A Woman to Know: Zenobia

As write Persians of her nobless
So worthy was in armies, and so keen,
That no wight passed her in hardiness,
Nor in lineage, nor other gentleness. — Chaucer

Zenobia was a warrior queen of Palmyra, one of the grandest cities in the 1st century AD. After her husband died in battle, Zenobia ruled his empire from her Persian palace, eventually conquering lands in Egypt, Syria and beyond. In an era shaped by the male emperors of Rome, she created a Southern kingdom stretching from Syria all the way to Greece — entirely independent of Rome. She was legendarily terrifying in battle. Chaucer writes of how she tamed leopards, bears and other wild beasts to march alongside her soldiers — the ultimate intimidation tactic.

But after revolting against Rome in 270, Zenobia's armies were pushed back to Palmyra, where she was defeated at the gates of her own beloved city. Zenobia was later immortalized in art and literature of the Middle Ages, despite her flagrant disregard for contemporary gender roles — as Chaucer recalled, "she fled the office of woman."

Today, Zenobia's Palmyra is occupied by the Islamic State. The terrorist group threatens the ancient landmark's history and heritage sites, despite pleas from heartbroken locals and antiquity specialists alike. As Mike Duncan writes: "The spectacular ruins that stand beautifully preserved in the desert bear witness to her former glory — spectacular ruins that now face destruction at the hands of men who would like to erase Palmyra from history altogether."

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