In the year 274, Romans witnessed what the Historia Augusta described as a “most brilliant spectacle” — a triumph on a lavish scale not seen in a generation. The Emperor Aurelian, rode through the city streets of Rome in a magnificent chariot said to have belonged to the king of the Goths, pulled by four matching white stags and followed by 800 pairs of gladiators, 20 elephants and hundreds of wild beasts. The procession was so massive it took hours to wend its way past the cheering throngs. There was reason to celebrate. Aurelian had succeeded, in just a few short years, in re-uniting an empire that been fractured for more than a generation.
But the showpiece of the triumph was Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. She had had the stunning audacity to raise a coalition army of disgruntled Easterners and briefly snatch away a third of the Roman Empire — including its crown jewel Egypt – before being soundly defeated by Aurelian. The ever-colorful SHA describes the captive queen as riding along the parade route in a magnificent chariot weighted down by so many pearls and gems that attendants had to help carry her golden chains.
Zenobia would have represented everything that was held despicable by the ruling male elite of Rome. She was a woman who had thrust herself into military and political spheres, which were considered bastions of masculinity. She had tried, even briefly succeeded, in ripping the Empire apart. She was a rich and powerful Eastern female in a world where females were often viewed in literature and historical narratives as conniving, unreliable and dangerous. She was, in short, much like the woman she claimed as her direct ancestor – Cleopatra, who had for generations been vilified as the epitome of depravity. Romans had also heaped scorn and disdain on other foreign queens, such as Dido of Carthage, Berenice of Judea and Boudica of Britain. It would therefore follow that Zenobia, who had humiliated Rome with her military successes, would be held in contempt by the citizens who lined the streets of Rome that triumphant day.
Master’s Thesis, Georgetown University, 2009