Monday, February 19, 2007

Zenobia: A Book Review

I have just finished reading The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen, by Judith Weingarten. First, a revelation: I know that Ms. Weingarten reads this blog sometimes, and she had the book sent to me for review, but I never got it so I bought a copy instead. Where does this leave me? Heh. You figure it out.

Judith Weingarten is an archeologist and an expert in depicting the place (Palmyra) and the time (269-272 AD) of Zenobia, and if you like historical novels in general you will like this one. The book (first in a planned trilogy, I think) made it easy for me to step into the world of Simon, a teacher and friend of the young Zenobia. Simon is the narrator in most of the book. Other reviews I've read say that the depiction is historically correct. It feels like reality, and that is a nice thing in a book. Perhaps the reason for the very real atmosphere of the book is in this quote by Weingarten:

It was at Palmyra in Syria that I began to tell the story of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and the rebellion that she led against imperial Rome. I was living within the grounds of the Temple of Bel, and at night, when the great gates of the temple were shut, I came closer to the spirit of the time and place than probably anyone has ever done before. I know that I felt very close to Zenobia, which made the book a joy for me to write.

Why would Zenobia's story be of interest to a present-day reader? There are at least three good reasons, in addition to the intrinsic interest of tales like this (and yes, there is sex, too), and I started thinking about them even before I finished the book. First, the book describes the beginning of what is often described as the fall of the Roman empire, a time when the Persian forces became a major threat to the Eastern parts of the empire, a time when the Roman ability to defend Zenobia's homeland was waning. The cracks are showing in the physical and the intellectual ramparts of the Roman empire, and Zenobia sees those cracks and acts.

Compare all this with the time we are living in today. I doubt it is ever easy for contemporaries to see historical changes happening, but clearly we have stepped into a new and different era of politics and warfare. Old empires, whether real or ideological, are crumbling, and it is not at all clear what will take their place. Reading about that time and place reminded me about this time and place.

A second similarity between Zenobia's time and ours, and a second good reason to read the book, is in the importance of understanding and coping with different religions. The book looks at this through the eyes of a Jewish interpreter, for Simon belongs to the Jewish diaspora in Palmyra. But Christianity, a new and troublesome cult, has entered the picture, too, though the old local and Roman gods still rule strongest. Zenobia herself worships Allat, a goddess about whom I've read elsewhere as a possible precursor of Allah.

How to cope with the many different religions? The responses Simon describes us vary from benign tolerance to being burnt on the stake, and the political reasons for these responses are made clear to us.

The third good reason for the book is in that rare story of a woman rising up in a male-dominated society and becoming a ruler. How on earth did Zenobia ever manage to come into power in a society where women were not expected to leave the women's quarters very much? Was she truly so exceptional? What made her exceptional? How did she manage to gather the power she later wielded? Why did the men around her follow her?

Weingarten tells us one story about all this, but I can imagine other explanations. It's all interesting, though.

I do have one complaint about the book: its title. This first book in the series is mostly about Simon, not about Zenobia, and the book ends before the real reign of Zenobia, the queen, has started. I eagerly await the second installment, to learn more about Zenobia. But the book might have been given a better title.