King Herod the Great’s reign is one of the longest and most influential in the history of the Holy Land. Despite his achievements, Herod was a very controversial figure in his time and remains so to this day.
On the one hand, he drastically transformed the landscape of the Jewish homeland by constructing new buildings, cities and roads with the latest technology of the day, thus bringing economic prosperity to his people.
On the other hand, however, he was seen as little more than a puppet of the Roman Empire and his adherence to Judaism was seriously dubious.
Herod was very intolerant of dissent and experienced a gradual mental breakdown later in his reign.
Finally, his failure to nominate an heir apparent in his life meant that the kingdom he founded split immediately after his death and never regained the stability it had enjoyed during his rule.
It was during the last days of Herod’s reign that Jesus of Nazareth was born.
Herods Family Background and Early Career
Herod was born to an Edomite (a Semitic peoples closely related to the Arabs) family with a history of serving in the highest ranks of the Roman Empire.
Edom had only been captured relatively recently by the Hasmonean kings of Judah, and Herod’s father Antipater was probably a second-generation Jew.
The Arab origin of the family would mean not only that the Jewish society was more than a little reluctant to accept their authority, but also that Antipater and Herod themselves were both non-practising Jews, even if they publicly embraced the faith.
Antipater rose to prominence by the virtue of his relationship with the Nabataean (another Arab people) court of Petra. Herod’s mother, Cypros, was a Nabataean princess and after their marriage, Antipater became very close to King Aretas III.
The Nabataeans were allied with the Hasmonean king Hyrcanus II, who was facing a serious rebellion at this time. This situation propelled Antipater to a position of de facto control of the Hasmonean regime after Hyrcanus’ restoration with Roman and Nabataean aid in 63 B.C.
Another huge opportunity arose during Caesar’s Civil War, during which Antipater militarily intervened in favour of Julius Caesar and was greatly honoured by the victorious Emperor in turn.
It was during this time that Herod, who was about 26 years of age, was made the governor of Galilee under the Hasmonean Dynasty rule in 47 B.C.
Four years later, Antipater was poisoned by a finance official of the Hasmonean court.
Herod Fled to Rome; Exile
However Antipater and his family might have disguised their dominance over the Hasmonean state, it was practically obvious to everyone that the traditional priestly control of the Holy Land was in danger.
The increasing intimacy of the Edomite family with the Roman Emperors was hard to ignore for the Hasmonean establishment.
Antipater’s assassination was only a small part of the greater resentment the Jewish people had developed towards this trend.
As a last-ditch attempt, when the Parthian Empire invaded the Roman territory in 40 B.C, the Hasmonean Dynasty decided to side with the invaders and Herod was deposed from his governorship.
He managed to flee to Rome alive and started lobbying for a full-scale counter-invasion of the Holy Land.
Herod the King
In the Imperial capital, Herod’s attempts began to bore fruit as the tide of the war quickly turned in Rome’s favour. The Senate decided to let Herod not only lead the campaign to put down the Hasmonean rebellion but also declared him the new king of his homeland.
To solidify his claim on the throne, Herod cut relations with his previous family and married Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II. Soon, he departed with a considerable army consisted primarily of Romans to conquer the Hasmonean Kingdom for Rome and himself.
The details of the campaign are not known very well, but the final action took place at Jerusalem in 37 B.C, when the Holy City was besieged and captured by Herod’s Roman forces, along with its ruler, the last Hasmonean King Antigonus.
The king was sent to the prominent general/dictator Mark Antony in Rome, where he was executed for treason. Herod was now the uncontested sole ruler of Judah, and thus began the period of the Herodian Dynasty.
Interestingly, when Antony’s Civil War broke out in 32 B.C, Herod casually supported Mark Antony, but his side eventually lost and Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C.
Herod did not try to hide his actions during the peak of the unrest, but the victorious Augustus nevertheless realised the indispensable services Herod was providing by keeping the border provinces in control and pardoned him. This was the last time Herod’s rule was seriously threatened.
Herods Development Projects
What makes Herod the Great “Great” is his efficient planning and implementation of various large scale construction and infrastructure projects in a country which had not seen anything remotely close for centuries.
