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Uncovering the elusive Queen Salome Alexandra of Judea

More than 2,000 years before Golda Meir became prime minister of Israel in the 1960s, Salome Alexandra held the Holy Land together in a time of political turmoil. The only ruling queen of Judea, she was one of the Hasmoneans, also called the Maccabees, the last independent Jewish dynasty.

Her Hebrew name, Shlomzion, means “peace of Zion,” but became “Salome” in Greek; she is called “Alexandra” in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the 1st-century Jewish commander-turned-Roman supporter. Little archaeological evidence survives to document Salome Alexandra’s reign, and Josephus’s writings are the main source of information about her.


A 16th-century rendering of Salome Alexandra (Wikimedia Commons)

Salome Alexandra’s predecessors on the throne, John Hyrcanus I, and his sons, Judah Aristobulus I and Alexander Jannaeus, expanded the kingdom at the expense of other peoples. As Josephus writes in Antiquities of the Jews, Hyrcanus I conquered the nearby Idumeans in the 120s B.C. In exchange for allowing the Idumeans to stay in their homeland, Hyrcanus forced them to convert to Judaism (13:9). Hyrcanus turned to the Sadducees, wealthy priests and aristocrats, for support as his power base, alienating his former allies, the Pharisees, who “did much better with the people” than the Sadducees, says Lawrence Schiffman, chair of the Department for Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

This conflict set the stage for Salome Alexandra’s reign. Born in 139 B.C., Salome Alexandra may have come from a Pharasaic family. The Talmud, a codification of Jewish Oral Law, names her brother as the famous Pharasaic rabbi Shimon ben Shetach. “There are also some passages in the Talmud that say, during her husband’s reign, that she protected Pharisees and hid Pharisees from his wrath,” says archaeologist Kenneth Atkinson, who has written a biography of Salome Alexandra.

Both Salome Alexandra and Rabbi Shimon were devout Pharisees. “They were very closely associated. That seems to be the fact,” Atkinson says. “It’s not certain whether she was actually related to him...I think we’d have more evidence if she was.” Schiffman disagrees. “I think most scholars would say that we have one of two things: [he is] either a brother or another relative and it doesn’t really matter which one,” he observes.

Regardless, Salome Alexandra supported Shimon’s Pharasaic reforms, which included changing “the marriage law in favor of women” and urging “girls to go to school,” notes Atkinson. The ideological overlap between a Pharasaic queen and rabbi may have led to some of this familial confusion. “Once she came in power, she supported him and his policies and the high courts were largely dominated by Pharisees,” Atkinson says. “And so that’s why I think some versions of the Talmud, but not all, identify him as her brother. They assume, ‘Well, if they’re that close, they must have been somehow related.’”

Salome Alexandra as a Ruler

Hyrcanus died in 104 B.C. and was succeeded by his elder son, Aristobulus I, who ruled briefly. When Aristobulus died in 103 B.C, Alexander Jannaeus became king. Salome Alexandra and Alexander Jannaeus married and had two sons. It is possible Salome Alexandra was originally married to Alexander Jannaeus’s older brother, Aristobulus, but scholars debate this. (See “All in the Family” for more details.)

During his reign, Alexander Jannaeus supported the aristocratic Sadducees and massacred hundreds of Pharisees. “Josephus mentions her husband had been in a civil war with the Pharisees,” says Atkinson. “One time, he crucified 800 in a single day.” After a reign of 27 years, Alexander Jannaeus bequeathed his kingdom to his wife. “The nation was really falling apart at the time he died and he realized she could really have this war with the Pharisees [finished],” he adds.


Willem Swidde’s 1686 engraving shows Alexander Jannaeus feasting while the Pharisees are crucified (Wikimedia Commons)

Schiffman proposes the following scenario: “So, she’s the queen. Her husband dies. Now, what should happen is one of the sons should get the job. She knows exactly what’s going to happen. So, she stalls it from 76 to 67 [B.C.]. She knows that the one that’s going to get the job [Hyrcanus] is going to be too weak and the other one’s [Aristobulus] going to attack him. She knew that there was going to be a civil war between the two of them, so, instead of appointing anyone, she stuck herself into the dynasty.”

