Wednesday 23 February 2011

The days of Herod the King

I visited the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, on the first full day I spent in Jerusalem. It’s all that is left of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great, destroyed when Titus, son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, sacked the city in 70AD during the Jewish Revolt. Standing there looking rather lost, we were approached by a local guide, Hasidic, judging by his dress and appearance, who proceeded to tell the story. “It was built by Herod”, he said, “who of course was not a Jew.”

Though surprised I did not pursue the point; not here, not in this place, not with this man. I have to stress this was not for any fear of his reaction but simply because I did not want to cause any offence, or to raise issues which I may not have fully understood or appreciated. Still, I thought to myself, what was Herod if not a Jew? Why would a man who was not a Jew dedicate himself to re-founding the Temple of Solomon?

That was a few years ago. I think I understand a little better now. By the lights of my Orthodox guide Herod was not a Jew; he was far too unorthodox for that, a man who had a foot in the Greek and Roman as well as the Jewish world. But there is something else: he was not a Jew simply because he was not a Judean – he was an Edomite, the son of Antipater the Idumaean, Semitic, yes, but not quite ‘one of us.’

Despite his achievements, including the Temple, Herod has a poor reputation in both Jewish and Christian tradition. A poor reputation? No, that’s far too mild: he came to me, as he came to all those raised in the New Testament, as a monster, as a killer of babies, the man who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents in an attempt to destroy a new-born rival, Jesus, king of the Jews.

I don’t want to dwell on this. All I will say is that it is certainly something the historic Herod was capable of, something any ruler of the day was capable of when told they were faced with a rival, from within their own families let alone without. Herod was ruthless but no more ruthless than any other, no more ruthless than, say, Cleopatra, his contemporary, who freely murdered some of her nearest kinfolk. Herod may have been mad, bad and dangerous to know, but he was so much more than the monster depicted in Mathew’s Gospel.

I’ve been reading about Herod in Simon Seabag Montefiore’s recently published Jerusalem: the Biography, and in an article by Geza Varmes, Professor Emeritus in Jewish Studies at Oxford, in the latest issue of Standpoint (Herod the Terrible or Herod the Great?)

Setting aside a particularly grim family history, there is so much to admire in the man as a soldier, as a ruler, as a builder and as a politician. His gamesmanship was astonishing. One slip, one false move, could have meant disaster. His genius, it seems to me, lay in recognising the limits of his power and the challenges he faced, in exploiting those challenges to maximum advantage.

The world was changing: the Romans were the dominant force, though the transition from Republic to Empire was not fully complete. Herod had to negotiate his way around powerful rivals including Cleopatra, more venomous in every way than the asp that eventually killed her. She, in her ambition to take over Herod’s kingdom, had the potential to call on the support of Mark Anthony, her lover and master of the east.

Despite this Herod always managed to stay high in Anthony’s favour, something else that may very well have brought his destruction. In the final civil war of the Republic he was obliged to take the side of his powerful mentor, though fortunately for him he took no part in the Battle of Actium, which saw the victory of Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. Still, it was a tricky moment. Herod came to see Octavian at Rhodes and skilfully won him over. He was confirmed as king of Judea and adjacent provinces.

I was about to write that the old survivor descended by stages into murderous paranoia, less the Massacre of the Innocents, more the Massacre of the Relatives. Paranoia, however, is the wrong word, suggesting imaginary fears; Herod’s fears were anything but imaginary. The scheming and treachery within his family, which saw the execution of Mariamme, his much beloved wife, the victim of a Desdemona-style whispering campaign, and Alexandra, his much hated mother-in-law, was real enough. The family tragedy grew ever more intense as Herod approached the end, embracing the destruction of his sons Alexander and Aristobulus, accused of plotting parricide by Antipater, their half-brother. If he was mad he had reason to be.

Herod was a complex man, a mixture of good and evil, light and dark. The Massacre of the Innocents, whether it happened or not, stands as a kind of metaphor for his brutality, not just the family brutality but the ruthless way he could on occasions behave towards his subjects. A brute for Saint Matthew he was also a brute for Josephus, the Jewish chronicler who provides the most complete record of his acts, which explains why he has so few friends today, either among Christians or Jews.

It’s rather a pity in so many ways for the simple reason that there was also brilliance. A political realist, Rome, he recognised, was an unshakable part of the new world order. For the Jewish people it was a pity that the Machiavellian example he set was not followed. Judea had to find a place in that order and not be seduced by religious and messianic zealotry. If it had the destruction of the Temple, the Diaspora and all that followed may have been avoided.

Herod may not have been a good man, but he was a great one and the great are seldom good. He deserves to be better remembered, to be better understood.


  1. Poor Herod died a nasty death, didn't he?

    It was a busy period in the ancient world: the invasion of Albion, fall of the Ptolemies, end of the Roman Republic and beginning of Imperial succession, annexation of Greece, and soon the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora. Lots of red meat for historians.

    It makes me curious if events were just as volatile elsewhere in the world in the Orient and the Americas. I will have to do some digging . . .

  2. Yes, according to Josephus he did.

    Calvin, I read a book a few years ago – unfortunately the title escapes me – that dealt with developments in first century Europe and China, alternating between one location and the other. If I find out what it was I’ll certainly let you know.

