Herod the Terrible or Herod the Great?

The much-maligned King of the Jews’s shortcomings should not overshadow his political and cultural accomplishments

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Behind every great man: "Mariamme Leaves the Judgment Seat of Herod" by J. W. Waterhouse (1887) 

The Christian world has inherited a wholly negative image of king Herod (74/72-4 BCE), during whose reign Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1, Luke, 1:5). Matthew’s legendary account, Nativity plays and Christian imagination have turned Herod into the Ivan the Terrible of antiquity. When the three wise kings, or rather oriental magicians (magoi in the Greek Gospel), arrived at the royal palace in Jerusalem and asked about the recently born king of the Jews, Herod pretended to be helpful and directed them to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of the Messiah, on condition that they promised to let him know the whereabouts of the babe. He, too, wished to greet him, he lied, when in fact he planned to murder the potential rival. So when the magi failed to return, he let loose his soldiers on the infants of Bethlehem. 

The extensive secular chronicles provide a more nuanced biography, one that is almost as detailed as those of Roman emperors. Our chief informant is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-c.100CE), who devoted most of Book I of his Jewish War and Books XIV to XVII of Jewish Antiquities to the life and times of Herod. Josephus uses as his main source the universal history of Nicolaus of Damascus, the well-informed teacher, adviser and ambassador of Herod. The fact that Josephus often criticises the king suggests that beside the court historian’s pro-Herod chronicle, he had also at his disposal another account sympathetic to the Hasmoneans, the Jewish priest-kings, who from 152 BCE ruled the Holy Land, first independently and after 63 BCE under the aegis of Rome, until Herod took their throne in 37 BCE. 

We do not know what Herod looked like. In obedience to Jewish law, he did not allow his effigy to appear on coins. Nor has any statue of his survived away from home. The nearest we come to a Herodian face is through the coins of his more liberal grandson, Agrippa I (10 BCE-44 CE) and great-grandson Agrippa II (27/28-92/93 CE). Josephus depicts Herod as a strong, attractive, and sensual man. He was outstanding as rider, hunter and soldier. Few could match the precision of his javelin or arrow. Extremely ambitious, he wished to be second to none. This eagerness probably stemmed from an inferiority complex implanted in him by two women of royal descent: his haughty wife Mariamme and mother-in-law Alexandra. One of his cheeky sons by Mariamme gossiped that standing beside his father he had to stoop as he was taller than him, and felt obliged to miss at hunting to make Herod appear the better shot. He also let it be known that to disguise his age, Herod was dying his hair black. 

Gladly availing himself of the Mosaic privilege of extensive royal polygamy, Herod took altogether ten wives. Apart from Mariamme, who was both beautiful and princely, they were all chosen for their looks rather than their rank, according to Glaphyra, Herod’s sharp-tongued daughter-in-law, herself daughter of the king of Cappadocia. Family prattle had it that Herod fancied Glaphyra. We learn from Josephus that Herod had at least one male lover, Karos, “a young man of unrivalled beauty”, who later came to a sticky end.

Herod was born between 74 and 72 BCE into a leading Idumean family. The Idumeans, who lived south of Judea, were forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean ruler, John Hyrcanus I, in the 120s BCE. Herod’s grandfather Antipas and his father Antipater held high offices in the Hasmonean kingdom: the former was governor of Idumea, and Antipater acted as military aide and political adviser to the priestly ruler, Hyrcanus II (63-40 BCE). Antipater and his young son rose to prominence in the stormy days of the Roman republic, first under the leadership of Pompey, the conqueror of Jerusalem in 63 BCE, and then under Julius Caesar after Pompey’s defeat in 48 BCE. They both gained Roman citizenship.

We have no record of Herod’s childhood and upbringing, though it may be assumed that he learned Greek. Remarkably, his main education came late in life from the already mentioned Nicolaus of Damascus, who joined his court in 14 BCE when Herod was nearing 60. In a surviving passage of his autobiography, Nicolaus records that Herod’s first enthusiasm was for philosophy, then he preferred rhetoric which he practised with his teacher. 

