Monday, October 5, 2009

"I have made but one mistake."

In relationships, timing is everything. At least, that’s what they say. It’s probably true. Just ask Berenice. In hindsight, falling in love with the Roman general (soon-to-be Emperor) just after he sacked your country and killed close to a million of your people was probably not the best idea.  But since when has that had anything to do with love?
            The Romans were the victors in 70 C.E. As the ones left standing, it was their job to write down what happened. Unfortunately, what that means is only their versions of events remain. Several contemporaries of Titus and Berenice told the story of their affair. None of them referred to it as ‘love.’ The Jews were not in vogue, given the fact they had just instigated a lengthy and expensive war. As I stated previously, the Herods weren’t exactly Jews, but they weren’t exactly Romans either. Berenice actually gave large sums of money and threw around a substantial amount of influence to get Vespasian the job of Emperor. Her motivations were questioned and good will turned against her in the months and years to come.
            You might remember a woman named Cleopatra. According to Roman history, Cleopatra was a deceitful, conniving, power hungry, foreign woman whose female wiles nearly destroyed the moral fiber of Rome forever. Sound exaggerated? It always has to me. Disease, pirates, bandits, inbreeding, internal power struggles, and hundreds of armies were no match for the solid foundations of Rome, but one woman…she was going to ruin everything? It may sound silly, but the Romans in 70 C.E. were weaned on those stories of Cleopatra, and they harbored an inherent and intense dislike of foreign (especially Eastern) women. The attitude spilled over to Berenice.
            Shortly after Titus returned to Rome, Berenice and her brother followed. She lived with Titus in the Emperor’s palace, and by all accounts acted as his wife in every way. Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXV) even goes so far as to say she had been promised marriage by 75 C.E.  Several writers (aka, historians) of the time noted their relationship, and all agree it dissolved when Titus caved to political pressure and sent her away. Berenice returned one more time, perhaps at his request, when he assumed the throne after the death of his father in 79 C.E. She stayed only a few short months before he was again forced to send her back to Judea. His image and his effectiveness suffered due to her presence, forcing his hand.
Berenice was unpopular for all the same reasons as Cleopatra. In addition to long standing rumors she and her brother practiced an incestuous relationship, she was cast in the role of the power hungry woman who would stop at nothing to marry Titus and rule over Rome. Politicians, playwrights, philosophers, and cynics publicly slandered her character. It would have been nearly impossible for Titus and to recover and polish her image. Titus died unexpectedly in 81 C.E. after ruling for only two years. He is remembered, along with his father, as one of the most well liked Emperors in Rome’s history. His short two-year rule was dotted with major events. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii. A massive fire burned a large portion of the city, including important landmarks. He completed and opened the Coliseum, a project begun by Vespasian. He did his best, stayed cool in the face of adversity, put the people first, and knew how to kick back and relax. Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus dismissed her for the last time.
There is absolutely nothing to suggest Berenice was after Titus for any reason other than love. There is also nothing to suggest she wasn’t after him for his power and influence, like the Romans believed. Precious little information remains regarding Berenice at all. She was powerful in her own right, a fact attested to by her contemporaries. That a woman was mentioned in official record at all (especially by the always misogynistic Paul) is proof she was both influential and respected. So were the (all male) historians leery of her because she was a beautiful, powerful woman, or were their suspicions founded in fact? As a female, I know one thing. For all his admirable traits, Titus was the last man in the world Berenice should have fallen for. Historically, she was devoted to her people, and loving him was an egregious betrayal. Also, being rejected not once, but twice, smacks of real love. Especially for a proud and powerful woman used to having her own way. She had plenty of money, comforts, and influence in Judea. I just can’t see her going to him a second time for any other reason than actually needing to be by his side. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a power-money-prestige hungry woman myself, so perhaps you think I just don’t understand her. For some reason, though, I have always felt as though I do.
Titus’ last words were allegedly, “I have made but one mistake.” The historians (all men, remember?) believed he regretted allowing his younger brother to live after an ill-conceived assassination attempt. The romantic in me, the woman in me, wants to believe he referred to Berenice. That the only regret he had was giving in to the pressure, for choosing his country over true love. He wasn’t the first person to do so. He certainly wasn’t the last, either. After all, his actions seem to point toward real feelings as well. He knew how his advisors and the public felt about her. Why ask her to come back a second time? For what other reason than he needed her, missed her? It’s the never-gets-old-ill-fated-lovers tale. Romeo and Juliet. Heathcliff and Catherine. More recently, Edward and Bella (except they got the happy ending). Why does that story never get old? My guess is because most people can relate to it. If timing is everything, most of us have experienced a relationship that would have been amazing…five years earlier. Ten years later. If he wasn’t the Emperor of Rome. If he wasn’t undead. If his family didn’t hate mine. If he wasn’t a dense asshole (oops, how did that one get in there?).
I love the story of Titus and Berenice because it’s real. Even through the gauzy curtain dotted with sparse details, I can feel their pain. I believe it was real, their love. I can’t wait to keep writing so more people will know them and feel the exquisite anguish that must have been theirs. For poor Titus, whom I have always liked, but mostly for Berenice. After all, she’s had her mouth sewn shut on the subject for two thousand years. I can’t wait to rip those ugly black stitches out of her lips and give her a voice, a story, and the chance to finally tell her side.

(Look for a peek at my version of Titus and Berenice's beginnings in my next post)


  1. I'm looking forward to reading more about Titus and Berenice. I just bought Michelle Moran's new book- CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER, which should be fun. I like seeing history from a woman's perspective. Women had so many obstacles (much more than the men) to gain and sustain power back then. makes for great story telling.

  2. This sounds really interesting! I'm working on something similar right now about Helen (of Troy) and Theseus (hero of Attica). More myth than history, but still fated to be impossible. It's horribly sad to write...