For much of the period leading up to, and well into the First Century AD, the politics and the fortunes of Judea were dominated by a single family, the House of Herod. The various rulers who bore that name get only occasional mention in the New Testament, and none of it terribly flattering. This hardly does them justice; the story of House of Herod is as full of intrigue, sex, and bloodshed, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, as their contemporaries, the Caesars.
The founder of the dynasty, and the most famous of the family, was called Herod the Great, and deservedly so. He is probably best-known as the villain in the story of the Wise Men in the Book of Matthew, but there was far more to him than that.
Herod was not Jewish by birth. His father, Antipater, was from Idumea, called Edom in the Jewish Scriptures, and regarded as the home of the descendants of Esau. Idumea had been annexed by John Hyrcanus, king of Judea, in 125 BC, and its inhabitants forced to convert to Judaism. Despite this, because of his Idumean blood, Herod was never considered to be a Real Jew.
For many years, Judea had been ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family which had come to power during the Maccabean Revolt in 164 BC and established an independent Jewish kingdom. This kingdom lasted for about a hundred years, until a civil war broke out. The ruling King and High Priest, Hyrcanus II, was forced to resign his positions by his brothers, and the feuding sides asked the Roman general, Pompey, (who happened to be in the neighborhood putting down an uprising in Syrai), to arbitrate between them.
Pompey decided the issue by annexing Judea for Rome. Because that’s how Pompey rolled. He reinstated Hyrcanus as High Priest, but not as king; although later on Pompey granted him the position of ethnarch, which is Latin for, “Guy In Charge, But Not A King, So Don’t Get Funny Ideas.” It would be another couple millennia before the Jews again had an independent state.
Antipater was a high-ranking official in Hyrcanus’ court and acted as the representative of Rome. He was best buds with Julius Caesar, having once aided Caesar during his conflict with Pompey. Antipater wrangled cushy administrative positions for both his sons; the elder, Phasael, became Governor of Jerusalem; (you can forget his name because I don’t mention him again), and the younger, Herod, was made Governor of Galilee.
Herod got along well with the Romans; less so with his subjects, who pressured Hyrcanus to put Herod on trial before the Sanhedrin for violating Jewish Law in executing an outlaw and his followers. Herod won acquittal through a combination of sheer chutzpah and the pull of his influential Roman friends.
Herod married a woman named Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus. He was already married at this time, to a woman named Doris, but this second marriage made him a member of the Royal Family and heir presumptive to Hyrcanus’ throne. It would not be his last marriage.
Also during this period, Julius Caesar was assassinated, and the rulers of Judea found themselves embroiled in upheaval in Rome. Cassius, who as you’ll remember from Shakespeare, helped organize the plot to assassinate Caesar, seized the province of Syria, and appointed Herod to collect taxes for him. Herod was very good at this sort of thing. Then, when Cassius was defeated by Marc Anthony, Herod switched his loyalty to Anthony. This is another thing Herod was good at.
The neighboring Parthians invaded Judea and installed a nephew of Hyrcanus named Antigonus on the throne. Herod and his family and perhaps as many as 5,000 fighting men fled the city of Jerusalem. Installing his family in the safety of the mountain fortress of Masada, Herod traveled to Rome to plead to the Roman Senate for help. The Senate appointed him basileus, (“king’) over Judea and gave him aid to help re-take Jerusalem.
He built a palace for himself in Jerusalem which he named the Antonia, after his patron, Marc Anthony. But when civil war broke out between the members of the Roman Triumvirate, and Octavius, later known as Caesar Augustus, defeated Anthony, Herod switched sides again. He went directly to Octavius, admitted he had supported Anthony, and promised to serve Octavius as faithfully as had his previous patron. Octavius was impressed by his audacity, and probably recognized him as an effective administrator in an unstable province, and so retained Herod in his position as king of Judea.
Herod undertook many building projects during his reign. It has been said that Caesar Augustus found Rome a city of wood, and left it a city of marble; well, Herod did much the same to Palestine. In addition to the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem, and the fortress at Masasa, he built a city and harbor on the coast which he named Caesarea, after Caesar Augustus, which became the administrative capital of the province.
One of his projects came about as a result of his nighttime flight from Jerusalem during the Parthian invasion. His mother was almost killed when her wagon overturned in the flight. Herod almost succumbed to despair, but when he saw that she was safe, he returned to the fight with a renewed vigor and won the battle. Afterwards, he vowed that he would be buried at the site. Since the site was a place of no importance in the middle of the desert, he made it important by first building a mountain, by cutting off the top of a nearby hill and piling it up on the site, and then building a new fortress palace, which he named the Herodium, in the “crater” of this man-made volcano. Since he intended to be buried there, it was appropriate to name this one after himself.
His most famous building project, however, was his renovation and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem. This temple had been built by Zerubbabel following the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity in the time of Ezra, on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. This was a massive undertaking, because it involved building up the sides of the mountain to create a wide platform for the Temple complex.
In accordance with Jewish Law, the workers building the Temple were selected from the priestly tribe of Levi, and the construction process was organized so that daily sacrifices could proceed uninterrupted.
Herod did not live to see the completion of the whole project, although it’s possible that the Temple proper was finished sooner. Work on the Temple complex was still going on at the time of Jesus, some 46 years later; and the final Temple was only in existence for a short time before the Romans destroyed it during the Jewish Rebellion of AD 70. Today, only the Western Wall of the Temple remains standing.
