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Herod the Great as depicted in a painting in the Chapel of Madonna and Child. Photo source: Jbribeiro1 / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Herod the Great: A Biblical Tyrant But An Able Protector of Judaea


Herod the Great was a Roman client king of Judaea (known also as the Herodian kingdom) who lived during the 1st century BC. He was also the founder of the Herodian dynasty, whose members, like Herod himself, served as Roman client kings. To many, Herod is remembered as a tyrannical ruler who was prepared to do anything to maintain his grip on power.

The ruthlessness of Herod as portrayed in the New Testament, however, is only one side of the story. Herod was a skilled ruler and administrator, as he succeeded in preventing Judaea from being turned into a Roman province during his lifetime. Moreover, he was a prolific builder, having commissioned many public works during his reign, the most notable of which being the renovation and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Early Life of Herod the Great and History of Judaea

Herod the Great was born in 73 BC into a notable family. His father was an Idumaean by the name of Antipater, who would, in 47 BC, be appointed as the chief minister of Judaea by the Hasmonean ruler, Hyrcanus II. His mother, Cyprus, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Nabataean noble from Petra.

It may be noted that the Idumaeans were not originally adherents of the Jewish faith and had only converted to Judaism during the 2nd century BC when their land was conquered by the Hasmoneans. Thus, despite being a practicing Jew, Herod’s religious credentials would be challenged by his opponents throughout his lifetime, due to his Idumaean origin.

At the time of Herod’s birth, Judaea was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, who established their kingdom after claiming independence from the Seleucid Empire. The story of the Hasmoneans begins with the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC. The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had erected an altar to Zeus Olympios at the Temple in Jerusalem, and ordered sacrifices to be made to an idol of himself.

A rural Jewish priest by the name of Mattathias decided that enough was enough and took up arms against the mighty Seleucid Empire. When Mattathias died in the following year, his third son, Judas Maccabeus, became the leader of the revolt.

The rebels employed guerrilla tactics against their more powerful enemy and defeated the Seleucid forces in a number of battles. In 164 BC, Judas and his men recaptured Jerusalem, with the exception of the citadel of Acra, purified the defiled Temple, and restored services in the Temple.

Having liberated Jerusalem, the Maccabees continued their war against the Seleucid Empire in the neighboring regions. Eventually, the Maccabees made peace with the Seleucids, and in 153/2 BC, Jonathan (Judas’ brother and successor after his death in 160 BC) was appointed as high priest by Alexander Balas, the new Seleucid pretender who claimed to be the son of Antiochus IV.

The Maccabees, the rebels who fought the Seleucids and liberated Jerusalem. (Zew99 / Public Domain)

The Maccabees, the rebels who fought the Seleucids and liberated Jerusalem. (Zew99 / Public Domain)

In 145 BC, Alexander Balas was defeated at the Battle of Antioch and murdered shortly after. As he owed no allegiance to Alexander’s successor, Demetrius II Nicator, Jonathan renewed the struggle against the Seleucid Empire. By 141 BC, the Hasmoneans had created a semi-independent Jewish state. It would take them another three decades before an independent Jewish state was established.

Although the Hasmoneans ruled initially as high priests, the title basileus (meaning ‘king’) would later be adopted, as a reflection of the state’s independence. The independence of the Hasmonean kingdom lasted until 63 BC, when it was conquered by the Roman Republic and turned into a client kingdom. The Hasmoneans continued to rule until their last king, Antigonus II Mattathias, was deposed by Herod the Great, who was supported by the Romans.

Herod the Great and the Roman Empire

Herod’s cordial relationship with the Romans goes back to the time of his father. Antipater had been a supporter of Pompey when the Romans invaded Judaea in 63 BC. In 47 BC, Herod’s father was appointed by Julius Caesar as procurator of Judaea.

Antipater, in turn, appointed Herod, who was 25/6 years old at that time, as the governor of Galilee, his first political appointment. Four years later, Antipater was assassinated, though Herod continued to enjoy the favor of the Romans.

Thus, in 41 BC, Herod was granted the title ‘Tetrarch of Galilee’. In the following year Antigonus II, with the backing of the Parthians, invaded Judaea and captured Jerusalem. Hyrcanus II, the Roman-backed rival of Antigonus, was imprisoned and Herod attempted to rescue him. Herod’s forces, however, were repelled and Hyrcanus was mutilated before being deported to Babylon.

The taking of Jerusalem by Herod the Great. (Yann / Public Domain)

The taking of Jerusalem by Herod the Great. (Yann / Public Domain)

After his failed rescue attempt, Herod fled to Rome where he succeeded in securing Roman support for a campaign to reclaim Judaea. The Senate named Herod ‘King of Judaea’ and provided him with an army to assert his claim. In 37 BC, Herod captured Jerusalem and handed over Antigonus to the Romans for execution.

Herod was now the undisputed ruler of Judaea. In spite of this, Herod was aware that his Idumaean origin might not appeal to the Jews and therefore took measures to secure his position. For instance, towards the end of his campaign against Antigonus, Herod divorced his first wife, Doris, and banished her, along with their son, Antipater.

This was done so that Herod could marry his second wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess. Additionally, after becoming king, Herod sent envoys to Parthia to request the return of Hyrcanus. The Parthians were happy to oblige, as Hyrcanus, despite being an elderly man, was becoming increasingly popular among the Jews of Babylonia, which made them anxious.

While Herod used the Hasmoneans to legitimize his own rule he was, at the same time, fearful of them and regarded them as threats. For instance, Aristobulus III, a grandson of Hyrcanus, and the brother of Mariamne, was made high priest in 36 BC. In the following year, however, fearful that the people of Jerusalem might make the Hasmonean Aristobulus their king as well Herod had him murdered.

Herod the Great had his wife Marianne and his brother-in-law killed. (Shakko / Public Domain)

Herod the Great had his wife Marianne and his brother-in-law killed. (Shakko / Public Domain)

Hyrcanus was a victim of Herod’s jealousy as well. Although Herod honored the former monarch, with every mark of respect, he was waiting for a chance to get rid of him. This opportunity came in 30 BC, when Hyrcanus was accused of plotting with the King of Arabia, condemned, and executed. Even his beloved wife, Mariamne, was not spared, being charged with adultery (Herod in fact was suspicious that his wife and her family were plotting to dethrone him), found guilty, and executed.

The best-known example of Herod’s ruthlessness in holding on to power, however, is found in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod is said to have been visited by the magi who were on their way to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Upon hearing this, Herod was worried that the child would one day usurp his throne.

Having consulted the chief priests and the scribes of the people, Herod found out that the child was born in Bethlehem and sent the magi on their way, instructing them to return to him once they had paid homage, so that he too could worship the Messiah. The magi, however, were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.

Joseph, the spouse of Mary, was also warned in a dream about Herod’s plotting and therefore took his family to Egypt. When Herod realized that he had been fooled, he was outraged, and ordered the killing of all infant boys below the age of two in Bethlehem and its surrounding areas, an event known as the Massacre of the Innocents.

The Massacre of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the killing of all infant boys under 2 years of age, in Bethlehem. (Jbribeiro1 / Public Domain)

The Massacre of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the killing of all infant boys under 2 years of age, in Bethlehem. (Jbribeiro1 / Public Domain)

The Administration of Herod the Great

In spite of his extreme jealousy and paranoia, Herod the Great was a formidable administrator. He increased the prosperity of his kingdom, so much so that he could lower the taxes levied on his subjects. In addition, the wealth of Herod’s kingdom was so great that he was able to send financial aid to the Jews in Anatolia and Cyrene and contributed generously to the Olympic Games in 12 BC, which was facing a lack of funds at that time, thus ensuring their continuity in the future.

It was, however, the many grand building projects initiated by Herod that best reflected the wealth of the kingdom. It was also a chance for Herod to impress not only his Jewish subjects but also his Roman overlords. In Jerusalem, for instance, Herod built a new market, a new building where the Sanhedrin could meet, a new royal palace, as well as an amphitheater and a theatre.

He also founded new settlements, one of the most splendid being Caesarea Maritima (known also as Caesarea Palestinae). This was a port city on the coast between Jaffa and Haifa. Caesarea Maritima was meant to rival Alexandria as a trade port, receiving spices, perfume, and incense that came from the Arabian Peninsula by land. From this port city, the luxury goods could be sent to the rest of the Mediterranean. Caesarea Maritima not only filled Herod’s coffers but helped him curry favor with the Romans.

The city was named in honor of the emperor, as was the harbor, which was called Sebastos (the Greek for ‘Augustus’). Herod also rebuilt the ancient city of Samaria and renamed it as Sebaste, once again in honor of Augustus. Herod also had numerous fortresses constructed, some of the best-known being Masada, Herodium, and Machaerus. These strongholds not only secured his kingdom from external threats but also provided refuge to the king and his family in case the Jews decided to rise up against them.

Herod’s most ambitious and magnificent building project, however, was the renovation and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple that stood during Herod’s reign was known also as the Second Temple and was built around 536 BC, following the return of the Jews from their return from exile in Babylon. Herod’s construction project began in 20 BC and took 46 years to complete.

Herod's Temple as imagined in the Holy Land model of Jerusalem on exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (Berthold Werner / Public Domain)

Herod's Temple as imagined in the Holy Land model of Jerusalem on exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (Berthold Werner / Public Domain)

Herod doubled the area of the Temple Mount and the entire space was transformed into an enormous square platform. In addition, the Temple was raised, enlarged, and faced with white stone.

Other changes that were made include the erection of a stone fence and rampart around the consecrated area forbidden to the Gentiles, and the construction of porticoes in the Temple square for merchants and money changers. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, following the failure of the First Jewish Revolt.

Herod died in 4 BC, having ruled over Judaea for more than 30 years. In his final years, Herod suffered from poor physical health and it was a horrible gangrene-like disease that killed him. It is recorded that the pain was so bad that Herod even tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful.

Herod the Great tries to commit suicide. (Shakko / Public Domain)

Herod the Great tries to commit suicide. (Shakko / Public Domain)

Realizing that his days were numbered Herod planned for his succession which was a difficult task considering that he had changed his will three times. Two of his sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus IV, were accused of high treason and executed in 7 BC, whereas his eldest son, Antipater II (Herod’s only son with his first wife, Doris) was executed in 4 BC.

After Herod’s death, the kingdom was divided between his three sons, in accordance to his will. Herod Archelaus was appointed as ethnarch while Herod Antipas and Philip ruled as tetrarchs. The successors of Herod the Great were not as capable as him and Judaea became a Roman province in 44 BC.

The Search for Herod the Great’s Tomb

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod was laid to rest in Herodium, one of the fortresses that the king had built. The Herodium was identified in 1838 by the American scholar Edward Robinson, fueling interest in the quest for Herod’s tomb. While Josephus mentions that Herod was buried in the Herodium he did not mention its exact location.

Soon after the identification of the Herodium attempts were made to find the royal tomb. During the 1860s, for instance, the French explorer, Felicien de Saulcy speculated that Herod was buried on an island in the center of the pool in the Lower Herodium.

A century later, the summit was excavated by Father Vergilio Corbo on behalf of the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Rome. In 1983, Lambert Dolphin, a geophysicist, identified what he believed to be a burial chamber in the base of the highest tower on the mountaintop using sonar and rock-penetrating radar.

In 2007, Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University announced that he had discovered Herod’s tomb, after 35 years of archaeological work. In April of that year, Netzer’s team had found hundreds of limestone fragments buried in the mountainside and it was concluded that these were the remains of a high-quality sarcophagus.

Herod's tomb in Herodium. (Deror avi / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Herod's tomb in Herodium. (Deror avi / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The extent of the destruction suggests that the sarcophagus was deliberately smashed, possibly during the time of the First Jewish Revolt based on artifacts found around the site. Apart from that, two white limestone sarcophagi, as well as a few bone fragments were found at the site. Although the scarce remains at the site do not provide sufficient information for the identity of those buried in the Herodium to be determined, Netzer is convinced that he has found Herod’s final resting place.

Top image: Herod the Great as depicted in a painting in the Chapel of Madonna and Child. Photo source: Jbribeiro1 / CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Wu Mingren 


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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