Queens of Infamy: Zenobia

In third-century Syria, a widowed monarch dared to be wildly ambitious — and almost brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

Anne Thériault | Longreads | December 2018 | 18 minutes (4,570 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

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When one thinks about Roman triumvirates, insofar as one ever thinks about Roman triumvirates, there are two that spring immediately to mind: the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate. The former involved a would-be emperor (Julius Caesar), a man with a beautiful head of hair (Pompey), and a guy whose name no one can ever remember (Crassus); the latter included an actual emperor (Augustus), a noted piss artist who also happened to have great hair (Mark Antony), and another guy whose name no one can ever remember (Lepidus). But I propose we add another Ancient Roman triumvirate and turn this list into a triumvirate of triumvirates. This last (and, frankly, greatest) of the triumvirates consists of the three queens who led revolts against the Roman occupation of their lands: Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia.

Do I understand that the term “triumvirate” means “three people who operate together as a governing coalition”? Yes. Since vir is Latin for “man,” wouldn’t the term refer specifically to men? Sure, whatever. Given that Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia were women whose lives were separated by the vagaries of time and geography, doesn’t that suggest that I’m applying “triumvirate” incorrectly here? Probably. Do I care about your petty and pedantic opinions on this matter? Not especially.

Cleopatra and Boudicca’s stories are both fairly well-known in the West, if somewhat distorted in their retellings (the Egyptian queen wanted her legacy to be tax reform and a stable, drought-resistant economy, but instead we mostly remember her as being sexily embroiled in Roman politics). Zenobia is a popular historical figure in the Arab world, especially in her native Syria, where her image appears on banknotes and where her story featured heavily in the 1997 historical soap opera Al-Ababeed (The Anarchy). Outside of the Middle East, though, she seems to be half-forgotten aside from a few works produced during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, all of which employ extreme artistic license. Part of the problem is that when it comes to Zenobia, hard facts are few and far between. This is almost certainly related to gender; while historians were studiously chronicling the frequency and texture of royal men’s bowel movements, the most basic details of women’s lives are lost to time. The Romans were particularly reluctant to include women in their accounts, so it’s unsurprising that they didn’t leave much information behind about the queen who conquered a solid chunk of their empire.

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Septimia Zenobia was born around 240 CE, give or take a year, and has been known by several names: in Palmyrene, an Aramaic dialect, she was Septimia Bat-Zabbai, while in Greek she was Zenobia, “one who derives life from Zeus.” Later Arab sources called her Na’ilah, and in Manichean documents she is referred as Tadi. In some versions of her story, Zenobia was the daughter of the chief of the ‘Amlaqi tribe, although this is unconfirmed. It’s not even known what religious beliefs the queen held — most likely she practiced ancient Semitic polytheism, but less than a century after her reign, the Archbishop of Constantinople wrote that she was Jewish. It’s a good example of how many wildly conflicting accounts there are of Zenobia’s origins. She herself claimed to be a direct descendant of Cleopatra, which is likely a slight massaging of her alleged relation to Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty. What is certain is that Zenobia was not a commoner by birth, since she was highly educated and, like Cleopatra, spoke several languages. The queen was fluent in Palmyrene, of course, but also spoke Greek and Egyptian and had a passing knowledge of Latin.

While historians were studiously chronicling the frequency and texture of royal men’s bowel movements, the most basic details of women’s lives are lost to time.

Zenobia’s Palmyra was a city on the brink of greatness. Nicknamed the Pearl of the Desert, Palmyra grew out of an oasis known for its date palms. Because of its location — deep in the Syrian desert, on the western edge of the Silk Road and the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire — the Palmyrenes were able to build up a brisk business in the caravan trade. Many of them were merchants, trading in goods like jade, spices, muslin, and silk, while others hired themselves out as guards for caravans about to cross the bandit-infested desert. The city’s real wealth, though, came from fleecing all the importers and exporters passing through. Taxes and tariffs might generate less immediate gratification than straight-up plundering, but in the long run they’re much more sustainable as a revenue stream. By the 3rd century, Palmyra was a bustling multicultural metropolis, with a theatre, public baths, and temples dedicated to Semitic, Mesopotamian, and Arab gods. The Roman Empire, meanwhile, was a shitshow.

