Herod "the Great"  [ca. 74 - 4 BCE]

Sire of the Herodian dynasty that played a pivotal role in eastern Mediterranean politics during the first century of Roman domination. The second son of Antipater II became one of the shrewdest & most ruthless political leaders in Jewish history. His father appointed him field-marshal [stratégos] of Galilee (47 BCE). He soon demonstrated his aggressiveness & decisiveness by capturing & executing Hezekiah, a rebel Jewish bandit chief who was raiding Roman supporters in Galilee & southern Syria. This incident also demonstrated his refusal to submit to Jewish religious authority, when he scorned the Sanhedrin's attempt to sentence him for having executed Hezekiah without a trial.

Julius Caesar's assassination (44 BCE) & his own father's murder (43 BCE) catapulted Herod into prominence in the eyes of Rome. After pacifying Samaria he drove the anti-Roman Hasmonean, Antigonus, from Jerusalem (42 BCE). Driven himself from Jerusalem by Antigonus' Parthian allies (40 BCE), Herod took his cause to the Roman Senate. There Caesar's heirs, Marc Antony & Octavian, convinced fellow Romans to appoint Herod "King of the Judeans" (39 BCE) to counter Antigonus' right to the title that the Parthians had awarded him. During the ensuing civil war, Herod solidified his right to rule Jews by marrying Mariamne, the grand-daughter of Hyrcanus II, the Hasmonean high-priest whom Antigonus had deposed. Herod again took Jerusalem after a bitter siege & bribed Marc Antony to execute Antigonus.

After winning undisputed political control of Jewish territory, Herod worked to pacify the populace with a double-edged policy of suppression of all opponents & political & economic favors for supporters. His tactics of terror to deny civil liberties & public dissent anticipated the methods adopted by some later Roman emperors & modern police states.

When civil war broke out between the Roman strongmen, Octavian & Antony, Herod remained an ally of Antony. But when Antony was defeated at Actium 
BCE), Herod managed to convince Octavian that he was the best possible ally to rule Palestine. Engaging in one of history's most ambitious & lavish building campaigns, Herod built cities [Caesarea Maritima & Sebaste] to honor his new Roman patron, fortresses [Herodium & Masada] to protect the Judean frontier, & lavish palaces for himself. He also began to renovate Jewish shrines [the tombs of the patriarchs at Hebron & the temple at Jerusalem] to glorify both the Hebrew God & himself. The Roman emperor Augustus [Octavian] in turn rewarded him by three times granting him control of non-Jewish territory: Samaria & the Gaza strip (30 BCE), Batanea & Trachonitis in Syria, south of Damascus (23 BCE), Iturea & the Golan, from the heights east of the Sea of Galilee north to the headwaters of the Jordan river in the Lebanese mountains (20 BCE). The extent of his kingdom rivaled that of David, almost a millennium earlier. Augustus himself publicly proclaimed him "friend & ally of Caesar."

As he aged, however, Herod became increasingly unstable. His youthful experiences of treachery by opponents & himself, magnified by a temper that tolerated no slight or potential rival, led him to destroy even his closest associates. At the height of his prosperity, false rumors & unsubstantiated suspicions led him to eliminate members of his own family. Jealousy & political ambition had led him to murder his beloved Mariamne (29 BCE) & all her relatives except their two sons, only to later order even them executed on false charges of treason (7 BCE). From his own deathbed (4 BCE) he ordered the execution of his eldest son, Antipater III. But the greatest demonstration of his irrational rage, was his reaction to the attempt of religious students to rid his newly renovated temple of a golden (Roman) eagle & other decorations that they deemed contrary to Torah. Instead of just punishing the youthful offenders, he executed their teachers, arrested the elders of every town in his kingdom & as his last command ordered their execution to teach Jews not to oppose him. Only the decision of his sister, Salome, to countermand this order prevented the Jewish reaction to Herod's tyranny from exploding into immediate public rebellion.

Some modern scholars see Herod's descent from military & political brilliance into anti-social madness as evidence of arteriosclerosis, paranoia, megalomania or various other medical & psychological disorders. But, whatever the cause, the effect of his vengeful instability was to plunge Jews & Romans deeper into a whirlpool of repression & counter-violence that influenced the direction of western history.

References: Josephus, Antiquities 16.228-404;
                                                        17.3-133, 139-151, 164-211, 233, 238-249.
                   _____, War 1.19-20, 64, 203-215, 221-673;
                   Cassius Dio, Roman History 49.22.

Other resources on line:

Bronze Judean coin datable to 37 BCE, the third year after Herod's appointment as "king of the Jews." The Greek inscription reads (clockwise from the bottom) Herodou Basileos ["of King Herod"]. For high resolution images of other coins of Herod see Dane Kurth's numismatic guide: Wildwinds.

Perspective on the World of Jesus

Copyright © 1999-2023 by Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.

an American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website
OCLC catalog no.: 62046512