Septimia Zenobia and Emperor Gallienus

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Zenobia of Palmyra, 273 AD – Women War Queens by Gambargin

Palmyra at its greatest extent in 271 AD.

King Odenathus • Queen Zenobia • Palmyrene guardsman, Angus McBride

Arab-Palmyrene soldier, 3rd C. AD, Hatrene clibanarius, 2nd C. AD, Palmyrene soldier, Dura Europos, 3rd C. AD, Angus McBride

Early Imperial Romans: Praetorian Guard

The whole of Emperor Gallienus’s reign played out as a series of attempts to keep control of imperial territory and bind it together in the face of repeated challenges and no certain loyalty anywhere. In 261, the Syrian proclamation of Macrianus, initially a response to the campaigns of Shapur, became more dangerous, as the two Macriani crossed from Asia Minor into Europe, seeking to establish the dynasty at Rome in the usual way. Aureolus, already victorious over Ingenuus and Regalianus, now defeated the Macriani and put them to death. It was lucky for Gallienus – and in light of recent history somewhat surprising – that Aureolus’s consistent successes did not prompt him into his own revolt. But nor was he sent east to deal with Quietus and Callistus. Instead, Gallienus entered an alliance with Odaenathus of Palmyra, granting him the title corrector totius orientis, on the model of the command that Julius Priscus had held under Philip in the same region. The reliance on such supra-provincial commanders, outranking any provincial governor, is a further sign of the breakdown of the old governing system, but it was a logical response to persistent instability. Odaenathus at once marched on Emesa, where the soldiery mutinied and killed Quietus and Callistus without taking the field against the Palmyrene.

This was the first act with which Odaenathus proved himself a powerful and reliable ally to the central emperor. He accepted Gallienus’s provincial appointees without demur, but he was also, to all intents and purposes, the independent ruler of an eastern Roman empire. In the west, in the same year 261 that saw the suppression of the Macriani, Postumus achieved the major success of bringing Spain and Britain under his control. Postumus’s emperorship is an interesting phenomenon, one that bears no relationship to the symbolic subordination but de facto hegemony of the Palmyrene leader in the east. Postumus, after all, claimed the imperial title. His full titulature was Imperator Caesar M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus, pius felix invictus Augustus, pontifex maximus, pater patriae, proconsul.

Postumus had declared himself consul at his accession in 260 and he entered a second consulate in 261, the year that all the provinces west of Italy recognised him not as a legitimate emperor, but as the legitimate emperor, a sole legitimacy which his titulature also asserted. His was a usurpation like any other, but with one major difference – successful usurpers, like the Macriani for a time, understood that the rules of the game were to secure one’s rear and then march on the reigning emperor in order to defeat him, because there could only be one emperor at a time. In the face of such a putsch, the reigning emperor was obliged to eliminate the challenge, and would inevitably make that a priority over any other threat he might face – or so it had invariably played out in the past. Postumus, uniquely in Roman history, neither attacked the Italian territories of Gallienus nor sought to legitimise his position as his co-emperor, in the way that Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus had in the 190s and would become normal practice in the fourth century. Rather, he contented himself with ruling the provinces that had declared for him in 260 and 261, safe behind the Alps, Vosges and Schwarzwald. Gallienus was constrained to regard him as an enemy and an existential challenge simply because of his imperial claim, but he did so without any active provocation from Postumus.

As a result, it is normal to talk of a separate ‘Gallic empire’ created by Postumus and sustained under several successors until suppressed in the 270s by Aurelian. There are problems with that view, however, inasmuch as it implies a sense of separatism – the German term for the regime, the gallisches Sonderreich (‘Gallic splinter empire’), makes the point even more clearly. But evidence for separatism is hard to find. In ideological terms, Postumus and his successors at Colonia Agrippina ignored the existence of Gallienus as an imperial rival, and refused to follow the political script and pursue his defeat and destruction, but by the same token they never claimed to be anything other than Roman emperors. They simply didn’t bother to try to control Rome. The de facto result was two imperial polities in Europe, both of which regarded themselves as the Roman empire. Only one, however, viewed the other as an existential challenge, and thus Gallienus would make several attempts to eliminate the Gallic emperor in the next years of his reign.

