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The Intrigues of Salome I, Herod the Great’s Sister

Salome I


In chapters ten to twenty-one of his first book on the Jewish War, Josephus relates accounts of Herod’s military victories, his close relationships with Roman rulers and royalty, as well as his impressive building works. After relating his public successes, Josephus goes on to tell his readers of Herod’s domestic troubles.[1] Some of these troubles are scandals caused by male members of the family,[2] but most involve the women of Herod’s household.

Salome I, Herod’s sister, is especially prominent among the Herodian women. She was close to her brother and appears frequently in book one of the Jewish War. She also appears, in an “unprecedented sequence”,[3] in books fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. This essay looks briefly at three aspects of Salome’s life: her part in Herod’s domestic troubles, her marriages and divorce, and her political power, as described by Josephus.[4]


Salome (65 BCE–10 CE) was the younger sister of Herod (b. 74 BCE). Salome, Herod, Pheroras, and two other brothers were the children of Antipater I, who was of Idumean descent. Antipater’s father, and many other Idumeans, had been forcibly converted to Judaism under the regime of the Hasmonean High Priest John Hyrcanus I. Nevertheless, Antipater had been “a devoted and faithful political adviser and chief financial administrator” of Hyrcanus II,[5] and he served as procurator of Judaea in the years 47 to 44 BCE. Herod was governor of Galilee at that time but rose in power until the Roman Senate elected him as king of all Judea. Herod ruled Judea in 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE.

The Jewish aristocracy of Jerusalem disdained Herod’s family and their power because of their Idumean descent, and they did not regard them as true Jews.[6] Salome reciprocated their disdain, so when Herod divorced his first wife to marry Mariamne from the royal Hasmonean family, his domestic troubles escalated.

Geza Vermes writes,

[Herod’s] marital bonds with the Hasmoneans were the cause of constant misery throughout the rest of his days. Hatred, intrigues, jealousy and plotting characterized the life of the members, above all the female members, of Herod’s court. The chief culprits on the one side of the household were Cypros[7] and Salome . . . and on the other, his wife Mariamne with her mother Alexandra.[8]

Salome seemed to suffer with “an Idumean inferiority complex”.[9] This sense of inferiority was exacerbated by Mariamne’s insolent manner towards her.[10] The taunts of Glaphyra,[11] the wife of Mariamne’s son Alexander,[12] made the situation even worse. Glaphyra believed herself to be superior, and “frequently reproached Herod’s sister and wives with the ignobility of their descent.”[13] Furthermore, Mariamne’s other son Aristobulus, who was married to Salome’s daughter Berenice, was jealous of the royal blood of his brother’s wife, and continually reproached his own wife about her low family.[14]

These in-laws were a source of grief and irritation to Salome, but she was a formidable and fierce woman, and did not bend to those who looked down on her.[15] Instead, she fought back. Salome’s constant plots and slanderous accusations against her Hasmonean in-laws resulted in the execution of Mariamne in 29 BCE,[16] and of Mariamne’s two sons Aristobulus and Alexander in 7 BCE, at Herod’s command.[17] As well as causing these deaths, and others, “Salome also engineered the downfall of two of her husbands.”[18]

The Intrigues of Salome I, Sister of Herod the Great

Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod (1887) by John William Waterhouse


Most marriages were arranged by parents, especially fathers, in antiquity. A marriage was seen as more than an alliance between husband and wife; it was an alliance between families, and even between dynasties. Herod, as patriarch of his household, arranged marriages for his family members with the aim of maintaining or advancing his own political clout and prestige. Herod married several of his family members to others within the family. Others were married to political allies and nobility.

Joseph I

Salome’s first marriage was within the family. In around 45 BCE, she was married to her uncle Joseph (95–34 BCE), the brother of her father Antipater I.[19] Joseph was held in high esteem for a while by Herod,[20] and he acted as regent of Judea for a year or two when Herod was summoned away by Mark Antony (to account for the drowning death of Mariamne’s brother Aristobulus III, of which Herod was acquitted.) Joseph was secretly charged by Herod to take care of Mariamne while he was away. When Herod returned, Salome lied and told Herod that Joseph had slept with Mariamne. Joseph was promptly executed on the false charge of adultery.[21]


Salome’s second marriage, in around 34 BCE, was to Costobarus, whom Herod had previously made governor of Idumea.[22] Costobarus was from a noble and priestly Idumean family.[23] Salome had two children with him: Berenice (who Salome used to spy on her in-laws)[24] and Antipater III. Salome could be a caring mother. She listened to her daughter’s complaints and acted on them.[25] Occasionally, she could even be a caring wife. For instance, Salome successfully intervened when Herod planned to kill Costobarus for being disloyal.[26] Nevertheless, after approximately seven years of marriage, Salome divorced her husband.[27] Herod executed him shortly after the divorce when Salome revealed more of her former husband’s disloyal activities.

