Herod the Great – World History Encyclopedia

Harod the great

Herod I, or Herod the Great (c. 75 – 4 BC), was the king of Judea who ruled as a client of Rome. He has earned enduring infamy as the “slaughterhouse of the innocents,” as recounted in the New Testament Book of Matthew. Herod was, however, a gifted administrator, and in his 33-year reign, he was responsible for many important construction works that included the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, several aqueducts, and the massive fortress known as the Herodium. Historians have reassessed his longstanding negative reputation and now credit his reign as having at least some positive effects on Jews and Judaism in his kingdom.

ascension to the throne

Herod was a client king (or close ally) of Rome, but his path to the throne was not an easy one. His father Antipater the Idumaean appointed him Governor of Galilee in 47 BC. the death of his father was followed by a turbulent period of infighting involving his brother and various Roman factions. in 40 a. c. the parthians attacked both syria and palestine, taking jerusalem in the process. Herod’s brother was taken captive and soon after committed suicide. Herod was forced to flee to Rome, and Antigonus of the Hasmonean dynasty was installed as ruler in Jerusalem.

in rome, herod won the favor of octavian and marcus antonio, with whose support the senate was persuaded to install herod as king of judea. In practical terms, however, this did not solve the problem of Antigonus and the Parthians. Marcus Antonius was therefore sent to the region and quickly cleared it, forcing the Parthians back to the eastern side of the Euphrates River. Meanwhile, Herod, with the help of the Roman general Gaius Sosius, led a force and retook Jerusalem in 37 B.C. Ultimately, he began what would be a long and prosperous 33-year reign as King of Judea, or ‘land of the Jews,’ as it is often called.

consolidating power & expansion

according to the Roman historian of the 1st century AD. Joseph, the early years of Herod’s reign were not favored by a rivalry with Cleopatra VII. Ella’s consort Marco Antonio Ella was, in effect, Herod’s patron, but the Egyptian queen constantly nibbled at some of the most lucrative parts of Herod’s kingdom. with the victory of octaviano in actium in 31 a. C., which ended the influence of Antony and Cleopatra, Herod forged a new and useful association with the future first emperor of Rome.

Herod’s reign was largely peaceful, and while he gained a reputation for imposing oppressive taxes, they were in fact neither excessive nor worse than contemporary regimes. Herod was also not required to pay tribute to Rome, although he did send attractive gifts. around 30 a. c. He had regained control of all the territories that the Hasmoneans and Cleopatra had taken. then, between 23 and 20 a. c., he expanded his kingdom to the northern Galilee and repopulated certain areas with sympathetic settlers. a gifted administrator, he created a new priestly class (abolishing the hereditary qualification for office) and a more multicultural elite. He also gave Judea a greater position in the Mediterranean world through his extravagant gifts to Athens and sponsorship of the still-important Olympic Games.

build program

Now firmly established in his kingdom, Herod embarked on a series of large construction projects, possibly financed by a half-shekel tax payable on every Jew in the Diaspora. the program also created jobs and stimulated the economy, though how much the Jewish population benefited in the long run is debatable. the most famous project was a lavish remodeling of the jerusalem temple. Herod also enlarged the fortification walls of the same city and added a theater and amphitheatre. He improved several fortresses (notably those of Jericho and Masada on the western shore of the Dead Sea), rebuilt Samaria (renaming it Sebaste, Greek feminine Augustus), and built a new port on the tower of Strato (Caesarea Maritima). the last two name changes highlight Herod’s eagerness to please his Roman allies. Perhaps the most ambitious of Herod’s projects was the Herodium Fortress 11 km south of Jerusalem.


The Herodium Fortress, one of seven built by Herod, has been identified by archaeologists as the Jebel Fureidis mountain on the edge of the Judean desert. The classic cone-shaped mountain was an ideal location for the fortress that Herod built to commemorate his victory over Antigonus and the Parthians in 37 BC. The fortress was to provide Herod with a place of refuge if they ever challenged his rule, and perhaps also act as his mausoleum. it was built by excavating the top of the mountain and using the reclaimed earth as part of the walls. A large palace was built within its walls, which was supplied with water through a system of aqueducts. the entire complex was completed c. 15 a.m. A small town was built at the base of the mountain, including administrative buildings, gardens, a synagogue, mausoleums, and a large swimming pool. the site has been excavated, and highlights include the large pool in the lower city and one of the earliest Roman vaulted ceilings inside the palace baths.

later reign

Herod’s reign became more problematic the longer it lasted. in the year 9 a. c. A war broke out with the Nabataeans, Herod’s southern neighbors, who had become a base for the Judaic opposition factions. the situation worsened when Augustus initially sided with the Nabataeans in the dispute. Fortunately, Herod’s envoy, Nicholas of Damascus, was able to present the King’s case, and Augustus changed his policy.

In addition to diplomatic problems, Herod also had family problems to deal with. Suspecting that his wife, Mariamme, had been unfaithful to him, he had her executed in 29 BC. his two sons were suspected of being loyal to the opposition that threatened herod with nabataea, so herod mercilessly dismissed them c. 6 a.m. c., together with his eldest son, his antipater two years later. By now, however, the aged king was suffering from serious health problems affecting his internal organs, and he died in 4 BC. Herod was buried in a specially built tomb on the slopes of the Herodium. In 2007 CE this tomb was excavated, but the sarcophagus inside it was damaged and empty. It had probably been opened during the first Jewish revolt in the century after Herod’s death. Herod’s kingdom was divided by the Romans among Herod’s three sons: Herod Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip.

the new testament

Herod’s enduring reputation and infamy rests largely on his description in Matthew chapter 2 of the New Testament. here herod is informed by wise men from the east that a king of the jews would be born in bethlehem. Then the king sent these men “to Bethlehem, and said to them, Go and seek the child diligently; and when you find him, let me know so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8). ). then, finding the boy and presenting him with gifts, the magi “being warned by god in a dream not to return to herod” (ibid 2:12) decided not to follow herod’s wishes. then, “the angel of the lord appeared to joseph in a dream and said to him: get up and take the boy and his mother, and flee to egypt, and stay there until i tell you, because herod will look for the boy boy to destroy it” (ibid 2:13). this was done by joseph, and when herod discovered it, “seeing that he was mocked by the magicians, he was very angry, and he sent and killed all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all its borders, from two years of age and under” (ibid. 2:16).

this presentation should perhaps be considered with the evidence that herod, like the historian l. I grabbe, “he lived as a Jew and generally respected Jewish religious law” and that, although there were undoubtedly some negative aspects to his reign, “his connections also allowed him to be useful to the Jews on various occasions, and in His entire reign was beneficial to the Jewish people and religion” (Bagnall, 3175). However, historian S. Schwart perhaps best summarizes the complexities of Herod’s position as mediator between Rome, the Jews, opposing family factions, and non-Jewish citizens within his realm by stating that “it is impossible to provide an unequivocal assessment of Herod’s reign” (Barchiesi, 770).

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