The Death of Queen Zenobia
The exact circumstances of Queen Zenobia‘s death remain a subject of debate among historians, with various sources offering different accounts.
Here’s a summary of the prevailing theories:
After being defeated by the Roman Emperor Aurelian, Zenobia was captured and taken to Rome. Some Roman sources, including the Historia Augusta, suggest that she was paraded in Aurelian’s Triumph, a grand procession through the streets of Rome to celebrate military victories. After this, the accounts differ:
- Some suggest that she lived out her days in a villa in Tibur (modern Tivoli) and even remarried.
- Others believe she may have starved herself to death.
As mentioned in the story from Al-Tabari, a prominent 9th-century Arabian historian, Zenobia’s end had nothing to do with Rome. Instead, after killing a tribal chief on their wedding night, she is pursued by the chief’s nephew. She attempts to escape via a tunnel under the Euphrates River but is captured. Depending on the version of the tale, she either commits suicide by drinking poison or is executed.
Zosimus, a fifth-century historian, presents two conflicting accounts of Queen Zenobia’s fate:
- In one narrative, he states that during the journey to Rome, Zenobia and her son tragically drowned in the Bosporus.
- In another account, Zosimus suggests that Zenobia made it to Rome, but without her son. Here, she was put on trial, but was acquitted of the charges against her. Following her acquittal, she supposedly settled into a comfortable life in a villa and eventually became the wife of a Roman.
Based on their accounts, it seems probable that Zenobia was indeed taken to Rome by Emperor Aurelian. However, contrary to popular and dramatic depictions of Zenobia being paraded in Aurelian’s triumph, it’s possible she wasn’t publicly showcased in this manner. Aurelian was said to be wary of the optics and implications of such a display.
Publicly parading Zenobia in a triumphal procession would highlight two potentially embarrassing points for the Romans:
- The humiliation of the powerful Roman Empire being significantly challenged by a woman, a situation that went against traditional Roman gender norms.
- The fact that Zenobia, a woman, had managed to control a significant portion of the Roman Empire at the height of her power. This was a significant commentary on Rome’s weakened state and the inefficiencies of its leadership during that period.
Did you know…?
The lack of definitive and consistent contemporary accounts means that the true nature of Zenobia’s death remains elusive. As with many historical figures from antiquity, the legends and stories surrounding her life have likely obscured the real events to some extent.