Salome’s Divorce

The fact that Salome was the one who issued the writ of divorce has raised questions. Salome was not the only Herodian woman to divorce her husband, however. Josephus tells us that Herodias, Salome’s granddaughter, also divorced one of her husbands. Josephus is quick to point out, in both cases, that the divorces were not according to Jewish customs.[28] Yet, what Josephus regarded as Jewish customs may have been those of the Pharisees. Other strands of Judaism may have held to different traditions in the first-century BCE.[29]

David Instone Brewer, in his discussion on divorces by women, summarises the situation in first-century CE Judaism,

Only a man could enact a divorce, but this did not mean that women could not initiate a divorce . . . The principle that divorce could be enacted only by a man was based on the law that said that a man should write out the get or “divorce certificate” (Deut. 24:1). This resulted in the principle that a man had to enter into divorce voluntarily, but a woman could be divorced against her will . . .[30]

Salome was Idumean on her father’s side and Nabatean on her mother’s side. Despite her father’s family converting to Judaism, Salome may not always have followed Jewish laws. Furthermore, Salome was most likely a Roman citizen and she seems to have followed the more lenient Roman regulations concerning divorce.[31] Marriage under Roman law was entered by mutual agreement of bride and groom, and could be ended by either the husband or wife. Furthermore, “the law did not require any special grounds for divorce . . . it was sufficient that the affectio maritalis no longer existed.”[32]

Alfredo Mordecai Rabello writes,

From the passages of Josephus which refer to the divorces of Salome and Herodias, we can assert that if the parties preferred to rely on their status as Roman citizens, they could do so, and in that case the divorce would be valid only according to Roman law and not Jewish law; it is clear therefore that in Roman law Salome and Herodias could have validly divorced their husbands—even against the will of the latter.[33]


After her divorce, Salome wanted to marry the young and handsome Sylleus, “who was destined to play a vital role in Herod’s fall from favor with Rome.”[34] Herod made it clear, however, that if Salome went ahead with the marriage, he would regard her as his bitter enemy.[35] (Perhaps he foresaw the trouble Sylleus would bring him.) In the end, Sylleus was unwilling to comply with Herod’s stipulation that he convert to the Jewish religion, which meant being circumcised,[36] so the two never married.


While still in love with Sylleus,[37] Salome married Herod’s chief philos Alexas in 20 BCE. Herod had compelled Salome, and Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus, had advised her not to refuse, so Salome married Alexas against her own wishes. She remained married to him until her death ten years later.

Notably, the couple saved the lives of a group of Jewish noblemen whom Herod had imprisoned with the order that they were to be executed at the time of his death. Herod planned this execution so that his death would be accompanied by widespread grief and mourning. But Salome and Alexas let the prisoners go free and unharmed as soon as Herod was dead. The fact that they worked together to overturn Herod’s maniacal dying wish may indicate that their marriage was a successful union. The act of freeing Herod’s prisoners is also an indication of Salome’s personal power.


Herod’s family on his father’s side, which included Joseph, Pheroris,[38] Salome, and a nephew, “enjoyed the most important positions at Herod’s court and were considered to be potential successors to the throne.”[39] Thus Salome had the status as the most powerful woman in Herod’s court, apparently even more powerful than Herod’s wives. Her strong personality matched her high status. Salome usually got what she wanted from Herod, but there seems to have been a genuine affection between the two, even if this affection was greatly strained at times. Herod mostly believed and trusted his sister, even though Salome usually got her way through lies, manipulation, and intrigues, with some powerful results. Salome’s spiteful slanders, combined with Herod’s paranoid suspicions, led to the executions of many people. Herod decimated the Hasmoneans, killing four generations of Hyrcanus II’s family.[40]

Salome was also a confidante of Herod’s firstborn son Antipater II (born to Herod’s first wife.) Josephus writes that “he was always talking with her as with a wife”.[41] The clever, but malicious,[42] Antipater recognised Salome as a powerful force behind Herod’s throne, and they were occasionally co-conspirators. Salome was a shrewd woman, however; and was never, herself, taken in by Antipater’s schemes.[43] Five days before Herod’s own death, Antipater was executed at his father’s command.[44] Salome “served as both prosecutor and witness in his trial.”[45]

