Pheroras’ wife fascinated me: A handmaiden/maid servant who married a Tetrarch and who had a prophecy that the kingdom would come to her and her children when Herod died. I had to try to find her. I made a list of the things Josephus had so far told us about her…
- She was a part of the court of Herod’s brother Pheroras and his trophy Hasmonean wife, the sister of Mariamne the Queen, who were living in his Tetrarchy “beyond Jordan.”
- She married Pheroras when his Hasmonean wife died. He refused to marry a daughter of Mariamne the Queen in order to marry the handmaiden…his political maneuvering increases, not decreases and he is willing to cross Herod the King for her.
- Pheroras’ wife brought her mother and sister with her to Herod’s court where they sort of took over the place.
- She made an attack on the “virgin orphan” granddaughters of Mariamne the Queen.
- Herod hated her and brought her to trial over the “abuse of the virgins,” but let her go.
- Pheroras, Pheroras’ wife, and Antipater son of Herod are all actively plotting to kill Herod.
- She has a prophecy from “certain Pharisees” that the kingdom will come to her and her children.
Studying the family tree I made for Hasmonean women mentioned in Josephus, I actually found a daughter and a mother and a sister that totally fits the times and the circumstances and the prophecy. See what you think.
My Theory on who She was
About the only one Herod feared was someone with Hasmonean blood who could take his kingdom away. The key here is that all the Hasmonean princesses had been married off to Herod’s male relatives when they lost the war in about 35-37 B.C. It would have been Pheroras’ wife’s mother who was their contemporary and equal at the time and who was first “reduced to a low degree”—handmaid. She must have done something, though, that earned Herod’s hatred and fear of her.
I went back to the long war that Rome and Herod fought against the Hasmoneans for the kingdom. The Jews were led by the Hasmonean Warrior King and High Priest Aristobulus son of Regent Salome Alexandra. When Aristobulus was captured and executed, his son Alexander took up the fight. He was beheaded. Alexandra the sister of Alexander was packed off to Chalcis to marry the king there, as was her due as a daughter of a king. She took with her Antigonus her younger brother. Antigonus came back with an army to fight Herod and was eventually defeated also. This is when we hear for the first time about an unnamed sister of Antigonus who had returned to Palestine with him:
Now when the war about Actium was begun, Herod prepared to come to the assistance of Antony, as being already freed from his troubles in Judea, and having gained Hyrcania, which was a place that was held by Antigonus’ sister. Wars of the Jews I.XiX.1
In Antiquities, a later revision of Wars of the Jews, Josephus rewrote the above passage this way:
At this time it was that the fight happened at Actium, between Octavius Caesar and Antony, in the seventh year of the reign of Herod, and then it was also that there was an earthquake in Judea…and which earthquake brought a great destruction…About ten thousand men also perished by the fall of houses; but the army which lodged in the field, received no damage by this sad accident. Antiquities of the Jews XV.V.2
Combining the two passages, first we can note the addition of the “seventh year” which both meant that the unnamed sister of Antigonus held the fortress Hyrcania for seven years…and was only defeated by an act of God that allowed Herod’s victory and fed his growing feeling that God was on his side. There is more. Remember that the wife and queen of the defeated King Aristobulus was the daughter of “Absalom Commander of the Army.” She negotiated with Rome by turning over some of the fortresses she and the Absalom faction of the Army still must have held to get her children released from being held hostage in Rome. I would bet that at least some of the “armies in the field” were protecting the daughter of their defeated King in the hopes of his “return.” (He did escape and return a couple of times before being put to death.) But I bet that is why Herod didn’t just go in with a Roman legion and take the fortress…that was “his” Jewish army in the field he had yet to win over and who might still rise up against him again.
Next Josephus gives a convoluted clue as to what happened to the sister of Antigonus. When Antigonus was captured by the Romans in Jerusalem…
…Antigonus, without regard to either his past or present circumstances, came down from the citadel, and fell down at the feet of Sosius, who took no pity on him…but insulted him beyond measure, and called him Antigone, [i.e., a woman, and not a man;] yet did he not treat him as if he were a woman, by letting him go at liberty, but put him into bonds, and kept him in close custody. Antiquities of the Jews XIV.XVI.2
I take that to mean–without taking too big a leap–that his sister still held her fortress while Antigonus lost his; i.e., he was “worse than a woman.” But would that same Herod have just “let her go at liberty?” He let her live because he had to. She had her grandfather’s army watching over her…and she was a daughter of a King and High Priest. Rome would not let him kill her but he couldn’t let her go free. She may also have been a widow of a high-ranking Hasmonean/Army type…just a guess. No father is named for Pheroras’ wife but she acts as though she had royal blood..
A Captive Princess
So what to do with her? We know where she was later…she was a handmaid along with her two daughters in the court of Pheroras “beyond Jordan.” Herod sent her and her two daughters out of Jerusalem and out of sight but not let her “go at liberty.” As Josephus said reflecting on the role of handmaids in his own day as he often did when writing his histories:
Now each of these had handmaids, by their father’s donation. Zilpha was handmaid to Lea, and Bilha to Rachel; by no means slaves, but however subject to their mistresses. Antiquities of the Jews I.19.8
Traditionally, even down through the Middle Ages, handmaidens to a queen were women of nobility, younger sisters, maiden aunts, and those who had lost a war. Sending them to Mariamne’s sister would have put them under the thumb of one who had been on the opposite side in the Hasmonean civil war. The captive and her daughters would have “fallen to a low degree” and been subject to her mistress.
Of course, the whole Hasmonean House, both sides, had fallen to a “low degree.” If my scenario or something like it were true, it would have been awesome for the daughter of this one Hasmonean princess to rise up to marry a Tetrarch…even if love potions were involved. (And they were.) The multitude would have loved it. Songs would have been sung. And, she got the handmaiden’s revenge…she married her master and was restored to her proper place.