Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz
Here is an appellation that name lovers and history buffs can't stay away from. Zenobia (zen-OH-bee-ah) is a Greek name that is often listed as meaning "life of Zeus, strength of Zeus" due to the components zen, zeno, (Zeno being the poetic name of Zeus), and bia, meaning "strength." The etymology seems a bit forced in this case, but Nook of Names has a different suggestion:
Zenobia — although interpreted as “life of Zeus” in Greek, the name is probably from the Palmyrean form of Arabic Zaynab, the name of a fragrant flowering plant, as the original Zenobia was a 3rd C Queen of Palmyra who defied the Romans. Although she was ultimately defeated, she was said to have lived out her days in Rome as a respected philosopher and socialite. Used since the 16th C, but always a rarity. (Source)Zaynab means "desert flower" or "ornamented tree" in Arabic. Wikipedia suggests Zaynab is an altered form of Zenobia, not the other way around. Her Aramaic name was Bat-Zabbai, meaning "daughter of Zabbai," and this is how she signed her name every day, although she was also known as Septimia Zenobia after her marriage, and Julia Aurelia Zenobia to the Romans, as tradition to reflect her father's and family's name. Although, Zenovia seems to be the Latin form. The Semitic name Zabbai means "gift of God."
British Baby Names says more on her name, that Zenobia is composed of zen, as stated above, and bios, meaning "life." Therefore it is safe to say zen + bia = "strength of Zeus," and zen + bios = "life of Zeus." Bat-Zabbai and Zainab (Zaynab) being the Aramaic family clan name of disputed meaning. It is said Zenobia was a Hellenistic transcription of the Aramaic name, and she was almost definitely of Arabic descent. Her relation to Cleopatra is only rumor and cannot be proved. Zenobia believed she was a descendant of Cleopatra Thea through Drusilla of Mauretania. Through Drusilla's grandfather, Zenobia would also be a descendant of Dido from Carthage.
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra by Warwick Goble
Zenobia, born 240 AD, the second wife of King Septimius Odaenathus, was a 3rd century queen of Palmyra, ruling the Palmyrene Empire in Roman Syria after the death of her husband. Zenobia expanded the territory as an independent ruler, captured Egypt and Anatolia, was able to speak four languages, and was well loved by her country. In fact, she was known as the "Warrior Queen," which is charming, considering an obvious nickname is Zena, as evidenced in the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. If it isn't obvious, the reference implied is "Xena, Warrior Princess." Queen Zenobia was most famous for leading a revolt against the Roman Empire, and as stated above, was defeated in 274 AD, which thus ended her career. Emperor Aurelian took her as a hostage, but rumor has it she was able to live the rest of her life peacefully, and possibly in luxury as a socialite. Her cause of death is not known for sure. Some say she died soon after her capture, others say she married a senator and had several daughters. You can read more about her life and capture in these translated diary entries, which I did not find out if they were accurate, but still a fun read.
Zenobia Captive by Sir Edward Poynter
There are two other well known namesakes of Zenobia. The first is St. Zenobia, who was martyred with her brother St. Zenobios, for their religion. The second is Princess Zenobia, wife of Prince Rhadamistes of Iberia, who lived in the 1st century, around 50 AD. The two were cousins, and although Rhadamistes was a valiant man at first, he turned into a murderer and vicious ruler. They became King and Queen of Armenia after the murder of Zenobia's father and brothers, yet Zenobia remained loyal. After enemies attacked Armenia, a pregnant Zenobia and her husband fled the kingdom, and unable to bear the long ride, and afraid of being captured, Zenobia begged Rhadamistes to kill her. He stabbed her and left her behind, b ut she survived and was saved by shepherds, who took her to the court of Tiridates, where she was received kindly. Her husband returned to his father and was beheaded. This Zenobia's tale was retold by the Roman historian Tacitus, then made into a play called Zenobia in 1761. It was also a name used by Hawthorne.
Three lesser-known namesakes include comedienne/actress Tina Fey's daughter Alice Zenobia, Zenobia Powell Perry, a composer, and author Zenobia Camprubi Aymar. The name also features in other literature, include The Blithdale Romance, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852, and The Hour of the Dragon (also known by Conan the Conqueror) by Robert E. Howard in 1935. Most recently, Amazon currently sells Zenobia - Birth of a Legend by Russ Wallace, which is about the Queen of Palmyra. It has strong reviews. There was also a 1939 film titled "Zenobia," in which Zenobia is an elephant, a 1975 film called "Madame Zenobia," and Anita Ekberg played Zenobia in the 1959 film "The Sign of Rome."
A non-person namesake is Zenobia pulverulenta, a pretty white-blossomed plant as shown below, a clothing line, and the name of a ship. Do some digging and Zenobia pops up in quite a few places. It's even the name of a hotel and a ballet.
Nook of Names and British Baby Names tell us Zenobia was used sparingly until the 16th century, and then rarely until the 19th century, including variant forms such as Senobia. In 2011 there were only 22 baby girls named Zenobia in the U.S., and in 2010 there were 18, plus 7 named Zenovia. It ranked low on the charts every few years, on and off, between 1881 and 1925. Zinovia is also a rarely used variant. Zenaida and Zinaida are related names. Zenobia's name day is October 30th.
One more fun read on Zenobia as a mistaken "black" name can be found at Zenobia: Empress of the East, since I am rapidly running out of room for this post. And be sure to Google more artwork of Zenobia, as there was a bit too much for this baby name blog to hold.