Salome’s power was augmented by her friendship with Augustus’ wife Livia.[46] The friendship spanned the years of Augustus’ rule (31 BCE-14 CE) and continued until Salome’s death in 10 CE.[47] Josephus states that Salome submitted to Livia’s advice because she was Caesar’s wife, but he also notes that it was good advice: Livia “advised her to nothing but what was for her own advantage.”[48] Livia’s patronage afforded Salome both power and protection.[49]

With a brother such as Herod and a patroness such as Livia, Salome must have been a wealthy woman. When Herod died in 4 BCE she became even wealthier.[50] Herod bequeathed his sister a toparchy (a small state) which included the cities of Jamnia, Ashdod, and Phasaelis, from which she received revenue of sixty talents per annum.[51] His bequest to Salome also included five hundred thousand drachmae of coined silver. Caesar Augustus supplemented Herod’s bequest to Salome with a royal palace at Ashkelon. Salome was truly a powerful woman, and now, with her inheritance, her influence could be felt outside of Herod’s court.


The history of Herod’s domestic life, and Salome’s part in it, rivals the plot of any melodrama. The story that Josephus tells is one that borders on madness at times—and sometimes crosses that line—but Salome knew how to survive it; she countered Herod’s ruthless schemes with her own. The fact that Salome outlived her brother demonstrates that she outwitted him. She outwitted him with intrigues that cost the lives of her Hasmonean adversaries, her first two husbands, and others.

Salome was a powerful first-century BCE woman. She had a powerful position in Herod’s court which was enhanced by the friendship and patronage of Livia, and by her own personal wealth. Within Herod’s court, Salome was a force to be reckoned with. Yet, despite her power, living in Herod’s palace cannot have been a pleasant existence for Salome.[52] Josephus writes poignantly that because of the disorders in his family, Herod was prevented “from enjoying any comfort from those around that were dearest to him . . .”[53]  He received little lasting comfort from his sister Salome.


The full title of this essay is The Domestic Intrigues and Political Power of Salome I, Sister of Herod the Great. It has been uploaded to academia.edu as a pdf here.

[1] War 1.22.1ff §431. Quotes from “The Antiquities of the Jews” and “The War of the Jews” are taken from The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987)

[2] For example, Herod’s brother Pheroras refused to consummate a marriage with a princess—a marriage that Herod had arranged for him—because he was besotted with a female slave (Ant. 16.7.3 §194-199; War 1.24.5 §483-484); and Herod’s son Alexander disgraced himself with three eunuchs who held high offices in Herod’s court (Ant. 16.8.1 §230231; War 1.24.7 §488-490).

[3] Tal Ilan, Integrating Women into Second Temple History (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 116.

[4] Salome’s prominence in the histories concerning Herod may be an attempt to make her the scapegoat of Herod’s wicked deeds. Tal Ilan writes,

For this period [of his history] Josephus relied heavily on the works of Herod’s court historian Nicolaus of Damascus, and our picture of Salome is marred by the latter’s personal feud with her. Herod’s personal life was full of intrigue and violence. Nicolaus used Salome as a decoy, to divert the reader’s wrath at these deeds away from her brother. Thus she is described as being the instigator of all the “tragedies” that befell Herod.
“Salome”, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on May 17, 2015) http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/salome

[5] Geza Vermes, The True Herod (London; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 47.

[6] Ant. 14.15.2 §405 cf. Ant. 20.8.7 §173. For a discussion of Herod’s Jewish versus Hellenist sympathies, see Ingrid Johanne Moen “1.1 History of Scholarship: The Herodian Family and Judaism”, Marriage and Divorce in the Herodian Family: A Case Study of Diversity in Late Second Temple Judaism, Diss. 2009, Duke University, 1-8.

[7] Cypros was Salome’s Nabatean (i.e. Arabian) mother.

[8] Geza Vermes, The True Herod, 57-58.

[9] Geza Vermes, “Salome I”, Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 220.

[10] Ant. 15.7.4 §220; War 1.22.3 §438.

[11] Glaphyra was the daughter of Archelaus, the king of Cappadocia (Ant. 16.7.2 §193; War 1.23.1 §446)

[12] Glaphyra may have been a bitter woman with an unhappy marriage; it seems that her husband Alexander may have had homosexual proclivities (War 1.24.7 §488-490).

