Berenice (28 CE–after 80 CE)

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Berenice (28 ce–after 80 ce)

Jewish princess and supporter of Rome against Judea during the period of the Jewish revolt, who lived in Rome with Titus, until popular opinion forced him to reject her before his accession as emperor. Name variations: Julia Berenice; Bernice. Pronunciation: Ber-e-NEE-kay. Born in 28 ce; died after 80 ce; eldest daughter of Herod Agrippa I and Cypros (both grandchildren of Herod the Great); married Marcus Julius Alexander (scion of one of Alexandria's [in Egypt] most prominent Jewish families), in 41; married her uncle King Herod of Chalcis, in 46 (died, 48); lived with her brother Agrippa II, who was Herod's successor, until 53; married Polemon, the priest-king of Olba in Anatolian Cilicia; became intimate with Titus (the Roman general and future emperor) during the period of his Jewish conquests (67–70).

The eldest daughter of Herod Agrippa I and Cypros (both grandchildren of Judea's onetime king, Herod the Great), Berenice was born in 28 ce. At the time of her birth, the entire eastern Mediterranean, including the many lands which had once been autonomously ruled by her ancestors, was beginning to chafe as a result of the Roman envelopment of previously independent states and the birth of the Roman Empire out of the deceased Roman Republic.

Cypros (fl. 28 ce)

Name variations: Cyprus. Granddaughter of Herod the Great (73–4 bce); married Herod Agrippa I; children: Berenice (28 ce–after 80 ce) and Agrippa II. Cypros' name was a synonym for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

Berenice's family, the Herodians, had long been important players in the politics of Palestine and, since the time of Herod the Great, had occasionally known royal status in and around Judea. In 47 bce, the Romans recognized the local significance of the Herodians when Julius Caesar himself granted the family Roman citizenship. As a result, many Herodians (with Berenice following suit) went by their Roman nomenclature: thus, officially Berenice was known as "Julia Berenice." By the time that Berenice was a young girl, however, her family had lost Judea (along with Sumaria and Idumaea) when it was annexed by the Romans in 6 ce as a province under the authority of a procurator. This action was taken by Rome in the name of administrative efficiency, for none of the Herodians then of age was deemed (probably correctly) competent to control the many contentious factions then constituting the local population. This extension of direct Roman rule backfired both because the procurators of the new province (including Pontius Pilate, 26–36 ce) lacked the tact to deal with the peculiar religious atmosphere of Palestine, and because the increased Roman presence stimulated a zealous religious nationalism within the new "Roman" subjects. Messianic tendencies blossomed (particularly within those Jews who longed for a restoration of regional autonomy), even as the plethora of local splinter groups inhibited unified action against Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman Emperor Caligula's decision in 39 to erect a statue of himself within Jerusalem's sacred Temple would have sparked a widespread, unanimous Jewish rebellion had not an assassin's sword struck Caligula down in 41 before his order could be carried out.

Although Caligula's assassination helped to defuse an explosive situation, emotions continued to run high enough for Caligula's successor Claudius to temporarily rethink the wisdom of the direct Roman rule of Judea. As a result, in 41 Claudius presented Judea to Berenice's father, Agrippa I, whom Claudius had known since their respective youths when Agrippa came to Rome to live and be educated with Claudius' family. (Since 37, Agrippa I had served as the tetrarch of the Palestinian territories once ruled by his uncle, Philip. Thus, in 41 Claudius merely added one more realm to the authority previously entrusted to Agrippa I.) About the same time, Berenice married Marcus Julius Alexander, the nephew of the famous Jewish intellectual Philo and a member of one of the most prominent Jewish families in Egyptian Alexandria. Theirs was a political marriage of great importance for Jews everywhere, because it linked the interests of the two wealthiest and most influential Jewish communities in the world of the 1st century ce.

In 44, Berenice's father Agrippa I died, and Claudius, fearing the development of a significant regional confederation of Jews at a time when messianic rumblings threatened an armed conflict with Rome, returned Judea to the rule of procurators. We do not know how the marriage of Berenice and Marcus Julius Alexander ended, but two years after her father's death Berenice took as her second husband her paternal uncle Herod, King of Chalcis (a region in modern Syria). Because of the connections of the Herodian family, in addition to the kingship of Chalcis, Berenice's new husband inherited the official charge of Jerusalem's Temple with the right to appoint its High Priests—a right which would also fall to his nephew (Berenice's brother) Agrippa II when he ascended the throne of Chalcis. Despite their age difference, Berenice gave Herod two sons, and she remained with him until his death in 48. As the mother of boys who might one day rule Chalcis, Berenice stayed put after Herod's death. But their accession was not to be. In 50, the Emperor Claudius took matters into his own hands by appointing Agrippa II, Berenice's brother, as king of Chalcis.

When Agrippa was reunited with his sister Berenice, she was only 22 years old. A stunning beauty and a woman of enviable charm (both perhaps inherited from her mother Cypros), Berenice thus rejoined her brother when she was in her physical prime and an established woman of the world. Agrippa II proved incapable of resisting temptation, and within a short time he and his sister began an incestuous relationship. Brother-sister love was not unknown in the East during the Hellenistic period, especially when such relationships tended to consolidate dynastic interests; it was, however, anathema among traditional Jews. But Agrippa II and Berenice were among those of the Jewish aristocracy who had been sufficiently influenced by foreign customs so as to consider certain attitudes and practices acceptable from a "cosmopolitan" perspective. As long as he and his sister ruled over the mostly Gentile population of Chalcis, his unofficial union with Berenice raised eyebrows but little more. However, this changed significantly when in 53 Claudius added the lands once associated with the tetrarchies of Philip and Agrippa I, as well as Abilene and Arcene, to Agrippa II's realm, for in these regions lived a much larger Jewish population, intolerant of sibling incest. As a result—so as to mitigate the political fallout of their relationship—in 53 Berenice officially married her third husband, Polemon, the priest-king of Olba in Cilicia (southern Anatolia). The marriage did not last long, though, and Berenice was soon back in the arms of her brother.

