Herod (73-4 BCE) was the pro-Roman king of the small
Jewish state in the last decades before the common
era. He started his career as a general, but the
Roman statesman Mark Antony recognized him as the
Jewish national leader. During a war against the
Parthians, Herod was removed from the scene, but the
Roman Senate made him king and gave him soldiers to
seize the the throne. As 'friend and ally of the
Romans' he was not a truly independent king;
however, Rome allowed him a domestic policy of his
own. Although Herod tried to respect the pious
feeling of his subjects, many of them were not
content with his rule, which ended in terror. He was
succeeded by his sons. Herod the Great I
was born 73 BCE as the son of a man from Idumea
named Antipater and a woman named Cyprus, the
daughter of an Arabian sheik. Antipater was an
adherent of Hyrcanus, one of two princes who
struggling to become king of Judaea.
In this conflict, the Roman general Pompey
intervened in Hyrcanus' favor. Having favored the
winning side in the conflict, Antipater's star rose,
especially since he cooperated with the Romans as
much as possible. In the civil war between Pompey
and Julius Caesar, Hyrcanus and Antipater sided with
the latter, for which especially the courtier was
rewarded: in 47, he was appointed epitropos
('regent') and received the Roman citizenship.
It was obvious that Antipater was the real power
behind Hyrcanus' throne. He managed to secure the
appointment of his young son Herod to the important
task of governor of Galilee. The boy, who was only
sixteen years old, launched a small crusade against
bandits, which made him very popular with the
populace and impopular with the Sanhedrin.
On March 15, 44 BCE, Caesar was murdered. The new
leaders in Rome were Caesar's nephew Octavian and
Caesar's powerful second-in-command Mark Antony.
They announced that they would punish Caesar's
murderers, Brutus and Cassius, who fled to the East.
Cassius ordered all provinces and principalities to
pay money for their struggle against Octavian and
Mark Antony, and Judaea had to pay some 15,000 kg of
silver. Antipater and his sons had to take harsh
measures to get the money, and in the ensuing
troubles, Antipater was killed. With Roman help,
Herod killed his father's murderer.
In 43, Hyrcanus' nephew Antigonus tried to obtain
the throne. Herod defeated him, and secured the
continuity of the line of Hyrcanus by marrying his
daughter Mariamme. Of course, the young man was not
blind to the fact that this marriage greatly
enhanced his own claim to the throne.
Meanwhile, Octavian and Mark Antony had defeated
Brutus and Cassius (at Philippi, in 42). Herod
managed to convince Mark Antony, who made a tour
through the eastern provinces that had supported
Caesar's murderers, that his father had been forced
to support their side. The Roman leader was
convinced, and awarded Herod with the title of
tetrarch of Galilee, a title that was commonly used
for the leaders of parts of vassal kingdoms.
(Herod's brother Phasael was to be tetrarch of
Jerusalem; Hyrcanus remained the Jewish national
leader in name only.)
This appointment caused a lot of resentment among
the Jews. After all, Herod was not a Jew. He was the
son of a man from Idumea; and although Antipater had
been a pious man who had worshipped the Jewish God
sincerely, the Jews had always looked down upon the
Idumeans as racially impure. Worse, Herod had an
Arabian mother, and it was commonly held that one
could only be a Jew when one was born from a Jewish
mother. When war broke out between the Romans and
the Parthians (in Iran and Mesopotamia), the Jewish
populace joined the latter. In 40, Hyrcanus was
taken prisoner and brought to the Parthian capital
Babylon; Antigonus became king in his place; Phasael
Herod managed to escape and went to Rome, where
he persuaded Octavian and the Senate to order Mark
Antony to restore him. And so it happened. After
Mark Antony and his lieutenants had driven away the
Parthians, Herod was brought back to Jerusalem by
two legions, VI Ferrata (whose men had already
fought in Gaul and the civil wars) and another
legion, perhaps III Gallica (37 BCE). Antigonus was
defeated and after he had besieged and captured
Jerusalem, and had defeated the last opposition
(more), Herod could start his reign as sole ruler of
Judaea. He assumed the title of basileus, the
highest possible title.
Herod's monarchy was based on foreign weapons;
the start of his reign had been marked by bloodshed.
His first aim was to establish his rule on a more
solid base. Almost immediately, he sent envoys to
the Parthian king to get Hyrcanus back from Babylon.
The Parthian king was happy to let the old man go,
because he was becoming dangerously popular among
the Jews living in Babylonia. Although Hyrcanus was
unfit to become high priest again, Herod kept his
father-in-law in high esteem. The support of the old
monarch gave an appearance of legality to his own
The new king started an extensive building
program: Jews could take pride in the new walls of
Jerusalem and the citadel which guarded its Temple.
(This fortress was called Antonia, in order to
please Herod's patron Mark Antony.) Coins were
minted in his own name and showed an incense burner
on a tripod, intended to signify Herod's care for
the orthodox Jewish cult practices. These coins had
a Greek legend -H»R‘DOU BASILE‘S- which indicates
that Herod considered his standing abroad. And the
new king continued to please the Romans, to make
sure that they would continue their support. He sent
lavish presents to their representative in the East,
Mark Antony, and to his mistress, the Egyptian queen
These gifts almost were Herod's undoing. The
relations between on the one hand Mark Antony and
Cleopatra in the East and on the other hand Octavian
and the Senate in the West became strained, and
civil war broke out in 31. It did not last very
long: in August, the western leader defeated the
eastern leader, who fled to Alexandria. For the
first time in his life, Herod had aligned himself
with a looser.
He managed to solve this problem, however. First,
he had Hyrcanus executed, making sure that no one
else could claim his throne. Then, he sailed to the
island of Rhodes, where he met Octavian. In a
brilliant speech, Herod boasted of his loyalty to
Mark Antony, and promised the same to the new master
of the Roman Empire. Octavian was impressed by the
man's audacity, confirmed Herod's monarchy, and even
added the coast of Judaea and Samaria to his realm.
Actually, Octavian did not have much choice: his
opponents were still alive, and if he were to pursue
them to Egypt, Herod could be a useful ally. As it
turned out, Mark Antony and Cleopatra preferred
death to surrender, and Octavian became the only
ruler in the Roman world. Under the name Augustus,
he became the first emperor. He rewarded his ally
with new possessions: a.o. Jericho and Gaza, which
had been independent.
Herod's position was still insecure. He continued
his building policy to win the hearts of his
subjects. (A severe earthquake in 31 BCE had
destroyed many houses, killing thousands of people.)
In Jerusalem, the king built a new market, an
amphitheater, a theater, a new building where the
Sanhedrin could convene, a new royal palace, and
last but not least, in 20 BCE he started to rebuild
the Temple. And there were other cities where he
ordered new buildings to be placed: Jericho and
Samaria are examples. New fortresses served the
security of both the Jews and their king: Herodion,
Machaereus and Masada are among them.
But Herod's crowning achievement was a splendid
new port, called Caesarea in honor of the emperor
(the harbor was called Sebastos, the Greek
translation of 'Augustus'). This magnificent and
opulent city, which was dedicated in 9 BCE, was
build to rival Alexandria in the land trade to
Arabia, from where spices, perfume and incense were
imported. It was not an oriental town like
Jerusalem; it was laid out on a Greek grid plan,
with a market, an aqueduct, government offices,
baths, villas, a circus, and pagan temples. (The
most important of these was the temple where the
emperor was worshipped; it commanded the port.) The
port was a masterpiece of engineering: its piers
were made from hydraulic concrete (which hardens
underwater) and protected by unique wave-breaking
Although Herod was a dependent client-king, he
had a foreign policy of his own. He had already
defeated the Arabs from Petra in 31, and repeated
this in 9 BCE. The Romans did not like this
independent behavior, but on the whole, they seem to
have been very content with their king of Judaea.
After all, he sent auxiliaries when they decided to
send an army to the mysterious incense country
(modern Yemen; 25 BCE). In 23, Iturea and the Golan
heights were added to Herod's realms, and in 20
several other districts.
With building projects, the expansion of his
territories, the establishment of a sound
bureaucracy, and the development of economic
resources, he did much for his country, at least on
a material level. The standing of his country
-foreign and at home- was certainly enhanced.
However, many of his projects won him the bitter
hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked Herod's
Greek taste - a taste he showed not only in his
building projects, but also in several
transgressions of the Mosaic Law.
The orthodox were not to only ones who came to
hate the new king. The Sadducees hated him because
he had terminated the rule of the old royal house to
which many of them were related; their own influence
in the Sanhedrin was curtailed. The Pharisees
despised any ruler who despised the Law. And
probably all his subjects resented his excessive
taxation. According to Flavius Josephus, there were
two taxes in kind at annual rates equivalent to
10.7% and 8.6%, which is extremely high in any
preindustrial society (Jewish Antiquities
14.202-206). It comes as no surprise that Herod
sometimes had to revert to violence, employing
mercenaries and a secret police to enforce order.
Coin of king
On moments like that, it was clear to anyone that
Herod was not a Jewish but a Roman king. He had
become the ruler of the Jews with Roman help and he
boasted to be philokaisar ('the emperor's friend'),
entertaining Agrippa, Augustus' right-hand man. On
top of the gate of the new Temple, a golden eagle
was erected, a symbol of Roman power in the heart of
the holy city resented by all pious believers.
Worse, Augustus ordered and paid the priests of the
Temple to sacrifice twice a day on behalf of
himself, the Roman senate and people. The Jewish
populace started to believe rumors that their pagan
ruler had violated Jewish tombs, stealing golden
objects from the tomb of David and Solomon.
Herod concluded ten marriages, all for political
purposes. They were probably all unhappy. His wives
- Doris, from an unknown family in Jerusalem:
married c.47, sent away 37; recalled 14, sent
- She was the mother of Antipater, who was
executed in 4.
- The Hasmonaean princess Mariamme I: married
37, executed in 29/28. According to Flavius
Josephus, Herod was passionately devoted to this
woman, but she hated him just as passionately.
- Five children: Alexander, Aristobulus, a
nameless son, Salampsio and Cyprus.
- An unknown niece: married 37. No children.
- An unknown cousin: married c.34/33. No
- The daughter of a Jerusalem priest named
Simon, Mariamme II: married 29/28, divorced 7/6.
- They had a son named Herod.
- A Samarian woman named Malthace: married 28,
- Their children were Antipas, Archelaus
- A Jerusalem woman named Cleopatra: married
- They had two sons named, Herod and
- Pallas: married 16.
- They had a son named Phasael.
- Phaedra: married 16.
- They had a daughter named Roxane.
- Elpis: married 16.
- They had a daughter named Salome.
Herod's reign ended in terror. The monastery at
Qumran, the home of the Essenes, suffered a violent
and deliberate destruction by fire in 8 BCE, for
which Herod may have been responsible. When the king
fell ill, two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias,
incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle from
the entrance of the Temple: after all, according to
the Ten Commandments, it was a sin to make idols.
The teachers and the pupils were burned alive. Some
Jewish scholars had discovered that seventy-six
generations had passed since the Creation, and there
was a well-known prophecy that the Messiah was to
deliver Israel from its foreign rulers in the
seventy-seventh generation (more...). The story
about the slaughter of infants of Bethlehem in the
second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is not known
from other sources, but it would have been totally
in character for the later Herod to commit such a
A horrible disease (probably a cancer-like
affection called Fournier's gangrene) made acute the
problem of Herod's succession, and the result was
factional strife in his family. Shortly before his
death, Herod decided against his sons Aristobulus
and Antipater, who were executed in 7 and 4 BCE,
causing the emperor Augustus to joke that it was
preferable to be Herod's pig (hus) than his son (huios)
- a very insulting remark to any Jew.
However, the emperor confirmed Herod's last will.
After his death in 4 BCE, the kingdom was divided
among his sons. Herod Antipas was to rule Galilee
and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch;
Philip was to be tetrarch of the Golan heights in
the north-east; and Archelaus became the ethnarch
('national leader') of Samaria and Judaea. Herod was
buried in one of the fortresses he had build,
Herodion. Few will have wept.
The most important ancient source for the rule of
king Herod was written by Flavius Josephus: the
Jewish War and the Jewish Antiquities. Both books
are based on the history of Nicolaus of Damascus,
king Herod's personal secretary.
Modern literature: Nikos Kokkinos, The Herodian
Dynasty. Origins, Role in Society and Eclipse (1998
Sheffield) and D.W. Roller, The Building Program of
Herod the Great (1998) supplement each other.