Historic Girls

Author: Elbridge Streeter Brooks

Zenobia of Palmyra: The Girl of the Syrian Desert.

[Afterward known as "Zenobia Augusta, Queen of the East."] A.D. 250.

MANY and many miles and many days’ journey toward the rising sun, over seas and mountains and deserts,—farther to the east than Rome, or Constantinople, or even Jerusalem and old Damascus,—stand the ruins of a once mighty city, scattered over a mountain-walled oasis of the great Syrian desert, thirteen hundred feet above the sea, and just across the northern border of Arabia. Look for it in your geographies. It is known as Palmyra. To-day the jackal prowls through its deserted streets and the lizard suns himself on its fallen columns, while thirty or forty miserable Arabian huts huddle together in a small corner of what was once the great court-yard of the magnificent Temple of the Sun.

And yet, sixteen centuries ago, Palmyra, or Tadmor as it was originally called, was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nature and art combined to make it glorious. Like a glittering mirage out of the sand-swept desert arose its palaces and temples and grandly sculptured archways. With aqueducts and monuments and gleaming porticos with countless groves of palm-trees and gardens full of verdure; with wells and fountains, market and circus; with broad streets stretching away to the city gates and lined on either side with magnificent colonnades of rose-colored marble—such was Palmyra in the year of our Lord 250, when, in the soft Syrian month of Nisan, or April, in an open portico in the great colonnade and screened from the sun by gayly colored awnings, two young people—a boy of sixteen and a girl of twelve—looked down upon the beautiful Street of the Thousand Columns, as lined with bazaars and thronged with merchants it stretched from the wonderful Temple of the Sun to the triple Gate-way of the Sepulchre, nearly a mile away.

Both were handsome and healthy—true children of old Tadmor, that glittering, fairy-like city which, Arabian legends say, was built by the genii for the great King Solomon ages and ages ago. Midway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, it was the meeting-place for the caravans from the east and the wagon trains from the west, and it had thus become a city of merchant princes, a wealthy commercial republic, like Florence and Venice in the middle ages—the common toll-gate for both the East and West.

But, though a tributary colony of Rome, it was so remote a dependency of that mighty mistress of the world that the yoke of vassalage was but carelessly worn and lightly felt. The great merchants and chiefs of caravans who composed its senate and directed its affairs, and whose glittering statues lined the sculptured cornice of its marble colonnades, had more power and influence than the far-off Emperor at Rome, and but small heed was paid to the slender garrison that acted as guard of honor to the strategi or special officers who held the colony for Rome and received its yearly tribute. And yet so strong a force was Rome in the world that even this free-tempered desert city had gradually become Romanized in manners as in name, so that Tadmor had become first Adrianapolis and then Palmyra. And this influence had touched even these children in the portico. For their common ancestor—a wealthy merchant of a century before—had secured honor and rank from the Emperor Septimus Severus —the man who "walled in" England, and of whom it was said that "he never performed an act of humanity or forgave a fault." Becoming, by the Emperor’s grace, a Roman citizen, this merchant of Palmyra, according to a custom of the time, took the name of his royal patron as that of his own "fahdh," or family, and the father of young Odhainat in the portico, as was Odhainat himself, was known as Septimus Odaenathus, while the young girl found her Arabic name of Bath Zabbai, Latinized into that of Septima Zenobia.

But as, thinking nothing of all this, they looked lazily on the throng below, a sudden exclamation from the lad caused his companion to raise her flashing black eyes inquiringly to his face.

"What troubles you, my Odhainat?" she asked.

"There, there; look there, Bath Zabbai!" replied the boy excitedly; "coming through the Damascus arch, and we thought him to be in Emesa."

The girl’s glance followed his guiding finger, but even as she looked a clear trumpet peal rose above the din of the city, while from beneath a sculptured archway that spanned a colonnaded cross-street the bright April sun gleamed down upon the standard of Rome with its eagle crest and its S. P. Q. R. design beneath. There is a second trumpet peal, and swinging into the great Street of the Thousand Columns, at the head of his light-armed legionaries, rides the centurion Rufinus, lately advanced to the rank of tribune of one of the chief Roman cohorts in Syria. His coming, as Odhainat and even the young Bath Zabbai knew, meant a stricter supervision of the city, a re-enforcement of its garrison, and the assertion of the mastership of Rome over this far eastern province on the Persian frontier.

