Historically and mythologically speaking, being in a powerful position (and perhaps also a little “too good-looking”) often proved to be a double-edged sword for many women. While undoubtedly representing an advantage, it also made those very women ever more exposed to danger - be it due to power plays or plain jealousy. This was surely the case for our weekly Mulier Clara: meet Mariamne, the second wife of Herod the Great (the very King Herod from the Gospels).
Mariamne was the princess of the Hasmonean family, one of Herod’s greatest rivals at the time. Her mother, Alexandra, managed however to arrange her betrothal to the king - perhaps in virtue of Mariamne’s incredible beauty. As a result, the couple got married in 37 BC in Samaria and Mariamne bore Herod a total of four children.
Under his wife’s insistence, Herod made his 17-year-old brother-in-law a High Priest; however the boy, Aristobulus, drowned within a year of his appointment. As Aristobulus’ lineage posed a threat to Herod’s throne, Alexandra immediately blamed Herod and wrote to Cleopatra begging her help. The Egyptian queen reported the accusation to Mark Anthony who in turn finally summoned Herod to make his defense. Before leaving Judea, Herod left Mariamne in the care of his uncle Joseph, who was ordered to kill her if Anthony had executed the King: Herod, in fact, was so jealous of his wife that he could not stand the idea of being separated from her, even in death. Joseph, however, disclosed this information to Mariamne and she and her mother made plans to flee the kingdom. Upon returning home unexpectedly, Herod was immediately informed of their plans: suspecting an affair between Joseph and his wife, the King ordered for Joseph to be executed and Alexandra to be confined, but eventually did not punish Mariamne.
A few years later, Herod left Judea again to visit Augustus in Rhodes. He left Mariamne in the charge of a man who had once again received the order to kill both Mariamne and her mother if Herod died. When the King returned, Mariamne gave him a cold shoulder and refused her marital duties, convinced as she was that what Herod felt was not love but possession being that he would lot let her survive him. Upon hearing the insinuation that his wife was secretly plotting to poison him, Herod called for her to stand trial for the alleged murder plan. In a turn of events, her very mother testified against her in court and Mariamne was convicted and finally executed in 29 BC.
Despite calling for the betrayal of her own daughter, Alexandra’s feat in trying to gain the favor of the King did not prove successful: she died only a year later, when she tried to seize power when Herod became sick with grief after executing Mariamne.
"Mariamne”, illumination from the manuscript “Cas des nobles hommes et femmes”, ms. Français 12420, f. 127v, 1401-1500, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Paris.