Posted by: Trisha Leigh | January 31, 2012

I Have Made But One Mistake

I wrote this post a couple of years ago, but I’m pulling it out again because this is the story that inspired the novel I currently have out on submission with agents. It’s this very true tale that kept me going, that drove me to write even when the research was a massive headache. If the novel ever appears in print, it will be dedicated to these two people, who died over two thousand years ago, but reached out and whispered their story into my ears.

In relationships, timing is everything. At least, that’s what they say. It’s probably true. Just ask Berenice, last in the line of the Herodian rulers of Judea. After all, falling in love with Titus, the Roman general (soon-to-be Emperor) who sacked her country and killed close to a million Jews was probably not the best idea.

But since when has that had anything to do with love?

The Romans were the victors in 70 C.E. As the ones left standing, they won the right to record what happened. Unfortunately, what that means is only their versions of events remain. Several contemporaries of Titus and Berenice told the story of their affair. None of them referred to it as ‘love.’ The Jews were not in vogue, given the fact they had just instigated a lengthy and expensive war. And though the Herods weren’t exactly Jews, they weren’t Roman either.

Berenice and her family gave large sums of money and threw around a substantial amount of influence to get Vespasian, Titus’ father, the job of Emperor. In the months and years to come, her good intentions and the motivations behind her generosity were turned against her.

You might remember a woman named Cleopatra. According to Roman history, Cleopatra was a deceitful, conniving, power hungry, foreign woman whose female wiles nearly destroyed the moral fiber of Rome forever.

Sound exaggerated? It always has to me.

Disease, pirates, bandits, inbreeding, internal power struggles, and hundreds of armies were no match for the solid foundations of Rome, but one woman…she was going to ruin everything? It may sound silly, but the Romans in 70 C.E. were weaned on those stories of Cleopatra, and they harbored an inherent and intense dislike of foreign (especially Eastern) women. The attitude spilled over to Berenice.

Shortly after Titus returned to Rome from Judea, Berenice and her brother followed. She lived with Titus in the Emperor’s palace, and by all accounts acted as his wife in every way. Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXV) even goes so far as to say she had been promised marriage by 75 C.E.  Several writers (aka, historians) of the time noted their relationship, and all agree it dissolved when Titus caved to political pressure and sent her away. Berenice returned one more time, perhaps at his request, when he assumed the throne after the death of his father in 79 C.E. She stayed only a few short months before he was again forced to send her back to Judea. His image and his effectiveness suffered due to her presence, forcing his hand.

In addition to long standing rumors Berenice and her brother practiced an incestuous relationship, she was cast in the role of the power hungry woman who would stop at nothing to marry Titus and rule over Rome. Politicians, playwrights, philosophers, and cynics publicly slandered her character. It would have been nearly impossible for Titus and to recover and polish her image.

Titus died unexpectedly in 81 C.E. after ruling for only two years. He is remembered, along with his father, as one of the most well liked Emperors in Rome’s history. His short two-year rule was dotted with major events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii, a massive fire burned a large portion of the city, including important landmarks, and perhaps most famously, the completion of the Coliseum. He did his best, stayed cool in the face of adversity, put the people first, and knew how to kick back and relax.

Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus dismissed her for the last time.

There is absolutely nothing to suggest Berenice was after Titus for any reason other than love.

There is also nothing to suggest she wasn’t after him for his power and influence, like the Romans believed.

Precious little information remains regarding Berenice. She was powerful in her own right, a fact attested to by her contemporaries. That a woman was mentioned in official record at all is proof she was both influential and respected. So were the (all male) historians leery of her because she was a beautiful, powerful woman, or were their suspicions founded in fact?

As a female, I know one thing. For all his admirable traits, Titus was the last man in the world Berenice should have fallen for. Historically, she was devoted to her people, and loving him was an egregious betrayal. Also, being rejected not once, but twice, smacks of real love, especially for a proud and powerful woman used to having her own way. She had plenty of money, comforts, and influence in Judea. I just can’t see her going to him a second time for any other reason than actually needing to be by his side.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a power-money-prestige hungry woman myself, so perhaps you think I just don’t understand her. For some reason, though, I have always felt as though I do.

Titus’ last words were allegedly, “I have made but one mistake.” The historians (all men, remember?) believed he regretted allowing his younger brother to live after an ill-conceived assassination attempt. The romantic in me, the woman in me, wants to believe he referred to Berenice. That the only regret he had was giving in to the pressure, for choosing his country over true love. He wasn’t the first person to do so. He certainly wasn’t the last, either. After all, his actions seem to point toward real feelings as well. He knew how his advisors and the public felt about her. Why ask her to come back a second time? For what other reason than he needed her, missed her?

It’s the never-gets-old-ill-fated-lovers tale. Romeo and Juliet. Heathcliff and Catherine. More recently, Edward and Bella (except they got the happy ending). Why does that story never get old? My guess is because most people can relate to it. If timing is everything, most of us have experienced a relationship that would have been amazing…five years earlier. Ten years later. If he wasn’t the Emperor of Rome. If he wasn’t undead. If his family didn’t hate mine. If he wasn’t a dense asshole (oops, how did that one get in there?).

I love the story of Titus and Berenice because it’s real. Even through the gauzy curtain dotted with sparse details, I can feel their pain. I believe it was real, their love. I can’t wait to keep writing so more people will know them and feel the exquisite anguish that must have been theirs.

For poor Titus, whom I have always liked, but mostly for Berenice, who’s mouth has been sewn shut on the subject for two thousand years. In Heartstrings I rip those ugly black stitches out of her lips and give her a voice, a story, and the chance to finally tell her side.

One day, I hope you all get to hear it, too.



  1. I'm looking forward to reading more about Titus and Berenice. I just bought Michelle Moran's new book- CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER, which should be fun. I like seeing history from a woman's perspective. Women had so many obstacles (much more than the men) to gain and sustain power back then. makes for great story telling.

    • I really enjoyed CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER. It was stunningly done. Moran is brilliant. MADAME TUSSAUD was also great.

    • So true, and thanks for the recommendation. I love historicals! Another AMAZING trilogy is The Mark of the Lion by Francine Rivers. One of my all time favorites.

  2. This sounds really interesting! I'm working on something similar right now about Helen (of Troy) and Theseus (hero of Attica). More myth than history, but still fated to be impossible. It's horribly sad to write…

    • You are so right – I feel like you understand how their story ripped me to shreds, but I want to tell it so badly so I trudge on. I can’t wait to read Helen one day. 🙂

  3. […] detailed the story of Titus and Berenice on the blog before, you can read it here if you’re curious. The short and long of it is this: She was a Jewish Princess who fell in love […]

  4. Wow. Sounds like a powerful story to me. I’m going to cross my fingers your account of it finds a home out there, so I can read it someday.

    • Thanks for the finger crossing. One day everyone will read Berenice’s story and decide for themselves. That is my hope.

  5. I loved this post, Trisha. Moreover, I love the description of your novel, and it sounds like something I’d love to read. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thanks for reading, Ali! I’m glad you found it interesting – I know I certainly think it is!

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