[13] War 1.24.2 §476-477.

[14] War 1.24.3 §478-479 cf. Ant. 16 §200-202.

[15] Salome, and her brother Pheroras, are described by Josephus as bareis and chalepoi: they were severe and difficult (War 1.24.5 §483).

[16] Ant. 16.7.2 §193.

[17] Ant.16.11.7 §394

[18] Geza Vermes, “Salome I”,  220.

[19] “Marriage with cousins and uncles was the best way for most [Royal] families to ensure a socially compatible partner and also to preserve property within the family.” Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995), 77.
The Bible forbids aunts marrying their nephews, but does not expressly forbid uncles from marrying their nieces. Nevertheless, it was a marriage of close relatives, and the authors of the Damascus Document (found among the Dead Sea Scrolls) forbid such a marriage (CD 5). Leonie Archer, Her Price is Above Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Greco-Roman Palestine (Sheffield; Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 133.

[20] Each of Salome’s husbands held important positions in Herod’s court. Samuel Rocca suggests this is because of Salome’s influence with Herod. Herod’s Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classical World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 74.  Yet it is more likely that Herod chose men who he already held in high esteem.

[21] War 1.24.6 §486. Mariamne survived this occasion, but in 29 BCE, Salome repeated slanderous accusations that Mariamne had been unfaithful, and Herod executed her. An action he immediately, and deeply, regretted.

[22] Ant. 15.7.9 §254.

[23] Ant. 15.7.9 §253-254.

[24] Ant. 16.7.4 §201

[25] War 1.24.3 §479

[26] Ant. 15.7.9 §258. Instead of loyalty to Judea, Costobarus bore a lingering resentment from the enforced conversion of Idumeans to Judaism carried out by Hyrcanus I.

[27] Ant. 15.7.10. §259.

[28] Ant. 18.5.4 §136. Interestingly, Josephus was divorced twice, and it seems that his first wife initiated the proceedings of his first divorce (Vita 75 §415). Josephus “married his first wife under Roman custody at the end of the war, but he writes that she left me (apēllagē) when they were released and he followed Vespasian to Rome . . .”  John J. Collins, “Marriage, Divorce and Family in Second Temple Judaism”, in Families in Ancient Israel, Leo G. Perdue et al (eds) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 120

[29] John J. Collins, “Marriage, Divorce and Family”, 121.

[30] David Instone Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 85-86.

[31] Josephus does not take into account the Roman regulations, and reveals his disapproval of Salome’s autonomous action in initiating the divorce with, “Salome chose not to follow the law of her country but the law of her authority . . . ” (Ant. 15.7.10 §260).

[32] Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, “Divorce of Jews in the Roman Empire” Jewish Law Annual 1981, Volume 4, Bernard Stuart Jackson (ed.) (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 82.

[33] Rabello, “Divorce”, 100.

[34] Tal Ilan, “Salome”.

[35] War 1.28.6 §566.

[36] Ant. 16.7.6 §220-225

[37] Tal Ilan writes that Salome’s plan to marry Sylleus failed “simply because the decision was not hers to make, even though she was twice a widow and her father long dead; her brother Herod was the one with the authority to decide, and he ruled against the match.” Jewish Women, 80.

[38] Herod’s two older brothers Phasael and Joseph II died before Herod became the ruler of Judea.

[39] Rocca, Herod’s Judea, 73. Contra: Ant. 16.4.6 §133

[40] Herod killed John Hyrcanus II, Hyrcanus’ powerful and shrewd daughter Alexandra, grandson Aristobulus III, granddaughter Mariamne (Herod’s second wife), and two grandsons Aristobulus and Alexander (two of Herod’s sons). Josephus writes that none of Hyrcanus’ relatives were left (Ant. 15.7.10 §266).

[41] War 1.24.2 §476.

[42] Ant. 16.4.1 §18

[43] Ant. 17.1.1 §8

[44] Ant. 17.8.7 §187

[45] Ant. 17. 5.3 §93. Tal Ilan “Salome”.

[46] Josephus continually refers to Livia as Julia.

[47] Florence Morgan Gillman, Herodias: At Home in that Fox’s Den (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 11.

