King Herod was one of the most energetic, indomitable men in history, and he managed to oust the Hasmonean dynasty and seize the crown. He pulled off this gambit after the Parthians, a Persian-based nation, conquered the Romans, banishing them from Yerushalayim, and installing Antigonus (a great-great-grandson of Yehudah haMaccabi) as king.
Herod struck a deal with Rome – “Make me ‘King of the Jews’ and I’ll throw out the Parthians!”
ATTEMPT TO MARRY INTO ROYALTY FAILS
By 3724/37 BCE, Herod achieved his goal, evicting the Parthians and arranging Antigonus’ death. Herod, the Edomite slave, was king. To consolidate his position, he figured that nothing could be better than to marry a princess from the Hasmonean family.
The Gemara (Bava Basra 3b) reports what happened next:
“Herod was a slave of the Hasmonean family. He cast his eyes on a certain girl (of the family). One day, he heard a voice saying, ‘Whichever slave rebels now will succeed.’ He rose up and slew all his masters and left that girl (alive). When she saw that he wanted to marry her, she went up to the roof and shouted and said, ‘Whoever comes and says, “I am from the Hasmonean family” is a slave!’ because none remained of them except this girl, and that girl fell from the roof to the earth!”
Thus Herod’s plan was shattered. Strangely however, Josephus reports that Herod married Miriam, the daughter of Hyrcanus (a great-grandson of Yehudah HaMaccabi who was formerly the king) and had five sons with her, two of whom survived. One theory offered to resolve this riddle is that Herod did not give up even after the young girl’s death. He fooled the public into thinking that a woman he married was from the Hasmonean family when, in reality, she was not.
Josephus reports that, to increase his popularity, Herod appointed Miriam’s seventeen-year-old brother, Aristobulus, as Kohen Gadol. However, the people were so delighted with the handsome Aristobulus that Herod felt that this had put him at a disadvantage. To rid himself of this rival, he sent the young man to his palace in Yericho, where his Roman guards drowned the youngster in a bathing pool. For the second time in his career, Herod was tried for murder, this time by Mark Anthony of Rome. Once again, he wriggled off the hook.
When Mark Anthony was defeated by Octavian (Augustus) in the sea battle of Actium, in 3730/31 BCE, Herod rushed to the island of Rhodes to promise his loyalty to Octavian. He sweetened the deal with a gift of 700 talents (about 2,000 tons) of pure silver.
REBUILDING ERETZ YISROEL
Yerushalayim had been badly damaged during Herod’s struggle with the Parthians, and it was further ruined by an enormous earthquake in 3730/31 BCE. Herod set about rebuilding with fervor, financing the projects with exhorbitant taxes.
“The people of Judea who, at the beginning of his rule, lived in a healthy economic situation, were humbled to the ground and turned into miserable paupers. He had the leaders of the people killed in order to confiscate their property.”
Included in his projects was a new marketplace, a magnificent palace for himself with three towers (one tower named Phasael after his brother and another named Miriam after his wife). One of these towers is the foundation of the present day Tower of David by the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. Herod also built a huge Hippodrome (amphitheater) in Yerushalayim. In other towns he built idolatrous temples to ingratiate himself with the Roman overlords. The Hippodrome was used to stage chariot races and fights between wild animals or against people he had condemned to death. Huge sporting festivals were held there every few years and idolatrous images were sometimes given to contestants as prizes.
In addition, he greatly expanded the borders of Jewish influence, including the Golan Heights and parts of Gaza. In 3752/9 BCE, Herod dedicated a magnificent new seaport in Caesarea to the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar (Octavian), complete with an artificial harbor made of hydraulic concrete (made from volcanic ash that hardens underwater). The town was more Greek than Jewish, dominated by an imposing idolatrous temple where the emperor of Rome was worshipped. There were other temples as well, prompting Chazal to say that this town was the very antithesis of holy Yerushalayim:
“Caesarea and Yerushalayim, if someone tells you, ‘Both are destroyed,’ do not believe it… ‘Caesarea is destroyed and Yerushalayim is settled,’ believe it” (Megillah 6a). He also built fortresses the length of the country – the two most famous ones in Herodian and Massada.
INSANITY SETS IN
As Herod’s rule dragged on, he became a megalomaniac and insanely paranoid.
First, he was furious at Chazal’s stance that he was unfit to be a king. As the Gemara (Bava Basra 3b) relates: “He said, ‘Who infers from the verse, “From the midst of your brothers, you shall appoint a king over you” (Devarim 17:15)? The rabbis!’ He rose up and killed all the rabbis and left Bava ben Buta to take advice from him.”
At a later stage, he repented this act and asked Bava ben Buta how to rectify it. Bava ben Buta replied, “He who has extinguished the light of the world, as it says, ‘For a mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light,’ should go and occupy himself with the light of the world (the Beis HaMikdash).”
Herod began building a new Temple Mount in 3741/20 BCE, twice as big as the former structure. Ten thousand laborers finished its construction in three years and Chazal testify that “he who did not see Herod’s building never saw a beautiful building in his days” (Bava Basra 4a).
Herod’s insatiable envy also turned him against his own flesh and blood. One by one, he wiped out his family and heirs. His first victim was his wife, Miriam. “In an ungovernable fit of jealousy and rage, Herod commanded both of them (Miriam and Herod’s brother-in-law) to be slain immediately. But as soon as the executions had been carried out, his passion was over and he repented what he had done, and his affections were rekindled. Indeed, he could not believe that she was dead and spoke to her as if she were still alive.”
