Who was Queen Berenice? Was she a cold, calculating woman or simply captivated by a young, charismatic general? Here we give you the story of the Second Temple-period Jewish queen forced to survive in a tumultuous world, whose love affair with Titus - the future Roman emperor and notorious suppressor of a Jewish rebellion—remains a bone of contention
It is customary to think of the Jews in antiquity as a small, insular people that dwelled alone, a people forced to interact from time to time with the great powers around them. Once it might be Babylon and Assyria, on another occasion the Greeks or the Romans. But during the early years of the great Roman Empire, not all Jews were zealots hiding out in the desert, waiting for an opportunity to ambush Roman soldiers. Jews were sometimes willing and committed stakeholders in the Empire, holding positions of power and influence. In this article, we will tell of a Jewish woman, a queen, who lived during this time, and whose dramatic life story might resemble something out of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon.
Queen Berenice was not just another queen. She was a princess by birth, daughter of a union between two of the most important families in the Roman province of Judea at that time. At one point, she was even considered a threat to the stability of the Empire. Here we can attempt only to summarize the complicated life story of this daughter of Jewish royalty and how she came to meet such historical figures as Emperor Vespasian and the Christian apostle Paul; how she found herself present at decisive moments in the revolt against the Romans; and above all, how she became the mistress of one of the most reviled figures in Jewish collective memory, a man who would later become Emperor of Rome—”Titus the Evil”. But, as with any multi-character saga, we begin at the beginning, with the birth of Berenice.
Berenice was probably born in the year 28 CE to King Agrippa I and his wife Cypros. On her father’s side, she descended from the Herodian dynasty; her roots on her mother’s side traced back to the Hasmoneans. These were the two most significant Jewish families of the Second Temple-period. When she was about 10 years old, her father, a friend of Emperor Caligula, was made King of Judea, thereby officially making Berenice a princess.
Like other powerful women from antiquity, her historical portrait was drawn for posterity by the men around her. Many historians and writers of the past accused her of scheming, licentiousness, and even incest. In a recent biography of Berenice, historian Professor Tal Ilan takes a fresh look at the Second Temple-period queen, putting aside judgmental perspectives of the past that were rooted in anachronistic, ultra-conservative values. “…she is often described by ancient sources in negative terms”, Prof. Ilan writes, “[…] this is because the historians and authors who mention her conform in their writing to genres of poetry and prose prevalent in their days, that viewed women as the cause of all intrigue and scheming in the world. The sources on Berenice will be judged according to the actions they describe and not in line with their own judgement of these. The values of the ancient Jews and of the ancient Romans […] are not our values. Their conventional expectations of women are not our expectations”, says Prof. Ilan in the introduction to her book.
We hope to do the same.
Berenice Appears on the Historical Stage
When she was still a young girl—a child—Berenice was betrothed to Marcus Julius Alexander, son of the leader of the distinguished Jewish community in Alexandria, and nephew of the important Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. The marriage was consummated when Berenice was 14 years old, apparently. It was short-lived however, as her much older husband soon died, leaving Berenice a widow.
In the same year Berenice was widowed, her father, Agrippa I, also died unexpectedly while attending a festival honoring the Emperor. According to the historian Josephus, on the second day of the festival, “a severe pain also arose in his belly; and began in a most violent manner.” Before his death, Agrippa managed to arrange a second marriage for his by now 16-year-old daughter—this time to his widowed brother Herod, King of Chalcis. Chalcis was a small kingdom in the mountains of Lebanon, and it was there that Berenice first received the title of Queen. That same year, she became pregnant and gave birth to her first son, Berenicianus, who was named for her. Prof. Ilan believes Berenice herself thought up the name, which became popular in the Chalcis region of the time. She named her second child Hyrcanus, an undeniably Hasmonean name. Was it she or her husband Herod who wanted to remind the kingdom’s subjects of their monarch’s illustrious roots?
After Agrippa I’s death, the Emperor Claudius decided to appoint a procurator for Judea rather than transfer the kingdom to Berenice’s brother. The new procurator was none other than Berenice’s former brother-in-law from her first marriage, Tiberius Julius Alexander. After enlisting in the Roman army, Tiberius had an impressive career, not only as procurator of Judea but also as the brutal suppressor of a Jewish uprising in Alexandria that broke out at the same time as the revolt in Judea.
After four years of marriage, the 20 year-old Berenice once again found herself a widow. With the death of Herod of Chalcis, who also oversaw the Temple in Jerusalem, Emperor Claudius contemplated what to do with the province. He eventually chose to name Berenice’s brother as King, who was by then older and more skilled. He took the name Agrippa II.
