The source of the tragedy was the life of the emperor Titus in the book of the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquill’s The Life of the Twelve Caesars. The emperor Titus wants to marry the Palestinian queen Berenice, but the Roman laws forbid marriage with an unmarried woman, and the people may not approve of Caesar’s decision. The action takes place in the palace of Titus.
In Berenice, Antiochus, the king of the Comagen, is in love with Syria, annexed to the Roman Empire, who faithfully serves Titus and retains his royal title. He has long been waiting for an opportunity to talk with Berenice and find out what her decision is: if she is ready to become Titus’ wife, Antiochus will leave Rome. Antiochus, when meeting with her, admits that all five years since she met her, she loves her, but Berenika responds that she always loved only Titus and love her more than the authority and crown of the emperor.
Berenika talks with her confidant Foinicka, and
she suggests that it will be difficult for Titus to circumvent the law. But Berenika believes in Tita and his love and waits for her to greet the “Senate arrogant”.
In the meantime, Titus inquires his confidant Pauline about what they think in Rome about him and Berenice. The Emperor is not interested in the opinion of the servile court and the nobles – they are always ready to tolerate any whim of Caesar, as they endured and approved “all the baseness of Nero.” Tita is interested in the opinion of the people, and Paulin answers him that, although Berenik’s beauty is worthy of a crown, no one in the capital “would not call her empress.” None of Titus’s predecessors violated the law on marriage. And even Julius Caesar, who loved Cleopatra, “could not call his wife the Egyptian.” And the cruel Caligula, and the “abominable” Nero, who “bruised all that people honor from the century”, respected the law and “the marriage of the infamous with them did not see the light.” And the former slave Felix, who became the procurator
of Judea, was married to one of Berenice’s sisters, and no one in Rome will like that the throne will be the one whose sister took the husband of yesterday’s slave. Titus admits that he fought for a long time with love for Berenice, and now that his father has died and that his heavy burden of power has fallen on his shoulders, Titus must abandon himself. He is followed by the people, and the emperor can not begin his reign by breaking the law, Titus decides to tell Berenice everything, he is frightened by this conversation.
Berenika worries about her fate – Titus’s mourning for his father is over, but the emperor is silent. She believes that Titus loves her. Titus suffers and does not dare to tell Berenice that she must abandon her. Berenice can not understand what she did wrong. Perhaps he is afraid of breaking the law? But he himself told her that no law could separate them. Maybe Titus found out about her meeting with Antiochus, and jealousy began to speak in him?
Titus learns that Antiochus is going to leave Rome, and is very surprised and annoyed – he needs his old friend with whom they fought together. Titus informs Antiochus that he must part with Berenice: he is Caesar, who decides the fate of the world, but does not have the power to give his heart to the one he loves. Rome will agree to recognize his wife only as a Roman – “any pathetic – but only his blood”, and if the emperor does not say goodbye to the “daughter of the East”, then “before her eyes the enraged people of her exile will demand to come.” Titus asks Antiochus to inform her of his decision. He wants his friend, along with Berenika, to go to the East and remain good neighbors in their realms.
Antioch does not know what to do-cry or laugh. He hopes that on the way to Judea he will be able to persuade Berenice to marry him after she was rejected by Caesar. Arshak, his friend, supports Antiochus – he will be next to Berenice, and Titus is far away.
Antiochus tries to talk with Berenice, but does not dare to say directly what awaits her. Feeling something amiss, Berenice demands frankness, and Antiochus tells her about Titus’s decision. She does not want to believe and wants to know everything from the emperor. Antiochus from now on forbids to approach her.
Titus before the meeting with Berenika thinks about what to do. He is only seven days on the throne after his father’s death, and all his thoughts are not about state affairs, but about love. However, the emperor understands that he does not belong to himself, he is responsible to the people.
Berenika appears and asks him if she was told the truth. Caesar answers that, no matter how difficult for him such a decision, but they will have to part. Berenice reproaches him – he had to say about Roman laws when they only met. It would be easier for her to make a refusal. Titus answers Berenice that he did not know how his fate would turn out, and did not think that he would become emperor. Now he does not live – life is over, now he reigns. Berenice asks what fears Caesar – rebellion in the city, in the country? Titus replies that if “the customs of the father’s insult” cause unrest, then he will have to forcefully approve his choice, “and for the silence of the people pay”, and it is not known what price. Berenice proposes to change the “unrighteous law.” But Titus swore Rome “the law of his watch”, it is his duty, “there is no other way,
The news of the rupture between the Caesar and the Queen is spread throughout the city – “Rome rejoices, every temple is open to the people.” Antiochus in agitation – he sees that Berenice is rushing “in grief boundless” and requires a dagger and poison.
Tit again meets Berenice, and she announces to him that she is leaving. She does not want to listen to people gloating. Titus replies to her that she can not part with her, but can not abandon the throne, abandon the Roman people. If he did this and left with Berenika, then she herself would become ashamed of “a warrior without regiments and a Caesar without a crown”. Power and marriage with the queen are incompatible, but the Emperor’s soul can no longer endure such torment – he is ready for death if Berenice does not give him an oath that he will not lay his hands on himself.
Appears Antiochus – he for a long time hid from Caesar his love for the Queen, but can not hide more. Seeing how they are suffering, he is ready for the sake of Caesar and Berenice to sacrifice their lives to the gods for them to have mercy, Berenice, “shamed by the greatness of the souls of both, seeing this willingness to sacrifice Titus and Antiochus, begs them not to suffer so much, for her, she is unworthy. The queen agrees to live apart and asks Tit to forget about her. Antiochus, she calls to forget about love. The memory of all three will remain in the annals as an example of love most tender, fiery and hopeless.