Zenobia, who from her desert stronghold in Palmyra challenged and held out against the might of the Roman empire, is one of the great queens of history. Yet the fact that she was on the side of “East” rather than “West”, that she was female, that her “country” no longer exists (Palmyra is in the far east of modern Syria) means she’s not received the attention she deserved.
It was Antonia Fraser in The Warrior Queens who first brought her to attention of English-speaking readers, but surprisingly little has been written on her since then. A search of Amazon reveals no more than half a dozen significant factual and fictional treatments. So, having visited Palmyra and soaked up its glorious atmosphere, I was delighted to sit down with Judith Weingarten’s The Rebel Queen, billed as Volume One of “The Chronicle of Zenobia”.
The author is a veteran archaeologist, with many professional publications to her credit, and the depth of her knowledge is clear from the early pages of the book, as we meet its central character, Simon, a Jewish boy who will grow up to serve the young king Odenathus, who married the young Zenobia in the multicultural city. Odenathus was bred to rule in the caravan city that is part of the Roman empire, but not subject to it, bred to be a warrior in an unstable border region facing the threat of the Persians.
Weingarten writes as one intimately familiar with the cities of the eastern empire that she's describing:
The little town of Nazala ... had an ornate caravanserai with a fine facing of polished stone, and its entrance blocks were carved with whorls of plant tendreal... A busy market with shops and stalls ran around all four sides ... Covered booths sold rolls of gaily-dyed cloths and embroidered belts, or tiny glass bottles filled with magic waves of coloured liquids that never mixed .. We stayed that night ... stuffing ourselves on pickled fish flavoured with sesame oil and harlic, skewered goat's meat and a special smoked dumpling that was only made in Nazala."
Simon is a genuine historical character, indeed very properly deserves to be called the chronicler of Palmyra (or Tadmor as he called it), for it is his manuscript, preserved miraculously in the Egyptian desert, that records most of the city's surviving history. So he knew all about the internal politics of the city, and its complex relationship with the Roman empire, and more is known about his life than that of any other Palmyran.