The Arrival of Berenice in Rome and the Execution of Helvidius Priscus

Michael S. Vasta (Indiana University)

In AD 75, six years after the Flavian victory and four years after Titus’ return to Rome, Dio writes that Titus’ Jewish mistress Berenice “was at the very height of her power and consequently came to Rome along with her brother Agrippa. The latter was given the rank of praetor, while she dwelt in the palace, cohabiting with Titus. She expected to marry him and was already behaving in every respect as if she were his wife” (65.15.3-4). This statement is quite confusing, for how could Berenice be at the “very height of her power” if she had not seen her lover since he had left the East four years prior? In explanation, it has been suggested that Dio is in error and that Berenice arrived in 71 with Titus or that an anti-Titus coalition led by Vespasian’s right hand man, Licinius Mucianus, delayed the princess’ arrival.

This paper argues that Berenice’s arrival ought to be connected with the exile and execution of the outspoken Flavian antagonist Helvidius Priscus. Helvidius, motivated by a personal vendetta against Vespasian for pardoning Helvidius’ enemy Eprius Marcellus, attacked not only the institution of the principate, but Vespasian and Titus personally. Helvidius struck in particular against Titus’ hereditary succession. Titus’ extravagant lifestyle and relationship with the foreign princess recalled the affair of Antony and Cleopatra, providing ample ammunition for the senator’s declarations that Titus was certainly not Stoic ideal of “the best man.”

After much criticism and one incident in which, according to Dio, he caused Vespasian to leave the senate house in tears, Helvidius was exiled. Soon afterwards, supposedly contrary to Vespasian’s wishes, Helvidius was executed. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Titus, either in his capacity as co-ruler or as prefect of the Praetorian Guard, had a hand in his critic’s demise. The date of Helvidius’ execution is disputed, but it certainly took place before 75, and likely in 74, when Helvidius’ old enemy Marcellus was suffect consul. While a few significant contemporary figures saw Helvidius as a martyr and continued to use the themes of his rhetoric, it appears that a majority believed Helvidius brought his death upon himself with his relentless agitation and pursuit of vendetta.

With the most vocal opponent of the regime eliminated without great dissent, Vespasian felt the dynasty was secure enough to permit Titus to summon his lover Berenice to Rome, where she remained until her first dismissal in AD 79.

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