Women in the Literature and History of Early Judaism
Queen Berenice: A Woman of Contrasts
Berenice Begs to Save Her People
In the year 66 CE, on the eve of the Great Rebellion, Judea was imploding with tension. Roman soldiers were antagonizing Jews, and some Jews were already organizing themselves into rebel militias.
The procurator of Judea, Gessius Florus, refused to intervene on behalf of the Jews, and Berenice, age 38 and daughter of King Agrippa I, determined to go to him and make a personal appeal. In the process, she was nearly killed by Roman soldiers, and had to make a quick escape to her palace. Ultimately, Florus ignored Berenice’s plea, and Berenice was fortunate to escape with her life. Josephus (The Jewish War 2.15.1) describes the incident as follows:
Agrippa’s sister Berenice, however, who was at Jerusalem, witnessed with the liveliest emotion the outrages of the soldiers, and constantly sent her cavalry-commanders and bodyguards to Florus to implore him to put a stop to the carnage. But he, regarding neither the number of the slain nor the exalted rank of his suppliant, but only the profit accruing from the plunder, turned a deaf ear to her prayers. The mad rage of the soldiers even vented itself upon the queen. Not only did they torture and put their captives to death under her eyes, but they would have killed her also, had she not hastened to seek refuge in the palace, where she passed the night surrounded by guards, dreading an attack of the troops.
Josephus continues with an explanation of why Berenice was visiting Jerusalem at this time:
She was visiting Jerusalem to discharge a vow to God; for it is customary for those suffering from illness or other affliction to make a vow to abstain from wine and to shave their heads during the thirty days preceding that on which they must offer sacrifices. These rites Berenice was then undergoing, and she would come barefoot before the tribunal and make supplication to Florus, without any respect being shown to her, and even at the peril of her life.
The fact that Berenice approached Florus while a nazirite – with hair shorn, nails uncut, and looking decidedly unqueenly—provides added pathos and greatness to the portrait of a pious woman who is desperate to save her people.
Husband #1: Marcus Julius Alexander
Berenice’s first marriage was to Marcus, a Jewish aristocrat from Egypt who came from one of the most influential Jewish families in Alexandria. Berenice’s father, Agrippa I, who was Emperor Claudius’ close friend and ally, likely saw that a familial relationship with Marcus’ family would be of great benefit, and presumably arranged this marriage himself. Berenice was around 14 when she married Marcus, who died after only a couple years of marriage (44 CE), leaving Berenice a widow at 16.
Husband #2: Herod V, King of Chalcis
Berenice’s father next arranged for Berenice to marry his brother (her paternal uncle) Herod, “after asking [the emperor] Claudius to give him the kingdom of Chalcis,” a city/district in northern Syria. They had two sons, Berenicianus and Hyrcanus. But Herod of Chalcis was an older man and soon passed (48 CE), leaving Berenice a widow again, at the age of 20.
Husband #3: Polemon II, King of Pontus, Colchis and Cilicia
Berenice and Polemon met in Judea, two years after she was widowed, when she was 22 years old. According to Josephus’s speculation, Polemon wished to marry her because of her wealth. She agreed to marry him only if he converted and underwent circumcision, which he did. Nevertheless, Berenice left Polemon shortly after and returned to live with her brother Agrippa II.
This last marriage shows that Berenice was clearly committed to her Judaism. In addition, it reflects how desirable she was—whether because of her wealth, beauty, social position, charm or some combination, since even a king (granted of just of a few small city-states) was willing to be circumcised and convert to Judaism to marry her. This marriage also shows that she was an independent woman, since once she decided that she was unhappy with Polemon, she left him and returned to her brother’s home in Judea and to her position as Roman client Queen of Chalcis, a region of Syria.
Queen of Chalcis; Sister of the King of Chalcis
Berenice had already been the queen of Chalcis when she was married to her uncle Herod V and had been a princess of Judea from birth. She actively reclaimed these positions, serving as a co-ruler of Chalcis with her brother Agrippa II and going with him to Judea when he spent time there, both when she moved in with him after her uncle’s death as well as when she moved back in with him after she left her third husband, Polemon.
In Acts of the Apostles (26:28-31; NRSV), for instance, Berenice receives Paul the Apostle alongside Agrippa II.
28 Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” 29Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am– except for these chains.” 30 Then the king got up, and with him the governor and Berenice and those who had been seated with them; 31 and as they were leaving, they (=Agrippa and Berenice) said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.”
The Roman historian Cassius Dio (Roman History 65:15) similarly depicts Berenice as ruling alongside Agrippa her brother and travelling with him on official trips.
Berenice and Agrippa Do Not Support the Rebellion
The Great Rebellion against Rome broke out in 67 CE. A year previously, Berenice and her brother Agrippa II had tried to calm the tempers of the Judeans so that they would not rebel against Rome, but fled after their palaces were burned to the ground. Thus, the rebellion against Rome never really had the support of the Herodian family. These were not the only Jews who did not support the rebellion.
Berenice’s former brother-in-law, Tiberius Alexander (brother of her first husband Marcus), had a prominent career in the Roman government, having served in a number of prestigious positions, including procurator of Judea (under Claudius) and serving as the second-in-command of Titus’ army at the time that it conquered Jerusalem. Despite being a Jew, he did not support the rebellion, though he did unsuccessfully try to preserve the Temple when Roman soldiers threw torches into it during the fighting.
