Zenobia and Aurelian’s March To Syria

Zenobia and Odenatus

It was probably in April 272 when Aurelian ferried his troops from Byzantium to Asia Minor. His army consisted principally of the Praetorian Guard, legionaries from the Danube provinces of Raetia, Noricum, Pannonia and Moesia, augmented by mounted units from Dalmatia, Moorish cavalry, and possibly some of the mobile cavalry units raised by Gallienus about a decade earlier. The continued existence of this cavalry as a separate body after 268 is disputed, but Aurelian may have assembled some of the horsemen for his campaign.

Aurelian quickly made his way towards Ancyra, encountering little or no resistance from the provincials on the way there. The Palmyrene hold on the territory had never been strong, and Zenobia did not attempt to stop Aurelian’s march by drawing up her army in Asia Minor. She may have ordered some of the cities to close their gates against him, but if she sent any such orders, none of them obeyed, except for Tyana, which opposed Aurelian for reasons which are obscure. There seems to have been no Palmyrene garrison in the city or its vicinity, but there may have been some citizens who were sympathetic to the Palmyrenes. Finding Tyana closed to him, Aurelian was allegedly so incensed that as he prepared to besiege the city, he declared that when he took it, he would not leave even a dog alive. It was a short-lived affair, never really amounting to a siege. Only one source, the life of Aurelian in the Historia Augusta, relates the story of the traitor Heraclammon, who showed the Emperor where there was a weak point in the city defences. The fate of Tyana was soon sealed, but Aurelian did not put the inhabitants to the sword. Instead he acted with studied clemency. The Historia Augusta carries the tale that he was influenced by the apparition of the long-dead philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, who came to him to urge him to spare the city. The author of the Historia Augusta is somewhat obsessed with ghosts and shades and miraculous occurrences in the life of Aurelian, and the stories do not appear in other sources. There is no mention of such miracles in Zosimus’s account, even though he was interested in religious matters and related phenomena. It is just possible that these tales are not complete fabrications, but may contain some remnants of Aurelian’s propaganda. He may have invented the story of the ghost of Apollonius, the most famous inhabitant of Tyana, as reinforcement for his political policy of clementia. If he made it known that he intended to show mercy, even to a city that had opposed him, other cities whose loyalties might be a little uncertain would be encouraged and the citizens would probably receive him without a struggle. It would save a lot of time if he could make a rapid march to deal with the Palmyrenes without having to stop and lay siege to important cities on his route. It would probably also bring other benefits, if the grateful citizens whom he magnanimously spared could then be peacefully persuaded to supply his troops with food and fodder. These are practical considerations, but politically there would be another advantage in showing mercy to the cities of Asia Minor, because such a policy would perhaps enable him, when he entered the Palmyrene realm, to persuade Zenobia’s Syrian allies to change their allegiance. Detaching an enemy’s allies was as much a part of warfare as fighting battles.

The policy was sound. Potentially it would pay enormous dividends and it would also leave the reputation of Aurelian unstained, but it was a different matter for the soldiers poised around Tyana, ready for the assault. They would need to be handled carefully. They had been geared up to win the first victory in the campaign by taking the city, and were eager for a fight, anticipating the slaughter and plunder that sacking Tyana would entail. Now the Emperor wanted them to abandon the idea of heroics and portable wealth. Generals who tried to bring about such a reversal of fortunes sometimes paid with their lives. In the squabbling that broke out among the rival claimants for control of the Gallic Empire, the ruling Emperor Postumus had taken Mogontiacum (modern Mainz) and then tried to prevent the soldiers from sacking the city. They killed him and sacked it anyway. The Emperor Aurelian, however, enjoyed the favour of the gods and conversed with dead philosophers. He presented unassailable reasons why the city of Tyana should be spared, and managed to persuade the soldiers to obey him. They were still angry and reminded him that he had sworn that he would not leave a dog alive in the city, so Aurelian authorized them to kill all the dogs. The soldiers saw the joke and the justice of his instructions, and Aurelian survived intact, unlike the unfortunate canine population of Tyana.

As he marched through the rest of Asia Minor, Aurelian was welcomed by the populace and did not have to stop to besiege any more cities, thus conserving energy and vital manpower, and also converting the population to friendly allies. Secure in the knowledge that there was no threat to the rear or to communications, he pressed onwards to find the Palmyrene army, probably travelling south to Tarsus, then eastwards along the coast by way of Adana, Issus and Alexandria ad Issum to the north-western border of Syria.
Zenobia and Zabdas had brought their army to the vicinity of Antioch, an obvious objective for Aurelian. They could not afford to split up the Palmyrene army to watch and block the passes through the Taurus mountains, and had insufficient troops to meet Aurelian in battle at some point outside Syria, especially as this might give the Emperor the advantage of choosing his own battleground. Instead Zabdas preferred to await the arrival of the Romans, and chose his ground in the plain where he could use his heavy cavalry more effectively. He took up a position north of the city of Antioch, with Lake Antioch to the east, expecting Aurelian to approach from the north-west, but the Romans either anticipated his manoeuvres, or received intelligence of them, so Aurelian decided to circumvent the Palmyrenes, marching around the north of their position, and down the eastern side of Lake Antioch, to come at them from the east, which would cut off their retreat if they wished to withdraw towards Palmyra.

The battle of Immae was about to begin. There is a dearth of reliable details in the sources. The best account is provided by Zosimus, but there are contradictions in other accounts. The author of the Historia Augusta and Eutropius conflate two separate events, combining details of the battle of Immae with Aurelian’s attack on the Palmyrenes at Daphne, a short time after the main battle. A seminal paper by Downey made sense of all the garbled sources and his conclusions have been generally accepted by other scholars.
Zabdas discovered the changed direction of Aurelian’s march in time to move his cavalry to a new position a few miles to the east of the River Orontes, and met the Romans there. When battle was joined, Aurelian stationed his light cavalry opposite the Palmyrene clibanarii, the heavy armoured horsemen. This probably encouraged the Palmyrenes to attack in anticipation of an easy victory over a more feeble enemy, an opinion that would be considerably reinforced when the Romans began to fall back and then flee. The Palmyrenes did not know that it was nothing but a ruse in accordance with Aurelian’s orders, and in giving chase they exhausted themselves and their horses in the fiercely hot weather. When they were almost at the town of Immae, some miles east of Antioch, Aurelian ordered his troops to turn and attack. The Palmyrenes had little chance, being taken by surprise and faced with soldiers and horses more nimble than themselves, and not half as tired.

Zabdas knew when he was defeated and withdrew. It is perhaps unlikely that Zenobia was present at the battle, but she was in Antioch, perhaps with Vaballathus, though the whereabouts of her son are unknown. When the news of the Palmyrene defeat arrived, probably brought by Zabdas himself, she decided at once that her position at Antioch was untenable. She probably needed no persuasion from Zabdas to escape. There was nothing to be gained for the Palmyrenes by walling themselves up and waiting for Aurelian to besiege them, and besides, the loyalty of the citizens was somewhat fragile. Aurelian’s lenient treatment of Tyana and his policy of showing mercy to everyone who approached him would no doubt influence the citizens of Antioch, who had experienced much destruction at the hands of the Persians in the recent past and were probably still recovering from these economic disasters. They definitely would not want to see their livelihoods threatened once again by a victorious Roman army in pursuit of the defeated Palmyrenes.

For the time being, news of the Roman victory was suppressed, just long enough to enable Zenobia and Zabdas to leave the city. Like Cleopatra riding triumphantly into Alexandria after defeat at the battle of Actium, Zenobia showed firm presence of mind and calmed the people by pretending that her armies had won a great victory. She even spread the news that Zabdas had captured the Roman Emperor. This was a piece of pure theatre that Zenobia and Zabdas arranged, by dressing up a man who looked like Aurelian and parading him through the streets. In the interval while the supposed triumphal procession was taking place, Zenobia prepared in secret to leave the city. Her resolution and courage in these dangerous circumstances cannot be doubted. The charade covered her escape with Zabdas so successfully that Aurelian did not know until the next day that the Queen and her general were no longer in the city.

The Romans camped a few miles outside Antioch, planning to attack the Palmyrene army from two sides at once, but when Aurelian learned that the Palmyrenes had fled, he marched peacefully into the city. The men who had been closely associated with the Palmyrenes hastily removed themselves, quite unnecessarily as it turned out, because Aurelian pardoned one and all, even those who had helped Zenobia. His policy seemed to put an end to hostilities at Antioch, and provided a valuable example to other cities, making it potentially more difficult for Zenobia to retain old allies or recruit new ones when Aurelian pursued her further into Syria.

The battle of Immae was interpreted at a later period as the turning point for Zenobia and Aurelian, and was presented as such in the epitomes or breviaries of the ancient historians, who ignore the later battles and place all the emphasis on Immae, as though it was absolutely decisive. Not all modern scholars agree with this interpretation. Immae was merely the first battle of three that Aurelian had to fight before he reached Palmyra itself, so it was not necessarily inevitable at this point that he would eventually win a complete victory. The fact that he emerged as the victor of the campaign no doubt influenced the ancient authors, who knew quite well what the final outcome had been and could therefore afford to gloss over the fact that after Immae, Aurelian’s final victory was not necessarily assured. Zenobia still had a chance. Her army had been mauled but not annihilated, she had held onto most of her wealth and influence, and she had the advantage of knowing the terrain and how to survive in it. She knew as well as her generals that the combination of desert conditions, hostile nomads, lack of food and water, disease and illness, might well prove to be her greatest allies against the Romans. She would not view the battle of Immae as a turning point in her fortunes. It was certainly a disastrous setback, but she probably did not yet consider that it was a point of no return.


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