Monday, December 3, 2018

Nathanael Andrade's "Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra"

Nathanael Andrade received his PhD in Greek and Roman history and has published extensively on the Roman and later Roman Near East along with other topics. His books include Syrian Identity in the Greco-Roman World (2013) and The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity: Networks and the Movement of Culture (2018).

Here Andrade dreamcast an adaptation of his new book, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra:
What sort of movie could my book on Zenobia be? A key challenge to portraying Zenobia is that documentation for her is very poor and specific to her reign over the Roman East (268-272 CE). My book confronts this challenge by using material culture to reconstruct experiences that women had at various stages of their lives at Palmyra (Tadmor in Aramaic). From this, we can learn about Zenobia’s family dynamic, upbringing, clothes, religious world, gestures, hygiene, marriage to the dynast Odainath, and life as a mother. A movie would capture these aspects of Zenobia’s world while vividly depicting the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra that framed so much of her existence.

The movie’s echoes of contemporary identity politics will resonate with a contemporary audience. A key point of tension will be the many ways of being Roman expressed by the protagonists locked in civil conflict. Representing the central regime are the emperors Claudius II (Gabriel Byrne) and then Aurelian (Russell Crowe), both native speakers of Latin from the Balkans who are supported by the Senate at Rome. In Syria is Zenobia (Aiysha Hart), more commonly known in Palmyra as Bathzabbai (her Aramaic name). She is a native speaker of Aramaic who has an acquired knowledge of Greek and to a lesser extent Latin. Enmeshed in a cultural and religious life inherited from Arabian and Syrian forebears, Zenobia sees herself and her manner of living to be just as Roman any other. While her rivals try to isolate her as a foreign, barbarian usurper, she defines herself as a figure of Roman authority who protects the Roman East from the Persians, just like her elder husband Odainath (Ghassan Massoud).

The film also emphasizes Zenobia’s identity as a mother. Along with the dangers of childbirth, Zenobia confronts a harrowing situation when Odainath dies. The circumstances of Odainath’s murder are hard to reconstruct and may not have been clear to Zenobia. But in the movie, a local Palmyrene conspiracy, coordinating with the imperial court, has Odainath and his oldest son Herodian Hairan killed in 267-268. Zenobia and Wahballath, her young son by Odainath, are still alive, but the conspiracy is targeting them too. When Zenobia seizes power in Wahballath’s name, she does not only rule as a woman. She protects her vulnerable child.

The dramatic tensions reach their peak with the civil war that Zenobia wages with the imperial court. Responding to its provocations, she occupies many of its Middle Eastern territories, including Egypt. Despite her just rule and efforts to negotiate over the following year, Aurelian invades her realm in early 272. In the first major battle, his cavalry lures Zenobia’s heavy horsemen into a debilitating charge and counterattacks when they are exhausted. In the second, infantrymen brandishing maces batter Zenobia’s charging cavalry and drive it into her army’s own lines. Aurelian’s army invests Palmyra soon after, and Zenobia flees eastward across the desert. She is apprehended while boarding a boat on the Euphrates river. When brought before Aurelian, she feigns having been manipulated by the men of her court. She and her son are spared while they die.

The file scenes of the movie show Zenobia on display in Aurelian’s triumph in Rome in 274. Her hands and feet are bound with gold chains that make her strain to walk. Rumors of her death circulate, but Zenobia lives in peace on a villa at Tivoli, Italy. Aurelian is assassinated in 275. Though defeated and deprived of power, Zenobia has survived the civil war with her children, and she can claim a serious moral victory indeed.
Learn more about Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue