A Short Biography of the Life of Herod the Great
Herod (whom history has dubbed “the Great”) made such an impact on both ancient and modern Israel, it might be helpful to become familiar with this complicated individual as you will meet his legacy throughout your time in the Land.
Herod was born around 74 BC, the second son of Antipater the Idumaean (the Assyrians called the descendants of Esau Idumaeans). In other words, Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. Antipater was a high ranking official under the Ethnarch (ruler of a Roman province), Hyrcanus II & Cypros, the Nabatean. Antipater’s gifts & financial support for Hyrcanus II’s lifestyle & military campaigns afforded him much power in Israel. Antipater had enough influence to appoint his 2nd son, Herod, governor of the northern regions of Israel—the Galilee—when Herod was but 25 years old. He also appointed Herod’s elder brother, Phasael, governor of Jerusalem. Antipater enjoyed the authority of Rome, but his brutality was condemned by the Sanhedrin, Israel’s ruling religious body.
100 years before Herod, the Maccabean, John Hyrcanus, had conquered the area where Herod would be born and had forced everyone to choose between obeying Jewish religious law or be expelled from the land. Most converted to Judaism. Although Herod was technically a descendant of Esau (Edom), he publicly identified himself as a Jew. Some accepted this claim (especially those who called themselves Herodians and benefitted from Herod’s opulent lifestyle). Observant Jews could not accept that a real Jew would live as Herod lived and they refused to accept Herod as one of them.
When Herod’s father, Antipater, agreed to support the efforts of those planning the assassination of Julius Caesar, Antipater was poisoned by Caesar’s supporters. Rome then granted Herod permission to form an army to find and execute his father’s murderers.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, two Roman generals, Marc Antony & Octavian, gathered armies of their supporters and began vying for the rulership of the Roman Empire. Herod appealed to them both, convincing each that his father had been forced, against his will, to support Caesar’s assassins. Antony’s army eventually took over the Middle East, and declared Herod Tetrarch (sub-ruler) of the Galilee.
One of the interesting facts of this period in history is that Marc Antony and his army ruled the Middle East while Herod was king in Israel and Cleopatra was queen in Egypt. Antony, Cleopatra, and Herod became close friends. At one point, Antony asked Cleopatra what he might give to prove his love for her. Cleopatra had long coveted the vast wealth that came from the area of the Dead Sea and she asked Antony to deed her this entire region. Antony claimed that he could not give her land that belonged to his friend, Herod; however, he could arrange it so both she and Herod could share the income it provided.
Two years after Herod was named Tetrarch of Galilee, the Parthians backed Hyrcanus’ nephew, Antigonus, in his successful bid to wrest rulership from Herod. This put Herod out of power and he fled to Rome to seek Rome’s backing for a return to power.
Perhaps Herod’s most intriguing characteristic was his ability to stay in power against all logic. By the time Herod fled to Rome, Octavian’s army had defeated Herod’s friends, Antony and Cleopatra, both of whom then committed suicide. Herod appeared before the enemy of his friends. Octavian was now Emperor of the entire Roman Empire with a new title, Caesar Augustus (whose census is mentioned in Luke, chapter 2). Herod did not apologize to Octavian for his loyalty to Antony. Surely loyalty was a virtue Octavian appreciated and Herod would show that same loyalty to the new Caesar if Octavian would allow Herod to live and be returned to power. In response, the Roman Senate declared Herod “King of the Jews” and Herod returned to Israel with an army.
It took Herod 3 years to defeat Antigonus. While at war, Herod married the only woman he would ever love, Mariamne (known as Mariamne I), and who was, actually, the niece of his rival, Antigonus. In marrying Mariamne, Herod attempted to secure his claim to the throne and, also, gain Jewish favor, as Mariamne was a Jewess. When Herod married Mariamne, he banished his current wife, Doris, along with her son, Antipater, from the land.
When Herod’s army finally captured Jerusalem and executed Antigonus, Herod declared himself “Basileus” (Greek for “king”). This ended the long-standing Hasmonean Dynasty and ushered in the Herodian Dynasty.
Herod ruled Israel for 37 years from the time he was declared “King of the Jews”; although his actual rule was 34 years, after the capture of Jerusalem.
Due to continual palace rumors and paranoia over his potential overthrow, Herod murdered his beloved Mariamne and several other members of his family and household. When a group of “wise men”, newly arrived in Jerusalem from the East, told Herod that a “king of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered the massacre of all male children in the area under the age of two (see Matthew, chapter 2).
For years, Herod suffered acute kidney failure complicated by either scabies or Fournier Gangrene which slowly destroyed his body and eventually drove him even more insane than he already was. His several attempts at suicide were only thwarted by those of his inner circle. He died in the spring of 4 BC (indicating that Jesus was born before this date, perhaps as early as 6 or 7 BC). Because Herod knew that the entire country would rejoice at his passing, he ordered that every Jewish priest be slaughtered upon news of his death so the country would be forced into mourning. It is not known why this order was never carried out.
Herod’s will appointed his son, Herod Antipas, ruler of the middle region of Israel. It was this Herod who ruled during Jesus’ adult life and whom Jesus called “that fox” after Antipas had John the Baptist put to death.
Herod the Great is considered one of the ancient world’s wealthiest individuals and one of history’s most prolific builders. He originated projects that are virtually indescribable for their massive scope, intricate beauty and engineering achievements. One must see Caesarea Maritime (on the coast) and Masada (across from the Dead Sea in the region where Herod grew up) to appreciate their significance.
Just south of Jerusalem, Herod had an artificial mountain built on the site of his decisive victory over Antigonus. Ancient documents state that this palace-fortress was to be Herod’s final resting place. Archaeologists have long accepted that Herod was buried at the Herodian, though the actual location of his tomb within the mountain eluded their efforts to find it. However, just recently, Herod’s sarcophagus was discovered–empty.
After Herod’s death, was his body removed and desecrated? Did his followers secretly bury Herod in a place whose location they alone knew? Was Herod’s well-known plan to be buried in the Herodian his idea of an elaborate hoax (which would have been typical of this wily personality)? Unless further ancient documentation is discovered, this will remain one of history’s mysteries.