History Crash Course #31: Herod the Great

A madman who murdered his own family and many rabbis, Herod was also the greatest builder in Jewish history.

Herod, the Great (not to be confused with Herod Antipas who came later) is one of the most important characters in Jewish history. He was ambitious, cruel and paranoid to be sure, but, nevertheless, he remains a very significant person in the terms of understanding this period of Roman domination of the Jewish people.

Herod first leadership role was as governor of the Galilee, a position granted to him by his father, Antipater. Early on in his career he demonstrates his brutality by ruthlessly crushing a revolt in the Galilee.

The background to Herod’s rise to power is the Roman civil war that will transform Rome from a republic into and empire ruled by the Caesars or emperors. In 44BCE Julius Caesar is murdered by Brutus and Cassius who are in turn defeated by Anthony and Octavian in 42 BCE. The Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, is the final showdown between Octaviun and Anthony. Octaviun emerged as the unrivaled victor, changing his name to Augustus and becoming the first Roman emperor.

Herod had originally sided with Anthony but switches allegiance at the last minute and backs Octavian. His last minute support for Octavian earns him Augustus’s confirmation as King of Israel.

Herod will reigned as king of Judea from 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE, a very long reign of 33 years, and in many ways a good period in terms of development of the country and social stability.

Part of the reason for the stability was that during this time, the Romans took a backseat role in the day-to-day life of the Jews.

The general Roman attitude was one of tolerance, meaning Jews were granted exemptions from the official Roman state religion. A very interesting point to remember is that religion and state went together in all empires in the ancient world, and more so in Rome than almost anywhere because Rome also practiced emperor worship ― that is, the Romans deified their emperors posthumously.[1]See Talmud ― Megillah 6a

Linking state and religion gave the rulers added legitimacy, obviously. The connection between temporal power and spiritual power gave them complete control over the physical existence and spiritual existence of their subjects. (Later, we are going to see the Catholic Church doing the same thing in Medieval Europe.)

While accepting the state religion was a vital part of Roman identity and loyalty to the state, the Romans were also pragmatists. They had learned by the Greek experience that Jews could not be forced to worship idols. And they saw for themselves that the Jews were not like other pagan peoples ― they were not going to conform. So the Romans granted the Jews an official status of being exempt from Roman state religion.

On the one hand, it was a very smart and very tolerant policy. On the other hand, with that policy also went a punitive tax specifically for the Jews called fiscus Judaicus. You want to be exempt from the state religion? Okay, so long as you pay for the privilege.

So, it might have happened that the Jews simply paid the tax and did their own thing. But it didn’t go as smoothly as that (as we shall see).

Trade, Development and Construction

Herod’s rule was characterized by a period of unprecedented growth and construction, thanks in large part to Herod’s amiable relationship with Rome and his obsession with massive and elaborate construction projects

Herod had Rome’s complete support in administering a very important territory which included several major trade routes. Everything moved through Judea, which was sort of like the great way-station for the incense trade coming from Yemen up the Arabian Peninsula and going out to the Mediterranean.

Additionally, this was one of the most agriculturally productive pieces of land in the Middle East famous for its olive oil (which was used as a main source of light, and not just for cooking), for its dates (the chief sweetener in the times before sugar), and for its wine.

Herod used the huge profits from trade and money acquired through the crushing taxes he placed upon his subjects to undertake a series of mammoth building projects ― some of the most magnificent in the world.

As a matter of fact if they hadn’t closed the list of the wonders of the ancient world before his time, Herod would probably have added three more to list. Almost all archeologists and students of architecture of the ancient world appreciate that he was one of the greatest builders of all human history.

He built relentlessly ― cities, palaces and fortresses, some of which still stand:

  • the fortresses at Masada, Antonia and Herodium
  • the port city of Caesarea
  • the huge edifice at the top of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron
  • the massive fortifications around Jerusalem as well as three towers at the entrance to the city (the remains of which are today erroneously named the Tower of David) and much more

At Herodium, in an incredible feat of engineering ― Herod built an artificial mountain and, on top of it, a huge palace. Unfortunately, this palace was destroyed in 70 CE during the Great Revolt.

