On a barren plain, midway between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Persia, lies the modern village of Tadmor [now Palmyra]. Roundabout, a profusion of palm trees, in marked contrast to the heat of the surrounding desert, spreads a luxuriant and welcome shade. No life animates the scene; yet; here and there, a lazy figure, reposing in the shadow of some stately ruin, evinces that it is the abode of man. Rude mud huts, fashioned by unskilled hands, and lodged in the spacious court of a ruined palace, provide these inhabitants with a dreary shelter. A crude sort of barter, with caravans, or occasional visitors supplies the remaining necessities of life. To the travelers, the village can offer nothing of interest; nothing of significance. Imbecile men and women and uncouth children compose its scanty population. For twelve centuries, Tadmor has remained unchanged – a filthy and unimportant trading-post: no event has occurred to disturb the ennui of its existence. Children have been born, youth have attained the stature of men and women and the aged have been numbered with the dead, but nature from their barbaric environments, has evolved no progression. Drowsy indolence, engendered by the soft climate of Asia, has settled over Tadmor like the charm of a war serpent. Neither the glimpses of the busy world, revealed through passing travelers, nor the majesty of the ruined grandeur everywhere around them, can suffice to break the spell which binds this simple people to the languid fertility of their lives. Yet, scattered over the plain, far and near, are the ruins of a city, which once commanded an almost boundless empire, and whose strength compelled the homage of a world. The scholar pauses in reverential awe before massive and historic ruins, but the poor barbarians, dwelling within their midst, are unable to read the marvelous tale they tell. Ah, Palmyra! into what oblivion has thou fallen! How relentless has been the punishment of thy ambition! Once the emporium of luxury and magnificence, now the haunt of poverty and degradation. Once the chief commercial center of the civilized world, now the ruined capital of a long forgotten empire. Aye, the hand of Time has been ruthless in thy destruction.
It was here, while degenerate Greece had sunk into soft effeminacy, the art, literature and science of the learned East was fostered. Here, while sensuous Rome was slowly consuming her valor upon the altar of debauchery, astronomers were calculating the distance of the planets, histories were being written and the truths of philosophy disseminated. Here, while the untutored German was just awakening to the sweets of civilization, temples, palaces and theaters of imposing architecture were being constructed. It was here, while the sturdy Briton, still plied his unskilled arts and the sous of sunny France had borne the first burden of a tyrant’s despotism, the fabled wealth of Asia had centered, while over all the glad spirit of human liberty reigned untrammeled. It was here, too that Zenobia, the beautiful woman, the indomitable general, the consummate statesman, wrought out her marvelous career. Nearly seventeen centuries have passed away. Ruined palaces, temples defaced by the ravages of time, detached arches and porticos, broken and crumbling columns are all that remain to bespeak the grandeur long passed away. Palmyra is forgotten. Her name is buried in the obscurity which shrouds primitive history. But, the story of her brief career, her brave strife for independence, her fatal contest for liberty, will forever shed a luster upon the records of human freedom.
History has chronicled little of the origin and growth of Palmyra. Not until its wealth and power, had pronounced it a rival of the great cities of the world, was its name spoken among the nations. Located upon a fertile plain, in the direct route of traffic, between India and Rome, through the force of its position it had rapidly grown from a simple trading-post into an opulent city. Situated within Roman dominion, a strict government, in accordance with the customary diplomacy of the “great ruler of the world,” had been maintained within its walls. A Roman governor, a Roman garrison and numberless haughty Roman civilians provided constant reminders to the proud citizens, that a tyrant held it scepter over their unhappy heads. Yet, the city’s commerce extended, her coffers filled with gold, her merchants became wealthy, her population increased. The nations of the world, ever heedful of Rome’s increasing power, stealthily watched her rapid growth and progress with deepening anxiety. Her advantageous position, her augmenting power, her vast public treasure, all conspired to render Palmyra a prize well worth the undertaking of the boldest army. Rome, too, saw her danger and strengthened her surveillance. She increased her garrison into a standing army and guarded every outpost with jealous care. Rome could well afford to throw around Palmyra, her most cautious defenses, for from her wealth, the most splendid tribute of all her realm was yearly poured into the treasury of the empire. Upon none of her varied and extensive provinces did she place a higher valuation and none of her possessions were more envied by her enemies. Nowhere did she more securely entrench her power, and nowhere was her strength and resources more carefully measured by her foes.