“The first twenty years of Berenice’s life witnessed some of the most dramatic events of Jewish and even world history”, Prof. Ilan writes in her book, “Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem […] a mad emperor attempted (yet again) to induce the Jews to abandon their religion and worship him.” According to Ilan, Berenice was only a bystander during this period—her father married her off as soon as he could, and she did not take an active part in these dramatic events. “The next 20 stormy years of Berenice’s life thrust her to the fore of the historical stage”, she says.
So what happened next?
Agrippa II arrived in great splendor to his new kingdom that included both Judea and Chalcis, now reuniting with his sister as well. Berenice, twice widowed in just four years, and with two young children in tow, was not the best candidate for a new match. Ilan mentions the Talmudic dictate, Isha Katlanit (“lethal woman”), in this respect. According to this religious rule, a woman who is widowed twice is not permitted to marry for a third time.
In terms of our story, it seems that over the next few years Berenice became her brother’s companion, living with him in his various palaces in Chalcis, Jerusalem and in the city of Caesarea-Philippi, or Banias, located today in northern Israel. Berenice is also mentioned in several places in the historical record alongside her brother, the King. Josephus says that she stood next to Agrippa when he gave a conciliatory speech to the people of Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Great Revolt. The New Testament mentions Berenice as being present with her brother at the trial of the Apostle Paul and that she was among those who thought he did not deserve punishment. The close relationship between the siblings also led to the spread of malicious rumors, with various sources claiming that Agrippa and Berenice had incestuous relations. Perhaps in order to stave off the gossip, Berenice quickly found herself another royal match and once again became a queen.
This time she married Polomon, King of Cilicia, a small kingdom in the south of Asia Minor. In order to facilitate the marriage, she convinced him to undergo circumcision and accept the commandments of Judaism. However, this marriage did not last long either. For one reason or another, Berenice left husband number three and returned to her palace in Banias. And so it happened that Berenice arrived in time for what was perhaps the most important event in Jewish history of the first century CE—the Great Revolt against the Romans.
By then, it seems that Berenice was more than a passive figure swept along by the currents of her life. There is evidence that, after the death of her second husband, Berenice herself managed the affairs in Chalcis, at least until her brother was crowned King. Various historians described her as a Cleopatra-like queen who used her charms to influence the men around her. But it seems that when the reins of power fell into her hands, Berenice proved herself adept and used them wisely.
A Last Attempt to Save Jerusalem
Up until the outbreak of the Great Revolt (66–73 CE), Berenice apparently tried to use all her powers to prevent rebellion and save Jerusalem. She happened to be in the city during one of the most famous incidents leading up to the rebellion. The procurator of Judea at the time, Florus, coveted a portion of the Temple’s treasures for himself. When the Jews protested against this, he sent his soldiers to quell the unrest by carrying out a pogrom in Jerusalem. Berenice was alone in the city at the time, recovering from an illness for which she had taken a vow of ascetism. At the end of this period of abstinence, she shaved her head and probably came to Jerusalem in order to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice following her recovery.
While Florus’s soldiers were raiding the city, Berenice sent her officers to the procurator to try to stop the massacre and looting. After her plea was ignored, she risked her own life and went herself, shaven-headed and barefoot, to Florus’s palace to beg him to spare the lives of the city’s residents. She eventually made her way back to her palace where she anxiously spent the night, surrounded by her guards. The next day, the Jerusalemites drove Florus and his soldiers out of the city. With Judea now on the brink of rebellion, Berenice and Agrippa addressed the people in the center of Jerusalem, but their attempt at appeasement failed and the Great Revolt erupted.
During this period, a young man by the name of Titus entered Berenice’s life. A popular general, he also happened to be the son of Vespasian, the man sent by Rome to suppress the rebellion in Judea. Berenice spent the war years in Agrippa II’s palace in Banias, Caesarea-Philippi. It was there she most likely met Vespasian’s son for the first time. “Titus the Evil”, as he is often referred to in the Jewish sources, would later become Emperor of Rome. Berenice was then about 40 years old. Titus was in his late twenties, but the age gap was no match for their passionate love.
We will do our best to trace their love story, though after the dramatic scene describing her and her brother’s appeal to the rebellious crowds, Berenice all but disappears from Josephus’s account of the rebellion in The Jewish War. Some contend that Josephus refrained from writing about her at the express request of Titus. In his later work, The Life of Flavius Josephus, written after the death of Titus, Josephus allows himself a bit more leeway regarding her story. There, for example, he describes how Berenice intervened in favor of the historian Justus of Tiberias whom Vespasian had sentenced to death. Agrippa spared his life at his sister’s request, another example of Berenice’s influence on political affairs.
Titus probably first met Berenice in the year 67, during the Roman campaign against the Jewish rebels in Galilee. Agrippa apparently invited Vespasian and his son Titus to rest for a while in his palace in Caesarea Philippi—where Berenice was also staying. The affair between the two seemed to finally resolve the question of the Herodian dynasty’s support for the Roman forces suppressing the rebellion. This alliance likely saved the city of Tiberias, which Vespasian ordered not be looted nor its walls destroyed after it was conquered, as a gesture to King Agrippa.
The alliance may have also helped Vespasian himself. By the end of the “Year of the Four Emperors” (69 CE), Vespasian was intent on declaring himself Emperor and was in urgent need of allies. One of his supporters was none other than Tiberius Julius Alexander, Berenice’s former brother-in-law. Could she have been the one who convinced Tiberius to support her lover’s father? The Roman historian Tacitus seemed to think so.
Whatever happened, it worked. Vespasian became Emperor and Titus became commander of the military operation to suppress the rebellion in Judea. As fate would have it, Berenice was now the mistress of the very person who would go down in history as the destroyer and looter of the Temple in Jerusalem. What was her role in these events? We’ll probably never know. In the film Legend of Destruction which describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the claim is made that Berenice intended to seduce Titus in order to save the city. In her biography of Berenice, Prof. Ilan believes that the truth is more straightforward—the two were simply in love, and Titus looked for any excuse to remain close to her. In The Jewish War, Josephus describes Titus as merciful, as having tried to avoid killing Jews who surrendered and waiting until the last possible moment before destroying Jerusalem and burning down the Temple. Some have claimed that Josephus wrote the account this way out of friendship with Titus who was also his patron. Ilan, on the other hand, believes Josephus’s account to be an unflattering description of Titus in the eyes of the Romans who were the book’s target audience. Instead, she contends, it was Titus’s idea to portray himself in this way for the benefit of none other than Berenice—as a kind of mea culpa for the actions he had been forced to commit in Judea.
A Second Cleopatra
After the suppression of the rebellion, Agrippa II continued to rule over Judea until his death, probably in the nineties of the first century CE. Titus, now the decorated conqueror of Jerusalem and heir to the imperial throne, embarked on a triumphal journey to cities in the eastern provinces of the Empire. It is possible that Berenice accompanied him. Eventually, Titus had to return to Rome, and Berenice apparently returned to Caesarea-Philippi. Throughout the period between the arrival of Vespasian’s forces in Judea and the destruction of the Temple, Titus and Berenice cohabited, but there were now reasons that prevented them from marrying. The age difference, for one. It was clear to them that the young Titus must find a suitable, young wife who would be able to provide him with heirs for the new dynasty ascending the imperial throne. And there was the matter of Berenice’s Jewishness, which prevented her from marrying a non-Jew without renouncing her religion.
But this was not the end of that extraordinary romance. What began as a love affair between a queen, a daughter of a royal family, and a dashing young general—one of many—in the Roman army, ended with roles and power-relations reversed: a client queen and a future emperor. In the year 75, Berenice arrived in Rome, four years after she separated from Titus. She came with her brother, and according to the sources, she stayed there for close to four years. She apparently lived with Titus in his palace and they were effectively a couple. Four Roman sources claimed Berenice to be his greatest weakness, raising the concern that she would cause him to become another Nero, bringing about Rome’s destruction. Titus proved he was made of different stuff. After seeing the Roman people’s displeasure with the match—either out of antisemitic feelings towards the people who had rebelled, or fear of a “second Cleopatra”—he sent Berenice home.
Berenice tried to return to Rome again a few months later, when Titus finally became Emperor, but he refused to see her. This was the end of their relationship and Queen Berenice disappears from the annals of history at this point. We have no information about what happened to her after she was sent away from Rome for the second time. Some believe that she remained in Italy and died there, but it is likely that she returned to Judea and lived in Banias until her death. We do not know what year she died. Her extraordinary story has inspired writers, poets, playwrights and screenwriters. Given the incredible events we have described here, we can only hope for a historical drama series…
Queen Berenice: A Jewish Female Icon of the First Century CE, by Tal Ilan,
Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2022
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