Berenice (c. 35 BCE–?)

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Berenice (c. 35 bce–?)

Jewish princess who was the mother of Herod Agrippa I. Name variations: Bernice. Pronunciation: Ber-e-NEE-kay. Born into the Herodian family around 35 bce; death date unknown; daughter of Salome (sister of Herod the Great) and Costobar (executed about 25 bce after he was probably found guilty of plotting with the Parthians against Herod's life); married Aristobulus (a son of Herod the Great) around 15 bce; married Theudion (brother of Herod's wife Doris, who was also the mother of Antipater); children: (first marriage) three sons, Aristobulus (who married Jotape , daughter of the king of Emesa), Herod (became king of Chalcis), and Agrippa (born c. 10 bce and became Herod Agrippa I, king of Judea); and two daughters, Herodias (who would take as her second husband, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great by Malthace, another of his ten wives), and Mariamne II.

When Berenice was born about 35 bce, the eastern Mediterranean was in a state of confusion. Rome was in the process of consolidating its control of the region, largely through the transformation of one-time client states (subordinate, but independent allies) into provinces directly ruled by Roman military administrators. In addition, by the time of Berenice's birth, the Roman Republic had been devastated by a series of civil wars for about a century. These conflicts had given rise to ambitious war-lords seeking control of the resources of the East as a means to dominate the Roman state. In fact, some, like Marc Antony, came to base their political ambitions almost exclusively on the control of the eastern Mediterranean, meaning that they were ever willing to meddle in the domestic politics of eastern states. This put eastern rulers in a quandary: even those who desired good relations with the Roman state found it next to impossible not to get involved in partisan Roman politics, for the feuding Romans themselves would not tolerate neutrality in their civil wars. Thus, especially since the consequences of backing a Roman loser were invariably dire, it is no wonder that eastern authorities felt insecure in their power during the last century of the Roman Republic, or that they collectively tended to paranoia—a state of mind which lingered even after Rome's condition had settled. Rome's civil wars did not end until 31 bce, when the forces of Octavian (later to be honored with the new name, Augustus) finally overthrew Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt, giving Octavian uncontested mastery over the entire Mediterranean basin. What followed over the next generation was the slow metamorphosis of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

As if this were not enough to disquiet Judea, foreign affairs fueled the fires of uncertainty even more. Embroiling a frontier which had long been volatile, in the 50s bce the Roman dynast Crassus had invaded the Parthian Empire to the east of Rome's sphere of influence. This effort cost Crassus his life. Thereafter, the rivalry between the two states quickened and in one escalation of the conflict (41–38 bce), the Parthians struck westward through Asia as far as the Palestinian coast. Hoping to seize the initiative along their frontier with Rome, the Parthians then attempted to reconstruct the political infrastructure of western Asia by establishing candidates favorable to their interests in positions of authority within strategically situated states, Judea among them. In Judea, Parthian interests were aided by intense political rivalries within the long-established Hasmonian royal house that had existed previous to their arrival.

In fact, the political fortunes of the Hasmonians had been shaky for over a generation before the Parthian invasion. Although that house had ruled over Judea and other nearby territories since the 160s bce, by the middle of the 1st century bce the combination of increasing Roman pressure and the declining competence of the Hasmonian kings had led to Judea's political and religious fragmentation. Amid the intrigues of the period, non-Hasmonians amassed increasing political influence. One such figure was Herod (later to be dubbed "the Great"), an Edomite whose father had been granted Roman citizenship in 47 bce. After Rome had pushed the Parthians back from the Mediterranean coast, it enthroned Herod (37 bce), as king of Judea.

Herod's elevation precipitated a crisis of its own. Herod was not a Hasmonian, and, although he was a Jew by faith, his ancestry on both sides was Arab. Because the Hasmonians had been the first Jewish rulers of an autonomous Judea for a very long time, they remained popular among the inhabitants of Judea and dynastic loyalty to their house remained strong. Since the autonomy of Judea and Jerusalem's Temple were sources of great pride to the kingdom's Jews, so too was the family which had won that freedom. Herod's elevation (coming as it did with Roman backing, without any consideration for local feeling), therefore, did not get off to a smooth start.

In part to overcome the fact that he, a non-Hasmonian, was about to unseat Antigonus, the last of that family to hold power, Herod took as his second wife (he was polygamous and had some ten wives overall, although not all at the same time), Mariamne the Hasmonian , a Hasmonian princess and the niece of Antigonus. Herod's marriage to Mariamne by no means made him universally popular, but it did begin to legitimize his ambitions in the minds of many. If he could quickly father sons by Mariamne and openly establish one as his political heir, thus merging his line with the Hasmonian legacy, he had the potential of winning over more local supporters. Regardless, life was never to be simple for Herod: his marriage to Mariamne may have been popular with the masses, but it offended many of his oldest and closest supporters—among them, his sister Salome , and those who stood behind Doris , his first wife. (Doris gave birth to Herod's first son Antipater, a fact which would complicate subsequent affairs at Herod's court.) These supporters had little to gain through Mariamne's epiphany and had much personal influence to lose by her coming. Factional rivalries ran rampant in the unsettled atmosphere of Herod's Jerusalem. As they did so, Mariamne gave birth to three sons, two of whom, Alexander and Aristobulus, lived to reach maturity. These sons posed a challenge to their older half-brother Antipater, the son of Doris. At about the same time that Alexander and Aristobulus were born, Herod's sister Salome, married to Costobar, gave birth to Berenice.

The atmosphere of Herod's court became even more highly charged as Herod obviously became infatuated by Mariamne, whom he soon established as his favorite wife. However, with Doris and Salome eager to blacken Mariamne's name, rumor (who knows how true) began to circulate that Mariamne was unfaithful to Herod. Around 29 bce, convinced of her adultery, Herod had her put to death. He quickly rued Mariamne's loss, both because of his private passion and because of her Hasmonian connections. As a result, Salome's and Doris' victory was but a Pyrrhic one, for, although Mariamne was removed from the scene, Herod began more and more openly to favor Alexander (his older son by Mariamne) over Antipater (his first-born son by Doris) as his successor. Herod realized the potential of marriage diplomacy in securing Alexander's status as his political heir. At the appropriate moments, Herod carefully chose wives for his sons. Alexander's marriage to Glaphyra , the daughter of Archelaus, the king of Cappadocia, established the credentials of Herod's emerging heir in the international arena.

In an effort to shore up factional rivalries at court—and especially to unite those who stood behind Doris and Salome with those closely allied with the Hasmonian legacy—Herod married Doris' son Antipater to a daughter of Antigonus (the Hasmonian whom Herod had replaced as Judea's king), and he married Aristobulus (Mariamne's son and Alexander's younger brother) to Salome's daughter Berenice. Though Herod was hoping to realize a consolidation of factional interests in the expectation that rivalries at court could be extinguished, his hope would be in vain, for Antipater and his friends never ceased plotting against the interests of Mariamne's sons.

Mariamne the Hasmonian (c. 60–c. 29 bce)

Wife of Herod the Great. Name variations: Mariamme the Hasmonaean. Born around 60 bce; executed around 29 bce; daughter of Alexandra (d. 27 bce) and Alexander (d. 49 bce); granddaughter of Hyrcanus II; became second wife of Herod the Great, 37 bce; children: Alexander and Aristobulus (both born around 35 bce); grandchildren: Herod of Chalcis and Herod Agrippa I.

Mariamne's prominence as Herod's favorite wife was bitterly opposed by Herod's first wife Doris and his sister Salome , whose partisans took every opportunity to blacken Mariamne's name. Ironically, Herod's very obsession with Mariamne ultimately led to her downfall, for it was not long before rumors began to circulate that Mariamne was unfaithful to her husband. By 29 bce, Herod became convinced of Mariamne's infidelity with the tragic consequence that he had her executed for adultery.

Salome (fl. 65–20 bce)

Flourished around 65 to 20 bce; daughter of Antipater (an Idumaean) and Cyprus (an Arab); sister of Herod the Great (73–4 bce); established friend of Caesar Augustus' wife Livia ; married Costobar; children: Berenice (c. 35 bce–?).

When Salome's nephew Herod Antipas married Herodias and fathered a daughter, he named her Salome, in honor of his aunt. The younger Salome would become the Jezebel of the New Testament.

Berenice married Aristobulus in about 15 bce. This union produced five children: three sons (Herod, Aristobulus, and Agrippa) and two daughters (Herodias and Mariamne II ). Of these five children, Herod would one day become the king of Chalcis, Aristobulus would marry Jotape , the daughter of the king of Emesa, and Agrippa (under several titles) would rule several lands, most notably Judea, as King Herod Agrippa I. Of Berenice's daughters, Herodias would take as her second husband Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great by Malthace , another of his ten wives), who, as a tetrarch, would long rule both Galilee and Perea.

Berenice's marriage to Aristobulus seemed happy until court intrigue and Herod's paranoia once again precipitated a political crisis. Maintaining as close a relationship with Rome as possible, Herod carefully cultivated Augustus (who at the time was consolidating his control over Rome's political establishment, much as Herod was attempting to do in Judea) and his family. In the process, Herod frequently used members of his immediate household—especially his son Alexander and sister Salome—as political liaisons with Rome. Alexander's employment in this capacity was particularly reasonable, since it had come to be expected by most that he would succeed to his father's authority. However, Alexander was unfortunate enough to become too popular both in Rome and among his own people, especially those who served in the army. Suspicious by nature particularly of those close to himself, Herod came to wonder whether the rising popularity of Alexander might lead to Alexander's premature elevation, and thus to his own premature disposal. As Herod stewed, Alexander helped himself not at all by preening in his preeminent status and by engaging in political intrigue, if not directly against Herod at least against the interests of his potential rivals for Herod's legacy. Alexander's primary rival was Antipater, but he also kept a close eye on his half-brother Aristobulus, Berenice's husband, lest any threat arise from that quarter.

Learning of Herod's fears, Antipater revitalized his Aown political aspirations. Antipater took advantage of Herod's debilitating paranoia by spreading rumors of Alexander's eagerness to unseat Herod (rumors which may not have been completely unfounded), and by cleverly making it appear as if every one of Alexander's public responsibilities would only precipitate Alexander's elevation. By 7 bce, Herod was at the breaking point; in that year, he formally accused Alexander of treachery. Nervous about disposing the heir whom Rome had come to count upon, Herod had Alexander tried before a Roman-dominated tribunal, on the slimmest of evidence. Nevertheless, Alexander was convicted (over the objection of the presiding Roman judge), and he was executed. In the fallout of this scandal, Herod also put Berenice's husband Aristobulus to death since Antipater had effectively implicated Aristobulus in his brother's "crimes."

Antipater was thus established as Herod's successor, until a short time later the moody Herod began to long again for an heir from among the line of Mariamne. As a result, Herod took steps to insure that the young children of Alexander and Aristobulus were carefully raised at court, where he at least once openly acknowledged them to a gathering of his friends. At that time, Herod lamented the fate of their fathers, prayed that no such fortune would come their way, and further besought his grandchildren to remember how he had cared for them so that, some day, they might repay him for his concern. Such a display, coupled with the emerging groundwork for their future political marriages, sent a clear message to Antipater that his status as Herod's heir was by no means secure.

Agrippa I won the friendship of Antonia … for his mother [Berenice] ranked high among Antonia's friends and had asked Antonia to promote Agrippa's concern.

—Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 13.143

Alexander's wife Glaphyra was returned to her homeland after her husband's execution. Berenice, however, remained prominent in Judea after the death of Aristobulus. Part of the reason for Berenice's continuing distinction lay in the close friendships she and her mother had established with the women of the Roman imperial family: Salome was an intimate of Augustus' wife Livia (mother of Tiberius and Drusus) while Berenice ranked high in the esteem of Antonia Minor , the wife of Livia's younger son Drusus. So close was Berenice to Antonia that when her son Agrippa was about six and thus old enough to leave his mother's care, he was sent by Berenice to Rome both to be educated and well positioned to eventually pursue an important future. In Rome, Agrippa was welcomed by Antonia who treated him virtually as one of her own, and he grew up as a close friend of Antonia's famous sons Germanicus and Claudius. Although Antonia's son Germanicus died before he could personally occupy the Roman throne, Antonia's grandson Caligula succeeded Tiberius as the emperor of Rome, while Antonia's other son Claudius followed Caligula in that capacity. Thus, Agrippa was raised as the intimate of his generation's most important up-and-coming figures. It is little wonder that Agrippa would one day be placed on the throne of Judea by his Roman patrons.

While her young son Agrippa was occupied in Rome, Berenice remained in Judea where, at her cousin Antipater's connivance, she was married to Theudion, the brother of Herod's wife Doris (and thus the uncle of Antipater). Antipater obviously arranged this marriage so as to strengthen his own position at court and to try to head off any possibility that one of Berenice's sons by Aristobulus might take precedence over himself in the line of succession. For a time, Antipater appeared to have succeeded in his efforts to be clearly indicated as Herod's heir. However, Antipater's attempt to seize control of Judean politics, as Herod declined, backfired, for shortly before the latter's death in 4 bce, Herod executed Antipater. Even as his own death loomed, Herod would not cede an iota of royal authority to anyone, no matter how close. (Herod's extermination of his sons sparked Augustus—who knew something about Jewish dietary laws—to quip that, all things considered, he would much rather have been Herod's pig than his son.)

After the death of Herod, we hear nothing else of Berenice, nor do we know when she died. It is probable, however, that her marriage to Theudion did not long survive the deaths of Antipater and Herod. That union had the potential of hindering the advancement of her children by Aristobulus, which, as a savvy survivor of the bloody Herodian court, she would surely have known.


The Jewish War. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

Josephus. Jewish Antiquities. Vols 8 & 9. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963, 1965.

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. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973.

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

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Berenice (c. 35 BCE–?)

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