Rome’s conquest had created bitter and malevolent enmities upon every boundary of her many sided empire, and only through tireless vigilance could she maintain peace on her frontiers. Among the most audacious and harassing of all her adversaries was Persia, touching upon her Eastern border and occupying a position which commanded her choicest possessions. For centuries an almost unabated warfare had existed between them. Persia had been forced to suffer deep humiliations and countless military disgraces through the arms of the Great Empire and had learned to hale her power with a resentment at once implacable and unrelenting. At last the opportunity came for revenge and Sapor [aka Shapur], a Persian monarch won a victory over the Roman army so dishonorable to Rome, the whole population clamored for a speedy vindication. All the pent up animosity Persia had cherished through enduring centuries was centered upon that bloody field. The Roman army was brutally massacred and every law of honorable warfare violated. Deep valleys were filled with Roman slain and the Persian triumph crowned by the capture of the Roman emperor, Valerian. Sapor well understood the humiliation so signal a defeat would carry to the proud empires and his exultation knew no friends. Every indignity a wanton tyrant could divise was imposed upon his unfortunate prisoners. Daily, he mounted his horse by stepping upon the neck of the fallen Romans and when, at last, Valerian, unable to longer endure the tortures of his life, died in his prison, the remorseless conqueror ordered his skin to be stuffed with straw and placed in the court of his palace, as a constant memorial to his subjects of the greatness of their emperor. Romans would have ill-deserved their reputation, had they not sought to resent so odious an insult, but neither the entreaties of soldiers and citizens, nor his father’s ignoble death could arouse Galliennus, the son and successor of Valerian from the licentious pleasures which absorbed his life. None of the ancient valor of Rome activated the new Emperor. His debased nature could not comprehend the eternal principles upon which had been builded the great empire he ruled. He cared less what fate might await him in the dominion which fostered him, than who should be the winner in the games he attempted. It was of less import to him that the great name of Rome was disgraced in the eyes of the world than of the manner in which his dinner should be served.
Sapor became emboldened by his leniency and fancied the magic of his sword should yet bring a world in submission before his throne. Collecting his army, he proceeded with cautious speed toward Palmyra, the wealthiest and most powerful of the Asiatic cities and which he had long coveted. Not until he was encamped for the night before the gates of the city, did its unsuspecting inhabitants learn of his approach. While the avaricious monarch reposed in the luxury of his tent, gloating over the rich prospect the plain spread before him, a liveried slave appeared and presented a priceless gift consisting of a train of beautiful camels heavily laden with the choicest and most precious merchandise. The offering was accompanied by a message from its donor, Odenathus, a Saracen prince and a Palmyrian senator. “Who is this Odenathus,” haughtily inquired Sapor, “that he thus insolently presumes to take such liberties with a Persian monarch? If he entertains a hope of mitigating his punishment, let him fall prostrate at the foot of our throne with his hands behind his back. Should he hesitate, swift destruction shall be poured on his head, on his whole race, and on his country.” Odenathus had well know the merciless cruelty of the Persian monarch and his offering had been made in the vain hope that it would satisfy his ambition and save Palmyra from the hands of so ruthless a destroyer. But one alternative remained. Placing himself at the head of the army, he met Sapor upon the battle-field and there coupled an ignominious defeat. With humbled pride and a badly shattered army, the bold Persian was forced to retreat to his capital in disgrace.
The victory of Odenathus was heralded with great joy in Rome. With the hearty approval of Galliennus and the applause of the Roman people, the honored title of Augustus was conferred upon the hero by the Roman Senate and the government of the Eastern province was entrusted to his care. To lose a few provinces now and then, to learn of a sedition within the borders of his empire, or to hear of a threatened war were occasions which only made the wine flow faster and the revelries come more boisterous in the court of Galliennus. But, he had seen the luxury of his palace slowly depleting the treasury of the empire, and had become alarmed. An insult which would have aroused another monarch to arms could only win a passing smiled from him, but poverty, to ask for luxury and to be denied the dissolute pleasures of his life, these were considerations which could arouse him into action. The threatened destruction of Palmyra and the consequent loss of its vast tribute had indeed created some genuine anxiety. But in Odenathus, he fancied he had found a punctilious admirer, a loyal devotee, who would administer the distasteful duties of the East without disturbing the halcyon life of the great Roman emperor. Was Odenathus not loyal to Rome? to Galliennus? Then why should he seek to avenge the wrongs of the Empire? Galliennus was content and lapsed again with renewed indulgence into the routine of his licentious pleasures.
He had not read aright either the character or motive of the newly appointed governor. Odenathus had borne too long the crushing weight of the Roman yoke, and knew too well her inexorable tyranny to bow in submission before her foolish monarch. It is here he had protected Roman property and had redeemed Roman honor, but it was not for the sake of this he had marched out against Sapor. With the Persian monarch before the gates of the city, he had foreseen her temples and palaces in flames, her citizens in terror, her women lamenting for their dead. He had seen the streets red with the blood of his fellow men, his loved ones in anguish, and his own life meted out to appease the wrath of the merciless invader. What wonder such dire consequences should have inspired him with a fierce determination? An outlook so foreboding should have armed him with a desperate courage?
With a full knowledge of the power contained in the authority conferred upon him, Odenathus accepted his new duties. In the nineteenth century, he would be pronounced a traitor, but perfidy alone could outwit so perfidious, so tyrant as Rome and Odenathus deemed it honorable to accept a title he did not intend to honor. While acting in the capacity of supreme governor of Palmyra, Odenathus sought and won the hand of the accomplished Zenobia. Who was Zenobia, or from whence she came, history is silent. It is only known that she was a descendant of Cleopatra and that her immediate ancestors were Syrians. From her marriage with Odenathus, dates the record of her life. Forth from clouds of obscurity, she stepped upon the stage of action. Reared beneath the oppression of a tyrannical government, nurtured under the soft influence of an indolent climate, she was yet destined to play a part in the world’s history, the ages could not suffice to obscure.
