Play the game

Michael Kulikowski

  • Zenobia of Palmyra: History, Myth and the Neo-Classical Imagination by Rex Winsbury
    Duckworth, 198 pp, £16.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 7156 3853 8
  • Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
    Virgin, 368 pp, £20.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7535 3955 2

We know much less than we would like about the Syrian queen Zenobia of Palmyra, and rather less than our 19th-century predecessors, who wrote before source-criticism eliminated much of the supposed evidence for her life. For a short time in the 260s and 270s AD, Zenobia ruled most of the Roman near east without reference to anyone’s authority but her own. In defeat and forced retirement, she became a Roman matron from whom one might still claim descent a hundred years later. Her old age was lived out in Tivoli, the site of the Emperor Hadrian’s grand villa. It had been Hadrian, on one of his many eastern tours, who had given Palmyra the status of a free city, setting it on the path to riches and power that culminated in the triumphant half-decade of Zenobia’s reign. Perhaps the former queen saw the irony.

The middle of the third century was a difficult time for the Roman Empire, in part because of its previous successes. Over the centuries, even the most backward parts of the empire had come to be integrated into Greco-Roman culture and Roman citizenship, while imperial government grew to resemble an administered state rather than a parasitic superstructure delegating the actual tasks of government to local authorities. By Zenobia’s time, the Mediterranean and its vast hinterland had become an empire of Roman citizens, no longer an empire governed for the benefit of Rome. That meant, among other things, that no one part of the empire had any greater claim to rule than any other, and that a Danubian or a Syrian was no less legitimate a contender for the imperial throne than an Italian. The practical consequences of that fact were revealed by a series of military shocks, delivered by an aggressive new Persian dynasty in the east and by powerful barbarian coalitions on the Rhine and Danube. If Rome’s frontier armies were going to fight and die for a Roman empire, they wanted do so under the direct command of a Roman emperor. One after the other they proclaimed their own commanders emperor, and that meant trouble. While a mere general could devote himself to external enemies, the moment he was clothed in the imperial purple he had to fight for his right to it, as there could be only one legitimate emperor. The result was 50 years of putsch and counter-putsch, an unbreakable cycle of endless, pointless civil war.

With the fraying of the imperial centre, however, came opportunity at the edges, as Zenobia and her husband, Odaenathus, discovered. In 260, the Emperor Valerian was captured in battle by the all-conquering Persian shah Shapur, leaving the Roman east effectively without a government: Valerian’s son and fellow emperor Gallienus, beset by challengers on all sides, found himself unable to govern even the west. While Shapur was marching home to Mesopotamia, laden with spoils from the Levantine coast, Odaenathus of Palmyra inflicted a defeat on the Persian army, perhaps quite a small one, which was soon enough magnified into an unprecedented triumph. Seemingly at one stroke, the Palmyrene dynasty became the only government worth the name in the Roman east, and Odaenathus was granted – or perhaps unilaterally assumed – a series of titles that implied the delegation of extraordinary powers from the Emperor Gallienus himself. Such stylings were for the benefit of the Greeks Odaenathus ruled, but he began at the same time to employ Persian titles that spoke to a very different audience, to the local Syrians and Arabs who liked being ruled by a local ‘king of kings’, who could defend them from the more distant, and more rapacious, Shapur.

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