Next he fell in love with history and bullied Nicolaus to complete his universal history. Finally, when he sailed to Rome to meet Augustus, he took Nicolaus with him to discuss philosophy. 

Herod first revealed his strong arm in 47 BCE when, appointed governor of Galilee by his father, he cleared the country of brigands. After Caesar’s violent removal three years later, Antipater and Herod collaborated for a short while with Cassius, one of Caesar’s murderers, who took over Syria. In 43 BCE, Antipater was poisoned by one of his enemies. When Caesar’s friend, Mark Antony, and Octavian, Caesar’s heir, defeated Brutus and Cassius, leaders of the anti-Caesar faction at Philippi in 42 BCE, Herod cleverly switched to Antony’s side. In turn, Antony persuaded Octavian and the Roman senate in 40 BCE to entrust Herod with the kingship of Judea. He was thought to be the man able to reconquer the country recently invaded by Rome’s chief enemies, the Parthians. 

With Roman help, it took Herod three years to expel the Parthians and their puppet king, the Hasmonean Antigonus, from Judea and Jerusalem. Thanks to the support of Samaias, an influential Pharisee, Herod was welcomed by the inhabitants of the capital. In gratitude to them, he did his best to stop the Romans from pillaging the city. On the other hand, he made himself exceedingly rich by confiscating the land owned by the hostile Jewish upper classes. 

The Egyptian queen Cleopatra was the immediate threat to Herod. She was ambitious to expand her domain eastwards. She successfully urged Mark Antony, her husband, to transfer to her Herod’s rich palm and balsam groves at Jericho. Cleopatra even visited Judea in 34 BCE and was toying with the idea of seducing Herod — seduction being something she regularly enjoyed, according to Josephus. She may also have envisaged the bed as a trap that would expose Herod to Antony’s fury and result in Judea’s takeover by Cleopatra. Herod, in turn, was tempted to destroy the Egyptian queen while she was in his power. However, he abstained for fear of risking Antony’s displeasure. In the end, Cleopatra unwittingly contributed to Herod’s political survival. Thanks to her greed for the land of the Nabateans — in the south of modern Israel and Jordan — she persuaded Antony to launch Herod and his army against them. So he and his main forces were kept away from fighting on Antony’s side against Octavian at Actium in 31 BCE.

From 37 to 4 BCE, with firm Roman backing, Herod ruled over Judea, Idumea, Samaria and Galilee, as well as over further regions in southern Syria and northern Transjordan. Not since David and Solomon in the tenth century BCE had there been a Jewish kingdom as large as Herod’s, not a mean achievement for the Idumean parvenu. The first 12 years of Herod’s reign (37-25 BCE) saw the consolidation of his power. He built fortifications in Jerusalem, Samaria and at Masada, silenced all opposition to his rule and eliminated his Hasmonean rivals, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus II, the brother and the grandfather of his second wife, Mariamme. The former drowned in an arranged swimming pool accident and the latter was strangled. The middle period of Herod’s rule (25 to 13 BCE) is characterised by his spectacular building activities at home and abroad, culminating in the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple and the creation of the city and port of Caesarea. 

The last years of his life (13-4 BCE) were poisoned by increasingly bitter family feuds, which ultimately sprang from his marriage to Mariamme. To understand the situation, we must go back to 37 BCE, the start of the monarchy. After becoming master of Jerusalem, Herod dismissed his first wife Doris and their son Antipater, in order to marry later in that year Mariamme, the granddaughter of the former high priest/king Hyrcanus II. Not only was he passionately in love with her, but through the marriage bond with Hasmonean royalty he sought to improve his popularity with his Jewish subjects. Their bliss was short-lived, however, due to intrigue, jealousy and hatred between the female in-laws, Mariamme and her mother Alexandra on the one side, and Cypros and Salome, Herod’s mother and his sister, on the other. The Hasmonean royals openly despised the “lowborn” Idumeans. The Idumeans were craftier. The infighting climaxed with a charge of adultery against Mariamme, which unhinged Herod and led to her execution in 29 BCE. 

