It’s possible that the name Mariamne might sound more familiar to literature enthusiasts than to history buffs, as this character was immortalized by writers such as Boccaccio (De mulieribus claris), Calderón de la Barca (The Greater Monster of Jealousy), or Voltaire (Mariamne), among others. She was an Asmonean princess whose extraordinary beauty captivated Herod the Great, who made her his second wife without realizing they would enter a feverish period of mutual intrigues that tragically ended with him ordering her execution.

Herod, on the other hand, is more familiar thanks to biblical references: according to the New Testament, he was the king who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents (the killing of all male infants in Bethlehem under the age of two) after his encounter with the Magi, an episode that historians consider highly improbable, not because he wasn’t capable of such an atrocity – he was – but because its scale, even for that time, would have been used by his enemies as propaganda to discredit him, yet they did not. Only the Gospel of Matthew and the Apocrypha mention it, while a hostile adversary like Flavius Josephus, who documented other atrocities of the monarch, says nothing about it.

Herod was originally from Idumea, as was his father (his mother was Nabatean), making them a family converted to Judaism. This lack of pure blood and his proverbial brutality made him a despised king, despite his futile efforts to win over the people and display some positive traits (he erected numerous monuments in classical style – he was deeply Hellenized -, imposed Judaism in Idumea by decree, personally relieved the effects of a severe famine, and ordered the reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon with great splendor), because he discredited himself with the despotic rule he applied to suppress protests.

Born in 74 B.C., he always maintained friendship with Rome, obtaining in return the position of governor of Galilee. Later, Mark Antony appointed him tetrarch alongside his brother Phasael in 41 B.C., and the Senate handed him the throne of Judea the following year, displacing Antigonus Mattathias. Since he was not of royal blood, it was convenient for him to establish a connection with someone from the Hasmonean dynasty, as his wife Doris – who gave birth to his firstborn, Antipater – did not serve him in that sense. He found the perfect option in the young granddaughter of Hyrcanus II, a monarch and high priest whom his father had served and who was overthrown by Antigonus Mattathias before the aforementioned Mark Antony intervened. She was called Mariamne, although it was a temporary solution because she was barely thirteen years old.

Mariamne was born in 54 B.C., the daughter of Alexander of Judea and Alexandra Maccabea (daughter of Hyrcanus II), and, importantly for the issue of legitimacy, the niece of Antigonus Mattathias (who was her father’s brother). Her family had clashed with Rome and then sided with Pompey in the Civil War, for which they were retaliated against. Alexander suffered the death penalty, but the widow knew how to play her cards and negotiated a ketubah (marriage contract) between Mariamne and Herod. As we said before, he had to wait four years for the wedding to take place, which was in Samaria in 37 B.C.

The coldness of such a marriage gave way quickly to the incomparable beauty that, according to witnesses of the time, the bride had acquired. The king was smitten, and together they had five children, three boys (the aforementioned Alexander and Aristobulus plus a third who died young in the Pontine Marshes near Rome, where he was sent in 20 B.C., along with his brothers for education) and two girls (Salampsio and Cypros). Herod was so enthralled with Mariamne that he yielded to her insistent plea to appoint his only brother, Aristobulus, as high priest, without realizing that this would open Pandora’s box.

For this, they first had to depose the incumbent, Hananel, on the pretext that he was not a Jew by birth but a foreigner (Egyptian according to the Mishnah; Babylonian according to Flavius Josephus), even though he had been personally appointed by Herod himself. But to make matters worse, Aristobulus was underage – seventeen years old – and that caused a scandal. One more scandal wouldn’t have mattered much. However, a year later, Aristobulus drowned, and the king reinstated Hananel in his position. Rumors began to circulate that the monarch distrusted Aristobulus’ popularity among the Jews and that is why he ordered his death.

It is not known whether he planned it or not, but his mother believed so and wrote a letter to Cleopatra asking for help in avenging him. The Egyptian queen passed the request on to her lover, Mark Antony, and he demanded Herod’s presence to give him the opportunity to defend himself since he had, after all, handed over Judea to him. The monarch obeyed and set out in 34 B.C. Before he left, he left his wife in the care of his brother-in-law Joseph, to whom he gave a chilling order that revealed his tortuous mind: if the Romans executed him, Joseph was to kill Mariamne because he couldn’t bear the idea of her rebuilding her life with another man.

The problem was that Joseph was also enchanted by the queen’s beauty and ended up confessing the task he had received to her. If his intention was to give her the opportunity to prove her loyalty, Mariamne reacted in the opposite direction: she flew into a rage and broke any emotional bond she had with her still-husband. Furthermore, as her husband’s fate at Roman hands seemed bleak to everyone, rumors soon circulated that he had been executed, and Mariamne convinced Joseph to help her seek protection among the Romans.

