Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Forgotten Warrior Monarch

Salome Alexandra’s military campaigns were apparently successful since her reign was peaceful. She controlled many of the neighboring lands. She was not only a skilled military strategist, but a political realist as well. She knew that any further expansion of Judea would weaken her military and economy and therefore did not engage in endless wars of conquests to expand her territorial holdings. Judea likely reached its greatest extent during her reign: her state nearly rivaled the legendary empire of King David.

Adapted from Kenneth Atkinson, Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Warrior Monarch of the First Century B.C.E. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012

By Kenneth Atkinson
Associate Professor of History
University of Northern Iowa
Department of History
June 2012

Salome Alexandra (ca. 141 B.C.E.-67 B.C.E.) is virtually unknown today. She is an ancient example of what we would call an outlier—an exceptional person whose accomplishments are so extraordinary that they appear to defy explanation.1 Salome Alexandra was so unique that historians—both ancient and modern—have largely ignored her, rather than try to explain the perplexing circumstances that brought her to power. She was one of the ancient world’s greatest monarchs. As her nation’s sole ruler, she presided over many religious reforms that shaped the Judaism of Jesus’ time as well as our own. She was so prominent that she is one of eighteen people, and the only woman, mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.2 Archaeologists have uncovered her vast palace in the oasis of Jericho.3 European Jews told stories about her bravery as late as the sixteenth century C.E.4 The rabbis describe her reign as a golden age.5

Salome Alexandra lived at a pivotal time in the ancient Near East—the period of Jewish independence. Her family had fought a long, but successful, war to create the Judean state. Her life almost coincided with its existence. She was likely born the year after her people had won their freedom from their Syrian overlords; she died less than four years before the Romans destroyed her nation. She knew all its kings: She even appointed one of them.6 Before she reached adulthood, she witnessed countless wars, state sponsored atrocities—even crucifixion—assassinations, matricide, and cannibalism.7 Murderous clergy, corrupt politicians, disease, death, famine, and violence against women were commonplace during her lifetime. Her nation was seldom at peace; its existence was always precarious; and the neighboring powers were constantly trying to conquer it. Yet, Salome Alexandra somehow defied the odds and survived the many perils of her day to become Judea’s sole monarch, military leader, and custodian of its religion when she was sixty-four years old! She was effectively the last independent ruler of her nation until her present-day descendants fought a war for independence in 1948 to create the State of Israel.

Most of what we know of this turbulent period comes from the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus (37-ca. 100 C.E.), a contemporary of New Testament figures like Paul and Jesus’ brother James. But when it comes to Salome Alexandra, Josephus is often uncharacteristically brief, omitting important details and even providing contradictory accounts in his two great works, The Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War (about the great Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E., during which Josephus betrayed his own people and defected to the Romans). His account of her life in his Antiquities, which is longer than his earlier War, consists of approximately seven-and-a-half pages of printed text.8 (Josephus devotes nearly the same amount of space to the less than the one-year reign of her brother-in-law, the Hasmonean monarch Judah Aristobulus.)9 It only covers her nine-year reign and ends with her death. Although he is not particularly sympathetic to Salome Alexandra (unlike the later rabbis), even he had to acknowledge her remarkable achievements. One of these is his story of how she came to power. Long regarded as historical, a close reading suggests that it is a work of fiction that essentially removes Salome Alexandra’s accomplishments from history. It shows that she was not the weakling Josephus portrays, but one of the ancient world’s greatest warrior queens.

In 76 B.C.E. Alexander Jannaeus (ca. 125/127-76 B.C.E.), king of Judea, was fighting an unpopular war against the Nabatean Arabs of present-day Jordan. His legion was struggling to capture the fortified citadel of Ragaba. Then, as his army was poised to make its final assault, the unexpected occurred—he died. His troops, deep in enemy territory, faced two new threats: one was external while the other potentially came from within its ranks. To the north, tribes in Syria appeared ready to take advantage of the absence of the imperial forces to invade Judea. At home, the king’s political, military, and religious enemies were preparing to wage civil war to seize his capital of Jerusalem.

