Mariamme, the Last Hasmonean Princess
A Brief History of the Hasmoneans
The story about the rise of the Hasmoneans is well known. A family of priests (kohanim) from the city of Modiʿin lead the Jews in a rebellion against the oppressive Seleucid regime of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. According to 1 Maccabees, the rebellion is started by the elderly patriarch of the family, Mattathias, in 167 B.C.E., but soon after, his son Judah, known as Maccabi (perhaps meaning “the Sledgehammer”), took the lead, and led the Jews in battle, with the Seleucid-Greeks suffering defeat after defeat.
After his success in the Battle of Beth-Zur in 164 B.C.E., Judah recaptured the Temple and cleansed it, an event celebrated as Chanukah (25th of Kislev–2nd of Tevet). Three years later (161 B.C.E.), the Battle of Adassa led to the defeat of General Nicanor, who had threatened to destroy the Temple. Judah’s success here was celebrated as Nicanor Day (13th of Adar) and commemorated in the Second Book of Maccabees. Hasmonean history didn’t end there, however.
The very next year, Judah’s army lost the Battle of Alassa, and Judah himself was killed (160 B.C.E.). After this, Jonathan, the youngest of the brothers, took over as leader, and fought the Seleucids. In 143 B.C.E. Diodotus Tryphon, then king of the Seleucid Empire, invited Jonathan to negotiate a peace arrangement, treacherously captured him, and soon had him killed.
Upon his capture, Jonathan’s (older) brother, Simon, took over as leader. Simon sided with Tryphon’s rival for the throne, Demetrius II, who in turn granted Judea independence, with Simon recognized as the official ruler by the Seleucids, the Judeans, and even the Romans.
Simon’s dynasty lasted for several generations. Upon his death, his son John Hyrcanus took over as high priest and ruler (134–104 B.C.E.); he was succeeded by his son Aristobulus I, who declared himself king, but ruled only one year (104–103 B.C.E), followed by his brother Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.E.), husband of the famous Salome Alexandra, who ruled as queen after his death (76–67 B.C.E.).
After her death, Salome Alexandra’s two sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought over the throne, and turned to the Roman general Pompey to choose between them. Pompey sided against the militant Aristobulus, supporting the weaker Hyrcanus, and took the opportunity to invade Judea, conquering Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., and making it a Roman province.
Introducing the Herodian Family
Hyrcanus II had an advisor named Antipater, whose father, Antipas, was an Idumean convert to Judaism, who served as general of Idumea under Alexander Jannaeus. Antipater was a shrewd politician, and during the fight between Julius Caesar and Pompey, he backed Caesar, who defeated Pompey, and Caesar rewarded Antipater by appointing him regent (epitropos) of Judea in 47 B.C.E. As a result, the family of Antipater became more powerful than that of the Hasmoneans. Antipater appointed his son Phasael governor of Judea and his son Herod governor of the Galilee.
Herod and Mariamme: The Families Merge
Herod was a particularly gifted military leader and politician, and his power quickly grew. In 42 B.C.E., to solidify his position, Herod, whose Idumean heritage was viewed with suspicion by many Jews, decided to garner more local legitimacy by marrying into the Hasmonean family. He was already married to a Jewish woman named Doris, but as a second wife, he chose Mariamme (the Greek form of the Hebrew name Miriam/מִרְיָם, sometimes spelled Mariamne), who was the daughter of Alexander, eldest son of Aristobulus II, and Alexandra, daughter of Hyrcanus. In other words, Mariamme could claim Hasmonean lineage on both her mother and her father’s side. The betrothal took place when Mariamme was around twelve; Herod was around thirty-two.
In 40 B.C.E., Judea was briefly retaken from the Romans by Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus II, with the backing of the Parthians who ruled Persia at the time. Herod, who had taken his father’s place as regent, and who was declared by Rome to be Judea’s rightful king (rex), reconquered Judea on behalf of Rome, retaking Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E.; he then handed Antigonus over to the Romans for execution.
In the middle of the siege of Jerusalem, Herod took a break to marry his betrothed bride, Mariamme, now seventeen years old. Their marriage produced five children, some of whom would survive to become the founding members of the Hasmonean-Herodian family who ruled Judea as client kings of Rome until 70 C.E.
The Murder of Mariamme’s Brother Aristobulus
Herod’s relationship with Mariamme’s family was never friendly, to say the least. Whether he was paranoid, or calculating, or both, Herod set about eliminating the members of the Hasmonean family, whom he considered to be direct threats to his uncontested rule.
The first member of her family to fall victim to Herod was Mariamme’s brother Aristobulus—referred to in scholarship as Aristobulus III—who was widely known for his beauty; so much so that Herod refused a request of Marc Antony’s to meet him, since he feared that Antony would use the boy for sexual purposes. Their mother, Alexandra, had asked Marc Antony and Cleopatra to pressure Herod to make Aristobulus high priest. Mariamme also implored her husband to appoint her brother to this position, and eventually, Herod complied.
Shortly after his installation, however, Aristobulus drowned at a post-Sukkot party at Alexandra’s house outside of Jericho, at the age of seventeen. According to Josephus, Herod had ordered some young men to pretend to be friendly with him and then drown him while they were swimming together; certainly, Alexandra (and Mariamme) believed Herod to have been responsible.
Herod’s Trial and Back-up Plan
Angry and despondent over her son’s death, Alexandra wrote to Cleopatra, begging her to intervene by bringing Herod to justice for the murder of her son. Cleopatra informed Antony of Alexandra’s request, and Antony summoned Herod to him to defend himself against Alexandra’s accusations. Knowing that his meeting with Antony could end in his own execution, Herod left Mariamme in the care of his uncle Joseph, and instructed Joseph to have Mariamme killed, should he be killed by Antony. As described by Josephus:
Now Joseph, while administering the affairs of the kingdom and for that reason repeatedly meeting with Mariamme about public business or because of the respect which he was bound to show her as the queen, repeatedly fell into talks about Herod’s affection and great love for her. And when in women’s fashion she and even more so Alexandra, affected not to believe his statements, Joseph in an excess of zeal to reveal the king’s feelings let himself go so far as to speak of the instructions given him, offering them as proof of the fact that Herod could not live without her, nor, if he should suffer a malign fate, would he even be separated from her by death (Ant. 15:67–72).
Mariamme did not see Herod’s instructions to Joseph as complimentary, but as proof that her husband was wicked and deranged.
Mariamme Accused of Adultery
Soon thereafter, a false rumor circulated in Judea that Herod had been killed by Marc Antony, prompting Alexandra and Mariamme to prepare to flee to the commander of the Roman legion that was camped in Judea. When Herod returned, closer to Antony than ever, he learned from his sister Salome of Mariamme’s plans to escape. Salome was her uncle Joseph’s wife, and, hating them both, accused the two of having carried on an affair in Herod’s absence:
She said these things because, for a long time, she had hated Mariamme, who had shown a proud spirit in their disputes and had reproached Salome’s family with their low birth (Ant. 15:81).
Josephus continues by describing Herod’s reaction:
Herod, who had always felt a burning love for Mariamme, was at once violently disturbed and was scarcely able to bear his jealousy, but he had enough control of himself all this time not to do anything rash because of his love. But goaded by his intense emotion and jealousy, he privately questioned Mariamme about her relations with Joseph. As she denied everything on oath and in her defence said everything that could be said by a woman who had done no wrong, the king gradually let himself be persuaded and got over his anger, and being overcome by his fondness for his wife, he actually apologized for seeming to believe what he had heard…. Finally, as is usual with lovers, they fell into and to embracing one another with great intensity (Ant. 15:82–84).
While we cannot be certain whether Herod and Mariamme did indeed share, at least at times, a loving relationship, Josephus suggests that Mariamme tried to resist Herod’s violent nature by confronting him about his crimes. And thus, having just survived her husband’s wrath, Mariamme ignited his anger again, by rebuking him for the plan he made with Joseph, saying:
It was not the act of a lover to command that if anything serious should happen to him at the hands of Antony, I should be put to death too, though not guilty of anything (Ant. 15:85).
This comment set Herod off again, with dire consequences:
When these words came out, the king became violently indignant and at once released her from his arms, crying and tearing his hair and saying that he now had clear and damning proof of Joseph’s sexual intimacy with her, for he would not have disclosed what he had been privately told if there had not been full confidence between them (Ant. 15:86–87).
Herod did not have Mariamme executed at this point, but had his uncle Joseph executed and his mother-in-law Alexandra placed in prison.
Herod Called by Octavian: The Second Big Fight
Soon afterward, Herod went to meet with Octavian Caesar (later known as Augustus), following his defeat of Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. Again, Herod decided to place Mariamme under the watchful eye of his brother Pheroras. Knowing that Mariamme and his sister Salome were at odds with one another, Herod had his mother and sister stay at Masada, while Mariamme and her mother were kept in his fortress in Alexandrium. Herod further told two guards at the Alexandrium fortress, Joseph and Soemus, to watch the women and, as he had commanded his uncle Joseph previously, to kill them if Herod was killed.
