King Herod the Great, Bible archaeology


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King Herod the Great as portrayed in the TV series 'Rome'

King Herod: his story

Masada, Herod's fortress, refuge and palace

Masada: fortress/palace

Fayum coffin portrait of a beautiful young wman

Princess Salome

Bible Villains

Floor-plan of Herod's palace at Jericho

King Herod's Palace

Heavily laden date palm tree

Jericho & Herod

Map of ancient Israel

Where it happened

A fox

Herod Antipas





Bible Study Resource

Herod the Great

After the rule of the illustrious but ill-fated Pompey, the Roman Empire was plagued by internal wars. Palestine, as the Romans called the land of the Bible, was caught up in the turmoil. 

As part of an empire-wide reshuffle, the wily Julius Caesar made Hyrcanus II of Palestine the high priest and ruler of the nation but, crucially, excluded him from politics. This clever tactic pleased the Jewish people, who loved the Hasmoneans of which Hyrcanus was the head, but it left Hyrcanus more or less powerless. 

The field was clear for someone else: Antipater, father of Herod the Great, became financial administrator and the real power in Judea. By wisely supporting the Roman-appointed Hyrcanus II and siding with the Romans against his own brother Aristobulos ll (none of the Herods were noted for family loyalty), Antipater captured the favor of the Romans and became effective ruler of the country. He appointed his sons, Herod and Phasael to important administrative posts. 

Curiously enough, Antipater was later poisoned during a feast. This left the way clear for Herod. 

Aerial view of Herodium, Herod palace/fortress near Jerusalem

Aerial view of Herodium, Herod palace/fortress near Jerusalem

Lay-out of the fortress on top of the man-made hill, Herod's tomb, and the pleasure gardens, pool and bath-house on the flat land below

Lay-out of the fortress on top of the man-made hill, Herod's tomb, 
and the pleasure gardens, pool and bath-house on the flat land below

Reconstruction of the fortress at Herodium

Reconstruction of the fortress at Herodium

Herod rises to power

Soon after his appointment to the governorship of Galilee in 47 BC, young Herod displayed the treachery that raised him to real power and sounded the final death knell of the House of the Hasmoneans. 

One of his first acts was the brutal suppression of an uprising, without obtaining legal sanction. When called to account by the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal and civil court of Judea, he was saved from certain death by the intervention of Hyrcanus II and Sextus Caesar, governor of Syria. Threats from them enabled him to terrorize the mighty Sanhedrin. 

He continued on his ruthless way. Herod was one of Rome's most successful tax collectors, an accomplishment that rested on razing towns which refused to pay and selling the inhabitants into slavery. As a reward, Cassius, who was then one of the rulers of the Roman state, recognized Herod as 'strategos' (district governor) of Coele-Syria (north of Palestine), and it was rumoured that he would be crowned King of Judea after Cassius had routed the last of the fallen Julius Caesarís followers. 

This, of course, did not happen. Cassius was defeated by Marc Antony and Octavius, and though Herod had been allied with the loser, he managed to ingratiate himself with the victors by flattery and bribery. They appointed him 'tetrarch' (district civil administrator) over Galilee, and his brother, Phasael, over Jerusalem. The Hasmonean High Priest, Hyrcanus II, remained 'ethnarch', but the two brothers were the effective rulers of Judea. 

Excavations at King Herod's Winter Palace at Jericho

Excavations at King Herod's Winter Palace at Jericho

Reconstruction of King Herod's palace at Jericho. Compare with the ruined buildings above.

Reconstruction of King Herod's palace at Jericho. 
Compare with the ruined buildings in the photograph above this drawing.


Antony and Cleopatra

Statue of Mark AntonyDuring this period, Antony had become so romantically involved with the fascinating Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, that he practically ignored the events in Palestine. Herod's enemies gained the upper hand, and realizing the futility of continuing to fight from his embattled stronghold in Galilee, Herod escaped to Rome. 

You would think this was a misfortune, but once again Herod turned events to his advantage. He presented himself to Antony and Octavius as a friend, a useful pawn in their struggles against the Parthians, and on their recommendation the Roman Senate crowned Herod King of Judea and friend of Rome. With Roman help, Herod captured Jerusalem in the spring of 37 BCE.

The great Menorah looted from the Temple of Jerusalem

The great Menorah looted from the Temple of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers in 70AD



In the same year, Herod married the beautiful Hasmonean princess, Mariamme, granddaughter of Hyrcanus ll. This strengthened his position as king because the Hasmoneans were so popular with the people, but a few years later (after she had borne him two sons) he arranged the murder of her younger brother, who was fatally popular with the people and whom Herod saw as a rival. A few years after that he had her strangled, executed on a patently trumped up charge of treason. Then he executed her mother, again on a charge of treason because she objected to the deaths of her son and daughter. Such murders were typical of Herodís pathological nature.

Already extremely unpopular with the common people, Herod now sought to shape Judea into a Hellenist state and find a place for it in the framework of the Roman Empire. Rather than a Jewish King, he was King of the Jews, and viewed with distaste the theocratic principles on which the nation was based. He murdered all possible rivals, or anyone who dared to criticise him. 