The most significant of these was in 265. Gallienus had by that point settled matters in the Balkans to his satisfaction, touring Achaea and holding the archonship of Athens in 264, and also acknowledging the heroism of the local population in resisting the Scythian invasion of two years earlier. That done, he was able to concentrate his manpower on challenging Postumus. He personally commanded the army that crossed the Alps and won a victory over Postumus, who fled to an unknown city where his rival besieged him. During the siege, Gallienus was wounded by the defenders and called off the attack. Postumus’s regime was granted a long reprieve but, as a result of the campaign, the Spanish governors returned their allegiance to Gallienus. The year 266 is almost undocumented, but events in the east took a surprising turn in the autumn of 267, when Odaenathus, on campaign northwards to Heracleia Pontica, was murdered, possibly at Emesa. His son Herodianus, whom he had raised to co-rulership, was likewise killed. The motives and identities of their murderers are impossible to sort out from the confused sources, but it was clearly a family affair of some bitterness. The immediate beneficiary of the murders was Odaenathus’s widow, Zenobia, who was the mother of several of his children, but not the older and favoured Herodian. Under the nominal rule of her son Vaballathus, Zenobia launched a conquest of the Roman east that went beyond the classic model of usurpation, not least in its success.

That took a couple of years to prepare, and we must be careful not to romanticise what is obviously an almost unique regime. Zenobia was born Julia Aurelia Zenobia, or Bath-Zabbai in the Syriac, to the Palmyrene nobleman Julius Aurelius Zenobius. She had built up a strong power base during the lifetime of her husband, but was no doubt displeased at the pre-eminence given Herodian, the offspring of a previous marriage, over her own sons, Septimius Hairanes and Septimius Vaballathus. With Odaenathus’s death, the 7-year-old Vaballathus was given his father’s titles of rex regum (the Latin for shahanshah, ‘king of kings’) and corrector totius Orientis, but there is no evidence that Gallienus accepted this succession from competent and loyal father to pre-adolescent boy. Zenobia, for her part, began to call herself Septimia Zenobia and queen. Her regime was much aided by the disarray of Shapur’s late reign, when he faced disputes among his own heirs and a chaotic new situation on his eastern frontiers which we will look at later. As a result, however, Shapur was unable to capitalise on the disruption in Syria as he would certainly once have done, and Zenobia’s hands were almost entirely free.

We cannot know what Gallienus’s response to these eastern events might have been, for he never got the chance to make one. In 268, the Balkans descended into violence once again, with a ‘Scythian’ invasion (this time the invaders are named as Heruli, a group well known in later history), again by ship, into Asia Minor and peninsular Greece. At the same time, Gallienus’s great marshal Aureolus revolted, clearly on his own behalf, though claiming to be doing so as an ally of Postumus and striking coins in the latter’s name at Mediolanum. It may be that Aureolus was at the time commanding a field army in preparation for another Balkan or Gallic campaign. Mediolanum would long be a centre from which to launch such ventures, commanding as it did all the key roads through the North Italian plain. Aureolus did not move swiftly enough to meet Gallienus in battle and found himself besieged in the city. What happened next is poorly documented and the sources give conflicting versions of how Gallienus came to be murdered while conducting the siege. Between them, the different accounts manage to blame almost every one of the prime movers of the next few years of imperial history: Gallienus’s praetorian prefect Aurelius Heraclianus; the generals Marcianus, Marcus Aurelius Claudius and Aurelius Aurelianus; and a regimental commander called Cecropius, otherwise unknown. Practically the only great marshal of Gallienus’s not named in one story or another is Marcus Aurelius Probus. One version has them being tricked into conspiracy by Aureolus; another has Gallienus being tricked into exposing himself to danger by Herodianus; others strive to exculpate one or another of the key players. There is no way to sort claim from counterclaim, no argument can be probative one way or another and, as with the murder of Odaenathus, we can either admit ignorance or let the question of cui bono guide our choice. If we do that, then regardless of who orchestrated the actual murder, the chief plotter will have been Claudius, because after Gallienus’s death, the army acclaimed him emperor at the gates of Mediolanum.

Aureolus died in battle shortly afterwards, and the successful Claudius made a show of honouring his predecessor, sending his body back to Rome and interring it in the family’s mausoleum on the Appian Way. He also prevailed upon the senate to have Gallienus deified. Before going to Rome himself, however, he marched north and won a victory at Lake Garda, in northern Italy, against some Alamanni who had launched an opportunistic invasion when the renewed Roman civil war offered them the chance. Claudius probably spent the winter of 268–9 in Rome, where he entered his first consulship in the company of a long-time senatorial supporter of Gallienus, Aspasius Paternus: whether from conviction or necessity, some of Rome’s senatorial grandees were content to make their peace with this new regime of the marshals.

For Claudius, there was no question but that the year 269 would bring heavy fighting. His only choice was whether to favour an internal or an external foe. The Balkans were still being devastated, whether by the Herulian raiders of the previous year or by further incursions from across the Danube – instability at the centre always encouraged such activity at the frontiers, and we also happen to learn that there was a substantial nomadic attack on the African province of Cyrenaica at just this time. Athens, too, was sacked some time in this year, perhaps in the springtime. Claudius sent his fellow general Julius Placidianus to invade southern Gaul, assigning him some sort of extraordinary command. Claudius himself set out for the Balkans, while his fellow conspirator Heraclianus went east, perhaps to deal with Zenobia. Although the sources do not say so explicitly, we should discern in all this activity the work of a military junta determined to confront the multiple threats that faced it: in a coordinated strategy, three of Gallienus’s marshals, who had in all likelihood shared in plotting his death, now each took charge of one of the three fronts with which Gallienus had been unable to deal. Outcomes, however, did not meet expectations.

Placidianus faced a confusing situation in Gaul, where one of Postumus’s officials, Ulpius Cornelianus Laelianus, had rebelled, taking the imperial title for himself at Moguntiacum in Germania Superior. Postumus rapidly defeated Laelianus, but when he prevented his troops from sacking the city, he immediately faced a mutiny. His own troops murdered Postumus and declared one Marcus Aurelius Marius emperor in his place. Marius was in turn attacked and killed by Postumus’s praetorian prefect, Marcus Piavonius Victorinus – probably a Gallic nobleman, to judge by his name. Victorinus had shared the consulship of 268 with Postumus and he now managed to hold things together longer than had his very short-lived predecessors. The invasion of Claudius’s colleague Pacatianus advanced as far as the village of Cularo (later the fourth-century town of Gratianopolis, thus modern Grenoble), but no further. Perhaps inspired by the tide of the Claudian advance, the city of Augustodunum (Autun) revolted against Victorinus but, without support from Pacatianus, it was besieged and sacked by Victorinus and this once-prosperous Gallic town lost much of its importance thereafter. Despite these losses, Victorinus was able to enter a second consulship undisturbed in 270.

Meanwhile, at Naissus in the Balkans, Claudius won a dramatic victory over the Scythians that earned him the title Gothicus maximus, joining the Germanicus maximus that he had taken the year before to celebrate his victory over the Alamanni. We do not know where in the Balkans Claudius wintered in 269–70, but the next year opened with moppingup operations against the Scythians whom we can now for convenience begin to call Goths – the victory title Gothicus demonstrates that this is how the Romans were beginning to identify the people they were fighting beyond the lower Danube.

In the east, Zenobia reacted violently to the arrival of Heraclianus. She had been claiming the title corrector totius Orientis for Vaballathus ever since the death of Odaenathus, as if it were a hereditary designation. She now began to mint coins in the name of Vaballathus, an act that could only be construed as rebellion, usurpation and treason. An obscure legend on coins may suggest that Vaballathus began to be styled vir consularis [or clarissimus], rex, imperator (et) dux Romanorum. If so, it was almost a claim to the imperial throne, but just enough short to be deniable – every title in the formulation could be explained in a relatively innocent way. What could not be explained away was the invasion of Arabia and Egypt, which Zenobia’s army, under the command of one Zabdas, undertook in 270. The prefect of Egypt, Tenagino Probus, was defeated and killed defending his province against this invasion. Zenobia appointed his deputy prefect, Julius Marcellinus, as his successor, and Egypt now fell under Palmyrene hegemony for nearly half a decade.

Heraclianus proved powerless to dent Palmyrene control over the core territories in Syria and Arabia, and Zenobia’s supporters felt emboldened to push into Anatolia. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, Claudius’s recent victory over the Goths could not save his army from devastation by a more formidable enemy: plague broke out among the soldiers during the winter months, carrying off many of them – and then the emperor himself. There is a certain poignancy in the fact that the only emperor in decades not to die by the sword should have reigned so very briefly. But death saved his reputation – when the fourth century remembered the dark years before Diocletian and Constantine, Claudius was the only emperor to be well regarded by every different historical tradition, so much so that it could seem worth fabricating a fictional descent from him. Not since Severus and Caracalla had there been an emperor whose memory held that much credit.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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