Berenice remained with him for about a decade, active in the political and religious affairs of the region. Both she and Agrippa II utilized his authority over the Jerusalem Temple to engage in affairs technically beyond the run of his political writ. Among the interesting anecdotes associated with this period was the appearance of the Christian missionary St. Paul before Berenice and Agrippa II (both of whom kept a close eye on potentially destabilizing religious movements) as a prisoner at Caesarea. When Paul was brought before them, they are said to have remarked, "This man … is doing nothing deserving of death or imprisonment." Whatever the pair might have thought about Paul, his own Roman citizenship protected him from their justice and interference.

Throughout this period, Agrippa II and Berenice were among those liberal Jews who wished to act as liaisons between the Roman Empire and their less worldly Jewish contemporaries, especially as the rift between Rome and the various religious factions of Jerusalem widened. Indeed, such efforts were welcomed in Rome, where Claudius' successor Nero (who assumed the Roman throne in 54), eventually added to the regions already under Agrippa II's and Berenice's rule.

Nevertheless, however effective was the diplomacy of the Jewish aristocracy in the short-term, by the 60s ce terrorism and small-scale guerrilla conflicts routinely upset the peace in and around Jerusalem. Eventually, what began as scattered and uncoordinated acts of violence coalesced into a mass desire to drive Rome, and those like Agrippa II and Berenice who willingly acknowledged Roman rule, entirely from the region. Despite diplomatic attempts by both Berenice and Agrippa II to forestall an open rebellion against Rome, the Jewish revolt took place in 66. With open war, both Agrippa and Berenice declared for Rome and Vespasian, Rome's initial general, against the insurgents. This willingness to back Rome openly may have been influenced by Berenice's previous connection with the family of Tiberius Julius Alexander, brother to Berenice's first husband Marcus and an early supporter of Rome in general and Vespasian in particular.

On the next day Agrippa and [Berenice] arriving in full state entered the audience hall accompanied by high ranking officers and notable citizens. On the order of Festus, [St.] Paul was brought in. … "This man," said [Agrippa and Berenice], "is doing nothing deserving of death or imprisonment."

—Acts 25.23; 26.31

The importance of maintaining good relations with Vespasian and his faction increased dramatically two years later, when in 68 the irresponsible Emperor Nero lost the confidence of Rome's armies throughout the empire and was forced to commit suicide. Because Nero had no credibility and no heir, his death threw the imperial throne up for grabs and civil war erupted among several frontier generals, including Vespasian. Thereafter, Vespasian left Judea to successfully pursue his imperial ambition. Left behind in Judea to crush the Jewish insurgency was Titus, Vespasian's eldest of two sons. Titus would accomplish his mission with the sack of Jerusalem in 70, but before he did so he would meet—and be bedazzled by—Berenice.

Titus' victory was to have a tremendous impact upon Jewish history, for his destruction and looting of Jerusalem's Temple and his stationing of a Roman legion in Jerusalem under an imperial legate (a step up from the status of procurator) helped to inaugurate the age in which synagogues replaced the Temple as the focus of Judaism. The joint victories of Titus and his father Vespasian also had a tremendous impact on Berenice, because Titus' passion for her opened the possibility that she might one day become the spouse of the man who stood to inherit the greatest power known to the world of the 1st century ce. But before Titus could become Rome's emperor a couple of significant obstacles had to be overcome. First, Berenice was a Jew, however liberal and Romanized, and her people had just engaged Rome in a bloody war. Second, the Roman people retained vivid memories of eastern beauties enthralling Roman commanders (e.g.Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony) and were extremely suspicious that traditional Roman institutions and virtues would be "corrupted" by the accession of an oriental empress. The delicacy of the situation prevented Titus from immediately inviting Berenice to Rome, where he stayed active helping to consolidate his father's political mastery.

By 75, however, Titus thought that things had progressed to the point where it was safe to beckon Berenice (with Agrippa II in tow) to Rome. There, he openly established Berenice as his mistress, although he did not tempt fate by trying to marry her. The years between 75 and 79 seem to have been idyllic ones as far as Titus was concerned, and we can only surmise that Berenice enjoyed both Titus' intimacy and her proximity to the corridors of Roman political power. What Agrippa II thought about the situation is unknown, but we can guess that these developments did not please him at all. The idylls ended abruptly for Titus and Berenice in 79 when Vespasian died and Titus became Rome's emperor. Though somewhat willing to tolerate Titus' infatuation with Berenice when he was but heir apparent, the people of Rome would not extend their courtesy once Titus emerged fully from his father's shadow. As a result of a Roman bias he could neither eradicate nor ignore, Titus reluctantly dismissed Berenice from his bed, his life, and almost certainly from Rome. What happened to Berenice thereafter is unknown. Whether she returned again to Agrippa II, whose eastern prominence lingered into the late 90s, is not recorded, nor is her date of death.


Acts of the Apostle. xxv, xxvi.

The Jewish War. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

Josephus. Jewish Antiquities. Vol. 9. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Seutonius. The Twelve Caesars ("Life of Titus"). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957.

suggested reading:

Avi-Yonah, Michael, ed. The World History of the Jewish People: The Herodian Period. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975.

Schürer, Emil. The History Of The Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Berenice (28 CE–after 80 CE)

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