Josephus says Salome Alexandra showed “freedom from...his [Alexander Jannesus’s] brutality” and her “opposition to his excesses...had gained” her the support of the Jews (The Jewish War 1:103). Atkinson believes the Hellenistic influence on Judea smoothed Salome Alexandra’s transition to power. The contemporary state of Ptolemaic Egypt had female rulers, like Cleopatra III, who ruled from 116-101 B.C. Queens like this Greco-Egyptian monarch influenced the Hasmoneans, who “absorbed a lot of Greek customs.” As a result, “the idea of a woman ruler...[was] not as controversial as before.”

Salome Alexandra began her reign in 76 B.C. by decrying her husband’s misdeeds. Upon his death, she booted out the Sadduccees and brought the Pharisees into power. To placate the Sadducees, Salome Alexandra granted them control of some military fortresses, but she made Pharisees her main officers. Josephus claims that “the Pharisees governed her” and were “the real administrators of the public affairs” (The Jewish War 1:5:2).

This moderation temporarily ended the conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The “country was entirely at peace,” says Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 13:16:2). Salome Alexandra’s domestic decisions were practical, says Schiffman. “You’ve got somebody who’s [a] relative to Pharisees, who can see the people supported the Pharisees, could see that her husband’s fighting with the Pharisees had been a major part of [his trouble], and that the easiest way to cement her reign was by supporting the Pharisees.” These factors made putting the Pharisees in power the “natural thing to do,” he adds.

What brought about this time of peace? In the last three decades of Alexander Jannaeus’s reign, “he was constantly campaigning overseas,” notes Atkinson. The queen “ended her husband’s unpopular wars that had been going on for decades—foreign wars, civil wars,” he adds. “The queen also “pushed off Tigranes the Armenian somehow and apparently participated in some campaigns to restore power on the borders of her own empire, which were weakened at the end of Jannaeus’s reign,” says Schiffman.

By making peace with other nations and reinforcing treaties by taking hostages, Salome Alexandra kept her enemies at bay. “She increased the army [by] one half and procured a great body of foreign troops,” writes Josephus. Judea became “became not only very powerful at home, but terrible also to foreign potentates” (The Jewish War 1:5:2). Peace lent itself to international trade. Salome Alexandra completed Alexander Jannaeus’s “conquest of the Arab kingdom of Nabataea, which is in modern-day Jordan,” Atkinson notes. Once she annexed Nabataea, she garrisoned the area and “reopened the trade routes” with Judea.

The Talmud praises Salome Alexandra’s reign. “It looks on her reign as a golden age, which is really quite surprising,” says Atkinson. “They would look back at all the rulers and say, ‘Her reign was the greatest.’” But was Salome Alexandra’s reign all roses? The Pharisees and their heirs wrote the Talmud after her reign, one in which “their points of view were being taken more seriously and they were much more powerful,” says Schiffman.

Salome Alexandra’s reign released the Pharisees from Alexander Jannaeus’s persecution and put them in power. “It was felt to be, and remembered as a golden age, in comparison with what went before,” adds Schiffman. “Like all golden ages, it’s always exaggerated.” Internationally, however, Salome Alexandra did not make a big splash. “I imagine that her rule was insignificant from an international point of view. It’s the same Hasmoneans doing the same stuff,” he says.

Double Trouble

Salome Alexandra reigned for nine years, until her death in 76 B.C. We do not know how she died. Josephus simply records that “the queen was fallen into a dangerous distemper” and “sickened” (Antiquities of the Jews 13:1:16; The Jewish War 1:103). She had named her son Hyrcanus as heir, but her younger son, Aristobulus, fought to be king. Aristobulus gathered outside support from Nabatea, thanks to his adviser, an Idumean named Antipater.

“Her eldest son, Hyrcanus, was High Priest,” says Atkinson. “She appointed [him as] her successor and his brother, Aristobulus, attacked him in Jerusalem. They fought a war and Hyrcanus abdicated after three months. And then, a couple years later, he tried to retake the throne of his brother.” To settle the succession dispute, the brothers called on a third party—the Romans.

At this time, Rome needed a shield from trouble in the east. “The reasons the Romans wanted to conquer the land of Israel had nothing to do with the weakness of these two guys,” says Schiffman. “The Roman Empire was facing a big problem in the east with the Parthians and they wanted to be able to have a secure buffer against the Parthians. Now, they didn’t have it in the Hasmonean state because it wasn’t really linked up with them very closely.” To create a buffer, Pompey conquered Judea in 63 B.C. and made it a Roman province.

Even after Judea’s subjugation, the brothers continued to battle for the throne. Eventually, Antipater’s son, Herod, became king in 41 B.C. To solidify his claim to the throne, Herod married Mariamne, a granddaughter of both Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II.

Finding the Queen

The Dead Sea Scrolls may be able to unlock part of the puzzle of this Hasmonean queen. “There are only less than a dozen people named in the Dead Sea Scrolls and she’s one of the few,” says Atkinson. Fragment 4Q322 mentions Salome Alexandra, here called “Shelamzion.” Her contemporaries—her son, Hyrcanus, and the Roman general Aemilius—are attested in Josephus’s writings and this fragment.

More controversial is the possible mention of Salome Alexandra’s in the Pesher Nahum, a historical interpretation of the biblical Book of Nahum from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars give it historical credibility because it names Greek rulers corroborated by Josephus. “The way these texts work—they take the verse from the Bible and they break it down into pieces. Every piece has a meaning,” says Schiffman.

The Pesher Nahum describes the wicked reign of Alexander Jannaeus, whom it calls “the Lion of Wrath.” The text refers to a massacre of Jewish individuals; Josephus also mentions that Alexander Jannaeus killed hundreds of Pharisees. In the Book of Nahum, women betray cities and bring about destruction. After Alexander Jannaeus died, the Pesher Nahum says a “harlot” ruled Jerusalem, which became a “bloody city.”


Alexander Jannaeus (Wikimedia Commons)

Atkinson says this “harlot” is Salome Alexandra. “It can only be her because the text clearly refers to her husband’s reign,” he says. “They clearly refer to her husband crucifying 800 Pharisees and events of his reign. Then, the Book of Nahum refers to a woman and then they start talking about her...the chronology is exactly [correct].”

Schiffman reads the text differently. For him, this passage represents the Pharisees, hated enemies of the Qumran sect, who led the people of Jerusalem astray. “The problem [of that interpretation] is this: if you look at the text...they’re saying that the harlot refers to the Pharisees. It doesn’t say it refers to the queen,” he says.

Little physical evidence from Salome Alexandra’s reign survives. “Most of the remains of her time period are buried or they’ve been reused in later buildings,” Atkinson notes. One construction that does survive is a winter palace, found at Jericho. Archaeologists believe she commissioned the third construction phase of the palace. She constructed the Twin Palaces, two villas side-by-side in the palace complex, for her dueling sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Each villa has an open court at its center and swimming area nearby. “She had to have separate palaces for them,” Atkinson says, and the palaces are “probably about the only clear archaeological evidence” of her reign.

All in the Family

Many scholars believe the wife of both Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus wives was one woman: Salome Alexandra. In Jewish law, a man can marry his barren sister-in-law. This practice, called yibbum, or “levirate marriage,” appears in Deuteronomy 25:5.

Did Salome Alexandra marry two kings? Atkinson says no. Because Alexander Jannaeus was the High Priest, he would have only been allowed to marry a virgin, which Aristobulus’s widow was not. Under Jewish law, if a woman wed her first husband’s brother, any children by her second husband would legally be those of her first. “If she had been married before, her children would be considered her late brother-in-law, Judah Aristobulus’s, children,” says Atkinson. Josephus considers Salome Alexandra’s sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, to be Alexander Jannaeus’s children.

Additionally, only one reference in Josephus calls Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus’s wives by similar names. While Josephus repeatedly calls Alexander Jannaeus’s wife “Alexandra” in Antiquities of the Jews, he only once names Aristobulus’s wife, whom he calls “Salina Alexandra.” Atkinson admits that “some scholars will say, ‘Well, “Salina” must be a mistake for “Salome”; it must be the same person.’” He insists, “Josephus never makes that clear.”

Schiffman maintains a different position. “It certainly looks that way,” he says of Salome Alexandra’s marriage to both brothers. “One of the strongest arguments that has been given against it is that Josephus would have remarked about a levirate marriage,” he adds, “but the problem there is that much of Josephus is not written by Josephus.”

Atkinson has worked out that, if Salina Alexandra and Salome Alexandra were one woman, she would have been 29 years old when she wed Alexander Jannaeus. The bridegroom, however, would have been only 13 or 14. Schiffman admits that the age difference is “a bit bizarre and that argues against it.” He adds, “There’s no question that, if the age balances were off, it could only have been for political reasons.”

One reason for Alexander Jannaeus to marry his sister-in-law was to stabilize the throne. “One possibility is that you really have a combination of securing the rule by marrying the queen,” observes Schiffman. He admits that no scholar can be certain of Salome Alexandra’s marriage record. “The wisest position to take is: it could be and it could not be. We can’t know, really.”