Friday, February 23, 2007
This specialization came in handy in 41 B.C., when Mark Antony, learning of Palmyra's wealth, tried to raid the city. The Palmyrans got wind of his approach, and easily spirited their treasure across the Euphrates until the danger passed. Palmyra improbably persisted as an quasi-independent state on the border between two mutually antagonistic superpowers.
But the city's situation remained precarious. In A.D. 18, an envoy from the Emperor Tiberius arrived, probably to make the usual imperial offer of being Rome's friend...or not being Rome's friend. Whatever the exact substance of his visit, a Roman garrison set up shop, roads were built and Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria.
Still, its economic power allowed it to operate with a degree of independence that was fairly unique in the Roman world. A vivid example of its autonomy is provided by the Parthian empire, which permitted Palmyra to establish and maintain trading posts within its borders, even after it came under Roman rule. It's not surprising, then, that when Rome descended into the chaos of prolonged civil war during the middle of the third century, Palmyra readily resumed control of its own affairs.
By 258, the lack of an effective Roman response to the new Sassanian state in Persia had contributed to the rise of Septimius Odenathus, a Romano-Palmyran aristocrat. He assumed the titles dux ("leader"; the English word "duke" is a cognate) and corrector totius orientis ("improver/corrector of the entire East"). When the Emperor Valerian was defeated and captured while campaigning against the Sassanids in 260, Odenathus stood virtually alone against the might of Persia and effectively stalemated them. He was assassinated in 267, but his wife, Zenobia, assumed regent power for their son, Vaballathus.
Like Odenathus, Zenobia operated as a putative vassal of Rome. Around 270, the Roman mint at Antioch was issuing double-headed coins with the new emperor, Aurelian, on one side, and Vaballathus (under the distinctly un-Roman honorific rex) on the other. Around the same time, however, and for reasons which remain unclear, Palmyra went on the offensive and took control of much of the Roman East, sweeping as far as Alexandria. It's possible that the Palmyrans were acting against regional challenges to their authority, but whatever their intent, Aurelian regarded their actions as treasonous.
Aurelian marched east in 272 and defeated the Palmyrans in battles at Immae and Antioch before sacking Palmyra itself in 273. The city never recovered, and was probably completely abandoned by the mid-4th century. Zenobia herself was captured and sent to Rome to appear in Aurelian's triumph; the sources disagree on what happened after that. By some accounts, she died on the journey to Rome. One source says that Aurelian had her beheaded after displaying her during his triumph. The most poetic of Zenobia's possible fates has her living out her days at an estate in Tibur (modern Tivoli), while her short-lived desert empire began its descent into the ruins you see above.
Judith Weingarten has done Zenobia and her kingdom much better justice than I can. She has written a historical novel about Zenobia, and maintains an excellent weblog.
ETA: Judith was kind enough to drop by and provide me with a correction; see the comments.