Most of what we know about the mad builder king is what was recorded by Josephus in his books, Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War. Josephus, who lived about a century after Herod, based many of his facts on a history written by Herod’s private secretary, Nicolaus of Damascus.
PRELUDE TO MADNESS
Herod’s rule marked the end of the Chashmonaim era. In 3429/332 BCE, Alexander the Great had defeated Daryavesh of Persia and captured Yerushalayim. Upon Alexander’s death, his empire was split between four of his generals. Amazingly, all this was prophesied in advance by Daniel (Daniel 11:1-4) who had written: “And, now, truth I will tell you. Behold, another three kings will stand up [to rule] Persia and the fourth (Daryavesh) will become far richer than all, and with his power and wealth he will arouse all against the kingdom of Greece. And a powerful king (Alexander) will arise and rule with great dominion and do as he wills. And after he is established, his kingdom will be broken up and be divided into the four directions of the heavens…”
The Chashmonaim’s revolt against Greece erupted in 3594/167 BCE and Yehudah the Maccabi began his rule a year later. Over a century later, during a civil war between Yehudah the Maccabi’s two greatgrandsons, Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, Pompey of Rome conquered Yerushalayim, in 3698/63 BCE.
Josephus describes how much Pompey was impressed by the mesiras nefesh of the Jews while he was besieging Yerushalayim:
“At the time the Romans were besieging the city, Pompey observed the behavior of the Jews and was amazed at their courage and power of resistance. More than anything else, he was astonished that they did not cease serving their G-d as they walked between flying arrows and the ballista stones which rained down upon them, and it was as if total peace reigned amongst them. They offered the daily tamid sacrifices, performed the ritual baths, and scrupulously observed all the customs in the worship of their G-d, down to the last detail. Even on the very last day, when the Temple Mount was stormed, the kohanim did not halt the daily sacrifices to their G-d even as they fell dying in front of the altar.” (The Jewish Wars 1:7)
When Julius Caesar deposed Pompey, he appointed Hyrcanus as Kohen Gadol and nasi. But the real power was in the hands of Hyrcanus’ wily advisor, Antipater, who, the Gemara reports, was really an Edomite slave. Antipater appointed his sons as his subsidiaries – his older son, Phasael, was in charge of Yerushalayim, while his younger son, Herod (born 3698/73 BCE), aged twenty- six, was appointed tetrarch (governor) of the Galil.
Herod now gained widespread fame, or infamy, by ridding the Galil of a powerful gang of bandits.
“This young man (Herod) found an opportunity waiting to demonstrate his prowess. For, on hearing that Chizkiyahu, the bandit chieftain, was overrunning the Syrian border with a large mob, he captured and executed him and many of the bandits with him.
“The Syrians appreciated this deed greatly since [Herod] had purged their territory of the bandits from whom they longed to be freed, and they celebrated him throughout their villages and cities, saying that he had restored peace and guaranteed them enjoyment of their properties. And so he became known to Sextus Caesar, the governor of Syria and relative of the great (Julius) Caesar.” (Jewish Antiquities)
Some historians claim that Chizkiyahu was not a bandit but a leader of Galilean Jews who had never accepted the sovereignty of Rome. Leaders of the Sanhedrin told Hyrcanus that Herod had violated Torah law, complaining: “Look how Herod has executed Chizkiyahu and many with him in violation of our Torah, which prohibits executing someone, even if he is evil, unless he is first condemned by the Sanhedrin. Herod ordered this without authorization!” (Jewish Antiquities)
A trial was arranged, and Herod appeared before the court dressed in royal purple and surrounded by a military guard. As the judges fell silent, unsure how to proceed, Shammai, the talmid of Shemayah and Avtalyon, dared to open his mouth and declared:
“Members of court and you, the king! Surely neither you or I have ever seen an accused man appear before a court of law in such a manner. All the accused have come before the court with trepidation and fear and dressed in black. But Herod, who is accused of mass murder and was summoned here as a major criminal, has come before us, dressed in purple, his hair lavishly groomed and escorted by soldiers to threaten us with death if we convict him. But I do not so much blame Herod who wants to maintain his life rather than the law. I blame you, the members of the court, you and the king, who have permitted him to behave this way. Know then, that G-d is mighty and there will come a day when this man, whom you wish to acquit in order to find favor with Hyrcanus, will turn against you and the king and punish you severely.” (Jewish Antiquities)
Although this persuaded the judges to try Herod, Hyrcanus acquitted Herod under express orders from Sextus Caesar. Herod fled to Damascus and was appointed a local governor.
FIRST ATTEMPT TO SEIZE THE KINGDOM
Josephus reports that Herod now considered toppling Hyrcanus from his throne in revenge for the attempt to condemn him to death:
“Herod assembled his army together, angry because Hyrcanus had threatened him with the accusation in a public court, and led it to Jerusalem in order to overthrow Hyrcanus from his kingdom. And he would have done this, except that his father, Antipater, and his brother, went out and broke the force of his fury by begging him to carry his revenge no further than threatening, and to spare the king under whom he had been advanced to such a degree of power. Herod was persuaded by these arguments and supposed that what he had already done was sufficient for his future aspirations, and that he had shown enough of his power to the nation.”
Around this time, Herod married Doris, the first of his nine or ten wives, who bore his first son whom he named Antipater after his father.
A few years of peace and prosperity followed. Julius Caesar was a tolerant ruler. He eased Pompey’s restrictive laws and restored territories to the Jews that had been confiscated. When Julius Caesar was assassinated, in 3717/44 BCE, by Brutus and Cassius, Antipater and his sons nimbly changed sides and began collecting taxes for Cassius. In 3719/42 BCE, Cassius and Brutus were defeated in battle by the Triumvarate (three rulers) of Rome, and Herod, whose father had meanwhile been assassinated, swiftly zig-zagged once more and informed Mark Antony, the new governor of the Middle East, that he was more than ready to serve Rome’s new masters. With the help of a giant bribe, Mark Antony appointed Herod as ruler. On top of that, Hyrcanus, the Kohen Gadol and the nasi, promised Herod his daughter, Miriam, as a wife. This would link Herod to the Chashmonaim dynasty.
SEIZING THE CROWN FROM THE ASHES
But then it seemed as if Herod’s lust for power was doomed. At that time, the world was divided between Rome and the Persia-based Parthians, who had taken over much of the destroyed Greek Empire. From 3514/247 BCE until 3988/228 CE, the Parthians, at one time or another, controlled parts of present day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon.
Now the Parthians invaded and seized Yerushalayim, aided and abetted by Hyrcanus’ nephew, Antigonus (the son of Aristobulus with whom Hyrcanus had battled in the civil war). Antigonus was appointed king and Kohen Gadol, and cut off one of Hyrcanus’ earlobes to disqualify him from ever again serving as a kohen. Phasael, Herod’s brother, committed suicide in despair. At this black moment, Herod never gave up. He rushed off to Rome to beg the Romans for help, arriving there in the winter of 3721/40 BCE. In response to his offer to ally with them, the grateful Romans appointed Herod as King of the Jews. As Josephus reports:
“Octavian Caesar convened the Senate. Messala and Atratinus (two Roman officials) presented Herod, detailing his father’s good services and Herod’s support for the Romans. The Senate was influenced by these things so that by the time Mark Antony arose and argued that Herod should be appointed king to help continue the war with Parthia, everyone concurred.” (The Jewish Wars)
When Herod returned to Eretz Yisroel at the head of two Roman legions, the Jews were not delighted to see him. A three-year civil war erupted – the supporters of Rome massacring the Parthian sympathizers and vice versa. The siege of Yerushalayim lasted for five months. Josephus describes the violence:
“Much of Judaea also revolted and, immediately, every place was filled with murders. On the one hand, the Romans were enraged by frustration during their siege (of Yerushalayim) and, on the other, the Jews around Herod were eager to have no opponent left.
“Whole masses were slaughtered, in the alleys, crowded in their houses and even taking refuge in the Temple. There was no mercy for either young or old. Nor were the weakest women spared.” (Jewish Antiquities) It took three years of fighting until Herod established himself firmly as king. Herod arranged Antigonus’ execution and seized the opportunity to kill many of the judges who, years earlier, tried to put him on trial for killing Chizkiyahu, the bandit chief. The illustrious Shammai was spared. And so, after twelve decades, the rule of the Chashmonaim came to an ignominious end.
(Partial source: “History of the Jewish People/The Second Temple Era” by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm. Quotations from Josephus have been abridged.)