Both Kraemer and Levine say Salome's story bears more than a passing resemblance to an earlier Roman narrative. "The story of Salome's dance appears to be modeled on the 2nd-century B.C. story of a Roman senator, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius, who, at a dinner party with a paid attendant—courtesan may be the nicest term—beheaded a man upon her request," Levine explains. "She wanted to see what a decapitation looked like."
Levine says readers of Mark and Matthew, "if they knew this earlier story, would see Herodias in the role of the courtesan." And the dance itself would have been a very improper event, Levine notes, saying a member of the royal household would never have performed for friends of the king. "The ancient world is not like today, where the kids are trotted out to play the piano for guests."
The motivations for the Gospel writings are also open to question, Levine points out. "Mark and Matthew use the story to show the corruption of the Herodian court in Galilee and the weakness of Herod Antipas; he is depicted as ruled by, or at least manipulated by, his wife, much as Pilate is seen as manipulated by the high priest or the crowds." In other words, says Levine, "once we look at the story as part of a narrative, it can be seen to emphasize other Gospel scenes."
Not so fast, says Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. "I consider it rather pathetic that any scholar should doubt the historicity of the biblical references to Salome," he says, "since all reports in the Gospels regarding Herod Antipas, his second wife, Herodias, and her dancing daughter accord perfectly with outside information on these people."
Maier points out that Josephus was an expert on the Herodian dynasty, figured out Salome's name, and pinpointed John the Baptist's execution site as Antipas's fortress palace. "The mound still stands today," Maier says, "waiting to be excavated." Details of the Salome event dovetail perfectly with the biblical version, Maier says, concluding, "Any critic who uses this episode on which to superimpose a question mark has chosen a hopelessly wrong target."
Whether Salome's role in biblical history was fictional or real, it was the adoption and adaptation of the story by later painters, playwrights, and dancers that ensured her lasting fame. In almost every medium, artists have explored Salome, from medieval bas-reliefs in France, to 13th-century Italian mosaics, to Gustave Moreau's intricate 19th-century watercolors. Artists have long been inspired by Salome's holding the head of John the Baptist, finding in the event a compelling story of eroticism and violence.
But with the writing of his 1891 play Salome, Oscar Wilde ushered in a new era of interpretation for the story—a portrait of Salome that has overtaken the Gospels. "It was left to Oscar Wilde...to give Salome a fame that would reach far beyond the elite artistic and intellectual circles where she ruled from her distant pedestal," writes author and former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley in her book Sisters of Salome. "Wilde's Salome would become a pop icon."
The play was banned before its first scheduled performance, whipping a waiting public into a frenzy even before the appearance of accompanying erotic illustrations in the 1894 English version by a 22-year-old artist named Aubrey Beardsley. The German composer Richard Strauss used Wilde's text as the libretto for his hugely successful 1905 opera, Salome. Salome's performance finally had a name: The Dance of the Seven Veils, an elaborately sexual unwrapping that makes Herod's lust understandable, though not excusable.