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The Jewish Queen

September 1, 2011

In all of history, only three women have governed an independent Jewish state: Athaliah, who ruled Judah from 842 to 837 BC, Salome Alexandra, who ruled from 76 to 67 BC, and Golda Meir, who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

In 163 BC Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes due to Antiochus’ repressive policies against the Jewish people. Judas Maccabeus’s successors were constantly at war to retain their independence, and succeeded not only in preventing a new Seleucid invasion but expanded the borders of the kingdom to contain many of the areas controlled by ancient Israel. The first Maccabees served as high priests rather than royalty. It was not until the reign of Simon Maccabeus in 140 that the royal Hasmonean dynasty was established. Simon and his successor John Hyrcanus held the office of prince and High Priest simultaneously.

Despite the anti-Greek character of the Maccabean revolt, by the end of the 2nd century BC Greek cultural influences had begun to affect the ruling Hasmoneans. This led to conflict between the Hellenized Jews of the ruling class and the Pharisees, a religious sect which advocated strict adherence to the Torah and Mosaic Law. The Pharisees viewed the Hellenized Jews as traitors who flouted the Mosaic Law, translated the Old Testament out of its original language and brought in dangerous foreign influences, while the Hellenized Jews tended to view the Pharisees as dangerous religious fanatics. The rift began to deepen under the rule of John Hyrcanus’ son Judah Aristobulus, whom Josephus called “a lover of the Greeks.” Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean to call himself a king and wear a crown, despite the fact that he was not a descendant of King David. He then ruled as just another near Eastern autocrat. His mother had been designated John Hyrcanus’ successor, so she was imprisoned and starved to death. Aristobulus also viewed three of his younger brothers as threats to his rule and had them imprisoned in irons.[1]

It is here that Salome Alexandra first enters into the picture. She was born in 139 BC, and was married to Judah Aristobulus at an unknown date. Despite her clearly Greek second  name and marriage to a Hellenized Jewish king, she was the sister of the influential Pharisee Rabbi Simeon Bin Shetach.[2] She was 36 when Aristobulus became king.

Aristobulus had imprisoned three of his four brothers as threats to his rule, but he favored Antigonus and saw him as a ruling partner. However, Antigonus became famous as a successful general after the conquest of Ituria in 104 BC. Salome Alexandra and many others in the court began to suspect that he was plotting to overthrow Aristobulus and seize the throne. Aristobulus was ill at the time, but sought to interview Antigonus in person about these rumors and invited him to a private talk. As a safeguard, Aristobulus hid soldiers along the route and ordered them to kill Antigonus immediately if he came to the room armed.

After hearing of this, Alexandra changed the message written to Antigonus before it was delivered. It had specified that Antigonus was to appear before Aristobulus unarmed, but she changed it to read that Antigonus was to come armed and wearing full armor in order that Aristobulus could see how fine his military equipment was. As a result, when the guards saw Antigonus passing Strato’s tower he was ambushed and stabbed to death.[3]

Aristobulus did not recover from his unknown illness, which caused him to vomit blood and suffer from extreme pain in his bowels. He died in 103 BC, reportedly ridden with guilt at the death of Antigonus. As soon as he died, Alexandra ordered his brothers to be released from prison. She then married the eldest remaining son, Alexander Jannaeus, as was customary under Jewish law for a man to marry his deceased brother’s widow. Alexandra was 37 at the time of the marriage, while Alexander was only 22. Although Alexander had been the least favored of John Hyrcanus’ five sons, his marriage to Alexandra elevated him to the kingship and the High Priesthood.[4]

Coin of Alexander Jannaeus. Unlike other eastern monarchs, the Hasmoneans did not portray themselves on their coinage in order to avoid violating the Jewish prohibition against making graven images.

Despite his upbringing, Alexander proved to be a surprisingly strong ruler. He pursued a militarily aggressive foreign policy, expanding the Hasmonean kingdom’s borders to their greatest extent. He took advantage of a civil war in the Seleucid Empire to attack the city of Ptolemais (modern day Acco). He then played off Cleopatra III and Ptolemy Lathyrus of Egypt to his advantage, conquering Gaza and Raphia (modern day Rafah in the Gaza Strip). Alexander then turned his attention towards the Transjordan. First, he seized a portion of Syria in what is now the Golan Heights, then he invaded Nabatea and also conquered the Moabites.[5]

While Alexander was away conquering new territories, the Pharisees were growing restless. Not only was Alexander the High Priest calling himself an earthly king, he was also using a clearly Greek name. Popular discontent boiled over at a festival in which Alexander was pelted with citron fruit while performing a sacrifice in the temple. Enraged, Alexander turned his troops loose on the rioters and killed 6,000 of them. Alexander then left for an expedition against Nabatea in the Negev desert. Here he was wounded in an ambush, and returned to Jerusalem to recuperate.[6]

