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.
We watch as Simon grows up to be the principal court advocate of the city, and its increasingly important foreign envoy. For this is, although fiction, indeed a chronicle, a traditional structure that stretches from Homer to the Middle Ages. The story starts at the beginning and steps slowly forward from there.
This is something of a problem, for two reasons. First, we get the story entirely from Simon’s point of view. He is a boy and a man of his time; so far as I can judge Wingarten has made him absolutely accurate to his gender, class and period, which doesn’t make him an entirely sympathetic character. In fact there were times when I was thoroughly infuriated by his behaviour and the author’s apparent condoning of it. (Although when you get to the slave girl scene don’t give up in disgust – a different view of it will emerge eventually.)
Second, there something slow but inexorable about the chronicle form that doesn’t sit particularly comfortably with the modern reader. I ploughed rather dutifully through the first half of this long text, enjoying the descriptions but not really involved. (Although some readers might enjoy the military stuff more than I.) It was only when the real star of the show, Zenobia, appears on the scene, about the middle of this book, that I got really involved and I read that second half in one marathon session.
By the time I reached the end I no longer regretted the time spent reading (or the lost sleep); I felt satisfied and eager for the next book in the chronicle. But don’t pick it up if you need a book that “hooks” you in the first page, or the first chapter. If you’re prepared to wait for your pleasures, for the joy of historical adventure of a gripping kind, however, then The Rebel Queen should be on your reading list.
If you’ve read Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series – well it is rather better written than that; if you’ve read some of Colleen McCullough’s Ancient Rome books (which starts with The Grass Crown) – well it is rather less well written than that. But if you enjoyed either of those, you’ll probably like The Rebel Queen.
And should you be visiting Palmyra (and I would put it as a tourist destination in the same class as the Acropolis, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, so you should), then Weingarten and Simon will be essential companions.