ZENOBIA, with the fragments of her beaten army, retreated to her desert home. On their march, the Palmyrans destroyed all the wells, that they might not be available for the pursuing Romans.

Aurelian rested at Hums to prepare for the terrible ordeal of crossing the desert, and the siege of Palmyra. The delay gave the Palmyrans time to rally, and to prepare for defence, and when the emperor reached Palmyra, the city was in readiness for a protracted siege.

Aurelian quartered his soldiers on the three great camping grounds by the waters, where Zenobia had drilled her troops a short time before. The fierce and dogged West, the brilliant and chivalrous East, had reached their last ditch. How a great army within the walls of Palmyra, and a greater outside the city, were sustained in the midst of a howling wilderness, while they fought out their deadly feud to the bitter end, must ever remain a mystery. [151]

I have, I think, solved the water question, as far as the host outside the city is concerned; and there are still the remains of water tanks attached to houses in the city, which may have rendered the besieged, for a time at least, independent of the outside fountains. Besides, I think it extremely probable that the tepid fountain Ephca may have been within the limits of defence. But the carrying of provisions across the desert for the Roman army alone was a task beyond the capacity of any commissariat of our time.

Aurelian's march across the desert with a great army, in the face of superior cavalry, was a notable achievement. Mommsen says: "The march was more difficult than the conflict. The distance from Emesa to Palmyra amounts in a direct line to seventy miles, and although at that epoch of highly developed civilization the region was not waste in the same degree as at present, the march of Aurelian still remains a considerable feat, especially as the light horsemen of the enemy swarmed round the Roman army on all sides."1

The march, however, of a strong, compact army, flushed with victory, and superior, as a whole, to anything the Palmyrans could bring against it, was a simple matter, compared to the work of keeping communications open, and the victualling of the besiegers by means of long trains of baggage animals through a dreary waste in the hands of the desert cavalry.

1The Provinces of the Roman Empire, Vol. II. 110. [152]

It is more than probable that the country from which the Palmyrans had been beaten hack had definitely taken side with the victorious Aurelian, whom they recognized as the legitimate Augustus.

Among the nationalities who fought under the eagles at Hums, there were divisions from Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine. These were doubtless Palmyra legions who had joined the emperor on his victorious march through Asia Minor. The defection of these troops, and the march of events, would have a determining influence on the different districts.

Besicles, Aurelian, recognizing that the different towns and peoples had submitted to Palmyran authority with the sanction of Rome, treated them with generous gentleness, and his final triumph was as much due to wise statesmanship as to skilful generalship. It is, I think, therefore, almost certain that the Roman communications, as well as their base of supplies, were to a large extent under friendly control. And even with the BedawÓn, Roman gold exercised a moderating influence.

We have no reason to doubt the statement of the historian: "Aurelian besieged the city quite round, and engaged the neighbouring nations to supply his army with provisions."

Poor Zenobia was now shut up in her beleaguered desert home, with her own beloved Palmyrans.

After the battle of Hums, the emperor, pointing to her losses in the Orontes battle, called on her to submit; but she replied that only her Roman troops were slain, [153] and that she had still her own Orientals, who did not acknowledge defeat, to fall back upon.

She had fled to Palmyra in such haste, that she was unable to carry away from Hums lier vast treasures of gold, gems, and silk, and these fell into the hands of her enemy.

The provinces which formed her kingdom had been wrested from her. In the year 270 A.D., her troops, after a desperate struggle, had been driven out of Egypt. Aurelian, in his victorious campaign, had wrested from her Asia Minor and Syria. The Parthians, whose assistance she expected on the Orontes, had failed her. The aged Sapor, doubtless recognizing that a Roman emperor of the genuine kind had arisen, and that the period of Gallienus had passed, prudently left his old foe Zenobia to her fate.

What, however, rendered the cause of Zenobia hope-less, was the fact that the Romans who had not abandoned her cause were slain. The triumphs of Zenobia, and of her husband Odainathus, were triumphs of the Roman arms. Her conquests were made in the name of Rome, and the steady Roman legions carried lier to victory. But the power of Rome had revived, and the Oriental was a feeble reed in the face of the imperial storm.

In these circumstances, perhaps better understood by Zenobia than by any of lier generals, the defence of Palmyra was undertaken.

