Zenobia was born and raised in Palmyra, Syria. Her Roman name is Iulia Aurelia Zenobia, while her name in Arabic is al-Zabbā’ bint ‘Amr ibn al-Ẓarib ibn Ḥassān ibn Adhīnat ibn al-Samīda‘ (Arabic: الزباء بنت عمرو بن الظرب بن حسان ابن أذينة بن السميدع, al-Zabbā’, daughter of ‘Amr son of al-Ẓarib son of Ḥassān son of Adhīnah son of al-Samīda‘), most commonly referred to simply as al-Zabbā’. In Greek, she is known as Zēnobía (Greek: ἡ Ζηνοβία), which is cognate with Arabic Zainab (Arabic: زَينَب), or Septimia Zenobia, having added Septimia after marrying Septimius Odaenathus. Zenobia herself signed official documents Bat-Zabbai (daughter of al-Zabbā’). Zenobia and her mother were given the nickname al-Zabbā’, meaning ‘the one with long lovely hair’.
Zenobia appears to have been of Arab ancestry, though her lineage may have included other influences, including Aramaean and ancient Egyptian. While epigraphic and Western sources are largely silent regarding her immediate family origins, Arabic sources provide clearer indications. Al-Tabari, for example, writes that she belonged to the same tribe as her future husband, the ‘Amlaqi, which was probably one of the four original tribes of Palmyra. Zenobia’s father, ‘Amr ibn al-Ẓarib, was the sheikh of the ‘Amlaqi. After he was killed by members of the rival Tanukh tribal confederation, Zenobia became the head of the ‘Amlaqis, leading them in their nomadic lifestyle to summer and winter pastures.
Her father’s Roman name was Iulius Aurelius Zenobius, with the gentilicium Aurelius showing that his paternal ancestors received Roman citizenship under either Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180), or Commodus (reigned 180-192). Her father’s Greek name was Antiochus, according to scriptures found in Palmyra. However, according to Augustan History (Aurel. 31.2), his name was Achilleus and his usurper was named Antiochus (Zos. 1.60.2). Traceable up to six generations, her father’s paternal ancestry includes Sampsiceramus, a Syrian chieftain who founded the Royal Family of Emesa (modern Homs, Syria) and Gaius Julius Bassianus, a high priest from Emesa and father of Roman Empress Julia Domna.
Zenobia claimed to be a descendant of Dido, Queen of Carthage, the King of Emesa Sampsiceramus and the Ptolemaic Greek Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Though there is no concrete evidence for this, she did have knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language, showed a predisposition towards Egyptian culture, and it is thought that her mother may have been Egyptian. According to Augustan History, an imperial declaration in 269 of hers was sent to the citizens of Alexandria, Egypt, describing the city as “my ancestral city”. This declaration only fits Vaballathus, the son of Zenobia. Historian Callinicus dedicated a ten-book history on Alexandria’s history to a “Cleopatra,” who can only be Zenobia.
Zenobia is descended from the three above named figures through Drusilla of Mauretania. Drusilla was a daughter of King Ptolemy of Mauretania and Queen Julia Urania of Mauretania. Drusilla’s mother most probably came from the Royal Family of Emesa and Drusilla married into that royal family. Drusilla’s paternal grandmother, the Queen of Mauretania Cleopatra Selene II, was a daughter of the Ptolemaic Greek Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman Triumvir Mark Antony. Drusilla’s paternal grandfather the African King Juba II of Mauretania claimed to be a descendant of the sister to the General of Carthage, Hannibal (Lucan. Pharsalia 8.287). Hannibal’s family, the Barcids, claimed to be descended from Dido’s younger brother.
Both Classical and Arabic sources describe Zenobia as beautiful and intelligent with a dark complexion, pearly white teeth, and bright black eyes. She was said to be even more beautiful than Cleopatra, differing though in her reputation for extreme chastity. Sources also describe Zenobia as carrying herself like a man, riding, hunting and drinking on occasion with her officers. Well educated and fluent in Arabic, Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian, with working knowledge of Latin, tradition accords her renown for hosting literary salons and surrounding herself with philosophers and poets, the most famous of these being Cassius Longinus. Longinus composed his celebrated Treatise on the Sublime for her which incorporates fragments of poetry since lost, such as the love poems of Sappho of Lesbos, originally penned in the 6th century BCE.
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