Sunday, 27 September 2015

queen of the palmyrenes

As if the destruction of of the ancient temples and yet to be fully studied and adjured archaeological sites by the keystone caliphate of Palmyra and other sites of historical significance were not already a great enough loss for our shared cultural heritage and the inscrutable past—purges and terrors always result in loss and revision, there is another personal legacy that I fear will fall into greater obscurity over the razing of her city, a historic character called Queen Zenobia (a somewhat strained Latinisation of the Aramaic name Beth Zaynab). Unlike her ancestor, Cleopatra of Egypt or warrior queen Boudica who’ve been celebrated for centuries for standing up to the Romans, Zenobia is mostly forgotten though her exploits.
Living during the latter half of the third century, the client province of Syria was experiencing a time of economic stability—removed from the political intrigues that were affecting the government of, a succession of weak rulers and the transition of the Empire’s capital to the East. The changing regimes did eventual visit Zenobia’s family with the usual paranoia of unproven power and assassinated the queen’s husband and heir-apparent. Instead of capitulating to the governor’s demands that the remaining royal family relinquish claims to the throne and devolve into direct Roman rule, Zenobia instead declared herself regent, ruling in the name of her infant son. Unprecedented in the potential for revolt among any of the peoples that the Roman Empire had subjugated, Zenobia socked them right in the bread-basket by conquering the province of Egypt, whose grain supplies were absolutely vital for feeding the populace, and when on taking large swaths of Anatolia (Asia Minor), crossing and controlling important trade routes, to constitute an empire that nearly rivalled that of the Sassanids on the periphery of Roman control and certainly with more strategic importance. The Palmyrene Empire was short-lived, just a mere three years but more than just a blip historically speaking as Rome had seen the year of three then four Emperors and that it survived politically in any form goes against reason, and Roman forces only were able to recapture Syria and Egypt by shifting troops out of its theatre in Gaul, effectively giving up those lands as unruly lost causes, and Zenobia was defeated on the fields of Antioch—taken to the capital in chains. Paradoxically, this revolution might have given the Western Empire the impetus to limp along a few years more. Perhaps Zenobia’s story can be a rallying point for good again. There are varying accounts as to what happened to her afterwards (Cleopatra rather dramatically avoided this humiliation—which is perhaps a reason why Shakespeare did not write a play about her) with the cheeriest accounts having the Emperor grant Zenobia clemency and she lived out her life happily in a villa in Tivoli—kept in the manner she was accustomed to and uncensored, playing a role in the community as a pre-eminent philosopher and active political advisor.