We don’t know much about Salome Alexandra’s upbringing or family and yet she would rule Judea for almost a decade from 76 to 67 BCE. How does a “nobody” become a “somebody”? In Salome, we see a portrait of a strong willed woman who was willing to do anything for her country, her beliefs, and herself.
Salome married Aristobulus, John Hyrcanus’s oldest son. Aristobulus became king and high priest after his father died in 104 BCE. Aristobulus was sickly. He worried that his younger brothers would try would try to wrest power from him by hastening his end and so he had all 4 of them imprisoned. This was noticed by the perceptive Salome who set up a situation where Antigonus, the second brother, appeared in front of his brother in full battle gear. Aristobulus took this as a challenge and, on Salome’s behest, the king had his brother executed. Soon after, Aristobulus himself finally succumbed to his disease having only reigned for one year. Salome released the other brothers from jail, selected Alexander Yannai as the next king, and promptly married him (even though she was 13 years his senior).
It does seem that Salome’s family was exactly “nobodies” but connected to the Pharisaic leadership. She was unwaveringly dedicated to them and their cause throughout her life. Some identify her as the sister of Shimon ben Shetach, described in the Talmud as escaping to his sister when Alexander Yannai was on a rampage against the Pharisees. During the lifetime of Alexander Yannai, Salome was not able to curb his hostility against the Pharisees as a group, but bided her time. Salome and Yannai must have had a good relationship, and he must have seen something in her abilities because he named her, and not one of their sons, as his heir.
Salome took the throne in 76 BCE upon Yannai’s death and ruled for almost a decade. Josephus, the 1st century CE historian, dedicates an entire chapter to her rule. During her reign, the Pharisees took the upper hand in the Temple worship, paving the way for the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism practiced until today. The Sadducees who were supported by the earlier Hasmonean kings would never enjoy a comeback, and their status would not reach the heights it had achived during the time of Alexander Yannai.
According to Josephus, although Salome does send troops out for war, and surrounding countries fear the wrath of the Judean soldiers, her reign is known for peace and love. Josephus states that “the country was entirely at peace.” (Ant. 13.16.2) and that she herself was “loved by the multitude.” (Ant. 13.16.1) Indeed, she became known as Queen Shlomtzion, a play on her name, meaning “Queen Peace in Zion”.
Josephus left us a eulogy to Queen Salome:
“A woman she was who showed no signs of the weakness of her sex, for she was sagacious to the greatest degree in her ambition of governing, and demonstrated by her doings at one, that her mind was fit for action…she preferred the present to futurity, and preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things…” (Ant. 13:16:6)
She was so beloved and respected that a street in Jerusalem’s center was renamed Shlomtzion HaMalka (the Queen) in the 1950’s. Next time you’re in Jerusalem, take a stroll down this street, stop for a cup of coffee in the cafes and remember the woman who brought peace to Jerusalem, the City of Peace.
In memory of my grandmother, Salome Elizabeth Arner Erskine, who died December 1, 1983. May her memory be for a blessing and her stories continue to live on.