Queen Bernice:
Treacherous Queen or Jewish Advocate?

This article was printed in the Kankan Journal Vol 2. Issue 14 Elul 5780

Queen Bernice of the Herodian Dynasty 

Our past few months of exploring Jewish queens have given us subjects that are easily defined as good or evil.  This month’s subject, Queen Bernice of Cilicia, is much harder to define in both political and Jewish terms.  The complex picture emerging from her life story provides indications that she was both an advocate for the Jews at times, yet also a licentious traitor to her people.  Let’s delve into this complicated character in Jewish History.

Bernice was born in the year 28, to Herod Agrippa I and Cypros, making her the great-granddaughter to Herod the Great.  Herod Agrippa and Cybros were first cousins, both descended from Herod.1Ilan, Tal. “Herodian Women.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive.   Bernice’s descent from Herod raises, in turn, the question of her status as a Jew.

Queen Bernice
Title: Herod Agrippa II
Description: Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa from the Forum of Gabii, currently in the Louvre, Paris
Credit: Borghese Collection; purchase, 1807

Jew or Gentile?

The Rishonim debate whether Herod was a full-fledged Jew or, instead, an eved.2Tos. Bava Basra 3b & Yevamos 45b. Ritva Kedushin 70b. However, that question may be rendered moot if we accept the account of Josephus3Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 15:2:5. that Mariamne, the last known descendant of the Chashmonaim, was Herod’s wife.  Since according to the Gemara,4Gittin 39b-40a. the marriage of a woman, to an eved owned by her very self, results automatically in the freeing of that eved from the state of servitude.  Herod, through his marriage to Mariamne, attained the status of a freed slave and thus, a bona fide Jew. The same would be the case, too, for Herod’s descendants.   

Accordingly, it would seem that when Mariamne made the fateful proclamation before her death, “Whoever comes and says, ‘I come from the house of the Hasmoneans,’ is a slave, since only that girl, i.e., I, remained from them. And that girl fell from the roof to the ground,”5Bava Basra 3b. we must assume that she was not speaking in strictly halachic terms but meant only to disparage Herod as both lacking royal blood and being a descendant of slaves.

Her Relationships

Bernice’s life, particularly in regard to personal relationships, was nothing short of tumultuous. Her first marriage took place in the year 41, at around the age of 13, to Marcus Julius Alexander,6Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 19:15:1 a wealthy Jewish merchant from Alexandria, who was the nephew of the philosopher Philo.7Daniélou, Jean (2014). Philo of Alexandria. James Clarke & Co. p. 3. He died three years later without leaving any children.

After this short-lived marriage, Queen Bernice was given in marriage to her uncle Herod of Chalcis to whom she bore two sons, Berenicianus and Hyrcanus, of whom very little is known.  At the request of Herod Agrippa, the Roman Emperor Claudius gave Herod of Chalcis control of the region known as Chalcis (modern-day Galilee, extending into Syria and Lebanon) with the title King. When Herod Agrippa I died, he was also given control of the Beis HaMikdash and the appointment of the Kohen Gadol.8Herod II. – JewishEncyclopedia.com Herod, too, died shortly after his marriage, in the year 48.

At this point, the estate of Herod of Chalcis fell to Herod Agrippa II, who was his nephew as well as the brother of Bernice, since he was the oldest living heir to the Herodian Dynasty.  Together with the family fortune, Bernice went to live in her brother’s home.  It appears that at this time, they ruled the client state together as equal regents.  Combined with the fact that her brother never married, rumors of an incestuous relationship between Herod Agrippa II and Bernice spread, and to dispel these reports, she requested once again to be married off.

Family of Mark Antony

Marcus Antonius Polemon Pythodoros, known to historians as Polemon II, was the only known descendant of Mark Antony who bore his name.  Around the year 50, Polemon II met Queen Bernice while on a trip to visit Herod Agrippa II in Tevaria.  Bernice made it a condition of her marriage to Polemon II that he convert to Judaism and become circumcised.  Motivated by her stature and wealth, the Roman prince agreed. This marriage too did not last long, and Bernice soon returned to her brother’s court.  At that time, Polemon II abandoned Judaism, and, according to the legend of Bartholomew the Apostle, he embraced Christianity.9Davidson, A. B., Swete, H. B., Selbie, J. A., Driver, S. R. (1902). A Dictionary of the Bible: Pleroma-Zuzim. United States: C. Scribner’s sons. (according to classical Jewish sources, it is hard to say that Christianity was a force to be reckoned with at this point in time)

Queen Bernice
Description: Bust of Julia Berenice
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It was also during Bernice’s lifetime that the events leading to the First Roman War began.10Josepus, The War of the Jews, 2:14. Emperor Nero appointed Gessius Florus as the Governor in Judea, but it was abundantly clear from the beginning that Florus was only interested in enriching himself from the position and would do whatever he could to fatten his coffers at the expense of the Jews.

First, he provoked the Jews against local Greeks in Caesaria, hoping to profit thereby, and then brought the conflict to Jerusalem by plundering the Temple in the name of Caesar.  When the Jews fought back, Florus sought to put down the rebellion with an iron fist.  He set his soldiers loose on the Jews, and using the trademark Roman form of capital punishment for its first time, he had many hundreds of Jews crucified.  Josephus relates that 3,600 men, women and children were slaughtered at that time.

Trying to save Jerusalem

Becoming aware of these atrocities, Queen Bernice tried to intercede with Gessius Florus on behalf of the Jews.  She was not only ridiculed for doing so but also threatened by violence at the hands of his soldiers, from which she narrowly escaped into the palace.  She then took on a Nazarite vow, hoping to receive the help of Heaven in the cause of saving the beleaguered Jews.  She also appealed to Cestius Gallus, the President of the region, to respond to Florus’ oppression against the Jews, but this too was of no avail.

By this time, Herod Agrippa II had joined his sister, and implored the Jews of Jerusalem not to rebel against the Romans.  In an impassioned speech recorded by Josephus, he begs the Jews, citing many historical and political arguments as to why the Jews would not stand a chance against the Romans.  But his words fell on deaf ears, since the masses had already been incited to rebellion.

The Jewish rebels burnt down Herod Agrippa II’s palace, and he and Bernice fled to the Galilee. The rebellion was now in full swing.  From this point on, Agrippa and Bernice sided with the Romans in the war with the Jews.

Now our story takes a dramatic turn.  At this point, Bernice disappears from the pages of Josephus, which makes sense, considering that Titus was the latter’s patron.11Ilan, Tal. “Berenice.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. In 67, Emperor Nero sent Vespasian to put down the rebellion in Judea.  He was joined by his son Titus who was the head of the 15th Legion. It was during this time that Bernice, 11 years his senior, and Titus, met and purportedly began a romantic relationship (albeit with no request of circumcision or conversion this time).

Description: Bust of Emperor Titus, in the Capitoline Museum, Rome
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The year 69 was the Year of the Four Emperors in Rome that would leave Vespasian at the helm of the Empire.  Bernice used her wealth and influence to assist in the ascent of her paramour’s father.  When Vespasian returned to Rome, Titus was left to put down the rebellion in Jerusalem, which would see one million Jews slaughtered and 97,000 taken captive into Rome.12Josephus, The War of the Jews 6:6-9.  It is believed that the Gemara which tells13Gittin 56b. that Titus took a harlot into the Holy of Holies and sinned with her there is referring to Bernice.14Joseph Gedaliah Klausner, History of the Second Temple, vol. 5 (5 vols.; Jerusalem: Ahiasaf, 1949-1951), 265 [Hebrew].

After the war, Titus returned to Rome to assist his father in governmental affairs, and Bernice remained in Judea.  It is not clear why they stayed for so long after the war’s conclusion, but in the year 75, Herod Agrippa II and Bernice finally arrived in Rome.  Agrippa was given a government position, and Bernice continued her relationship with Titus, living with him in the palace and functioning in every respect as his wife.15Cassius Dio, Roman History LXV.15  Bernice clearly reached the highest levels of Roman power at this time.  Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, referred to as Quintilian, who was counsel to the Emperor, writes about having argued a case on behalf of Bernice, where she sat as the judge.16Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria IV.1.

Though very powerful, this princess from the East was not popular in the eyes of the people.  Simply being a foreigner made her suspect.  In ancient Rome, the temperament of the populace could often be assessed by what was put on stage in the theaters.  In that arena, Bernice was often portrayed as a villain. Bowing to pressure, Titus sent her away.17Cassius Dio, Roman History LXV.15.

With Titus’s ascent to the throne in 79, he brought Bernice back to Rome but quickly sent her away again as it was clear that her lack of popularity would continue to hurt his reputation in the eyes of the populace.  It is believed that he intended to send for her when his throne was more secure, but his reign would only last two more years before he perished.18Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Titus 7-10.  This is the last we hear of Bernice in the annals of history.  Herod Agrippa II, died in the year 92, and with his demise, the Herodian Dynasty came to its end.

The historic portrait of Queen Bernice is murky, to say the least.  On one hand, she insisted on circumcision and conversion before a political marriage.  She interceded to stop the ruthless oppression of her Jewish brethren at the hands of the Romans and even became a Nazirite to obtain Heavenly assistance.  On the other hand, from a Jewish perspective, she entered into a series of highly suspect, if not openly illegitimate relationships, including a lengthy one with Titus HaRasha, the destroyer of the Second Beis HaMikdash.  Needless to say, the portrait of Bernice is one of the most complicated ones in Jewish history.

Description: The Apostle Paul explains the dogmas of faith in the presence of King Agrippa, his sister Berenice and the proconsul Festus
Author: Vasily Surikov (1848–1916)
Date: 1875
Credit: Wikimedia Commons