Meet the Herods

by frankbeswick

The Herod dynasty were efficient rulers, but their grip on power was based upon ruthlessness.

The name Herod resonates through religious history: killer of innocent babies, murderer of John the Baptist, the king who mocked Christ, the ruler who sent Paul to his trial in Rome. Not much positive seems attached to the name. Yet Herod is a surname, and there were seven kings from the Herod dynasty ruling at various times in Palestine and its environs, and some of their works can still be seen, notably the great fortress of the Herodium, which has been excavated to some degree by archaeologists.

The origins of the dynasty

The Herods descend from Antipater, an Idumaean nobleman who took part in the civil discord that preceded the Roman annexation of Palestine.The Idumaeans descended from the Edomites, a tribe from south of the Dead Sea often at odds with the Hebrews, until they were annexed and forced to convert by the Jewish king, John Hyrcanus, in the second century BC.  Antipater ingratiated himself with the Roman conquerors and managed to get on the right side of Julius Caesar by rescuing him when he was in trouble in Egypt. Eventually after much machination Antipater managed to side with Octavian [Augustus] , who became emperor and rewarded Antipater with important office in the new Roman regime. Yet despite his being officially Jewish by religion, many Jews regarded him and his family as not true Jews, and this made them unpopular with the more extreme elements in the country.

In 43 BC Antipater died, leaving sons, one of whom was Herod. Herod had already established a reputation for ruthlessly dealing with bandits in Galilee, killing Hezekiah the Bandit Chief, and so in 37 the Romans decided that as the country was best ruled by a client king,  in Herod they had their man. He was elevated to the title of ethnarch, ruler of the people under Rome, and eventually became known as Herod the Great, ruling until 4 BC. 

We must be clear that Herod was competent-very. He managed the kingdom well for the Romans and secured its boundaries against the Arabs who were disposed to raid when they could get away with it. He also had to manage relationships with Persia, and not annoying that large, aggressive kingdom involved diplomatic skill, which he seemed to exercise. 

Great works of building began in his reign. The fortress of the Herodium was constructed near Bethlehem as an escape for Herod if there was trouble.  The Jerusalem temple was refurbished to much greater grandeur than it had previously had, and for his pagan subjects he erected temples, which annoyed the Jews enormously, as it indicated a pragmatic attitude to religion in contrast to their zealous fervour. 

Yet the stress of being constantly under threat of assassination by fanatics seemed to have undermined his mental health, and he became increasingly paranoid. When Antipater, one of his charming sons falsely accused his own brothers, Aristobulus and Alexander, of plotting against Herod he had them and their mother, Mariamne,  beheaded. Later when the falseness of the accusations surfaced he beheaded Antipater. The emperor Augustus, himself no paragon of virtue, is reputed to have said that he would rather be Herod's dog then his son.  

Yet it is for an incident late in his reign that he is best known. It is said in Matthew's Gospel that [in 6BC probably] Iranian Magi arrived asking to see the newborn king of the Jews. Herod knew that the birth  was not in his family. If there is any truth in this story, the diplomats were not humble seekers after truth, but Iranians on a political mission to undermine Rome. Herod would have known to respect the Iranian [Persian] diplomats, as failure to do so would have meant thousands of battle hardened Persians invading. He bit his tongue, feigned innocence and then had the children in David's town of Bethlehem murdered. But one family escaped to Egypt, and this was to be the incident that created his memory, the only fact that many know of him. 


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The Makers and Teachers of Judaism From the Fall of Jerusalem to the Death of Herod the Great

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Archelaus and Antipas

Herod the Great died in 4BC, and Rome split the kingdom between three of his sons. Archelaus received Judaea and Samaria with the title of ethnarch, whereas Antipas took Galilee, with the title of tetrarch, a rank lower than ethnarch.  Philip took territories to the north of Palestine and plays no part in the gospel stories. Another son, also Philip, by a different wife, lived in Rome and plays a minor role 

Archelaus proved as ruthless as his father and dealt with dissent in the same way as he did. We cannot say that he was always in the wrong, as an incident early in his reign saw emissaries sent by Herod to Jewish protestors murdered by worshippers who then continued with their sacrifices as if nothing had happened. Ruthless retribution followed, but Rome sided with him and he survived. Yet by 6 AD Augustus had had reservations about Herod's murderous character and deposed him, sending him as an exile to Gaul, where he fades from history,his office being taken by a Roman prefect. His only role in the gospel story is to explain why Joseph and Mary settled in Nazareth. On return from Egypt they would have been expected to live with Joseph's family, who were from Bethlehem [the family lands of the house of David] but Joseph decided that Mary's village of Nazareth was the safer option, the family settled there, as he did not want to live under Archelaus. 

Antipas seems to have avoided trouble  until he stole his brother's wife. This was after a visit to Rome, where he stayed with Philip and left with Herodias. This displeased John the Baptist and Herod's existing wife,Phaesalis,  a princess of the Nabataean Arabs, who then fled back to her father, the Nabataean king, Aretas. Already in dispute with Herod over land in Perea, he began to raid in retaliation. 

Herod's other trouble was with John the Baptist. The stern, uncompromising desert prophet roundly condemned Herod for adultery and incest [Herodias was his niece.] John was imprisoned, but not killed. However, the female of the species is more deadly than the male, and the story told by the gospel is that Herodias arranged her daughter, traditionally Salome, to dance for Herod, and in return he promised her what she wanted. Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Just what every girl wants, I suppose. Herod complied and John was beheaded.

But the tetrarch seemed nervous of Jesus. The gospels tell us that he thought that John had risen from the grave as Jesus, but on the whole he seems to have done nothing to impede Jesus' ministry. Luke tells us that some Pharisees told Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him, but Jesus seemed unphased. One suspects that Herod was seeing if Jesus would just run away, but he didn't.    

