Herod

Herod was a certified madman, but had moments of genuine concern for the country. In the end, though, his legacy was one of paranoia, terror, murder and evil.

The end of the era of the Hasmoneans is probably the most turbulent time in Jewish history. It is hard to imagine a “Jewish” government more antithetical to Jewish principles and ideals than that of Herod and his successors, whose murderous, tyrannical ways would eventually lead to the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the long exile that Jews find themselves in.

It is no coincidence that the turmoil of the post-Hasmonean period coincided with rise of Rome and its intrusion into Jewish affairs. In essence, the leaders of the Jewish state were mirror images of Roman leaders and politicians, espousing Roman values, including pursuit of power at any cost and the disregard for life.

Hail Caesar

After Julius Caesar defeated his arch-rival Pompey, he abolished the semi-democratic nature of the Roman system of government and established himself as Emperor/Dictator with absolute powers.

Pompey had earlier divided Judea into five sections, in effect making a small country even weaker and easier to control. Only three of the five areas were Jewish: the Galilee, Jerusalem and Jericho.

Pompey not only hemmed the Jews into these areas, but lopped off from the Jewish state the entire seacoast. In place of Jews, he settled Greek, Roman and other foreign peoples. Temples to Jupiter and other gods dominated these cities. Jewish places of worship and life were virtually nil. Beforehand, only Caesarea and Ashkelon were Greek/Roman seacoast cities. Now there were a good 20 foreign cities on the shores of the Mediterranean.

When Caesar came to power, he revoked the harsh decrees and burdensome taxes imposed on the Jews by Pompey, allowed the walls and fortifications of Jerusalem to be rebuilt and restored a number of other coastal cities to Jewish rule.

He also realigned the political leadership of the land. Hyrcanus — the man who had been king and expected to be made king again — had helped Caesar defeat Pompey. Caesar restored him to the position of High Priest and permitted him to bear the title “Prince,” but not “King.” Instead, he gave the real power to Antipater, the man who had been Hyrcanus’ advisor.

Antipater was an Idumean, a non-Jew whose ancestors had been forcibly converted to Judaism. Forcible conversion is against Jewish law and thus their mass conversion was not considered valid by the Jewish authorities (the Pharisees). However, Jewish law did not stop the Sadducee-influenced rulership of the time from conducting the conversions.

Now the impropriety of that unauthorized action would come back to haunt the Jewish people.

Herod’s Beginnings

Herod grew up in Rome where he was given a full Roman education and formed friendships with children of the Caesar, establishing great connections that would serve him later. He had a magnetic personality and was a genius in many ways. However, he also exhibited signs of mental illness and schizophrenia. At his worst, he was a certified madman prone to extreme violence aimed against foe and friend.

Antipater ruled from Jerusalem. Around the year 46 BCE, he managed to get his two sons – Herod and his brother Phasael — appointed governor of each of the other Jewish provinces, Jericho and the Galilee: Phasael over Jericho and Herod over the Galilee. Herod was only in his twenties at the time.

From the beginning, he established himself as a great builder. The remnants of his fortresses can still be seen today. Many of these were later rebuilt by the Crusaders when they came over a thousand years later. In fact, many of these fortresses were even later rebuilt by the British in the early 1900s. The reason was because all of Herod’s almost impregnable fortresses were strategically placed, overlooking main roads. The irony is that all of these fortresses, which Herod built under Roman auspices (albeit with Jewish money, slaves and builders), would be used by the Jews to fight the Romans about a century later.

Et Tu Brute?

Meanwhile, back in Rome, jealous senators fearing limitations on their own power (and wealth) schemed against Caesar. Brutus, head of the Roman Senate, conspired with other senators to assassinate Caesar (in 44 BCE) in an act that became immortalized by Shakespeare’s play and other literary works.

It was a cataclysmic event in the Roman Empire. Caesar had been enormously popular. His assassination set off shock-waves throughout the Empire.