You’d think that fixing up the Temple and all, he’d be a pretty popular guy, right? No. He paid for all his building projects with some heavy taxes; (he was good at levying taxes, remember?). Those taxes didn’t just go to civic improvements, but also to a lavish lifestyle more suited to a Roman despot than to a sober priest-king like Hyrcanus.
He ruthlessly suppressed dissent, and kept a personal bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers. Although the Temple in Jerusalem was his crowning achievement as King of Judea, he also built other temples to other religions in non-Jewish parts of his province, like in Samaria and in his city of Caesarea. In honor of his Roman patrons, he had a golden eagle erected over the gate to the Temple, something many Jews considered an outrageous blasphemy, and commanded that the priest perform special prayers and sacrifices in honor of the Roman Emperor, something which skirted awfully close to the heathen practice of emperor-worship. And underneath it all, many would never really accept Herod because he was an Idumean and not a Real Jew.
He ruled Judea with an iron hand, and largely kept the Romans out of Jewish affairs as long as he reigned; but the order he maintained came at a great personal cost. He had to deal with constant plots and intrigues by his family, many of which were initiated by his sister, Salome.
Herod deeply loved his second wife, Miriamne; but has a funny way of showing it. On a couple occasions where it looked like he might be executed, he left orders that if he died, Miriamne was to be killed as well, so that she would not become the property of another man. When Miriamne found out about this, she did not take it well. Did she really plot to poison her husband? Herod’s sister planted rumors that she did, and Herod had her imprisoned based on these suspicions. Eventually, under Salome’s persuasion, he ordered Miriamne’s execution. He spent the rest of his life regretting his action and mourning her death.
Over his career he had a total of ten wives and several sons, most of which were either picked to succeed him at one point or other, or was plotting to do so. He executed some of his sons for trying to kill him. A couple of them actually were. His buddy Augustus once joked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. Since Herod didn’t eat pork, the pig would be relatively safe.
Towards the end of his life, Herod developed an agonizing, lingering illness which ultimately killed him. Modern medical scholars have speculated that it was severe diabetes, or perhaps chronic kidney disease complicated with a side order of Fournier’s gangrene. Which is like regular gangrene, except not nearly as much fun.
It is at this point that Herod enters the Biblical narrative with the story of the Three Wise Men.
You know the story. Matthew chapter 2 tells of how Magi from the East, sages who studied the stars, show up at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking where is he who was born King of the Jews. Imagine how that must have sounded to a dying, paranoid old man who had spent the better part of the past few decades fighting off claimants to his throne. Perhaps Herod thought this was another plot against him. He certainly would have suspected that even if the Magi were genuine, that someone would seize on this baby they were looking for as an excuse to overthrow him; if not one of his ambitious sons, then maybe some rabble-rousing Pharisee or politicking Sadducee.
But Herod plays it cool. He co-operates with the Magi and pretends to be interested in paying homage himself to this Newborn King. He sends them to Bethlehem, where the Chief Priests assure him that the Messiah is supposed to be born, and waits for their report.
He has to wait a long time. The Wise Men aren’t stupid. Ominous dreams warn them that Herod is not to be trusted; and perhaps they got a creepy vibe off him from the very beginning. Once they’ve found their baby, they return home by another route, bypassing Jerusalem and Herod.
What is Herod to do now? Somewhere out there is a potential threat to him wrapped in swaddling clothes. Well, he didn’t get to be Herod the Great by letting a bunch of babies walk all over him. He orders the death of every male child in Bethlehem, two years of age or younger.
Or did he? The Gospel of Matthew is our only source for this story. The Jewish historian Josephus, who writes about many of Herod’s other crimes, never mentions it. On the other hand, given some of Herod’s other bloody acts, Matthew’s account isn’t really out of character for him; it’s the kind of thing Herod would have done under the circumstances.
Although Medieval interpreters liked to magnify the Massacre of the Innocents into a near-genocidal action, Bethlehem was not a terribly large town; and even if we add the surrounding countryside, the infants killed by the edict would have numbered maybe about a half dozen or so, maybe twenty tops. Perhaps the death of a few babies in a small backwater town escaped Joesphus’ notice; or perhaps he felt it an insignificant crime compared with some of Herod’s flashier executions and assassinations.
Herod didn’t live to learn if his messiah-exterminating campaign was successful. He died a couple years later in the year 4 BC.
Before his death, he ordered that prominent people from every city and every tribe of Judea be rounded up and held in the hippodrome he had built in Jericho. At the moment of his death, the prisoners were to all be executed. That way, Herod reasoned, his death would be an occasion for grief and mourning. He didn’t want anybody dancing at his funeral. At the last moment, however, his sister Salome rescinded his order; perhaps the only decent thing she did in her life.
He was interred in the Herodium; and although archaeologists have found what they believe to be his crypt in the ruins, his body was not in it. It is suspected that during the Jewish Revolt, when many rebels took refuge in the Herodium, as they did at Masada, some of them vented their anti-Roman feelings by despoiling Herod’s tomb.
Herod left four surviving sons, each of which had been named by him as a successor at one time or other. Rather than making any single one of them king, the Romans divided Judea up among them.
Even though Herod was never a popular king with his Jewish subjects, there was a sizable faction which recalled his reign as a period of stability and of relative autonomy. He was called Herod the Great with good reason, and the Herodians of Jesus’ time argued that Israel’s best hope for a political future was one united under a king from the house of Herod.