  3. Herod was garbage, you can call him in some way smart but he was a crazy man, and he was a murderous and a toady, he was a kind of joke too, though kill his wife, two sons and family of his wife but building a temple does not make him great, a title that romans give him, how do you want that history recognize his achievements? maybe know more about him must be interesting but the true that he was not any kind of symbol or a hero, not a good leader. A kiss. Mario

  4. Well, that’s certainly an impassioned view, Mario, closer to traditional interpretations than my own! But, like him or not, he was great for all the reasons that I have given. Above all he was a great survivor, a great political operator, one who managed to preserve and extend his small kingdom in the midst of some of the greatest upheavals in world history. He was great architect and not just because of the Temple, creating his own distinctive classical style. It was actually the Jewish historian Josephus who first referred to him as ‘the Great’, not the Romans, and he was no friend of Herod! Still, I accept that he was always going to be a controversial figure. I would just ask for a more nuanced understanding.

  5. Ana you are a revolutionary really only I can say that, you have your ideas, go forward, but only a few will follow you for sure in those thoughts. All the achievements of Herod has something wrong in the place of his goals and history did not recognize him like a great architect, he is not in that way in history and not in art culture, one butterfly is not the spring, one view of a jew is not the rule (more in the middle of a mass), romans make him look better than he was because he was his lackey. You can not change the history and how people remember a man, you only have the liberty of believe in what you want. Mario.

  6. Ana, Have you seen this link:

    My understanding is that Herod was considered a great man until the infamous 'massacre of the Innocents.'

  7. Ana,

    " The second part of Jesus' answer deals with the destruction of Jerusalem itself, of which there are significant and specific signs: desolating sacrilege (Mark 13: 14-31) and which THIS GENERATION ( of Jesus' day) will not pass away until it has happened. Lane goes on to list from Josephus' account all those things which did indeed fulfill the very words of Christ about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem... ."

    see link:

  8. Mario, I'd far rather see myself as a pathfinder rather than a revolutionary! But I do not plough a lonley furrow here. Try, if you can, to read that Standpoint article online. It's really rather good. There is also a reasonable piece on Wikipedia about Herod's building projects.

  9. Anthony, I don't think Satan approves of synagogues. :-)

  10. Oh, yes, Nobby, everybody knows that article. :-)) Thanks for that link.

  11. Was there any ancient ruler who was a quiche-eating SNAG? Here's an interesting thought experiment:

    Imagine you awake tomorrow and find yourself the Empress of Rome in 69 AD..(we'll make that the Year of the Three Emperors and the One Empress).

    I had to conclude a long time ago that in that situation I'd be flogging and crucifying with the best of 'em just to keep from being done in.

  12. Who knows? One day technology may allow us to travel through time, and we'll wonder what present to bring back from the past for the future.

  13. I don't think the massacre of the innocents actually happened, for the following reasons: Matthew repeatedly stresses Jesus's messianic credentials by noting that this, that or the other OT prophecy has been fulfilled, then he introduces this story, which is not corroborated by any of the other gospels, of Jesus being the target of an operation that involved killing all children of his age. Ring any bells? Moses was the target of an identical operation. Was Matthew touting Jesus as the new Moses? Also, the story is not covered by Josephus, who would certainly have reported it had he got wind of it, given his hostility to Herod.

    I don't know whether this is correct, but I've always understood that the Wailing Wall is part of Herod's Temple Mount. Nothing remains of the actual temple.

  14. It would be interesting to find out how some of todays rulers will be depicted in two thousand years time.

  15. Retarius, indeed so. As an Empress I would be far deadlier than the male, Livia and Messalina in one. :-))

  16. CI, if you can bear it, you really should watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. :-)

  17. Dennis, indeed so: the only source for that story is Matthew's Gospel, written well after the events it describes, when Herod was already a black legend. There is also the chronology question. Herod was already dead at the time Jesus was thought to have been born. As I suggested, I see this story as a kind of metaphor for Herod’s brutality, of which there is no doubt. Yes, the Wall is all that remains of a structure that once surrounded the Temple courtyard. It, too, has a symbolic and metaphoric value.

  18. Donald, so we might yet see Muammar the Great? :-) Actually I’m not sure who has the greatest power – those who make history or those who write history. The latter, I suspect.

  19. Ana, i searched Islamic sources about this subject and i am translating from turkish in case you want to know more.

    Herod is mentioned in the story of Prophet Yahya (John_the_Baptist, son of Prophet Zachariah).

    Briefly, Quran tells that Yahya (John) was a good friend of Herod who often consulted him for religious orders. So we can understand that Herod was once a good man. Soon, Herod wanted to marry a girl from his wife's previous marriage and invited Yahya to solemnize. Yahya rejected Herod saying his marriage was strictly forbidden and Prophet Isa (Jesus) was saying the same thing. Herod and the girl got angry with all of these and ordered soldiers to capture Yahya. But the mother of bride ordered some soldiers to kill him. Then they found the Prophet Yahya and killed immediately cutting his throat.

    Shortly speaking, Islamic sources tell that Herod was once a good man but deceived by his family.

  20. Kunday, thank you so much for this excellent information.

  21. Kuday: The martyrdom of John the Baptist is a matter of contention within Islam. Recently it has been argued that he escaped to Italy where evidence of his having started a community of followers is found. The Quran does not specifically say that either that was martyred nor that he was on good terms with Herod. I don't know where you're getting this from.