Among The most famous of the women of ancient days must be named Zenobia, the celebrated queen of Palmyra and the East, and who claimed to be descended from the kings whom the conquests of Alexander left over Egypt, the Ptolemies, among whose descendants was included the still more celebrated Cleopatra. Zenobia was the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex, no woman of Asiatic birth ever having equaled her in striking evidence of valor and ability, and none surpassed her in beauty. We are told that while of a dark complexion, her smile revealed teeth of pearly whiteness, while her large black eyes sparkled with an uncommon brightness that was softened by the most attractive sweetness. She possessed a strong and melodious voice, and, in short, had all the charms of womanly beauty.
Her mind was as well stored as her body was attractive. She was familiar with the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages, and was an adept also in Latin, then the political language of the civilized world. She was an earnest student of Oriental history, of which she herself drew up an epitome, while she was fully conversant with Homer and Plato, and the other great writers of Greece.
This lovely and accomplished woman gave her hand in marriage to Odenathus, who from a private station had gained by his valor the empire of the East. He made Syria his by courage and ability, and twice pursued the Persian king to the gates of Ctesiphon. Of this hero Zenobia became the companion and adviser. In hunting, of which he was passionately fond, she emulated him, pursuing the lions, panthers, and other wild beasts of the desert with an ardor equal to his own, and a fortitude and endurance which his did not surpass. Inured to fatigue, she usually appeared on horseback in a military habit, and at times marched on foot at the head of the troops. Odenathus owed his success largely to the prudence and fortitude of his incomparable wife.
In the midst of his successes in war, Odenathus was cut off in 250 a.d. by assassination. He had punished his nephew, who killed him in return. Zenobia at once succeeded to the vacant throne, and by her ability governed Palmyra, Syria, and the East. In this task, in which no man could have surpassed her in courage and judgment, she was aided by the counsels of one of the ablest Greeks who had appeared since the days of the famous writers of the classical age. Longinus, who had been her preceptor in the language and literature of Greece, and who, on her ascending the throne, became her secretary and chief counsellor in state affairs, was a literary critic and philosopher whose lucid intellect seemed to belong to the brightest days of Greece. He was probably a native of Syria, born some time after 200 a.d. , and had studied literature and philosophy at Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, under the ablest teachers of the age. His learning was immense, and he is the first man to whom was applied the expression "a living library," or, to give it its modern form, "a walking encyclopedia." His writings were lively and penetrating, showing at once taste, judgment, and learning. We have only fragments of them, except the celebrated "Treatise on the Sublime," which is one of the most notable of ancient critical productions.
Under the advice of this distinguished counsellor, Zenobia entered upon a career which brought her disaster, but has also brought her fame. Her husband Odenathus had avenged Valerian, the Roman emperor, who had been taken prisoner and shamefully treated by the Persian king. For this service he was confirmed in his authority by the senate of Rome. But after his death the senate refused to grant this authority to his widow, and called on her to deliver her dominion over to Rome. Under the advice of Longinus the martial queen refused, defied the power of Rome, and determined to maintain her empire in despite of the senate and army of the proud "master of the world."
War at once broke out. A Roman army invaded Syria, but was met by Zenobia with such warlike energy and skill that it was hurled back in defeat, and its commanding general, having lost his army, was driven back to Europe in disgrace. This success gave Zenobia the highest fame and power in the world of the Orient. The states of Arabia, Armenia, and Persia, in dread of her enmity, solicited alliance with her. To her dominions, which extended from the Euphrates over much of Asia Minor and to the borders of Arabia, she added the populous kingdom of Egypt, the inheritance of her claimed ancestors. The Roman emperor Claudius acknowledged her authority and left her unmolested. Assuming the splendid title of Queen of the East, she established at her court the stately power of the courts of Asia. exacted from her subjects the adoration shown to the Persian king, and, while strict in her economy, at times displayed the greatest liberality and magnificence.
But a new emperor came to the throne in Rome, and a new period in the history of Zenobia began. Aurelian, a fierce and vigorous soldier, marched at the head of the Roman legions against this valiant queen, who had built herself up an empire of great extent, and demanded that she should submit to the power of his arms. Asia Minor was quickly restored to Rome, Antioch fell into the hands of Aurelian, and the Romans still advanced, to meet the army of the Syrian queen. Meeting near Antioch, a great battle was fought. Zabdas, who had conquered Egypt for Zenobia, led her army, but the valiant queen animated her soldiers by her presence, and exhorted them to the utmost exertions. Her troops, great in number, were mainly composed of light-armed archers and of cavalry clothed in complete steel. These Asiatic warriors proved incapable of enduring the charge of the veteran legions of Rome. The army of Zenobia met with defeat, and at a subsequent battle, near Emesa, met with a second disastrous repulse.
Zenobia found it impossible to collect a third army. Most of the nations under her control had submitted to the conqueror. Egypt was invaded by a Roman army. Out of her lately great empire only her capital, Palmyra, remained. Here she retired, made preparations for a vigorous defence, and declared that her reign and life should only end together.
Palmyra was then one of the most splendid cities of the world. A halting-place for the caravans which conveyed to Europe the rich products of India and the East, it had grown into a great and opulent city, whose former magnificence is shown by the ruins of temples, palaces, and porticos of Grecian architecture, which now extend over a district of several miles. In this city, surrounded with strong walls, Zenobia had gathered the various military engines which in those days were used in siege and defence, and, woman though she was, was prepared to make the most vigorous resistance to the armies of Rome.
