed himself,’[15] Zenobia’s grip on Egypt was secured.

The loss of territory infuriated the Romans but due to the chaotic events of this time they were unable to respond to the situation. Rome’s failure to address the situation Zenobia became bolder. In August of AD271 Zenobia’s commander in chief, Septimius Zabda and commander of Palmyra, Septimius Zabbai raised a statue to her naming her the ‘most illustrious and pious queen.’[16] During this year Zenobia had her son Vaballathus declared as Emperor or Augustus, ‘the most illustrious king of kings and corrector of the entire Orient,’[17] removing the current Roman Emperors face from the coins in Alexandria. Zenobia then declared herself Empress or Augusta as well as Queen or Regina ‘the most illustrious queen, mother of the king of kings.’[18]

At the height of Zenobia’s and Palmyra’s power she held large portions of the eastern territories including the cities of Antioch and Alexandria; these cities were two of the three largest cities in the Roman Empire. Zenobia lived in luxury, ‘she lived in regal pomp. It was rather in the manner of the Persians that she received worship and in the manner of the Persian kings that she banqueted; but it was in the manner of a Roman emperor that she came forth to public assemblies, wearing a helmet and girt with a purple fillet, which had gems hanging from the lower edge.’[19]

However Zenobia’s thirst for power bought about the downfall of her, her empire and Palmyra itself. The new Emperor Aurelian had recently taken the thrown paid great attention to all of Zenobia’s arrogant declarations. Aurelian was talented and vigorous, unli

ke previous emperors; he was a skilled commander. It was Aurelian who drove the barbarians back when

they threatened Italy; he also slew disloyal senators and rebuilt the walls of Rome. While Zenobia was building the Palmyrene empire at a fast rate Aurelian was revitalising Roman power in the Mediterranean back to its former status, ‘having arranged for all that had to do with the fortifications and the general state of the city and with city affairs as a whole, he directed his march against the Palmyrenes, or rather against Zenobia, who, in the name of her sons, was wielding the imperial power in the East.’[20] In AD272 Aurelian set out on the campaign to bring Zenobia down and bring Palmyra back under Roman control. Upon reaching Asia Minor formerly held Roman cities revolted in favour of Aurelian, ‘Ancyra submitted to the Romans as soon as the emperor arrived there, and afterwards Tyana, and all the cities between that and Antioch.’[21]

At the Orontes River Aurelian found Zenobia and her army waiting and on seeing how superior the Palmyrene cavalry was ‘placed his infantry by themselves somewhere on the other side of the Orontes.’[22] Aurelian then ordered his cavalry to wait for Zenobia’s cavalry to attack, when this happened they were to ‘pretend to flee and to continue so doing until excessive heat and the weight of their armour had so wearied both the men and their horses that they had to give up the chase.’[23] This strategy was successful and as the Palmyrene cavalry became exhausted they were outflanked and routed by the counterattacking Roman cavalry, dismayed, Zenobia retreated into Antioch. Zabdas worried that the Antiochenes would rebel, dressed ‘a bearded man who bore some resemblance to the emperor…led him through the city as if he had taken the emperor prisoner.’[24] Having deceived the citizens Zenobia retreated that night from Antioch to Emesa, the following day Aurelian entered Antioch and was ‘joyfully received by the citizens.’[25]

On the plains of  Emesa Zenobia and her army suffered their second defeat at the hands of Aurelian and his army, Zenobia was now desperate. Emesa was not overly loyal to her and therefore was not a safe place to take refuge so once more Zenobia withdrew this time to Palmyra the city from where she had built her empire. Aurelian entered Emesa ‘where he was enthusiastically welcomed by the citizens.’[26]

Palmyra was soon under siege by the Romans but the city walls were impregnable to the Roman assault, Aurelian became exhausted and sent a letter to the queen asking for her surrender ‘I bid you surrender, promising that your lives shall be spared…As for the people of Palmyra their rights shall be preserved.’[27] Zenobia refused these terms ‘with more pride and insolence than befitted her fortunes’[28]sending back a letter to Aurelian ‘you demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a Queen rather than remain alive, however high her rank.’[29] Aurelian was annoyed by this response and renewed his attack on Palmyra, ‘he cut off the reinforcements which the Persians had sent, and he tampered with the squadrons of Saracens and Armenians, bringing them over to his own side.’[30] Zenobia had lost her empire, so in an act born off desperation Zenobia ‘sallied out in quest of Persian reinforcements.’[31]

Unfortunately for Zenobia she was overtaken and they ‘succeeded in capturing her as she was about to cross the Euphrates and took her off the boat to Aurelian.’[32] Instead of having Zenobia killed, as many soldiers wanted, Aurelian ‘returned to Emesa, where he brought Zenobia and her accomplices to trial.’[33] Zenobia defended herself claiming that she was innocent ‘and openly implicated many persons, who had led her astray as she was a simple woman.’[34] Nothing could save Zenobia from being held prisoner. Zenobia was captive with no city; Palmyra had surrended to Aurelian after Zenobia’s flight. Yet Palmyra once more rebelled against the Roman rule which had been put in place after Zenobia’s capture, Aurelian hearing this marched back to quell this revolt and ‘on reaching Antioch, he surprised the people…and carried on to Palmyra, which he took and razed without a contest,’[35] Palmyra was no more.

 While Palmyra lay in ruins Aurelian paraded, in an unparalleled triumph, through the streets of Rome all the lands which had been lost to Palmyra along with the defeat of the Gallic Empire. Envoys were sent from all around the world to the celebrations and to see Zenobia paraded down the streets ‘she could not endure the load of her gems. Furthermore, her feet were bound with shackles of gold and her hands with gold fetters, and even on her neck she wore a chain of gold.’[36]

What happened to Zenobia is still unclear, some sources have Aurelian beheading her ‘he had paraded her in Rome in triumph in the accustomed fashion, he beheaded her.’[37] Others state Aurelian gave her an estate on the Tiber, ‘Zenobia spent the rest of her days in the city (of Rome) and was accorded the highest respect.’[38] Whatever her ending, Zenobia’s achievements have assured her place in history with Cleopatra and Boudicca.

The rise and fall of Palmyra fits in with the crisis of the third century which Rome faced. Palmyra came into focus as being an important city with no power of its own and yet it rose to threaten the two powerful empires of the day; Rome and Persia. Palmyra never recovered from Zenobia’s defeat but the city would never have achieved the fame it did without her.

Zenobia is a figure in history which shows what great achievement and splendour women can accomplish with fortitude, intelligence and an army.


Bowersock, G.W (1983) ‘Roman Arabia’: Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass

Butcher, K (2003) ‘Roman Syria and the Near East’: British Museum Press, London

Cameron, A (1993) ‘The Later Roman Empire’: Fontana Press, London

Cameron, A (1993) ‘The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity’: Routledge, London

Cary, M and Scullard, H.H (1975) ‘History of Rome’: MacMillan Press, London

Dodgeon, M and Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and The Persian Wars’: Routledge, London

Goodman, M (2008) ‘Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations’: Penguin Books, London

Loeb Classical library (1932) Historia Augusta ‘Lives of the thirty pretenders’: Sited 06/01/09 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Tyranni_xxxhtml)

Nakamura, B (1993) ‘Palmyra and the Roman East’: Greek, Roman and Byzantine studies, 34/2

Rostovtzeff, M (1932) ‘Caravan Cities’: Oxford University Press, Oxford

Stoneman, R (1994) ‘Palmyra and its Empire: Zenobia’s Revolt against Rome ’: Michigan University Press, (Ann Arbor 1992)

[1] Goodman, M (2008) ‘Rome and Jerusalem: the Clash of Ancient Civilizations’ pg 36

[2] Cameron, A (1993) ‘The Later Roman Empire’ pg 9

[3] Bowersock, G.W (1983) ‘Roman Arabia’ pg 130

[4] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’ 4.3.2 Eutropius IX, 10 pg 72

[5]Ibidem :Syncellus pp 466, 23-467,7 pg 76

[6] Ibidem: SHA trig.tyr 15,1-5 pg 74

[7] Ibidem: 4.5.1 SHA Gall 13,1 pg80

[8] Loeb classical Library (1932) Historia Augusta ‘Lives of the Thirty Pretenders’ 30,18 pg139-141 sited 02/01/09

[9] Ibidem

[10] ibidem

[11] Stoneman, R (1994) ‘Palmyra and Its Empire’ Michigan University Press, Ann Arbor

[12] Loeb classical Library (1932) Historia Augusta ‘Lives of the Thirty Pretenders’ 30-23 pg 141-143

[13] Stoneman, R (1994) ‘Palmyra and Its Empire’ Michigan University Press, Ann Arbor

[14] Bowersock, G.W (1983) ‘Roman Arabia’ pg 134

[15] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.6.5: 44,28 pg 87

[16] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  CISem II 4.7.2 pg88

[17] Butcher, K (2003) ‘Roman Syria and the Near East’ British Museum Press, London pg60

[18] ibidem

[19] Loeb classical Library (1932) Historia Augusta ‘Lives of the Thirty Pretenders’ 30, 13-15 pg139 sited 02/01/09

[20] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’: SHA Aurel 4.7.4: 22,1 pg 89

[21] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.8.2: 50,1 pg93

[22] Ibidem

[23] Ibidem

[24] Ibidem

[25] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.8.2: 51,2  pg 94

[26]Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.8.2: 54,2  pg 95

[27] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  SHA Aurel 4.8.3: 26, 8-9 pg 96

28 Ibidem

29 Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  SHA Aurel 4.8.3:27, 3  pg 97

[30] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  SHA Aurel 4.8.4:28, 2 pg 97

[31] Cary, M and Scullard, H.H (1975 3rd edition) pg 51

[32] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.8.3: 55,3  pg 99

[33] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.9.1: 56,2 pg 100

[34] Ibidem

[35] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Zosimus I 4.9.4: 61,1 pg 105

[36] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  SHA trig tyr 4.10.3: 30,24-26 pg105-106

[37] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Malalus XII 4.9.2: p300,3-23 pg101

[38] Dodgeon, M & Lieu, S (1991 Repr 1994) ‘The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars’  Jerome, chron 4.11.1: p223,1-3 pg 108

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