An unexpected ally saved the Empire in Asia. Odenathus, who governed Palmyra as a vassal of Rome, drove the Persians back across Mesopotamia, defeated them at Ctesiphon (261), and declared himself king of Syria, Cilicia, Arabia, Cappadocia, and Armenia. He was assassinated in 266; his youthful son succeeded to his titles, his widow to his power. Like Cleopatra, from whom she claimed descent, Zenobia combined beauty of person with statesmanly capacity and many accomplishments of mind. She studied Greek literature and philosophy, learned Latin, Egyptian, and Syriac, and wrote a history of the East. Apparently connecting chastity with vigor, she allowed herself only such sexual relations as were needed for motherhood. She inured herself to hardship and fatigue, enjoyed the dangers of the chase and marched on foot for miles at the head of her troops. She governed with sternness and wisdom, made the philosopher Longinus her premier, gathered scholars, poets, and artists at her court, and beautified her capital with Greco-Roman-Asiatic palaces whose ruins startle the desert traveler today. Feeling that the Empire was breaking up, she planned a new dynasty and realm, brought Cappadocia, Galatia, and most of Bithynia under her control, fitted out a great army and fleet, conquered Egypt, and took Alexandria after a siege that destroyed half the population. The subtle “Queen of the East” pretended that she was proceeding as the agent of the Roman power; but all the world knew that her victories were an act in the spacious drama of Rome’s collapse.

Seeing the wealth and weakness of the Empire, the barbarians poured down into the Balkans and Greece. While the Sarmatians pillaged again the cities on the Black Sea, a branch of the Goths sailed in 500 ships through the Hellespont into the Aegean, took isle after isle, anchored in the Piraeus, and sacked Athens, Argos, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes (267). While their navy brought some of the marauders back to the Black Sea, another group fought its way overland towards its Danube home. Gallienus met them at the river Nestus in Thrace, and won a costly victory; but a year later he was murdered by his troops. In 269 another Gothic horde descended into Macedonia, besieged Thessalonica, and pillaged Greece, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the Ionian coast. The Emperor Claudius II rescued Thessalonica, drove the Goths up the Vardar valley, and defeated them with great slaughter at Naissus, the modern Nish (269). If he had lost that battle no army would have intervened between the Goths and Italy.