During the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Palmyra (present-day Syria) recognized the sovereignty of Rome, while retaining its autonomy. In 129 CE Emperor Hadrian gave it the status of a free city, and in 217 CE obtained the title of a colony, which made its inhabitants equal in rights to the citizens of Rome and exempted them from paying taxes. Thanks to the accumulated wealth, the city developed strongly: temples and public utility buildings were erected, incl. agora, thermal baths, theatre and others. Palmyra’s heyday fell in the second half of the 3rd century CE when it became the capital of the kingdom founded by the king of Odenatus, at the same time the commander of Roman troops in the East. Taking advantage of the weakness of the empire, he began to pursue an independent policy and military expansion. After Odenatus’ death, power was taken over by his wife Septimia Zenobia, seeking to break the formal subordination to Rome.
She wanted to keep for her son the role played by her murdered husband Odenatus in the Roman East. Zenobia’s goal was to create a new and better country in the east. In her endeavours, she tried, inter alia, to take advantage of Rome’s involvement in other parts of the Empire, which gave it a free hand in actions. Interestingly, she made more important decisions by asking for advice from her trusted philosopher Longinus from Athens. Perhaps thanks to the support of the Roman army in Syria and Palestine, it managed to maintain control over these areas, and in 270 CE. the commander of its forces, Zabdas, invaded the Roman provinces of Arabia and Egypt, where legions faithful to the Roman central authority were stationed. The war in Egypt, defended by Tenagino Probus, was particularly dramatic. In 271 CE Zenobia’s troops invaded Asia Minor, part of which came under its control. At that time, the Romans did not intervene because their forces were engaged in fighting the Goths and the Alamans in the north.
Initially, Zenobia sought an agreement with the reigning Emperor Aurelian, among other things, through the announcement of Vaballat, on coins and papyrus documents, as the co-ruler of Aurelian. The moment Aurelian launched his counteroffensive against her, her son was proclaimed Emperor August.
After getting under control of the situation in the west, Emperor Aurelian marched to Asia Minor. The first battle between the Romans and the armies of Palmyra took place at Immae, 40 km east of Antioch. Aurelian under his command had from 30,000 to 50,000 soldiers. Only the queen’s cavalry stood in front of him. Thanks to sophisticated tactics, Aurelian managed to crash Zenobia’s famous heavy cavalry, which resulted in the defeat of her troops. The success brought the emperor a ruse, which consisted of the deliberate escape (tactical retreat) of part of the Roman cavalry, which suddenly turned around, smashing the enemy. Thanks to this victory, a day later, Antioch fell into the hands of Aurelian, which Palmyra’s army left at night. The defeated queen, at the head of the troops who survived the pogrom, withdrew to Emesa.
After defeating her army at Immae, Aurelian’s army captured Antioch. They did not plunder it, which soon paid off because the cities of Apamea, Larissa and Arethusa quickly surrendered. Behind Emesa, the Roman cavalry overcame the cataphracts – Zenobia’s ride. With this defeat, the queen lost the treasury that was located in this city and from which she planned to finance the further campaign. Zenobia withdrew to Palmyra and intended to ask for help from the Persians, while Aurelian’s army and the emperor himself were exhausted when they reached Palmyra that same year. The emperor made the ruler a proposal that she should live in the palace in exchange for the donation of jewels, gold, silk, horses, silver and camels to the treasury of Rome. Zenobia replied that she would rather die like Cleopatra VII than live without a crown and that she had the support of Persia, Armenia and the Saracens. The situation was a stalemate because the Romans did not have enough strength to attack and the inhabitants of Palmyra to raids.
Zenobia slipped out of the city to seek Persian help herself but was captured before she crossed the Euphrates. Palmyra, on the other hand, opened her gates in response to this news and was spared. The ruler was taken prisoner. She was transported to Rome, where she participated in Aurelian’s triumph chained in golden chains. They were so heavy that she had to have helpers to stand upright. She spent the rest of her life in a villa offered by the emperor. Some historians believe that was married to a Roman senator. Septimia was not destroyed also due to the calculated policy of the Roman emperor. Aurelian stated that the people of the East would not die for a woman who was not a martyr but a wealthy matron living in a Roman villa. After these events, Palmyra never regained its former glory, despite its subsequent reconstruction.