Archetypical Evil Woman

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Playing nine holes at City Park Golf Course in Fort Collins, Tim and I were paired up with a couple of older women.  When I at 70 say “older,” it means elderly. Edith Caroline was 94, and Margaret was 91. The two women play golf trice a week. They never took practice shots, stayed on the fairway, and were grateful for the recent golf rule change allowing players to leave the flag in the hole. For the record, so am I. Tim loves to talk to and learn about people, whether they are four years old or one hundred.  So needless to say they had a swell time playing together.  

Edith Caroline and I bonded not because of our long drives (that existed only in our dreams),  but it was the first time either of us had golfed with a namesake. Edith told me she started golfing at City Park when it opened in 1938. She knew about every expansion and new amenity. The two friends quit the women’s golf league because “it was changing.” Edith’s husband, now passed, was a professor of history at the Colorado State University teaching about the Weimar Republic.  I was clueless, so she explained it was the period between 1919 to 1933, the two world wars. She said, “it’s a very interesting period in history.” I don’t doubt it.

When you read history, especially when you do it because you want to, you see how it repeats and repeats. What we call chaos in D.C. is patterns repeated throughout history. Politicians’ understanding of history isn’t their strong suit. The animosity between political groups is human behavior we can’t decipher because we don’t know history well enough. We throw up our hands, announcing that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Sounds a bit like my morning shoulder exercise routine. Whether I’m reading John McCullough’s book, John Adams, or listening to a lecture on the Roman Empire, the patterns and parallels between then and now intrigue. So, learning about the most reviled woman in history, it didn’t surprise to read that her husband’s demise was blamed on her. In other words, her ambition to get ahead in life caused his ruin. Wouldn’t you know it!

Most of my sources of information come from Professor Joyce E. Salisbury, who specializes in religious and social history with a focus on women’s roles. Her sources are the Gospels in the Bible’s New Testament and that which was written by the Romano‐Jewish scholar Titus Flavius Josephus. Both written in the 1st century.

Augustus (see Blogpost from July 21), the self-proclaimed first citizen of the Roman Empire ruled from 31BC to 14 AD. After him, his son-in-law, Tiberius, took the top spot in the Roman Empire. Rome appointed “client kings” to govern its provinces making decisions on local and religious matters that didn’t require Rome’s attention or support. It’s in this setting where we become acquainted with Herodias, the woman Christians in particular loaths.

Herod the Great, a Roman client king of Judea (37 BC) and eventually all of Palestine (20-4 BC), died in 1AD and passed on his land to his three sons, Phillip, Antipas, and Archelaus. Ten years later, the Romans dethroned Archelaus and made his part of Judea (which included Jerusalem) a province under their direct control. 

Like his father, Antipas cultivated his relationship with his Roman masters (good to have friends in high places). He built a new capital city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and called it Tiberia. Brown-nosing at its best. Lest they forget him, he made sure to visit Rome for a face-to-face. On one of his trips, he stayed with his half brother, Herod II, who was married to Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great, and their young daughter, Salome.  

Antipas, a tetrarch (a title of a viceroy or governor), takes a liking to Herodias and sweet-talks her to marry him. The pesky fact that both were married was solvable. With enough power and gold coins, everything was possible. When the news reached Antipas’s wife, Phasaelis, daughter of a powerful Arabian king (King Aretas of Nabatea), she skedaddled back home to dad. Divorce was one thing, but she knew her life was threatened. If hubby was eager to be with his new love, he could leapfrog the divorce papers and have her murdered.  

There was no drawback for Herodias to marry the tetrarch who was also her half-uncle. Her new position promised to give her more power and certainly more gowns and entertainment. For Antipas, who had spent considerable energy and resources to please Rome, things turned out worse than he might have expected. His ex-father-in-law, Aretas, was furious and sent troops to Judea to teach him a lesson. Antipas calls for Rome to rescue his province. Tiberius sent his military to defeat Aretas, but from then on Antipas and Rome’s relationship was strained. Antipas had damaged this crucial political tie. And the biggest problem is yet to come.

