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. Continue reading