Herod the Great

Among the many historic figures of the Second Temple period, one name
especially stands out - Herod. Today, Herod is mainly remembered as a
master builder. Sebaste, Caesaria, Masada, the Herodium, and his
magnificent renovations of the Temple Mount all stand as testimony to his
genius. However, Herod the Great, as he was by Roman historians, was also
Herod the tyrant. Throughout his career, he combined a brilliant political
acumen with a ruthless cunning. In both Jewish and Christian traditional
sources, it is Herod the cruel, the despot, the murderous that is most

Roman control of the East relied on the strength of allied local rulers.
Along the Parthian border, local rulers helped maintain the peace by taking
up part of the security burden that otherwise would fall to Roman legions.
Local client kings implemented roman policy, and poured tax money into the
Roman treasury.  Within Judaea, the Romans hoped that the traditional
Jewish animosity towards foreign rule could be softened by the Roman
appointment of a loyal client king. In the best case, a  Jewish ruler would
be more acceptable, and therefore,  more effective in Judaea. In the worst
case, it would ultimately be the local ruler, not the Romans, who would be
forced to ensure public order; or through persuasion or through repression.

In 40 BCE, the Parthians invaded the Land of Israel. They replaced Hyrcanus
II with Aristobolus II. Herod, forced to flee to Rome, pledged the Roman
Senate that he would return order and Roman power throughout the
country. Leading an army through the Galilee, Herod met with intense
Jewish resistance. At Mount Arbel, overlooking the Sea of Kinneret,
Herod's troops lowered themselves in iron cages over the cliffsides to do
battle with Jewish warriors bunkered in the caves. Continuing south, in 37
BCE, Herod conquered Jerusalem.

Like his father, Herod realized that all political alliances are fleeting.
In the midst of a power struggle between Mark Antony and Cleopatra against
Octavian, Herod maneuvered between the opposing camps with the skill of a
gladiator before the lions.  When Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the
battle of Atrium, Herod persuaded Octavian that just as he had been loyal
to Mark Antony, now Herod would commit his loyalty to Octavian. Above all
else, he managed to preserve his own dominance.

The large Greek speaking population of the Land of Israel saw Herod as a
benefactor and patron. The building of the city of Sebaste, and the
expansion of Caesaria, the largest port in the Herodian Mediterranean,
bolstered his popularity among his pagan subjects. Herod was a patron of
Hellenistic culture. Not only did he help fund the Olympic games in Athens,
but in Jerusalem itself, he erected an amphitheater and hippodrome. Herod
recognized that the stability of his kingdom, especially taking into
consideration his unpopularity among the Jews of the Land of Israel, rested
on creating a counter-point of pagan support.

Among the Jews of the Land of Israel, Herod was seen as a usurper. A
Talmudic saying refers to Herod as a "slave of the Hasmonean house." With
his entrance to Jerusalem, Herod began a campaign to wipe out any Jewish
political force that could endanger his rule.  The remnant of the Hasmonean
dynasty, seen by the Jews as their legitimate rulers, was murdered. In an
attempt to win legitimacy, Herod married Miriam, herself a Hasmonean
princess. Perhaps she hoped that her sons would one day retake the throne.
Miriam was accused by Herod's mother and sister of adultery and plotting to
poison the king. In 29 BCE, Herod had Miriam executed. A talmudic tradition
says that Herod preserved her body in honey, a reflection of his insanity
and grotesque grief, and stored the corpse in a special chamber in the
royal palace for seven years.

