The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen

Judith Weingarten

Edition reviewed: Vanguard Press 2006, ISBN 1-84386-219-0

In the 3rd century AD, Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra (in modern Syria) led a rebellion against the Roman Empire. The Rebel Queen covers the start of the events that were eventually to lead up to the rebellion. From my limited knowledge of 3rd century Syria, I recognise Zenobia, her husband Odenathus and their children as historical figures, and perhaps also the dashing young general Zabdi. The author's introductory note refers to "…the manuscript left to us by Simon, son of Barabas, a Palmyran citizen who lived through the events he describes," which it says survives only as a single copy in a monastery in the Egyptian western desert. This Simon is the central character in the novel.

Simon is the highly intelligent son of a wealthy Jewish trading family, living in the great Syrian caravan city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmor. His cleverness, skill at oratory and knowledge of law draw him into the circle of Odenathus, the city's able and charismatic warrior king. As storm clouds gather over the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, Simon embarks on a legal and diplomatic career that will see him rise to the rank of senator, and becomes the close friend and confidant of Odenathus' beautiful and intelligent wife Zenobia.

The first thing to say about The Rebel Queen is that you get a lot of book for your money. I estimate the word count at something around 350,000 words (about three times the length of a 'standard' novel), printed in small typeface on large pages. The narrative is highly complex with a great many different threads, and this means the book requires long periods of sustained concentration to keep track of the narrative. I found that if I had to stop reading for any length of time I would have to backtrack many chapters to pick up the narrative again. As lengthy interruptions are far from infrequent it has taken me well over a year to read the whole book. It's a novel that benefits from having long spells of uninterrupted reading time available.

The author is an archaeologist who has worked extensively in the Near East, and this expertise no doubt underlies the immense historical and archaeological detail in the book. The Rebel Queen provides a detailed portrayal of the complex and colourful world of 3rd century Syria and its surrounding territories. Religions, superstitions, philosophy, social structures and norms, family and household organisation, food, customs, towns, temples and buildings are all lovingly described, and poetry and proverbs are liberally quoted throughout. One interesting episode covers the disastrous effects of the debasement of the Roman silver coinage on the trading economy of the region, and shows how financial instability could feed into political and military events.

Much of the novel covers the military turbulence on Rome's eastern frontier as a newly confident Persian empire flexes its military muscles, and the political turbulence in Rome as short-lived Emperors come and go. Inept military campaigns, arrogant governors and ineffectual emperors mean that Tadmor/Palmyra is increasingly forced to look to its own defences. The modern image of Rome tends to be one of a terrifyingly efficient, if brutal, military machine. So it's useful to be reminded that (like many large institutions), the Roman Empire operated quite a lot of the time on the Dilbert principle: incompetence is no barrier to world domination provided all your competitors are just as shambolic as you are. The exasperation of the competent leaders of Tadmor at having to deal with a succession of arrogant nincompoops and pick up the pieces after their failures is very clear. I can see where the seeds of the later rebellion were sown.

The novel covers a huge canvas, from high politics and warfare to the social and domestic lives of Simon and his friends and relatives. This variety has the benefit of showing many aspects of the society, but it also makes for a sprawling narrative. An episode of high politics or military campaign will be followed by a detailed incident in Simon's complicated love life, or a family row, or the love life of one of Simon's friends, and by the time the narrative returned to the high politics or the military campaign I often found I had lost the thread and had to turn back several chapters to remind myself what was going on.

Despite the title, Zenobia does not appear in earnest until page 162, halfway through the book, and the novel is very much Simon's story. He narrates most of the novel in first person, with some episodes told in third person and a few narrated by Zenobia in first person. Third-century Syria as depicted in the novel was evidently a man's world. Simon and Odenathus expect unquestioning obedience from their wives and consider it their right to take out their bad temper on their women (although it is worth noting that a sharp-tongued and intransigent old lady can still make her son's life a misery, so it isn't entirely one-way). What would now be called domestic abuse is rife throughout the book. I'm not an expert on the social norms of third-century Syria so I take the author's word for it that this is how it was. Full marks to the author for not imposing modern values on a past society, but be prepared for some unsympathetic leading characters and some stomach-churning scenes of rape and violence. Similarly, be prepared for frequent explicit sex scenes, of considerable variety, and the regular use of modern expletives.

The stormy marriage between Odenathus and Zenobia is played out against this backdrop of a male-dominated society, and displays Zenobia's remarkable strength of will in trying to stand up to her husband. By the end of the novel Zenobia is narrating some episodes in first person, which may suggest that she will move more towards centre stage in the planned sequel. The Rebel Queen comes to a halt at the birth of Zenobia's second son, and it is evident that this is only a pause and there is much more story still to be told in the sequel.

Detailed reconstruction of life in the complex multicultural word of third-century Roman Syria.