The remote fortress of Machaerus

The remote fortress of Machaerus, built by King Herod to withstand any attack. 
John the Baptist may have been executed in this fortress.

Remains of the viaduct at Machaerus, which provided plentiful water even when the fortress was under siege

Remains of the viaduct at Machaerus, which provided plentiful water if the fortress was under siege

Remnants of a once-luxurious fortress/palace at Machaerus

Remnants of a once-luxurious fortress/palace at Machaerus

Augustus Befriends Herod: Antony and Cleopatra having committed suicide after their defeat, Herod presented himself before the victorious Octavius who was to become Emperor Augustus in 30 BC. Summoning all his diplomatic skill, Herod admitted loyalty to Antony but stressed the enmity that had existed between himself and Cleopatra, and his efforts to weaken her hold on Antony. Impressed with Herodís candour, Octavius replaced the crown on his head, and as an immediate sign of favour, allowed him to recapture the districts ceded to Cleopatra, plus some coastal towns. 

Herod now turned his full attention to ruling Judea as an absolute monarch. He had all public and social institutions divested of political power; the Sanhedrin was reduced to an exclusively religious tribunal; the high priest was shorn of all but his spiritual functions; and all signs of independence, including public assembly, were banned. 

Expansion and Organization of the State

Map of Palestine under the rule of Herod the GreatBy 23 BC Herod controlled most of the area of the ancient Kingdom of David. The population of the country ranged somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million, mostly Jews, while a similar, if not larger, number of Jews lived in the Diaspora. The country was divided into l9 districts ruled by "strategoiĒ directly responsible to Herod. The governors of the independent Hellenistic cities and surrounding territories were also answerable to him. Although there was no Roman governor over Herod, and he had a free hand in internal affairs, he was not allowed to conduct an independent foreign policy. Thus restricted, he organized a sound internal administration, financed by a multiplicity of levies, including head, land, tribute, house and crown taxes. He imposed duties on all goods entering the country, and tolls for the use of the roads, bridges, wharves, docks, etc. He did not overlook any possible means of raising income, and greatly enhanced the stateís wealth through prudent commercial ventures. 

Herod also created a rigorous police force, with an elaborate system of espionage used to suppress mercilessly all opposition, which was widespread because of the peopleĎs attachment to the Hasmoneans. For most of the people the country became little better than a large prison. It was into this climate that a young religious reformer called Jesus was born in the northern province of Galilee.

Herodís Great Building Program

One of the major accomplishments of Herodís reign was his great building program. He erected a remarkable chain of fortresses and castles, replete with dungeons, vast cisterns and aqueducts. He built whole cities, each with its full complement of gymnasia, theatres, palaces, etc. His supreme achievements were Caesarea, which he transformed from a minor anchorage into a great port, and Sebaste (Samaria), with its sumptuous acropolis, temples and theatres. These became show-places of the Roman-Hellenistic culture of the period, and coupled with his tributes to the Greek and Roman gods, earned Herod the undying hatred of the Jews. 

A few miles south-east of Jerusalem, Herod built himself a sumptuous palace within a circular fort : Herodium. It followed a classic Graeco-Roman style in both architecture and decoration for the bathing areas and royal apartments. See above for images of Herodium.

Fragment of a stone inscription in Greek from Herod's Temple in Jerusalem.

Fragment of a stone inscription in Greek from Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. It warns Gentiles not to go past a particular point in the Temple courtyard

Though his building program provided employment for many and expanded the countryís facilities, the Jews would not soften. Even Herod's swift and generous aid during the drought of 27BC, and his rebuilding of the Temple into a magnificent structure with a high esplanade and spacious courts, surrounded by a wide arcade and high wall, did not increase his popularity. At right is a fragment of an inscription from Herodís Temple balustrade. 

Herodís Death

In a web of intrigue made even more tortuous by Herodís increasingly pathological nature, the now dying king had two of his sons by Mariamme, Alexander and Aristobulos, and his first born son, Antipater, executed (7BC). All were charged with conspiring against him. 

Before his death in 4BC, from several diseases that had racked him for years, he partitioned his kingdom among his three remaining sons, Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Philip. Archelaus was his actual successor. 

Herod also left enormous legacies to the Roman Emperor and Empress, Sarcophagus of King Herod the Great, excavated at Herodium and to his sister Salome. Herod succeeded in keeping Rome at a distance for several decades and, in his own way, tried to ensure for the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora a secure existence in a secular world. 

His attempts were neither appreciated nor remembered, and in Jewish tradition any favourable recollection of Herod has been erased. The pleasure palace/fortress he built at Herodium was sacked not long after his death, and his luxurious tomb smashed (see the remnants of the sarcophagus above right).

The New Testament (Matthew 2) associates him with the Massacre of the Innocents (an incident unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus but plausible, given Herod's paranoia). Thus, he has been portrayed in both Jewish and Christian records as a cruel, cunning and despotic tyrant.

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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology 
Herod the Great: builder of Caesarea, Sebaste, 2nd Temple of Jerusalem, Herodium, fortresses

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher