As historian Warwick Ball put it, “History can never resist a warrior queen” – and, well, neither can I. Of course, since most ancient societies were patriarchal, the most common way for women to exercise political power was through their children or husbands. When first listening to Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome” (THoR) podcast series, I remember being intrigued by the characters of Julia Domna and Julia Maesa. For years, I’ve been playing with the idea of writing a book on that family, who had so much influence on Roman affairs during the Severan Dynasty. A few months ago, when this thought had bubbled up again, it was countered, for the first time, by another thought – “I don’t write books, I do podcasts.” Which was actually a fruitful admission, since it got me thinking about the subject in new ways.
But, of course, Mike had already covered the Emesa clan both so well in THoR that there was no point in revisiting the topic unless I thought I had something new and interesting to contribute. During my initial research, my memory was jogged by a few offhand remarks connecting the Emesa clan with both Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Didn’t Zenobia claim to be descended from Cleopatra, and wasn’t Emesa supposed to provide some of the “connective tissue” between these two legendary Queens of the East?
This was the moment of “inspiration” (typically defined as “the split-second between having a great idea and realizing there is no way it will work”). When I started to “connect the dots” I expected to find enormous, unbridgeable gaps that would make any connection between Cleopatra and Zenobia implausible at best. But, much to my surprise and growing excitement, I found more (and more solid) connections that I’d expected, and the thought began to cross my mind that I just might be on to something.
The centerpiece of the series was, and is, Emesa – modern Homs in Syria. During most of Roman history, Syria always seemed to exist on the periphery – an alien land from which victorious Roman generals (like Vespasian) or horrible Roman Emperors (yes, I’m looking at you Elagabalis) emerged, to take their central place in the story of Rome. But the history of the whole Syrian region, from the Assyrians, to the Chaldeans, to the Persians, to the Macedonians, to the Arabs and Romans, always seemed interesting enough to me to warrant its own podcast series.
One of my earlier ideas for a follow-on series to The Ancient World was to cover the history of the ancient Near East between 500 BC and the Muslim conquest - but that always seemed too complex and daunting a project. Months ago, I started thinking of the possibility of covering the same time-period through the lens of a particular city – say Babylon, Antioch, or Aleppo – as waves of conquerors and immigrants washed back and forth across the region. But now suddenly, I thought there might be an even better lens – why not tell the history of the ancient Near East from the perspective of a particular family? And what if that family also happened to be the same bloodline that connected Cleopatra to Zenobia?
A single series that could combine my love of the Near East, my desire to cover a different historical period, and my interest in the Emesa clan? And one that could leverage the history already covered in my earlier podcast, as well as in THoR, to build on? Well, ideas that bring that many mental threads together don’t come along every day, so I obviously dove in with a vengeance. Even off the bat, the story of Cleopatra’s daughter Selene seemed insanely compelling. In 4 years, she went from future Queen of Crete and Cyrenaica to Roman prisoner, then bounced back to run a major North African kingdom. I mean…what?? All of this really happened?? Does nobody know about this?? Because this is a story that deserves to be out there, or at least better known. As a bonus, it also meant that I got to research and write about Roman North Africa, about which I knew next to nothing.
Other descendants have their own interesting stories to tell, all of which will be revealed in time. The beginning of the series has been fairly Rome-heavy, mainly due to Selene’s adoption into Octavia’s family, and the fact that both she and Juba were raised alongside so many famous figures. In the next generation, Ptolemy of Mauretania is a direct blood-cousin of Germanicus (for instance), which also keeps the Rome connection fairly strong. But as both physical distance, and the distance of generations, increases, my plan is to give Rome comparable treatment to Parthia and other Eastern kingdoms. In the meantime, I’m attempting to provide enough general Roman history for any listeners who may not have heard THoR without belaboring a subject that Mike Duncan has already covered so well.
One of the original ideas I toyed with for the series name was “Queens of the East.” The reasons I decided against it were, first, there were a lot of connecting generations where the heir in question was male and, second, I didn’t want to give away the game too quick. But now that all stands revealed, I’m proud to announce the unofficial tag-line for the series: “Cleopatra to Zenobia or Bust!”
Thanks for listening, and hope you enjoy the trip!