She possessed in all its perfection that rare and wondrous beauty of her Egyptian ancestor, heightened and rendered more irresistible by the attraction of a trained and well-stored mind. She is described as of a dark complexion, with clear-cut powerful features. Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness and her large, black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire tempered by most attractive sweetness. She had received a masculine education and was familiar with Latin, Greek, Syrian and Egyptian languages. Both by the endowments of nature and by the culture of her education was Zenobia well-fitted to become the wife of the hero and statesman, Odenathus. As fair as Juno, she ruled by the mastery of her witching beauty and charming grace. As wise as Minerva, she governed by the magnetism of her intellectual vigor and fathomless learning. Both were gifted with prudence, fortitude and courage. Both were young, vigorous, and hopeful. Both were ambitious, yet loyal to Palmyra. With the enthusiasm born of liberty-loving spirits, both hated the remorseless tyranny of Rome. Together, they plotted to rend the shackles which had bound their loved city to servitude. Together they planned to promote Palmyra to the independence her wealth and position so well qualified her. It was a bold conspiracy.
Rome’s armies were strong, valiant, and incomparable. Her fleets were powerful, her wealth enormous, her resources unlimited. Her very name had in it a power which carried triumph with it. Victory had ever perched upon her standard. For nearly 500 years, she had molded the destiny and controlled the wealth of the civilized world. Her language, her customs, her institutions were established in every land. With cautious diplomacy, her spies, her garrisons and loyal subjects were stationed in every quarter. Alas! what could our city, however rich and potential, oppose against a power so indomitable? so omnipotent? What chance for victory could our man and woman, armed only with an invincible love of justice, urge against those centuries of prosperities, those ages of prosperity. Ah! fatal hope! Yet, undaunted, this heroic pair resolved upon the enterprise. They saw the seeds of decay, which the social life of Roman had sown, slowly sapping the life of the empire. They perceived the intrepid patriotism of her statesmen fading beneath the influence of debauchery. They recognized in Galliennus a weak and effeminate statesman fonder of the voluptuous pleasures of his life than of Roman greatness. Now they deemed the hour had come to strike at the heart of the hated enemy.
Scarcely were the wedding ceremonies closed ere Odenathus, in his capacity of governor, collected from among the Palmyreneans a formidable army. Excited by the eloquence the ambitious prince, the whole city soon became inflamed with the hope of freedom. Gold, soldiers equipments were placed at his disposal. The troops were hastily instructed in the “art of war” and elaborate preparations for a better contest were speedily made. When the arrangements were complete, the whole force was marched out against the neighboring provinces. Battle after battle was fought. The invaders were everywhere successful. From far and near, legations came into their camp and solicited for their cities the protection of the new power and renounced the Roman allegiance. The Palmyreans saw their city extend into a province, from a province into a confederation, from a confederation into an empire. Like a furious storm, the new dominion swept over Asia. Scarcely had Rome learned of the sedition in the East, ere Palmyra had wrested a fourth of her dominion from her power.
Nor was Zenobia idle. She accustomed herself to the hardships of camp life and joined with enthusiasm in all the exercise of military drill. She accompanied the army upon every venture and frequently marched on foot at the head of the troops for miles. That she might better inure her constitution to fatigue, she joined Odenathus in the popular pastime of hunting the wild beast of the desert and with passionate ardor, by her husband’s side, pursued the native lions and panthers. No sacrifice was too great, no burden too heavy, no task too irksome, which stood between her and the absorbing ambition of her life.
Many a glorious victory had well laid the foundation for the brilliant empire these invincible chiefs had hoped to build. But an inexorable fate had doomed Odenathus, the undaunted ruler and indomitable soldier to fall by the way – a victim of his own ambition. Maeonius, a favorite nephew, had chained to displease his uncle and as a chastisement had suffered a temporary confinement. Maddened by his humiliation and jealous of his uncle’s increasing power, he assassinated Odenathus at a grand banquet, which had been prepared in celebration of his victories. The ambitious youth saw in the death of his uncle his own exaltation and began at once preparations to usurp the newly founded throne of Palmyra. He had hoped the zest for freedom which inspired the city would be blinded to the sterility of his own achievements and to his ungenerous purpose. But he had miscounted his host. A master hand was at the helm. A guide, experienced and wise, was as then to direct the frail young “ship of state” upon its perilous journey, so fairly begun. It was there that Zenobia revealed the great genius of her nature. The death of her husband had inspired her with a desperate determination. Scarcely did Maeonius realize his bloody achievement than he was seized by the martial widow and according to the customs of the country, executed as a memorial to her dead husband.
