The Tale Of Mad King Aristobulus I

When High Priest John Hyrcanus of Jerusalem died in 104 BCE, he was survived by his wife and five sons. The office of high priest, at the time, was controlled by the Maccabee/Hasmonean Dynasty, and therefore the sons of John Hyrcanus vied over the succession. Aristobulus, the eldest of the sons, succeeded in a contested play for power. He proclaimed himself to be the new high priest, but, to get what he wanted, he reportedly had to imprison his mother and three of his four brothers. Once in power, Aristobulus became the first member of the Hasmonean Dynasty to not only call himself high priest, but also to adopt the title of king.

King Aristobulus showed little mercy to his mother and siblings while they were imprisoned and what they experienced was in no way a cozy house-arrest. Instead, conditions were so harsh that Aristobulus’ mother reportedly died in prison from malnourishment and mistreatment. As for the one brother who was allowed to walk free, his fate was worse than his brothers. This last sibling, named Antigonus, was said to have eventually been assassinated by Aristobulus.

Tyrannical King Aristobulus, fortunately for his family, did not rule for long. Perhaps his conscience was plagued by guilt over the deaths of his mother and brother, or maybe the authoritarian treatment of his family was inspired by a madness brought on by illness. Whatever the case, King Aristobulus I reportedly fell deathly ill by 103 BCE. Josephus, a Jewish priest and historian from the 1st century, presented a colorful account of the king’s death in his text, The Jewish War:

“As for Aristobulus, remorse for the abomination he had committed precipitated an immediate sickness. Thoughts of the murder kept troubling his mind, and he fell into a decline: eventually pure concentrated anguish corroded his guts, and he vomited a copious quantity of blood….in a moment he was dead. He had been king for no more than a year” (The Jewish War, I.81-84).

After the death of Aristobulus, the king’s surviving siblings were released from prison. Unfortunately, these finally-freed brothers started a new cycle of bloodshed. The eldest of the brothers, Alexander, claimed the vacated titles of high priest and king in yet another disputed succession. To enforce his claim, Alexander ordered the death of a rival brother.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Aristobulus I from Guillaume Rouillé’s Promptuarium Iconum Insigniorum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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