Salome the Damsel Queen

Said to be a coin of Salome daughter of Herodias

While Josephus and Luke, politically, lay the death of John the Baptist at the feet of Herod Antipas, Mark clearly blames Herodias and her daughter Salome for John’s beheading.

And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee…And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me…the head of John the Baptist.

And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought; and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. Mark 6:21-28

“Damsel” is a term often found linked with “virgin” as in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 which says: If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed…Also, Mark helpfully clarifies exactly what the term means…

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, “Talitha cumi;” which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And straightaway the damsel arose and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. (Mark 5:39-42)

We are being told that Herodias’ daughter was a young virgin—perhaps betrothed–as discussed earlier and we will see again–virgins were most often kept indoors to preserve their virginity.  But we the reader have added to Salome’s character a voluptuous Lolita-like pre-teen pursuing her own perverted ways at the expense of God’s elect: a typical teenage girl in some circles. But Herodias’ daughter could not have been a mere “damsel.”

Herodias…had a daughter Salome…married to Philip, the son of Herod, the tetrarch of Trachonitis… Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.V.4.

Let’s look at that:

Herodias was named before her sister Mariamne III in the listings of Aristobulus’ “orphans,” meaning she was probably the older sister. She was betrothed to Herod son of Mariamne II in about 6-5 B.C. (“before the age of puberty”) Mariamne III, as the mother of Jesus (my theory), is thought to have given birth around 4 B.C. right at her onset of puberty. Say that Herodias gave birth to Salome in, what, 5 B.C. to 5 A.D.—giving her a wide range—making Salome 24-34 years old in 29-30 A.D., practically middle-aged back in the day when 12-16 was the prime bargaining age for girls.

The dating of John the Baptist’ death has never been nailed down completely, either, but in the book Herod Antipas by Harold W. Hoehner, he estimates that Antipas and Herodias married in 29 or 30 A.D. Salome may well have been betrothed when a “damsel” to her uncle Philip son of Herod and Cleopatra of Jerusalem, but they were, at the time of the gospel story, “king and queen” of Trachonitis. Philip’s tetrarchy was given to him by Augustus when Antipas received his tetrarchy after the death of their father Herod in 4 B.C. Though Salome had no children with her husband and Uncle Philip, and she was of the younger generation…the generation of her cousins Jesus and John.  She was no “damsel,” when she petitioned her stepfather Herod Antipas the Tetrarch…and she was a Queen in her own right. [i]

Royal Women and Beheading

There is an interesting side-note on the whole “beheading” story, though, involving royal/noble Roman women.

In the book Agrippina, Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire [ii] by Anthony A. Barrett, there are several stories of beheadings ordered by women.  In about 45 B.C., Fulvia the wife of Mark Antony…before he met Cleopatra…was an uppity woman who drew criticism like a magnet…sort of a Hillary Clinton of her day.

Of all the notable late republican women none more closely parallels Agrippina (mother of Emperor Claudius shortly after the death of John the Baptist) than Fulvia. Like her, she clearly possessed qualities of determination, courage and political skill, and also like Agrippina she is savaged by an almost uniformly hostile tradition, one so hostile that the truth at times seem hopelessly buried in exaggeration and misinterpretation. In her person she represented all the characteristic that the Romans feared as the outcome of female emancipation and the perversion of the idealized notion of a Roman matron…In the last four years of her life (she died in 40 BC) she was active in support of her third husband Antony and thus fell afoul of Cicero and, more significantly, Octavian (Augustus Caesar) so she has inevitably faced considerable hostility in the historical tradition…

In 44 Cicero associates her with an act of brutal savagery—she was present, and her face was spattered with blood when Antony executed a number of centurions…Tradition gives her the last laugh in her quarrel with Cicero. When the orator was put to death and his head delivered to Antony, she allegedly spat on it, pulled out the tongue and stuck hairpins in it, amidst much ribaldry…

Also, a certain young woman named Lollia was convicted by Claudius of behavior “harmful to the state” whatever that meant and should be deprived of her wealth and ordered out of the country.

At some later point a praetorian tribune was dispatched to track her down and put her to death. Dio adds the grisly detail that Agrippina, to make sure that she was dead, arranged for her head to be cut off and transported to Rome….

There is at least one more story attributed to Roman matrons, but you get the idea. Herodias and Salome fit right in the middle between Fulvia and Agrippina. Livia wife of Augustus who was honored with the goddess title “Augusta” before she died in about 50 AD was well-known to be a poisoner of her enemies. And she and Salome sister of Herod were BFF’s. (Antiquities XVII.I.1) As we will see, Jewish royal women were often in Rome and knew the ruling women there. While, no doubt, political women could be just as ruthless as the men, they also were more apt to be libeled by historians…as Herodias and Salome may well have been libeled by Mark. That is not to say that the women were not opposed to what John was up to, as was Antipas…just that only Mark parroted by Matthew deliberately labeled the royal women as willful deliberate beheaders.


[i] Philip son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem husband of Salome must have been about 15-17 like Archelaus and Antipas were when they were made Ethnarch and Tetrarch in 4 B.C. after Herod died. He would then have been in his thirties and Salome in her twenties at the supposed dating of this event. He was a king and she a queen.

[ii] Yale University Press, New Haven and Connecticut 1996

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