Here’s the thing about the Roman Empire: they talked a good game about peace — Pax Romana and all that — but their entire business model depended on military action. If the Romans weren’t invading new territories , they were fighting to hold onto the ones they had already conquered. The Romans had a pretty good knack for maintaining control of what they’d taken by brute force, but the larger the Empire grew, the more unwieldy and difficult to defend it became. On top of that, by Zenobia’s time Rome itself was mired in economic and political crisis due to war being really fucking expensive and their Emperors’ centuries-long tendency to get killed on the job.

JULIUS CAESAR: oh my god

JULIUS CAESAR: I thought you chuckleheads would have learned from my mistakes

JULIUS CAESAR: but no, you’re just plop, plop, plop, getting assassinated all over the damn place

JULIUS CAESAR: there is an entire Wikipedia category for Roman emperors murdered by the Praetorian Guard

JULIUS CAESAR: this was not what I intended when I crossed the Rubicon!!!

BALBINUS: lol sorry

AURELIAN: yeah, bro, supes sorry

CALIGULA: if it makes you feel any better, most of us deserved it

JULIUS CAESAR: that does not make me feel better

CALIGULA: lol I tried to make my horse a consul

Palmyra had long been controlled by outside forces: first the Seleucids between 312 and 64 BCE, and then, after a brief period of independence, by the Romans. In theory, being part of the Roman Empire conferred some benefits on its members (as long as they submitted totally and unquestioningly to Rome’s every whim): improved infrastructure, participation in a large trading network, and protection from external enemies. But by the time Zenobia was born, Rome was failing Palmyra on all three fronts. The Empire’s ongoing wars with the Parthians and the Persians were messing up the whole neighborhood, so it was safer and more convenient for traders to find routes that circumvented Palmyra. This led to a steep decline in the city’s economic situation. The Palmyrenes, as you can imagine, were less than enthused. Fortunately for them, there was a savior in their midst — two, actually: Septimius Odenathus and his wife, Zenobia.

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Zenobia married Odenathus at some point in her teens — we know for sure that she was married by the age of 18, but some sources say she was as young as 14 when they wed. We also know that Zenobia was Odenathus’ second wife, but it’s unclear what happened to his first wife. Did she die? Did they divorce? Did she take the alimony and move somewhere exotic with their pool boy? I have so many unanswered questions about Mrs. Odenathus Prima. Odenathus had at least one child, Hairan, with his first wife; Hairan was almost certainly older than Zenobia.

Odenathus was already one of the highest-ranking Palmyrenes when Zenobia married him. Like her, he came from a prominent family, and by the early 250s he had been granted Roman senatorial rank. Around that same time he was given the title Ras Tadmor, or Chief of Palmyrenes, although it’s not really clear how that role fit in with the city’s existing elected government. What is clear is that he was a strong civil and military leader and that Zenobia seemed to relish sharing in these roles, often accompanying him on martial campaigns. It’s important to note that Palmyra was allowed to maintain its own army, making it an outlier among the Roman territories; when Odenathus and Zenobia led a military expedition (as they often did), it was a Palmyrene army and not a Roman one. As busy as they were, Odenathus and Zenobia managed to have several children together (the exact number is unknown), including sons named Vaballathus and… Hairan II. Yes, the first Hairan was still alive. No, I don’t understand why royals everywhere are so committed to being deeply uncreative in their naming choices.

ODENATHUS: things are going poorly in Rome

ZENOBIA: weren’t they already?

ODENATHUS: lol but like worse than usual

ZENOBIA: worse than the Caligula horse situation?

ODENATHUS: well the last emperor was assassinated after three months

ODENATHUS: and now we have two emperors

ODENATHUS: but one of them has been captured by the Persians

ODENATHUS: and the other one is trying to quash a bunch of revolts

ZENOBIA: hmmmmm interesting

ODENATHUS: my thoughts exactly!