[48] Ant. 17.1.1 §10

[49] During the reign of Augustus, “Livia invented new ways of extending patronage in the social and political dynamics of the early principate . . .” and she created a network of “personal contacts among the provincial and foreign elite through which Roman authority was administered abroad.” After Augustus’ death “Livia quickly developed a more overt presence in a wide variety of public forums” Beth Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire (London: Routledge 2004), 234 & 236. Other high-status Roman women followed Livia’s example and began exercising more power through patronage.
The practice of patronage was a vital part of Roman society. David de Silva writes, “Personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential – it was expected and publicized!” “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament”, Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999), 32. Seneca described patronage as “the chief bond of human society” (De Beneficiis 1.4.2). Quoted by deSilva in “Patronage and Reciprocity”, 33. [More about patronage and women patrons here.]

[50] Ant. 17.6.1 §147; 17.8.1 §189; 17.11.5 §321; War 1.32.7 §646; 2.6.3 §98

[51] Salome, in turn, bequeathed the toparchy to Livia (Ant. 18.2.2 §31; cf. War 2.9.1 §167). Clients typically bequeathed some of their wealth to their patron, but Salome was especially generous, demonstrating her gratitude to Livia. As Mary Mudd notes, “Salome could have left this bounty, with its substantial income of 60 talents per year, to her children or her royal nephews. Instead, she bequeathed it to Livia.” I Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal (no city, USA: Trafford Publishing, 2012), 266.

[52] E.g. Ant. 16.8.4 §253

[53] Ant. 16.3.2 §75; 16.7.5 §200


Archer, Leonie, Her Price is Above Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Greco-Roman Palestine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990)

Collins, John J. “Marriage, Divorce and Family in Second Temple Judaism”, in Families in Ancient Israel, Leo G. Perdue et al (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 104-162.

deSilva, David “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament”, Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999), 32-84.

Gillman, Florence Morgan, Herodias: At Home in that Fox’s Den (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003)

Ilan, Tal, “Salome”, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on May 17, 2015) http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/salome

__________ Integrating Women into Second Temple History (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999)

__________ Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995)

Instone Brewer, David, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002)

Moen, Ingrid Johanne, Marriage and Divorce in the Herodian Family: A Case Study of Diversity in Late Second Temple Judaism, Diss. 2009. Duke University.

Mudd, Mary, I Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal. The Story of a Much Maligned Woman (no city, USA: Trafford Publishing, 2012).

Rabello, Alfredo Mordechai, “Divorce of Jews in the Roman Empire” in Jewish Law Annual 1981, Volume 4, Bernard Stuart Jackson (ed.) (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 79-102.

Rocca, Samuel, Herod’s Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classical World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)

Severy, Beth, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire (London: Routledge 2004)

Vermes, Geza, The True Herod (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014)

__________ “Salome I”, Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 2006) 220-221.

Image Credits

Irène (1897) by William Adolphe Bouguereau (Wikimedia)
Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod (1887) by John William Waterhouse (Wikimedia)

A family tree featuring the Hasmoneans and Herodians is here.

Explore more

Salome: Was the dancing daughter of Herodias a child? (Herodias was Salome I’s granddaughter.)
Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church
Deacons in the Ephesian Church, and Phoebe as Patron

5 thoughts on “The Intrigues of Salome I, Herod the Great’s Sister

  1. That painting is not of Salome!
    That is the legendary Greek poet Sappho, by Bouguereau!
    Do your homework, please!

    1. Actually, Joseph Bianco, the portrait is of “Irene.” Nowhere do I claim the portrait is of Salome. In fact, I give the title of the portrait as “Irene” in the “Image Credits” near the bottom of the article.

      See also:

      Some people have used this portrait of Irene in articles about Sappho as I have done in this article about Salome I.

      Your confidence in your own ability to do homework, and your lack of appreciation of my ability to homework, is clearly misplaced and unjustified, as is your use of exclamation marks.

      Check your facts before making unfounded and unnecessary comments.

  2. […] Salomezion (Salome) Alexandra (139–67 BCE) was a regnant queen. She was the last monarch to rule Judea as an independent nation.
    (I’ve written articles on Salome, the conniving sister of Herod the Great, Salome, the dancing daughter of Herodias, and Salome, the devoted disciple of Jesus.) […]

  3. […] On my website, I have an article about Salome the shrewd sister of Herod the Great (here) and an article about Salome the daughter of the conniving Herodias (here). In this article, I look at Salome who was a disciple of Jesus. […]

  4. […] However, Jewish women who were Roman citizens could enact a divorce under Roman law. For example, Salome I (Herod the Great’s sister) and Herodias issued a writ of divorce and divorced their husbands. More on this […]

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