The situation became more complicated because in reality, Mark Antony considered Herod innocent and allowed him to return to Judea. And upon his arrival, his sister Salome informed him that Mariamne had taken Joseph as a lover, planning to leave together. Herod didn’t believe that story and decided to confront his wife directly. Initially, her denial convinced him, but when he learned that Joseph had revealed his order to kill her, he understood that only someone very close could say such a thing, which would mean that the infidelity was true. Even so, he forgave her, although Joseph was handed over to the executioner, and Alexandra Maccabea, his mother-in-law, was imprisoned.

However, the marriage had shattered, and it was going to shatter even more due to the events that followed, which caused a repetition of this entire episode. In 30 B.C., at the Battle of Actium, Mark Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian, who then began to settle scores with the allies of his defeated enemy and demanded that Herod appear before him in Rhodes. Incredibly, the monarch went to meet the future Augustus, leaving Salome temporarily in charge… with the task of killing Mariamne and her mother if anything happened to him. Again.

A trusted man named Soemos was entrusted with guarding his wife and mother-in-law in Sartaba (Alexandrium), a fortress built by the Hasmoneans on a steep and arid hill west of the Jordan Valley, on the border with Samaria, where the forces of Aristobulus II had barricaded themselves against Pompey and which had just been restored by Herod, who mainly used it as a political prison (in 7 B.C., he would also bury his ill-fated sons Alexander and Aristobulus there, but finally, the place would be razed by Titus in the second half of the 1st century A.D., during the First Jewish-Roman War).

After gaining Soemos’ trust, Mariamne learned of the orders her husband had given and lost what little trust she had left in him. Meanwhile, Herod obtained Octavian’s approval and the guarantee of autonomous rule in exchange for promising loyalty and facilitating his way to Syria and Egypt (he even renamed a temple in his honor, the Augusteum). He could then return to Judea, where his wife no longer hid her hatred for him. Salome and her mother Cypros, who in turn detested her, once again stirred up trouble against her, although, as on the previous occasion, the monarch resisted getting involved in that game.

His attitude only changed when Mariamne refused to resume marital life and openly reproached him for murdering her maternal grandfather, Hyrcanus II (in the time of Mark Antony, he had been his advisor, but in 30 B.C., when the Roman died, Herod considered him a threat and had him executed alongside the Nabatean king Malichus II, accusing them of conspiracy). The marriage broke down definitively because Herod believed that his wife’s refusal to be intimate was because she was being unfaithful to him with Soemos, and Salome exacerbated the situation by accusing her of having seduced her husband with a love potion and now planning to poison him.

Soemos was handed over to the executioner while Mariamne was arrested and prosecuted, but the judges found no evidence of any plot, even by torturing her favorite eunuch. Although everything seemed to lean towards an acquittal, Salome and Cypros intervened, reminding the king of the threat posed by letting her go because she could lead a rebellion of the supporters of the Hasmoneans to reclaim the throne. Too much for someone who loved power as much as Herod did, who finally ordered the execution of his wife in 29 B.C.

It should be noted that Alexandra Maccabea, Mariamne’s mother, confirmed her daughter’s involvement in a plot to assassinate. This unprecedented testimony has been interpreted as an attempt to save her own head, assuming that otherwise, she would fall with her daughter. In any case, when Herod fell ill with bitter remorse, she tried to seize power by declaring him unfit for the throne and proclaiming herself queen of Judea; the move backfired because in her opponent, love of power weighed more than conscience, and he ordered her killed without trial.

Herod had been widowed by a woman he had loved so much that he named one of the defensive towers of his palace in Jerusalem after her, something he reserved only for those closest to him (the other two towers were named Fasael – after his brother – and Hippicus – after his best friend). If we believe the Talmud, it was obsessive and unhealthy, as it says that he preserved her body in honey for seven years to, as interpreted, satisfy his sexual desire with her posthumously. It adds that he tried to forget her through hunting and banquets, but could not avoid her memory during a visit to Samaria, where they had married, falling ill because of it.

Meanwhile, he continued to stain the family environment with blood. His brother-in-law Costobar, Salome’s husband, was the next to lose his life, accused of participating in a plot against him. And, as mentioned before, not even his own children were spared: two of the four he had with Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, ended up on the gallows alongside the eldest, Antipater (the one he had with Doris, his first wife), when he considered that they too were conspiring to replace him. Faced with such lack of scruples, the Roman grammarian Macrobius left written in his work Saturnalia a damning sentence: It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son. Or his wife, one might add.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 29, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Mariamna, la esposa del rey Herodes a la que conservó en miel durante siete años tras ordenar su muerte


Flavio Josefo, La guerra de los judíos | Flavio Josefo, Antigüedades de los judíos | Ambrosio Macrobio Teodosio, Saturnales | Joaquín González Echegaray, Los Herodes. Una dinastía real de los tiempos de Jesús | Jerry Knoblet, Herod the Great | Norman Gelb, Herod the Great. Statesman. Visionary. Tyrant | Wikipedia

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