If you think the Middle East is dramatic now, 2000 years ago it was a telenovela

masada in Israel

The relations between the Herodian Kingdom and the Nabatean Kingdom were very complex and involved political, economic and marriage ties. Through the institution of marriage with local dynasties, Herodians consolidated power in the southern Levant and later became Rome’s client state.

Intermarriage between religious groups was not uncommon, people were open-minded, until they were not. Here’s a little history of the way things were in the Levant, where major world religions brewed and fed each other:

The most prominent ruler of the dynasty, Herod the Great who ruled from 74/73 BCE to 4 CE, was a controversial figure according to historical sources, and one of main villains of The New Testament.

However, despite the popular tradition his rule was characterized by colossal buildings in Judea, including a renovation of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, construction of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the fortress Masada on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, the maritime port Caesarea Maritima, and monumental palaces like Herodium, 10 miles south of Jerusalem, and Machaerus, 18 miles southeast from the mouth of the Jordan River.

Although his father Antipater I Idumaean (100 BCE to 43 BCE) was an Edomite and his mother Cypros I, a Nabataean, Herod was raised as a Jew. How about that?

An ancient matchmaker

Herod used marriage to bring together different ethnic groups within his realm and making political alliances with other rulers in the same area. In the First Century BCE many members of the Judean elites were Hellenized, which was also the case with Herodians. The process of Hellenization enabled these elites to consolidate and expand their rule in the southern Levant.

The founder of the dynasty, Antipater I already designed a marriage strategy to boost his influence in the region and took a Nabataean noblewoman Cypros I as a wife. She was related to the Nabataean King Aretas III, also known as Philhellen which means Friend of the Greeks.

Kings as babysitters

Relations between them became so cordial that Antipater I would entrust the Nabataean king to take care of his sons while he was participating in the military campaigns against Hasmonean Aristobulus II (66 BC-63 BC).

According to Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian (37 CE to 100 CE), Antipater I used the Nabataean backing to contact Pompey and Roman generals in the east. Then Antipater I forged an alliance with Caesar, and for his ongoing support of Rome he was awarded with the prize of not having to pay taxes. 

His ascendants automatically became the Roman citizens, therefore his marriage to Cyprus I is only one aspect of a much broader policy that sees Antipater I taking advantage of multiple social, religious and ethnic identities.

However, political relations were not always idyllic: when Cesar was assassinated in Rome in 44 CE the East entered a period of chaos and the Nabataeans mistakenly sided with the Parthians. After the Romans defeated the Parthians, the Nabataean Kingdom was obliged to pay tribute to Romans.

The Roman state used Herod I to punish the Nabataeans when they failed to pay the tribute on time and in 36 BCE Herod I expanded his realm at the expense of the Nabataean Kingdom taking its northern swaths. Wadi Mujib, the biblical Arnon Stream, was a border between Nabataean and Herodian states and, according to a Greek archaeologist Konstantinos Politis, the late researcher Taysir Atiat found a Nabataean temple and a watch tower on the mouth of Wadi Mujib.

Within a Herodian Kingdom there was a port on the eastern side of the Dead Sea called Ain –ez Zara, with rooms for shops as it was part of the incense trade route. Further up an ancient road connects Ain ez-Zara with Machareus fortress, a border stronghold and a palace of King Herod the Great. It was a part of the defensive line with a small settlement under the palace, which was a place where St. John the Baptist was beheaded around 29 CE.

A breakup that leads to war

Herod Antipas (20 BCE to 39 CE) was one of sons of Herod the Great and ruled the Galilee and Perea, where in the former province established a city of Tiberius named after his patron Emperor Tiberius. Continuing practice of his predecessors, he married Phasaelis, a daughter of the Nabataean King Aretas IV. The breakup of that marriage was a pretext for the war between Aretas IV and Herod Antipas as the former invaded Perea and defeated Antipas.

According to Josephus, Jews attributed the defeat of Herod Antipas in 36 CE to the beheading of John the Baptist.

A few generations earlier, the romantic relation took place between Salome, the sister of Herod I, and the Nabataean vizier Syllaeus, who came to Jerusalem in 20 BCE to negotiate a loan of 60 talents on the behalf of the Nabataean King Obodas III.

Afraid of the pagans at Petra

Despite the objections from Herod the Great, his sister continued to date the ambitious Nabataean deputy.  Herod I had tense relations with Obodas III and paranoid, as he was, Herod I thought that Syllaeus would depose him and become the ruler of Judea. Several months later, when Syllaeus returned to Jerusalem to propose to Salome, Herod I added the condition that he had to become a Jew and undergo circumcision.

Fearing the reaction and potential stoning by his fellow pagans in Petra, Syllaeus backed off returning to the Nabataean capital empty handed, without love.

The identity of the Herodians was fluid and dynamic, transforming from one ethnicity, culture and religion to another. The choice of the spouse or partner depended on the constellation of power and relations with the Nabataean kings who were also politically submissive to the Romans.

When Jews rebelled in 70 CE, the Nabataeans joined the Roman army who crashed the uprising. However, the Nabataeans’ relative independence didn’t last for too long and Emperor Trajan annexed their kingdom in 106 CErenaming it in the province Arabia Petrea.

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