Agrippas Daughter: A Novel


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Nevertheless, her story is fascinating because of the light it shines on the lives of upper class women at the beginning of the Empire. Augustus was married three times but those marriages produced only one child, a daughter, Julia. Julia's first husband died after only two years when she was just 16 years old.

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Hoping for a grandson to groom to take over the reigns of government, Augustus arranged for her to marry Agrippa, a rich man more than double her age. Rumor had it that she enjoyed many affairs during the marriage.

Agrippa died after 9 years, leaving Julia wealthy enough to live as she pleased until her father stepped in and arranged yet another marriage, this time with Tiberius, son by another husband of the Emperor's wife. Julia's third husband, like the others before him, had been forced by Augustus to divorce an earlier wife in order to be free to marry the Emperor's daughter. Julia had not wished to marry again and simply resumed her many affairs; Tiberius retired to Rhodes to live a quiet life as a private citizen. Augustus had shamelessly arranged three marriages for his daughter in order to suit his own political ends.

Her whole family would be at the theater that day, and Berenice loved the theater. So she dressed, quite deliberately, to greet evil and to blend evil with joy, in a cotton shift of blazing red, with an overdress of green. Her maid, a short, heavy-limbed, black-haired, black-eyed, dark-skinned Benjaminite woman, began to protest the combination of colors, but Berenice silenced her with a single glance.

The Benjaminite's name had once been Leah, but Berenice detested the name Leah and forbade her to use it ever again, giving her instead the Idumean name of Gabo, which means the black sand mole. Gabo, as she was now called, was seventeen years old and had been body maid and of course chattel slave to Berenice for three years. When she had first appeared, Berenice had detested her and struck her upon the slightest provocation, sometimes with a short whip and sometimes with her hands. On occasion, more because of her own vexation than any sins of Gabo's, Berenice would beat her until the blood flowed.

But as Berenice grew older, she found that a sharp glance or a cold word were as effective as a beating—and left her own soul untormented by the self-loathing and guilt that always followed one of her tantrums. So now, a glance from Berenice was enough to make Gabo understand that her mistress was in no mood for arguments.

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It would be green and red, gold shoes, a gold sash for the waist, and a gold net for the hair. As a matter of fact, the colors became Berenice very well. At sixteen, she had reached her full growth, and she stood taller than most women of her time, with copper skin that glowed on the strong bones of her face.


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She had green eyes that became greener in juxtaposition to the sleeveless over-dress, and the red of the shift went well with her coppery complexion and her auburn hair. She had the red-brown hair and the large bones of the Hasmoneans, large hands, long fingers, wide shoulders, and prominent cheekbones, planing down to a firm, clean-cut chin.

Her mouth was too wide, her nose the high-bridged, arrogant Hasmonean nose, and nowhere upon her trace or evidence of the dark Idumean line—but she was now beginning to be beautiful. She had never been beautiful before. She had been a raw-boned, skinny, ugly, freckled child, and now she was a woman more strangely and differently attractive—to those who found her attractive—than any other in her father's kingdom.

Her father was king. She was a princess. She was also a queen, but the very thought of that was distasteful to her.


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  8. As the scale of queens went and was weighed and counted, she was close to the bottom, queen of a tiny, unimportant and rather shabby little city in Lebanon called Chalcis. The king of Chalcis, her husband, was also her uncle; and this marriage with him her father had forced upon her only ten months before.

    This morning, when the hot wind started, she wished for the first time that her husband, her uncle, Herod of Chalcis, were here with her. He could not abide heat. Chalcis was pleasantly cool, one of its very few virtues.

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    It made her smile slightly as she thought of her husband breaking out all over with prickly heat and then the red heat irritation spreading over his bald skull. Arad is an Idumean place," she ventured to instruct, her voice dying off with the awareness that she had dared to instruct. I told you to wash! I told you to wash every day! I told you to scrub that brown filth off your skin! How many yesterday? How many men did you have yesterday? How many? Who was the biggest, Gabo?

    How long?

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    Did you ever have one this long? Only with Gabo and with her brother; with all others, Berenice was on guard, tall, regal, witty on occasion, more often silent, never talkative and very often—for those who recognized it and knew—dangerous. Particularly, she herself knew that she was dangerous, a knowledge that had come to her concurrently with her ceasing to be afraid of her father.

    The first time she was master of a situation, she had the heady feeling of being drunk without incapacity—and thereafter a sense of the danger that accompanied the power. After that, it became easier and easier to master a situation—as this morning. Whether he was at home in Galilee in his own city of Tiberias, or at the shore in Caesarea or in the hills in Jerusalem, Agrippa, Berenice's father, made a ceremony of meals and encouraged his family and friends to eat with him.


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    Not that they were frequently together. This morning, for instance, his wife, Berenice's mother, Cypros, still lay in bed, sick, weaker each day, carried to the hot salt baths but deriving no strength from them. Berenice's sisters were both away with their husbands, Drusilla, the younger, in Commangene, and Mariamne in Alexandria; but her brother, Agrippa, was there—already in the breakfast room when Berenice entered, stuffing himself with figs, olives, cheese, and wine.

    They breakfasted in the Greek manner—a little fruit, some olives, dry bread, and cold water—but Agrippa managed to turn the simple fare into a banquet. Yet Berenice observed that however much he ate, her long-legged, darkly handsome seventeen-year-old brother gained no weight, maintained his Apollo-like figure against all assaults—as if indeed bearing out the legend that the Herodian blood carried a devil's trace, like vinegar against decay.

    He greeted Berenice with great mock ceremony, kissing her hand and offering her a fig, which she chewed absently while he told her what the day promised. She only half listened, half heard; she had the gift of being able to compartmentalize her mind, to listen indifferently while she played with other thoughts, dealt with other problems, meanwhile sensuously enjoying the sweet juice of the wine-preserved fig.

    Agrippa, her brother, was telling her about the play that would be presented that afternoon—and at which their attendance was commanded—in honor of Agrippa, their father, to the glory of Claudius, the emperor, who was ostensibly the author. Somehow it's worse. Anyway, it's not military history Claudius dreams of making. He's a literary type, and somehow it is worse. The real author is paid, and handsomely, too—which reminds me that I am poverty-stricken.

    Can I borrow?

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