Scholarly interest in the brief appearance of the Judaean queen Berenice in Suetonius’ Life of Titus has been concerned with establishing the facts of Berenice herself (Macurdy 1935) or of the political situation in Rome at the end of Vespasian's reign and the beginning of Titus' (Crook 1951, Rogers 1980, Braund 1984), but she is also an effective symbol of foreign power and territory brought into the heart of Rome. As such, she fits within the narrative motif of embodied empire that Suetonius deploys in his Lives.
The exact circumstances of Berenice's stay(s) in Rome are unclear, but our ancient sources give three points of reference: Titus knew and desired her in 69 CE (Tac. Hist. 2.2); she came to Rome in 75 CE (Dio 66.15.3); Suetonius situates her dismissal at Titus' accession in 79 CE (7.2). The two references to Berenice in Suetonius occur in the same section, on either side of his statement that Titus’ vices turned out to be virtue (7.1). This manoeuvre, along with the lack of specifics of timing or motivation, suggests that we should not read Berenice as a piece of gossip or historical context, but as part of how Titus demonstrates his worth as emperor. This stylized movement from improper desire to proper restraint is crucial, and closer consideration of Berenice reveals that more than sexual desire is in play.
Suetonius' literary style and context has been largely overlooked (Gladhill 2012 is a recent exception), but attention to it not only enriches our reading but provides essential context for his historical data, as this paper will demonstrate. In Suetonius, the emperor's power can be defined and demonstrated by his ability to command any object of desire, thus allowing everything in his domain to be framed as the object of sexual desire, which in turn makes his stories about the sex lives of the emperors quite significant rather than simply prurient or formulaic.
In Suetonius, bodies can represent imperium as objects of fulfilled desire and as the means of transmitting power through family connection. As potential wife, Berenice would fit both categories; as Judaean queen, she holds power in both foreign and feminine hands, a two-fold source of concern. Through the Lives of the Julio-Claudians, this motif centers on Rome and the imperial family, ending with Nero’s inversion of Augustus in the mismanagement of his ‘home’ (Milnor 2005); by combining this image with that of foreign lands embodied in female figures, Suetonius brings concerns about the influence coming from the provinces that we see elsewhere (Tacitus, Juvenal) together with concerns about the power of the emperor in Rome, viewed through the lens of his sexual behaviour. Furthermore, as a foreign queen in Rome, Berenice is more problematic than one safely contained in the boundaries of the empire. Her autonomy and influence are disturbing both in a woman and in a representative of a province, especially one so recently and violently subdued.
As a demonstration of imperial power, however, her presence in Rome illustrates a province joined to Rome eagerly rather than violently. The Iudaea capta represented by a mourning female figure on the Flavian coin type is a striking counterpoint to the Judaean queen established in Rome as consort to the victor, and reminds us that places are not only conventionally female, but actually so in art and coinage, thus making the association a very strong one for Suetonius' audience. Considering Berenice as embodying foreign territory and power, first annexed and then relegated when Titus affirms his 'marriage' to Rome, illuminates her inclusion in the Life of Titus and, perhaps, the notable absence of women from the Lives of the Flavians, who bring the power of the provinces to Rome, but do not depend on women for transmission of empire.
Provincial Women in the Roman Imagination