Aurelian’s War against Zenobia (271–273)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Rome vs. Palmyra
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: When Zenobia of Palmyra
tried to establish her independence from Roman rule,
Emperor Aurelian led the charge to bring her back into
OUTCOME: Zenobia was defeated.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
In 259 Septimus Odaenathus (d. 266), prince of Palmyra,
rose as a military strongman in the east after handily defeating
the Persians and rebuking their raids upon his regions.
Three years later Odaenathus attacked, defeated, and executed
Quietus (d. 260), one of the so-called Thirty Tyrants
vying for power in Rome. As a reward the emperor Gallienus
(c. 218–268) named Odaenathus “governor of all the
East” and “King of Kings” and gave him wide latitude in
local matters as well as regional military arrangements.
Odaenathus lived up to the responsibility by invading and
retaking the lost Roman provinces east of the Euphrates.
Accompanying Odaenathus was his capable wife, Zenobia
(d. c. 274), who challenged Rome by naming herself
empress after his death in 267. Although her son Vaballathus
(d. c. 273) was crowned emperor, Zenobia assumed
de facto control of most of the empire’s eastern holdings.
Zenobia held Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the bulk
of Asia Minor. Determined to wrest these prizes from her,
Emperor Aurelian (c. 215–75) met her army at the Battle of
Immae near Antioch in 271. After a hotly contested struggle
Aurelian emerged the victor over Zenobia’s leading general
Zobdas (fl. third century). Although the Palmyran army
withdrew intact, Aurelian gave them no quarter, pressing
the pursuit and forcing them to a stand at Emesa in 272.
There he defeated Zenobia’s forces yet again.
In the face of defeat, Zenobia took flight to Palmyra,
her capital in the desert. Aurelian set up a siege and resisted
Persian harassment as well as attacks from nomadic tribespeople.
In 272 Zenobia surrendered and received pardon
from Aurelian, who entrusted Palmyra to her care. No
sooner had he left, however, than Zenobia declared independence
from the empire. Virtually turning on his heel,
Aurelian returned and renewed the siege of her capital.
This time Palmyra crumbled, and Aurelian let his legions
loose upon the city. It was sacked, and although Zenobia
attempted to escape, she was captured and carried back in
triumph to Rome.
See also AURELIAN’SWAR AGAINST TETRICUS; ZENOBIA’S
CONQUEST OF EGYPT.
Further reading: Richard Stoneman, Palmyra and Its
Empire: Zenobia’s Revolt against Rome (Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 1995); Alaric Watson, Aurelian and
the Third Century (London: Routledge, 1999); John F.
White, Restorer of the World: The Roman Emperor Aurelian
(Stapelhurst, U.K.: Spellmount Publishers, 2004).