Correctly suspecting that Herod again left the same orders, Mariamme and her mother cozied up to Soemus, and he eventually told them the plan. Josephus suggests that Soemus was partly motivated by the fact that most people—including Herod—believed Octavian would kill him for supporting Antony rather than him, and that the Hasmoneans would return to power, but it was not to be.
Herod returned home in a jubilant mood following his successful trip, but Mariamme, who had hoped he would not survive the trip, made her disappointment clear:
[I]t was also impossible for her to conceal her feelings. Instead, because of her disesteem [of him] and the superiority of her birth, she groaned aloud at his embrace, and she made it plain that she was more displeased than pleased by his reports, so that it was not merely suspicion but the obvious fact (of her dislike) that greatly disturbed Herod (Ant. 15:210–211).
This encounter put Herod into a whirlwind of hate and passion towards his wife. As Josephus describes it:
[T]he more he believed himself to be increasingly successful in external affairs, so much the more did he fail in domestic affairs, especially in his marriage, in which he had formerly seemed so fortunate. For the love which he felt for Mariamme was no less intense than those justly celebrated in story (Ant. 15:218).
Josephus, at this point, turns to blaming Mariamme:
As for her, she was in most respects prudent and faithful to him but she had in her nature something that was at once womanly and cruel, and she took full advantage of his enslavement to passion. Since she did not take into account that she was subject to the king and that he was her master, as would have been proper under the circumstances, she frequently treated him with arrogance. He for his part pretended to take this lightly and bore it with self restraint and patience (Ant. 15:219).
Apparently, Josephus’ patriarchal and somewhat misogynistic attitude blinded him to the understandable reality that Mariamme may not have felt loving toward someone who threatened to have her killed every time he left Jerusalem and who had murdered her brother and grandfather.
The Love Potion
Eventually, after another trip, Herod and Mariamme fought again, and this was when “the storm burst”:
One noon the king lay down to rest and out of the great fondness which he always had for her called for Mariamme. And so she came but she did not lie down (with him) in spite of his urging, Instead, she expressed contempt for him and bitterly reproached him for having killed both her [grand]father (Hyrcanus) and her brother (Ant. 15:222).
Seeing the internal battle raging within him, Herod’s sister Salome instructed the royal cupbearer to tell Herod that Mariamme attempted to have him prepare a love potion for Herod. Salome meant for Herod to conclude that Mariamme was really trying to poison him.
Herod then tortured Mariamme’s eunuch, who claimed that, while he knew nothing of Mariamme’s fidelity to Herod, he knew that Mariamme was aware that Soemus was instructed to kill her, should Herod be killed. Herod then executed Soemus, and brought Mariamme to trial, ostensibly for the attempted poisoning, where she was found guilty and sentenced to be executed at the age of around twenty-eight.
Betrayed by Her Mother
Fearing that her fate would be the same as Mariamme’s, Mariamme’s mother Alexandra took Herod’s side, publicly announcing that her daughter had wronged her husband, that she was wicked, and deserved her punishment. She even grabbed Mariamme by the hair as part of this playacting, earning her the reproach of the audience. This contrasted greatly with Mariamme’s own behavior:
[F]or she spoke not a single word nor did she show confusion as she watched her mother’s disgusting behavior, but in her greatness of spirit she did make it plain that she was indeed greatly distressed by her offence in behaving in this conspicuously disgraceful manner. Mariamme herself, at least, went to her death with a wholly calm demeanor and without change of colour, and so even in her last moments she made her nobility of descent very clear to those who were looking on (Ant. 15:234–236).
Josephus’ final reflections on her death are mixed, reflecting his less than flattering view of women:
Thus died Mariamme, a woman unexcelled in continence and in greatness of soul, though lacking in reasonableness and of too quarrelsome a nature. But in beauty of body and in dignity of bearing in the presence of others she surpassed her contemporaries more greatly than one can say (Ant. 15:237).
Josephus even seems to hold Mariamme partly responsible for her own downfall:
And this was the chief source of her failure to please the king and to live with him agreeably. For being constantly courted by him because of his love and expecting no harsh treatment from him, she maintained an excessive freedom of speech. And since she was also distressed by what had happened to her relatives, she saw fit to speak to Herod of all her feelings, and finally succeeded in incurring the enmity of the king’s mother and sister and his own as well, though he was the one person from who she had mistakenly expected not to suffer any harm (Ant. 15:238–239).
