Julia Berenice is famous for her relationship with Emperor Titus; a stormy romance with a tragic ending. But she is fascinating in more than one way. She was a woman of the world; a woman who had her own way in a male society; a woman who dared to step into the political limelight.
Berenice was the daughter of King Herod Agrippa I, the last king of Judea. She was the second of five children. Her brother Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II) was a year older than her. More noted than her father was her great-grandfather, Herod the Great – the king in the Christmas story – who had all Jewish boys killed.
the marriages of Julia Berenice
At the age of fourteen, Julia Berenice was married off to Marcus Julius Alexander, a scion of an affluent family. His father collected the import and export tax in the Alexandrian port, which was the largest port in the world at the time. Unfortunately, the matrimony didn’t last long. Shortly after the marriage, Marcus died.
Three years after her first wedding, Berenice was married off for the second time. Now to her uncle Herod, who ruled over a small kingdom called Chalcis. Chalcis stretched from southern Lebanon to Syria. Herod also had been married before and from that marriage, he had a son. Julia Berenice bore him two more: Berenicianus and Hyrcanus.
Herod died four years later. Being a woman, Julia Berenice could not inherit his royal title, and her sons were too young to reign. So Emperor Claudius decided to give the kingdom to Agrippa, Berenice’s brother. Berenice continued to live in the palace. She wasn’t married off again. Her father had died and her brother had neither the authority nor the will to arrange a marriage.
Since Agrippa was also single, this led to rumors about an incestuous relationship between the two. Julia Berenice ignored the gossip for seven years but then got weary of it. She wed Polemo, the king of Cilicia. But – according to Josephus – Polemo was only interested in her money. Berenice decided this was not the right base for matrimony and soon returned home.
the love story of Berenice and Titus
There she fell in love with Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian. According to Wikipedia, the affair between Julia Berenice and Emperor Titus has been the subject of more than forty novels, plays, operas, and films. The two most renowned are Mozart’s opera “La Clemenza di Tito” and Racine’s drama “Berénice”. Only Hollywood has not yet ventured into the affair. And that won’t happen soon either, since the story does not have a “happy ending”.
Titus and Julia Berenice were deeply in love, but could not marry because Titus became emperor. He feared wedding her would harm his popularity. The Roman populace mistrusted Berenice for two reasons: she was a Jewess and a queen. Both reasons I will explain from the Roman point of view.
Since their revolt, the Romans detested the Jews. And they didn’t hide their feelings. If you read the fifth book of Tacitus’ Histories, for example, you come across some abusive statements: “the Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; and on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor” and “the earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account“. So few Romans wanted a Jewess on the throne.
The fact that Julia Berenice was of royal descent didn’t help either. Roman history can be divided into three periods: the regal period, the republic, and the empire. And the regal period had left the Romans with bad memories. At school, they had learned that Kings were tyrants. So with a queen on the throne, their oppression would start all over again.
Julia Berenice and politics
In my novel The Third Temple, I describe a conference on the future of Judea. It was obvious that Titus would chair that meeting. The story required Julia Berenice to be present also. I wondered, however, if I could stage her: women were aloof from politics at that time, and if they interfered, it was behind the scenes.
During my research, it turned out that Julia Berenice took little notice of that etiquette. She openly engaged in political issues on at least two occasions. The first was the trial of the Christian apostle Paul. Berenice wasn’t merely present at the hearing, but she was also a co-judge. The second time she appeared in a political role was at the start of the Jewish war. When Agrippa tried to dissuade the Jews from war with the Romans, Julia Berenice sat on the front row to support her brother. In addition to this, Josephus mentions that through letters and messengers she tried to influence the Roman governor of Judea and the prefect of Syria politically.
Julia Berenice reached the peak of her might when Vespasian seized the imperial throne. According to Tacitus, Vespasianus owed Julia Berenice because she had financed his coup.
With all this in mind, it seemed to me historically justified to place Julia Berenice next to Titus at the conference and to attribute her a decisive influence on its outcome.