Agrippa’s Daughters–the last Queens of Jewish Palestine

Queen Bernice…had a tricky time with her marriage alliances. Nothing she did…and she calmly complies with lots of nonsense in order to be safely “married off”…satisfied her detractors. 

One other thing that Agrippa did to anger everyone hoping for a “purer” kingdom to come, was to “high-handedly” perpetuate the “wantonness” of his own virgin daughters. Josephus, bless him, tells us why they were so angered…

And thus did Agrippa depart this life. But he left behind him a son, Agrippa by name, a youth in the seventeenth year of his age, and three daughters, one of whom, Bernice, (he) married to Herod, his father’s brother, and was sixteen years old; the other two, Mariamne and Drusilla, were still virgins; the former was ten years old and Drusilla six. Now these his daughters were thus espoused by their father; Mariamne to Julius Archelaus Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus, the son of Chelcias; and Drusilla to the king of Commagena . Antiquities of the Jews XIX.IX.1

That was it…the girls were betrothed to men who were not even living in Palestine, let alone Jews, let alone ones acceptable to the Zadokites/Dead Sea Scroll Essenes…but they did hit on a genuine problem for the princesses and for Agrippa; there were very few princes of the royal blood…from the Tower of Mariamne I…or of Herod’s line or mixed blood left in Palestine suitable for marriage with them.

Bernice daughter of the King

Agrippa, where he could, did find at least Jewish men to marry them to…at first. His oldest daughter Bernice (also often spelled “Berenice) will be well-known, nefarious even, to this very day, for her “wanton” alliances. (More later.) First, her father married her to a Jewish noble, one Marcus son of Alexander abelarch of Commagena probably just past puberty. But Marcus soon died and Agrippa next gave Bernice, now sixteen years old, to his brother Herod (both sons of Aristobulus son of Mariamne I) “and begged for him of Claudius the kingdom of Chalcis.” (Antiquities of the Jews XIX.V.1.)  This Herod had formerly been married to a Mariamne. Mariamne IV is only mentioned once by Josephus as the daughter of King Herod and Olympias, a later non-royal wife. (Antiquities XVIII.VI.4) It wasn’t until he was put in a marriage alliance with Bernice daughter of King Agrippa that the king could “beg for him the kingdom of Chalcis.” Remember that Chalcis was where Alexandra III, daughter of King Aristobulus, was sent by Rome to marry King Ptolemy back when Herod the Great took control of Palestine. This Herod got a kingdom by his marriage to Bernice daughter of King Agrippa and she was a Queen but the alliance also made her a sinner to her right-wing because she was now married to her uncle. The alliances Agrippa made for his two younger daughters did not seem to please anyone either.

Abuse of the Virgin Daughters of the King

But when it was known that Agrippa had departed this life, the inhabitants of Caesarea and of Sebaste…acted the part of the bitterest enemies; for they cast such reproaches upon the deceased as are not fit to be spoken of: and so many of them as were then soldiers, which were a great number, went into his house, and hastily carried off the statues of this king’s daughters, and…carried them into the brothel-houses, and…set them on the tops of those houses (and) they abused them to the utmost of their power, and did such things to them as are too indecent to be related.  Antiquities of the Jews XIX.IX.1

One is tempted to compare this abuse with the “abuse of the virgins,” Mariamne III and Herodias, instigated by Pheroras’ wife who was backed by that “certain sect of Pharisees who greatly opposed kings.” Some scholars feel that it was the girls themselves put on the roof of a brothel as images were forbidden by Mosaic Law. Either way, it was a head-on collision between conservative ideals for women vs. the role that royal women were expected to actually play in the real political world.

Rome Responds

When the news of the abuse of the virgins was heard in Rome where their brother the young Agrippa II was being schooled, Claudius was prepared to send the seventeen-year-old back immediately as king with enough legions to punish the innovators. He was talked out of it by his friends, saying that the boy was just too young to have the whole kingdom dropped on him like that; remember what became of Archelaus at seventeen. Claudius was making preparations to send in Roman legions anyway, when the perpetrators sent an “embassage” to him and “mollified” him and got leave to stay in Judea. Josephus knew, though, writing later from hindsight that…

(T)hese were the very men that became the source of very great calamities to the Jews in after-times, and sowed the seeds of that war which began under (Roman Procurator) Florus … Antiquities of the Jews XIX.IX.2

Jew vs. Gentile

Tensions escalate. There was a revolt in the Temple when a Roman soldier mooned the Passover pilgrims and 20,000 were killed…which Acts never mentioned. Death tolls on both sides mount. Claudius sent in a procurator to govern until Agrippa Jr. was old enough to inherit causing more rebellion. But young or not, when Herod King of Chalcis (grandson of Mariamne I…above) died in 48 A.D., his and Bernice’s kingdom was given to Agrippa II in ca 49-50 A.D. and Bernice returned to the family palace, now her brother’s house to live again as a widow.

In Acts and the letters of Paul, though, the major problem the disciples now faced was the issue of circumcision for Gentile converts. Coincidentally, at just this time, Bernice, Mariamne VII, and Drusilla were experiencing the very same problem.

Gone to the Gentiles

If Jewish royal daughters were given in marriage alliances to Gentiles, the question becomes: Do those noble or kingly Gentiles need to convert to the Jewish religion and be circumcised or not? At first the answer was yes. The fate of the young virgins Mariamne VII and Drusilla seemed to embody the process. When Agrippa II came into his kingdom…

…he gave his sister Drusilla in marriage to Azizus, king of Emesa, upon his consent to be circumcised; for Epiphanes, the son of king Antiochus, had refused to marry her, because after he had promised her father formerly to come over to the Jewish religion, he would not now perform that promise. He also gave Mariamne in marriage to Archelaus the son of Helcias, to whom she had formerly been betrothed by Agrippa her father….

But for the marriage of Drusilla with Azizus, it was in no long time afterward dissolved, upon the following occasion—While Felix was procurator of Judea,[1] he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her; for she did indeed exceed all other women in beauty; and he sent to her a person whose name was Simon…and one who pretended to be a magician and endeavoured to persuade her to forsake her present husband, and marry him; and promised, that if she would not refuse him, he would make her a happy woman. Accordingly, she acted ill, and…was prevailed upon to transgress the laws of her forefathers, and to marry Felix. Antiquities of the Jews XX.VII.3. (See Acts 8:9-24)

Drusilla had to have been “bewitched” to marry a Roman procurator and a Gentile who was certainly not about to be circumcised. Her marriage to the Roman governor must have seemed the ultimate betrayal of the hopes of a people under an increasingly severe Roman occupation.

Bad Bernice

Each time she lost a husband, Bernice would return to her father’s house, but returning to her brother’s house was also deemed “evil.”

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, she persuaded Polemo, who was king of Cilicia, to be circumcised, and to marry her,(so) she should prove those calumnies upon her to be false; and Polemo was prevailed upon…on account of her riches. Yet did not this matrimony endure long; but Bernice left Polemo, and as was said, with impure intention…and, at the same time, Mariamne put away Archelaus, and was married to Demetrius, the principal man among the Alexandrian Jews, both for his family and his wealth; and indeed he was then their abalarch… Antiquities of the Jews XX.VIII.3

Note that it was “she” who had “criminal conversation” with her brother. Agrippa never married which was highly unusual for a king not to leave an heir or even to make marriage alliances. Josephus and Agrippa II were good friends, which may be why we don’t hear any direct rumors about him. But clearly, in “certain” circles, the women of the royal house were sending them all to hell in a hand basket.


[1] Felix was Procurator of Judea from 52-60 A.D. Drusilla was born in 38  A.D.

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