The Dynasty of the Herodians

The history of the Holy Land tells us that the Herodians of the Herodian Dynasty were a pro-Roman Jewish family which ruled most of the Holy Land in some capacity for over a century from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D.

The Dynasty’s early period saw revolutionary economic and social changes under the ruthless leadership of Herod the Great (c. 37-4 B.C.), but he failed to leave a competent successor and the Kingdom effectively collapsed afterwards.

Nevertheless, the Romans were reluctant to take direct control of the territory and kept the Herodian Dynasty on life support for decades, until the last king died without issue around 90 A.D.

The legacy of Herodian rule still survives in the Holy City in the form of the Western Wall.

Herodian Dynasty Hippodrome built by Herod the Great

Setting – Leading up to the Herodian Dynasty

After the rise of the Achaemenid Empire in the sixth century B.C, the Jews of modern Palestine/Israel came to be dominated by a series of foreign governments. It was only around 142 B.C. that the Maccabean revolt succeeded in partially driving out the Greek Seleucid rulers from the region and the first Jewish kingdom in centuries, the Hasmonean Dynasty was founded.

When the Romans arrived in the region, they had little interest in overthrowing the local Jewish power and simply wanted to curb the threat of Persian expansion.

Maccabean revolt
Maccabees revolt

Apart from a brief intervention in a war of succession in 63 B.C, the Roman Empire more or less let the Hasmoneans rule their own people.

Herodians Rise to Power; the Jewish Civil War

This arrangement worked out well until the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C and the ensuing turmoil, which was soon followed by a Parthian invasion of the eastern provinces.

Instead of risking a costly conquest and alienating the population, the Senate recognized the traditional Hasmonean priests as legitimate monarchs in 139 B.C, on the condition of accepting the Roman over-lordship.

The Semitic people of the region had never really overcome their suspicions and hatred of the Graeco-Roman world (who had been expanding their influence in the region in the past few decades), and seeing an opportunity, king Antigonus made the fatal mistake of seeking a new alliance with the incoming Persians.

Needless to say, this move meant that the days of the Hasmonean Dynasty were numbered.

Meanwhile, in Rome, a prominent Jewish official of Edomite origin, Herod, the son of Antipater, was trying to convince the Senate to give him the authority to suppress the Hasmonean rebellion.

But surprisingly, Rome was still unwilling to risk imposing direct rule over the region and eventually declared Herod the King of Judea instead.

To consolidate his claim over the throne, King Herod married a Hasmonean princess and divorced his previous wife.

With the help of Roman funding and a significant foreign contingent, he departed to capture the Jewish homeland from the pro-Persian Hasmoneans around 39 or 40 B.C.

He succeeded in capturing Antigonus in 37 B.C, after which the Jewish king was sent for execution to Mark Anthony.

Herods Family Tree
Herods Family Tree

The Peak of the Herodian Dynasty

The subsequent period in Palestinian history is known as the Herodian kingdom. Although Herod had just fought a bloody civil war, the kingdom nevertheless reached its most prosperous time during his reign.

Unlike the isolated Hasmoneans who had little choice but to carry on with the traditional economy, Herod had the financial backing of one of the richest Empires in history.

He used this wealth to embark on a campaign of transforming the land following the Roman model; he carried out huge building and infrastructure projects throughout his reign, earning the support of the masses in the early crucial days of his rule.

However, in contrast to the Hasmoneans, Herod was far from an insider in Palestine. As time passed on, his allegiance to Rome more than anything else, including Judaism, became painfully clear to the populace.

Not only was his conduct extremely questionable, but Herod was also terrified of the enduring influence of fundamentalist Jewish leaders in the country.

Over the years, Herod’s rule came to resemble more that of an efficient dictator than a just and kind king. Herod even refused to appoint a single heir to the kingdom until the moment of his death.

Later during his reign, Herod was always accompanied by a huge royal guard consisting mostly of non-Jewish mercenaries, some of them provided directly by Emperor Augustus.

Although he made the kingdom rich, his court expenses and lavish gifts even brought the efficiency of his economic policies into question.

The Herodian Tetrarchy

After the death of Herod, whatever autonomy the region still held under his powerful leadership vanished almost instantly.

His sons and the Jewish leadership could not agree on a successor, and eventually, the dispute was taken to Rome. Augustus decided to divide the Herodian territory into three smaller kingdoms, per one of the many wills of the later Herod the Great.

Emperor August
Emperor August

His son Herod Archelaus received the greatest share, with the rest being placed under the care of Herod Philip II and Herod Antipas.

Unfortunately, the three were equally unpopular with their Jewish subjects and the gradual decay of their authority continued.

The first significant blow the House of Herod came when Emperor Augustus decided to remove Archelaus from his rule in 6 A.D, but instead of appointing another local noble to the post, he officially incorporated the territory into the Roman province of Judea.

Philip, who ruled the territory east of River Jordan, was the only one of the tetrarchs who died in office (in 34 A.D). Antipas, the third governor, was also removed by the Roman court in 39 A.D on suspicion of conspiring with rebellious elements.

One comeback for the Herodian Dynasty came in the form of Herod Agrippa I, one of the many grandsons of Herod the Great.

He was granted the territories of both Philip and Antipas, and eventually, the whole province of Judea in 41 A.D, which he ruled until he died in 44 A.D. He was succeeded peacefully by his son, who ruled as Agrippa the Second until the Great Revolt.

The seeds of the revolt had been laid during the reign of Herod the Great, and by the time of Agrippa II’s rule, the very existence of the Jewish people as a distinct community was at stake.

He was defeated and ousted by the rebellion in 66 A.D, but climbed back to power by mercilessly crushing the revolt with Roman aid. Presumably, he continued to govern the territory on behalf of the Romans until he died in circa 90-92 A.D. Despite his long reign (the longest of any in the Herodian Dynasty), Agrippa failed to produce a successor.

He was the last Jewish “King” of the Holy Land, and the region was later dominated alternatively by the Romans/Byzantines, several Muslim caliphates and kingdoms, and relatively briefly, by the Crusaders, until modern times.

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