The Forgotten Ancient Queen: Salome Alexandra of Judea

Queen Salome Alexandra (r. 76-67 BCE) was arguably the most powerful and successful member of the Hasmonean dynasty, which governed an independent but strife-torn Judea. As the wife of King Alexander Jannaeus (r. 103-76 BCE) and then queen-regent in her own right, Salome Alexandra exercised wise judgment and remarkable personal conviction as a stateswoman. One of only two women ever to exercise sole rule over Judea, Salome Alexandra presided over a brief, but treasured era of peace. Not surprisingly, Salome Alexandra–commonly referred to as “Shelomtzion” or “Shlom Tzion” in Hebrew–is also the only woman explicitly mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls by name. Although few recognize her name, her importance to the subsequent development Judaism and Christianity is without question.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Kenneth Atkinson, Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa, about this most distinct and enigmatic of ancient monarchs.

JW: Dr. Atkinson, it is such a delight to be speaking to you about such an interesting and relatively unknown personality! I must confess that initially I confused Queen Salome Alexandra with another Salome–Princess Salome, the infamous granddaughter of King Herod the Great (r. 37-4 BCE) who desired the head of St. John the Baptist (d. 28-36 CE).

What compelled you to write your recent biographyQueen Salome: Jerusalem’s Forgotten Ruler and the Mysterious Women of the Dead Sea Scrolls–and what obstacles did you face in researching such an elusive personality? From what I understand, most of the information pertaining to Salome Alexandra’s life comes from the historian Josephus (c. 37-100 CE), who wrote in the century after her death.

KA: Thanks, James, for the opportunity to introduce Ancient History Encyclopedia users to this fascinating woman. My interest in Queen Salome Alexandra grew out of my graduate school work on the early Roman period in ancient Palestine, specifically the 63 BCE conquest of Jerusalem by the Roman general, Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE). In order to understand why he invaded the country and ended the nearly century old dynasty of Hasmonean rulers, I began researching the decades prior to his arrival.

I was quite surprised to find that the country experienced its greatest period of peace and prosperity just before these events during the reign of a woman, namely Salome Alexandra. The problem was that, other than the historian Josephus, there was nothing written about her. I decided to take on the quest to undercover the historical Salome Alexandra despite the lack of evidence. It proved to be quite a challenge, but in the process I uncovered much unknown and neglected evidence that allowed me to reconstruct her life for the first time.

JW: How and when did you first encounter Salome Alexandra’s name? Were you surprised then and does it surprise you now that hers is still a name unfamiliar to most?

KA: I first encountered the name “Salome Alexandra,” while working on my first Master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1991. The Dead Sea Scrolls had just been released to the public, having been held by a small group of scholars for over forty years. One of my professors, Dr. John J. Collins, was appointed part of the new team of scholars to translate and publish these texts.

I remember looking through the newly released photos of the over 900 Dead Sea Scroll documents when I came across two references to Salome Alexandra. I was quite shocked to find a woman mentioned in these texts. I was unable to find any additional information about her in the standard reference works at the time and had to put my interest aside until I completed my degree. Over time, I became determined to try and find out more about her since she seemed to be such an important and neglected ruler who not only shaped the Judaism of her day, but that of Jesus’ as well. I hope that this interview and my recent book encourage others to learn more about this fascinating but largely unknown woman, who was undoubtedly one of history’s greatest rulers.

JW: Dr. Atkinson, what do we know if anything about Salome Alexandra’s origins and association with the Hasmonean dynasty? Do we even know how her subjects would have received her marriage to Alexander Jannaeus?

KA: Josephus tells us nothing about Salome Alexandra’s background, but I suspect that she was a member of the Hasmonean family since this dynasty tended to marry their cousins. One of the big surprises in my research concerned her marriage to the future monarch Alexander Jannaeus: she was married to him for the entirety of his 27 year reign. Calculating their ages at the time of their marriage, I was quite shocked to realize that he was either 14 or 16 and she was 29 years old at the time of their marriage! This is quite an unusual age difference for any period. I am certain that many people at the time were shocked if not horrified.

A close reading of Josephus’ works suggests that Alexander Jannaeus was never expected to rule, and was perhaps sort of a misfit. I believe that his father, John Hyrcanus (r. 154–134 BCE), selected this independent strong-willed woman to manage his son and groom him to be a functional member of the royal family. Alexander Jannaeus became king largely by accident after the unexpected deaths of his elder brothers, Aristobulus I (r. 104-103 BCE) and Prince Antigonus. But in the end, it turned out to be a good thing that he was married to Salome Alexandra since Josephus–a sexist historian who did not like her–stresses that the nation respected her piety and hated her husband. It was likely because of her that he managed to rule for so long: she governed the nation during his many absences. Without her at his side, I doubt his reign would have lasted very long.

JW: The reign of Alexander Jannaeus was marked by the socio-religious conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees, invasions from Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria, and the continuous expansion of the Kingdom of Judea. This was additionally a time of increasing Hellenistic influence amongst the Jews, stirring inflamed passions amongst the populace. Why then do we have only the faintest of details as to Salome Alexandra’s activities and personal dealings during this era?

KA: Unfortunately Josephus is largely silent about Salome Alexandra during this time. He was uncomfortable with female rule and preferred to tell us as little about her as possible. Josephus does, however, “cut and paste” materials from his sources that often give us glimpses of her actions during this time. He hints that she ruled Jerusalem while her husband was away fighting his many foreign campaigns. Salome Alexandra is mentioned frequently in later Jewish literature, particularly the Talmud, written centuries after her death. These later works consistently praise her, suggesting that she favored and protected the Pharisees from her husband’s wrath.

She supported the leading Pharisee of the time, Shimeon ben Shetah (120-40 BCE). He reformed the court system under her patronage and instituted the ketubah–the woman’s portion of a marriage contact that specified the obligations of the groom toward his bride–which still exists today. Shimeon even went further to encourage female education. It was likely because Salome Alexandra was such an effective administrator and supporter of the Pharisees that her people willingly accepted her as their queen after her husband’s death, even though she had two grown sons.

JW: Following my previous question, I wondered if there is any conjecture as to why Alexander Jannaeus left the crown to Salome Alexandra instead of one of their two sons, Hyrcanus II (r. 67-66 BCE) and Aristobulus II (r. 66-63 BCE)? Could this have been a strategic move to promote dynastic stability or some other political agenda?

KA: The Hasmonean monarchy (140-37 BCE) was quite controversial in itself since the Bible explicitly restricts political rule to descendants of the biblical King David. The Hasmoneans were the descendants of Mattahias ben Johanan (d. 166 BCE), a rural priest from Modi’in, who helped organize the successful Revolt of the Maccabees (167-160 BCE). By virtue of ancestry, Hasmoneans were of the priestly class and therefore qualified to hold the office of high priest. Yet, they were clearly in violation of Scripture when they combined both offices to become “priest-kings.”

When Salome Alexandra became the sole ruler of her nation, she could not serve as high priest since Scripture restricts the priesthood exclusively to males. She appointed her eldest son, Hyrcanus II, as high priest. This, I believe, promoted dynastic stability and guaranteed the survival of the dynasty since it restored the biblical separation of the monarchy and the priesthood. The nation clearly supported her since she was not only allowed to reign, but her people also let her determine the high priestly succession and the form of Judaism practiced in the Jerusalem temple.

JW: Do we know how or why Alexandra Salome became such a strong supporter of the Pharisees even when her husband backed the Sadducees? Could you also explain to our readers how her patronage of the Pharisees played a decisive role in shaping Judaism?

KA: Her family was clearly dysfunctional! She and her eldest son, Hyrcanus II, were Pharisees. Her husband and youngest son, Aristobulus II, were Sadducees. As readers of the New Testament know, Jesus had numerous debates with members of both religious movements. However, Jesus was closest to the Pharisees, whose members believed in the existence of an afterlife. The Pharisees also believed in the Oral Law: teachings that were purportedly passed down from the time of Moses to their day. The Sadducees rejected both. They represented the interests of the aristocracy and the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. They adhered to the Torah as it was written and applied it strictly.

When Salome Alexandra became queen, she restored the Pharisees to positions of political and religious power. Her patronage of the Pharisees played a decisive role in shaping the Judaism of Jesus’ day, which became the basis for the rabbinic movement upon which modern Judaism is based. Many of the laws of the Pharisees–a large number instituted during her reign–still remain normative even today. It was because Jesus agreed with her form of Judaism that we find him most frequently engaged in debates with the Pharisees, who allowed for diversity of opinion regarding the observance of Jewish Law.

JW: There are tantalizing references to Salome Alexandra in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which attest that she was a “prostitute.” How should we interpret and analyze these comments in your academic opinion? Salome Alexandra is the only woman explicitly mentioned by name in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

KA: Great question, James. The marginalized religious community that authored the Dead Sea Scrolls did not like the Hasmonean monarchs, especially Salome Alexandra. They considered her family usurpers of the Davidic throne. But they hated her because she was a woman. In one of their texts known as the Nahum Pesher, which interprets the writings of the prophet Nahum, they were convinced that a biblical passage describing a prostitute who ruled the nation referred to her. They use shocking and sexist language to demean her, and accuse her of gross sexual immorality. I should add that this community aspired to a life of greater purity, away from Hasmonean, and later Herodian and Roman rule.

What is ironic is that Josephus praised Salome Alexandra’s piety and denounced her husband for consorting with prostitutes! In another Dead Sea Scroll, known as the Hosea Pesher A, the author reflects back upon an unprecedented period of prosperity that clearly took place during her reign. The Talmud also preserves this same tradition and states that during the reign of Salome Alexandra, “the wheat became like kidneys and the barley like olive pits, and the lentils like gold coins.” Yet, even though this Dead Sea Scroll recognizes that her reign was a period of unprecedented prosperity, its author blames her for the Roman conquest that took place four years after her death.