ODENATHUS: I’m so glad you’re on my wavelength

ODENATHUS: unlike what’s-her-face in Ithaca with the pool boy

In 260, after Emperor Valerian was captured during a Persian invasion of Roman-held Mesopotamia, Odenathus got to work. In quick succession he declared himself king, attacked the Persians before they could cross the Euphrates, and helped quash a campaign to usurp the remaining emperor, Gallienus. Odenathus had basically established Palmyra as an independent kingdom, but he was very careful to keep up all the formalities due to the Roman Emperor. Given that his empire was crumbling around him, there wasn’t much Gallienus could do. Then, in 262, Odenathus launched a series of military campaigns that recaptured all previously Roman-held lands that the Persians had claimed since their incursions began in 252. After this stunning victory, Odenathus controlled all of the Roman east and began to use the title “King of Kings.”

ODENATHUS: but not Emperor!

ODENATHUS: technicalities are important

GALLIENUS: this feels like a spirit of the law versus letter of the law situation

ODENATHUS: I like to think of it more as “creative interpretation”

ODENATHUS: finally put that MFA to work

For several years, Odenathus and Zenobia threw themselves into creating the Palmyra they’d always dreamed of: strong, well-defended, and deeply cultured. In between military campaigns, they spent their time growing a circle of scholars and philosophers at court; the most famous of these was Cassius Longinus, who became Zenobia’s tutor (and probably her children’s as well). Zenobia and her husband wanted a capital as great as — if not greater than — Rome, which, to be fair, shouldn’t have been that hard because Rome at that point was a masturbatory cesspool. I mean that mostly figuratively (if there was one thing Roman orators loved doing, it was verbally wanking off about their city), but it applies literally too, presumably. Anyway! The King of Kings and his Queen of Queens both knew that a strong military coupled with the genteel hand of liberal arts were the ticket to geopolitical upward mobility.


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Zenobia and Odenathus had Roman approval to do basically whatever the fuck they wanted, in part because Gallienus was extremely distracted by various goings-on in Gaul, where a revolt and secession were underway. Besides, there wasn’t much that the emperor could have criticized about the Palmyrene regime — the entire region was more stable and prosperous than it had been for nearly a century. Then, in 267, the King of Kings and his oldest son Hairan were assassinated. Suddenly, the world Odenathus and Zenobia had been painstakingly building together was threatened by the chaos of an empty throne.

ZENOBIA: no one knows who did it, by the way

ZENOBIA: in fact, historians can’t even agree on where it happened

ZENOBIA: some of them think it was during a military campaign, some say it was while he was at a friend’s birthday party

ZENOBIA: some people even think I was behind it!

ZENOBIA: listen, I love a good power move as much as the next monarch

ZENOBIA: but the odds on that gamble would have been way too risky for my liking

ZENOBIA: the fact that things ended up working out for me in the end isn’t proof that I orchestrated my husband’s death

ZENOBIA: if anything, it showcases my ability to persevere in the face of adversity!

ZENOBIA: but seriously, it’s wild how many of you will tie yourself into knots trying to blame everything on women

ZENOBIA: why can’t you just let us be great?

At the time of Odenathus’ death, Vaballathus, who was now heir to the Palmyrene throne, was 10; Zenobia herself was still not yet 30. But as young as she was, the queen was well-versed in governing, intriguing, and staging coups. She knew that she would have to act fast if she wanted to act at all, so she pulled a move that 1,200 years hence would be known as the Medici Maneuver, installing Vaballathus as king and naming herself queen regent. In some versions of the story, it was the Palmyrene army who insisted that Zenobia take over the government. If this was true, it might have happened for one of several reasons — it’s possible that the military thought it was their best hope for a peaceful transition, or else they hoped that a young woman and a child would be easy to control. Perhaps they even believed the queen to be a skilled leader. But even if the army wasn’t responsible for installing Zenobia, they certainly supported her; generals Zabdas and Zabbai, both of whom had served under Odenathus, were her most important courtiers and advisors from her accession until her death.

