...his great passion for Berenice, to whom it is even said he promised marriage.
He sent Berenice away from Rome at once, although neither of them wished it.
Suetonius: Deified Titus VII
It reads more like a Hollywood film script than ancient history: a prince and princess fall in love, but their countries happen to be at war. They embark on a passionate, and public, affair, but are forced to part when he is bound to assume his imperial duties.
Titus Flavius Vespasianus: crack Roman general, conqueror of Jerusalem, and Caesar-presumptive.
Berenice: daughter of Marcus Julius Agrippa I, ruler of Judaea, sister of Marcus Julius Agrippa II; a Jewish Princess
Vespasian Caesar: ruler of the Roman world, and just happens to be Titus' father
Suetonius: Imperial Biographer, writing in roughly 130 CE.
In 70 CE, Jerusalem finally fell to Roman troops, following four years of Jewish resistance. However, the rebellion had not been supported throughout Judaea. Berenice had worked to prevent an armed clash from 66 CE. By 69 CE she was openly supporting the Flavian dynasty. It would seem that Titus and Berenice grew to love each other around this time, but their co-habitation in Rome came about in 75 CE, when Berenice visited her brother, who resided there.
In 79 CE, Vespasian crossed the Styx and Titus, despite having ruled almost in partnership with his father, became emperor in his own right. It was at this time that public pressure overwhelmed their relationship and Titus and Berenice parted company, never to see each other again, both heartbroken.
Titus and Berenice never married. Their public relationship was tolerated to a degree, but there were limits. Vespasian was establishing a new imperial dynasty and attempting to restore and regenerate Rome after years of debilitating civil war and Nero's later years of rule. Vespasian and his sons needed to present the right image to the Roman people and set a good example. They had to be respected and trusted. Titus could have his fun, but ultimately his role was to uphold Roman values and continue the Flavian dynasty.
Titus' behaviour was not exactly unprecedented. Marcus Antonius had involved himself with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Ultimately, this was to Marcus Antonius' detriment, with Augustus going to war against his former brother-in-law, claiming that his liaison with the foreign queen had contributed to his descent into soft Oriental ways, and his abandonment of Rome. The foundation of the principate had relied, in part, on a relationship that was deemed unacceptable.
In order to progress along the cursus honorum, Vespasian had sacrificed the relationship with the woman whom he loved. However, in later life, following the birth of his children and the death of his wife, he resumed his affair with Antonia Caenis.
Berenice was a foreign princess who had been married previously, and even accused of incest with her brother. Her credentials were not those expected of a Roman empress. Titus and Berenice did not stand a chance.
It is interesting to note where Suetonius mentions Berenice in his biography of Titus. Suetonius carefully constructed a picture of Titus that compared him favourably to previous emperors Gaius Caligula and Nero, who had started promisingly but descended into depravity. Titus began badly, with accusations of cruelty, self-indulgence and drunkenness, but he came good. His relationship with Berenice is mentioned at the turning-point; Berenice was used for evidence of his lustful exploits, but when he was expected to assume his responsibilities, he shed her, along with his friends who performed on the stage. Titus became a respectable figure. It might only have been a literary device on Suetonius' part, but it illustrated how the relationship was acceptable only to a point.
I don't believe that Titus and Berenice were forced to part specifically because Berenice was Jewish. Had Titus wanted to marry any other foreign princess, it would have proved just as difficult. The issue was the preservation of Roman values and the advancement of the Flavian dynasty. Love, it seems, came second to duty.
Based on chapter 5 of my dissertation: Inside-out: Racism and the Early Imperial Roman Cultural Ideal.
- Suetonius: Deified Titus, trans. C Edwards (Oxford, 2000).
- Suetonius: Deified Vespasian, trans. C Edwards (Oxford, 2000).