It is important to recognise that however much his subjects might have hated the growing Roman influence under Herod, it was precisely his good relations with Rome and access to their vast resources and technological expertise that allowed this rapid development to take place.
The most well-known construction undertaken by Herod by far was his work on the holy (Second) Temple complex in Jerusalem. Work began on the Temple in 20-19 B.C. and the whole building was reconstructed, along with the platform upon which it is laid, which was now surrounded by a high wall.
Work continued on the complex until well after his death, but the Temple was destroyed relatively shortly afterwards, during the Great Revolt of the next century.
Many parts of the al-Aqṣā complex still survive from Herod’s reign today, including most notably the Western Wall. All the construction was carried out with the latest cutting-edge technology of the day, likely under the supervision of Roman architects.
Herod also built several palaces and military forts throughout the region. The most important of these was a large royal residence near the Holy City, whose remains are known today as Herod’s Palace.
Similarly, Herod also built several planned cities in the region in Roman styles, such as the great former capital of Caesarea Palestine. But more crucial for the economy was Herod’s road construction, which facilitated trade and communication between his kingdom and the Roman heartland like never before.
All these projects employed tens of thousands of Palestinians and made Herod popular during the critical early years after he usurped power from the old Hasmonean Dynasty.
Was King Herod the Great a Jew or a Pagan?
Herod was widely thought to be a non-practising Jew who was only using his religious identity as a way to placate the population. His ethnic and political background made the locals deeply suspicious, and the situation was not helped by the fact that Herod occasionally engaged in a serious public violation of the Halakhah law.
For instance, he is known to have erected a golden eagle right at the gate of the Holy Temple. Besides violating the prohibition against the depiction of animals, the statue also explicitly recognised Roman authority over the region, and some zealous Jews knocked it down. Needless to say, they were executed.
As time passed on, Herod became increasingly brutal and intolerant in his governance, while simultaneously gaining more and more favour from Rome. Even Emperor Augustus himself is known to have visited Herod in his kingdom (and Herod himself continued his visits to Italy as a king).
While Herod could not stand the traditional Jewish leaders, he was perfectly fine with bringing huge populations of Roman Pagans to his realm. He started organising the Pagan tradition of the Olympic Games in his territory, which was outrageous to the Jewish majority.
In reward for his services, Rome even gave several other adjacent regions under his governance outside the Holy Land.
Also not little annoying to the local Jewish groups was the fact that Herod set quotas for the Jewish diaspora from other regions for public-funded Temple services.
Also, Herod was a prolific polygamous man, which was seen unfavourably by most Jews of the time.
Suppression of Dissent
No matter how much development occurred during his rule, there was no hiding to the fact that Herod was a tyrant maintaining his power with the help of foreigners.
Despite his marriage to Mariamne, his crackdown on the priestly Hasmonean family was total. The biblical event of the Massacre of the Innocents is also believed to have occurred during the last days of Herod’s rule.
Overall, he ruled with an iron hand and made little efforts to conciliate with the beliefs and political leanings of his people.
Later during his reign, Herod became mentally unstable and suspicious of everyone around him.
In one of the most shocking demonstrations of his cruelness, he ordered his beloved Hasmonean wife and her sons executed shortly before his death.
He was extremely reluctant to train a strong successor for the fear of insubordination. Although Herod did write several wills, he continued to change them so frequently that when he died of heart disease in 4 B.C., no one could agree on who should ascend to the throne next.
The Herodian Kingdom and Legacy
Due to his unclear line of succession, the dispute was eventually taken to the Roman emperor Augustus at Herod’s death. He decided to divide the kingdom between three of Herod’s sons, following the king’s last bequest.
This decision seriously weakened the kingdom and probably accelerated its downfall. However, his grandson Agrippa I did eventually manage to unite the country again in the late-30s, whose son, Agrippa II, was the last king of the House of Herod and died around 90-92 A.D.
Although the kingdom Herod established was relatively short-lived and effectively a Roman client state, he is still one of the most recognisable rulers in the history of the Holy Land.
His tyranny has lived on in popular memory, largely thanks to his mention in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. Likewise, his architectural heritage also survives in no insignificant amount to this day.