The Mighty Zenobia of Rome
In the 3rd Century AD, the beautiful seventeen-year-old Zenobia, said to be a descendant of Cleopatra VII, marries Odaenathus, the prince of Palmyra. While Odaenathus leads the Assyrian army to meet the Persians in battle, Zenobia welcomes and entertains the new Roman emperor, Aurelian. The two are mutually attracted and begin a torrid love affair. Shortly after Odaenathus’ triumphant return, he and his oldest son are assassinated. A sword of the Imperial Guard is found at the scene of the murder. Zenobia believes Aurelian had Odaenathus murdered because of the growing threat to his fledgling power. Outraged, she swears revenge. Over the next five years, as Aurelian is battling invaders from the north and then from Brittania, Zenobia raises an army that conquers the entire Eastern Roman Empire. But can she hold on to what she has gained? And is it worth the cost?
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Zenobia watched the covers rise and fall several times—labored breaths that tore her heart and taxed her patience. Her mother had dozed off once again. She allowed her gaze to wander as she waited, knowing it would not be long. Thick blood-red curtains blocked the sunlight and added to the pervasive presence of death, but Zenobia’s eyes were accustomed to the gloom. To think that only two years before her mother had looked young, strong, and as beautiful as any woman in Palmyra—nay, the entire Eastern Roman Empire! Now here she lay, decimated from the wasting sickness like one three times her age, the smell of decay overpowering the flowery perfumes intended to mask the sickening odors. The tic of Zenobia’s right hand, spilling a few drops of cool water from the silver ladle in her hand, was the only sign of the shudder that flashed through her body like a flame racing up a bolt of silk.
Cenobie stirred, and Zenobia forced a smile to her face. “Did you rest a bit, Mother?”
“Very soon I will rest eternally with the Rephaim.”
Zenobia’s eyes flared at the mention of the gods of the underworld, but she held them steady on the drawn face of her mother. She cursed her lack of control and channeled the distress at her mother’s words into anger. The oppressive air of the darkened room helped fuel that anger.
“Of course not, Mother. As you often say, this trouble is only a stray camel passing across the face of the great desert.”
Zenobia knew her mother’s thoughts: such pretense was another mark of weakness. The fetid body, wasting away to a shriveled shell, made the inevitability of death clear. The only question was how long Cenobie would still breathe.
“You have always taught me to fight through all adversity, Mother.”
Cenobie exhaled, but the sound rattled as it came up her throat and passed her cracked lips. In spite of constant drips of water from the ladle, Zenobia could not keep them moist. When her breathing steadied once more, her mother continued.
“The blood of Cleopatra, the greatest queen the world has ever known, flows through your veins. You must not let this chance to regain our glory go to waste.”
Her mother boasted Queen Cleopatra VII as an ancestor through Drusilla, granddaughter of King Juba II of Mauretania and Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony. How much of this was true, if any? It didn’t matter … especially now. Zenobia opened her mind and her heart wide as she prepared to obey. “What must I do?”
Moments passed before the older woman spoke again. Zenobia wondered if she were gathering her thoughts or her energy.
“You must know that, even now, King Shapur leads a mighty army against our wealthy neighbor of Antakya to the north.”
With her free hand, Zenobia rubbed her fingers lightly over her brow. “No doubt Shapur wishes to make an impact after his father, Ardašir, proclaimed him co-ruler of the Persian Empire above his older brothers.”
Cenobie gave a tight smile, clearly pleased that her daughter understood the political implications. “Emperor Valerian will ride with our Lord Odaenathus in two days to witness his destruction of the southern bandits.”
Zenobia huffed lightly. Not wanting her mother to exert herself over politics, she had forbidden the servants from speaking to Cenobie of the latest developments. She should have known better. Dying or not, Cenobie’s mind remained sharp and her strength of character like steel; the servants would not resist her. Smothering her irritation at the servants, Zenobia nodded.
The Tanukh, one of the larger nomad Arab clans, had seized the chaos of the imminent war as an opportunity to send a strong raiding party along Assyria’s southern border. But she did not see the connection.
Another pause as her mother once more gathered her strength. “It is said that, if the emperor is pleased with the result, he will grant Lord Odaenathus command of the combined armies to face the Sassanids.”
“Ah.” Now she understood. Since the rule of Tiberius, Odaenathus’ family, the Septimii, had controlled the city of Palmyra in an uneasy truce with Rome. It seemed that Valerian now wanted to formalize the relationship, and viewed the current Septimii prince as the man to take charge of this desert city that acted as a buffer against the mighty Persian Empire. It was rumored the emperor was feeling his age and wanted to spend some time in his villa in southern Italia. Before he handed over his legions, however, Valerian wanted to witness the vaunted leadership of Odaenathus using only his Beduin cavalry rather than Imperial troops.
“Yes. And you must go with them.”
Zenobia’s eyes flared once again, but she stifled an exclamation. She fussed with the ladle while she regained her composure.
“To what purpose, Mother?”
The woman inclined her head slightly on the pillow, a sign she was pleased with her daughter’s reaction. Before her illness she would have been more subtle, but now she came right to the point.
“The passing of Princess Lejka has left a gap that Lord Odaenathus must fill. When Valerian makes him governor—which he will—he must have both a wife and a mother for his young son. You must become that wife.”
“Mother! He’s still in mourning.”
The exclamation slipped from her before she could catch it. Her mother’s hand rose only slightly, but it was enough to dismiss the outburst.
“Lord Odaenathus must have a woman more suitable than the one who died of the birthing sickness. You are strong, and have been trained since childhood for just such a position. You must not let this opportunity pass.” Cenobie’s voice cut through the silence of the household as she repeated the command.
Three years before, Prince Odaenathus had proudly held his heir aloft for the citizens to see: Hairan, named after his grandfather. But Princess Lejka had died three days afterward. It had taken more than a year for the citizens to recover from the loss of the beautiful young princess, whose charity and kindness were renowned throughout Assyria. Only the presence of enemies to the north and south of his city had pulled Palmyra’s prince out of his sorrow.
Zenobia gazed around the large, richly-appointed bedroom, with silk curtains and bedding, exotic furniture that had been collected from distant lands, and chests that held beautiful clothing made from expensive fabrics and adorned with golden threads and precious gems. She reflected that she had indeed been trained for this moment. Her father, Zabbai bin Selim, had been a wealthy minor nobleman of Palmyra.
Zenobia sighed. Her father had doted on her and denied her nothing. In keeping with the warrior-queen tradition of Assyria, Zenobia had been trained from an early age in riding, hunting, and the use of weapons. Zabbai had personally taught her to read, a skill few girls ever acquired. When a trading caravan led by her father had been slaughtered by bandits, she had wept for a week. She had not seen her mother shed a tear.
Since that day, Cenobie had focused her attention on preparing Zenobia for a great destiny, no doubt envisioning a rejuvenation of her glorious family heritage. She had been emotionless, relentless, and nearly silent.
“And how am I to manage that, Mother?”
Her mother gave a slight smile, reminding Zenobia of the woman of only a year before. “It is already arranged. Lord Odaenathus will allow you to join the cadre of other young nobles who will sip their first taste of battle. You must make certain to capture his eye, not just as the great beauty you are, but as a brave, formidable warrior. When he is ready, he will think of you first.”
Zenobia dipped the ladle once more into the cool water, giving her mother time to regain her breath. Lord Odaenathus was a great warrior, a splendid man, and no doubt soon to be second only to the emperor himself in Assyria. But he was old, at least twice her own age of seventeen, and now had a son and heir. How could she ever find happiness as the wife of such a man?
“Is it … so important?”
“There is only one thing important in life.” Once more, her mother’s eyes gazed at her like those of a hawk about to stoop on its prey. “The only thing that gives one control of life.”
Zenobia had been told that often enough by both of her parents. The only important thing in life was power, because only that could make you safe. As she dipped the ladle toward her mother’s eager tongue, a sigh crossed her mind, but not her lips.
* * *
The early morning air was crisp, invigorating. The sky was cloudless, and not even the cry of a desert hawk broke the stillness. The morning was glorious, with the desert shades of crimson complementing the yellows and browns.
Zenobia sat unmoving on her horse, the reins held loose in her right hand, but inside she was tight as the string of the bow held in her left. From her waistband hung a straight, double-edged slashing sword similar to the Roman spatha. Not quite as long or heavy, it was still a better weapon for use from horseback than the short gladius the legionnaires used for stabbing from behind their shields.
Zenobia intently scrutinized the slight slope to the Tanukh camp. If she joined in the conflict, she would guide her swift Arabian with her knees to leave both hands free to use her weapons. The other young nobles, poised atop their mounts on either side of her, wore heavier armor, and each carried a spear and the longer Assyrian sword. To their left sat Emperor Valerian surrounded by his turma, a detached cavalry unit of thirty men from his Praetorian Guard. They were there only as observers.
Below, a few horses nickered and a handful of camels chewed their cuds. Some of the bandits stirred. Otherwise, the camp was quiet.
The Tanukh had found a large oasis only a few leagues from the village they had raided the day before. They slept on the ground with their horses tethered beside them. The camels, still weighted down with the booty from the Assyrian nomad camps they had previously sacked, stood at the center of the circle of Tanukh warriors.
Knowing the plan, Zenobia was certain the guards posted along the rise and on the far side of the camp had already been dispatched. Stealthy Beduin warriors had slithered across the sand under the cover of darkness, their long knives clenched in their teeth. When the first light of the sun broke the horizon, they had pounced as one to slit the throats of their assigned sentry. The lack of warning served as evidence of their deaths.
A sudden war cry pierced the silence, and the main Palmyrene cavalry flew over the ridge toward the invaders. Zenobia watched with excitement as Odaenathus led the charge, the point of his sword circling above his head. The air roiled with the thunder of horses, the battle cries of men, and the dust that rose like steam in a cauldron.
With amazing speed, the Tanukh sprang from their bedrolls and grabbed their weapons. Some loosed arrows, while others leaped on the backs of their horses before the first wave of Palmyrenes swept into their ranks. Throwing their spears or shooting arrows, Odaenathus’ Beduin horsemen wreaked carnage among their startled foe. Just as the Tanukh organized some resistance, a smaller band of cavalry swept from their rear, completing the trap.
From her vantage point, it looked to Zenobia that the battle would be over before she and her companions could enter the fray. Her brows furrowed and the corner of her mouth twisted, yet a sigh of relief fought to escape her lungs. Her mount pranced at the violent noise and motion of men in conflict, but she steadied him with a firm hand. At that moment something caught her eye: A group of Tanukh must have recognized Odaenathus as the opposition’s leader and determined to exact some measure of revenge. Forming into a tightly mounted group, they charged the spot where the prince was already occupied by two of the bandits, his back to the half dozen warriors bearing down on him. Without thought, Zenobia kicked her horse into motion and raced toward Odaenathus.
At a full gallop, she managed to draw her bowstring and fire an arrow before she entered the melee. She felt a strange thrill to see the man fall, her arrow in his chest. As the distance closed rapidly, she drew her short sword and shouted a warning to the prince, who had killed one of his foes but remained oblivious to the greater danger from the side.
Startled by her shout, the prince glanced left. His attention distracted, the man below him gave a fierce grin and stabbed upward with his scimitar. His blow caught Odaenathus’ horse squarely in the chest. With a scream, the horse reared violently, throwing his rider to the ground, the sword embedded in its muscular torso.
As though the flow of time had stilled to a mere trickle, Zenobia saw the attacker on the ground draw his long knife. At the same time, the Tanukh now leading the pack racing toward Odaenathus raised his sword to cleave the prince with a mighty blow. Zenobia’s warrior instinct still ruled her, the stench of blood, leather and sweat burning her nostrils. She pulled hard on the reins with her free hand to guide her horse to a point in front of Odaenathus, who was just rising to his feet, one hand automatically reaching for his sword on the ground beside him.
Just as the bandit began a downward stroke, Zenobia’s horse rammed his mount from the side; the rider flew off to slam headfirst into the ground. The man’s horse came down squarely on the assailant who was stabbing with his knife, crushing him beneath its weight. Zenobia had already launched herself into a dive, breaking her fall with both hands and rolling with the impact. Even so, her shoulder hit the sand hard and the breath whooshed from her body. She just had a moment to see the other horses veer from the carnage in front of them before she tumbled over once more, her heels digging firmly into the sand.
Dazed, Zenobia lay on her back for several seconds, amazed the sand, still cold and firm from the night, had softened her fall enough so that she was not seriously hurt. Struggling to sit up, she saw Odaenathus standing, swinging his sword ferociously at the attackers who had regained control of their mounts.
More than a dozen Palmyrene cavalry closed in, frantic to defend their prince. Within a few minutes the Tanukh warriors were dead or dying. Odaenathus remained standing, his sword raised. He stared down at Zenobia with wide eyes, panting heavily from the battle—and perhaps disbelief that he still lived.
Zenobia drew in great gulps of air, and suddenly realized that both of her arms trembled violently. Her heart beat as though to burst its way through her light armor. Her head and shoulder throbbed, yet strangely she thought only of the concern and wonder that lay deep in the dark, soft eyes of Odaenathus.
The prince bent down and took her hand. Gently, he pulled her to her feet to stand beside him. His voice was deep, but flowed like a refreshing desert stream.
“Thank you . . . my lady.”
Zenobia giddily had but one thought: her mother’s command had been realized. The prince of Palmyra had definitely noticed her.
Don Maker received his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from U.C. San Diego and his M.A. in Education from Chapman University. He has had the fortune to travel extensively, living in or visiting every continent except Antarctica. As a teacher, he wrote a novel based around education in the 1950s, “The Grindstone”, and a YA magical realism novel, “Miranda’s Magic”, to encourage middle school students to love science. He also penned a surrealistic play based on the life of Sigmund Freud, “Sigi and Carl”, and a sports comedy, “The Jersey Jupiters”. Focusing on historical fiction. Don has published “Zenobia”, set in the 3rd century Roman Empire, and just released “The Savior of Europe”, the story of Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles “Martel” (The Hammer), who was responsible for uniting the Frankish Empire and driving the Muslims out of Europe in the 8th century. He is currently working on “The Shakespeares and the Crown”, which explores the changing landscape of England during