Antipas appears in the trial of Jesus. Some scholars think that Antipas' role in the trial is legendary and lacks historical justification However it seems likely that Herod would have been in Jerusalem for the festival and that he would stay with Pilate in the security of the Roman garrison. Pilate was simply passing the buck to Herod to get himself off a political hook, but Herod sent it back

Antipas lasted until 39 when his nephew Herod Agrippa received the lands of his uncle Philip, gifted by the emperor Caligula. Antipas thought that they should be his and complained to Caligula, only to find that his cunning nephew knew Caligula as a friend and had a dossier accusing Antipas of plotting insurrection. When Caligula learned that Herod had stockpiled weapons for 70000 troops his fears were stoked and he deposed Antipas, conficating his money and sending him to Gaul. Herodias went with him,   


Herod Antipas: A Contemporary of Jesus Christ

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The successors

Herod of Chalcis, known as Herod V, a small kingdom near the Syrian border, ruled from 48-53, but he plays no part in the Bible story and seems not to have impeded Christians in any way. He was a son of the executed  Aristobulus. On his death his lands were awarded to Herod Agrippa the Second.  

Herod Agrippa the First, brother of Herod Chalcis, reigned as tetrarch from 41-44, after a brief period in which Antipas' domains were ruled by the Roman prefect. He had a chequered history, having often been short of cash when living in Egypt and Rome. While in Rome he befriended Caligula, but in 36 he was overheard saying that he wanted the emperor Tiberius to die so that Caligula could take over. This got him imprisoned, but next year when Caligula did inherit the throne Agrippa was freed and made king. 

His rule was marred by persecution of Christians. Through the use of the title king we know that it was he who executed the apostle, James the brother of John, the first apostle to be martyred. He also arrested Peter, who miraculously escaped from prison before trial and certain execution [Acts 13.]

His end is variously reported as sudden. Both Josephus and Acts of the Apostles recount a tale that on a diplomatic mission to pagan Sidon he was hailed as a god, and promptly fell ill. Acts says  an angel struck him with worms in the stomach, while Josephus speaks of a sudden pain in his entrails. Just after being declared a god he had seen a crow perched above him, in Josephus' account, and he knew that it was an omen of doom. Three days later he was dead. In general this Herod is liked by Jews, but disliked by Christians. 

Agrippa's son Agrippa the Second was too young to take the throne, so his role was taken by the prefect until 48 A.D. He was then given his father's lands, but the additional right to superintend the Jerusalem temple and appoint high priests, a role he exercised with vigour, chopping and changing at will. Only once does this Herod appear in the Bible. He and his sister Berenice tried St Paul [Acts 26]  Agrippa, who seems not to have hated Christians, wanted to free Paul, but Paul, as a Roman citizen, had appealed to Rome, so the law said to Rome he must go.Agrippa's conduct at the hearing seems humane, and he is a cut above his less desirable relatives. 

Agrippa stayed in office until the Jewish revolt drove him out. He fought loyaly alongside the Roman generals Vespasian and his son Titus, and was wounded at the siege of Gamla, at the foot of the Golan heights. His kingdom lost, he and Berenice went to Rome, where he was rewarded with the rank of Praetor and some land. His sisters, Mariamne and Salome, fade from history.

The date of Agrippa's death is disputed. Some say that it was AD 100, but others think 93-94. But he died childless, the last prince of the house of Herod, he had only sisters, and so the line and name became extinct. 



The Herod family were not any worse than many ancient kings and they were generally competent. They have perhaps been unlucky to have ruled at a time and place where something happened beyond their understanding. Competent rulers, they were overshadowed in history's eyes by the arrival of Christ. If it were not for Christ they might stand higher in people's eyes, but then again, how many would have even heard of them. Their lasting name has come at a price. 



Thumbnail photograph above shows the ruins of the Herodium. Photo courtesy of Nyiragongo. 

Updated: 12/02/2014, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Guest on 12/22/2014

frankbeswick, That's any interesting question: "Did any ancient rulers behave well?"
I have an answer for that with an article I've delayed posting here.
In the meantime, it seems to me that the quotation from "Julius Caesar" gives good guidance in tempering views of heroes, mad men, and all the rest of humanity.
Backbiting seems to be a favorite pastime for those who gain the upper hand and who perhaps exaggerate to make a point or judge far more harshly than they would ever expect in return. My guidance for sifting through fact and fantasy comes from John 8:7, allowing for those who allegedly have never missed the mark to cast the first stone.

frankbeswick on 12/22/2014

I think that the Herods' story was written by their enemies, and that's not a recipe for fairness. But on the other hand, their behaviour was not always up to high standards of morality. Did any ancient rulers behave well?

Guest on 12/22/2014

frankbeswick, The view of the Herods which history has bequeathed to subsequent generations was explained eloquently by William Shakespeare by way of Marc Antony's pithy eulogy for Julius Caesar:
"The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones." ("Julius Caesar," Act 3, scene 2)

VioletteRose on 12/04/2014

I didn't know about the Herods before, learnt something new here.

frankbeswick on 12/03/2014

They show that efficiency and competence as rulers should not be confused with moral worth.

cmoneyspinner on 12/03/2014

I so very much wanted to do an article on the Herods, but kept putting it on a back burner. I'm glad you did one! These guys have significant historical import. The roles they played in the history of humanity should be remembered so as not to be repeated!

frankbeswick on 12/02/2014

The Herods liked to ensure their own survival, but in the end their dynasty failed.

WriterArtist on 12/02/2014

Our history is full of barbaric events, perhaps it was essential for the survival. This must be true for Herods dynasty too.

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