HEROD THE GREAT
Herod had stubbornly remained loyal to Marc Antony. He never forgot that it was Antony, a
decade earlier, who had lobbied the Roman Senate to appoint him "king" of Judea. After
the defeat and double-suicide of Antony and Cleopatra, Herod was in deep, deep trouble.
Everyone expected that Octavian would avenge all support rendered to his arch enemies
Antony and Cleopatra.
By all accounts, Herod made a bold move. Dressed as a commoner, but with the proud
bearing of a king, Herod appeared in Rhodes before Octavian. Josephus respectfully
quoted his speech,
“Caesar, it was Antony who made me king and I admit that I rendered to him every possible
service. I will not hesitate to say that if I had not been detained by the Arabs, you certainly
would have found me fighting by his side. As it was, I sent him all the auxiliary troops I could
and many thousands of measures of grain.
I did not desert my benefactor, even after his defeat at Actium. However, when I could no
longer be useful as an ally, I gave him the best possible advice: Kill Cleopatra. I promised
him money, a protecting wall, an army and my active participation in the war against you.
However, his ears remained deaf through his passion for Cleopatra. God has granted you
victory. I am defeated with Antony and with him, I lay down my crown. I have come to you,
basing my hope of safety upon my integrity. I hope you will ask yourself, not whose friend,
but how loyal a friend I have been.” (Wars, Book I, Chapter XX, 1)
I imagine there was silence and bated breath for some moments. Finally, Octavian
proclaimed that he admired Herod’s bold spirit and advised him, “Next time, pick the winning
Actually, Octavian did not have much choice: his opponents were still alive, and if he were to
pursue them to Egypt, Herod could be a useful ally.
To show his undying gratitude, Herod the Great built a magnificent harbor city along the
Mediterranean coast, equipped with a hippodrome for chariot racing, a theater for stage
spectacles, a promontory palace with a fresh-water swimming pool and impressive
aqueducts. He named the city Caesarea, after his new patron.
However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked
Herod's Greek taste - a taste he showed not only in his building projects, but also in several
transgressions of the Mosaic Law.
The orthodox were not to only ones who came to hate the new king. The Sadducees hated
him because he had terminated the rule of the old royal house to which many of them were
related; their own influence in the Sanhedrin was curtailed. The Pharisees despised any
ruler who despised the Law. And probably all his subjects resented his excessive taxation.
Herod sometimes had to revert to violence, employing mercenaries and a secret police to
Herod was not a Jewish but a Roman king. He had become the ruler of the Jews with Roman
On top of the gate of the new Temple, a golden eagle was erected, a symbol of Roman
power in the heart of the holy city resented by all pious believers. Worse, Augustus ordered
and paid the priests of the Temple to sacrifice twice a day on behalf of himself, the
Roman senate and people. The Jewish populace started to believe rumors that their pagan
ruler had violated Jewish tombs, stealing golden objects from the tomb of David and
After his death in 4 BCE, the kingdom was divided among his sons. Herod Antipas was to
rule Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch; Philip was to be tetrarch of
the Golan heights in the north-east; and Archelaus became the ethnarch ("national leader")
of Samaria and Judaea.
Herod's reign ended in terror. When the king fell ill, two popular teachers, Judas and
Matthias, incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle from the entrance of the Temple:
after all, according to the Ten Commandments, it was a sin to make idols. The teachers and
the pupils were burned alive.
Some Jewish scholars had discovered that seventy-six generations had passed since
the Creation, and there was a well-known prophecy that the Messiah was to
deliver Israel from its foreign rulers in the seventy-seventh generation.
The story about the slaughter of infants of Bethlehem in the second chapter of the Gospel
of Matthew is not known from other sources, but it would have been totally in character for
the later Herod to commit such an act.