King Herod: History, Reign & Death

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Herod was a major figure in both the Christian Bible and Roman records, but who was he really? In this lesson, we'll explore the figure of Herod and see where he fits into Jewish history.

King Herod

In Christian traditions, one of the first stories (chronologically) about Jesus Christ is how his family was forced to flee because a tyrannical king had ordered the massacre of children. Who would do such a thing? According to the Bible, King Herod, that's who. Herod (c. 73- 4 BCE) was King of Judea, a Jewish state that existed as a vassal of Rome. Appointed by the Romans, Herod's job was to maintain Judea as a peaceful and productive member of Rome's growing empire. He is remembered in Christian and Jewish cultures as villainous and cruel, but historians have recently reevaluated some of Herod's legacy. He was an outsider, a ruler, a builder, and a negotiator, but he was foremost Herod, Friend of the Romans.

Herod the Great, king of Judea
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Rise to Power

Herod was the son of Antipater, a man who had been placed in control of Judea after the Roman general Pompey conquered the territory. In 47 BCE, Antipater named his son as the governor of Galilee, bringing him within Roman political circles. Herod benefitted from this and inherited his father's position in the Roman Republic's growing empire when Antipater was assassinated a few years later.

In 40 BCE, Parthians seized Jerusalem and a new king was installed. Herod fled to Rome, where he gained the support of both Mark Antony and Octavian (the future emperor Augustus). Herod was formally named as the Roman-appointed King of Judea (as a vassal of Rome) and was given a Roman army to help him regain control of Jerusalem. With this accomplished in 37 BCE, Herod became recognized as the sole ruler of Roman Judea.

Herod and the Jews

From the beginning, the Jewish people deeply distrusted Herod. Why? Herod, like his father, was a practicing Jew who honored the Jewish God and respected Jewish holidays and customs. However, Herod was not ethnically Jewish himself. His mother was Arab, and in Jewish customs ethnic identity is passed through the mother's side. Plus, he was deeply connected to the Romans and this made the Jewish people suspicious.

With Judea as a client state of Rome, Jewish people talked about identifying a Messiah, prophesied to arise as the legitimate king of Judea and overthrow the Romans. According to the Book of Matthew in the Christian Bible, Herod was informed that such a child may have been born in the tiny town of Bethlehem, upon which he ordered all children under the age of two to be killed. The so-called ''slaughter of the innocents'' was a big moment in Christian histories, but the Roman historian Josephus never mentioned it, which is odd since he wrote often of Herod. While some historians question the veracity of Matthew's telling, others argue that Bethlehem was likely too small to really register in Roman attention. In fact, if the slaughter of the innocents occurred, it would have likely resulted in the deaths of 10-20 children, not hundreds as is sometimes portrayed.

Building Programs

Christians and Jews alike tend to remember Herod as a tyrant and often a traitor, working to keep the Jews oppressed by the Romans. However, historians have noted that Herod also committed himself to improve Judea, just as any good Roman ruler would do.

One of the most famous building projects of Herod was the Second Temple of Jerusalem, a hypothetical model of which is shown here
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Herod literally helped to rebuild Jerusalem, adding to the city's fortifications and constructing theaters and amphitheaters. It's important to remember that the Romans believed that one of the best ways to keep territories from rebelling was to bestow the gifts of Roman civilization, particularly in terms of infrastructural development. Herod also oversaw the building of a new harbor along the coast, as well as seven additional fortresses across the kingdom. The project perhaps most directly relevant to the Jewish people, however, was Herod's massive renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem.

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