Josephus tells us very little about Salome Alexandra during her husband’s calamitous twenty-seven year reign. He writes that her spouse suffered from a quartan fever during the last three years of his life and that his chronic alcoholism and frequent warfare acerbated his condition. Despite his ill health, he spent much of his time campaigning outside Judea. Salome Alexandra must have acted as regent during his many lengthy absences. On at least one occasion, she accompanied the army into battle to besiege the Nabatean stronghold of Ragaba. It was here where her life changed forever, but not because of anything she did. Josephus claims her husband summoned her there because he was dying. In his War, he writes that while the blockade was in progress:

Alexander (Jannaeus) bequeathed the kingdom to his wife (Salome) Alexandra, being convinced that the Jews would bow to her authority as they would to no other, because by her utter lack of his brutality and by her opposition to his crimes she had won the love of her populace. Nor was he mistaken in these expectations; for this frail woman firmly held the reigns of government, thanks to her reputation for piety. (War, 1.107-8)

Salome Alexandra continued the campaign, captured Ragaba, and returned home to Jerusalem as its new monarch. The Judeans willingly accepted her as their ruler even though she had two grown sons. But is this widely accepted story true? Was Alexander Jannaeus’ dying wish that his wife succeed him to the throne? Did she capture Ragaba through her husband’s ruse? Or is Josephus’ account a work of fiction?

The Christian Byzantine chronographer George Syncellus preserves some valuable information about the Hasmonean period that at times supplements the accounts of Josephus. Even though he wrote centuries later, historians should not disregard his book since he had access to many now lost manuscripts that were housed in the libraries of Constantinople, and likely many private collections as well.10 Books, moreover, had a remarkably long life. An examination of extant libraries uncovered through excavations reveals that manuscripts circulated for centuries.11 For this reason, we should not discount the testimony of later writers such as George Syncellus in preference to earlier authors such as Josephus since proximity to events does not necessarily guarantee greater historical accuracy. This is especially true when it comes to Josephus, for his accounts of the Hasmonean period are highly polemical and often deliberately distort historical facts.12

George Syncellus’ rather brief account of the reign of Salome Alexandra’s husband supports Josephus’ portrayal of his cruelty. He writes of his character:

(Alexander) Jannaeus was quick to anger, arrogant, and extremely savage…When the Jews began to revolt, he slaughtered his own people without mercy, even women and children. (Chronicle, 555.8-17)

However, George Syncellus had access to a very different account of Alexander Jannaeus’ death. According to his source:

Jannaeus, also known as Alexander, was victorious in his war against Antiochus’ son Grypus, who was also known as Dionysus. He made war against the Tyrians and besieged their island. When the Nabateans and Itureans led an insurrection against him, he sent the Galilean general Diagos against the Nabateans. But while he was preparing for war against the Itureans, Jannaeus died after a reign of thirty years. He had entrusted his wife Salome (Alexandra) with the administration of his kingdom, even though she had two sons by him, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. (Chronicle, 559.5-12)

George Syncellus mentions two military campaigns that Josephus omits from his narrative. The first is Alexander Jannaeus’ invasion of the Seleucid Empire, during which he defeated its king, Antiochus Dionysus (reigned 87-84 B.C.E.), in battle. Josephus does not mention this incident. He only records Antiochus Dionysus’ later invasion of Judea when he burned Alexander Jannaeus’ great wall. A series of rectangular and hexagonal-shaped stone foundations, commonly known as the “Jannaeus Line,” uncovered between the ancient port city of Aphek and modern Tel Aviv, are the likely remnants of this fortification.13 However, such a complex and lengthy defensive wall would have taken considerable time to construct. Alexander Jannaeus, having attacked Antiochus Dionysius earlier, likely expected a Seleucid invasion and began construction of this wall to protect his coastal holdings.

Josephus’ account suggests that Antiochus Dionysus delayed his Nabatean campaign to make a foolish diversion to seize Judea’s ports. This unnecessary detour gave the Nabateans time to amass additional forces that they used to decimate the Seleucid army and kill Antiochus Dionysus. But George Syncellus tells a different story. He makes it clear that Antiochus Dionysus’ invasion of Judea was not merely a reckless act of aggression. He was actually seeking revenge against Alexander Jannaeus for his earlier unprovoked attack against Syria. The Seleucids and the Nabateans were about to go to war. Antiochus Dionysus had no choice but to subdue Alexander Jannaeus to prevent the Judeans from invading his homeland again while he was fighting the Nabateans. The great wall was intended to prevent Antiochus Dionysius from taking Judea’s ports. George Syncellus shows that Alexander Jannaeus was overly aggressive during his reign. He had repeatedly failed in his bids to conquer the Seleucid Empire and neighboring lands and frequently caused his nation to become involved in wars with the neighboring monarchs. George Syncellus not only reveals additional information about Alexander Jannaeus’ political and military policies, but he sheds additional light on the archaeological remains and clarifies Josephus’ confusing narrative.

The second campaign George Syncellus records, Alexander Jannaeus’ siege of Tyre, sheds new light on the circumstances surrounding Salome Alexandra’s assumption to power. This expedition apparently threatened to deprive the Nabateans and the Itureans use of this strategic port to move their goods overseas. Geroge Syncellus reveals that they formed a military alliance, surprised Alexander Jannaeus at Tyre, and forced him to abandon his siege and sign a humiliating peace treaty. Josephus omits this embarrassing episode from his books; however, he mentions that Alexander Jannaeus, for reasons he prefers to leave unmentioned, surrendered many cities, including the valuable lands of Moab and Galaaditis beyond the Jordan River, to the Nabatean monarch Aretas at this time.14 Only the threatened destruction of his army could have forced Alexander Jannaeus to make such humiliating concessions.

When Salome Alexandra took power, her husband had been waging a three-year series of wars to win back this lost territory. Josephus inserts an ancient list of Alexander Jannaeus’ conquests at the time of his death to make it appear that Salome Alexandra inherited a kingdom that spanned both banks of the Jordan River. However, George Syncellus preserves a very different list of lands he supposedly held, but did not conquer.15 A close reading of this catalog of Alexander Jannaeus’ supposed victories reveals that Salome Alexandra took possession of a rapidly dwindling state that was threatened by several of its enemies. Her late husband’s warmongering had made the Hasmonean State’s survival more uncertain than any time since its creation. Salome Alexandra, moreover, actually captured some of the cities in Josephus’ list. But George Syncellus also reveals something even more startling about her husband that completely changes our understanding of how she came to power—Alexander Jannaeus was not at the siege of Ragaba.

According to George Syncellus’ ancient source, Alexander Jannaeus passed away while preparing to take the field against the Itureans in the Galilee: a clear indication that he was in Jerusalem with the troops and not on the battlefield when he died. The Nabatean campaign had already commenced and Salome Alexandra was with the legions at Ragaba, leading men in battle with her general Diagos. Her spouse likely expired in a warm bed in the palace, possibly surrounded by a few partisans and concubines, and perhaps his sons.

Although Josephus does not want to portray Salome Alexandra as a warrior, a close reading of his accounts suggests that she was a formidable military figure. In a rather remarkable passage he must have copied from an ancient source, he writes:

She proved to be a wonderful administrator in matters of state, and, by a continual recruiting doubled her army. She amassed a considerable body of foreign troops that she used to strengthen her nation. She also struck fear in the surrounding nations and became their master. (War, 1.112)

Josephus implies that her military buildup was not merely defensive but that she undertook a series of wars to regain lost Hasmonean territory. His reference to her taking hostages from neighboring rulers indicates that she must have fought and won numerous battles, especially in Nabatea, since the region’s monarchs would not have submitted to such undignified treatment unless she had forcibly subdued them.

Salome Alexandra’s military campaigns were apparently successful since her reign was peaceful. She controlled many of the neighboring lands. She was not only a skilled military strategist, but a political realist as well. She knew that any further expansion of Judea would weaken her military and economy and therefore did not engage in endless wars of conquests to expand her territorial holdings. Judea likely reached its greatest extent during her reign: her state nearly rivaled the legendary empire of King David.16

Salome Alexandra maintained peace through careful negotiations with her country’s long-standing enemies and through the construction of strategic fortresses in foreign lands. These, and her three greatest strongholds, Alexandrium, Hyrcania, and Macherus, allowed her to keep trade routes open and stimulate Judean commerce. She also amassed a strong army with many skilled foreign mercenaries to keep her enemies at bay. When her nation was faced with the possibility of war during her reign, Salome Alexandra appears to have formed an ancient coalition of the willing with the neighboring kingdoms that successfully repulsed the Armenian king Tigranes the Great. One of history’s most formidable monarchs, he alone would survive the Roman annexation of the region and retain a portion of his kingdom. Yet, Salome Alexandra played an instrumental role in expelling him from the region to save her kingdom.17

Salome Alexandra’s death marks the end of a unique period of history. Never before or since has her nation enjoyed such peace and prosperity. Even the sexist Josephus pays her the ultimate compliment when he writes:

(Salome Alexandra) was a woman who showed none of the weakness of her sex; for being one of those inordinately desirous of the power to rule, she showed by her deeds the ability to carry out her plans, and at the same time she exposed the stupidity of those men who continually fail to maintain sovereign power. (Antiquities, 13.430)

Although largely forgotten today, Salome Alexandra was the greatest Hasmonean ever to have sat upon the throne. She was clearly a woman not to be messed with.


1 I take the concept of an “outlier,” and the importance of culture, community, and family for understanding an influential person’s ostensibly unprecedented achievements, from the insightful study of success by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), esp. 15-68.

2 For names in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see Kenneth Atkinson, “Representations of History in 4Q331 (4QpapHistorical Text C), 4Q332 (4QHistorical Text D), 4Q333 (4QHistorical Text E), and 4Q468e (4QHistorical Text F): An Annalistic Calendar Documenting Portentous Events?” Dead Sea Discoveries 14 (2007): 125-51. For Queen Salome’s likely name, see Atkinson, Queen Salome, 17-25.