"But why should the coming of the Roman so trouble you, my Odhainat?" she asked. "We are neither Jew nor Christian that we should fear his wrath, but free Palmyreans who bend the knee neither to Roman nor Persian masters."

"Who WILL bend the knee no longer, be it never so little, my cousin," exclaimed the lad hotly, "as this very day would have shown had not this crafty Rufinus—may great Solomon’s genii dash him in the sea!—come with his cohort to mar our measures! Yet see—who cometh now?" he cried; and at once the attention of the young people was turned in the opposite direction as they saw, streaming out of the great fortress-like court-yard of the Temple of the Sun, another hurrying throng.

Then young Odhainat gave a cry of joy.

"See, Bath Zabbai; they come, they come"! he cried. "It is my father, Odhainat the esarkos,[1] with all the leaders and all the bowmen and spearmen of our fahdh armed and in readiness. This day will we fling off the Roman yoke and become the true and unconquered lords of Palmyra. And I, too, Must join them," he added.

[1] The "head man," or chief of the "fahdh," or family.

But the young girl detained him. "Wait, cousin," she said; "watch and wait. Our fahdh will scarce attempt so brave a deed to-day, with these new Roman soldiers in our gates. That were scarcely wise.

But the boy broke out again. "So; they have seen each other," he said; "both sides are pressing on!"

"True; and they will meet under this very portico," said Bath Zabbai, and moved both by interest and desire this dark-eyed Syrian girl, to whom fear was never known, standing by her cousin’s side, looked down upon the tossing sea of spears and lances and glittering shields and helmets that swayed and surged in the street below.

"So, Odaenathus!" said Rufinus, the tribune, reining in his horse and speaking in harsh and commanding tones, "what meaneth this array of armed followers?"

"Are the movements of Septimus Odaenathus, the head-man, of such importance to the noble tribune that he must needs question a free merchant of Palmyra as to the number and manner of his servants?" asked Odaemathus haughtily.

"Dog of a Palmyrean; slave of a camel-driver," said the Roman angrily, "trifle not with me. Were you ten times the free merchant you claim, you should not thus reply. Free, forsooth! None are free but Romans."

"Have a care, O Rufinus," said the Palmyrean boldly, "choose wiser words if you would have peaceful ways. Palmyra brooks no such slander of her foremost men."

"And Rome brooks no such men as you, traitor," said Rufinus. "Ay, traitor, I say," he repeated, as Odaenathus started at the word. "Think not to hide your plots to overthrow the Roman power in your city and hand the rule to the base Sapor of Persia. Every thing is known to our great father the Emperor, and thus doth he reckon with traitors. Macrinus, strike!" and at his word the short Gallic sword in the ready hand of the big German foot-soldier went straight to its mark and Odaenathus, the "head-man" of Palmyra, lay dead in the Street of the Thousand Columns.

So sudden and so unexpected was the blow that the Palmyreans stood as if stunned, unable to comprehend what had happened. But the Roman was swift to act.

"Sound, trumpets! Down, pikes!" he cried, and as the trumpet peal rose loud and clear, fresh legionaries came hurrying through the Damascus arch, and the pilum[1] and spatha of Rome bore back the shields and lances of Palmyra.

[1] The pilum was the Roman pike, and the spatha the short single-edged Roman sword.

But, before the lowered pikes could fully disperse the crowd, the throng parted and through the swaying mob there burst a lithe and flying figure—a brown-skinned maid of twelve with streaming hair, loose robe, and angry, flashing eyes. Right under the lowered pikes she darted and, all flushed and panting, defiantly faced the astonished Rufinus. Close behind her came an equally excited lad who, when he saw the stricken body of his father on the marble street, flung himself weeping upon it. But Bath Zabbai’s eyes flashed still more angrily:

"Assassin, murderer!" she cried; "you have slain my kinsman and Odhainat’s father. How dare you; how dare you!" she repeated vehemently, and then, flushing with deeper scorn, she added: "Roman, I hate you! Would that I were a man. Then should all Palmyra know how----"

"Scourge these children home," broke in the stern Rufinus, "or fetch them by the ears to their nurses and their toys. Let the boys and girls of Palmyra beware how they mingle in the matters of their elders, or in the plots of their fathers. Men of Palmyra, you who to-day have dared to think of rebellion, look on your leader here and know how Rome deals with traitors. But, because the merchant Odaenathus bore a Roman name, and was of Roman rank—ho, soldiers! bear him to his house, and let Palmyra pay such honor as befits his name and station."

The struggling children were half led, half carried into the sculptured atrium[1] of the palace of Odaenathus which, embowered in palms and vines and wonderful Eastern plants, stood back from the marble colonnade on the Street of the Thousand Columns. And when in that same atrium the body of the dead merchant lay embalmed and draped for its "long home,"[2] there, kneeling by the stricken form of the murdered father and kinsman, and with uplifted hand, after the vindictive manner of these fierce old days of blood, Odaemathus and Zenobia swore eternal hatred to Rome.

[1] The large central "living-room" of a Roman palace.

[2] The Palmyreans built great tower-tombs, beautiful in architecture and adornment, the ruins of which still stand on the hill slopes overlooking the old city. These they called their "long homes," and you will find the word used in the same sense in Ecclesiastes xii., 5.

Hatred, boys and girls, is a very ugly as it is a very headstrong fault; but as there is a good side even to a bad habit, so there is a hatred which may rise to the heighth of a virtue. Hatred of vice IS virtue; hatred of tyranny is patriotism. It is this which has led the world from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to enlightenment, and inspired the words that have found immortality alike above the ashes of Bradshaw the regicide and of Jefferson the American. Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.

But how could a fatherless boy and girl, away off on the edge of an Arabian desert, hope to resist successfully the mighty power of Imperial Rome? The story of their lives will tell.

If there are some people who are patriots, there are others who are poltroons, and such a one was Hairan, the elder brother of young Odhainat, when, succeeding to his dead father’s wealth and power, he thought less of Roman tyranny than of Roman gold.

"Revenge ourselves on their purses, my brother, and not on their pikes," he said. " ’T is easier and more profitable to sap the Roman’s gold than to shed the Roman’s blood."

But this submission to Rome only angered Odhainat, and to such a conflict of opinion did it lead that at last Hairan drove his younger brother from the home of his fathers, and the lad, "an Esau among the Jacobs of Tadmor," so the record tells us, spent his youth amid the roving Bedaween of the Arabian deserts and the mountaineers of the Armenian hills, waiting his time.

But, though a homeless exile, the dark-eyed Bath Zabbai did not forget him. In the palace of another kinsman, Septimus Worod, the "lord of the markets," she gave herself up to careful study, and hoped for the day of Palmyra’s freedom. As rich in powers of mind as in the graces of form and face, she soon became a wonderful scholar for those distant days—mistress of four languages: Coptic, Syriac, Latin, and Greek, while the fiery temper of the girl grew into the nobler ambitions of the maiden. But above all things, as became her mingled Arabic and Egyptian blood—for she could trace her ancestry back to the free chiefs of the Arabian desert, and to the dauntless Cleopatra of Egypt,—she loved the excitement of the chase, and in the plains and mountains beyond the city she learned to ride and hunt with all the skill and daring of a young Diana.

And so it came to pass that when the Emperor Valerian sent an embassy from Rome to Ctesiphon, bearing a message to the Great King, as Sapor, the Persian monarch, was called, the embassy halted in Palmyra, and Septimus Hairan, now the head-man of the city, ordered, "in the name of the senate and people of Palmyra," a grand venatio, or wild beast hunt, in the circus near the Street of the Thousand Columns, in honor of his Roman guests. And he despatched his kinsman Septimus Zabbai, the soldier, to the Armenian hills to superintend the capture and delivery of the wild game needed for the hunt. With a great following of slaves and huntsmen, Zabbai the soldier departed, and with him went his niece, Bath Zabbai, or Zenobia, now a fearless young huntress of fifteen. Space will not permit to tell of the wonders and excitement of that wild-beast hunt—a hunt in which none must be killed but all must be captured without mar or wound. Such a trapping of wolves and bears and buffaloes was there, such a setting of nets and pitfalls for the mountain lion and the Syrian leopard, while the Arab hunters beat, and drove, and shouted, or lay in wait with net and blunted lance, that it was rare sport to the fearless Zenobia, who rode her fleet Arabian horse at the very head of the chase, and, with quick eye and practised hand, helped largely to swell the trophies of the hunt. What girl of to-day, whom even the pretty little jumping-mouse of Syria would scare out of her wits, could be tempted to witness such a scene? And yet this young Palmyrean girl loved nothing better than the chase, and the records tell us that she was a "passionate hunter," and that---she pursued with ardor the wild beasts of the desert and thought nothing of fatigue or peril.

So, through dense Armenian forests and along rugged mountain paths, down rock-strewn hill-slopes and in green, low-lying valleys, the chase swept on: and one day, in one of the pleasant glades which, half-sun and half-shadow, stretch away to the Lebanon hills, young Bath Zabbai suddenly reined in her horse in full view of one of the typical hunting scenes of those old days. A young Arabian hunter had enticed a big mountain lion into one of the strong-meshed nets of stout palm fibres, then used for such purposes. His trained leopard or cheetah had drawn the beast from his lair, and by cunning devices had led him on until the unfortunate lion was half-entrapped. Just then, with a sudden swoop, a great golden eagle dashed down upon the preoccupied cheetah, and buried his talons in the leopard’s head. But the weight of his victim was more than he had bargained for; the cheetah with a quick upward dash dislodged one of the great bird’s talons, and, turning as quickly, caught the disengaged leg in his sharp teeth. At that instant the lion, springing at the struggling pair, started the fastenings of the net, which, falling upon the group, held all three prisoners. The eagle and the lion thus ensnared sought to release themselves, but only ensnared themselves the more, while the cunning cheetah, versed in the knowledge of the hunter’s net, crept out from beneath the meshes as his master raised them slightly, and with bleeding head crawled to him for praise and relief.

Then the girl, flushed with delight at this double capture, galloped to the spot, and in that instant she recognized in the successful hunter her cousin the exile.

"Well snared, my Odhainat," she said, as, the first exclamation of surprise over, she stood beside the brown-faced and sturdy young hunter. "The Palmyrean leopard hath bravely trapped both the Roman eagle and the Persian lion. See, is it not an omen from the gods? Face valor with valor and craft with craft, O Odhainat! Have you forgotten the vow in your father’s palace full three years ago?"

Forgotten it? Not he. And then he told Bath Zabbai how in all his wanderings he had kept their vow in mind, and with that, too, her other words of counsel, "Watch and Wait." He told her that, far and wide, he was known to all the Arabs of the desert and the Armenians of the hills, and how, from sheikh to camel-boy, the tribes were ready to join with Palmyra against both Rome and Persia.

"Your time will indeed come, my Odhainat," said the fearless girl, with proud looks and ringing voice. "See, even thus our omen gives the proof," and she pointed to the net, beneath whose meshes both eagle and lion, fluttering and panting, lay wearied with their struggles, while the cheetah kept watch above them. "Now make your peace with Hairan, your brother; return to Palmyra once again, and still let us watch and wait."

Three more years passed. Valerian, Emperor of Rome, leading his legions to war with Sapor, whom men called the "Great King," had fallen a victim to the treachery and traps of the Persian monarch, and was held a miserable prisoner in the Persian capital, where, richly robed in the purple of the Roman emperors and loaded with chains, he was used by the savage Persian tyrant as a living horse-block for the sport of an equally savage court. In Palmyra, Hairan was dead, and young Odhainat, his brother, was now Septimus Odaenathus—"headman" of the city and to all appearances the firm friend of Rome.

There were great rejoicings in Palmyra when the wise Zenobia—still scarce more than a girl—and the fearless young "head-man" of the desert republic were married in the marble city of the palm-trees, and her shrewd counsels brought still greater triumphs to Odaenathus and to Palmyra,

In the great market-place or forum, Odaenathus and Zenobia awaited the return of their messengers to Sapor. For the "Great King," having killed and stuffed the captive Roman Emperor, now turned his arms against the Roman power in the east and, destroying both Antioch and Emesa, looked with an evil eye toward Palmyra. Zenobia, remembering the omen of the eagle and the lion, repeated her counsel of facing craft with craft, and letters and gifts had been sent to Sapor, asking for peace and friendship. There is a hurried entrance through the eastern gate of the city, and the messengers from the Palmyrean senate rush into the Market-place.