While the rulers in most of the ancient world saw marriages as alliances, no big deal, most Jews had a different take on it. Antipas’s marriage had put him into a confrontation with Jewish law.  Professor Salisbury: “There was a strict prohibition against a woman leaving a living husband to marry another man, and this was particularly true when there was a child involved. It was also prohibited for a woman to marry her husband’s brother. These rules were designed to ensure harmony among ancient families, and Herodias and Antipas broke them.”  

Arriving in Judea to start her new life, before the horses were in the barn and Herodias had a chance to examine her new china, she became aware of the disapproval from Judea’s Jews. Herodias was furious and helpless to silence the whispers at the fullonica (laundry mat) or the imperial banquets.  

With no affection from Rome and infighting among the Jewish people, Antipas’ headaches are getting worse. Professor Salisbury:  “In the early 1st century, Judea was plagued by three intersecting problems: relations with Rome, the negotiation of degrees of Jewish orthodoxy (that is, in this multicultural world of the Roman Empire, how strictly must Jews in Judea follow scriptural restrictions), and the many struggles within Judaism itself as competing sects vied for the soul of the religion.”

The Roman Jewish scholar Titus Flavius Josephus described the four reform movements of Judaism. The Sadducees were all about worship at the temple. The Pharisees rejected the Roman world, adhering strictly to rituals and dietary rules. The Essenes took it a step further and habituated the desert to get away from Rome’s political power. Lastly, the Zealots was a political group who wanted a free Jewish state. 

Every which way, conflict rained on the newlyweds. As if the disharmony in the homeland and strained relations with Rome weren’t enough, a number of men people called prophets were gaining a following. The two most famous among them, born in the reign of Augustus were the infant Jesus and his cousin John born a few months earlier. The timing of John and Jesus starting their ministry intersected with Antipas and Herodias’ days as rulers of Judea.

Both sources, the Gospels and Josephus state that John’s (who became John the Baptist) message was one of redemption. People swarmed to the banks of the River Jordan that happened to be on the border of Antipas’s kingdom to be baptized, cleansed of their sins. Today, only the Catholic church offers this service. John’s celebrity status grew as did Antipas’s worry that this could pose yet another problem for him to resolve. From Professor Salisbury: “Josephus writes that Antipas was afraid of John’s growing popularity. John’s influence might allow him to lead the people in a rebellion, for it seemed to Antipas that the people were ready to do anything the prophet wanted. It appears that the tetrarch was afraid John might be a Zealot, inciting people to rise against Rome and its puppet— Antipas himself. So, Antipas had John arrested and put to death.” However, this version is less popular than the story that places the blame at Herodias’s sandals.

The Bible holds Herodias responsible. She is the evil-doer. From Salisbury lecture on “The biblical account is more detailed, and it makes Herodias the villain in the killing. This account agrees with Josephus that Antipas was afraid of John. However, Antipas did not want to kill the holy man, even though he was troubled by the prophet’s attack on his marriage. Antipas had John arrested while he decided what to do. Herodias, however, made a plan to force Antipas to kill John.”

Herodias plans a great banquet to celebrate her husbands birthday. The main attraction was her 15-year-old daughter, Salome, dancing for Antipas, her step-father. When the dance ends in a state of drunken pleasure, he yells out for all to hear, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it!” After checking with her mom, Salome says, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Even though Antipas didn’t want to kill John, his guests witnessed his promise. He orders the soldiers to bring John’s head. Before the night was over, John the Baptist’s head was delivered on a platter to Salome, who presents it to her mother.  

From then on, Herodias is seen as the archetypical evil woman painted by artists through the centuries, cementing her as the female miscreant in the early history of the Roman Empire.

2 thoughts on “Archetypical Evil Woman

  1. Thanks Edith. Hope your days are cool and bright in CO. We have rain and the heat index yesterday was 113 degrees. Enjoyed the post. I always wondered why Herodius wanted John the Baptist dead. Thanks. ________________________________


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