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Anne Thériault | Longreads | December 2019 | 21 minutes (5,424 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.
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The year was 54 BC, but not really, because Christ hadn’t been born yet. In Rome, it was 700 ab urbe condita, or 700 years since the founding of the city; at the northern edge of the empire, Julius Caesar was veni, vidi, vici-ing his way into Britain for a second time. In Egypt, it was the 251st year of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and a 15-year-old Cleopatra was scheming. In Judea, which had recently lost its full sovereignty and become a client state of Rome, the year was… who even knows? The Judeans of the time would count it as year 258 in the Era of Contracts, though for Jewish people living after the 12th century, it’s anno mundi 3707. Either way, it was there that a new princess was born into a royal family torn apart by usurpers, civil war, and aggressive foreign meddling. In spite of all the chaos in the Hasmonean household, no one could have imagined that tiny Miriam would one day be that dynasty’s last hope.
Like so many women from ancient history, we have very few concrete facts about Miriam, who would gain wider infamy under the Hellenized version of her name, Mariamne. What little information we do have was recorded by men. Even her birth year is pure speculation, based on the typical ages for engagement and marriage in her culture during the 1st century BCE. What we do know for certain is that things were not going well for the Hasmoneans when Mariamne entered the scene.
They had been great, once. Their dynasty had sprung from the revolt led by Judah Maccabeus, the man who drove out the occupying Seleucids, restored the Second Temple, and invented Hanukkah. A strong start, as far as dynasty-founding goes! Judah’s brother, Simon, was then elected leader of the newly semi-independent Judea by a group that, according to the Books of Maccabees, was composed of “the priests and the people and of the elders of the land, to the effect that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until there should arise a faithful prophet.” Since prophets are few and far between and no one can live forever (in fact, Simon was murdered eight years into his reign by his son-in-law), this set the Hasmoneans on the throne until further notice.
The Hasmoneans managed to hang on to power for a little over a century, in spite of the usual problems: intrigue, coups, murder. You know, just casual royal stuff. Then, three months into the reign of Hyrcanus II in 67 BCE, his brother Aristobulus II rose up in rebellion against him. Hyrcanus was a bit of a mama’s boy, or at the very least someone who was not afraid to cede authority to strong women. Instead of claiming the throne after his father’s death, he’d been happy to take on the role of High Priest while his widowed mother, Alexandra Salome, took the reins; it was only after her death that he came (ever so briefly) into power. Aristobulus, meanwhile, was more of a kingly (read: bellicose) type, and had no trouble amassing followers as he moved to depose his brother. After Aristobulus II captured Jerusalem, Hyrcanus basically handed over the crown and agreed to go back to being a prince. Some people just don’t have leadership qualities and that’s ok. It takes all kinds to make this world.
That might have been the end of it, at least until the next generation of Hasmoneans started turning on each other, except for one man: Antipater, the governor of neighboring Idumea who had managed to insinuate himself into Hyrcanus’ life. Antipater and his wife Cypros had ambitious plans for their children, and they hoped that his position as royal yes-man would help achieve those dreams. The second of his four sons was the future Herod the Great, the messiest man to have ever graced the land of Judea. Yes, that Herod, old “massacre of the innocents” himself (but not the Herod who cut off John the Baptist’s head; that was his son, Herod Antipas).
ANTIPATER: you should try to get the crown back
HYRCANUS II: I mean … should I?
ANTIPATER: yeah, dude, what if your brother tries to assassinate you?
HYRCANUS II: that seems really unlikely, I already let him be king
HYRCANUS II: mom always said, “be nice to your brother”
HYRCANUS II: “no fighting,” she’d say
HYRCANUS II: “keep it down around here, I’m trying to be queen”
HYRCANUS II: she was just the best mom anyone could ever ask for
ANTIPATER: sure, she was a great broad, but I’m hearing rumors
HYRCANUS II: about my mom?
ANTIPATER: no, about your brother planning to assassinate you
HYRCANUS II: that would make mom so angry!
ANTIPATER: I …. yes, fine, I can work with that
ANTIPATER: I think you should go to war with your brother and take the crown back
ANTIPATER: and make me your chief advisor and give all my sons good jobs
ANTIPATER: it’s what your mom would have wanted
In the middle of the civil war that ensued, the Romans rolled in, as was their wont. Pompey decided that Hyrcanus II would be less of a headache to deal with than his brother, so he re-installed him as High Priest. There would be no king, just a local ruler — an ethnarch — controlled by the authority of Rome. Antipater gleefully moved into the palace and appointed himself chief advisor.
This was the world that Mariamne was born into: a state that had been upended by years of unrest and was about to plunge itself into further turmoil as the successive deaths of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony reshaped the Mediterranean world. Mariamne’s mother, Alexandra, was the daughter of Hyrcanus II; her father, Alexander, was the son of Aristobulus II. She was a double-Hasmonean whose grandfathers had spent decades trying to destroy each other. She might have inherited an uncertain future, but Mariamne was never confused about who she was or about her place in the world. She wasn’t just royal, she was a descendant of the heroic Maccabees. As she grew up, it became clear that she was going to be an exceptionally beautiful woman. It was only natural that Herod, by then the governor of Galilee and just as much of a social climber as his father, wanted to marry her. What was surprising was that Hyrcanus II agreed, even though Herod was a) an interloper and b) already married to a nice girl from Jerusalem named Doris, who had dutifully provided him with a son.
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A note on Herod: although he had lived in Judea his entire life, he spent much of his time there feeling like an outsider. He did not descend from an old Jewish family; his paternal grandfather was an Idumean pagan who had been forcibly converted to Judaism when the Judeans had annexed his homeland, while his mother, Cypros, was a Nabataean pagan. It’s unclear whether his mother ever converted, but the rule about Judaism being passed down from mother to child would not be codified for another 300 years. Still, Herod was raised Jewish and identified as Jewish. The Judean establishment, however, refused to see him as one of their own. Part of the problem was that Herod turned out to be a Roman boot-licker extraordinaire. He was also loosey-goosey about which Jewish laws he followed; he disrespected the authority of the Great Sanhedrin (the Jewish court in Jerusalem), participated in pagan rituals while in Rome, and adorned buildings with Roman eagles, breaking the Torah’s injunction against the depiction of living beings. Some of the popular antipathy towards Herod’s claims to Jewishness, however, had xenophobic roots. The insecurity Herod felt in his own country, among his own people, troubled him throughout his life and contributed to some of his more tyrannical acts; if he couldn’t make people accept him, he sure as hell was going to make them fear him.
Mariamne loathed Herod. On top of the ick factor of being a 12-year-old engaged to a married, 33-year-old man, she also couldn’t believe that she was going to marry a non-royal. And not just any non-royal — the deeply unpopular governor of Galilee who was known for being a tyrant. But Hyrcanus needed Herod’s money, soldiers, and undying loyalty. The Parthians, who were running a bustling empire based in what is now Iran, were preparing to invade, and they had the support of yet another Hasmonean faction, led by Antigonus Mattathias (for those keeping score: he was the son of Aristobulus II, nephew to Hyrcanus II, and uncle to Mariamne). Antigonus wanted to finish what his father had started and finally wrest power from that weak-willed, Rome-collaborating, Antipater-loving Hyrcanus. Mariamne’s future unhappiness originated in her grandfather’s desperate attempt to stop that from happening.
As the Parthians stormed Jerusalem, they were cheered on by crowds of Judeans. Not only were they thrilled by the thought that the Parthians might get rid of those stinking Romans, they also very much wanted to see Antigonus redeem the glory of the Hasmoneans by taking the throne. Hyrcanus saw that the public had turned against him and knew that even if Herod’s forces won, he would lose his people’s respect forever. With that in mind, he foolishly agreed to negotiate with Antigonus, who promptly took him captive. Antigonus stripped Hyrcanus of his status of High Priest by cutting off his ears (no one with a physical blemish was allowed to hold that office), and then declared himself King of Judea. Herod, who had been suspicious of the negotiations to begin with, yikes-ed himself right out of the country. He fled to Egypt, where he asked for military assistance to retake Jerusalem.
CLEOPATRA: surprise, bitch
CLEOPATRA: it’s called a cameo, sweetie
CLEOPATRA: anyway, that military aid is gonna be a no from me
CLEOPATRA: no offense, but you don’t exactly seem like a great investment
CLEOPATRA: you’re penniless, you have no real claim to the crown, you’re widely hated for being a Roman toady
HEROD: … aren’t we both Roman toadies?
HEROD: didn’t you have a kid with Julius Caesar?
CLEOPATRA: again, no offense
CLEOPATRA: but the differences between our situations are so vast that I couldn’t even begin to describe them
CLEOPATRA: that being said
CLEOPATRA: if you want to stay in Egypt, I’ll give you a job
Herod did not, in fact, want to work for Cleopatra, so she gifted him a galley and sent him on his merry way. From Egypt, he set off to Rome. He knew that the Romans, still reeling from Julius Caeasar’s assassination four years earlier and from the ensuing civil war, would not want to lose Judea to the Parthians.
I’m sure his intentions were purely selfless and that he was only thinking of his people’s — and the Romans’ — best interests. I’m sure that he was totally telling the truth when he said that he walked into the Roman Senate thinking they would appoint Mariamne’s brother, Aristobulus, still in his early teens, King of Judea. Yet somehow, by the time Herod walked out of the Senate arm-in-arm with Octavian and Mark Antony, the crown was his. Whoops! How did that even happen? What a wacky accident! Then they all went up Capitoline Hill and made a sacrifice to Jupiter. I mean, the Ten Commandments are pretty clear about not worshipping any other gods, but I’m sure Herod just crossed his fingers during the sacrifice so that it didn’t really count or something.
With the backing of Roman forces, Herod returned to Judea to give his compatriots the king they’d never asked for.
During Herod’s absence, Mariamne was hiding out at the great desert fortress of Masada with Herod’s mother Cypros, two of his brothers, and his sister Salome (no, not the sexy-dance Salome — that was his granddaughter). Cypros and Salome were noted meddlers who were about to take their shit-stirring skills to a whole new level. The Masada situation was surely a fun one. Who doesn’t want to be stuck on a hilltop in a remote locale with their future in-laws? Especially when those in-laws are stinky upstarts whose family is trying to take what you believe to be your rightful inheritance. On the flip side, I’m sure it was a complete pleasure for Cypros and Salome to be ordered around by a 16-year-old princess who treated them like dog poop. It was during this time of forced proximity that mutual disdain really began to take root, a festering resentment that would one day lead to Mariamne’s undoing.
Herod was midway through his military campaign to take Judea when he decided the timing was ideal to marry Mariamne. She was 17 and already renowned for her beauty (by comparison, Cleopatra was considered to be on the plain side, although her charm, wit, and the very sound of her voice were said to bewitch men). Herod quickly finalized his divorce to that pesky Doris, rescued his family from Masada (and each other), and wed Mariamne. In spite of the chaos around her, she accepted the situation with relative equanimity. Maybe she hoped that the marriage of the new King of Judea to a Hasmonean would finally bring about peace for her country. Maybe, like so many royal women before and after her, she’d been raised with the understanding that she would someday have to marry someone she didn’t love, and she was already mentally prepared for it. Or maybe she was operating under the (incorrect, as it turned out) assumption that becoming a queen would give her some autonomy and authority over her life. Who knows?
After their wedding, Herod left his new wife in Samaria while he went to capture Jerusalem. Roman reinforcements arrived and his men now far outnumbered Antigonus’ forces, but it still took months to take the city. The people of Jerusalem were so horrified by the prospect of Herod’s rule that they thought God would intervene and rescue them, a belief that drove them to astounding acts of bravery. But, finally, Herod managed to break through. When he did, he let the Romans rampage through the city, killing, plundering, and desecrating as they pleased. Herod only put a stop to the carnage because he was worried that he wouldn’t have anyone left to rule. Nothing starts off a good reign quite like nearly massacring all of your subjects.
Herod and his extended family — including his mother, sister, wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law (Aristobulus, the teenager he’d allegedly suggested as a possible king during his visit to Rome) — soon settled in Jerusalem. In 34 BCE, Cleopatra stopped by for a visit on her way back to Egypt from Antioch. She wanted to negotiate the terms of several grants Mark Antony had made to her, including the rights to bitumen from the Dead Sea and the proceeds of Jericho’s balsam groves, and Herod was less than thrilled. The last time he’d seen her, he’d begged her for help and she refused his pleas. Now, well into her second pregnancy by Antony but showing no signs of slowing down, she was humiliating him all over again. Everything about Cleopatra got under Herod’s skin: her femininity, her capability, her quick wits, her legitimate royal descent, not to mention the sway she held over Antony, whom Herod much admired. There was at least one person in his household who adored Cleopatra, though: Mariamne’s mother, Alexandra — the one person who hated Herod even more than his wife did.
It makes sense that Cleopatra and Alexandra got along. They were both women from old Mediterranean royal families, and they had both seen those families destroyed by internal feuds. I bet they spent long evenings sipping wine in some palm-fringed palace courtyard, trading parenting tips and bitching about Herod. Whatever happened during those weeks, the two women forged a friendship that would last until Alexandra’s death.
Speaking of death, that scamp Herod was thinking about planning Cleopatra’s. He went to his council to present his idea, explaining that not only would it benefit the whole region to be rid of this awful, grasping queen, but it would also be a personal gift to his old pal Mark Antony. What man doesn’t secretly hope his friends will murder the woman he’s in love with? After explaining all of this, Herod added the clincher: Cleopatra had tried to make moves on him. She was, after all, a known slut, having borne children out of wedlock with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. My god, that woman could catch a famous Roman dick whenever she felt like it! Naturally, it followed in Herod’s mind that she was the type to try to get into his robes as well. He argued he had to stop her before she inevitably betrayed Mark Antony who, Herod imagined, would one day thank him for his service.
COUNCILLORS: wow, just … yikes
COUNCILLORS: please just absolutely do not murder the Queen of Egypt, that’s a very bad idea
HEROD: but Antony —
COUNCILLORS: will despise you
COUNCILLORS: honestly, it concerns us that you don’t understand this
HEROD: well then what am I supposed to do about this hussy?
COUNCILLORS: absolutely — and we can’t stress this enough — nothing
At the end of the visit, Herod escorted Cleopatra to the Egyptian border, no doubt praying that he was also leading her permanently out of his life. (The answer to that prayer was a resounding no.)
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Back in Judea, Herod was faced with a task that should have been a no-brainer: picking a new High Priest. Although the Hasmonean kings had traditionally held that office, even a man as vain and unselfaware as Herod was savvy enough to know that appointing himself was a terrible idea. Luckily, there was an ideal candidate living under his roof: Mariamne’s 17-year-old brother, Aristobulus. He was a Hasmonean, the people of Judea loved him, and he was apparently just as beautiful as his sister. I picture him as a Timothée Chalamet type, all sensuous lips and dark, tousled hair: the lanky ingénue of the ancient world. For reasons that will soon become clear, though, Herod didn’t choose Aristobulus — instead, he chose a Babylonian bro named Ananel.
Mariamne, who had never been able to hide her disgust for Herod, was outraged by this slight against her family. Alexandra went a step further and wrote to Cleopatra, asking her to have Mark Antony intervene. It was, she said, an “unendurable insult” to have such an obscure person given the office of High Priest when there was a perfectly good Hasmonean male lounging around, suggestively eating peaches. Meanwhile, Quintus Dellius, a close friend of Mark Antony, suggested that Alexandra commission portraits of Aristobulus and Mariamne to send to Antony, presumably because they were his type and, I don’t know, he might be more inclined to help them if he was also sleeping with them? The most astonishing part of this messy, messy story is that Alexandra did exactly as Dellius suggested. Antony was so enthused about Aristobulus that he immediately asked for him to come to Alexandria.
ANTONY: I mean, I would have sent for Mariamne too
ANTONY: but that seemed like a recipe for disaster
ANTONY: jealousy on, uhhh, all fronts
CLEOPATRA: *clears throat*
Herod managed to read the room for a hot second and saw that sending the beautiful Hasmonean prince off to enchant Antony was a terrible idea. After politely declining his friend’s request, he assembled his family and council to unleash his fury on Alexandra. He accused her of being a wicked woman, of trying to undermine his rule, and of plotting against him with that known harridan, Cleopatra. Herod alleged that Alexandra wanted to replace him with Aristobulus. Alexandra broke down, weeping and swearing that none of it was true; like any good mother, she only wanted her son to have his due. She apologized for overstepping, and swore to become a model mother-in-law. Herod placed her under house arrest, but grudgingly made Aristobulus High Priest — after refusing to send him to Antony, he had to find some way to justify keeping him in Judea.
Alexandra was beyond outraged. How was it possible that she, a Hasmonean and mother of both the queen and high priest, could be imprisoned under false charges? Fearing for her life and the life of her son, she wrote to Cleopatra again, begging for help. Cleopatra was sympathetic (and, as always, only too delighted to be a thorn in Herod’s side); she agreed to send a ship to transport Alexandra and Aristobulus to Alexandria. On her end, Alexandra arranged to smuggle herself and her son out of the palace in two coffins that were to be loaded onto the ship. The plan was well in motion when Herod himself intercepted the coffins en route from Jerusalem to the coast; a servant in his mother-in-law’s household had betrayed her. Outwardly, Herod forgave Alexandra and all continued pretty much as it had before, but on the inside he was seething with fury and jealousy.
MARIAMNE: meanwhile, was anyone thinking about me?
MARIAMNE: while my husband was torturing my family, was anyone concerned for my safety?
MARIAMNE: you know, me, the person who shares his bed
MARIAMNE: the person who endures the front line of his wrath
MARIAMNE: the person who is arguably in the most danger
MARIAMNE: was anyone making any plans to whisk me out of the country?
MARIAMNE: the short answer is no
MARIAMNE: the long answer is also no
In the fall of of 35 BCE, Aristobulus presided over the Sukkoth festivities in his new role as High Priest. Beautiful any day of the week, he was especially resplendent in the gold diadem and floor-length, gem-speckled blue robes of the office. It was clear from the reactions of the crowd, who were randomly shouting out praise for the teenager along with the customary prayers, that he was more beloved than Herod would ever be. The king grew worried that some kind of coup would place his brother-in-law on the throne. So a few days later, at his palace in Jericho, Herod instructed a few of his trusted attendants to play a fun game with Aristobulus in the enormous swimming pool. The game involved holding the boy underwater for longer and longer periods until — whoops — he drowned. Who could have foreseen that this highly attractive royal youth would lose his life playing a fun and hilarious game? Certainly not Herod, who mourned the loudest and organized a lavish funeral.
Alexandra knew what had really happened, of course. Did Mariamne? Probably, although she might have been afraid to say so. Her mother had no such fear, and immediately wrote to Cleopatra, even though every other instance of doing so had led to disaster. The Queen of Egypt in turn pressed Mark Antony to confront Herod about Aristobulus’ death. Antony did, in the end, summon Herod to a meeting, but let him off with a slap on the wrist. Antony didn’t really care much what happened to the young Hasmoneans (beyond his desire to fuck them, presumably) as long as Judea was at peace and the taxes were paid on time. Unlike Cleopatra, he actually liked Herod. Plus, Herod was a much safer bet as a client king than the Hasmoneans, who were constantly troubling Rome with their uprisings and family drama.
While Herod was away, he left his wife in the care of Salome’s husband, Joseph, and ordered that if he was to die while in Egypt then Joseph should kill Mariamne. Herod explained that it wasn’t out of a lack of love for Mariamne — it was just that he loved her so much that he couldn’t stand the idea of her being with another man after his death. A perfectly reasonable, healthy relationship dynamic! Herod’s instructions to Joseph might have remained a secret if a rumor hadn’t begun circulating around Jerusalem that Mark Antony had decided to execute the King of Judea. Joseph, who obviously wasn’t thrilled at the idea of murdering the young queen, broke down and told Mariamne about his orders, and urged her and Alexandra to flee. Before she could do anything, messengers arrived bearing the news that Herod had emerged unscathed from his meeting with Antony and was on his way back.
When Herod returned home, he stepped right into a hornet’s nest of his own making. Mariamne was, naturally, furious. Joseph was apologetic. Salome, who was angling for a new husband, inserted herself into the drama and claimed that Mariamne and Joseph had been having an affair in the king’s absence. Herod, true to form, lost his shit. He executed Joseph, put Alexandra back under house arrest, and, for good measure, entertained the idea of executing his wife. Mariamne vehemently denied that anything had happened between her and her brother-in-law, and was so frenzied in her seductions of her newly returned husband that Herod believed her. Still, his paranoia was piqued.
Things were relatively tranquil in Judea for the next few years, at least from the outside. Herod dedicated most of his time to architectural projects, designing and building palaces, harbors, and even entire Roman-style cities. Mariamne popped out a bunch of babies, including several sons, just like she was expected to do; through his Hasmonean-blooded heirs, Herod finally had the legitimate royal dynasty he’d craved. But aside from the queen’s reproductive success, the domestic scene was shitty. Alexandra and Mariamne continued to condescend to Herod and his family; meanwhile, Salome and Cypros turned up the dial on their intriguing, trying to undermine the Hasmoneans on every front. This awkward holding pattern kept up until an event that shook the entire Roman world: Octavian declared war on Mark Antony.
Things might have turned out differently for Herod if he had followed through on his first instinct, which was to rush to Antony’s side and defend his friend. But Cleopatra, still machinating away in Alexandria, couldn’t handle the thought of Herod gaining any further traction in Antony’s affections. Instead, she had Antony order Herod to fight the Nabateans to get some back taxes they owed her, but then sent forces of her own to shore up the Nabatean side and make sure they humiliated Herod on the battlefield. Her plan initially seemed to succeed, until she needed to withdraw those troops and send them to support her lover. The upshot of all this? When Octavian defeated Mark Antony, Herod came out looking much less culpable than the other client kings who had actually fought alongside Antony. Herod nonetheless knew that it would take a lot of buttering up to convince Octavian of his loyalty. So he headed off to Rhodes to meet Rome’s newest commander-in-chief, soon to be known as Augustus Caesar.
This time, Herod made the wise decision to separate Mariamne and Alexandra from Cypros and Salome while he was away. He sent the latter two back to Masada, and the former two to Alexandrium, another desert fortress, under the care of a man named Sohemus. He once again left instructions that his wife was to be killed if he should die abroad, this time adding that his mother-in-law should perish with her. While Herod was away, Alexandra urged her father, Hyrcanus II, to take refuge with the King of Nabataea; she was terrified that, as the last male Hasmonean, he would be the next person that the king targeted. Hyrcanus agreed and wrote to the Nabatean king, but his message was intercepted and delivered to Herod. The Judean king was thrilled to have an excuse to dispatch old Hyrcanus, and speedily ordered his execution. On the plus side, Herod’s paranoia had finally paid off and he had managed to uncover a plot. But in typical fashion, he had completely ignored how his reactionary ways would impact the people around him.
HEROD: things with Octavian were resolved pretty quickly
HEROD: I was like, bro
HEROD: don’t look at who my friends were, but look at how loyal of a friend I was!
