She defied the odds to become the most powerful woman in Judea’s history.
Salome Alexandra (or Alexandra of Jerusalem) was one of the only women to rule over ancient Kingdom of Judea and was the last to die as the ruler of an independent Judea.
The Talmud describes Alexandra’s reign as a golden age of peace and prosperity, and she orchestrated a number of religious reforms that shaped the Judaism of today.
Salome Alexandra married King Alexander Jannaeus in a political match when she was twenty-nine and he in his mid-teens. It was not a good match.
Alexander Jannaeus was, by many accounts, one of the cruellest and most bloodthirsty kings in Judean history. Determined to expand his Kingdom, the young monarch instigated a reckless campaign of relentless warfare on neighbouring states, resulting in devastating losses.
His brutality was not exclusive to those outside of his Kingdom – during his reign Jannaeus killed more than 50,000 of his own people. When he finally died in 76 BCE, Alexander Jannaeus was hated far and wide. Perhaps his only good decision was to name his wife, Salome Alexandra, as his successor, rather than one of their sons.
It is suggested that while Alexander was away on his military campaigns, Salome Alexandra must have acted as regent for Judea. This may be the reason that her husband thought she would be a suitable ruler. The queen’s reputation was the opposite to Jannaeus’. She was seen as kind, measured and supportive of her people who willingly accepted her as a ruler despite the fact that she had two adult sons.
As Alexander Jannaeus had strived for war, so Salome Alexandra worked for peace. She reconciled with her husband’s enemies within and without while maintaining a strong military and hiring additional foreign troops to use as a deterrent against invasion.
Salome Alexandra also made peace with the Pharisees, a religious faction which had been persecuted by her husband in favour of the rival Sadducees. The Pharisees were popular among ordinary Judeans, emphasising piety and simple living and championing the Oral Law which made life easier for the common people.
With the help of the Pharisees, Salome Alexandra reformed the court system and introduced the ketubah—a marriage contract that specified the obligations of the groom toward his bride in order to protect women. She also decreed that all children attend school.
The Talmud describes Salome Alexandra’s reign as so prosperous that “the rains would come down from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, until the wheat became like kidneys, the barley like olive pits, and the lentils like golden denars. The sages gathered some of them and put them aside for the coming generations.”
Salome Alexrandra died at the age of 73 after ruling for nine years. Her two sons were left to fight each other for the throne and at this point Rome saw their chance to invade. The late queen’s elder son, Hyrcanus was permitted to act as high priest, but not as king. Four years after Salome Alexandra’s death, Judea was declared a Roman possession. It would not become a sovereign nation again for more than two thousand years.
[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 folly of those men who continually fail to maintain sovereign power. – Josephus
Talmud – The central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Warrior Monarch of the First Century BCE – Kenneth Atkinson
The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World – Peter Schafer