The news of the death of Odenathus fell upon Palmyra like a death knell, for the authority granted to him ended with his life. The young empire was without a head. Crowds of anxious citizens thronged the street. In vain, they cast among their number for a leader. Even now, the iron hand of Rome’s resentment might fall upon them in dire destruction. She had never failed to chastise with cruel reckoning any sedition within her borders. Well they knew her heartless vengeance. There were men and women in that throng who had seen their homes in some far-off land topple beneath the flames of Roman incendiaries, men and women who had seen their countries devastated by a ruthless Roman army, gray haired fathers whose gallant sons were Roman slaves, aged mothers whose daughters had been sacrificed to Roman lust, men and women who had borne the full weight of anguish the vengeance and hate of Rome could impose. The army clanged its armory in impatience. Men gazed into each other’s faces aghast. Wild voices of terror rang out upon the still air. The sudden fortune which had smiled upon them in the promise of freedom seemed now to anger the utter destruction of their lives and liberties. Tempestuous despair rocked the very foundation of the city. Zenobia alone was calm and resolute. Clad in imperial robes, she presented herself to the multitude from the steps of a public hall. In words of passionate eloquence, she bade them still their fears and trust their cause to her protecting care. With proud imperviousness, she promised to maintain their independence and to protect their homes and liberties. She pictured Palmyra’s future – her wealth and power. She bade them arouse their latent pride and assert their freedom. She taught them the precious boon of liberty – the blessings of independence. She warned them of the tortures of Roman punishment. Did they hope to reclaim their homes and property? Would they sustain the manhood of their sons, the honor of their daughters, then she bade them trust her promises and follow her commands.
Already her wisdom, patriotism, and valor been listed. Upon many gory fields, she had led the Palmyrian troops on to victory. She had shared the hardships of the army and had sympathized in its grievances. It was she who could soothe their discontent and calm their mutinies. It was she would could inspire them with a courage which would not brook defeat. She loved Palmyra, she hated Rome. The Palmyreans recognized her achievements, her strength, and bravery. They forgot the servility their customs imposed upon her sex and with a loyalty born of desperation, they saluted her “Queen of the East.” She did not fail them in the hour of peril. Possessed of essential qualities of a ruler, inherited from a long line of Macedonian kings, Zenobia was well equipped to grace the majesty of sovereign rule. To the independence of Palmyra, and the freedom of its citizens she consecrated every effort of her life.
The lethargic Galliennus had been content to allow Odenathus to rule the East. Despite the warnings of his wiser advisers, he had believed the provinces would return in loyalty to Rome at the death of the usurper. He did not deem so slight a matter worthy his attention, but when in the midst of his games, his messengers conveyed to him the intelligence that Zenobia, the wife of Odenathus – a woman – had donned the imperial purple and had assumed the government of the provinces, he aroused himself with surprising vigor and ordered a distinguished general to lead an army against the offending city and compel its surrender. The Roman army never reached the Eastern capital. Upon a plain, without the city, Zenobia met them in arms. The battle raged long and fiercely, but Roman numbers could not stand against the fury of Palmyrian patriotism and the Roman army was forced to retrace his march. The unfortunate commander was compelled to pass the remainder of his life under the stigma of disgrace, since he had committed the unpardonable crime of being beaten in war by a woman. Either from motives of prudence or indolence, Galliennus made no more efforts toward the coercion of the Eastern provinces and during the remaining five years of his reign, Zenobia was unmolested by the Great Empire.
Already a large and powerful empire, extending from the banks of the Euphrates to the borders of Bithynia were under the dominion of the new chieftain, yet the perpetuation of her empire was not assured. The “balance of power” in Asia still lay in the hands of Persia while rapacious Rome, vulture-like, constantly menaced the safety of both. The authorities of Persia were distracted by internal confusion. Rome was absorbed in licentiousness, but the Persian rupture would be healed and the reign of Galliennus would terminate. Under the leadership of a more valorous prince, Rome would doubtless essay to regain her lost dominion and the ambition of Persia might again lead her to undertake the reduction of her capital. An extension of her domain and a more secure entrenchment of her power were the only policies which would sustain a hope that Palmyra should remain a permanent factor in the galaxy of nations. The period of her respite might be brief.
From among her numerous and wealthy cities, she collected a powerful armament and prepared for a long campaign. Marching into Bithynia, a strong and opulent Roman province, she commanded it submission. Its army in reply was drawn in battle array before the invading force, which Roman pride haughtily though speedily to destroy. But they knew not the unfaltering courage of Zenobia, nor the unswerving valor of her troops. With unsuspected skill, she forced its defenses, routed its army and dictated herself the terms of the surrender. Leaving a garrison to guard the newly conquered province, she proceeded against Armenia when she found its councils already distracted by the intelligence of her intrigues and the victory of her troops. By a bold stroke of strategy, which might have graced an Alexander, she reduced its forces and added to her possessions that ancient domain with all its fabulous wealth and reputed learning. On marched the army into Galatia, the last province remaining loyal to Rome, and in accordance with the fortunate destiny which governed all her undertakings she planted within its borders, the standard of the new empire. On marched the victorious army. Battle after battle was fraught, until the Roman army had been driven from the continent of Asia. The dominion of Palmyra had been asserted.
