Tuesday 16 June 2009

Palmyra, Queen Zenobia and the Christmas Star

Next time you celebrate Christmas Day, if you do celebrate Christmas Day, you might care to give passing thanks to Palmyra and Queen Zenobia!

A rich trading centre, Palmyra was also vital to the defence of Rome's eastern provinces, especially after Ardashir created a new Persian Empire on the ruins of the Parthians. It was Prince Odenathus of Palmyra who drove back the Persian invasion of 262AD, for which he received the title of totius Orientis imperator from the grateful Emperor Gallienus in Rome.

But Zenobia, his wife and successor, was altogether more ambitious. Mindful of the decline of Roman power, she constructed the Palmyrene Empire, an echo of that of an earlier Arab queen, Semiramis. Palmyra under Queen Zenobia was the centre of many cults and religions; but standing above all was Sol Invictus-the Unconquered Sun. This cult had previously come to Rome in the form of Elagabalus Sol Invictus. It was discredited, to some degree, by association with the decadent Emperor Heliogabalus, though it never entirely went away.

After Aurelian defeated Zenobia he built a huge temple to Sol Invictus on his return to Rome, a celebration both of his triumph and a way of harnessing the power of this supreme God. It was the first serious attempt to create a unifying religion for the whole Empire, a way of binding the fragments together after the prolonged Crisis of the Third Century. Aurelian was god on earth and the Sun was god in heaven. In 274AD the Emperor declared that the annual festival of Sol Invictus would fall on the winter solstice-25 December. And it was thus that Christmas came on a star, from the east and in the company of a Queen!

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