Zenobia of Palmyra: Reality or Legend?

  • Margaret Steyn UNISA English Studies Department


 Ancient Rome had a longstanding and turbulent history with eastern queens, beginning, before its very foundation, with Dido, and most famously exemplified by Cleopatra. Literature suggests powerful women from the East were particularly feared and loathed, considered the ultimate “Othersâ€. The Palmyrene queen, Zenobia, who claimed her descent from Cleopatra and briefly conquered Egypt, was reportedly grudgingly admired and, although finally vanquished by Aurelian and purportedly displayed in his triumph, may have been allowed to retire comfortably to a villa in Tivoli. Reconstructing the lives and interrogating the existence of these often marginalised historical “protagonists†is often difficult as the sources are often unreliable and depict these uncomfortable subjects either marginally or with disquiet. In this article, the reconstruction of the historical figure of Zenobia will be interrogated through a review of the literature available on this female figure in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not it is possible to reconstruct “marginalised†historical figures from the historical evidence available to us today. Furthermore, it will be shown that although it may be possible to reconstruct these figures, the image that is created is often tainted by the original texts, which often lack veracity and were almost certainly purposefully created.