Her conquest had been as brilliant as it was brief. Zenobia returned to her capital amid the enthusiastic ovations of her admiring subjects. The army she had commanded, the provinces she had emancipated, the brilliant capital she had established all united in doing homage to their martial deliverer. She had won their independence and her people were grateful. She had demonstrated herself a master and they were ready to obey. But the ambition of Zenobia was not yet appeased. She determined to regain the possessions of her ancestors, whose fertile soil and wealthy populace gave her an especial value. The antiquity of Egypt and her former military achievement had lent a prestige to her name which rendered her for centuries the vantage ground for contending power. It was meet Zenobia, too, should covet this domain and it was in accordance with her fearless courage to attempt the enterprise of its conquest. History has not recorded the details of her invasion, but it is known she marched into Egypt, carrying victory everywhere before the force of her arms and that her laws governed that territory during the remaining years of her supremacy. Again, she returned to Palmyra, covered with glory. Again, she received the praise and gratitude of her subjects. Legations from far and near flocked into her court and sought her alliance. Sapor himself, accompanied ambassadors from Persia and in person petitioned Zenobia’s allegiance. It was but a few months before he had approached the city with a formidable army, anticipating the capture of its treasure and the degradation of its citizens. He had ordered the prodigal gift of Odenathus thrown into the Euphrates, that he might better exhibit his contempt for the city and its senator. Now, he came with far richer offerings to his martial widow. He no longer dared to envy the opulence of Palmyra, but was forced to dread the antipathy and to solicit her protection against the common enmity of Rome.
Zenobia was now in fact as well as title, “Queen of the East.” Had she desired to continue her conquests, there were no longer territories to invade. Peace was her only alternative. All the provinces of Asia were either under her direct dominion or allied to her government by honorable promises of amity. It is indeed probable the ambition of Zenobia led her to look with envy the throne of Rome itself. The effeminate emperor, the disorganized armies and the degenerate life of its citizens rendered the Great Empire more vulnerable than it had ever been since the first days of its supremacy. Her own phenomenal success, the growing strength of her empire and the apparent sympathy of other powers may have made the enterprise seem possible. Whatever may have been her ambition, with the same unflinching dedication which had characterized her months of conquest, she now dedicated every effort so to strengthen her position, extend her fame, and augment the wealth of her realm, that when the final contest should come between Rome and Palmyra the last tie which bound her loved city should forever be broken. The vicissitudes of mankind have produced many an illustrated general, whose deeds of glory have shed a luster upon the page of history; so, too, the needs of peace have created chieftains where counsels could shape the destiny of a nation. But, few have been the natures in which the severity of military command and the judicious prudence of administration have been combined, the genius of military skill with the genius of statesmanship.
Zenobia was a pronounced exception. Whether inspired by yearnings of immortality or guided by ambition for power, every effort was consecrated with apparent unselfish devotion to the independence and development of Palmyra. With incomparable prudence she selected from the great powers of the world, those institutions which had redounded to the benefit of the nation they represented. With scrupulous care, she introduced them into the government and with untiring diligence maintained them. With the diplomacy of imperial Rome, she guarded the approaches into her empire by powerful garrisons, while at her capital a well drilled army stood ready to vindicate the wrongs of the nation. She taught her subjects to revere her authority and always appeared in their presence crowned by the royal diadem; that they might better learn to respect the sovereignty of her family and be reconciled to the succession of her sons to her positions, she frequently led them before the soldiers, clad in the imperial purple. That she might stimulate in her subjects a proud sense of their national greatness, she established a court whose pomp and stateliness had not been rivalled even by the fabulous splendor of ancient Egypt. The polite manners of Rome, the gentle arts of Greece, the majesty and glittering pageantry of the East, alike found reception at Palmyra. Men of learning were invited to her court and the prestige of her influence lent to the cultivation of literature, art and science. She, herself, wrote an oriental history and discussed, with enthusiasm, the beauties of Homer and Plato with the scholars who flocked into her capital. Philosophers and artists revered her as a loved patron and Palmyra soon became the residence of the most renowned scholars, painters and sculptors of the age. There, under the benign influence of peace and stimulated by surroundings of wealth and grandeur the genius of Palmyra put forth the choicest blossoms of literature and art. Oratory was cultivated and the citizens listened not infrequently to lessons of patriotism expounded in the sublimity of eloquence.
With a lavish hand Zenobia had dealt from the public coffers, the treasure which should beautify the capital and render it more imposing; yet with an economy approaching penury she curtailed the expenses of the government and denied to herself and children every luxury. Under the moulding hands of the architect, and sculptor, Palmyra stood forth a rival of Rome herself. From a wealthy city, it had been transformed into a work of art and beauty. Turn back the tide of time and thought and behold the wonders of the capital of the Eastern Empire. Observe her power, her boundless wealth and giant energies. Look upon her luxuriant gardens, her bright fountains, her imposing theaters, her magnificent senate houses, her grand temple and palaces. Behold her noble columns and winged pinnacles, her roofs gleaming with marble, gold and bronze, her mile on mile of battlemented walls. Mark those massive temples, as groups of richly-clad citizens gather before the steps and listen in reverence to the responses of the oracle. Behold the altars of gold, bedecked with precious stones, as the priests offer propitious sacrifices to their Gods. Hearken as the gray-bearded philosophers in the solitude of the shady groves, expound truth and law to an eager multitude. Listen, as around festal board the gentle poet in “the hurried lines of rhyme” sings the glories of the Eastern Empire. What possibilities of immortality are not contained within that city’s walls? With its wealth, its learning, its grandeur, its power, what may it not achieve! What a commentary upon the greatness of Zenobia is the wonders of her capital. Like unto the fabled creation of an “Aladdin’s Lamp” is its massive and colossal strength and beauty. The fame of Palmyra spread far and near and the same of its Queen became a symbol of power in every count. The beauty of her face and figure, the purity of her character, the simplicity of her life, her scholarship and attainments, the pomp and majesty of her court, the wisdom of her statesmanship, the prestige of her ancestry, her military achievements, the wealth of her capital and the loyalty of her subjects were alike the favorite and invidious theme among the world’s nations. Rome, too, had regarded the growth of Palmyra with a deep and awful anxiety. As the years passed by, they saw Zenobia plant more firmly the foundation of the new empire. They marked her course as with masterly skill she conquered Armenia, Galatia and Bithynia, outwitted the ancient government of Egypt, humiliated Persia and strengthened her power by foreign alliances. They saw her gather into her capital the genius of the world and watched with alarm the growth of intelligence and wealth. They saw the arms of her commerce extending into every quarter of the globe and her dominion encroaching more and more upon that of Rome herself. It was in vain proud Romans sought to arouse Galliennus from his debaucheries. It was in vain the Palmyrenean statue in the Roman temple of fortune, turned its face toward the East and from the bell suspended about its neck pealed out the solemn warning that rebellion existed there. Still they were forced to watch her career with dread and anxiety. They watched and speculated whether this new empire, with its wealth, armies, pomp, and magnificence was to become a stable and permanent power among the world’s nations; or would it vanish at the flourish of the first scimitar like an ignuus fatuus? Was the wise, prudent and successful government of a woman, a phantasm, or was it a truth, established, illustrated and maintained Zenobia. The puzzled Romans could not tell. How bitterly they remembered how Rome had once been ruled by a Syrian emperor (Alexander Severus.) They blushed as they remembered his effeminate character and ignominious death. They recounted how since that unhappy day, the name of Syria had been a symbol of weakness in the eye of Rome. How bitterly were they now reminded that not only a Syrian, but a woman, had usurped half the Roman Empire and had dared to rival Roman power.
Roman pride could no longer endure its humiliation and Galliennus was murdered in a conspiracy. Claudius came to the throne as his successor, but the armies were disorganized, the provinces desolated and the councils of the government distracted. He declared Zenobia might rule the East, while he should restore authority upon the frontier. Two years, he spent in ceaseless endeavors to redeem the lost power and dominion of his Empire.
At his death, Claudius appointed Aurelian, one of his most gallant generals, as his successor to the throne. Aurelian had been trained from early youth in the stern discipline of a military camp and won repeated honors by the sagacious use of his sword in the Roman cause. Of Plebeian birth, he had sought wealth and power, through the exercise of arms. By the unexpected revolution of the wheel of fortune, he suddenly found his mean origin and humble life exonerated by his own promotion to the highest and most powerful authority the Great Empire of Rome could bestow. An intrepid soldier and an ambitious commander, Aurelian donned the imperial purple with the resolve to restore the fading majesty of the empire and again establish the dominion on land sea. Empowering the senate to administer the civil laws of the land, he took the field as the head of his armies. Although the brief reign of Claudius had restored order among the disorganized troops and had again established peace on the Northern frontier, there was still need for valorous achievement, ere Roman supremacy should be asserted within the limits of the old Empire. With the unequalled skill of a Roman soldier, Aurelian wrested Gaul, Spain and Briton from the hands of usurping Barbarians and returned to his capital an acknowledged hero. Rome was again at peace with all her European foes and Aurelian turned his armies against the great Zenobia. Fitting out an army more powerful than any which had ever crossed the straits into Asia, he stealthily advanced toward the seceded provinces. At Tyana, a strong-hold and important frontier-post of the Eastern Empire, Aurelian purchased with promises of gold, the aid of a perfidious citizen, who admitted him within the gates of the city. Although he deemed it honorable to purchase treason, he failed to fulfil his unctuous promises, but no sooner was he in command of the city than he bade his soldiers dispose of the traitor as best suited their cruel pleasure. Not until the invading army had reached Antioch did Palmyra’s Queen learn of its approach. The hour had come in whose anticipations, years of preparation had been spent. The tempest of Roman arms had at last burst upon the newborn empire. Placing herself at the head of her troops, Zenobia led them forward to meet the dread intruder. The two great armies met at Immae, a few miles from Antioch. History has failed to do more than record the battle. The forces upon both sides were weakened by severe losses and it is probable neither could claim a victory. Zenobia withdrew her army to Emesa and Aurelian retired to his camp within a few miles. The provinces, alarmed by the sudden dangers which threatened their empire, sent ambassadors into the camp of Aurelian petitioning for clemency toward their people and assured him they had been forced to renounce the Roman authority by the arms of Zenobia. None of the undying valor of Roman had inflamed the men of the East in their loyalty to the new dominion. The Empire had been too recently established and its destiny was too uncertain to claim the unfailing patriotism of its subjects. The effeminate climate of Asia and cultures of submission had abolished the exercise of arms and sapped the ambition of the masses. Peace was their natural element. Promises of pardon was only weapon required to compel their return to Roman alliance.