In the following year, Alexandra, the much-disliked mother-in-law, shared her daughter’s fate. Alexandra twice earned Herod’s displeasure for plotting his overthrow. First, in collusion with her intimate friend Cleopatra, she arranged for Antony to summon Herod and demand that he account for the drowning of Alexandra’s son, the young high priest Aristobulus, but Herod managed to extricate himself from trouble. After the execution of her daughter, Alexandra tried to seize the power for herself and Mariamme’s sons, but the plan was reported to the king and revenge followed. 

After Mariamme, who bore him three sons, one of whom died young, and two daughters, Herod took eight further wives and had numerous children. In 14 BCE, even the repudiated first wife Doris was readmitted to the court only to be dismissed again about nine years later.

In the final stage of Herod’s reign, the family drama reached its apogee. After enjoying five years of princely education in Rome between 23/22 and 18/17 BCE, part of the time staying with Augustus, Alexander and Aristobulus, Mariamme’s children, fell foul of the machinations of Antipater, who rejoined the family together with his mother Doris. He was aided and abetted by the king’s brother and sister who falsely accused the young men of plotting parricide. Antipater’s aim was to remove the favourite sons from the line of succession. Herod, in order to teach a lesson to the turbulent Alexander and Aristobulus, proclaimed Antipater his heir, but the firstborn felt insecure as long as Mariamme’s sons lived. The scandalmongering continued and in 12 BCE Herod, in desperation, took his two sons to Rome to charge them with treason before Augustus, but the peace-loving emperor managed to effect reconciliation. Herod, quite relieved, proclaimed his three sons kings, a solution that displeased them all. The smear campaign by Antipater persisted and by 7 BCE the fate of Alexander and Aristobulus was sealed. Augustus with a heavy heart allowed Herod to try his two sons, who were found guilty and executed by strangulation in Sebaste/Samaria, where 30 years earlier their father and Mariamme had celebrated their wedding. Antipater’s path to kingship was cleared, but he was too impatient for power and decided to poison his father. Herod became suspicious again and servants privy to the plan confessed under torture. The arch schemer Antipater was tried in court and reaped his just deserts five days before Herod’s death.

In 4 BCE, approaching 70, Herod’s body was totally disintegrating. By then, he realised that despite his lifelong yearning for admiration and love he had become the object of general hatred. His unpopularity reached boiling point when he sentenced to death two respected religious teachers and 40 of their pupils for destroying the golden eagle, symbol of Rome, attached to the new Temple. On his death bed, he devised an insane finale for himself. He instructed his sister to arrange for the imprisonment of all the leading men of Judea in the hippodrome of Jericho, and to give the order for their execution at the moment of his death. That would ensure countrywide wailing on the day of the royal funeral. Salome, however, released the prisoners, pretending that the king had changed his mind.

The splendour of Herod’s burial rites stands in stark contrast to the wretchedness of his last years. His body, clothed in crimson, with crown and diadem on his head and sceptre in his hand, lay on a solid gold bier covered with royal purple. His surviving sons and relatives walked beside the bier, preceded by a military detachment and followed by fully-armed Thracian, German and Gaulish bodyguards. The cortège proceeded from Jericho to the final resting place at Herodium. In 2007, the Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who died last October when he fell off a platform at the site, discovered there a large sarcophagus, made of reddish Jerusalem limestone and decorated with rosettes that probably contained the earthly remains of Herod the Great, king of the Jews. 

