Origin Story

Zenobia is believed to have been born around 241 CE (Cotterman, 5, 2013). Her exact origins are unknown. In a letter she wrote to Aurelian, she herself claims to be a descendant of Cleopatra though this cannot be deemed entirely true. In the Historia Augusta, Trebillius Pollio also states that Zenobia was not a native Palmyrene. However, due to archaeological evidence found at the Great Colonnade in Palmyra, most scholars today believe she was actually a native Palmyrene and that she was the daughter of Julius Aurelius Zenobios, a Palmyrene general whose age and similarity in family name make it likely that he and Zenobia shared some kind of relation. (Cotterman, 5, 2013)  Other evidence such as inscriptions found on milestones in Palmyra imply that Zenobia’s father was a man named Antiochus, and scholars like to think that this is true as after Zenobia’s defeat at Rome, a man named Antiochus raised a revolt in Palmyra to avenge Zenobia and to take up her cause. However, this same Antiochus is also believed to have instead been one of Zenobia’s lesser known sons, and at this point there is not enough evidence to confirm either theory as a definite truth. (Southern, 152, 2008).


What can be confirmed is that Zenobia was the wife of Odaenathus, the king of Palmyra. During his life, Odaenathus was on good terms with the Roman Empire and was known as “king of kings, corrector of the whole region”. This is possibly due to Rome not considering the Palmyrene Empire a separate state at this period of time but instead as Odaenathus being a part of Roman hierarchy with the Palmyrene Empire still holding Roman administrative ties. (Potter 272, 1996)  Odaenathus ruled for several years with Herodes, his son from an earlier wife, alongside him. (Historia Augusta) The Historia Augusta states that Odaenathus and Herodes were assassinated by Maeonius though this has not been proved. All that can be confirmed is that they died around the same time.


 At the time of Odaenathus and Herodes’s deaths, Zenobia’s son Vaballathus, who was only around ten at the time, was established as the new king of the Palmyrene Empire. Zenobia had two other sons besides Vaballathus: Herrennianus and Timolaus, and one account in the Historia Augusta lists that Zenobia ruled through Herrennianus. However, this was later deemed to be false by other ancient sources as well as by the number of coins which have Vaballathus depicted on them as king. (Southern. Vii. 2008) The precise number of Zenobia’s children is also unknown. Vaballathus, Herrennianus, and Timolaus are confirmed, but any others are doubted.  Vaballathus, Herrenianus, and Timolaus are mentioned in numerous accounts concerning Zenobia, and it is even mentation that when  they would go to public gatherings, Zenobia would dress these sons in the same purple that Roman Emperors wore and would herself dress in clothing more common to men of the period.  Zonaras, a Greek historian, also mentions that she had two daughters and also claims that one of them later married the Roman Emperor Aurelian. (Southern 9, 2008)


Regardless of how many children she had, Zenobia did take over as queen regent after her husband and stepson had been killed. The exact reason for why Odaenathus and Herodes were assassinated is not known. However, the Historia Augusta states that there are two possible reasons. The first reason is due to Herodes.


Herodes who was the son, not of Zenobia, but of a former wife of Odaenathus, received the imperial power along with his father, though he was the most effeminate of men, wholly oriental and given over to Grecian luxury,....Odaenathus, complying with his ways and moved by the promptings of a father’s indulgence, gave him [Herodes] all the king’s concubines and the riches and jewels that he captured.” and that “This man [Maeonius] the cousin of Odaenathus, murdered that excellent emperor, being moved thereto by nothing else than contemptible envy, for he could bring no charge against him save that Herodes was his son.”

  • Historia Augusta The Thirty Pretenders XVIII


The other reason is that Zenobia herself hated her stepson Herodes so much and been so apathetic towards her own husband (Aurelian states that Zenobia never even glanced at her husband unless she was wanting a child) that she conspired with Maeonius to have the two murdered and instead have her son instated as the king while she ruled in his place.