Aurelian had before him no light task. In his march over the desert the Arabs harassed him perpetually. The siege proved difficult, and the emperor, leading the attacks in person, was himself wounded with a dart. Aurelian, finding that he had undertaken no trifling task, prudently offered excellent terms to the besieged, but they were rejected with insulting language. Zenobia hoped that famine would come to her aid to defeat her foe, and had reason to expect that Persia would send an army to her relief. Neither happened. The Persian king had just died. Convoys of food crossed the desert in safety. Despairing at length of success, Zenobia mounted her fleetest dromedary and fled across the desert to the Euphrates. Here she was overtaken and brought back a captive to the emperor's feet.
Soon afterwards Palmyra surrendered. The emperor treated it with lenity, but a great treasure in gold, silver, silk, and precious stones fell into his hands, with all the animals and arms. Zenobia being brought into his presence, he sternly asked her how she had dared to take arms against the emperors of Rome. She answered, with respectful prudence, "Because I disdained to consider as Roman emperors an Aureolus or a Gallienus. You alone I acknowledge as my conqueror and my sovereign."
Her fortitude, however, did not last. The soldiers, with angry clamor, demanded her immediate execution, and the unhappy queen, losing for the first time the courage which had so long sustained her, gave way to terror, and declared that her resistance was not due to herself, but had arisen from the counsels of Longinus and her other advisers. It was the one base act in the woman's life. She had purchased a brief period of existence at the expense of honor and fame. Aurelian, a fierce soldier, to whom the learning of Longinus made no appeal, at once ordered his execution. The scholar died like a philosopher. He uttered no complaint. He pitied, but did not blame, his mistress. He comforted his afflicted friends. With the calm fortitude of Socrates he followed the executioner, and died like one for whom death had no terrors. The ignorant emperor, in seizing the treasures of Palmyra, did not know that he had lost its choicest treasure in setting free the soul of Longinus the scholar.
What followed may be more briefly told. Marching back with his spoils from Palmyra, Aurelian had already reached Europe when word came to him that the Palmyrians whom he had spared had risen in revolt and massacred his garrison. Instantly turning, he marched back, his soul filled with thirst for revenge. Reaching Palmyra with great celerity, his wrath fell with murderous fury on that devoted city. Not only armed rebels, but women and children, were massacred, and the city was almost levelled with the earth. The greatness of Palmyra was at an end. It never recovered from this dreadful blow. It sunk, step by step, into the miserable village, in the midst of stately ruins, into which it has now declined.
On his return Aurelian celebrated his victories and conquests with a magnificent triumph, one of the most ostentatious that any Roman emperor had ever given. His conquests had been great, both in the West and the East, and no emperor had better deserved a triumphant return to the imperial city, the mistress of the world.
All day long, from morning to night, the grand procession wound on. At its head were twenty elephants, four royal tigers, and about two hundred of the most curious and interesting animals of the North, South, and East. Sixteen hundred gladiators followed, destined for the cruel sports to be held in the amphitheatre. Then came a display of the wealth of Palmyra, the magnificent plate and wardrobe of Zenobia, the arms and ensigns of numerous conquered nations. Embassadors from the most remote regions of the civilized earth, from Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, India, and China,—attired in rich and singular dresses, attested the fame of the Roman emperor, while his power was shown by the many presents he had received, among them a great number of crowns of gold, which had been given him by grateful cities.
The Ruins of Palmyra.
A long train of captives next declared his triumph, among them Goths, Vandals, Franks, Gauls, Germans, Syrians, and Egyptians. Each people was distinguished by its peculiar inscription, the title of Amazons being given to ten Gothic heroines who had been taken in arms. But in this great crowd of unhappy captives one above all attracted the attention of the host of spectators, the beauteous figure of the Queen of the East. Zenobia was so laden with jewels as almost to faint under their weight. Her limbs bore fetters of gold, while the golden chain that encircled her neck was of such weight that it had to be supported by a slave. She walked along the streets of Rome, preceding the magnificent chariot in which she had indulged hopes of riding in triumph through those grand avenues. Behind it came two other chariots, still more sumptuous, those of Odenathus and the Persian monarch. The triumphal car of Aurelian, which followed, was one which had formerly been used by a Gothic king, and was drawn by four stags or four elephants, we are not sure which. The most illustrious of the senate, the people, and the army closed this grand procession, which was gazed upon with joy and wonder by the vast population of Rome.
So extended was the pompous parade that though it began with the dawn of day, the ninth hour had arrived when it ascended to the Capitol, and night had fallen when the emperor returned to his palace. Then followed theatrical representations, games in the circus, gladiatorial combats, wild-beast shows, and naval engagements. Not for generations had Rome seen such a festival. Of the rich spoils a considerable portion was dedicated to the gods of Rome, the temples glittered with golden offerings, and the Temple of the Sun, a magnificent structure erected by Aurelian, was enriched with more than fifteen thousand pounds of gold.
To Zenobia the victor behaved with a generous clemency such as the conquering emperors of Rome rarely indulged in. He presented her with an elegant villa at Tibur, or Tivoli, about twenty miles from the imperial city; and here, surrounded by luxury, she who had played so imperial a role in history sank into the humbler state of a Roman matron. Her daughters married into noble families, and the descendants of the once Queen of the East were still known in Rome in the fifth century of the Christian era.