JW: Salome Alexandra certainly achieved much during her reign as queen-regent and presided over what can be construed as a brief “golden age.” Consolidating her husband’s territorial gains, she even prevented an invasion by Tigranes of Armenia (r. 95-55 BCE) and established a welcomed peace between the Jews and the Nabataeans.

Dr. Atkinson, how should we characterize Salome Alexandra’s accomplishments and evaluate her legacy? Although she did much to stabilize Judea, she was never able to diminish the fierce sibling rivalry between her two sons, which brought the downfall of Hasmonean rule and the Roman annexation of Judea soon after her death.

KA: Salome Alexandra’s love for her sons was her greatest failing: they hated one another. Archaeologists have discovered two magnificent palaces she constructed in the oasis of Jericho: one for Hyrcanus II and the other for Aristobulus II. She apparently had to keep her sons apart from one another even in their leisure time!

Unable to divide the offices of monarch and high priest between her two children, she had no choice but to name Hyrcanus II as her successor since he was a Pharisee. His brother, Aristobulus II, deposed him only three months later. Hyrcanus II fought his sibling to regain power. Ultimately, the two were foolish enough to allow the Romans to settle their dispute over the succession. The general Pompey the Great accepted the offer and ultimately seized power for himself, ending nearly a century of independent Jewish rule. For centuries, Jews and Christians regarded Salome Alexandra as the most pious and competent ruler of her nation. Without her reign, Judaism and Christianity would likely be vastly different religions.

JW: Before concluding this interview, I wanted to ask you what sparked your interest in the ancient world and biblical history?

Your background is quite fascinating; namely, you were an American soldier stationed in Berlin during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s and also a volunteer at a kibbutz in Israel. Did you cultivate a love of ancient history and the Holy Land from these experiences?

KA: Indeed, it was largely during my time stationed in West Berlin as part of the U.S. Army in the 1980s that I became interested in ancient history. I was fortunate to be able to cross through the Berlin Wall often. I frequently visited the great ancient history collections in the museums in East Berlin, especially the Pergamon Museum, as well as the antiquity museums in West Berlin. This stimulated my desire to learn more about the past and pursue advanced degrees in ancient history. I spent most of my military leave traveling to ancient sites in Europe and the Middle East, where many of the artifacts in the Berlin collections were initially discovered.

While in the military, I arranged to be discharged in Germany. I then moved to Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi north of the Sea of Galilee, where, among various jobs, I worked as an avocado picker and chicken handler. During this time, I began volunteering on archaeological excavations in the region. I then spent a total of 2.5 years traveling on my military savings, living out of a backpack, visiting ancient sites and working on various archaeological excavations throughout Israel, as well as England. It was these combined experiences that convinced me to pursue a career in ancient history upon my return home. It is a decision I have not regretted as teaching and researching ancient history remains as exciting as ever. I discover something new virtually every day!

JW: It has been a pleasure to learn more about Salome Alexandra and her rightful place in history. She is truly a most intriguing and commanding woman, Dr. Atkinson! I wish you many happy adventures in research and please keep us posted as to your future projects and research.

KA: James, thank you very much for the invitation and your work on the Ancient History Encyclopedia. It is a valuable resource, one I wish I had when I was beginning my academic career.

Image Credits and Reference:

1. Coin of depicting the seals of Alexander Jannaeus, c. 90 BCE. Courtesy of Ingsoc via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Map of the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea, c. 80 BCE and its neighbors in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

3. Photograph of caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Qumran, West Bank (Palestine). Courtesy of Grauesel via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Photographic reproduction of “Pompey in the Temple of Jerusalem,” painted originally c. 1470-1475, by the French artist Jean Fouquet (1420-1481 CE). In 63 BCE, after a three month siege, Pompey the Great and his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple and desecrate the holy sanctuary. [<<Pompée dans le Temple de Jérusalem>>. Paris: BnF, département des Manuscrits. Français 247, fol. 293v. (Livre XIV)].


Dr. Kenneth Atkinson is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Rapids, IA. After completing his undergraduate studies at Oakland University, he spent four years as a soldier in the US Army during the Cold War as a member of the Berlin Brigade in West Berlin. While stationed in West Berlin, Atkinson visited the archeological museums of East Berlin and traveled widely through Europe and the Middle East. Upon leaving Germany, he moved to Israel and lived on the Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi. Following his travels, Atkinson earned a M Div at the University of Chicago, focusing upon ancient languages, history, classics, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Atkinson then studied at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, where he received an MA and PhD with concentrations in Biblical literature and world religions. His first book, a commentary on the Psalms of Solomon, is the first major study of this ancient collection of poems documenting the Roman conquest of Jerusalem to appear in over a century. His latest work is Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Forgotten Ruler and the Mysterious Women of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the first biography of Queen Salome Alexandra. To learn more about Atkinson and his work, please visit his homepage.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All photographs of Dr. Kenneth Atkinson or images from his publication are his exclusive property. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. Other images have been attributed under copyright licenses. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.