The marriage between Herod the Great and Mariamne I in 38BCE was not a happy occasion. It was not happy for Mariamne, and it was not happy for the people under her potential future rule. Subsequent generations, far removed from Mariamne, continued to lament Herod the Great, his legacy, policies, and power grab. This is particularly evident in the Gospel of Matthew, which accuses Herod of being hell-bent on killing their lord-and-savior (after first pretending that he will worship him).
14 year old Hasmonean heir, Mariamne, was offered up by her mother, Alexandra, as an attempt to salvage the vestiges of the much beloved Hasmonean Dynasty. Alexandra’s move turned out to be a strategic failure. Herod the Great and Mariamne were married in Mariamne’s hometown in Samaria when she was 17 years old.
The marriage happened in the midst of a popular revolt where Mariamne’s uncle Mattathias led Jewish forces against Herod the Great in an attempt to push out Rome and its allies.
Herod came to power via an alliance with Rome, which began decades earlier when his father, Antipater, supported Pompey’s invasion into Palestine, securing himself and his heirs several generations of power.
His marriage to Mariamne, and into the royal Hasmonean family was a strategic move to solidify his power grab; during his reign, Herod killed many of the remaining Hasmoneans, replacing them with cronies and eventually some of his many offspring.
A catalyst, which would signal the beginning of the end for Mariamne and the dynasty she inherited, came when Herod arranged to kill her brother Aristobulus, who had earlier that year been appointed high priest (at Mariamne’s mother’s request). The rumor was that Herodian goons drowned Aristobulus in a bath, and made it to look like an accident.
Mariamne’s mother secretly reached out to Cleopatra and Mark Antony, pleading for justice for her son. Despite his lifelong friendship with Herod, Mark Antony summoned Herod to Rome for trial (Cleopatra also leveraged her relationship with Mark Antony to take much of Herod’s best land).
Before he left for Rome, Herod recruited his uncle Joseph to keep guard over Mariamne. Herod gave Joseph instructions that if he was sentenced to death, Joseph should kill Mariamne – Herod could not bear the thought of the beautiful Mariamne marrying another man.
Though Josephus assured his readers the relationship was Platonic, he alluded to a burgeoning relationship between Mariamne and Joseph. During Herod’s time away, Joseph let slip (or purposely revealed) to Mariamne the order Herod had given him. When Herod learned about Joseph’s slip, he ordered Joseph be put to death. Herod’s sister Salome used this revelation to convince Herod that Joseph and Mariamne had a romantic affair.
Though Herod ordered Joseph’s execution, Mariamne managed to survive for some time. By all accounts, Herod was very devoted to Mariamne, despite his penchant to kill her loved ones.
During the 9 years Herod and Mariamne I were married, Herod killed several of her close relatives. Despite periods where Mariamne refused to have sex with Herod (notably after she learned about Herod’s command to kill her upon his death), she gave birth to five children – 2 obligatory sons (Alexandros [35BCE] and Aristobulus [31BCE]), 2 daughters (Salampsio [C 33BCE] and Cypros), and 1 other son named Herod, who (legend has it) died while studying in Rome. History recorded nothing about this fifth son – a detail which makes him fodder for legend.
Mariamne’s mother (in a curious collaboration with Salome), to gain favor with Herod, suggested that Mariamne was plotting to assassinate Herod. Mariamne was tried and ordered put to death. Josephus relayed that Mariamne approached her execution with stoicism. In the Talmud’s alternative version of the story, Mariamne died by throwing herself off a roof; this historical alternative suggests that the Talmud writer who wrote this detail was attempting to save or rescue the Hasmonean legacy.
Mariamne died when she was 27 years old. Her sons were both younger than 6.
According to the Talmud, Herod preserved Mariamne’s body in honey for seven years, and it alluded to Herod occasionally having sex with her corpse. In the months following her death, Herod fell ill, overcome by grief while on a hunting trip in Samaria, where he was reminded of Mariamne. In light of several other details, Samaria seems to be important in the legends which perhaps reworked this tragedy.
Mariamne’s sons, Alexandros and Aristobulus, spent most of their childhoods studying in Rome. Mariamne’s surviving sons eventually became liabilities to Herod, because he recognized they were the last glimmers of hope for Jewish people (particularly those aligned with the Sadducees; the Pharisees had a more complicated relationship with the Hasmoneans, although they also had ) who perhaps longed to shed the Rome-friendly Herodian cancer from their land, and to return to the golden age of autonomy under the Hasmonean Dynasty.
Mariamne’s sons enjoyed tremendous popular support, and by 7BCE, their father arranged to have them executed by strangulation.