Eventually, a Triumvirate was appointed to rule Rome. Its two most powerful members were Marc Antony and Octavian (also sometimes referred to as Octavius), who later took on the name Augustus, which in Latin means all-powerful and all-respected. The Romans were not known for their modesty.

In the year 42 BCE, the forces of Brutus and his partner Cassius contested the forces of Marc Antony and Octavian for control of the Roman Empire. There was a great battle at Philippi (in modern-day Turkey, near Greece). Antony and Octavian won, causing the deaths of Brutus and Cassius in the process.

Herod’s Revenge, Part I (of Many Parts)

A few months before the battle, Antipater was poisoned. It was very dangerous to eat in those days[1] — especially if you were a Roman official.

Herod suspected that his father had been poisoned by the men of Hyrcanus, and swore revenge. A rebellion rose to depose Herod, but he prevailed, captured the leaders and executed them publicly without trial in a barbaric fashion.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent him a summons to stand trial before them. There then ensued one of the great confrontations in Jewish history.

Herod came to Jerusalem, but with an armed guard. No one on the Sanhedrin wanted to stand up to him — except for Shamai, the head of the Sanhedrin. This was the great Shamai, the contemporary of Hillel, who was known for his unyielding strength.

“Herod, stand on your feet,” he said.

Unfortunately, none of the other judges supported him. As a result, the trial was postponed to the next day, something the Sanhedrin never did.

Hyrcanus, well known for his weakness of character, visited Herod at night and struck a deal. Rather than a head-on confrontation, he told Herod to leave and allow him to smooth it over with the Sanhedrin. The unspoken part of the deal was that if Herod came to power, he and Hyrcanus would be partners in running the country.

Herod slipped away from Jerusalem, never to face the Sanhedrin again. However, he remembered every member of the Sanhedrin and when the day would come they would all pay the price – except for Shamai. Herod punished them for their weakness, but let Shamai live out of respect for his strength.

A Real Life Soap Opera

After the battle of Philippi, Marc Antony and Octavian divided the Roman Empire between themselves. Antony took the eastern half, with its headquarters in Alexandria, while Octavian remained in Rome.

Antony then married Cleopatra, which is another event made world-famous in subsequent literature. She was a schemer equal to any Roman. When the snake bit her you did not know who got poisoned. Antony fell completely under her spell.

The Hasmoneans decided to take a calculated risk and bet that Cleopatra would convince Marc Antony to remove Herod, whom she hated. Antony indeed called him to trial. This time Herod could not bring his armed guard along.

Nevertheless, during the course of the trial Marc Antony became convinced that Herod was much more valuable to him alive than dead. (Josephus writes that Herod bribed Marc Antony.) Despite Cleopatra, and all the evidence to the contrary, he not only reconfirmed Herod as ruler of the Galilee but as the ruler in Jerusalem as well.

Herod emerged from this in a much stronger position than before.

Pax Romana

Then a tremendous war broke out between Antony and Octavian. It would be the last of the great civil wars in Rome. The next 250 years are what are called in Roman history as Pax Romana, “Roman Peace.” In truth it was no peace – but it was not civil war at least. The man who brought Pax Romana into being was Octavian/Augustus. He is the one who emerged victorious in the battle with Marc Antony and united the entire Empire.

Herod had bet on the wrong horse, Marc Antony. Once more, Jews felt that here was another chance to get rid of Herod.

At that time the Parthian Empire – who ruled the area that today encompasses Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — decided to strike back at its old enemy, the Romans. They attacked the legions in Asia Minor and defeated them. Then they captured Damascus and came all the way to Judea and laid siege to Jerusalem.

The city fell and they killed Phasael. However, Herod escaped. The Parthians then appointed Mattathias Antigonus (son of Aristobulus) the High Priest and crowned him king.

Once more, a Hasmonean ruled in Jerusalem. Coins from the period have survived. On one side of the ancient coins are the words, “Mattathias Antigonus, High Priest and Compatriot of the Judeans.” On the other side of the coin was the Menorah, which was the symbol of the Jewish people in the ancient world. The modern Israeli government patterned its coins after those from the time of Mattathias Antigonus (and Bar Kokhba).

Herod’s Nine Lives

The story of Herod should have ended there, however, like a cat he had many lives. He had been the enemy of Octavian/Augustus, now the undisputed Emperor of Rome. The Parthians, who had invaded the country, were looking for him and would have killed him had they found him. The Jews, too, were looking for him to turn him over.

Josephus tells us that for a year Herod disguised himself and traveled to Rome in what can only be described as a series of adventures on par with Homer’s The Odyssey. Then, he had the audacity to seek an audience with Octavian, which he was granted. He identified himself as Herod and admitted that he had been on the side of Marc Antony, but he was now ready to serve Octavian. He convinced him that he was not going to get a better man than him to do his bidding.

Remarkably, Octavian agreed and gave Herod not just Jerusalem or the Galilee but all of Judea! He was going to unite all five provinces back into one with Herod as king. Furthermore, he gave him two Roman legions to secure his throne.

However, it was a Faustian deal. He only gave it to Herod because Herod would be his king, not king of the Jews. To guarantee it he took Herod’s two sons. They were to be educated in Roman ways, as he had been, but in effect they were hostages.

Herod joined the two legions into Judea as they besieged Jerusalem. Jerusalem had already been besieged by the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus; it was then besieged by Pompey; it was besieged again in the war with the Parthians. And how it was besieged by Herod. Even before the outcome the morale of the population was sapped.

Herod prevailed and beheaded Mattathias Antigonus, whose reign lasted two years (until the year 37 BCE). He also took revenge on those who killed his brother Phasael, as well as the members of the Sanhedrin.

According to Josephus, over 13,000 “political prisoners” were killed by Herod after the siege. Finally, he now sat as the undisputed ruler on the throne of Judea.

The Last of the Hasmoneans

Even though Herod was a certified madman and murderer he had moments of genuine concern about the welfare of the country and the desire to be loved. In the end, he wanted to be Jewish. He was just not willing to give up his grandiose dreams to do anything about it.

To further reinforce his claims to the throne, as well as the illusory claim that he was part of the Hasmonean Dynasty, Herod prevailed upon Hyrcanus to give him his granddaughter, Mariamne (Miriam), in marriage. It appears from Josephus and Roman historical accounts that Herod truly loved her. However, it was unrequited. She viewed herself as the victim of an arranged marriage.

Distraught, Mariamne attempted to commit suicide, but was unsuccessful. Herod then had her tried and executed. According to the Talmud (Baba Basra 3a), the last Hasmonean was a young princess, and upon hearing that Herod intended to marry her and make her queen she committed suicide. Herod preserved her body in honey so that he could claim that he wed the daughter of a royal house.

No one held any illusions that Herod was anything but a raving lunatic. The problem was that he was still the king – and would remain so for more than a decade.

In any event, no living remnant of the Hasmoneans was left alive. The Talmud (Kiddushin 70b) declared that anyone who claimed to be from the House of the Hasmoneans was really descended from slaves.

Eventually, the people realized that there was no good way to contend with Herod or the political institutions, such as the priesthood, that he controlled. As a result, they no longer looked for spiritual guidance and support from the government or the official priesthood (controlled by the Sadducees), but from the great Torah leaders (the Pharisees).

The real power over the people gradually shifted from the formal institutions of State to “unofficial” and humble leaders like Hillel and Shamai. They would be the ones to offer the people inner strength and substance; to give them a reason to hope in a bloody, hollow Roman world gone mad.


[1] Antipater had earlier killed Aristobulus by poison (Antiquities 14, 8). He was also behind the murder of Aristobulus’ son, Alexander (ibid.).

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

One Response to “Herod”

  1. David Reid says:

    I am curious: you write that Cleopatra hated Harod. On the other hand, she did quite a lot of business with Harod, e.g., together exploiting mines. So the hatred must have been tempered.