"Your presents to the Great King have been thrown into the river, O Odaenathus," they reported, "and thus sayeth Sapor of Persia: ’Who is this Odaenathus, that he should thus presume to write to his lord? If he would obtain mitigation of the punishment that awaits him, let him fall prostrate before the foot of our throne, with his hands bound behind his back. Unless he doeth this, he, his family, and his country shall surely perish!’ "

Swift to wrath and swifter still to act, Zenobia sprang to her feet. "Face force with force, Odaenathus. Be strong and sure, and Palmyra shall yet humble the Persian."

Her advice was taken. Quickly collecting the troops of Palmyra and the Arabs and Armenian who were his allies, the fearless "head-man" fell upon the army of the haughty Persian king, defeated and despoiled it, and drove it back to Persia. As Gibbon, the historian says: "The majesty of Rome, oppressed by a Persian, was protected by an Arab of Palmyra."

For this he was covered with favors by Rome; made supreme commander in the East, and, with Zenobia as his adviser and helper, each year made Palmyra stronger and more powerful.

Here, rightly, the story of the girl Zenobia ends. A woman now, her life fills one of the most brilliant pages of history. While her husband conquered for Rome in the north, she, in his absence, governed so wisely in the south as to insure the praise of all. And when the time was ripe, and Rome, ruled by weak emperors and harassed by wild barbarians, was in dire stress, the childish vow of the boy and girl made years before found fulfilment. Palmyra was suddenly declared free from the dominion of Rome, and Odaenathus was acknowledged by senate and people as "Emperor and King of kings."

But the hand of an assassin struck down the son as it had stricken the father. Zenobia, ascending the throne of Palmyra, declared herself "Zenobia Augusta, the Empress of the East," and, after the manner of her time, extended her empire in every direction until, as the record says: "A small territory in the desert, under the government of a woman, extended its conquests over many rich countries and several states. Zenobia, lately confined to the barren plains about Palmyra, now held sway from Egypt in the south, to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea in the north."

But a new emperor ruled in Rome: Aurelian, soldier and statesman. "Rome," he said, "shall never lose a province." And then the struggle for dominion in the East began. The strength and power of Rome, directed by the Emperor himself, at last triumphed. Palmyra fell, and Zenobia, after a most heroic defence of her kingdom, was led a prisoner to Rome. Clad in magnificent robes, loaded with jewels and with heavy chains of gold, she walked, regal and undaunted still, in the great triumphal procession of her conqueror, and, disdaining to kill herself as did Cleopatra and Dido, she gave herself up to the nobler work of the education and culture of her children, and led for many years, in her villa at Tibur, the life of a noble Roman matron.

Such, in brief, is the story of Zenobia. You must read for yourselves the record of her later years, as it stands in history, if you would know more of her grandeur in her days of power, and her moral grandeur in her days of defeat.

And with Zenobia fell Palmyra. Centuries of ruin and neglect have passed over the once fairy-like city of the Syrian oasis. Her temples and colonnades, her monuments and archways and wonderful buildings are prostrate and decayed, and the site even of the glorious city has been known to the modern world only within the last century. But while time lasts and the record of heroic deeds survives, neither fallen column nor ruined arch nor all the destruction and neglect of modern barbarism can blot out the story of the life and worth of Bath Zabbai, the brave girl of the Syrian desert, whom all the world honors as the noblest woman of antiquity—Zenobia of Palmyra, the dauntless "Queen of the East."


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Chicago: Elbridge Streeter Brooks, "Zenobia of Palmyra: The Girl of the Syrian Desert.," Historic Girls, ed. Altemus, Henry in Historic Girls Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CPN3ZX7EI711NT3.

MLA: Brooks, Elbridge Streeter. "Zenobia of Palmyra: The Girl of the Syrian Desert." Historic Girls, edited by Altemus, Henry, in Historic Girls, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CPN3ZX7EI711NT3.

Harvard: Brooks, ES, 'Zenobia of Palmyra: The Girl of the Syrian Desert.' in Historic Girls, ed. . cited in , Historic Girls. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CPN3ZX7EI711NT3.