Zenobia and her husband wanted a capital as great as — if not greater than — Rome, which, to be fair, shouldn’t have been that hard because Rome at that point was a masturbatory cesspool.

Once she assumed control, Zenobia continued to build on the foundations that she and Odenathus had so assiduously laid . She fostered a culture of religious tolerance, maintained good relationships with the Jewish populations of Antioch and Alexandria, received emissaries from the new cult of Manichaeism, and offered support to the deposed Christian bishop Paul of Samosata. When she wasn’t busy cultivating interfaith peace in Palmyra, Zenobia spent her time traveling to the borders of her territory, securing the eastern frontier, and fortifying her settlements along the Euphrates. Her subjects seemed pretty happy with her reign, probably at least in part because women rulers weren’t a complete anathema in the Arab world the way they were in Rome. Her strong grasp of visual branding helped too: she was said to wear a diadem and her late husband’s imperial cloak. Some historians take that last part as a metaphor, claiming that she only assumed Odenathus’ military command; I personally prefer to take it literally, because I love the image of a boss lady striding around in a crown and giant red cape.

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As Zenobia’s star rose, the situation in Rome continued to devolve. The Gauls were still galling, the Goths were still gothing. Gallienus did his part to qualify for the Murdered Roman Emperors Wikipedia category and got himself assassinated in 268; no one was sure who did it because most of his officials had wanted him dead. After Gallienus came Claudius II, who died less than 18 months later of a “pestilence.” Claudius spent most of his time as emperor fighting the Goths, for which he earned himself the name Claudius Gothicus, and according to some sources he also found time to torture and behead Saint Valentine. Busy, busy!

For the first three years after her husband’s death, Zenobia seemed happy enough maintaining the status quo. Then, in 270, she set out on an enterprise so incredibly audacious that few of her peers would have even dreamed of trying it: she began to conquer huge swaths of land hundreds of miles beyond the borders of her territory. By the end of the year, she had wrested control of Arabia and Egypt from Rome. Palmyra was no longer just a kingdom; it was now an empire and Zenobia was clearly its empress, even if she still shied away away from using that term.

As Zenobia’s star rose, the situation in Rome continued to devolve. The Gauls were still galling, the Goths were still gothing.

Historians have an easy time explaining the how of Zenobia’s annexations — the Palmyrene army was fierce; Rome was preoccupied with uprisings, revolts, and Emperor Drama; the arrival of Zenobia’s forces in Egypt was timed to coincide with the absence of the Prefect of Egypt, who was off fighting Mediterranean pirates. They seem to struggle with explaining why she did it. Had Claudius committed some vicious act of aggression that went unrecorded by the Romans but triggered an invasion nonetheless? Was Zenobia trying to protect her people from the deadly upheaval in Rome by ensuring access to resources like Egyptian grain? Did she hope to revitalize Palmyrene trade by securing shipping routes and ports like Alexandria? Had she spent those first three years shoring up fortifications because she’d planned to expand her territory all along, or was it pure opportunism born out of the chaos in Rome?

ZENOBIA: why, why, why

ZENOBIA: everyone always wants to know why

ZENOBIA: look, why does anyone do anything?

ZENOBIA: maybe there were secret extenuating circumstances

ZENOBIA: but then again maybe there weren’t

ZENOBIA: I’m just saying

ZENOBIA: when a man builds an empire, people don’t ask him why

By 271, the Palmyrene Empire stretched all the way from Ancyra (Ankara in present-day Turkey) in the north to the Egyptian port of Berenike in the south. Zenobia set to work ruling the new territories under her control, appointing governors, securing borders, and restoring monuments. But even as they took on the administrative side of managing an empire, the Palmyrenes must have been holding their breath as they looked towards the Eternal City. Surely the Romans would retaliate by throwing their full strength against the queen? But for two years it almost seemed like they might not — 270 had been a particularly bad year, with the death of two emperors and the unsteady rise of a third, plus Gaul was still seceded and gunning for a divorce. Was it possible that the Roman Empire would just let Zenobia get away with it?

ROME: lol

ROME: I think you already know the answer to that question

ROME: bring it on, Zenobia

ROME: in the immortal words of Torrance Shipman, this isn’t a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy

ROME: S! P! Q! R! THAT’S! WHO! WE! ARE! THE SENATE! THE PEOPLE! WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED! GOOOOOOO ROME!

The new Roman Emperor, Aurelian, spent most of 271 fighting the Goths, quashing local usurpers, and dealing with a mint-workers’ revolt in Rome. By the end of that year, though, things had settled down enough that he was able to prepare for a military campaign against Zenobia. The queen could have chosen to retreat, but it’s likely that she knew that Aurelian would not let her retain her rule in Palmyra even if she withdrew. Instead, she dug in her heels and threw off the last vestiges of her loyalty to Rome by finally claiming the titles of Emperor and Empress for Vaballathus and herself. Zenobia was not going to go down without a fight.

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Aurelian swiftly recovered Egypt, then shifted his attention to Ankara and the rest of Asia Minor. As the Emperor advanced, Zenobia retreated, and most of the cities she left in her wake offered little resistance to the Roman army. The only exception is Tyana (Kemerhisar in modern-day Turkey), which locked its gates and prepared for battle. Aurelian was royally pissed, and swore to have his vengeance on the city.

AURELIAN: fuck Tyana!

SOLDIERS: yeah!

AURELIAN: by the time we’re done with Tyana, not even a single dog will be left alive!

SOLDIERS: yeah!!

AURELIAN: I hope you’re ready for some looting and pillaging!

SOLDIERS: FUCK YEAH!!!

*the next day*

AURELIAN: so, I’ve re-thought this

AURELIAN: and actually clemency is probably a better way to win over the locals?

AURELIAN: so we’re going to skip the looting

SOLDIERS: but you promised us that not even a dog would be left alive!!

AURELIAN: lol, true

AURELIAN: you got me

AURELIAN: ok, you can kill the dogs, you scallywags

If you weren’t already questioning the morals of the Roman war machine, I hope you will be convinced by the story of these literal monsters who killed dogs for no reason. Fucking Rome! They’re why we can’t have nice things.

Zenobia and her general Zabdas chose to take their first big stand against the Romans at Immae, near the present-day border between Turkey and Syria. The Palmyrenes might have stood a chance had they not fallen for what seems like an incredibly transparent Roman ruse: the troops pretended to retreat and then, once the Palmyrenes were both overheated and overconfident, turned and attacked. Zenobia knew a defeat when she saw one and swiftly retreated to Antioch, where she and Zabdas spread the story that they had actually won; as part of this fiction, the queen dressed up one of her soldiers to look like the Emperor and paraded him through the streets. Then, once the victory celebration was fully underway, the queen and her general slipped out of the city. It was a genius move worthy of the most brilliant tactician — Palmyra had been badly beaten, and yet Zenobia had enough presence of mind to fake a victory in front of an entire city. Not only that, but she conveniently had a Roman Emperor costume somewhere in her luggage? It was a plan so absolutely wild that it couldn’t fail. It’s also proof that a trunk full of costumes is an important part of the empire-building arsenal.

After Immae, Aurelian took the nearby Palmyrene fort at Daphne, then spent some time securing Antioch. Zenobia seized this chance to regroup at Emesa, where she collected what was left of her army and brought in all the auxiliary forces she could find. Although the queen had lost most of her empire, there was still a chance that she could successfully defend her home soil, and as the Battle of Emesa began it almost seemed like she would do exactly that. The Romans tried to use the same ruse as at Immae, but this time the Palmyrenes were expecting it and the Romans experienced heavy casualties. Then, after the first flush of victory, the Palmyrene line began to fail. By the end of the battle, the Palmyrene army was utterly destroyed, and Zenobia was forced to retreat to Palmyra.

It was a genius move worthy of the most brilliant tactician — Palmyra had been badly beaten, and yet Zenobia had enough presence of mind to fake a victory in front of an entire city.