HEROD: like, let my actions speak for themselves kind of thing
HEROD: I didn’t mention the pool incident
HEROD: pools can be really dangerous, though
HEROD: water safety is so important, and it’s sad that Aristobulus didn’t know that
HEROD: the youths just love indulging in risky pool behavior, it’s a scourge to be honest
HEROD: anyway. I got back from Rhodes in a celebratory mood
HEROD: but weirdly no one felt like celebrating?
Mariamne was distraught when Herod returned. She refused to share his bed and accused him of murdering her grandfather and brother. Herod, in return, was furious that his wife just couldn’t see things his way. Salome and Cypros once again began stirring the pot and claimed that Mariamne had been unfaithful with Sohemus, her guardian. Mariamne was too angry to employ her usual tactic to manage Herod’s rages, namely luring him to bed, so his doubts about her began to grow. After months of pressure from his mother and sister, Herod ordered the torture of Mariamne’s favorite eunuch to get the dirt on his wife. The eunuch knew nothing about cheating or regicidal plots, but he admitted under duress that Mariamne had been upset to learn that Herod had again ordered her execution in the case of his death. Outraged that he had been undermined, Herod ordered Sohemus’ execution and put Mariamne on trial. Alexandra, apparently doing her best to save her own skin, testified that Mariamne had indeed planned to murder her husband.
Mariamne was found guilty by Herod’s stacked jury, and for a while he contemplated locking her up as he had Alexandra. But Salome and Cypros were whispering in his ear: an imprisoned Hasmonean princess would be an object of public sympathy, which could lead to an uprising. Wasn’t it best just to kill her and get it over with? Eventually, an agonized Herod agreed.
Mariamne walked proudly and silently to her death, her head high and her face unafraid. After her execution, Herod was frantic with grief. He couldn’t believe he just killed the woman he had loved with such burning intensity. He is said to have ordered Mariamne’s body to be embalmed in honey to preserve her beauty; then, sickened by his guilt, Herod retreated to the desert. Rumors that he was dying began spreading throughout Judea, and Alexandra took control of two of his fortified bases. As soon as word reached the king, he returned to Jerusalem and dispatched his unruly mother-in-law. The Hasmonean dynasty, which had been declining since before Mariamne’s birth, was extinguished forever.
Over the years, historians have portrayed Mariamne in a range of misogynistic and anti-Semitic stereotypes: she was too proud, thought too highly of herself, and was a frigid, nagging wife. Even more troubling, there are versions of Mariamne’s story that depict her and Herod as star-crossed lovers, two kids who might have made it if it hadn’t been for their meddling families. Herod’s distress over her death has been romanticized over the years, with people like Byron portraying him as a doomed hero. All I have to say is: If Lord Fucking Byron is writing sympathetic poems about you, you are not living your life right.
Given the few facts about Mariamne that we do have, what can we surmise about her? Surely she must have had a strong sense of self and was unafraid to speak her mind. She repeatedly went toe-to-toe with the man who had murdered half of her family, even though she must have known that her life was on the line. And, like so many other queens, she was a survivor, twisting and slipping through the many snares life had set out before her. She and Cleopatra had several things in common — they lived at the same time, in roughly the same neighborhood, under similar pressure from Roman politics. But the most important common thread in their legacy is that their stories have been twisted and compressed over the centuries to fit various men’s agendas. The corpse embalmed in honey almost becomes a perfect metaphor for Mariamne: a woman stripped of her very self, preserved forever in a form meant to please men. As with so many other queens, the best we can do for Mariamne is conjure up an idea of what she might have been like. It won’t be exactly accurate, but what history is? It’s better than losing the memory of her altogether.
With that in mind: long live Mariamne! Long live the fucking queen!
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For further reading on Mariamne:
Norman Gelb, Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant
Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life
Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans
Queens of Infamy: Njinga
Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Martinique to Merveilleuse
Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Malmaison to More-Than-Monarch
Queens of Infamy: Zenobia
Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine
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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.
Editor: Ben Huberman
Fact-Checker: Steven Cohen
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy