23 July, 2008

The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen, by Judith Weingarten. Book review

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.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I really have to get me that one. I actually had it on a list of books to buy that I lost with my computer crash. I should reconstruct that list. ;)

Btw, do you know Zenobia (well, Judith) has a blog?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Sounds interesting. My list groweth longer.

Constance Brewer said...

Excellent review. Makes me want to go find the book and add to my TBR pile.

Darn you. :)

Rick said...

Me, too!

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, I read her blog regularly.

All - I notice that Amazon.com says the book is "temporarily out of stock", so if any of you want a copy, my review copy is free to a good home if you email me with your address and PayPal me the postage costs. I have to clear some bookshelf space and it would be nice for the book to go on to someone who wants to read it. First come first served.

Judith Weingarten said...

Thanks, Carla, for a stimulating review. The book, I think, is more than 'out of stock'; it's out of print. I have copies, at author's discount(- 30% = GBP 10.50; Euro 16) plus postage.

Meanwhile, you're all welcome to visit Zenobia's blog and keep in touch with her at Empress of the East.

Kathryn Warner said...

At 350,000 words, that's one heck of a book! Sounds great.
*Goes to check out Judith's blog*.

Tam said...

Good review

Sounds a bit too meaty for little ol' me though.

Meghan said...

I love the author's blog; it's awesome! And I need to get around to ordering this book already. The word count doesn't daunt me at all (I'm a fan of Robert Jordan and George RR Martin afterall) and it would be interesting to learn more about this queen.

Meghan said...

Stupid return button... anyway great review as usual Carla. You always have such a great range of books that you read.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you for an informative and thorough review Carla. I have to say this one doesn't sound as if it's for me at the moment as my goldfish brain cell probably wouldn't be up to the concentration levels demanded. However,
I salute your stamina!!

Carla said...

Judith - I'm glad you liked the review.

Alianore - yes, it certainly is a very big book :-)

Tam - Hello and welcome. Thanks, and I hope you found the review useful. It's definitely not a lightweight read.

Meghan - thanks. You'll learn about a lot of things besides Zenobia in the Rebel Queen! I like to read a variety of different books, otherwise it's so easy to get into a rut.

Elizabeth - It was a bit much for my frazzled brain cell at times, e.g. when I was very busy with work! Hence having taken such an unconscionable time a-reviewing :-)

Judith Weingarten said...

Thanks all. It is a big book but the word count is a bit under 300,000 -- and you can read it on many levels: you can stick to earthy people stuff, quick reading high politics and military action if you don't want to know.

Thanks again for your comments.

Rick said...

It is an embarrassing commentary on how little I know about Zenobia and her context that I haven't been able to speculate about her in these comments!

Carla said...

Judith - thanks for your comment. Different people will no doubt like different aspects of the novel.

Rick - It always seems strange to me that Zenobia isn't better known. Her story is every bit as dramatic and romantic as Cleopatra's, but there's no Burton/Taylor blockbuster film or shelves full of novels. Maybe it was Zenobia's bad luck that Shakespeare picked up on Cleopatra's story and not hers, and this has carried on ever since?

Rick said...

Carla - perhaps a difference in the quality or at least familiarity of the primary sources? Cleopatra's story belongs to the drama of the end of the Republic and founding of the Empire, and she is linked to Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian/Augustus - in the first two cases, linked about as closely as two people can be. ;)

Zenobia's milieu is less familiar, and IIRC the third century is not that well documented. Judith can comment better on that! But Aurelian is not one of the instantly familiar Roman emperors, and although the whole episode belongs to the restoration of the empire after the 'crisis of the third century,' it gets sort of pushed aside by Diocletian, Constantine, and the Christianization of the empire. No surprise, given who was writing the history for the next thousand years or so!

That said, she is semi-familiar in the sense that I've 'always' known her story, at least in bare outline. Perhaps she would be better known now if her story had ended worse for her? Her tragic heroine / wicked queen potential is sort of ruined by the denouement of a supposedly comfortable life as a Roman matron!

Judith Weingarten said...


As I wrote to Carla, Zenobia's fate is, in fact, very uncertain. The most common story (based on the Historiae Augustae, by no means a reliable source but much read at least through the Renaissance) is that she was married off and lived out her life in Rome. I think this late 4th C author is simply copying the fate of 'the other Zenobia', told by Tacitus.

In another version, she is displayed in Aurelian's triumph and then beheaded (the common end of a triumph, when you've got a live enemy in tow). But yet another is that she died on the way to Rome, either from disease or having starved herself to death.

In short, we don't know. But, if you read even Vol. I of my Zenobia trilogy, you'll be able to guess which end I chose for her.

All this (and more)-- sooner or later -- on my blog.

Carla said...

Rick - The third century isn't all that well documented (as far as I know). It seems to have been turbulent, shall we say, and I've heard it argued that it was a period the Romans wanted to forget about once Diocletian had restored some sort of order. And as you say it gets overshadowed by the Christianisation of the empire, which was a key event for later writers.

Judith - you beat me to it regarding the uncertainty over her fate! Though I think Rick's point is still a valid one. The version with her surviving as a Roman matron is the most familiar one, for whatever reason, so that's going to colour the popular perception of Zenobia even if it's wrong. Rather in the way that Richard III was a child-murdering monster in the popular imgination on the basis of Shakespeare's portrayal, at least until the pro-Richard novels got going a few decades ago (and which view is right is still up for argument).

Rick said...

Judith - I don't know whether to be dismayed or enchanted to learn that everything I know is wrong when it comes to Zenobia - or at least the familiar end of the story.

On the whole probably dismayed, because reading between lines, my first quick inference is that you're skeptical of the Roman matron story. I always thought that as things went in the 3rd century, Zenobia got off pretty well out of it, considering the alternatives. Kind of a bummer if she just ended up getting beheaded, let alone starving herself to death!

Carla - just so. As I recall, several emperors contributed to the Roman recovery (not necessarily a recovery to everyone!). Diocletian finished the job, as much as it could be, and no doubt was unburdened by any wish to acknowledge that others had started it. Then Constantine came along and changed the subject completely.

Whatever really happened to Zenobia, the Roman matron story is the 'received' version that most people know. There's a whole discussion lurking there about the impact on her romantic potential; I'll indulge in quoting myself:

"Should ladies not defend their honor?" asked Princesse Catherine.

"They should perish in the attempt, Altesse. Poets gain subject matter; the Church sometimes gains a saint." Antoine shrugged. "Everyone is happy, except the unfortunate lady ...

Carla said...

Rick - Your quote sums it up perfectly! I'm afraid I liked the Roman matron theory too. To live well is the best revenge, and all that. Ah, well.