This sketchy portrait reveals that Herod was a split personality in whom the two extremes of evil and good met. Josephus hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

When we have regard to his…benefactions that he had made to mankind in general, even his detractors would be forced to admit the remarkable generosity of his nature. Yet when we consider his unjustified and vengeful treatment of his subjects and his closest relatives, and observe the unrelenting harshness of his character, we must regard him as a brute.

More than once he displayed signs of momentary madness. After executing his wife, he went on imagining that she was still alive and instructed servants to summon her. Later, he fantasised that his son, with sword in hand, was rushing to kill him. The murderous scenario he devised as an accompaniment to his funeral is also attributable to an insane mind.

By contrast, throughout his long career, Herod was a brilliant general whose armies, if they followed his orders, never lost a battle. On various occasions, he also proved himself a political genius. Nothing illustrates better his farsightedness, courage and perspicacity than his risky venture to meet, uninvited, Octavian at Rhodes after his victory over Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BCE. As Antony’s creature, Herod realised the precariousness of his situation and concluded that his only chance of survival consisted in taking the bull by the horns. Removing the diadem from his head, he faced the hostile Octavian and attempted to gain his sympathy by being totally frank with him. He emphasised his close friendship with Antony and admitted that he had supported him to the end with auxiliary troops and large quantities of foodstuff, quietly reminding Octavian of the absence of his main army and himself at Actium as they were fighting the Arabs in southern Transjordan on Antony’s orders. 

He further confessed that even after Octavian’s victory he remained Antony’s counsellor and advised him in vain to get rid of Cleopatra, the femme fatale, and cause of his misfortune. Then came a masterful peroration reported by Josephus which deserves to be quoted:

I am come to rest my safety on my integrity…I am not ashamed to declare my loyalty to Antony. But if you would disregard the individual concerned, and examine how I requite my benefactors, and how staunch a friend I prove, then you may know me by the test of my past actions. I hope that the subject of inquiry will be not whose friend, but how loyal a friend, I have been. 

The clever gambit worked. Octavian replaced the diadem on Herod’s head with the words: 

So staunch a champion of the claims of friendship deserves to be ruler over many subjects…Antony did well in obeying Cleopatra’s behests rather than yours; for through his folly we have gained you.

From then on, Herod became one of Augustus’s best friends, second only to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. This friendship was marred only once, in 7 BCE, during Herod’s conflict with the Nabateans. The war was considered unauthorised by the emperor, but the tactful diplomacy of Nicolaus of Damascus ironed out the misunderstanding. 

Generally speaking, loyalty and gratitude are virtues definitely to Herod’s credit. He never rebelled against Hyrcanus and proved a devoted friend of Mark Antony through thick and thin. As Augustus’s client king, his fidelity to the emperor remained steadfast to his death. Even though no favour could be expected in return, in his last will Herod left Augustus ten million silver coins as well as gold and silver vessels and luxurious articles of clothing; he also bequeathed to the empress Julia five million pieces of silver. To see these legacies in proportion, he left his beloved sister Salome only 500,000 silver coins. 

In the domain of social policy, Herod could be harsh to his Jewish subjects, confiscating the wealth of rich opponents and collecting tributes with moderate severity from the general population. However, he was sometimes remarkably generous towards the needy. At the time of a great famine in 24-23 BCE, Herod did all he could to rescue his people. Being without ready cash to purchase food in Egypt at inflated prices, he sold all the gold and silver objects in his possession and fed the starving at home and even in cities beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. We learn from Josephus that twice he substantially reduced taxes (by one third in one case and by a quarter in another) to help the stricken economy to recover. Yet once he admitted that he never felt totally at home with Jews and preferred the more congenial company of the Greeks.

In fairness to Herod, one must also stress that thanks to him Judea became a richer, more civilised and definitely more beautiful country. In particular, Caesarea greatly contributed to the growth of international commerce and his great architectural projects provided employment and improved the circumstances of large segments of the working population of his kingdom.

