What little is known about her life and background comes mostly from the early historian Flavius Josephus, who detailed a history of the Jewish people and wrote an account of the Jewish Rebellion of 67. Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Aurelius Victor and Juvenal, also tell about her. She is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (25:13, 23; 26:30). However, it is for her tumultuous love life that she is primarily known from the Renaissance. Her reputation was based on the bias of the Romans to the Eastern princesses, like Cleopatra or later Zenobia. After a number of failed marriages throughout the 40s, she spent much of the remainder of her life at the court of her brother Herod Agrippa II, amidst rumors the two were carrying on an incestuous relationship. During the First Jewish-Roman War, she began a love affair with the future emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus. However, her unpopularity among the Romans compelled Titus to dismiss her on his accession as emperor in 79. When he died two years later, she disappeared from the historical record.
Berenice was born in 28 to Herod Agrippa and Cypros, as granddaughter to Aristobulus IV and great-granddaughter to Herod the Great. Her elder brother was Agrippa II (b. 27), and her younger sisters were Mariamne (b. 34) and Drusilla (b. 38). According to Josephus, there was also a younger brother called Drusus, who died before his teens. Her family constituted part of what is known as the Herodian Dynasty, who ruled the Judaea Province between 39 BC and 92.
Josephus records three short-lived marriages in Berenice's life, the first which took place sometime between 41 and 43, to Marcus Julius Alexander, brother of Tiberius Julius Alexander and son of Alexander the Alabarch of Alexandria. On his early death in 44, she was married to her father's brother, Herod of Chalcis, with whom she had two sons, Berenicianus and Hyrcanus. After her husband died in 48, she lived with her brother Agrippa for several years and then married Polemon II of Pontus, king of Cilicia, whom she subsequently deserted. According to Josephus, Berenice requested this marriage to dispel rumors that she and her brother were carrying on an incestuous relationship, with Polemon being persuaded to this union mostly on account of her wealth. However the marriage did not last and she soon returned to the court of her brother. Josephus was not the only ancient writer to suggest incestuous relations between Berenice and Agrippa. Juvenal, in his sixth satire, outright claims that they were lovers. Whether this was based on truth remains unknown. Berenice indeed spent much of her life at the court of Agrippa, and by all accounts shared almost equal power. Popular rumors may also have been fueled by the fact that Agrippa himself never married during his lifetime.
Like her brother, Berenice was a client ruler of the parts of the Roman Empire that lie in the present-day Syria. The Acts of the Apostles records that during this time, Paul the Apostle appeared before their court at Caesarea.
In 64 emperor Nero appointed Gessius Florus as procurator of the Judaea Province. During his administration, the Jews were systematically discriminated against in favour of the Greek population of the region. Tensions quickly rose to civil unrest when Florus plundered the treasury of the Temple of Jerusalem under the guise of imperial taxes. Following riots, the instigators were arrested and crucified by the Romans. Appalled at the treatment of her countrymen, Berenice travelled to Jerusalem in 66 to personally petition Florus to spare the Jews, but not only did he refuse to comply with her requests, Berenice herself was nearly killed during skirmishes in the city. Likewise a plea for assistance to the legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus, met with no response.
To prevent Jewish violence from further escalating, Agrippa assembled the populace and delivered a tearful speech to the crowd in the company of his sister, but the Jews alienated their sympathies when the insurgents burned down their palaces. They fled the city to Galilee where they later gave themselves up to the Romans. Meanwhile, Cestius Gallus moved into the region with the Twelfth legion, but was unable to restore order and suffered defeat at the battle of Beth-Horon, forcing the Romans to retreat from Jerusalem.
Emperor Nero then appointed Vespasian to put down the rebellion, who landed in Judaea with Fifth and Tenth legions in 67. He was later joined by his son Titus at Ptolemais, who brought with him the Fifteenth legion. With a strength of 60,000 professional soldiers, the Romans quickly swept across Galilee and by 69 marched on Jerusalem.
It was during this time that Berenice met and fell in love with Titus, who was eleven years her junior. The Herodians sided with the Flavians during the conflict, and later in 69, the Year of the Four Emperors—when the Roman Empire saw the quick succession of the emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellius—Berenice reportedly used all her wealth and influence to support Vespasian on his campaign to become emperor. When Vespasian was declared emperor on 21 December 69, Titus was left in Judaea to finish putting down the rebellion. The war ended in 70 with the destruction of the Second Temple and the sack of Jerusalem, with approximately 1 million dead, and 97,000 taken captive by the Romans. Triumphant, Titus returned to Rome to assist his father in the government, while Berenice stayed behind in Judaea.
It took four years until they reunited, when she and Agrippa came to Rome in 75. The reasons for this long absence are unclear, but have been linked to possible opposition to her presence by Gaius Licinius Mucianus, a political ally of emperor Vespasian who died sometime between 72 and 78. Agrippa was given the rank of praetor, while Berenice resumed her relationship with Titus, living with him at the palace and reportedly acting in every respect as his wife. The ancient historian Cassius Dio writes that Berenice was at the height of her power during this time, and if it can be any indication as to how influential she was, Quintilian records an anecdote in his Institutio Oratoria where, to his astonishment, he found himself pleading a case on Berenice's behalf where she herself presided as the judge. The Roman populace however perceived the Eastern Queen as an intrusive outsider, and when the pair was publicly denounced by Cynics in the theatre, Titus caved in to the pressure and sent her away.
