If history had mass, Jerusalem would sink into the Earth

What's so great about Herod?

Anyone with an interest in history will be intoxicated by Israel. I know I was when I visited. Take Jerusalem, for instance. If history had mass, Jerusalem would sink into the Earth. The city recently turned 3,000 and in those three millennia has been host to such historical worthies as Solomon, David, Alexander, Herod, Vespasian, Jesus...and the list goes on.

One thing that impressed me about Israel is the way you can get the sense of the individuals who lived there so many years ago. In Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter I visited the Wohl Archeological Museum and walked among the remains of six houses from the time of King Herod destroyed by Roman legions in A.D. 70 during the First Jewish Revolt. I saw cooking pots, bowls, measuring cups, bathtubs, perfume bottles--the debris of day-to-day life in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago.

In the story on page 36 we focus on Herod, often called Herod the Great (though that's apparently not a designation used in his day). Most of our knowledge about his rule comes from historian Flavius Josephus. Although sometimes contradictory, Josephus' accounts of Herod's reign still provide a fascinating tale of a tenacious climb to power during a brutal age.

Herod owed his rise to his father, Antipater, "an energetic and factious man" who was the power behind the throne of Hyrcanus II, Judea's ruler and high priest in Jerusalem. Hyrcanus wasn't very ambitious, but as a Hasmonean--a descendant of the Maccabees who freed Judea from Syrian control in 165 B.C.--he commanded the loyalty of his Jewish subjects. Perhaps more important, he had the backing of Rome. Antipater made sure of that by helping Julius Caesar during his Egyptian campaign in 48 B.C. After Caesar's assassination, Antipater, always a political pragmatist, quickly allied himself with Cassius, one of the assassins.

In the space of a few tumultuous years Antipater was poisoned by a rival, and Marc Antony defeated Cassius and fellow conspirator Brutus in the battle of Philippi. Then Parthia, a kingdom north of Judea (around present-day Iran) made a power grab by capturing Hyrcanus and placing his nephew, Antigonus, on the throne. Herod wasted no time. He fled to Egypt, enlisted Cleopatra's support, then made a perilous winter crossing of the Mediterranean to plead his case with her lover, Antony, in Rome. With Antony's backing, the Roman Senate appointed Herod king of Judea in 40 B.C. All he had to do now was win the country back.

He wasn't dealing with milquetoasts. Antigonus found a way of ensuring his uncle would never be high priest again. Jewish law required the high priest to be free of physical defects--so Antigonus bit off his uncle's ears. Herod, with Roman help, finally captured Jerusalem in 37 B.C. and packed Antigonus off to Antony for execution. When Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) defeated Antony and Cleopatra six years later, Herod once again managed to land on his feet, serving his new patron loyally for 27 more years.

In the Bible, Herod is remembered for the "Massacre of the Innocents," when he attempted to eliminate the baby Jesus by having all babies in his kingdom killed. Historians doubt if that happened (Josephus never mentioned it), but it wouldn't have been out of character for Herod.

One of the most fascinating things about Herod is the glimpses of his personality you get from Josephus' accounts. Apparently Herod could be quite the charmer. Among his betters (i.e. the rulers of Rome), he showed "loyalty in times of trouble but deferential behaviour at times of relaxation." In short, he knew how to suck up. As he got older, he dyed his hair. He apparently picked the women he married (nine wives in all) for their looks rather than for political reasons. In the end he executed several sons he thought were scheming for his throne. "I'd rather be Herod's pig than his son," Augustus Caesar once said, alluding to the king's Jewishness (he didn't eat pork) in a play on words that worked in Latin. No doubt his courtiers laughed long and hard at Caesar's little joke. I'm sure that if Herod had been there, he--suck-up that he was--would have laughed too.


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