King Herod The Great- The Unpopular Jewish King

King Herod (B.C. 73–B.C. 4) 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. Herod’s rule marked a new beginning in the history of Judea. Judea had been ruled autonomously by the Hasmonean kings from 140 BCE until 63 BCE. The Hasmonean kings retained their titles, but became clients of Rome after the conquest by Pompey in 63 BCE. 

Herod’s father, Antipater, was an Edomite (a Semitic people in the 2nd century BCE). Antipater was a man of great influence and wealth who increased both by marrying the daughter of a noble from Petra (in southwestern Jordan), at that time the capital of the rising Nabataean kingdom. Herod was Edomite, although he was a practicing Jew.

When Pompey (106–48 BCE) invaded Judea in 63 BCE, Antipater supported his campaign and began a long association with Rome, from which both he and Herod were to benefit. Six years later Herod met Mark Antony, whose lifelong friend he was to remain. Julius Caesar also favoured the family; he appointed Antipater procurator of Judaea in 47 BCE and conferred on him Roman citizenship, an honour that descended to Herod and his children. Herod made his political debut in the same year, when his father appointed him governor of Galilee. Six years later Mark Antony made him tetrarch of Galilee.

In 40 BCE the Parthians invaded Judea, civil war broke out, and Herod was forced to flee to Rome. The senate there nominated him king of Judaea and equipped him with an army to make good his claim. In the year 37 BCE, at the age of 36, Herod became the unchallenged ruler of Judaea, a position he was to maintain for 32 years.

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. To further solidify his power, he divorced his first wife, Doris, sent her and his son away from court, and married Miriam, a Hasmonean princess. Although the union was directed at ending his feud with the Hasmoneans, a priestly family of Jewish leaders, he was deeply in love with Miriam.

During the conflict between the two triumvirs Octavian and Antony, the heirs to Caesar’s power, Herod supported his friend Antony. He continued to do so even when Antony’s mistress, Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, used her influence with Antony to gain much of Herod’s best land. After Antony’s final defeat at Actium in 31 BCE, he confessed to the victorious Octavian which side he had taken. Octavian, who had met Herod in Rome, knew that he was the one man to rule Judea as Rome wanted it ruled and confirmed him king. He also restored to Herod the land Cleopatra had taken.

Herod became the close friend of Augustus’s great minister Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, after whom one of his grandsons and one of his great-grandsons were named. Both the emperor and the minister paid him state visits, and Herod twice again visited Rome. Augustus gave him the oversight of the Cyprus copper mines, with a half share in the profits. He twice increased Herod’s territory, in the years 22 and 20 BCE, so that it came to include not only Judea but parts of what are now the kingdom of Jordan to the east of the river and southern Lebanon and Syria. He had intended to bestow the Nabataean kingdom on Herod as well, but, by the time that throne fell vacant, Herod’s mental and physical deterioration made it impossible

There was a dark and cruel streak in Herod’s character. As he grew older, his mental instability, moreover, was fed by the intrigue and deception that went on within his own family. Despite his affection for Miriam, he was prone to violent attacks of jealousy; his sister Salome made good use of his natural suspicions and poisoned his mind against his wife in order to wreck the union. In the end Herod murdered Miriam, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother, a woman of the vilest stamp who had often aided his sister Salome’s schemes. Besides Doris and Miriam, Herod had eight other wives and had children by six of them. He had 14 children.

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).

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.

Herod spent lavish sums on his various building projects and generous gifts to other dominions, including Rome itself. His buildings were very large, ambitious projects. Herod was responsible for the construction of the Temple Mount, a portion of which remains today as the Western Wall. In addition, Herod also used the latest technology in hydraulic cement and underwater construction to build the harbor at Caesarea.

 While Herod’s zeal for building transformed Judea, his motives were not selfless. Although he built fortresses (Masada, Herodium, Alexandrium, Hyrcania, and Machaerus) that he and his family could take refuge in in case of insurrection, these vast projects were also intended to gain the support of the Jews and improve his reputation as a leader. Herod also built Sebaste and other pagan cities because he wanted to appeal to the country’s substantial pagan population.

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.

Herod made many attempts at conforming to traditional Jewish laws, there were more instances where Herod was insensitive, which constitutes one of the major Jewish complaints towards Herod. He introduced foreign forms of entertainment, and erected a golden eagle at the entrance of the Temple, which suggested a greater interest in the welfare of Rome than of Jews. Herod’s taxes garnered a bad reputation – his constant concern for his reputation led him to make frequent, expensive gifts, increasingly emptying the kingdom’s coffers, and such lavish spending upset his Jewish subjects. 

The two major Jewish sects of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both showed opposition to Herod. The Pharisees were discontented because Herod disregarded many of their demands with respect to the Temple’s construction. The Sadducees, who were closely associated with priestly responsibilities in the Temple, opposed Herod because he replaced their high priests with outsiders from Babylonia and Alexandria, in an effort to gain support from the Jewish Diaspora. Herod’s outreach efforts gained him little, and at the end of his reign anger and dissatisfaction were common amongst Jews. 

Herod’s support from the Roman Empire was a major factor in enabling him to maintain his authority over Judea. There have been mixed interpretations concerning Herod’s popularity during his reign. In The Jewish War, Josephus characterizes Herod’s rule in generally favorable terms, and gives Herod the benefit of the doubt for the infamous events that took place during his reign. However, in his later work, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus emphasizes the tyrannical authority that many scholars have come to associate with Herod’s reign.