3 Ehud Netzer, The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great (Jerusalem: Yad-Ben Zvi, 2001), 30-9.

4 Azariah dei Rossi, The Light of the Eyes. Translated by Joanna Weinberg (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 349-50 [Originally published 1573].

5 Leviticus Rabbah 35:10. For additional examples, see further, Atkinson, Queen Salome, 161-73.

6 Salome Alexandra was likely born in 141 B.C.E., just one year after Simon became Judea’s high priest and political leader. This date is based on her age and the date of her death in 63 B.C.E. See Josephus, War, 1.119; Antiquities, 13.430. Simon declared independence from the Seleucids in 143/2 B.C.E. See 1 Macc. 13:41-2; Antiquities, 13.213. She appointed her eldest son, Hyrcanus II, as king and high priest.

7 (cannibalism) Ant., 13.345-6; (matricide) Ant., 13.302. See further Kenneth Atkinson, “The Salome No One Knows: Long-time Ruler of a Prosperous and Peaceful Judea Mentioned in Dead Sea Scrolls.” Biblical Archaeology Review 34 (2008): 60-65, 72.

8 War, 1.107-19; Antiquities, 13.407-32.

9 Figures from the Greek text of Joseph Sievers, Synopsis of the Greek Sources for the Hasmonean period: 1-2 Maccabees and Josephus, War 1 and Antiquities 12-14 (Rome: Pontificio istituto biblico, 2001).

10 See further Seth Schwartz, Seth. “Georgius Syncellus’s Account of Ancient Jewish History.” In Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Jerusalem, August 16-24, 1989, Division B, volume II: The History of the Jewish People (Jerusalem: The World Union of Jewish Studies, 1990), 1-8. Citations of Sycellus are from the edition of Wilhelm Dindorf, ed. Georgius Syncellus et Nicephorus Cp. (Bonn: E. Weber, 1829).

11 The testimony of a recently discovered letter by Galen indicates that the libraries of the Palatine Hill in his day that were between 200 and 450 years old by the time of the fire of 192 A.D. This conflagration destroyed much of his extensive personal library that he had stored in nearby warehouses. For the text of this letter, see Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson, “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief,’” Early Christianity 2 (2011): 110-29. The recent study by George Houston (“Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome [ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker; Oxford: Oxford University press, 2009], 233-67) of some fifty collections and libraries from the second century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. shows that many literary manuscripts were in use between 150-500 years, with an average life between 200-300 years. This makes it plausible that Syncellus used ancient sources of the Hasmonean period.

12 See further Kenneth Atkinson, “The Historical Chronology of the Hasmonean Period in the War and Antiquities of Flavius Josephus: Separating Fact from Fiction.” In Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History. Jack Pastor, Pnina Stern, and Menachem Mohr, Editors (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 7- 27.

13 War 1.99-100; Antiquities 13,387-91. For the wall, see Moshe Fisher, “Die Straßenstation von Horvat Məzad (Ḥirbet el-Qaṣr) Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Weges von Jerusalem nach Emmaus,” Zeitschrift des Deuitschen Palästina-Vereins 103 (1987): 117-36; Y. Kaplan, “The Yannai Line,” in Roman Frontier Studies 1967 (ed. Shimon Applebaum; Tel Aviv: Students’ Organization of Tel Aviv University, 1971), 201-5. For a more skeptical view that this fortification does not date to the time of Alexander Jannaeus, which fails to take into consideration the revised chronology of this period based on the numismatic evidence, see Alexander Fantalkin and Oren Tal, “The ‘Yannai Line’ (BJ I,99-100; AJ XIII, 390-391): Reality or Fiction?” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 135 (2003): 108-23.

14 Antiquities, 13.382. See further Israel Shatzman, The Armies of the Hasmonaeans and Herod: From Hellenistic to Roman Frameworks (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1991), 89-92; Aryeh Kasher, Jews and Hellenistic Cities in Eretz-Israel: Relations of the Jews with the Hellenistic Cities During the Second Temple Period (332 BCE-70CE) (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1990), 153-60.

15 Antiquities, 13.393-97; Schwartz, “Georgius Syncellus’s Account,” 5; Shatzman, The Armies of the Hasmonaeans, 75-6.

16 Antiquities, 13.409.

17 For the evidence that Salome Alexandra forged a military alliance with the region’s rulers and was instrumental in expelling Tigranes from the region, see further Atkinson, Queen Salome, 203-20.

Comments (1)

It is interesting reading exploits of extraordinary women in history.

Nice to know that women builds kingdoms as well.

Thank you,

Jose Edroheno Calsis Bulang

#1 - Jose Edroheno Calsis Bulang - 01/20/2019 - 11:09

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