Most famously, Josephus, though he originally took part in the rebellion, quickly turned himself in to the Romans and remained with them as a sort of reporter. In fact, Josephus was so taken by the general in charge of the Roman army, Vespasian, who soon after became emperor, that he took Vespasian’s family name, Flavius, as his own.
Here is a fact that is hard for us, who have spent 2000 years mourning the Temple with assorted rituals and fast days, to picture: Not every Jew, even ones who strongly identified with their heritage (like Berenice or Josephus) supported the rebellion. This may be in part because many Jews realized that if a people rebelled against Rome, Rome sent in their armies and destroyed their cities and fortresses, and killed and enslaved the insurgents. This might explain how Jews like Berenice could be on the side of the Romans, even as she later mourned the loss of Jewish life and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.
Titus’ Lover: An Affair with the Man Who Destroyed the Temple
Berenice and Titus met when Emperor Nero sent Titus’ father, Vespasian, to Jerusalem to put down the rebellion, and Vespasian brought his son along. Soon after this, Nero died, and after a quick succession of exceedingly short-reigned emperors, Vespasian was offered the position, and when he took it, he left Titus to finish the quelling of the rebellion. As the Herodians (Agrippa and Berenice) publicly supported the Flavians (Vespasian and Titus), it is not surprising that Titus and Berenice would find themselves in the same Roman social circles in Judea.
Titus fell for the older woman (he was born in 39 CE, and thus only 30 years old), and this unlikely relationship was to remain a source of gossip and scandal. Indeed, Berenice must have either undergone an adjustment in religious identity or was completely smitten by Titus–or both– to engage in an affair with a gentile; it was Berenice herself who, Josephus tells us, insisted that her third husband Polemon be circumcised before marrying her.
The affair between Berenice and Titus was put on hold when Titus returned triumphant to Rome, but was taken up five years later when Agrippa and Berenice visited Rome. Under social pressure from the Roman populace, Berenice left Rome, ostensibly at Titus’ request. When he became emperor in 79 CE, she came again, but he did not reestablish their relationship, as he was intent on building his reputation and proving that he would be a good ruler. Cassius Dio writes (Roman History 66.18):
Titus after becoming ruler committed no act of murder or of amatory passion, but showed himself upright, though plotted against, and self-controlled, though Berenice came to Rome again.
Whether this was a short term or permanent break between the two is unknown, since Titus died shortly thereafter in 81 CE. What happened to Berenice after this, including when she died, is unknown.
Berenice’s relationship with Titus would have been distasteful to both Romans and Jews: Romans would have found Titus’s affair with a Jewess, a member of the community that Titus had decimated, to be beneath him. And many Jews would have found the affair to be not only unbecoming, but traitorous.
Cassius Dio tells the story thus (Roman History 65:15),
Berenice was at the very height of her power and consequently came to Rome along with her brother Agrippa. The latter was given the rank of praetor, while she dwelt in the palace, cohabiting with Titus. She expected to marry him and was already behaving in every respect as if she were his wife; but when he perceived that the Romans were displeased with the situation, he sent her away.
Although we don’t have any explicit discussion of this relationship in rabbinic sources, Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) has suggested that the following midrashic anecdote echoes this relationship (b. Gittin 56b):
ואמר אי אלהימו צור חסיו בו – זה טיטוס הרשע שחירף וגידף כלפי מעלה. מה עשה? תפש זונה בידו ונכנס לבית קדשי הקדשים, והציע ספר תורה ועבר עליה עבירה,
“He will say: Where are their gods, The rock in whom they sought refuge?” (Deut 32:37) – This is the wicked Titus, who cursed and insulted heaven. What did he do? He grabbed a harlot in his hand, entered the holy of holies, spread out a Torah scroll and sinned [with her] upon it.
As unfair as the characterization may be, it is possible that the only picture the rabbis may have retained of Berenice is that of a traitor and a harlot whose behavior humiliated God and His Temple, and whose name was permanently erased from Jewish history.
Remembering the Real Berenice
The hatred of Jews for Titus and Rome throughout the ages, and the tacit acceptance of the Great Rebellion as understandable if tragic, has almost permanently thrown figures like Josephus, Berenice, and Agrippa II into the position of traitor. Titus destroyed the Temple and killed thousands of Jews in suppressing the rebellion, and Berenice was his lover. For this reason, Berenice was never “forgiven” for her relationship with Titus and for her siding with Rome along with her brother, during the Great Rebellion.
As was their wont, ancient sources define Berenice in relation to the men around her. Most of what we know about her has to do with whom she married or had a relationship with, and the Romans especially castigated her for her relationship with Titus. Even her co-rulership with her brother Agrippa was tainted by rumors that the relationship was not merely that of siblings.
We have limited windows into Berenice’s life and identity as a Jew. This makes the story from Josephus, of Berenice the nazirite pleading on behalf of her people, all the more significant. In evaluating her place in Jewish history, we must not forget the portrait of a nazirite woman, who despite her high station in life was willing to debase herself in front of the Roman official, Florus, disheveled and crying, begging for mercy for her fellow Jews.
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June 15, 2016
January 12, 2021
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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