As the queen tried to figure out what to do next, Aurelian prepared to stage what some historians refer to as a “siege.” This was probably more of a supply blockade, since unlike most cities of the time, Palmyra didn’t have defensive walls. According to some sources, at this point Aurelian tried to open negotiations with Zenobia, who allegedly told him to fuck off and also that the Persians were on their way to fight on her side. If she did convey this message, it was probably pure bravado, meant to buy time while the queen considered her impossible situation. It’s more likely that the story was Roman propaganda, meant to paint Zenobia as a collaborator with the Empire’s biggest enemy. After all, the Palmyrenes and the Persians weren’t exactly pals — don’t forget that Zenobia had spent the first years of her reign securing her borders against them.

With the blockade continuing and her people growing hungry and restless, a desperate Zenobia fled towards Persia, where she presumably planned to beg for the help of her former enemies. She rode across the desert on a female camel — a factoid highlighted by historians because it is said to be the fastest of its breed, but also probably for weird misogynist reasons — heading for the Euphrates. She was caught by Aurelian’s forces before she could reach the river’s banks, apparently betrayed by someone from her inner circle. I hope the Romans paid you well, scab!

Zenobia and Vaballathus were brought back to Emesa to stand trial. According to later accounts, the queen blamed everything on her advisors and cautioned the Palmyrenes against making a hero out of her, but again, this was probably Roman propaganda. It’s unclear what happened to Zenobia after the trial, since historical accounts are wildly contradictory. Some say that she killed herself while en route to Rome — that without access to any weapons and under constant guard, she refused all food and eventually starved to death and was thrown into the Bosphorus. Others say that Aurelian dressed the queen up in golden chains and then paraded her through the Eternal City before beheading her. There are historians who believe that after publicly humiliating her, the Emperor gave her a villa in the Italian countryside, where she lived out the rest of her days in quiet retirement. Some say she remarried to a nobleman or a senator. Some say that her children married well and her lineage continued on for hundreds of years. Personally, as much as I’d like to believe that Zenobia spent the last years of her life in peace, it’s impossible to imagine her idling her days away at some country estate; every time I try to picture it, I see her pacing around like a caged tiger. Then again, maybe she subscribed to the idea that the best revenge is living well. That doesn’t seem like her style, though.

How did Zenobia die? It’s impossible to say. For a woman who lived during a well-documented period in Roman history, it’s amazing how few facts we know about the queen herself. Accounts can’t even agree on her appearance; in one history she is beautiful, vain, and cowardly, and in others she dressed, fought, and swaggered like an Emperor. Part of this is due to Aurelian’s wish to make her seem masculine in order to defend the need to fight her in the first place. In a culture that believed women to be weak, foolish, and incompetent, bragging about your victory over one of them was like bragging that you beat up a child. In order to make the account of Zenobia’s uprising and subsequent defeat palatable to a Roman audience, Aurelian and his supporters had to run it through a series of fun-house mirrors: she had to seem feminine enough to be cowardly and hateable, but not so feminine that anyone felt sympathy towards her. It was a tricky balance, but they managed to pull it off in the West for hundreds of years.

Maybe part of the reason Zenobia’s story isn’t often told on this side of the Bosphorus is that it’s still hard for us to filter through a gendered lens. Cleopatra and Boudicca’s stands against Rome are easier to understand as narratives that rely on feminine tropes; Cleopatra did it for the love of a man, and Boudicca was acting out a mother’s rage. Zenobia is more complex and trickier to parse in the West. Was she trying to benefit her son, building an empire to be her legacy? Was she trying to protect her homeland, hoping that a spirited offense was the best defense? Was she a woman who dared to be as wildly ambitious as a man?

What we do know is that she must have been fierce, competent, and brave. No other person could have accomplished what she did without pure skill and drive. At the height of her reign, Zenobia was one of the most powerful women the world has ever seen. She took on the Roman Empire and very nearly won. How many other people can say that? Long live the fucking queen! Long live the fucking empress!


Previously:
Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine

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For further reading on Zenobia:
Pat Southers, Empress Zenobia: Palmyra’s Rebel Queen
Yasmine Zahran, Zenobia: Between Reality and Legend

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Ben Huberman
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy