The year and place of Herod’s birth have been issues of disagreement among historians. Although most historians believe he was born in 73 BCE in the south of Judea, some believe he was born in 71 or 72 BCE, to Antipater and Cyprus. Antipater was a key figure in the internal politics of Judea and had lent his support to Hyrcanus II, who was, at that time, struggling to become the king of Judea.
The Roman general Pompey, too, supported Hyrcanus. Thus, Antipater earned a key place in the royal court. Soon, a civil war broke out in the Roman Empire, between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Hyrcanus sided with the former. When Julius Caesar won, he extended his thanks to Antipater by appointing him as the regent.
Herod was the second in line to the legacy of his father. His elder brother, Phasael, was appointed as the governor of Jerusalem, and Herod was given the governorship of Galilee. Herod was in his mid-20s by then and was infamous for his brutal decisions and for being too arrogant. The ‘Sanhedrin,’ or the assembly of rabbis, was extremely critical of his ways. However, he showed exceptional leadership qualities after he curbed many military uprisings in the Roman Empire.
Herod’s position did not sit well with the Jews, who were the majority in the kingdom. To make matters worse, his mother was an Arab, which led to several uprisings. Herod’s ability to deal with those uprisings became another cause of concern. However, in the end, his leadership qualities were appreciated by Caesar and Herod maintained his position.
In 46 BCE, Herod was named the governor of Coele-Syria by Caesar. This strengthened his position in the empire. However, with the death of Julius Caesar, everything turned upside down. Cassius was named the new emperor. Herod knew that in order to survive, he needed to win Cassius’s favor and he did exactly that.
A war broke out between the Romans and the Parthians. The wars were fought majorly in Iran and Mesopotamia and led to massacre of thousands of Romans. The Jewish population sided with the Parthians, and this led to a danger to Herod’s life. Herod acted promptly and fled to Rome. By then, his brother had committed suicide and King Hyrcanus was taken prisoner.
His visit to Rome was the ultimate test of his persuasive and political skills. He was not known to be a trustworthy man, as he had frequently changed sides. However, he somehow managed to compel the Roman senate and Octavian to invade Judea. He was thus named the king of Judea.
Antigonus was on the throne at that time, and with significant support from Antony and Octavian, the Parthian king was defeated. He was captured and kept as a prisoner in Jerusalem. Thus, Herod’s path to the throne was cleared.
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Reign as a King
In 37 BCE, Herod the Great became the ruler of Judea. His reign started with bloodshed. He suppressed the little uprisings that had started to take place due to his non-Jewish lineage. However, Herod was a smart man, and while he curbed the uprisings with weapons, he used his tactics to make sure he won over the Jewish people.
The first step toward that was to bring the high priest Hyrcanus back from Babylon. He knew that his arrival would solidify the faith people had on him. Although Hyrcanus was very old by then and he could not assume the duties of the high priest, he was given a very high position in the royal court.
Then came the period for which Herod was highly regarded. In his bid to serve the Jewish population in Judea, he initiated several construction projects. The temple of Jerusalem was now guarded with strong, high walls and a citadel. The fortress citadel was named ‘Antonia,’ to help him remain in the good books of Mark Antony, his patron.
New coins were created, and they bore the mark of an incense burner on a tripod, which was Herod’s sign of respect to the orthodox Jewish religious practices. Herod also went about pleasing Mark Antony, the Roman representative in the eastern part of the Empire, and his mistress, Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
However, the Roman Empire always struggled to remain united. The kingdoms in the East picked a fight with the kingdoms in the West. Herod had no other option but to choose a side, and he chose the eastern leaders, Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The eastern side lost, and this was the first time that Herod had sided with a losing side.
Herod became aware of the fact that his throne was in danger. In a long series of steps to ensure his reign, he first murdered Hyrcanus and then visited the winning side of Octavian and met the king. He boasted about how he had always remained loyal to Mark Antony, even after he knew he would lose. Octavian loved this attitude. Herod claimed that he would serve Octavian with the same loyalty, and this made Octavian forgive him.
When Octavian became the first emperor of the Roman Kingdom, he gifted Herod the kingdom of Samaria as a gesture of respect. Octavian continued to rule the Roman Empire under the name “Augustus.”
Following this, Herod went back to his crowd-pleasing ways and continued the extensive construction work in his kingdom. A number of temples were built. Several other buildings were made to ensure the safety of population. Theaters, amphitheaters, markets, baths, toilets and government offices were also constructed.
Herod’s biggest achievement was the construction of a new port called Sebastos, which was Greek for “Augustus.” It was constructed to honor the king. The port was a competitor of the empire of Alexandria for providing better trade routes to the public. It was a piece of marvellous engineering. Soon, Herod’s popularity soared even in the neighboring kingdoms.
It was not easy to please the Jewish population, especially the more orthodox ones. Most of the monuments that he built were heavily inspired by Greek architecture, which did not sit well with the orthodox Jewish population. However, Herod managed to keep ruling without any disturbance.
Marriages & Children
Herod the Great had married 10 times in his lifetime. According to records, his wives were Doris, Mariamne I, Mariamne II, Malthace, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, Pallas, Phaedra, and Elpis. He had two more wives whose names are not recorded in history books.
Herod had 14 legitimate children, including his oldest son, Antipater II, from his first wife. It is believed he had fathered more children, especially daughters. However, there is no record of this, as female births were generally not recorded at that time.
Final years & Legacy
Toward the end of his reign, Herod the Great had lost mental balance due to physical and mental illnesses. He accused his second wife, Mariamne I, of infidelity and had her executed. He also ordered the execution of all the children he had had with her.
He also ordered the murder of his eldest son and successor, Antipater II. The emperor of Rome, Augustus, had once famously remarked that it was safer to be a pig than Herod’s son. Herod passed away in 4 BCE from a cancer-like illness.
Emperor Augustus read Herod’s last will. His entire kingdom was divided between his sons Herod Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip.
Herod was buried in Herodium. Not many mourned his death, as his popularity had subsided greatly by then.