Herod excelled in the promotion of culture, both Jewish and Hellenistic, especially through grandiose architectural projects. Jerusalem and the countryside were transformed and became incomparably more pleasant to live in after Herod than before his reign. Profoundly devoted to his Idumean family, he erected the cities of Antipatris on the coastal plain, Cypros and Phasaelis in the region of Jericho, to perpetuate the names of his father, mother and elder brother. 

Herodium, not far from Bethlehem, was to bear Herod’s name and serve as his burial place. His most prestigious architectural enterprise on the non-Jewish Mediterranean coast was the transformation, with no expense spared, of the derelict town of Strato’s Tower into the magnificent new city of Caesarea in celebration of Caesar Augustus. It comprised a theatre and an amphitheatre for quinquennial games in the emperor’s honour as well as a statue and a temple dedicated to him. Above all, Caesarea became a large port, equal in size to Piraeus, the harbour of Athens. Imported white marble was used for the construction of the palaces and the temples. 

Herod considered himself a Jew and at home he behaved as one despite his frequent participation in Graeco-Roman worship outside Judea. He also observed Jewish dietary laws. Snidely alluding to his cruel treatment of Mariamme’s offspring, Augustus remarked: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” A first-century CE Latin poet referred to the Jewish Sabbath as “Herod’s day”. He strictly adhered to Jewish rules governing mixed marriages and required circumcision of non-Jewish men before they were allowed to marry into his family. If they refused, the engagement was called off. Some of the pools discovered in Herodian palaces served for ritual purification, according to archaeologists.

His formal adherence to the Jewish religion did not stop him, however, from contributing to cultural modernisation. He promoted Greek-style entertainment thought to be attractive to progressive Jews, though hated by religious zealots. He built a theatre in Jerusalem, a hippodrome in Jericho and an amphitheatre in the coastal plain, where four-yearly games celebrated Augustus. Beyond the frontiers of his kingdom, at Paneas, near the sources of the River Jordan (the Caesarea Philippi of the Gospels), he dedicated another sanctuary to Augustus. Other temples were erected in Berytus (Beirut), Tyre and Rhodes. In Antioch, Herod provided marble to pave the main street and build colonnades. The councillors of Elis in Greece, the city of the ancient Olympics, greeted Herod as a generous benefactor and elected him life president of the Games, a role that he personally fulfilled during his visit in 12 BCE. 

The jewel in the crown of his exclusively Jewish creative activity was the reconstruction of the Second Temple. It started in 19 BCE and was financed by him. The Western Wall of Herod’s Temple still stands and is the holiest site in Judaism. The building was substantially larger and higher than the original Second Temple erected at the end of the sixth century BCE. To reassure the inhabitants of the city, Herod assembled in advance all the building materials, and hired and trained the stonemasons and carpenters. 

To allay religious worries, he associated the Jewish clergy with the project, and to please them he ordered sumptuous robes for 1,000 priests. The main sanctuary, completed in 18 months, was inaugurated in a grandiose ceremony entailing the sacrifice of 300 oxen. The Temple was one of the marvels of the ancient world. According to a Jewish saying, “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod, has not seen a beautiful building in his life.” Work continued long after Herod’s death and did not end until the procuratorship of Albinus in 62-64 CE, a few years before its destruction in the first rebellion against Rome in 70 CE. 

As far as the Jewish religion was concerned, the enlarged and embellished Temple added extra attractiveness to cultic worship and thus increased the number of pilgrims who came from the four corners of the ancient world to worship in Jerusalem. Just over three decades after Herod’s death, Jewish pilgrims present in Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot or Pentecost included, according to the Acts of the Apostles (2:9-11), people from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt, Cyrene, Rome, Crete and Arabia. Moreover, Herod’s liking for the learned Pharisees, who endorsed him when he was most in need of support, and his fondness of the Essenes, whose prophet Menachem predicted that one day Herod would become king, further contributed to the active promotion of the intellectual and spiritual life of Judaism. 

How can one explain Herod’s duality? Josephus thought that the conflicting propensities arose from a single source and had a single motivation. Herod always endeavoured to please because he wanted to be admired by everyone. Josephus wrote:

Herod loved honour, and was dominated by that passion, and his magnanimity revealed itself wherever there was hope of a lasting memorial or of immediate fame.

His overriding aim was to glorify himself, and his ambition was to leave to posterity ever more imposing monuments of his reign; and this was the spur that drove him to build cities and lavish such enormous expense on the work.

There was a reverse side to Herod’s open-handedness. He spent beyond his means to please his patrons and on good causes at home or abroad. 

His lavish expenditure on the recipients of his bounty made him a source of misery to the people from whom he took the money. Well aware that he was hated for the injustices…He could see no easy way to redress these wrongs…Instead he remained defiant, using the resentment (of the exploited) as an excuse to satisfy his wants.

His insecurity produced a constant longing for adulation. Any apparent questioning of his authority opened the floodgates of reprisals. So Josephus concludes:

These excesses he committed from a desire to be uniquely honoured. To support my contention that this was his overriding motive I can refer to the ways in which he gave honour to Caesar, Agrippa and his other friends. He expected to receive the same deference himself…The Jewish people, however, have been taught by their Law…to admire righteousness rather than the pursuit of glory. As a result, they incurred his displeasure, finding it impossible to flatter the king’s ambition with statues, temples and marks of honour.

Josephus’s reasoning may be superficially correct, but it cannot fully account for the actions of Herod that are not all reducible to self-interest. The benevolent measures he took to alleviate his subjects’ misery at the time of the famine went far beyond the call of duty and with one foot in the grave he could not expect any return for his exceptional liberality towards Augustus and Julia. While one contemporary Josephus expert calls Herod an “infamous king”, more perspicacious observers will retrieve his complex true self. For them, Herod is a tragic hero whose good intentions and far-reaching political wisdom come to naught because of the frightening flaws of his personality and the nefarious influence of his family. 

He strove for an undreamt-of improvement of the social, cultural and economic standards of the Jews, and longed for, but failed to harvest, gratitude and love. Seeing in Rome God’s gift to mankind, and in Augustus the universal saviour, Herod tried his best to ensure the integration of his Jewish kingdom into the new world order. 

His great dream collapsed for two reasons. For the Jews, the Roman Empire was not the new creation forecast by the prophets, nor was Augustus the final redeemer. They preferred to await their own Messiah and his Kingdom of God. And the bloodbath inflicted by Herod on the respected Hasmoneans, including his wife and sons, completely offset the impact of his generosity towards the Jewish nation. 

Fate caught up with the erring tyrant and his undoing, like that of all tragic heroes, became inevitable. He expired in loneliness after a painful illness and in full knowledge of the hatred he had generated in his people. 

In 70 CE, with the end of the Jewish state and the Herodian dynasty, and after the destruction of Herod’s masterpiece, the Temple, his name faded away. The Talmud, ignoring Herod’s ancestry and attainments, downgrades him to the status of a “wicked slave of the Hasmonean kings”, and the Nativity story of Saint Matthew has transformed him into a monster who massacred the innocent babes of Bethlehem in an effort to extinguish the budding life of Christianity’s Son of God. 

In short, both Jewish and Christian traditions treat him as Herod the Terrible. The historian, however, is fully aware, despite Herod’s grave shortcomings, of his unparalleled political and cultural accomplishments. In particular, his long friendship with Augustus was highly beneficial to the inhabitants of Judea and the Jewish religion. Moreover, while Herod enjoyed the enviable status of a “client king, friend of the Roman people”, none of his descendants, if the short reign of Agrippa I (41-44 CE) is discarded, was sufficiently esteemed by Augustus and his successors to receive the title “king of the Jews”. All in all, in view of these unquestionable achievements Herod deserves to be known as the one and only Herod the Great.