Herod the Great

Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World

by Martin Goodman, published by Yale University Press 2024, pp.232

There is Jewish history and there is Judaic history — the latter seen through the eyes of the rabbis and sages. Martin Goodman, an Oxford professor of Jewish Studies, has written some remarkable books which have reclaimed the political, brutal and often chaotic reality of the Jews in antiquity. This book about King Herod strips him of the Christian mythology that popularly defines him and also clarifies the historical account, written by the Jewish historian, Josephus, decades later. 

Goodman relates that Herod’s father was an Idumaean and his mother, a Nabatean Arab. His father, Antipater, became one of Queen Shlomzion’s ministers in governing the Hasmonean state of Judaea. Herod was energetic and clever — and from the very outset of his career, he depended on Roman patronage. Goodman notes that he secured his position as an outsider and commoner through ‘a mixture of bravado, competence and diplomacy’. He also developed a habit of backing the losing side in a conflict and somehow wheedling out of an impossible situation to ingratiate himself with the conqueror. 

With the support of Mark Anthony, the Roman Senate accorded Herod the title of ‘king of the Jews’ in 40 BCE and he proved adept at exploiting internal Hasmonean rivalries. He displaced the last Hasmonean king, Mattiyahu Antigonus in 37 BCE who had bribed the Parthians to march on Jerusalem while Herod was defending it during the festival of Shavuot.

Herod was also a great builder, constructing Caesarea Maritima with its artificial circular harbour. People flocked to see the chariot races and wild beasts in the Caesarea hippodrome. He built palaces at Masada, Herodium and Jericho. 

The author notes that Herod exuded a dual identity — that of both Roman and Jew — while promoting Greek culture. He remodelled the Temple of Ezra and Nehemiah, according to the most modern engineering techniques in the Roman world with a plethora of porticoes, platforms and marble columns. Herod avoided stirring up Jewish sensibilities but tried to square this with prostrating himself before Rome. Thus sacrifices were not made directly to the Roman emperor but to the Jewish God on behalf of the emperor. Erecting a golden eagle above one of the Temple gates however was a step too far — and the Jews pulled it down as fast as they were able. In 27 BCE, an assassination attempt by religious zealots was thwarted. This was one of many and Herod attributed his survival to divine intervention.

Herod was also known for his temper and murderous intent when he suspected family and friends. Goodman confirms the legend of Herod’s ruthlessness and his iron determination to maintain control. He engineered the killing of his rival, Mattiyahu Antigonus while another Hasmonean claimant to the throne, Yonatan Aristobulus was mysteriously found drowned in Jericho. He executed his uncle, Joseph whom he believed was having an affair with his wife, Mariamme. She too was later executed while his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus were strangled. 

When Herod died just before Passover in 4 BCE, there was no widespread grief but perhaps a sigh of relief. Herod deemed in his will that his son, Herod Archelaus, should be proclaimed as king of Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea. Rome instead appointed him as ethnarch in part of his father’s territory.

This excellent book is part of Yale’s much praised ‘Jewish Lives’ series. Martin Goodman has reclaimed the ‘kill or be killed’ world of ancient rulers and the unstable societies over which they presided. He comprehensively fills in the historical gaps in the popular understanding of these episodes in Jewish history which are not viewed through rose-tinted glasses but depicted in all its harshness. 

Jewish Chronicle 12 April 2024

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