The story of Herod the Great includes power, romance, intrigue, and murder. If you know much about the New Testament, then Herod isn’t unfamiliar to you. You may remember he ruled when Jesus was born or that he undertook magnificent building projects.

Yet past that, what do you know? Who was he, and what helped mold him into the man he was? If you like a good action plot, then you’ll enjoy diving into the story of Herod the Great. Herod the Great, Matthew 2

The Early Years

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod. ~Matthew 2:1, New International Version

Herod, the second son of Antipater, was born around 72 BC (exact date unknown). His world was not a gentle place, but Roman politics get very complicated very quickly. Let me make this as simple as I can, and the history lovers among us can dig deeper. Here are the highlights for 72 BC:

  • Antipater served as an advisor to the Jewish High Priest.
  • The gladiator Spartacus helped lead a slave uprising against the Romans. This lasted for several months before Rome crushed them. Survivors were crucified along the Appian road between Rome and southeast Italy.
  • Rome battled the Kingdom of Pontus (modern day Turkey), which Rome won.
  • And the Roman government fought rebels in Spain, which the government won.

Herod’s family in Israel

Israel 1st CenturyI love this map I found on, as it shows many of the places of Herod’s life.

Herod was an Idumean (Greek word for Edomite), a people founded by Esau (Genesis 36). Although Jacob and Esau found a measure of peace in their later years, their descendants have a rough history. The Bible records a battle in 1 Samuel 14:47 and another in 2 Samuel 8:11-14. Edom became subject to Israel, who never accepted them as equals.

Antipater supported Rome and maintained a relationship with Julius Caesar,. In return, Julius trusted him with the affairs of Judea. In Herod’s mid-20s, Caesar appointed him governor of Galilee. Herod showed himself useful by collecting taxes and decreasing bandit activity. He also made friends with Sextus Caesar, governor of Syria (and cousin to Julius), who then appointed Herod as general over Samaria.

I’m skipping a lot of intrigue here. At one point, the High Priest called Herod to stand trial for murder. We could also talk about the assassination of Antipater or, a bit later, the death of Herod’s brother. Like most world powers, much went on behind the scenes within the Roman Empire.

Enter Mark Antony

Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s generals, stepped onto the main stage after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. He joined forces with Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) and another general to form a three-man dictatorship. They defeated Caesar’s murderers and divided the government of Rome amongst themselves. Antony gained control over the eastern lands, including Egypt.

It was Mark Antony that named Herod as tetrarch (ruler), wanting Herod to support the Judean ruler. When the ruler’s nephew schemed with the Parthians (Iranians) to overthrow his uncle, Herod ran to Rome. The Roman Senate named him King of the Jews, and he returned to Judea to battle it out with the nephew.

Toward the end of this campaign, Herod thought he would win Jewish support by marrying Mariamne, who had strong ties to the Jews. However, Herod was already married. His solution was to banish this first wife along with their young son. Antony encouraged Syria’s king to assist, and Herod assumed control over Jerusalem.

Years of Peace

Rome’s problems continued, including the turmoil between Antony and Octavian over Cleopatra. But Herod’s life in Jerusalem was relatively quiet. Note that this doesn’t mean quiet as most of us consider it, though.

He busied himself with building projects, drawing the Jews toward newer Hellenistic (Greek) beliefs while not upsetting Rome. For example, in rebuilding the Temple, he followed many of the Jewish ritual laws during construction. Yet, he sided with Rome by adding the image of an eagle over one gate. This not only went against Jewish law, the eagle symbolized Rome’s sovereignty over the Jews. Still, he completed the project without a significant uproar from any of the Jewish factions.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean the Jews liked him. He faced many complaints during his reign, some quite public. Ultimately, the Jews were afraid of him, which kept them in line. 

The End of Herod the Great

Over his life, Herod married ten women and fathered fifteen, executing some because of his paranoia. The fortresses he built provided some comfort, but as he watched political rivals murder one another, he trusted less and less. Rumors of mutiny led him to kill two sons. And, with his sister’s encouragement (maybe using his paranoia against him), he accused his favorite wife of conspiracy and ordered her execution.

Herod became quite ill at the end of his life. Josephus wrote, “A fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly as it augmented his pains inwardly” (Antiquities of the Jews). The pain led him to attempt suicide, which was prevented by a cousin. Concerned that no one would mourn him, he called a large group of Jewish elders to him. He imprisoned them and ordered their slaughter upon his death. Thankfully, his children did not follow his instructions. Herod the Great, Lucado


God did everything necessary to get Herod’s attention. He sent messengers from the East and a message from the Torah. . . . But Herod refused to listen. He chose his puny dynasty over Christ. He died a miserable old man. ~Max Lucado, American pastor and author

Over the years, Herod proved himself benevolent and brutal. During a famine, he distributed food from his supplies, yet you may also remember his order to kill the children in Bethlehem.

We must place him within the Roman culture if we want to better understand him. Those of his time knew him as a shrewd politician, a solid orator, and an imaginative builder. He navigated complex waters between opposing sides without ever forgetting that the strong preyed upon the weak. And the weak usually died.


Now, tell me. Would you like to read more posts like this? If so, who would you like to know more about?

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