King Herod

King Herod (B.C. 73–B.C. 4), ethnically Idumean but a practicing Jew, increased the land he governed from Judea to parts of modern Jordan, Lebanon and Syria constructing fortresses, aqueducts and amphitheaters and earned him the title ‘Herodes Magnus’, Herod the Great. He was a friend of the Emperor Augustus and knew Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Among his considerable achievements, he built the largest artificial harbor in the Mediterranean area. He executed one of his 10 wives and three of his 14 children.  He was an astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination. Herod’s projects were built through the use of thousands of Jews as forced laborers moving enormous blocks of limestone. Many of these blocks weighed more than ten tons. Because of his despotic actions, the Jews despised and feared Herod. Even projects that he commissioned to endear him to the people failed to change their hatred for him. Even though Herod may have considered himself to be Jewish, he was not considered Jewish by the observant and nationalist Jews of Judea. He enjoyed the backing of Rome but his brutality was condemned by the Sanhedrin (ancient Jewish court).

In 63 BCE John and Pompey entered Jerusalem unopposed, but the Temple Mount, with its own fortifications, posed some problems. It took three months to take the Temple, and Rome gained control of Judea.  Julius Caesar appointed a governor to keep watch over the country, the son of an Idumean who had been forced to covert to Judaism, a man named Herod. After Caesar’s death, Cassius, Mark Antony, and Octavian all struggled for control of the Roman Empire. They all kept Herod in power. The Hasmonean dynasty wasn’t willing to give up control of Judea, and with the support of the Parthians (a nation in Asia Minor), there was a mini-revolt which was brutally suppressed. After putting down the revolt against their rule, Rome appointed Herod king of Judea. Herod had complete authority, and he used it ruthlessly. He established an enormous secret police force, brutally killed anyone suspected of plotting against him, and created Roman peace by slaughtering all dissidents. Herod controlled the sacrificial cult by placing a lackey in the position of High Priest. Herod built fortresses throughout the land just in case he should ever need sanctuary. These included Sabaste in the Hills of Ephraim, the central region of Israel; Herodium, just east of Bethlehem; and Jericho. Each of these fortresses was architecturally unique.

Herodium, a steep hill, rising abruptly, eight miles south of Jerusalem, is one of the grand architectural creations of Herod the Great, King of Judaea. He raised a low knoll into a towering memorial of snowy stonework and surrounded it with pleasure palaces, splashing pools, and terraced gardens.

One of Herod’s greatest building projects was in Jerusalem. He wanted to enlarge and embellish the Temple, but the mountain on which Solomon had built the First Temple and on which Zachariah and Haggai had built the Second was just too small for his plans. He increased the size of the Temple Mount by constructing huge encasement walls and filling them in with pure dirt, creating a large trapezoid. He was then able to proceed with his architectural plans to enlarge the Temple and its courtyards.

Herod’s most famous fortress was Masada. Located on the shores of the Dead Sea, Masada was built on a high plateau. Access was only along a steep, sharply winding path called the Snake Path. At the top, Herod had two palaces: a magnificent three-tiered northern palace complete with columns and frescoes offered a spectacular view of the Dead Sea. A larger mosaic- decorated western palace was probably planned as an administrative headquarters.

In honor of Octavian (Augustus Caesar), Herod took the ancient port city of Straton’s Tower just south of Haifa and renamed it Caesarea. There he created a deep sea port, surrounded the city with a wall, and constructed an amphitheater. To supply the port with ample water, Herod built enormous aqueduct.

The cause of his grisly death more than 2,000 years ago has been a mystery. Herod died in Jericho. Most scholars have agreed that Herod died at the end of March or early April in 4 BCE. Now, after studying ancient accounts of Herod’s death, Jan Hirschmann, a physician at the University Of Washington School Of Medicine in Seattle, thinks the king probably died of chronic kidney disease, complicated by a particularly nasty case of gangrene. Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer has spent the past half century searching for the real Herod, as he is portrayed not in words but in stone. He has excavated many of Herod’s major building sites throughout the Holy Land, exploring the palaces where the king lived, the fortresses where he fought, the landscapes where he felt most at home. Of Herod’s many imaginative building projects, Herodium was the only one that bore his name, and was perhaps the closest to his heart. It was here, at the end of his daring and blood stained career that he was laid to rest in a noble mausoleum.  The location of Herod’s tomb is documented by Josephus, who writes, “And the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried. On May 7, 2007, an Israeli team of archaeologists of Hebrew University led by Netzer, announced they had discovered the tomb. The site is located at the exact location given by Josephus, atop of tunnels and water pools, at a flattened desert site, halfway up the hill to Herodium, 7.5 miles south of Jerusalem. The tomb contained a broken sarcophagus but no remains of a body.

Pictures from Herodium

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