Roman Empire was lucky to have unusual female characters. And although not all of them became empresses, they were often remembered by History. This was the case with caesar Titus, son of Vespasian, a descendant of the Flavian family. Officially, his wives were Arrecina Tertulla and Marcia Furnilla. One of them was the mother of his only daughter, Julia.
But it was not because of his wives that Titus became famous. This great feeling for the Jewish princess Berenice made the emperor consider abdication. So who was the woman who, like Cleopatra, destroyed the Roman peace and became the heroine of one of the greatest scandals of antiquity?
Berenice was the great-granddaughter of Herod the Great. Her father, Herod Agrippa I, ruled part of his grandfather’s kingdom. As a very young girl, Berenice married Marcus Julius Alexander, a descendant of a rich and influential Jewish family from Alexandria. However, the groom died shortly after the wedding. Soon after this event, the father gave the widow a second marriage, this time to his own brother, Herod Polio, the ruler of the kingdom of Chalcis. Berenice was then about 16 years old, her uncle was well over fifty. Also, this marriage did not last too long – Polio died at 48.
A young widow in her twenties, she moved in with her brother, Herod Agrippa II. Soon there were rumours about their incestuous relationship. As evidence, the Jewish historian Josephus in “Antiquities of the Jews” reports:
[…] but as for Bernice, she lived a widow a long while after the death of Herod [King of Chalcis]: who was both her husband, and her uncle: but when the report went that she had criminal conversation with her brother [Agrippa junior], she persuaded Polemo, who was King of Cilicia, to be circumcised, and to marry her: as supposing that by this means she should prove those calumnies upon her to be false. And Polemo was prevailed upon; and that chiefly on account of her riches. Yet did not this matrimony endure long. But Bernice left Polemo.
– Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XX.7.3
Soon after, the Jewish uprising broke out. After a long time, the siblings left the city, and the insurgents burned their palace. When Vespasian’s army advanced into Galilee in 67 CE, Agrippa and Bernice surrendered to the Romans and have since faithfully stood by their side.
It was also then that Berenice’s relationship with Titus, the elder son of Vespasian, began. The lovers probably met in Caesarea Philippi, where Vespasian and his son were resting.
The romance could be shocking for many reasons. For the Romans, Bernice was another ruler from the legendary, corrupted east, who, just as Cleopatra seduced Caesar and Mark Antony in the past, so now her successor has ensnared Titus. Besides, Berenice was Jewish. She belonged to a people whose religion and customs Rome did not understand, and with whom she had to fight hard. True, Berenice and her brother were allies, but they were viewed unfavourably. She also had doubts about the relationship between her siblings, which scandalized Rome. Besides, the queen was already 39 years old. She was a beautiful woman, but at those time, she was much older than her chosen one. Titus was 11 years younger. From the point of view of the Jews, the affair with the Roman commander of the army that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem was also controversial.
When Titus returned east, Vespasian became emperor. Berenice was then his ardent supporter. Tacitus wrote: “Queen Berenice showed equal spirit in helping Vespasian’s party: she had great youthful beauty, and commended herself to Vespasian for all his years by the splendid gifts she made him”1. The wealthy queen could support the rebellion with the money the new emperor needed. For some time, the relationship was hidden. However, Berenice appeared in the capital of the world and both she and Titus renewed their relationship. Vespasian ordered the woman to leave Rome at some point.
When, after the death of his father, Titus took the throne, he considered the return of Berenice. However, anti-Jewish sentiment in Roman society prevailed. Berenice was not invited to Rome and later history is silent about her. Titus reigned briefly, some believe he was poisoned by his younger brother.
The story of the great passion of Titus and Berenice shows the old, eternal truth that where great politics takes place, there is not always room for feelings. To this day, however, the story of these two arouses great interest among historians, artists and researchers.