Upon the accession of Titus as emperor in 79, she returned to Rome, but was quickly dismissed amidst a number of popular measures of Titus to restore his reputation with the populace. It is possible that he intended to send for her at a more convenient time. However, after reigning barely two years as emperor, he suddenly died on 13 September 81.
It is not known what happened to Berenice after her final dismissal from Rome. Her brother Agrippa died around 92, and with him the Herodian Dynasty came to an end.
In modern history, her aspirations as a potential empress of Rome have led to her being described as a 'miniature Cleopatra'.
Berenice appears in The Roman Mysteries book series. She shows up in The Enemies of Jupiter, is mentioned in The Assassins of Rome and plays a fairly prominent role in Lion Feuchtwanger's historical novel, Josephus (The Jewish War). The book Agrippa's Daughter, by Howard Fast, is about Berenice. She is also in The Last Disciple Series.
From the 17th century to contemporary times, there has been a long tradition of works of art (novels, dramas, operas, etc.) devoted to Berenice and her affair with the Roman Emperor Titus. The list includes:Lettres de Bérénice à Titus (1642), a French novel by Madeleine de ScudéryBérénice (1648–50), a French novel by Jean Regnauld de SegraisTite (1660), a French drama by Jean MagnonIl Tito (1666), an Italian opera by Antonio Cesti (mus.) and Nicola Beregani (libr.)Bérénice (1670), a French drama by Jean RacineTite et Bérénice (1670), a French drama by Pierre CorneilleTitus and Berenice (1676), an English drama by Thomas OtwayTito e Berenice (1714), an Italian opera by Antonio Caldara (mus.) and Carlo Sigismondo Capace (libr.)Berenice (1725), an Italian opera by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (mus.) and Benedetto Pasqualigo (libr.). Also set to music by Niccolò Vito Piccinni (1766)Tito e Berenice (1776), an Italian opera by Raimondo Mei (mus.) and Carlo Giuseppe Lanfranchi-Rossi (libr.)Tito e Berenice (1782), a ballet by Paolino Franchi (chor.)Tito; o, La partenza di Berenice (1790), a ballet by Domenico Maria Gaspero Angiolini (mus. and chor.)Tito e Berenice (1793), an Italian opera by Sebastiano Nasolini (mus.) and Giuseppe Maria Foppa (libr.)Tito che abbandona Berenice (1828), a painting by Giuseppe BezzuoliTitus et Bérénice (1860), a French opera by Leon-Gustave-Cyprien Gastinel (mus.) and Édouard Fournier (libr.)Berenice (1890), a German novel by Heinrich Vollrat SchumacherCross Triumphant, The (1898), a historical fiction novel by Florence Morse KingsleyBérénice (1909), a French opera by Alberic Magnard (mus. and libr.)Titus und die Jüdin (1911), a German drama by Hans KyserLost Diaries: From the Diary of Emperor Titus (1913), an English novel by Maurice BaringBérénice, l’Hérodienne (1919), a French drama by Albert du BoisBérénice (1920), incidental music by Marcel Samuel-RousseauBerenice (1922), an English drama by John MasefieldBérénice (1934), a French parody by Noel OudenBerinikah (1945), a Hebrew drama by Eisig Silberschlag and Carl de HaasLe reine de Césarée (1954), a French drama by Robert BrasillachBerenice, Princess of Judea (1959), an English novel by Leon KolbMission to Claudies (1963), an English novel by Leon KolbAgrippa’s Daughter (1964), an English novel by Howard Melvin FastLa pourpre de Judée: ou, Les délices du genre humain (1967), a French novel by Maurice ClavelBérénice (1968), a French TV-film by Piere-Alain JolivetTito y Berenice (1970), a Spanish drama by Rene MarquesBérénice (1983), a French TV-film by Raoul Ruiz
The love story between Berenice and Titus is also the premise of La clemenza di Tito (1734), an Italian opera with music by Antonio Caldara and a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that was later set to music by more than 40 other composers, including Johann Adolph Hasse (1735), Giuseppe Arena (1738), Francesco Corradini (1747), Christoph Willibald Gluck (1752), Andrea Adolfati (1753), Niccolò Jommelli (1753), Ignaz Holzbauer (1757), Vincenzo Legrezio Ciampi (1757), Gioacchino Cocchi (1760), Marcello Bernardini (1768), Andrea Bernasconi (1768), Pasquale Anfossi (1769), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (La clemenza di Tito, 1791). More recently it was used as the backdrop for the Caroline Lawrence novels the Assassins of Rome and the Enemies of Jupiter. Lindsey Davis mentions it, though without making it the central plot line in novels such as Saturnalia. It is also the stimulus for the new ballet piece by Kim Brandstrup, 'Invitus Invitam' which premiered in the Royal Opera House in October 2010.