Another battle followed at Emesa. So heavy were the losses and so fiercely was it fought, it was doubtful how the victory would fall. The Romans, remembering the unkind fate of the unfortunate commander whom Zenobia had forced to return to Rome, were armed with a desperate courage and since the combat gave them no advantage, they resorted to a strategy. Affecting a retreat, they fled from the field, in apparent disorder and were pursued by the Palmyrenean troops. A large part of them were heavy cavalry, clad in complete armor of steel. Their pursuit was impeded by the weight of their equipments and they became easily fatigued while the light horse of the enemy suffered from their speed. When the Romans had inveigled them a considerable distance from the field of battle, they turned upon them with united strength and easily secured them captives. A renewed attack upon Emesa followed and the remaining forces either easily captured or put to flight. Zenobia found her vast army either in the hands of the adversary or dear upon the battle field. Her people were stupefied by the sudden change of fortune. Many of her provinces had joined the standard of the conqueror while a detachment from the Roman army had been sent to invade her Egyptian possessions. Palmyra alone remained loyal. She was unable to collect a third army from her distracted provinces. Retiring within her capital, she made every possible preparation for a stout defense. In her instructions to her people, she eloquently declared her life and her reign should end together. Aurelian fancied his conquest was assured and advances toward Palmyra confident of victory. He had supposed Zenobia would surrender her capital without resistance, but he found its defenses could only by lifted by a siege. It was then he wrote in an original letter: “The Roman people speak with contempt of the war I am waging with a woman. They are ignorant both of the character and power of Zenobia. It is impossible to enumerate her warlike preparations of stones, of arrows, of ever species of missile weapon. Every part of the wall is provided with two or three ballistae and artificial fires are thrown from her military engines.” Zenobia was indeed armed in a desperate resistance.
Despite the contempt and ridicule of the Roman people, Aurelian deemed it expedient to offer terms of capitulation to the offending Queen, than to open the siege. He promised her a splendid retreat and pardon for herself and citizens. But the proud Zenobia scornfully refused his proffered bribe. She had been supported in her firmness by the hope that Aurelian’s army would be forced to cross the desert again for supplies, where she expected her Persian allies would come to her relief and move against their old-time enemy.
Aurelian finding the siege was inevitable, offered propitious sacrifices to the Gods, and deemed it prudent to commend himself and cause to the protections of the duties of Rome. Fierce and long the battle raged. Desperately did the Palmyreneans defend their loved city. Zealously did the Romans attack their defenses. The hope which had sustained Zenobia at last disappeared with the knowledge that supplies were constantly arriving at the camp of the enemy. Famine would soon compel her surrender, but still indomitable, she bade her generals hold the fortress until she should bring reinforcements to their relief. Mounting a fleet dromedary and taking with a her a small guard, she cautiously made her escape and with all possible dispatch advanced toward Persia where she hoped to secure another army. Aurelian, however, learned of her flight, and sent a detachment of light horse in pursuit. At the banks of the Euphrates, she was overtaken and captured.
Had not the government of Persia been disorganized through the death of Sapor, it is probable assistance would have been sent to her relief and her doom either averted or at least postponed. The soldiers in the besieged city, being informed of the capture of Zenobia, their loved Queen and revered commander, became disheartened and surrendered without further resistance. Says her historian: “When the Syrian Queen was brought into the presence of Aurelian, he simply asked her ‘How she had presumed to rise in arms against the emperor of Rome!” The answer was a prudent mixture of respect and firmness, “Because I disdained to consider as Roman emperors an Aeolus to a Galliennus. You alone I acknowledge as my conqueror and my sovereign.”
The conquering army begged Aurelian to deliver the proud captive into their hands that they might tear her limb from limb and laugh at her quivering flesh, but a more refined as well as cruel punishment awaited Zenobia. Seizing the arms and treasures of the opulent capital and leaving a small garrison of six hundred men to guard its citizens, Aurelian took up his march toward Rome. While still on the march, messengers overtook him with the intelligence that the Palmyreans, maddened by the loss of their queen and the destruction of their empire had massacred the entire Roman garrison. With the greatest possible rapidity, he marched again to Palmyra, where the suffering citizens were made to feel the full weight of his anger. He, himself, in a letter acknowledges that old men, women, children and peasants were alike executed by the most cruel and painful devices known. The beautiful palaces and theaters, the colossal temples, the rich and magnificent towers totterred beneath the force of flame and battering ram. Few were left to tell the tale of the dreadful destruction. The only leniency extended to the outcasts was the wretched privileges of rebuilding and occupying their city, but the wealth and art and science which had made Palmyra the work of beauty and wonder were gone forever. Its walls mouldered away, its architectural beauties crumbled into decay. In the midst of the desert it has stood through passing centuries a solemn city of the dead.
Zenobia’s generals were dead, her provinces were devastated, her possessions wrested from her power, her capital destroyed, but out friend still remained. Firmus, a wealthy merchant of Egypt gathered a large army and inspiring them with a hope of freedom and the restoration of their former liberties, captured the city of Alexandria and took possession of the Roman garrison. Aurelian again retraced his march and advanced toward this new adversary. The inexperience and undrilled Egyptian troops were no defense against the tried and veteran arms of Rome and Firmus, himself, was captured and put to death with cruel torture.
Roman supremacy was again established in East and West. Again Rome had conquered the world. Again, a hero returned to the seven-hilled city, to receive the homage of proud Rome. But Aurelian’s triumph was not complete. His subjects could not yet understand the extent of his greatness and the power of his sword. The Roman people had been accustomed to see splendid celebrations and ceremonials in honor of their victories. But among all her triumphs, none had ever been received with greater gratification nor commemoration by greater pomp and magnificence than this victory of Aurelian over the Syrian Queen.
A grand procession was formed representative of the numerous victories of the emperor. All the arms and ensigns of the conqueror’s powers, magnificent plate of gold and silver, curious jewels and strange designs of bonze and marble, the crown and wardrobe of the captive queen, were all displayed under explanatory inscriptions. The procession was headed by 20 elephants, 4 royal tigers and several hundred curious animals from every country of the then known world. Sixteen hundred gladiators, the pride and amusement of cruel Rome, followed on the majestic march thoroughly attesting the extent of Aurelian’s victories were found in chains and unwillingly led in the procession. Palmyreneans, Egyptians, Arabs, Goths, Vandals, Franks, and Gauls, each arrayed in national dress, displayed the wonders of Aurelian’s conquests. All the ambassadors at the capital of the great empire, from every quarter of the globe, clad in their brilliant and peculiar costumes, joined in the glory of the scene.
Aurelian himself was drawn in a magnificent triumphal car, bedecked with gold and silver and precious stones. Grand and impressive as was the glittering train, every eye was fixed upon the beautiful Zenobia. Loaded with heavy jewels until she could scarcely stand beneath the weight, she was forced to march before Aurelian’s car, a constant testimonial of the greatness of his victory. A liveries slave led her by a gold chain which encircled her neck. All day long from early sunrise until the dusk of evening, through intolerable heat, weighted down by an unwieldy burden of jewels, Zenobia was forced to march through the struts, the object of their wonder and their scorn. Reviled by those she had once hoped to make her subjects, driven by the triumphal car in which she had once expected to ride, compelled to march in disgrace through the struts of a city she had once hoped to make her capital, her humiliation was complete.
The splendor of procession was rivalled by the expensive amusements which were provided for the entertainment of the people. Games of the circus, gladiatorial combats, theatrical representations, hunting of wild beasts, sham battles on land and sea composed the exhaustless program of pleasure. Both the army and the people received rich presents from the bountiful hand of the Emperor, and several institutions for the empire, were founded upon that day to perpetuate his memory. All day long continued the sports. At dusk the weary procession reached the capital. Here the story is abruptly lost. Upon that hill where stood the Roman capital, surrounded by a boisterous crowd of uproarious soldiers clamoring for her execution, amid the jeers of an idly multitude the form of the Syrian heroine disappears forever. Her name fades from history. Her valorous deeds are buried in forgetfulness. Profound oblivion rests over the scene where she had been the most imposing actor. Many a procession of triumphal pomp had ascended that Capitol and many an ambitious ruler, unsuccessful in the defense of his throne and freedom had darkly met his death behind its massive walls. Many a defeated prince had stood upon that hill, bound in chains, and beheld in despair that same triumphant Roman populace, those same implacable captors. Her five long centuries of tempestuous event, of ceaseless turmoil, that Capitol – a solemn witness of Rome’s victories. That Capitol which had surveyed the “Rise and Fall” of so many empires, the doom of so many chieftains. That Capital which had heard upon so many occasions the Fall of the desolation of fair land, the destruction of happy homes, the desecration of man’s manhood and woman’s honor. That Capitol which had heralded the return of the Roman army from so many fields of conquest as it displayed the captured and blood-stained ensigns of noble nations. Again it saw the oft-repeated ovation. Again it heard the loud shout of triumph and as its echoes died among the seven hills, what moment, how perished the Syrian heroine?
Though her character had been pure and virtuous, her administration just and prudent, her arms successful, Rome had conquered. What did it matter though a territory had been devastated, a young empire shifted in its fancy, a people reckoned among the outcasts of Earth, the gods had again smiled on Rome. What would count the few years of glory of Palmyra among the triumphant annals of Rome, the Eternal?
Tis said the daughters of Zenobia became Roman matrons and her sons lived and died in the service of the Empire. It matters not, since neither from among her posterity nor her countrymen has arisen one to avenge her sacrifices. Seventeen centuries have rolled their natural course above the deserts of Asia and witnessed not a rival for the flame of Zenobia. The glories of an oriental sun still bathe the ruins of her capital and the night-hawk as it swoops from ruined tower to battlement syllables the only sound of lament.