Accordingly, Shlomtzion retained her title of queen and became the country’s sole ruler. Her decade-long reign (76-66 BCE) provided the Jewish people with much needed calm and stability. A new, improved relationship developed between the monarchy and the sages, one that allowed the Pharisees to regain their social, political, and religious strength. Shlomtzion, herself strictly observant, allowed them to assume the practical administration of the state.
Though she transferred many administrative powers to the Pharisees, Shlomtzion was far from passive in her role as queen. In particular, she built a sizable military to ensure a peaceful life for her constituents. Its soldiers consisted primarily of recruited Jewish fighters, supplemented by foreign mercenaries. At its apex, this collective force nearly doubled in size from that which she had inherited from her deceased husband.
In her final years, Shlomtzion grew old and tired. The Sadducees now attempted to reclaim their lost power and approached the ambitious Aristobulus II for help. Viewing them as potential allies in his own rise to power, Aristobulus was all too eager to assist.
With Aristobulus at their head, and a powerful band of foreign mercenaries to accompany them, the Sadducees entreated the aging Shlomtzion for increased power and recognition. They spoke of their unwavering loyalty to Yannai and their increased suffering at the hands of the Pharisees.
They then presented the queen with the following ultimatum: Turn over all of the Hasmonean fortresses to the Sadducees, or they will ally themselves with powerful Jewish enemies, including Aretas, king of the Nabateans. In her weakness, Shlomtzion agreed. Twenty-two strongholds were transferred, including all of the national fortresses except for Hyrcania and Macherus, which held royal treasures.
Aristobulus did not stop there. He had himself proclaimed as king in an attempt prevent his brother Hyrcanus from seizing the throne. The seventy-three year old queen, now in her last days, was unable to move against her younger son. When she died, Aristobulus immediately declared war on Hyrcanus, and in so doing, won over most of his brother’s troops. Aristobulus promptly defeated Hyrcanus in a battle near Jericho; the latter fled to Jerusalem. There, under siege, he agreed to abdicate the throne and leave the royal palace. He further resolved to live peacefully on his new estate, without meddling in public affairs.
The Sadducees had again played their cards correctly, and forged their way to the top of the political heap.
* * * * *
The peaceful situation between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, would not survive. Encouraged by his new accomplice, Antipater – a scheming, power-hungry Idumean – Hyrcanus reopened the struggle with his younger brother. Secretly, Hyrcanus and Antipater left Jerusalem to meet with King Aretas in Transjordan. In exchange for military support, Hyrcanus and Antipater promised to restore to Aretas twelve cities that Yannai had previously captured.
Aretas agreed. He led his large army of 50,000 across the Jordan and marched it to Jerusalem. Seeing Hyrcanus at the army’s head, his followers in the capital opened the city gates. Aristobulus and his men, among whom were many priests, were forced to seek refuge behind the walls of the Temple Mount. All along they maintained the daily sacrifices, despite the inherent dangers and the exorbitant costs.
The siege that followed was filled with intense hatred between the sides, both of which used the people as pawns in their personal struggle. Upon seeing the manner in which these two brothers treated one another, and their complete disregard for the general welfare of the populace, many abandoned hope of a peaceful resolution and fled to Egypt.
As the siege intensified, the followers of Hyrcanus summoned the great sage and miracle worker Choni HaMa’agel (the Circle Maker). They compelled him to pray on their behalf for a victorious end to the siege. Choni’s prayer was far from what they had hoped for:
Master of the Universe! Those who lay the siege are Your people and those who are besieged are your priests. I plead before You, do not heed the prayers that either side offers to You, to do evil to the other side! [Josephus, Antiquities]
Angered and disappointed, Hyrcanus’s men responded by killing the great Choni. With that, they took their struggle to an unprecedented low.
Neither side was able to resolve this fraternal conflict militarily. In 63 BCE, the Roman political leader Pompey appeared in Syria with his legions, having completed an extensive military campaign in Asia.
Exhausted, desperate, and concerned about what they perceived to be inevitable Roman intervention, both brothers appealed to Pompey in hope of a favorable decision. With this fateful decision, eighty-plus years of hard-earned Hasmonean independence would soon end. The sages, fearing the outcome of these misguided delegations, also sent a mission to plead their case on behalf of the people.
Pompey initially ruled in favor of the younger Aristobulus; his larger bribe held sway with the greedy leader. Hyrcanus and Aretas were instructed to lift the siege and leave Jerusalem. If not, they would be viewed as enemies of Rome. Aretas duly returned home. Aristobulus pursued Hyrcanus and his men after they had left the city, killing some 6,000 soldiers.