Friday, 25 May 2018

Story of a Novel: The Rise of Zenobia

A friend once told me I could write, and so I did. The Rise of Zenobia wasn't the first novel I wrote, nor the first I published, but it was one of my earliest pieces of work and was put through its paces on various peer review sites before finally being enshrined on the page.

The stories of lesser known heroes have always intrigued me. There are many reasons they are untold, barely noted in the tombs of history, a footnote here and there.

Zenobia was one.

Popular in the Arab world, she was lesser known to westerners. I first read about her in Antiona Fraser's Warrior Queen, giving me an insight into the life of this remarkable woman, who rose from the daughter of a merchant to marry the King of Palmyra, capital of Syria, and an important city on the eastern caravan route.

Two things struck me about Zenobia. First was that she led one of the most threatening rebellions ever faced by the Roman Empire, yet it remained largely untold. The Empire relied heavily on Egypt for it's source of grain, with a third of the Empire's consumption coming from the land of the pyramids alone. Cut off, the Empire would starve.

The second was the country in which she rose to a hugely influential position. It was a vast contrast to the middle east today; war torn, religious conflict and oppressive toward woman. In the third century Zenobia was not only given a voice, she held command over armies and was worshiped as a god. Further still was the descriptions of many religions living peacefully, side by side, with citizens choosing who they worshiped, many praying to several gods. Indeed Zenobia herself courted both Jews and Christians to name but two in a bid to secure friendship and support. These details fascinated me when in so many other areas of history you read of seemingly constant religious conflict, where religion is the reason for the story, the cause of war, the very character of conflict. Here was a story where religion was barely a player. An so I embarked on a mission to write a story where religion is constantly referenced, but it is the colour of the sea or the shape of the moon or the smell of spice. Not the cause or the reason for the characters' motives and interaction.

The first draft of The Rise of Zenobia took years to complete and many rewrites, particularly of the first chapter, in a bid to introduce the characters that would see them live through several volumes of the series. The research was unending and still is. Little is known of Syria in the third century. Like the dark ages of Britain very little historical documentation existing and what does is unreliable.

I left it too late to visit Syria to do any on the ground research. My children were babies when I first started writing and by the time I had the time and resources to make the venture war was, in real life as well as my book, tearing the country apart.

From the clothes to the armour I made educated guesses. Syria was a client kingdom of the Roman Empire and would be heavily influenced by the language, customs and dress. But it was also close to Egypt and in perpetual war with Persia, so everything I imagined for the land ruled by my heroine would be a mixture of them all in a bid to demonstrate local and political influence.

An Extract:

We walked a long line of tents, taller than ours, but still the soldiers stooped in and out. We paused outside one, six soldiers standing sentry, and I felt a flutter of apprehension, our mission riding on the next few moments; our second and last chance.

We ducked inside. Gallienus sat behind a table as Valerian had sat behind a desk in Rome, the tent otherwise bare. They were different in approach. Valerian did not wish to see us, made no pretence at humouring us, and believed what he had wanted to believe, what his own commanders told him. Gallienus sat with a serenity I had not imagined a man of war to emanate. Scars marred his face, cutting through a short beard, no thicker than my own. He stood up and genially gestured we take chairs opposite him. An aide stood to one side, four soldiers lining the walls, and the soldier who had come for us sat down at one end of the table.

‘My sincere apologies,’ the emperor said. ‘You caught me on a long march home. I am not entirely sure who it is I address,’ he smiled, eyes flicking between Zenobia and myself.

‘We are honoured to be in your presence, Caesar. I am Zenobia Zabdilas, consul of Palmyra, and this is my personal guard and cousin, Zabdas. We were sent to Rome on behalf of King Odenathus …’

‘Of Syria?’ Gallienus interrupted.

‘Palmyra, indeed.’

Gallienus relaxed into his seat and traced a wide scar close to his ear.

‘But you are not in Rome. You are west of Rome, seeking an audience with me.’

The man sitting at the end of the table gave a low snigger and leaned forward on the table.

Gallienus appeared amused as he waited for a response.

Zenobia remained unmoved.

‘Indeed, Caesar. I am here to plead for reinforcements …’

‘Wait a moment,’ Gallienus said, and my patience tore. ‘Two questions. Firstly, why come to me? My father is at this very moment in Rome. Surely he could have listened to your plea?’

