Born in 28 CE to Herod Agrippa—the penultimate king of Judea and the grandson of Herod the Great of New Testament fame—Berenice of Cilicia was descended from the Hasmoneans on her maternal line. Her multiple marriages, and her love affair with the Roman emperor-to-be Titus, were recorded by various Latin sources and inspired a number of 17th- and 18th-century European novels, plays, and operas, cementing her reputation as something of a jezebel. Drawing on a recent work by the Israeli scholar Tal Ilan, Amit Naor offers a different perspective on this Jewish queen:
After four years of marriage [to her second husband], the twenty-year-old Berenice once again found herself a widow. [A few years later], she married Polomon, king of Cilicia, a small kingdom in the south of Asia Minor. In order to facilitate the marriage, she convinced him to undergo circumcision and accept the commandments of Judaism. However, this marriage did not last long either. For one reason or another, Berenice left husband number three [and returned to Judea]. And so it happened that Berenice arrived in time for what was perhaps the most important event in Jewish history of the 1st century CE—the Great Revolt against the Romans.
Up until the outbreak of the Great Revolt (66–73 CE), Berenice apparently tried to use all her powers to prevent rebellion and save Jerusalem. She happened to be in the city during one of the most famous incidents leading up to the rebellion. The procurator of Judea at the time, Florus, coveted a portion of the Temple’s treasures for himself. When the Jews protested against this, he sent his soldiers to quell the unrest by carrying out a pogrom in Jerusalem. Berenice was alone in the city at the time, recovering from an illness for which she had taken a vow of ascetism. At the end of this period of abstinence, she shaved her head and probably came to Jerusalem in order to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice following her recovery.
While Florus’ soldiers were raiding the city, Berenice sent her officers to the procurator to try to stop the massacre and looting. After her plea was ignored, she risked her own life and went herself, shaven-headed and barefoot, to Florus’ palace to beg him to spare the lives of the city’s residents. She eventually made her way back to her palace where she anxiously spent the night, surrounded by her guards. The next day, the Jerusalemites drove Florus and his soldiers out of the city, . . . and the Great Revolt erupted.