Some say that he had intercourse with her, his reason for embalming her was
to gratify his desires. According to those who say that he did not have
intercourse with her, his reason was so that people might say that he
married a king's daughter (Baba Batra 3b-4a)

When his two sons by Miriam became too popular for Herod's taste, and much
too critical of their father's policies, Herod ordered their execution by

The other major group targeted by Herod as a potential political opposition
were the Jewish sages, the rabbis, also known as the pharisees. Upon his
ascension to the throne, he ordered the execution of forty-six members of
the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the Senate and Supreme court of the Jewish
people during much of the Second Temple period. Under Herod, the Sanhedrin
was stripped of all power to rule on matters pertinent to the realm of
secular politics. When two scholars and a group of forty students attempted
to remove the Roman eagle from the facade to the Temple, they were
arrested, and burned at the stake. On the eve of his death, Herod feared
that after a thirty year reign of despotism, his subjects would rejoice
with his passing. He immediately issued an order giving instruction that
upon his death "the most eminent men of every village of Judaea." (The
Jewish War. 1:655) would be rounded up, jailed in the hippodrome in
Jerusalem, and be executed.  The Christian tradition of the "massacre of
the innocents" , although based on the tradition of Pharaoh's slaying of
the male infants of the enslaved Hebrews, is plausible based on the
catalogue of Herod's brutality.

In 20 BCE, the project that won Herod historical immortality was begun -
the refurbishing of the Temple and the expansion of the Temple Mount. As
the center for Jewish pilgrimage from as far away as Rome and Babylon, the
Temple compound as it was rebuilt by the refugees returning home from
Babylon could not safely deal with huge crowds that inundated Jerusalem in
the First Century BCE. The permanent population of Jerusalem during the
reign of Herod is estimated by the archaeologist, Magen Broshi, to have
been approximately 40,000 people (Biblical Arch Review. Volume 4, Number 2)
With the influx of pilgrim traffic, predominately for the festivals of
Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the population of the city may have jumped to
an incredible 150,000. Herod expanded the natural hill of the Temple Mount
largely towards the South, doubling the size of the original area.  The
Western Wall, a support wall comprising one side of the Herodian expansion,
measures almost 485 meters or 1600 feet. Originally, the support walls may
have reached a height of 45 meters or 148 feet high. Based on the
excavations around the Temple Mount since 1967, Herodian stones have been
revealed that weigh up to 300, and even over 550 tons.
Josephus, both in his The Jewish War and in Antiquities , provides detailed
accounts of the physical construction and layout of the Temple area.  All
told, the project continued for over 60 years, and employed upwards of
20,000 workers. Between Herod and the sages, no love was lost.  Yet, with
regards to the Temple, even the sages, exclaim the glory that was Herod's
Jerusalem.  Sources describe blue, yellow, and white marble that sparkled
like the waves of the sea (Baba Batra 4a, Shemot Rabba 36:1)
Josephus writes:

Viewed from without the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either
mind or eyes. Overlaid all around with stout plates of gold, in 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. . . .  it seemed from a
distance like a mountain covered with snow, for any part not covered in
gold was dazzling white. . .
                                The Jewish War. 5:224)

Herod's interest in the Temple Mount project was not driven by a personal,
religious passion. The Temple Mount project served as an excellent
propaganda tool. For his Jewish subjects,  the project helped to present
Herod as a faithful Jew devoted to ensuring the proper implementation of
the pilgrimage and the Temple ritual. For the non-Jews, especially the
Romans, the Temple mount project portrayed Jerusalem, not as a primitive
backwater of a barbarian people, but as a international city of fine design
and renowned beauty.  Jerusalem of Herod's day was a Hellenistic-Roman style
city. With it's villas, gardens, theaters, and gymnasium, Jerusalem was no
different physically than any other of the great cities of the ancient
world. The Temple mount, fully twenty percent of the entire city area, was
the city acropolis, site of local shrines, public offices, banks, and
market places. Herod's building projects, in and outside Jerusalem, may
have also been designed as public works projects. If people are working,
they have less time for politics. If people are working, they can pay their
taxes. As long as taxes were paid, Herod helped to fill Roman coffers. Of
course as long as the country was quiet, and Rome continued to receive
tribute from Herod, Herod remained in power. For Herod, clearly, no other
goal stood above that of maintaining crown and throne.