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Jews, Romans, Love, and the Destruction of the Temple

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

From the upcoming title in Aleksander's Antiquities: Titus and Berenice

Things were working out just as Berenice had planned and hoped. She and her beloved brother, King Agrippa, had been received in Rome with all honors. The Senate granted her the insignia of praetorship and ample rooms were placed at her disposal at the imperial house on the Palatine. And now she could meet with Titus without any hindrance, whenever she wanted. It was widely gossiped in the city that the two lived together like man and wife.

They felt all the more at ease because Titus’s father, Emperor Vespasian, did not live on the Palatine. He was happiest at the Sallustian Gardens, near the Colline Gate. Once Caesar’s private estate, this vast park lay just outside the city walls, on the slopes of the Pintius, in the valley between the Pintius and the Quirinal. Villas, gazebos, and temples stood arranged among trees and ponds, meadows, and flowerbeds. It was quiet and spacious, green and idyllic—and yet the city center was nearby.

The gardens were surrounded by a massive wall—which was a very useful thing if one ever had to defend himself. This was amply proven only six years earlier, when, in December of AD 69, Vitellius’s men held off Vespasian’s legionaries at that wall for a whole day, pelting them with stones, and spears, slings, and arrows. And they would have lasted longer if only Vespasian’s cavalry had not broken through from the side of the Colline Gate.

Now, standing on the Palatine and looking down towards the gardens, Queen Berenice had reasons to hope that a formal marriage ceremony might take place soon, and the foremost of these reasons was (it was widely reported) that Titus had promised it. So, she stood there in the role of the bride-to-be of an emperor-in-waiting. She stood proud and dignified, she thought.

Proud and arrogant, thought the Romans.

Titus and Berenice met after four years of separation. Their love, born in the extraordinary days of a cruel war turned out to be surprisingly durable, alive, and fresh. During their separation, the two had written to each other frequently. Sometimes they also sent trusted courtiers—with greetings and gifts—but also with the secret instructions to espy whether the other side still cared. But the journeys between Italy and Palestine, by land and sea, were long and fraught with danger. And they both knew well that affectionate letters can be skillful deceivers, and that emissaries often flatter and convey to their masters only what their masters would like to hear—for the simple reason that no one rewards the bearers of bad news.

That long separation had worried Berenice. Titus’s hot temperament and his inclination to erotic excesses were widely known. Malicious “friends” probably comforted the queen by noting that Titus had recently preferred boys. Heavy boozing sessions in male company stretched late into the night, invariably ending in wild orgies. This was probably not a great comfort to Berenice. Besides, Titus had other, more orthodox love affairs, too—though, thankfully, all of them fleeting thus far. But perhaps Berenice’s most depressing worry concerned the passage of time itself. She was over forty, her beloved—twelve years younger. She saw ever more clearly and painfully that she was in a desperate race against time: if she did not win him now, she would lose him forever soon.

However, as soon as they saw each other in Rome, the first glance, the first word told them everything—and her above all—that all those declarations of love, transmitted by letters and messengers, had not lied. And so it happened that their romance rekindled on the Palatine and now burned with the same intensity and beauty as it once had in the distant lands of Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine. They had moved then through lands captivating with endless contrasts and intensity of color—through lush green valleys and sunburnt fawn-colored wastelands; between intensely blue, vast sea and high mountains covered with ancient, dark forests of cedar. And everywhere death followed them. There were days when the wind carried the cloying stench of decaying corpses all the way to the queen’s bed. And how often Titus’s tent stood in a bloody battlefield or near smoking ruins, with heaps of corpses all around.

Those countries were far away and the terrible years of the evil war were behind them. Now peace reigned both in the East and in Italy. The year was, by our reckoning, AD 75: the sixth year of Emperor Vespasian’s reign, now firmly established. Titus and Berenice lived in the splendor of imperial majesty, and at their feet lay a huge, rich, teeming city, the capital of the whole known world. Living on the Palatine, the queen looked down at Rome every day, walking along the alleys of the Palatine gardens or leaning against the balustrade of the palace balconies. She looked at the great panorama of the metropolis—its temples, basilicas, theaters, circuses, monuments, obelisks, colonnades. Did she consider it her hour of triumph? She would have had every right to feel that way.

We know so much about Berenice—much, much more than this, as you soon shall see. But about her beauty we know nothing; what her charm consisted in, what her face and eyes were like, her hair, her character, her movements—our sources tell us nothing. No effigy of the queen has survived. You’d think that was only natural since she was Jewish, and the Jewish Law forbids the making of graven images of things in the heavens above, or on earth below, or in the depths of the sea, but that—was not so. For we know that in her father’s palace, there had once stood golden, full-length statues of Berenice and all her sisters.

And yet, we so want to know: what clothes did she like to wear? And how did she style her hair—she was perhaps a brunette? What colors of dresses did she like? Red or blue? Or yellow or green? Only one detail is known about her attire: she had a ring with a magnificent diamond, a gift from her brother. Most Roman women could only dream of something similar. A generation later, the poet Juvenal remembered this diamond, listing it in his sixth satire among the rich gifts that a besotted husband showers upon his capricious wife:

They bring her great crystal vases; then myrrhine,[1] gigantic; finally, a diamond famous and extremely precious, because Berenice has had it on her finger once: King Agrippa gave it to her, his shameless sister. And that was over there, where kings keep barefoot on Saturdays, and ancient forbearance allows pigs to live to a ripe old age.

So only this precious diamond remains to inspire our imagination. Or rather, the sparkle of that diamond--as a ray of sunlight strikes the ring. The queen is standing in the Palatine gardens, under a tall, dark-green cypress, in a golden-yellow dress. She put her graceful hand on the stone balustrade, and, lost in thought, is gazing at Rome lying at her feet.

But nine years earlier, she had not had that diamond ring on her hand as she ran out of her brother’s palace in Jerusalem. She ran out barefoot, weeping, and her dress was not colorful, but of simple white linen, like the poorest women of her people wore. And thus attired, she, a queen, stood in front of the elevated dais where the Roman procurator sat sprawled on his stool, surrounded by officers in shiny armor and helmets with colored plumes.

That happened in Jerusalem, in the spring of AD 66, when Gesius Florus was the procurator of Judea, and the emperor Nero was in the sixth year of his reign.

[1] Myrrhinus or Myrrinous (Μυρρινοῦς) was a deme (community, township) in the east of ancient Attica famous for its pottery. The site of Myrrhinus is located near modern Merenda.

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