Even so, it is fair to say that both of Josephus’s retellings of Mariamme’s life present her as a beautiful and determined woman who falls victim to Herod’s jealous paranoia.
Herod’s Emotional Collapse
The execution of Mariamme did not end Herod’s obsession with her. As Josephus narrates:
[O]nce she had been disposed of, the king’s desire for her burned still more strongly… For his love for her was not passionless nor such as arises from familiarity but in its very earliest beginnings had been a divine madness, and even with freedom of cohabitation it was not restrained from growing greater. But now more than ever he seemed to be a prey to it as if by a kind of divine punishment… And he would frequently call out for her and frequently utter unseemly laments (Ant. 15:240–241).
Josephus goes on to describe how Herod attempted to distract himself by throwing parties, but these did not help, and he couldn’t function. Instead he “was so far overcome by passion that he would actually order his servants to summon Mariamme as if she were still alive and able to heed them” (Ant. 15:242). Soon thereafter, Judea was hit by pestilence, and people whispered it was a divine punishment for the execution of Mariamme, which only made Herod more upset.
Herod then went on a trip to the desert, where he became dangerously ill and almost died. Alexandra attempted to retake the government, and this apparently helped shake Herod out of his despondency. He had Alexandra executed, along with other plotters, and moved on with his life. A few years later, he married the daughter of the high priest named Simon; her name was also Mariamme.
Mariamme in the Babylonian Talmud
The one memory of Mariamme that survives in rabbinic literature is the frightening nature of Herod’s obsession with her, which lasted past her death (b. Baba Batra 3b):
הורדוס עבדא דבית חשמונאי הוה, נתן עיניו באותה תינוקת. יומא חד שמע ההוא גברא בת קלא דאמר: כל עבדא דמריד השתא מצלח, קם קטלינהו לכולהו מרותיה ושיירה לההיא ינוקתא.
Herod was the slave of the Hasmonean house, and had set his eyes on a certain maiden [of that house]. One day he heard a Bath Kol say, ‘Every slave that rebels now will succeed.’ So he rose and killed all the members of his master's household, but spared that maiden.
כי חזת ההיא ינוקתא דקא בעי למינסבה, סליקא לאיגרא ורמא קלא, אמרה: כל מאן דאתי ואמר מבית חשמונאי קאתינא - עבדא הוא, דלא אישתיירא מינייהו אלא ההיא ינוקתא, וההיא ינוקתא נפלה מאיגרא לארעא.
When she saw that he wanted to marry her, she went up on to a roof and cried out, “Whoever comes and says, I am from the Hasmonean house, is a slave, since I along am left of it, and I am throwing myself down from this roof.”
טמנה שבע שנין בדובשא. איכא דאמרי: בא עליה, איכא דאמרי: לא בא עליה. דאמרי לה בא עליה, הא דטמנה - ליתוביה ליצריה; ודאמרי לה לא בא עליה, האי דטמנה - כי היכי דנאמרו: בת מלך נסב.
He preserved her body in honey for seven years. Some say that he had intercourse with her, others that he did not. According to those who say that he had intercourse with her, his reason for embalming her was to gratify his desires. According to those who say that he did not have intercourse with her, his reason was that people might say that he had married a king’s daughter.
Mariamme’s name is never mentioned here; this places the story’s focus on Herod and his outsider status. The rabbis further preserve Mariamme’s holiness unsullied by having her commit suicide in order to avoid marrying this “slave,” suggesting that Herod never joined the Hasmonean family.
This Talmudic story is inspired by accounts of Herod’s passion for Mariamme the Hasmonean, though embellished with suicide and necrophilia. The claim that Herod preserved Mariamme’s body in honey, perhaps for sexual purposes, suggests this passage relies on what Ilan calls a “folklore motif [which was] employed as a standard rumor with which to denigrate kings.” Herod is governed by his mad lust for Mariamme, which clouds any sense of moral propriety.
Mariamme’s Life: A Reflection
In Josephus as well as in rabbinic literature, Mariamme’s life is overshadowed by her husband Herod. Moreover, as the last Hasmonean princess before the merger with the family of Herod, her tragic fate represents the fate of that once great priestly family and to some extent Judea itself.
What can be easily forgotten, however, is who Mariamme was as a person. Both Josephus and the Talmud present Mariamme as a courageous and determined woman whose pride in her heritage propelled her to stand up to one of the most violent and paranoid leaders in Jewish history, and who paid the ultimate price.
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December 29, 2019
July 30, 2020
Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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