Zenobia did not hesitate. ‘We have pleaded with your father already, but alas to no avail. Roman commanders report that the east can hold for now, as it always has, against the Persian invaders. He makes his decision based on this.’

Gallienus closed his eyes momentarily.

‘I see. And so you have come to me in the hope that my opinion might differ?’


Gallienus chuckled, and the man at the end of the table laughed, too.

‘I admire your honesty.’

‘You had a second question?’ she said.

Gallienus tilted his head and studied Zenobia.

‘Why would a woman come with only three soldiers and a guide? Surely you travelled from Syria with a larger escort?’

Zenobia shrugged off her cloak.

‘We came with an escort of more than a hundred men. Our leader and company felt we had done all we could having spoken with your father.’

The emperor’s smile evaporated.

‘I see. This man, this leader with whom you came, he thinks my father holds imperium, hmm?’

Zenobia said nothing. Clever, I thought. She touched on delicate matters.

After a while Gallienus said, ‘What makes you think my answer will differ from my co-emperor’s?’

‘You are a lord of war,’ Zenobia replied. ‘You know enough to understand and sympathise with Odenathus’ position and the problems he faces. The Persians threaten Syria, but it is also under invasion from many other tribes, including the Tanukh.’ She leaned forward and they held one another’s gaze with ease. ‘My king has held the Syrian frontier — your frontier — for many years with success. But our enemies become more powerful, and yet the legions in Syria remain the same. It has become increasingly difficult to continue to maintain control. Numerous cities have been lost. My own father led men to the Euphrates two years ago. He came out of retirement to protect the Empire.’

My mind was filled with Julius, whether he still held the southern frontier, and if he were dead or alive. I felt the draw of home, a heavy pull in my stomach. I craved, then, to return to Palmyra.

‘My father will have seen your problems in the east as part of a greater problem, as part of the Empire’s problems; something that weighs heavily on us both. When he and I became colleagues, Rome was close to collapse; it still is. Maintaining and securing the frontiers is a huge problem. A massive undertaking. If Valerian Caesar thinks you can hold, he makes his decision based on how much pressure he is under elsewhere.’ Gallienus barely looked at me as he spoke, eyes fixed intently on Zenobia. ‘It is an easy choice to make, when the people whose lives are immediately at risk are not people you know, when there are enemies closer to home. Believe me, I understand the troubles your country faces, and I have a great deal of respect for Odenathus. He is an incredibly loyal man.’

‘He is the best of men,’ Zenobia replied. ‘You could not wish for a more trustworthy ruler to a client kingdom.’

A mild hint that Odenathus could turn against Rome without notice was not lost on the younger emperor.

‘You can leave us now, Posthumus,’ Gallienus said to the man sat at the end of the table.

‘Caesar,’ Posthumus acknowledged.

He bowed and stooped out of the tent. Only the guards, Zenobia, Gallienus and I remained.

‘I understand,’ he said. ‘Odenathus has my full support in all matters, but whether it is physically possible to push more legions to Syria’s frontier is another problem entirely. That may be difficult to accept, but it is also quite probably the case. I know my own men are stretched.’

‘Give me a day,’ Zenobia challenged, ‘and I will change your mind.’

Gallienus grinned, boyish and amused. He rose from his seat, took Zenobia’s hand and assisted her to her feet.

‘I have no doubt you would try. Your escort waits for you in Rome?’

‘They are camped on the outskirts of the city.’

‘Then you can travel back with me. And you can have two days to plead your case.’

Hope gripped once more.


"If you're a fan of historical fiction and like Douglas Jackson, Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow - then you will adore this novel. The Rise of Zenobia is the first in the series and I can't wait to read more from this talented author."

"I do love a warrior queen! Boudica is perhaps the best known of all but this is a tale told of another, Zenobia, who also went up against the might of Rome. An intriguing and atmospheric insight into a part of history I knew very little about. It is very well written but easy to follow too - no mean feat considering all the unusual place and character names. Set in ancient Palmyra (modern-day Syria) the descriptions throughout, of the people, the places, are particularly vivid, transporting you to a bygone age. Packed to the hilt with tension and adventure, it kept me spellbound. Thankfully, as part of a trilogy, there is more to come!"

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