We know much less than we would like about the Syrian queen Zenobia of Palmyra, and rather less than our 19th-century predecessors, who wrote before source-criticism eliminated much of the supposed evidence for her life. For a short time in the 260s and 270s AD, Zenobia ruled most of the Roman near east without reference to anyone’s authority but her own. In defeat and forced retirement, she became a Roman matron from whom one might still claim descent a hundred years later. Her old age was lived out in Tivoli, the site of the Emperor Hadrian’s grand villa. It had been Hadrian, on one of his many eastern tours, who had given Palmyra the status of a free city, setting it on the path to riches and power that culminated in the triumphant half-decade of Zenobia’s reign. Perhaps the former queen saw the irony.
The middle of the third century was a difficult time for the Roman Empire, in part because of its previous successes. Over the centuries, even the most backward parts of the empire had come to be integrated into Greco-Roman culture and Roman citizenship, while imperial government grew to resemble an administered state rather than a parasitic superstructure delegating the actual tasks of government to local authorities. By Zenobia’s time, the Mediterranean and its vast hinterland had become an empire of Roman citizens, no longer an empire governed for the benefit of Rome. That meant, among other things, that no one part of the empire had any greater claim to rule than any other, and that a Danubian or a Syrian was no less legitimate a contender for the imperial throne than an Italian. The practical consequences of that fact were revealed by a series of military shocks, delivered by an aggressive new Persian dynasty in the east and by powerful barbarian coalitions on the Rhine and Danube. If Rome’s frontier armies were going to fight and die for a Roman empire, they wanted do so under the direct command of a Roman emperor. One after the other they proclaimed their own commanders emperor, and that meant trouble. While a mere general could devote himself to external enemies, the moment he was clothed in the imperial purple he had to fight for his right to it, as there could be only one legitimate emperor. The result was 50 years of putsch and counter-putsch, an unbreakable cycle of endless, pointless civil war.
With the fraying of the imperial centre, however, came opportunity at the edges, as Zenobia and her husband, Odaenathus, discovered. In 260, the Emperor Valerian was captured in battle by the all-conquering Persian shah Shapur, leaving the Roman east effectively without a government: Valerian’s son and fellow emperor Gallienus, beset by challengers on all sides, found himself unable to govern even the west. While Shapur was marching home to Mesopotamia, laden with spoils from the Levantine coast, Odaenathus of Palmyra inflicted a defeat on the Persian army, perhaps quite a small one, which was soon enough magnified into an unprecedented triumph. Seemingly at one stroke, the Palmyrene dynasty became the only government worth the name in the Roman east, and Odaenathus was granted – or perhaps unilaterally assumed – a series of titles that implied the delegation of extraordinary powers from the Emperor Gallienus himself. Such stylings were for the benefit of the Greeks Odaenathus ruled, but he began at the same time to employ Persian titles that spoke to a very different audience, to the local Syrians and Arabs who liked being ruled by a local ‘king of kings’, who could defend them from the more distant, and more rapacious, Shapur.
For a few years, Odaenathus was able to live out a fantasy version of Hellenistic monarchy, in a manner that the Romans had made impossible 200 years earlier, when they first reduced the petty kings of the east to clientage and then annexed their kingdoms as provinces, forcing their ruling dynasts to become respectable Greek burghers. Even in the third century, one could find pompous local worthies with a king or a queen in the family tree, but Odaenathus was now the real thing, with armies and a foreign policy and children to succeed him – or at least he was until Zenobia took up her role in this very ancient script. Odaenathus’ children from a previous marriage then disappeared from view, presumably murdered, Odaenathus himself was assassinated in 267, and it is hard not to credit Zenobia with the coup, as she then emerged as the unchallenged regent for her young son, Vaballathus. She decorated her court with agile intellectuals who knew where they were most likely to find cash rewards: Cassius Longinus, whose On the Sublime is the most important work of ancient literary criticism between Aristotle and Augustine, served as tutor to the royal teenager.
While the western empire, from Britain to the Balkans, remained threatened by invasion and was carved up among a series of competing emperors, Zenobia set about conquering the largest single kingdom the Greek world had seen since the Egyptian queen Cleopatra died in 30 BC. Zenobia extended direct control from Palmyra up to the Taurus mountains and out to the coast, and was welcomed by many in the faction-ridden cities of the region. In 270, she responded to a minor rising in southern Egypt by annexing the whole province. It was as if a lost world of Greek monarchy had been restored.
But it was also the beginning of the end. A brutally efficient general named Aurelian had recently seized the imperial title in the Balkans and, as even our painfully scant evidence makes clear, he was a prodigy of violent energy, lucky to survive the assassin’s knife for fully five years of rule. He set about reassembling the empire at the point of a sword. It took only two major battles to decide Palmyra’s fate: while Zenobia was in the ascendant, the Greek cities were happy enough to support her, but as Aurelian demonstrated his superiority on the battlefield, city after city went over to the winning side. Aurelian spared Zenobia when she surrendered to him, but many leading Palmyrenes were tried and executed as rebels and we hear no more of her son, Vaballathus. In the aftermath of Aurelian’s victory, Palmyra sank to the status of a minor frontier post, while Zenobia survived to grace the victor’s triumph – she and the Gallic emperor Tetricus marched, bound and downcast, in front of Aurelian’s triumphal chariot, each going on to an honourable future, she as the mother of a Roman family, he as a provincial governor of impeccable mediocrity. Whether Zenobia experienced all this as anticlimax, we don’t know, but it certainly seems like one.
For a woman who recalled better than any other figure the glories of Hellenistic queenship, who could be presented as Cleopatra reincarnate, the unwillingness to go out in a blaze of glory is a particular disappointment. We can try to infer her reasoning, can guess at the geopolitical realities that convinced her that accommodation with Aurelian was better than resistance, but the truth of the matter is that the little we know about Zenobia can be set out in three or four pages of dense scholarly text. A 200-page book on her is a stretch for anyone and while amateur histories need not be amateurish, Winsbury’s book sadly is. He neither understands the complexity of Roman government in the east, nor realises that the multiple sources he cites with confidence are witnesses to, at the very most, one Latin and two Greek works now lost. Worse still, he relies on the spurious Historia Augusta, a late fourth-century collection of imperial biographies which is almost totally worthless for the third century, whenever its romantic fiction seems ben trovato. The first and last chapters on Zenobia’s modern reception are interesting enough, but no one need trouble themselves with what comes in between.
Cleopatra, the seventh and last Egyptian queen to bear that name, fares much better at the hands of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stacy Schiff. Apart from Jesus of Nazareth, no historical figure of the ancient world has been as much mythologised as Cleopatra, and the supposed divinity of the former has done less to obscure his historical character than Roman enmity has done to the latter. Cleopatra had the misfortune to embody three things that Romans needed, feared and disdained: women, Greeks and an Orient whose culture was far, far older than theirs. Before she was dead, Roman enemies had turned her into a monster of voluptuous cunning, and posterity has followed suit. Shakespeare struggled to improve on Plutarch, Taylor and Burton on Shakespeare, and each generation has got the Cleopatra it wanted. Most recently, Lyndsey Marshal’s drugged-up sexual acrobat – a footballer’s Wag version in the BBC Rome series – has lured thousands of priapic adolescents into classrooms where historical reality can only disappoint. It is a gratifying surprise, then, when Schiff gives us an adroit and breezy introduction to the historical queen, never making more of the evidence than it will bear, and candidly admitting when there is no way of knowing something we want to know. As it turns out, in the hands of a good narrator, the historical Cleopatra is quite good enough, even with the sex and violence dialled down.
What makes the real Cleopatra so interesting is how very close she came to winning in an almost impossible situation. Though she ruled what was indisputably the richest kingdom in the world, she – like her immediate predecessors on the throne of the Ptolemies and like every other monarch in the Greek world – did so on Roman sufferance. In other words, she held her throne only so long as it was useful or profitable for Rome to have her there. Her father had contracted crippling debts to various Romans in exchange for restoration to his throne and those debts gave Rome an excuse to milk the Egyptian cash cow for all it was worth. There were four Ptolemies in Cleopatra’s generation, and any one of them could have given Rome what it wanted. That would have been enough to make her own position tenuous, but what made it much more so was the difficulty of working out which menacing Roman actually represented the authority of a Roman Republic that had largely ceased to exist. Rival strongmen, all claiming to be good republicans, used the shell of the Republic only to the extent that it advanced their own ambitions for total domination. Whatever Caesar and Pompey, Cato and Scipio, Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Octavian were fighting for within the puzzling framework of Roman logic, they were all more or less the same viewed from the Greek perspective: terrifying and predatory, to be sure, but also weapons of unmatchable power in the prosecution of local feuds. To harness a Roman army to one’s cause was to trump the other locals every time.
Cleopatra proved herself unrivalled at that game. Exiled by her younger brother and his advisers, she got herself smuggled back into the royal palace at Alexandria when Julius Caesar was lodging there while deciding how he ought to take vengeance on the murderers of his rival Pompey. By the time Caesar had arranged Egyptian affairs to his satisfaction, Cleopatra was pregnant with his son, one brother was dead, she had married the other in the Egyptian fashion and made him her puppet, and her sister was safely in exile. To sustain this happy state of affairs meant cultivating the native Egyptian populace like no Ptolemy had ever done before and also ensuring that no one in Italy could forget how valuable she was as an ally. She was in or near Rome at the time of Caesar’s assassination, but got herself out of the way before she became collateral damage. Then, in the baffling swirl of hostility and alliance between Caesar’s rival heirs and his assassins, she refrained from committing herself until she had no choice, at which point she repeated the trick of bedding a Roman commander and making herself indispensable. By the time every interim expedient had been exhausted, and Mark Antony had decided that his only hope for sharing power with the young Octavian was to split the Roman Empire in two and take the eastern half for himself, he had fathered two children with Cleopatra, though still married to Octavian’s sister.
