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The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen
by Judith Weingarten

The subject of Zenobia was first treated in modern literature by Chaucer, and later by William Ware (Zenobia or the Fall of Palmyra) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Blythdale Romance) in the 19th century. Since then, a number of novels have been published, but most of them are probably not on the general public’s radar screen.

Now comes The Chronicle of Zenobia, The Rebel Queen, subtitled Book One, The World As it Was, the first in a trilogy. The author, an archaeologist, has done her homework and tells us that she basically adhered to known history. Out of this, she created a sprawling novel about life and death in Tadmor, the modern-day Palmyra, in the 3rd century A.D.

Before God the listener, I shall remember Tadmor of the high walls and lofty towers. And I shall remember Tadmor’s illustrious Queen, Zenobia, direct descendant of Antiochus, King of Syria, and Cleopatra Thea, great-hearted daughter of Ptolemy of Egypt. Glorious Zenobia, Queen of Tadmor, may God remember her for good.

Every day I shall add to this story.

So speaks Simon, son of Barabas, in the prologue to the book. He is an intimate of Zenobia – the later rebel queen – and her husband Odenathus. Simon, the author tells us, was a real-life Palmyran citizen who lived through the events that unfold in the novel, and who left a parchment manuscript behind, with his narration beginning in 218 A.D.

The novel is mostly written in Simon’s first person narrative, later alternating with Zenobia’s.

Simon, the son of a Jewish merchant, grows up in a polytheistic city whose main god is Bel, but where largely everyone respects the others’ religious adherence. The story begins in his youth and follows him through his adolescence and later service to the government of Tadmor.

Tadmor/Palmyra was an ancient and wealthy city, largely profiting from the caravan trade of luxuries from the east. During the period of the events unfolding in the book, Rome was weakened by a rapid succession of emperors, beginning with Elagabalus, with Syrian cities and the Persians taking advantage of the frequent turmoil, and with Palmyra’s economy greatly suffering at times. A rising star during this period is Odenathus, Senator and general. Widowed, he takes as his second wife the young and beautiful Zenobia, daughter of a Palmyran general. Though probably of Semitic origin, she claimed her descent from Antiochus IV of Syria in the 2nd century B.C., and a son-in-law of Ptolemy VI of Egypt, and later declared herself a “second Cleopatra.”

This volume of the trilogy covers the period from Simon’s youth through the birth of Zenobia’s second son.

Through Simons eyes, readers are introduced to the social, religious, and political landscape in the Near East, the turbulent events of his times, and life as it is lived then. He is sent abroad to study philosophy in Apamea near Antioch, but soon is recalled by his father on a political mission which brings him to the attention of Lord Hairan, the current ruler of Tadmor, and he begins a secretarial and diplomatic career. We get acquainted with not only Tadmor but the whole of Syria, and Tadmor’s outpost of Dura-Europos, a major trade exchange for the eastern caravans, a fortress and sizeable town on the Euphrates, until it fell to Persians after a siege in 256, was destroyed and never rebuilt. Simon soon gets caught up in the circle around Odenathus and then the headstrong Zenobia, whose confidant he becomes, not always a safe relationship, as Odenathus has a violent temper. The latter, once in power in Tadmor, decides it best to be an ally of the Romans, assisting them militarily against the Persians and unruly desert tribes, and in due course receives the title vir consularis.

Ms. Weingarten writes in a rich and vivid prose and presents us with well-rounded characters, good and bad. She keeps up the suspense throughout her story, or rather, during the second half of it. Unfortunately, the novel, with its title Zenobia, the Rebel Queen, has a major flaw: Zenobia herself does not appear in the story until half-way through the book. Many a reader may get impatient or, at worst, give up. Not this reviewer though: I love a leisurely unfolding tale! But even I kept wondering: When are we going to meet Zenobia? A prudent editor would have advised to greatly shorten or compress the early life story of the narrator Simon. Another potential problem is the fact that the book is published in a large-size volume (10.7 x 7.6") and small print, so that its 400 pages easily translate into 600+. It would be much easier read in a more conventional format.

Nonetheless, I was greatly intriged by the story and am looking forward to the next installment.

More information and photos can be found on the author’s website.

An ancillary comment: On recommendation from Ms. Weingarten on my blog, I read Palmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia’s Revolt against Rome by Richard Stoneman and greatly enjoyed it.

© 2006 Irene B. Hahn


The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen
by Judith Weingarten
Paperback: 400 pages
The Vanguard Press 2006
ISBN: 1843862190

Judith Weingarten’s Website

in association with amazon.com, click herePalmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia’s Revolt against Rome
by Richard Stoneman
Paperback: 216 pages
University of Michigan Press
Reprint edition (March 15, 1995)
ISBN: 0472083155

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