Women’s History Month: Zenobia, the Equestrian Rebel

As the Queen of Palmyra in the third century, Zenobia was known for her exceptional equestrian skills, riding into battle at the head of her armies to take on the Roman Empire.

Herbert Gustave Schmalz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Zenobia was born around 240 CE in Palmyra, a wealthy and culturally diverse city situated in present-day Syria. Little is known about her early life, but historical records indicate that she married Odaenathus, the ruler of Palmyra, around 258 CE. After Odaenathus’s assassination in 267 CE, Zenobia assumed the regency for her son, Vaballathus, who was still a child at the time. However, Zenobia quickly rose to prominence, effectively ruling Palmyra as its queen.

During the period known as the “Crisis of the Third Century,” when Rome’s internal government was in turmoil after the assassination of the emperor Alexander Severus, Zenobia steadily expanded the kingdom of Palmyra into an empire. All of this was done without the aid of a standing professional army. Instead, sources say Zenobia’s coalition force was composed of native Palmyrene troops, various allied mercenaries, and heavy cavalry supported by mounted horse archers similar to the Sassanid Persian model. (Nakamura, 137)

The works of the Byzantine historian Zosimus provide detailed accounts of Zenobia’s reign and military exploits. His writings shed light on her strategic acumen and her ability to lead troops both on foot and on horseback. In Historia Nova, he¬†describes the “vigorous cavalry of the Palmyrenians” that “placed great confidence in their armour, which was very strong and secure,” and “were much better horsemen” than the Romans.

Historians believe the Palmyra heavy cavalry would have been armored in the cataphract style, with scaled armor covering almost the entire horse and the rider.

Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Zenobia remained unchallenged until the Roman emperor Aurelian came to power in 270 CE. Their battles are detailed at length in the Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors and notable figures. The section on Zenobia offers a glimpse into her military campaigns and her reputation as a formidable rider. It also details correspondence between Zenobia and Aurelian, including when he tried to threaten her into surrendering.

The letter reads:

“You, O Zenobia, can live with your family in the place which I will assign you upon the advice of the venerable Senate. You must deliver to the treasury of Rome your jewels, your silver, your gold, your robes of silk, your horses and your camels. The Palmyrenes, however, shall preserve their local rights.” (Lewis, 380)

Zenobia promptly replied, “You will lower then that tone with which you – as if already full conqueror – now bid me to surrender.” (Lewis, 381)

2024 translation…

Unfortunately, Zenobia was eventually defeated by Aurelian in 273 CE. Some sources say she was paraded through the streets of Rome wearing golden chains before being pardoned by Aurelian to live out the rest of her days in peaceful luxury. Other accounts say the legendary queen starved herself before reaching the city just so that Aurelian didn’t have a prize to put on display. Her official date of death is unknown.

Still, Zenobia forever changed history and was arguably one of the most prominent equestrian women in history.

Modern scholarship has further illuminated Zenobia’s equestrian legacy through archaeological discoveries and interdisciplinary research. Scholars such as Patricia Southern, author of “Zenobia: Palmyra’s Rebel Queen,” offer comprehensive analyses of Zenobia’s life, drawing from a wide range of historical sources and archaeological evidence.

Archaeological excavations in Palmyra and other regions associated with Zenobia have unearthed artifacts, inscriptions, and architectural remains that contribute to our understanding of her equestrian culture. These findings underscore the importance of horses in ancient Palmyrene society and corroborate the accounts of Zenobia’s proficiency as a rider.

The Archaeological Museum at Palmyra (Tadmor) contains this stone relief showing a leopard hunt from horseback – a horse archer is shooting arrows, carried in a saddle strapped gorytus, at the snarling feline.

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian, and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @amanda_uechi_ronan.