During his sixties, Herod realized that he would not live forever and began considering who would succeed him. By now, he was psychotically suspicious that people were plotting to speed up their succession by assassinating him so he planted spies amongst the people.
“Many were caught by these informers and brought openly or under cover to one of his fortresses and killed in a gruesome manner, the like of which was not heard even in ancient times. Those who were left alive envied the dead because of the constant fear for their families, their property and their very lives.”
Herod had fifteen children from his ten wives. Contenders for the throne were his firstborn, Antipater, from his first wife Doris, and the two surviving sons of Miriam, Alexander and Aristobulus, who had been educated for royalty in Rome.
It was rumored that Alexander and Aristobulus wanted to poison Herod, and Antipater poured oil on the flames by informing Herod that these two brothers had called Herod “a shameless, old man who dyed his hair.” He had the pair put to death in about 3754/7 BCE.
HIS LAST CRIMES
Nearing seventy, Herod became ill and certain pious Jews took advantage of his apparent weakness:
“There were two men of learning in the city (Yerushalayim), Yehudah, the son of Sephoris, and Mattisyahu, the son of Margalus, who were thought the most skillful in the laws of their country. A huge group of young men gathered together every day to hear their teachings. When these men were informed that the king was wearing away with melancholy and disease, they decided that it was a proper time to defend the cause of Hashem and pull down a golden eagle the king had erected over the great gate of the Temple. These learned men told them that if any danger arose, it was a glorious thing to die for the laws of their country (the Torah) because the soul is immortal and eternal happiness awaits those who die on that account.
“At the same time as these men made this speech to their disciples, a rumor spread that the king was dying, which made the young men set about the work with greater boldness. They let themselves down from the top of the Beis HaMikdash with ropes at midday, while many people were there, and cut down the golden eagle with axes. The king’s captain of the Beis HaMikdash came running with a large group of soldiers and caught about forty of the young men, who were then brought to the king.
“The king was violently angry and ordered those that had let themselves down, together with their rabbis, to be burnt alive, and the others to be put to death.” Herod’s condition worsened – some modern physicians claim that he was suffering from kidney failure.
“After this, he had a gentle fever and an intolerable itching over all his body, continual colon pains, dropsy in his feet, an inflammation of the abdomen, and a putrefaction that produced worms. He had difficulty breathing and, when he sat upright, he had convulsions. The diviners said those diseases were punishment for what he had done to the rabbis.”
Herod, who had been a vigorous warrior and hunter in his younger years, desperately struggled to regain his robust heath.
“He went over the Jordan and used the hot baths at Callirrhoe. The physicians bathed his body in warm oil, by lowering it into a large vessel full of oil, whereupon his eyes failed him, and he drifted in and out of consciousness, as if he was dying. Despairing of recovery, he gave orders that each soldier should have fifty drachmae each and that his commanders and friends should receive great sums of money.”
To ensure that his death would be mourned, Herod then hatched a terrible plot.
“He returned to Yericho and proceeded with an evil wickedness – he gathered together the most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation from every village, in the Hippodrome, and shut them in. He then called for his sister, Salome, and her husband, Alexas, and said to them, ‘I know well that the Jews will make a festival upon my death. However, it is in my power to be mourned on other accounts – send soldiers to surround these men in custody and slay them immediately upon my death. Then all of Judea, and every family, will weep, whether they want to or not.’”
Suspicious that his first-born, Antipater, wanted to assassinate him, Herod threw him into jail. Herod’s condition worsened. Overcome by pain, hunger and a convulsive cough, Herod took an apple and asked for a knife to pare apples in an attempt to finish himself off. When a cousin ran up and stopped him, a great lamentation arose as if the king was dying. Hearing the commotion from his cell, Antipater thought the king had died and joyfully tried to bribe his guards to release him. Instead, the chief prison guard told the king and Antipater was executed.
Herod now divided his kingdom among three other sons. Herod Antipas was to rule the Galilee and east bank of the Jordan; Philip, the Golan Heights; and Archeleus was in charge of Yehudah and Shomron.
The end came five days later, thirty-seven years after he was appointed king by the Romans. Before the soldiers knew of Herod’s death, Salome and her husband went and released the imprisoned people whom the king had commanded to be slain, and told the soldiers that Herod had changed his mind. Archelaus buried his father in pomp and ceremony.
“There was a bier of gold, embroidered with precious stones and a purple bed of various contexture, with the corpse upon it covered with purple. And a diadem was put on his head and a crown of gold above it, and a scepter in his right hand. And near to the bier were Herod’s sons and a multitude of his relatives. Then came his guards and the regiment of Thracians, Germans and Gauls, all as if they were going to war. The rest of the army followed their captains and officers and, behind them, were five hundred of his domestic servants and freed men with sweet spices. The body was carried two hundred furlongs to Herodian where he had given orders to be buried.”
Herod’s magnificent Beis HaMikdash survived him for another seventy-four years until 3730/70 CE and, today, only the Kossel’s massive stones bear testimony to Herod’s dynamic energy and determined will that were so tragically misused.
(Quotes from Josephus’s “Wars of the Jews” are abridged and modified.)