History – Herod the Great

Herod’s Desert Fortification—The Herodium

King Herod the Great was one of the most powerful men and greatest builders of all time. Yet, he was so despised that at his death he ordered the death of many prominent Jews, so there would be weeping in Jerusalem. He was buried at his desert palace, the Herodium.

“Two hundred steps of purest white marble led up to it. Its top was crowned with circular towers; its courtyard contained splendid structures.” Jewish Wars, Flavius Josephus.

Herod the Great

For 40 years, Jewish history was dominated by Herod the Great. He was born about 73 B.C., the son of Antipater, who was an Idumean. The Idumeans were a tribe who had been forced by the Nabatean Arabs westward into southern Judea, where they had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean rulers of Palestine. The Idumeans were for this reason Jews of a recent and suspect background. At the same time they were shrewd and had no problem with making political deals with the Romans for their own advantage.

King Herod’s father, Antipater, governed them from about 47 B.C. He also served as an advisor to Hyrcanus, and gained the confidence of Pompey. When Julius Caesar was besieged in Alexandria in 48 B.C., it was Antipater who persuaded the Jews to aid Caesar. In gratitude Caesar gave the Jews important privileges.

Antipater’s son, Herod the Great, was an opportunist of the highest order. During the tumultuous years of the Roman civil wars he skillfully shifted his allegiance from Pompey to Caesar to Antony to Octavian (Augustus). Because he was such an able soldier the Romans valued his services. Rome needed a shrewd and capable agent in Palestine, and in Herod the Great they felt they had found such a man.

Herod Appointed King

Herod was appointed king of Judea by Marc Antony in 40 B.C., and was supported by Roman soldiers in his fight to gain control of Judea in 37.

Herod’s Pathological Character

Though successful in politics, Herod was bitterly unhappy in his private life. He married ten wives, including the beautiful Hasmonean princess, Mariamme, the granddaughter of both Hyrcan and Aristobulus. Though he loved her passionately, he suspected her of infidelity and had her executed along with her mother. Later, in 7 B.C., he had her two sons killed. Herod kept an uneasy peace by dealing ruthlessly with suspected rivals and troublemakers. He systematically killed off all living claimants to the Hasmonean kingship, including his young brother-in-law, the high priest Aristobulus. When he found that his favorite son, Antipater, had been plotting against him, he had him executed along with two of their brothers—just five days before his own death in 4 B.C.

The Roman Emperor Augustus said about Herod: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” It is easy to imagine such a man ordering the massacre of all male infants in Bethlehem for no better reason than a vague rumor that one had been born “King of the Jews.” This event vividly reflects the pathological character of the king. He murdered members of his own family, yet scrupulously observed Mosaic dietary laws and would eat no pork. …

The Death of Herod

Herod died in 4 B.C. at the age of 69. …

The historian, Josephus, describes the death of Herod at great length. I will summarize the event:

When Herod’s health began to fail him rapidly, he was moved to his winter capital in Jericho. From there he was carried by stretcher to the hot springs on the shores of the Dead Sea. The springs did no good; Herod returned home. Racked by despondency, Herod attempted suicide. Rumors of the attempt caused loud wailing throughout the palace. Herod’s son, imprisoned by his paranoid father, mistook the cries to mean his father was dead. Immediately, he tried to bribe his jailers, who reported the bribery attempt to Herod. The sick king ordered his son executed on the spot. Now Herod plunged deeper into depression. He was only days away from his own death—and he knew it. What pained him most was the knowledge that his death would be met with joy in Judea. To forestall this, he devised an incredible plan.

“Having assembled the most distinguished men from every village from one end of Judea to the other, he ordered them to be locked in the hippodrome at Jericho.” Jewish Wars, Flavius Josephus.

Herod then gave the order to execute them at the very moment he, himself, died. His sick mind reasoned that their death would dispel any joy in Judea over his own death. The order was never carried out. After Herod’s death, his body was carried in procession from Jericho to the Herodium outside Bethlehem for burial. Herod’s body was adorned in purple, a crown of gold rested on his head, and a scepter of gold was placed in his hand. The bier bearing his body was made of gold and studded with jewels that sparkled as it was carried along under the desert sun. Following the bier was Herod’s household and hundreds of slaves, swinging censers. Slowly, the procession inched its way up the mountainside to the Herodium, where it was laid to rest.

The Herodium

Herod the Great built this fortification in the desert in 37 B.C. Looking like a volcano, the Herodium is one of several fortress-palaces built by Herod the Great. It was artificially shaped, with everything placed inside its protected craterlike top.

Josephus wrote of this astounding complex, the Herodium:

“Herod built round towers all about the top, and filled the remaining space with costly palaces … he brought a mighty quantity of water from a great distance, and raised an ascent of two hundred steps of purest white marble that led up to it. Its top was crowned with circular towers; its courtyard contained splendid structures.” Jewish Wars, Flavius Josephus.

www.bible-history.com/resource/ff_herod.htm, November 16, 2010.