Queen Berenice, the lover of Titus and, rumour has it, the old man Vespasian too! Who was this mysterious women who captured the Flavian hearts, yet was scorned by the rest of Roman society?
Berenice was the great-granddaughter of Herod the Great of Judea (and daughter of Herod Agrippa I – the friend of Emperor Claudius). She was married three times before she eventually lived (allegedly!) incestuously with her brother, M. Julius Agrippa II, with whom she was also joint ruler of Galilee and the East Bank of the Jordan (see map). The historian, Josephus Flavius, comments on her wealth, men & arms, and relationship to Agrippa II, unfortunately, he never mentions her relationship to Titus.
We first hear of her in relation to the Flavian dynasty in Tacitus, when Vespasian sends Titus to Rome to pay his respects to the new Emperor Galba. On the way however, he hears of Galba’s murder and the declaration of war between Otho and Vitellius, which meant Titus had to decide whether to press on ahead or return to his father. Titus decided to return to his father, and Tacitus wryly notes that maybe he was also keen to return to his lover, Queen Berenice (although he then goes on to say that Titus would never let that get in the way of business). Later, when Vespasian is persuaded to stake his claim to the Imperial throne, and Agrippa II (who was friendly to Rome), shows his support for this move, Tacitus comments on fact that Vespasian is also enamoured of the Queen:
“His [King Agrippa II] sister Berenice showed equal enthusiasm for the cause. She was then in the flower of her youth and beauty, and her munificent gifts to Vespasian quite won the old man’s heart too.” (source)
Berenice was ten years older than Titus, so in AD 69 when he was thirty (according to Suetonius, Titus was born in AD 39), she was forty years old — the “flower of her youth”?! In Jewish religious sources, she is described simply as a “harlot” who held the hand of Titus as he entered the “Holy of Holies” in the Temple on the Mount (Jerusalem). She is also mentioned in Christian religious sources, where Paul meets her and her brother (Acts 25). Legend says that it was she and her brother who instigated the destruction of the Temple, believing it the only way to stop the revolt, whereas Titus was reluctant and ordered that it be left alone. This is only legend however, and may well be Roman propaganda, because after all, Titus was a Roman General and if the only way to control a revolt was to destroy something, then he, as a Roman, would do it however much he disliked doing it!
It is known that Titus had intentions to marry Berenice (according to Suetonius), and that she was 45 at the time, which places the date as AD 74. Public opinion, however, would not tolerate such a marriage; Berenice was Jewish (anti-Semitism being rife as a result of the revolt in Jerusalem) and an Eastern monarch. The situation had the potential to be another “Anthony & Cleopatra” incident, as Edward Gibbon explains:
… the blood of kings could never mingle in legitimate nuptials with the blood of a Roman; and the name of Stranger degraded Cleopatra and Berenice, to live the concubines of Mark Antony and Titus.” (source)
Despite opposition, Berenice travelled to Rome (uncertain date, but usually given as AD 75) and lived openly with Titus (who had divorced his wife) as his concubine. Public opinion won the day though, or at least Senatorial opinion did; Rome would not tolerate the Queen being so close to Roman power. She already had considerable powers behind the scenes, and may have welcomed being “Augusta” in Rome (Dio reports that she behaved as such!).
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. (source)
Quinctillian even reports that she was one of the judges in the Imperial Advisory Council. Eventually she had to go home, so when Titus became Emperor (AD 79) they finally parted company…
“…which was painful for both of them.” (source)
The story of Titus and Berenice has inspired plays, poems and even operas throughout history. Here is a small selection of titles (I haven’t been able to get copies myself) in chronological order.
Juvenal mentions her briefly in his Satire VI: The Ways of Women.
Racine, Jean (1639-99) Bérénice (a play)
Otway, Thomas (1652-1685) Titus and Berenice (an adaptation of Racine’s play)
Heath-Stubbs, John (b. 1918) Titus and Berenice (a poem)
A couple of French space rockets have even been after the lovers!!!
Cavazzi, Franco Titus Caesar [Article] The Roman Empire (Illustrated History of) [http://www.roman-empire.net/]
Donahue, J. Titus Flavius Vespasianus (A.D. 79-81) [Article] De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopaedia of Roman Emperors [http://www.roman-emperors.org/]
Levick, Barbara Vespasian Routledge (1999)
Lewis, Ivan The Time of the Destruction of the Temple [Article] Jewish History [http://ivanlewis.com/History/]
Suetonius The Twelve Caesars (Trans. Robert Graves, 1957. Revised – Michael Grant, 1979) Penguin Classics (1989)
Tacitus The Histories (Trans. W. H. Fyfe, 1912. Revised – D. S. Levene, 1997) Oxford University Press (1997)