He built another fortress, Masada, on top of a mesa, a rock plateau, in the desert. Complete with all the creature comforts in the desert, Masada had an incredible water supply system that fed gardens for growing agricultural staples and three bathhouses (Masada is open to tourists today and a sight to behold.)

The port city of Caesarea deserves special mention ― not only because it was a center of trade and the Roman administrative capitol of Judea and one of the largest ports in the Empire, but because it became a symbol in Jewish eyes of everything that was pagan, Roman, and antithetical to Judaism. Here Herod created an amazing artificial port (one of the two largest in the Empire), put in a beautiful amphitheater, a hippodrome for chariot races (like in the movie Ben Hur, bath houses, and a huge temple dedicated to the Roman god-emperor, Augustus Caesar. (You can visit today the excavations of Caesarea Maritina and they are most impressive.)

Herod’s Temple

The most ambitious of Herod’s projects was the re-building of the Temple, which was almost certainly an attempt to gain popularity among his subjects who, he knew, held him in contempt and also to make amends for his cruelty toward the rabbis. [2]The Talmud relates the following story: Herod went and killed [most of] Rabbis. However he left Bavas ben Buta alive in order to use him as an adviser Herod put a crown of sharpened porcupine skin … Continue reading

It took 10,000 men ten years just to build the retaining walls around the Temple Mount (on top of which the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, stands today). The Western Wall (formerly known as the Wailing Wall) is merely part of that 500-meter-long retaining wall that was designed to hold a huge man-made platform that could accommodate twenty four football fields. When it was completed, it was the world’s largest functioning religious site and until today it remains the largest man-made platform in the world.

Why did he make the Temple Mount so large?

There’s no question that Herod had a huge ego and liked to impress people with grandiose building projects. But there is also another more practical reason. Historians estimate that there were about 6-7 million Jews living in the Roman Empire (plus another 1 million in Persia), many of whom would come to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. So you had to have a huge space to accommodate such a huge number of people. Hence the size of the platform.

When it came to building the Temple itself on top of this platform, Herod truly outdid himself, and even the Talmud acknowledges that the end-result was spectacular. “He who has not seen Herod’s building, has never in his life seen a truly grand building.” (Talmud-Bava Basra 4a)

The Holy of Holies was covered in gold; the walls and columns of the other buildings were of white marble; the floors were of carrara marble, its blue tinge giving the impression of a moving sea of water; the curtains were tapestries of blue, white, scarlet and purple thread, depicting, according to Josephus, “the whole vista of the heavens.”

Josephus describes how incredible it looked:

Viewed from without, the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either mind or eyes. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who endeavored to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun. To strangers as they approached it seemed in the distance like a mountain covered with snow; for any part not covered with gold was dazzling white… (The Jewish War, p. 304)

Herod saw fit however, to place at the main entrance a huge Roman eagle, which the pious Jews saw as a sacrilege. A group of Torah students promptly smashed this emblem of idolatry and oppression, but Herod had them hunted down, dragged in chains to his residence in Jericho, where they were burned alive.

Having built the Temple, Herod took pains to make sure it would be run without future problems of this kind. He appointed his own High Priest, having by then put to death forty-six leading members of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court.

Herod’s Persecutions

Herod’s persecutions were infamous and they even extended to his own family.

Herod, knowing that his Jewish credentials were suspect, had married Miriam ― the granddaughter of Hyrcanus and therefore a Hasmonean princess ― largely to gain legitimacy among the Jewish people. But he also loved her madly. As Josephus relates:

Of the five children which Herod had by Miriam, two of them were daughters and three were sons. The youngest of these sons was educated in Rome and died there but the two eldest he treated as those of royal blood on account of the nobility of their mother and because they were not born until he was king. But what was stronger than all this was his love he bore for Miriam which inflamed him every day to a great degree.

The problem was that Miriam hated him as much as he loved her, largely because of what he had done to her brother, Aristobulus.

Herod had made Aristobulus High Priest at the age of 17, and watched with trepidation as the young man became hugely popular. This was not surprising as Aristobulus was a Hasmonean with a legitimate right to be High Priest ― a genuine Jew and a genuine cohen.

But this threatened Herod too much and he had him drowned.

Indeed, Herod later became jealous of his own sons for the same reason and had them murdered as well.

And he even had his own wife murdered in a fit of jealousy. Josephus again:

His passion also made him stark mad and leaping out of his bed he ran around the palace in a wild manner. His sister Salome took the opportunity also to slander Miriam and to confirm his suspicions about Joseph [Miriam’s alleged lover]. Then out of his ungovernable jealousy and rage he commanded both of them to be killed immediately. But as soon as his passion was over he repented of what he had done and as soon as his anger was worn off his affections were kindled again… Indeed, the flame of his desires for her was so hard that he could not think she was dead but he would appear under his disorders to speak to her as if she were still alive… (Antiquities 15.7.4,5)

Not a stable man to say the least. Even Augustus said of him: “It is better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children.”

Herod’s paranoia, his interference with the Temple hierarchy, and his dedication to the Hellenization of the Jewish people all contributed to the growing discontent that would erupt in a revolt against Rome some 70 years after his death.

Spiritual Conflict

Beneath the surface events, there was a deeper spiritual battle raging ― between paganism and Judaism. Additionally, Jewish nationalistic feelings were rising to the surface.

It didn’t help matters that Hellenism dominated Judea. A significant number of Greeks as well as other gentiles who adopted the Greek lifestyle had lived here since the days of the Greek Empire and now, encouraged by the Romans, more Hellenist outsiders came to settle the land.

Additionally, the Jewish upper-classes, though a minority, subscribed to this “higher” culture. And of course, the king was an avowed Hellenist.

Seeing himself as an enlightened leader who would bring his backward people into the modern world, Herod did what he saw necessary to accomplish his “idealistic” end. This included the persecution and murder of all rabbis whom he viewed not only as threats to his authority, but as obstacles to the mass Hellenization of the Jews.

As a result of Herod’s interference and the ever-spreading Hellenistic influences among the Jewish upper classes, the Temple hierarchy became very corrupt. The Sadducees, a religious group of the wealthy, who collaborated with the Romans in order to keep their power base, now controlled the Temple, much to the chagrin of the mainstream Jewish majority, the Pharisees, and of the extreme religious minority, the Zealots.

The cauldron was beginning to boil and soon it would erupt.


1 See Talmud ― Megillah 6a
2 The Talmud relates the following story: Herod went and killed [most of] Rabbis. However he left Bavas ben Buta alive in order to use him as an adviser Herod put a crown of sharpened porcupine skin around his eyes, [and the sharp spines] blinded him. One day Herod, [pretending to be an ordinary citizen], sat down before Bava ben Buta and said, “Rabbi, do realize the terrible things this no-good slave Herod is doing?” “What should I do to him?” replied Bave ben Buta. Said Herod , [trying to trap him], “I want you to curse him.” Replied Bava ben Buta, “[How can I curse him] It says, ‘Even in your thoughts do not curse a king.'(Ecclesiastes 12:20). Retorted Herod, “But he is no king; [he does not meet the criteria of a Jewish king.]” replied Bava ben Buta, “He certainly is no less than a rich man and the same verse continues, ‘and in your bedchamber do not curse the rich.’ He certainly is no different than a leader, and it says, ‘Do not curse the leader of your people’ (Exodus 22:27).’… Herod then confessed, “I am Herod. If I had know that the rabbis were so careful [with their words], I would not have killed them. Now please tell what I can do to rectify what I have done?” Replied Bava ben Buta, “Since you snuffed out the light of the world, [that is what the rabbis are called]… you should involve yourself in [increasing] the light of the world [i.e. the Temple]… Someone who has not seen the new Temple that Herod built has never seen a magnificent building.” Talmud ― Bava Basra 3b-4a
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