Septimus Odaenathus

King Odenathus • Queen Zenobia • Palmyrene guardsman, Angus McBride

The main leader of the Roman recovery in the east was Septimius Odaenathus, and he stayed loyal to Gallienus. A Palmyrene nobleman – probably the third generation of his family to be Roman citizens – he had come to dominate his home city. He also pursued a career in imperial service, seems to have gained senatorial rank and may well have been governor of one of the Syrian provinces. Perhaps he was still in this office when he led troops against the Persians, although it is equally possible that he acted without formal power and simply as a prominent local man. His loyalties may not always have been clear, and one source claims that he sought friendship with Shapur. Scornfully rejected, Odaenathus won a series of victories over the Persians, hastening their retreat. With the invaders gone, he next suppressed Macrianus’ younger son.

Odaenathus was not content merely to expel the Persians from the Roman provinces, and in 262 he led a major offensive that got as far as Ctesiphon. This and a second expedition – probably in 266 – were no more than large-scale raids, but they helped to restore Roman prestige. Shapur remained on the defensive for the rest of his reign – he had already won enough victories to secure his hold on the throne. Gallienus granted Odaenathus a number of honours, and the titles of dux (a senior rank and the origin of the medieval `duke’) and `commander of the entire east’ (corrector totius orientis), which probably gave him authority over individual provincial governors. Odaenathus had already styled himself `lord’ of his home city of Palmyra. Now he aped the Persian monarch and was named `king of kings’.

In spite of the grandeur of such titles, Odaenathus never claimed imperial status. He guarded the frontier with Persia and put down any challenge to Gallienus, but, rather like the leaders of the `Gallic Empire’, he made no attempt to expand the territory under his control. For six years he was effectively in control of much of the eastern part of the empire. As far as we can tell he seems to have governed competently – certainly, virtually all of our sources are favourable to him. Even so, he and his eldest son Herodes were murdered in 267 by one of his cousins. It was said that the dispute began with a squabble over precedence during a hunt – Odaenathus, like many other aristocrats, was a very keen hunter. Perhaps there was no more to it than a relative’s anger over a public humiliation, but then and later some people have suspected a deeper, more political conspiracy.

Whatever the truth of the matter, its sequel is not in doubt. Power now passed nominally to Odaenathus’ younger son Vaballathus, but since he was only a child, effective control lay with his mother, Zenobia. She was Odaenathus’ second wife, and the fact that the murdered Herodes was the product of an earlier marriage added to the rumours of a palace conspiracy. Vaballathus was styled `king of kings’ and `commander of the entire east’. These were exceptional times and Odaenathus had had an exceptional career, holding power over such a wide area for a long period. His local connections had added to his prestige, but ultimately he had been a Roman official holding rank granted to him by the emperor – even if in truth Gallienus may have had little choice in the matter. This was an appointment, and there was absolutely no precedent within the Roman system for such a rank to be passed on to an heir, or indeed held by any child. For the moment it was tolerated – Gallienus had other, more immediate, priorities, as did his successor Claudius II – and so for the next few years a woman controlled the greater part of the eastern empire.

ARAB INVASION OF PERSIA (262-264)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Palmyran Prince Odaenathus vs. Shapur I of Persia

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Persia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and parts of Asia Minor

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: After routing Persian king Shapur I at the end of the Roman-Persian War of 257-261, the Arab firebrand Odaenathus, backed by Rome, invaded Persia itself.

OUTCOME: Odaenathus defeated Shapur and reclaimed Rome’s lost provinces in the east.

After Roman emperor Valerian died in captivity (c. 261) during the ROMAN-PERSIAN WAR (257-261), his captor, King Shapur I (d. 272), overran Syria, retook Antioch, and raided throughout the Roman east. Returning home loaded with booty from Asia Minor, Shapur’s Persian army ran into a small Roman-Arab force west of the Euphrates River. Shapur was surprised and routed by Septimus Odaenathus (d. c. 267), prince of Palmyra, a Romanized Arab who made himself so indispensable to the new caesar, Gallienus (218-268), that the latter made Odaenathus his virtual coruler in the east. Given the title “Dux Orientis” as a reward for attacking, defeating, and executing Quietus, one of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, Odaenathus invaded Persia itself in 262.

Reinforced with a substantial number of Roman legionnaires, courtesy of Emperor Gallienus, Odaenathus attacked first the lost Roman provinces east of the Euphrates. Although his army was still comparatively small, composed mainly of light foot archers, cataphracts, and lancers plus his irregular light Arabian cavalry, Odaenathus nevertheless managed to drive off the Persians investing Edessa and to recapture Nisbis and Carrahe. Accompanied and assisted by his beautiful and capable wife, Zenobia (d. after 274), the Palmyran prince harassed Armenia and raided far into Mesopotamia over the course of the next two years. He consistently defeated Shapur and his generals, twice capturing the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon.

By 264 Shapur had had enough and sued for peace, freeing Odaenathus for another assignment-a successful punitive expedition against the Goths who had recently begun to ravage Asia Minor.

In 266, at the conclusion of that adventure, Odaenathus was murdered. Although his son Vaballathus (d. c. 273), became the new prince of Palmyra, true power, and Rome’s eastern dominions as well, lay in the hands of his widow.

Further reading: A. D. Lee, Information, Frontiers, and Barbarians: The Role of Strategic Intelligence in the Relations of the Late Roman Empire with Persia and Northern Peoples (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1987); Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia: From 550 B. C. E to 650 A. D. (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996).

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