But Alexander had already gone too far. Crowds in Jerusalem gathered and chanted for him to commit suicide. Despite their anti-Hellenism, the Pharisees turned to the Seleucid king Demetrius III for aid. All to happy to intervene at the expense of the Jewish kingdom, Demetrius III invaded Judea with an army of 43,000 men and met Alexander at Shechem. Here the two sides fought a pitched battle, where Alexander’s 26,000 men were routed. The Jewish king fled to the hills. However, Demetrius’s Jewish mercenary soldiers rapidly deserted, and he quickly realized that the only thing that would unify the bickering Jewish factions was the prospect of renewed Seleucid domination. As a result, he withdrew to Syria and the Pharisees turned again to fighting Alexander.[7]

Alexander Jannaeus feasts while Pharisees are crucified in Jerusalem in this 18th Century engraving.

Full blown civil war between Hellenized Jews and Pharisees now came to Judea with newfound savagery. After capturing the city of Bethome, Alexander had 800 Pharisee supporters crucified in Jerusalem while he feasted, and then had the throats of their wives and children slit while they watched. Thousands of Jews died in the conflict. After six years, Alexander emerged victorious, and the remainder of the Pharisees’ supporters dispersed into the countryside and hid as fugitives.[8]

The civil war left Salome Alexandra trapped in the middle. Her brother Simeon was likely one of the rebel leaders, and her husband his sworn enemy. Her personal religious convictions aligned her with the Pharisee faction. She used her position as queen to oppose Alexander’s actions, which gained her a lot of support amongst the people. By 79 BC, Alexander was in poor health brought on by alcoholism, yet he still led his army into the field in person. While besieging the fortress of Ragaba across the Jordan in 76 BC, Alexander fell seriously ill. Alexandra rushed to his deathbed from Jerusalem. Alexander instructed her to take power after his death and make peace with the Pharisees. He then died at age 49. Alexandra became reigning queen at age 64.[9]

Alexander was calculating, even on his deathbed. He realized that the kingdom could not survive further civil conflict without being swallowed whole by its more powerful neighbors. He also realized that Alexandra, with her strong family links to the Pharisees and popularity with the masses, would be able to make peace where he could not.

Alexandra followed Alexander’s deathbed instructions. She first concealed his death until the troops had captured Ragaba. She then returned to Jerusalem, her power solidified by a military victory, and met with the leaders of the Pharisees. Political reconciliation was achieved: Alexandra took the throne, the Pharisee leaders gave speeches in Jerusalem re-defining the legacy of Alexander as a righteous king (an irony that was likely not lost on those present at the same place where Alexander had 800 Pharisees crucified) and Alexander received an elaborate funeral.[10]

Queen Alexandra appointed her eldest son Hyrcanus as High Priest because she expected him to play a decidedly non-political role. Alexandra rebuilt the army from its disasters at the end of the reign of Alexander by hiring a corps of foreign mercenaries. Foreign nations sent members of their royal families as hostages rather than risk being invaded. Unlike the constant warring of Alexander’s reign, Judea under Alexandra enjoyed nine years of peace and prosperity. The only major foreign threat was from the rapid expansion of the empire of Tigranes of Armenia, who reached the borders of Judea. This caused Alexandra great alarm and she sent numerous gifts and ambassadors to dissuade Tigranes. In the end, the Roman invasion of the Armenian homeland caused Tigranes to turn back before conflict broke out.[11]

The borders may have been secure, but the domestic political situation was anything but tranquil. As part of the deal Alexandra struck with the Pharisees, the Pharisees gained great power and influence over the domestic politics of the state. Alexander’s political prisoners were released, exiles were allowed to return, and the Mosaic Law became the law of the land. The Pharisees began pressuring Alexandra to arrest the men (all leading Hellenized Jews) who took part in the crucifixions during the civil war. When Alexandra refused, several of the men in question were assassinated, presumably by the Pharisees.

A delegation of the Hellenized Jewish aristocracy, led by Alexandra’s second son Aristobulus, complained of this, emphasized their loyalty and asked for protection. Alexandra could not move against the Pharisees to bring the murderers to justice, so she settled the remaining Hellenized Jews in fortresses where they would presumably be safe from an assassin’s knife.[12]

Borders of Judea under Salome Alexandra.

At around the same time, Aristobulus began associating himself with the Sadducees, another Jewish sect whose religious teachings often clashed with the Pharisees (the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife and rejected the oral law, holding that only the text of the Torah was authoritative). He began questioning the legitimacy of his mother’s rule, faulting the Pharisees who allowed “a woman who, against reason, was mad with ambition, to reign over them, when there were sons in the flower of their age fitter for it.”[13]

Aristobulus began plotting a coup with the Sadducees in an attempt to depose Alexandra, break the power of the Pharisees and prevent Hycranus from taking the throne. In 67 BC, he put his plan into action. He snuck out of Jerusalem at night and traveled to the fortresses which had been given to the Hellenized Jews to protect them from the Pharisees. They were all too ready to join in a revolt against the Pharisee-dominated government in Jerusalem, and quickly put themselves under Aristobulus’ control. Within 15 days, Aristobulus took control of 22 fortresses in the Judean countryside and proclaimed himself the king of Judea.

Alexandra was by this time 73 years old and in poor health. Hyrcanus and the Pharisee leaders were making all important decisions in the country, as Alexandra was too ill to make sound decisions. The Pharisees had Aristobulus’ wife and children arrested and imprisoned in a tower, and girded themselves for the coming civil war. In the middle of the preparations, Alexandra died. Her death was anticlimactic, although it heralded the end of an era, no one realized it at the time in the rush of preparations for war. She was in fact the last person to govern a united and independent Jewish state for the next 2,015 years, until David Ben-Gurion in 1948.[14]

Alexandra had named Hyrcanus as her successor, but later that year, Aristobulus defeated Hyrcanus and the Pharisees in a battle at Jericho. Hyrcanus fled to Nabatea, where he returned with the Nabatean army and besieged Aristobulus in Jerusalem. In the meantime, while the two Hasmonean brothers were fighting over scraps, the Roman general Gnaeus Pompey Magnus was conquering most of Asia by a combination of deft political maneuvering and superior battlefield skill. His envoys declared Rome to be on the side of Aristobulus, and Hyrcanus and the Nabateans withdrew. The respite only lasted until 64 BC, when Pompey had finally finished off the Seleucid Empire and turned south.

Pompey marched his army into Judea in 63 BC. He was met by delegates from both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus as well as a delegate from the people who claimed that both men were murderous tyrants. While Pompey carefully weighed his options, Aristobulus declared himself an enemy of Rome and revolted. Pompey marched on Jerusalem, took Aristobulus prisoner, and laid siege to the city. The city fell in the fall of 63 BC, Hyrcanus was installed as the puppet ruler and Judea became a Roman client kingdom until 6 AD, when it was incorporated as a province under the control of a Roman governor.[15]

Portrait of Salome Alexandra, from the 15th century Promptuarii iconum insigniorum by Guillaume Rouillé.

Assessments of Alexandra’s rule have varied widely. The uber-Hellenized and Romanized Jew Flavius Josephus viewed her as a shrewd politician, but one who had entered a field in which women did not belong and whose accommodation with the Pharisees opened the door for that sect to destroy the Hasmonean kingdom. According to Josephus, she “preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things, and in comparison of that had no regard to what was good, or what was right.”[16]

On the other hand, later rabbinical sources descended from the Pharisees remembered Salome Alexandra’s reign as a time of peace, prosperity and government according to God’s laws. Metaphorical exaggeration was used to bring home the point, saying that during Alexandra’s reign it only rained on the Sabbath so Jews would not miss a day of work, wheat grew to the size of kidney beans, oats grew to the size of olives, and lentils were the size of gold coins.[17] The division in historical memory reflects the deep division between Hellenized Jews and Pharisees at the time, a division which persisted until the Roman-Jewish wars and the deportation of the Jewish population of Judea to Europe made it irrelevant.

Salome Alexandra’s reign was a very brief island of peace in a 1st century BC world that was engaged in almost constant warfare. Her reign was bookended on one end by civil war between Pharisees and Hellenized Jews and the other end by Pharisees and Sadducees, but she kept a lid on civil conflict for most of her reign. This was done largely by giving the most powerful faction – the Pharisees –  power and thereby forcing the rest to fall into line. However, this was only a temporary solution which did not solve any of the underlying problems. As a result, civil war broke out again, which left Judea divided and vulnerable to outside intervention.


[1] Peter Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World (New York: Routledge, 2003), 73-74; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. by William Whiston, 1737 from (accessed August 1, 2011), 13.11.1, 3; Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. by G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin, 1959), 1.3.1.

[2] John Merrill, “One Salome Alexandra, or Two?” in Biblical Archaeology Review web extras, (accessed August 1, 2011).

Some scholars have argued that the wife of Aristobulus was a different Alexandra, as Josephus never explicitly states that Alexandra married Alexander. This argument can be found in Tal Ilan, Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and other Jewish Women (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 50-54.

[3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.11.1-2; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.3.2-4.

[4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.11.3-12.1; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.3.6-1.4.1.

[5] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.12.2-5; ; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.4.2; Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, 74-75.

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.13.5; Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, 75.

[7] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.14.1-2; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.4.5.

[8] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.13.5; 13.12.2-3; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.4.6.

[9] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.15.5; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.5.1.

[10] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.16.1.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.16.2, 4; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.5.3.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.16.2-3; Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, 76.

[13] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.16.3; Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, 76.

[14] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.16.5-6; Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.5.4; Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, 76.

[15] Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.6.1; Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, 76-78.

[16] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.16.6.

[17] Nissan Mindel, “Queen Salome Alexandra,” (accessed August 2, 2011).

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Article © Christopher Jones 2011.

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