It’s all this sex, of course, that attracts attention and has done from the very start. But Cleopatra went out of her way to make herself an ideal Roman vassal. She was always there with money when it was needed, paying for and supplying mercenaries at crucial moments, and came up with all the things Rome wanted from its royal clients – a steady influx of cash, regional stability and local peace and quiet without the need for direct Roman intervention or government. Those requirements stayed more or less the same from the middle Republic through to the second century AD, when the last of the client kings disappeared, and they suited all sides pretty well; generations before Cleopatra’s time, there was no possibility of a Greek east without the dominance of Rome, so to be able to link one’s own local and regional ambitions to the Roman leviathan was the real test of Hellenistic rulership. The Egyptian Ptolemies started with an advantage over their Levantine competitors because of their wealth and a long legacy of tight pharaonic control over Egypt’s vast natural resources, but that was merely a difference of scale. Marriage, murder, the sponsorship of inconvenient siblings in exile were standard tricks by which Rome’s eastern clients tried to position themselves against one another, and Schiff does readers a service by making Cleopatra’s story as much about her rivalry with eastern neighbours like Herod of Judaea as a chapter in Roman history. Indeed, Herod’s mother-in-law, the Hasmonaean princess Alexandra, provides an instructive parallel in dynastic gamesmanship and serves as a powerful reminder of something much too easy to forget: that wherever and however sex figures in Cleopatra’s story, what she wanted and got from Rome was not chiefly a matter of Roman politics, but rather of rivalry among Hellenistic dynasties.
Cleopatra won that game, creating the largest kingdom any of Alexander’s successors had seen in centuries. It took in big chunks of the Levant, including valuable commercial concessions in regions she did not rule directly, plus the islands of Cyprus and Crete and even a corner of what is now the Turkish coast. In that vast space, she had the freedoms reserved for the privileged client, not to mention the promise of her children by Caesar and Antony inheriting a territory as large as the western Roman Empire.
It should have worked. No one could argue that she misjudged her position until it was already too late to salvage. She could not have realised that a full generation of civil war had made even the most enthusiastic Roman partisans ready to settle for the hegemony of a single man rather than carry on fighting for ever. Nor did she necessarily overestimate Antony’s strengths or stomach for a fight. For a decade, after all, the two of them got what they wanted from the Greek world. If both fell short of recognising Octavian’s will to power and his genius for grasping it, they were not alone. Or again, it may be that Cleopatra actually got things right, correctly reading Octavian’s implacability early on and sticking with Antony to the end because, even after he no longer looked like a winner, there was no viable alternative.
It was Antony who, in his dogged insistence on the Egyptian alliance, handed Octavian the only excuse he needed: Antony was the slave of a woman, bad enough, but a Greek woman no less, and the queen of beguiling, mysterious Egypt. Tropes of eastern slavishness, effeminate and despotic at once, were suddenly everywhere – Octavian and his propagandists did not invent Orientalist hokum, but they knew how to use it. So long as Cleopatra remained in Antony’s camp, his cause was lost. One by one, Antony’s Roman supporters deserted him and Octavian’s naval victory off the coast of Actium in 31 BC was won months before any galleys were launched.
It is hard to untangle fact and fiction in the bitter days after Actium – Cleopatra and Antony fled the battle, her treasury intact, their fleet in ruins and Antony a broken man. After his suicide Cleopatra imagined she might be lucky a third time, that Octavian might prove as biddable as Caesar and Antony had been, but that was never a likely ending. Octavian needed the queen for his triumph, as proof that his victory was nothing so crass as the defeat of a fellow Roman, but rather the rescue of the Roman world from slavery. Egypt would henceforth be an appanage of the Roman emperor, administered not by a client king, but by a Roman knight without the status to build up a power base of his own. For Cleopatra, death by poison – not the asp of legend – seemed the only way to maintain her dignity and cheat Octavian of a complete victory. No one would dare suggest she was wrong.
Like many 20th-century writers, Schiff has been seduced by the romance of Mark Antony, a man who might have bestridden the world had he been able to see how completely it had changed between his youth and maturity. Fortunately, however, she neither lingers on nor embroiders the romance, and gives Cleopatra due credit for brains and for a good politician’s sense of self-interest. It is a pleasure to find a history written by a non-specialist for a non-specialist audience that contains so little to criticise. It may not be quite as scintillating as Tom Holland’s Rubicon, still the best popular history of the late Republic, but that is largely a fault of biography as a genre. It is sad to think that no one will ever write a book as informative and entertaining as this about Zenobia; she certainly deserves it, but we would have to invent too much. With Cleopatra, the genuine information provides a tantalising spur to imagination – and a check on its wilder flights. We will never tire of her story, however often it’s told. Let’s hope that the next version – a film of Schiff’s book, starring Angelina Jolie – also gives us the historical queen. She is hard for anyone to improve on.