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Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World

Impressive architectural projects and oppressive cruelty — these are the legacies of the complex Judean king known as Herod the Great. On the one hand, he rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem in stunning fashion, one of many dazzling works that characterized his reign in the first century BCE as a client of the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, the tyrant accumulated a significant list of victims, including members of his own family, such as his second wife and three of his sons. Oxford University emeritus Prof. Martin Goodman gives a balanced portrait in a recent book, “Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World.”

“He really, really wanted to be adored,” Goodman told The Times of Israel over Zoom. “He wanted to be loved. Much of what went wrong for him was when he threw his emotions into people — particularly his own family — and the emotions were not reciprocated.”

With many Christians around the world celebrating Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter this weekend, it’s worth noting that Herod occupies a notorious place in the Christian Bible for the Massacre of the Innocents following Jesus’s birth. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem ages two and under after the Magi told him that the King of the Jews had been born.

“It’s what people remember Herod for,” noted Goodman — who questions in the book whether this actually occurred.

Herod has figured in the history courses Goodman has taught for decades, resulting in a perfect author-subject pairing for the Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. The book chronicles an eventful period in Rome and Jerusalem — in the former, civil wars that resulted in the birth of the Roman Empire; in the latter, the decline of the Hasmonaean dynasty founded by Judah Maccabee.

Goodman is a scholar of both Jewish and Roman history, and it shows in this intimately penned book, which he hand-wrote in the initial drafts. It opens with a down-on-his-luck Herod, far from Judea, seeking support in Rome from Mark Antony and the Senate. The author weaves a compelling narrative from ancient sources — inscriptions, coinage and two historians who documented Herod. The first was his non-Jewish courtier Nicolaus of Damascus, while in the decades after Herod’s death and following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Jewish general-turned-historian Josephus also chronicled the former king.

“There’s a huge amount about Herod,” Goodman said. “That’s why we know so much about Herod’s life. We know more about him than any other Jew from antiquity by far.”

This nominal outsider — his father was descended from Idumaean converts to Judaism, while his mother was an Arab of likely Nabatean origin — eventually interacted with the power players of his day. That included both members of a famed power couple — Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. The book details spicy gossip about Herod and Cleopatra, along with more prosaic matters such as who got to control the balsam groves of Jericho and En Gedi. Although Herod continually picked the wrong side in Roman power struggles — including Caesar’s assassin Cassius — he ended up making the right choice, befriending Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus.

“Getting on really well with Augustus was very important for staying in power,” Goodman said. “[Herod] was good, really good, at doing that.”

Some of his architectural projects were named after the emperor, notably Caesarea. The king also established temples for the worship of Rome and Augustus, and held Roman-style athletic competitions and gladiatorial games in Jerusalem. In a bid to win the favor of Greek subjects, he lent his patronage to a sporting event farther from home — the Olympic Games.

If he was judicious in ruling a diverse state subject to a mighty empire, Herod was anything but even-handed in his personal life. He executed his wife Mariamme, a Hasmonaean princess, after suspecting her of treason. Over a decade later, he began to suspect their two sons Alexander and Aristobulus of betrayal. A series of investigations in Roman courts followed, and while Augustus initially reconciled the paranoid king with his sons, the siblings were ultimately retried and executed. By that point, Herod had brought back his oldest son Antipater from exile as a potential successor, only to eventually harbor doubts about him, too. Although Herod grew to regret the deaths of Mariamme and their sons, in his last year, wracked by illness, he ordered Antipater’s execution. In his final years, he also practiced polygamy, living with nine wives, which he justified by citing Jewish custom.

The book explores Herod’s Jewishness, including by citing a quip by Augustus about his presumably kosher diet: “It was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” Addressing a claim that Herod was a half-Jew, Goodman examines the Idumaean side of his family: The Idumaeans were a people whose name stems from the biblical Edom and who largely adopted Judaism. As king, Herod self-identified as Jewish.

“He presented himself to his Jewish subjects as one of them,” Goodman said. “Their ancestors, he said, were not good enough to build the Temple. He was going to do better than the Hasmonaeans did.”

During the period chronicled in the book, the Hasmonaeans had fallen into disarray. Although the queen Shlomzion brought stability, her death was followed by civil war, during which the kingdom became a Roman client state. Herod’s well-to-do father, Antipater, found opportunities to advance himself and his family with Shlomzion’s son Hyrcanus and then with the Romans. After the situation worsened when the rival Parthians got involved, Herod made his daring escape to Rome, which improbably concluded with him being named king of Judea.

“It happened… only because the Roman world was in complete chaos itself,” Goodman explained. “It lost control of Judea and the whole of the Levant to the Parthian state based in modern Iran.” Herod’s mission, he added, was to “get the kingdom back on behalf of Rome. In practice, he could only do this with the help of Roman legionists.”

Herod did exactly that, and consolidated his rule ruthlessly. Seeking a better dynastic match, he sent away his first wife Doris and married Mariamme. Although Herod was deeply in love with her, the union proved disastrous for Mariamme and her family. He executed Hyrcanus, who was not only her grandfather, but a former high priest and mentor. When he was compelled to name her youthful brother high priest, the teenager died in suspicious circumstances. Eventually, he suspected Mariamme of disloyalty and executed her too. Her mother betrayed her, but later ran afoul of Herod and was slain as well.

As Herod slaughtered his in-laws, he also mounted extensive construction projects across Judea, including the rebuilding of the Temple.

“It was recognized as an astonishing architectural feat in Herod’s own lifetime,” Goodman said. “You can still see, if you go down to the [Wailing Wall] and look at the excavations at the Southern Wall, quite a lot of remains of Herod’s Temple.” And, he said, “other Jewish architecture appears from that time, the great building in Hebron, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Cave of Machpelah.”

Yet, Goodman said, “Most of his buildings were palaces and fortresses,” including in Masada, Jericho and “the great palace in Jerusalem where the Jaffa Gate is now… All these great buildings don’t say anything Jewish at all. They’re about him. In terms of architecture, they’re Roman and Hellenistic Greek rather than Jewish.”

One attempt at fusion proved disastrous — a golden eagle sculpture honoring Augustus in the Temple. When the populace falsely thought their ailing king had died, some pulled it off a daring act of defiance. Descending from the Temple roof, they took down the eagle and destroyed it. The very-much-alive king chastised them and had some of the perpetrators immolated.

Was it inevitable that when the bloody king actually died in 4 BCE, his kingdom descended into warfare involving three surviving sons, the Roman authorities and several adventurers, which left thousands dead? The name of Herod became associated with cruelty, including in the Massacre of the Innocents.

Goodman wonders whether the Massacre of the Innocents ever happened, as Matthew is the lone Gospel to mention it. The image of Herod as a wicked king has persisted in Christianity, including through artwork, plays, hymns and carols over the centuries.

The Massacre of the Innocents “caught the imagination of later Christians,” Goodman said. “It seems to have built on [an image of Herod] being particularly cruel and vicious, particularly to children, coming from public stories of what he did to his sons, stories from not just later Christian tradition but later pagan tradition.” In the former, he added, “if there was another wicked king, that wicked king would end up being called ‘Herod.’”

As for a verdict on the original Herod?

“He certainly had his faults,” Goodman said. “In the end, he’s an impressive figure, if very flawed.”

Rich Tenorio