The sublime tale of Zenobia and Longinus


Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888). (Austriacus, 2012, from Wikimedia Commons, in public domain)

In William Smith’s 1736 English translation of Longinus’s treatise On the Sublime, the translator gives us a history of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and the rhetorician Longinus’s role in her court.

I offer it here as an interesting example of the portrayal of women and men’s rhetoric in history.

Many elements of the story are taken from a late-Roman text called the Augustan History, and some from other sources. Some facts are disputable and fictional, while others have been confirmed, such as the presence of the philosopher Longinus at her court (See the Wikipedia article on Zenobia).

Regardless of its historical facticity, my interest here is in the story as retold by William Smith. It accompanied his translation of Longinus’s On the Sublime, a highly popular classical work of rhetorical criticism with numerous English translations and editions published during the British Enlightenment. The prominence of Longinus in English culture of the time would have given the tale a wider audience than if the story were published elsewhere.

The story portrays Zenobia as a queen and military general. The queen’s forces were loyal and defended her to the very end. Longinus the philosopher, critic, and rhetorician also played a role in Zenobia’s defense. As her teacher, advisor and communications assistant, he helped her write an eloquently defiant letter in reply to Aurelian’s demand and offer of clemency upon her surrender.

However, the story ends sadly for Zenobia and Longinus. Aurelian’s third and final attack, his siege on Palmyra, her capital city, was eventually successful. The queen and her advisor were both captured during their escape as they crossed the Euphrates river.

In Zenobia’s only indirect speech in self-defense to Aurelian, when she was condemned to death, she relied on an argument of feminine weakness to protect herself and shifted the blame to Longinus. Although this speech degrades Zenobia’s character, it plays a functional role of demonstrating how rhetoric, and the character of a rhetor, can shift according to the circumstances of their power in relation to their audience.

Smith presents a brief yet vivid tale of heroism and epic battles between an emperor and a beautiful and intelligent widow-queen. Prior to Aurelian’s approach and subsequent to her husband’s death, she had made many conquests, expanding her empire considerably.

Palmyrenian power in 271 AD

“Palmyra at its greatest extent in 271 AD. Palmyra annexed the Roman provinces in the east: Egypt, Syria, Phoenice,Syria Palaestina, Arabia, Mesopotamia and the Anatolian regions up to Ankara and including Galatia.” By Sémhur, from Wikimedia Commons, January 27, 2015 (with Creative Commons license for reuse).

Aurelian and Zenobia prove worthy of each other as opponents in physical warfare and in the warfare of words, although Zenobia was not alone on her side. Admittedly, in the context of Smith’s translation of Longinus, the tale is not ultimately about Zenobia. It is the final episode in Longinus’s life and ends with Longinus’s final words and legacy.

In Smith’s translation of Longinus, this story appears as part of a much longer prefatory section called “Some Account of the Life, Writings and Character of Longinus.” Part way through, William Smith introduces us to Odenathus, partner with Emperor Valerian in the conquest of Persia. By learning about Odenathus, we arrive at the topic of his wife, Zenobia, and eventually to Longinus’s connection with Zenobia and her court…

Pages x-xii (paragraph breaks and bold added)

Odenathus, says an Historian, seem’d born for the Empire of the World, and would probably have risen to it, had he not been taken off in a Career of Victory by the Treachery of his own Relations. His Abilities were so great, and his Actions so illustrious, that they were above the competition of every Person then alive, except his own Wife Zenobia, a Lady of so extraordinary Magnanimity and Virtue, that she outshone even her Husband, and engrossed the Attention and Admiration of the World.

She was descended from the ancient Race of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, and had all those Qualifications which are the Ornament of her own, and the Glory of the other Sex. A Miracle of Beauty, but Chaste to a Prodigy; in punishing the Bad, inflexibly severe; in rewarding the Good or relieving the Distressed, benevolent and active. Splendid but not profuse; and generous without Prodigality.

Superior to the Toils and Hardships of War, she was generally on Horseback; and would sometimes march on foot with her Soldiers. She was skilled in several Languages, and is said to have drawn up herself an Epitome of the Alexandrian and Oriental History.

The great Reputation of Longinus had been wafted to the Ears of Zenobia, who prevailed upon him to quit Athens, and undertake the Education of her Sons. He quickly gained an uncommon share in her Esteem, as she found him not only qualified to form the tender Minds of the young, but to improve the Virtue, and enlighten the Understanding of the aged.

In his Conversation she spent the vacant Hours of her Life, modelling her Sentiments by his Instructions, and steering herself by his Counsels in the whole Series of her Conduct, and in carrying on that plan of Empire which she herself had formed, which her Husband Odenathus had begun to execute, but had left imperfect.

The number of Competitors, who in the vicious and scandalous Reign of Gallienus set up for the Empire, but with Abilities far inferior to those of Zenobia, gave her an Opportunity to extend her Conquests, by an uncommon Tide of Success over all the East.

Claudius, who succeeded Gallenius at Rome, was employed, during his whole Reign, which was very short, against the northern Nations. Their Reduction was afterwards compleated by Aurelian, the greatest Soldier that had for a long time worn the imperial Purple.

He then turned his Arms against Zenobia, being surprized as well at the rapidity of her Conquests, as enraged that she had dared to assume the Title of Queen of the East.

He marched against her with the best of his Forces, and met with no check in his expedition, till he was advanced as far as Antioch. Zenobia was there in readiness to oppose his further Progress. But the Armies coming to an Engagement at Daphne near Antioch, she was defeated by the good Conduct of Aurelian, and leaving Antioch at his Mercy, retired with her Army to Emisa.

The Emperor marched immediately after, and found her ready to give him battle in the Plains before the City. The Dispute was sharp and bloody on both sides, till at last the Victory inclined a second time to Aurelian; and the unfortunate Zenobia, not daring to confide in the Emisenians, was again compelled to retire toward her capital Palmyra.

As the Town was strongly fortified, and the Inhabitants full of Zeal for her Service, and Affection for her Person, she made no doubt of defending herself there, in spite of the warmest Efforts of Aurelian, till she could raise new Forces and venture again into the open Field. Aurelian was not long behind, his Activity impelled him forwards to crown his former Success by compleating the Conquest of Zenobia.

His March was terribly harrassed by the frequent Attacks of the Syrian Banditti; and when he came up, he found Palmyra so strongly fortified and so bravely defended, that tho’ he invested it with his Army, yet the Siege was attended with a thousand difficulties. His Army was daily weakened and dispirited by the gallant Resistance of the Palmyrenians, and his own Life sometimes in the utmost danger.

Tired at last with the Obstinacy of the besieged, and almost worn out by continued Fatigues, he sent Zenobia a written Summons to surrender, as if his Words could strike Terror into her, whom by force of Arms he was unable to subdue.

Aurelian, Emperor of the Roman World, and Recoverer of the East; to Zenobia and her Adherents.

“Why am I forced to command, what you ought voluntarily to have done already? I charge you to surrender, and thereby avoid the certain Penalty of Death which otherwise attends you. You, Zenobia, shall spend the remainder of your Life where I, by the Advice of the most honourable Senate, shall think proper to place you. Your Jewels, your Silver, your Gold, your finest Apparel, your Horses and your Camels, you shall reign to the Disposal of the Romans, in order to preserve the Palmyrenians from being divested of all their former Privileges.”

Zenobia not in the least affrighted by the Menace, nor soothed by the cruel Promise of a Life in Exile and Obscurity, resolved by her Answer to convince Aurelian, that he should find the stoutest Resistance from her, whom he thought to frighten into compliance.

This answer was drawn up by Longinus in a Spirit peculiar to himself, and worthy of his Mistress.

“Zenobia, Queen of the East, to the Emperor Aurelian.

Never was such an unreasonable Demand proposed, or such rigorous Terms offered by any but yourself. Remember, Aurelian, that in War, whatever is done should be done by Valour. You imperiously command me to surrender; but can you forget that Cleopatra chose rather to die with the Title of Queen, than to live in any inferior Dignity? We expect Succours from Persia; the Saracens are arming in our Cause; even the Syrian Banditti, have already defeated your Army. Judge what you are to expect from a Conjunction of these Forces. You shall be compelled to abate that Pride, with which, as if you were absolute Lord of the Universe, you command me to become your Captive.”

Aurelian, says Vopiscus, had no sooner read this disdainful Letter, than he blushed (not so much with Shame, as) with Indignation. He redoubled his Efforts, invested the Town more closely than ever, and kept it in continual Alarms. No Art was left untried which the Conduct of a General could suggest, or the Bravery of angry Soldiers could put in Execution. He intercepted the Aid which was marching from Persia to their Relief. He reduced the Saracen and Armenian Forces, either by Strength of Arms, or the Subtilty of Intrigues, till at length the Palmyrenians, deprived of all prospect of Relief, and worn out by continual Assaul[t]s from without, and by Famine within, were obliged to open the Gates and receive their Conqueror.

The Queen and Longinus could not tamely stay to put on their Chains. Mounted on the swiftest Camels, they endeavoured to fly into Persia, to make fresh head against Aurelian, who, entering the City, was vexed to find his Victory imperfect, and Zenobia yet unsubdued. A Body of the swiftest Horse was immediately dispatched in pursuit, who overtook and made them Prisoners as they were crossing the Euphrates. Aurelian, after he had settled Palmyra, returned to Emisa, whither the Captives were carried after him. He sate on his Tribunal to receive Zenobia, or rather to insult her.

The Roman Soldiers throng around her, and demand her Death with incessant Shouts. Zenobia now was no longer herself; the former Greatness of her Spirit quite sunk within her; she owned him Master, and pleaded for her Life.

“Her Counsellors, she said, were to be blamed, and not herself. What could a weak, short-sighted Woman do, when beset by artful and ambitious Men, who made her subservient to all their Schemes? She never had aimed at Empire, had they not placed it before her Eyes in all its Allurements. The Letter which affronted Aurelian was not her own, Longinus wrote it, the Insolence was his.”

This was no sooner heard, than Aurelian, who was Soldier enough to conquer, but not Heroe enough to forgive, poured all his Vengeance on the Head of Longinus. He was born away to immediate Execution, amidst the generous Condolence of those who knew his Merit, and admired the inward Generosity of his Soul.

He pity’d Zenobia, and comforted his Friends. He looked upon Death as a Blessing, since it rescued his Body from Slavery, and gave his Soul the most desirable freedom.

“This World, said he with his expiring Breath, is nothing but a Prison; happy therefore he who gets soonest out of it, and gains his Liberty.”

The Writings of Longinus are numerous, some on Philosophical, but the greatest part on Critical subjects. Dr. Pearce has collected the Titles of twenty-five Treatises, none of which, except this on the Sublime, have escaped from the Depredations of Time and Barbarians. …

The prefatory section thus continues, with no more about Zenobia other than the brief mention that she was said to have converted from Judaism and may have been a Christian (Smith gives the sources of Photius and Bellarmine for this information). This is mentioned only to explain how Longinus may have had access to the Old Testament of the Bible.

As Smith retold this tale, doubtless he would have had in mind the principles of sublimity that Longinus expressed in his treatise. The five sources of sublimity, according to Longinus, are

  1. Boldness and grandeur of thoughts
  2. Pathos: the power of raising the passions
  3. Skilful application of figures of thought and language
  4. Noble words and the use of tropes
  5. Structure of sentences

(Longinus, 1739, p. 16)

Longinus explains also that sublimity reveals ethos:

“The sublime is an image reflected from the inward greatness of the soul. A naked Thought without Words challenges Admiration, and strikes by its Grandeur”

“an Orator of the true Genius must have no mean and ungenerous way of thinking”

“And hence it is, that the greatest Thoughts are always uttered by the greatest Souls”

(Longinus, 1739, p. 18-19 [Part 1; section ix])


  • Longinus, C. (1739). Dionysius Longinus on the sublime: translated from the Greek, with notes and observations, and some account of the life, writings and character of the author. By William Smith, A. M. Rector of Trinity in Chester. (W. Smith, Trans.). London: Printed by J. Watts, and sold by W. Innys and R. Manby. Retrieved from Eighteenth Century Collections Online database by Gale.
  • Sémhur. (2015, January 27). Palmyra at its greatest extent in 271 AD [Image]. Retrieved from

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