Her archers manned the battlements, her engines hurled [154] great stones on the attacking Romans, her guards were massed at convenient places so as to be ready to move quickly to threatened positions. Zenobia rode from point to point, surrounded by her generals, and by her restless activity, as well as by her addresses to the soldiers, encouraged the defenders.

A very large area had to be protected. As we stand on the summit of the castle, we can easily trace the ancient wall, which I have already described as beginning outside the Ephca fountain, and running westward along the highest ridge of the hill, to the Damascus road, where there were strong forts; then turning in a northerly direction, and passing along the highest ridge of the mountain west of the city, and including the present castle, which probably stands on the foundation of an older structure, and having cleared the city by a circuit of a dozen miles, it turned in an easterly direction and passed around, completing the enclosure.

From the castle hill Zenobia could look down on the entire wall, and on every position of friend and foe, with the exception of the Roman camp at the Abu el-Fawaris water.

The siege was pressed with all the force at Aurelian's command, and resisted with chivalrous courage by the Palmyrans. Without her gold, and without her allies, Zenobia was hard pressed.

The sands of Palmyra are full of little copper coins. After strong winds the people of Palmyra gather them in handfuls. I bought hundreds of them for a few piasters. [155] They are generally adorned with radiated heads, gazelles, fishes, zodiacal signs, and such like emblems. They are probably specimens of the currency with which Zenobia resisted the siege.

The siege was fruitful of stirring incidents. Zosimus tells of the emperor approaching the walls, and being jeered at by the defenders, and of a Persian shooting with an arrow a Palmyran who had mocked the emperor to his face for not taking the city.

A letter from Aurelian to the senate shows the light in which he regarded Zenobia defence : -

"The Romans tell me that I am waging war against a woman, as if Zenobia was contending against me with her own strength alone, and not with that of a host of enemies. I cannot tell you how an arrows and engines of war there are, how many weapons, how many stones: there is no part of the wall which is not furnished with two or three balistas; tormenting tire is poured from them. What more? Do you say she fears? She tights as if she feared punishment. But I trust that the gods, who have never been wanting to our exertions, will defend the Roman senate."1

Aurelian had hoped to have taken Palmyra by storm on reaching it, but owing to the defences, and gallant resistance, the spring of 272 A.D. was passing away, and the city still held out. Again he summoned Zenobia to surrender. The emperor's letter and the queen's reply are both preserved. And remembering the acute [156] crisis in which they were composed, I give them in extenso: -

1Hist. August. p. 218.

"Aurelian, Emperor of the Roman world, Receptor Orientis, to Zenobia and the others united together in hostile alliance.

"You ought to do that of your own accord which is commanded by my letters. I charge you to surrender on your lives being spared. And you, O Zenobia, may pass your life in some spot where I shall place you in pursuance of the distinguished sentence of the Senate: your gems, your silver, gold, silk, horses, camels, being given up to the Roman treasury.

"The laws and institutions of the Palmyrans shall be respected."

Zenobia replied as follows:-

"Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus.

"No one, as yet, except thee, has dared to ask what thou demandest. Whatever is to be achieved by war must be sought by valour. Thou askest me to surrender, as if thou wert ignorant that Queen Cleopatra chose rather to perish than to survive her dignity. The Persian auxiliaries whom we await cannot be far off: the Saracens are on our side, as well as the Armenians. The Syrian robbers, O Aurelian, have conquered your army: what then if that band which we expect on all sides shall come?

"You will then lay aside the superciliousness with which you now demand my surrender, as if you were victor on every side." [157]

These precious documents have been preserved by Flavius Vopiscus.1

Nicomachus declared that Zenobia dictated her letter in the Syrian tongue, and that he translated it into Greek, but Zenobia herself is said to have confessed to Aurelian that Longinus had dictated the letter.

On receipt of Zenobia's letter the efforts of the besiegers were redoubled. From the castle mountain the queen watched the eastern horizon with straining eyes, to catch a glimpse of the Persian succour which she expected. Towards the west she saw, among the billowy hills that stretched away to snow-clad Lebanon, only long strings of camels bearing supplies to her foes. Aurelian had intercepted the Persians, and bought over the Armenians and Saracens.

1 Hist. August. p. 218.

Translation of Palmyrene Inscription-AGLIBOL AND MALAKBEL.


Text Archive Home | Book Details | Table of Contents