You may remember King Herod from the Nativity story. He was the villain of the piece, the violently jealous monarch who was so afraid of losing his power to a new 'King of the Jews', Jesus, that he ordered the slaughter of every boy under the age of 2 years old in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, hoping that one of them was the baby Christ. The truth of that horrifying story from the Bible is questioned by experts nowadays, but what do we know for sure about this vicious tyrant? And what other hideous acts did he commit before his painful death?
Herod’s lavish tomb was discovered by Isreali archeologists in 2007 just 8 miles from Jerusalem, confirming that he did indeed exist. He is believed to have been born in 73BC to one of the King of Judea’s officials and the daughter of an Arab sheik, but was raised as Jewish.
He grew up to be a cunning, ambitious and paranoid man, with an unquenchable thirst to get to the top by any means necessary. He quickly rose through the ranks and became very popular with the Romans, who were particularly dominant in this region at the time after helping them capture Jerusalem.
The Roman Senate appointed Herod as King of Judea in 37BC, but his reign wasn’t secure yet. When civil war broke out, Herod backed the wrong horse by supporting Marc Antony’s bid for control of Rome. Antony’s opponent Augustus won the war, becoming the first Roman Emperor, and summoned Herod to meet in Rhodes.
The King feared for life, and ordered that his wife, the princess Mariamne, be killed if he didn’t return alive as he couldn’t bear the thought of her ever being with another man. He was so obsessed with Mariamne that he banished his first wife and child to be with her.
Using his skill as a politician, he managed to keep his life by winning favour with Augustus, and continued to rule Judea with Roman support and encouragement. But this didn’t stop his relentless paranoia about staying in power.
He was so concerned about his reputation in Rome that he went to great lengths to show his allegiance, often at the expense of his own people. He embarked on an elaborate campaign of building glorious monuments in honour of himself as well as his Roman patrons, using money he gained by imposing monstrously high taxes on his subjects.
Herod also placed a huge golden eagle, a symbol of the Roman Empire, on the gateway to a Jewish temple, worshippers were outraged, and decided to launch an uprising. Herod’s solution? Bloodshed. Soon his people knew that speaking out wasn’t in their best interests, or else they’d face the sharp blades of the king’s secret police.
But it wasn’t just the people who were silenced with violence and death, as Herod had two of his own sons executed after becoming afraid that they were trying to steal the throne from him. He also became convinced that his beloved wife Mariamne was being unfaithful and in a jealous rage planned to have her killed. When she found out she was so upset that she stopped sleeping with him, which Herod took as proof of her extra-marital activities and put her on trial for adultery. He eventually calmed down, and renewed his affection for Mariamne, but only after he’d executed her.
Later, he’d also have Mariamne’s parents executed for suggesting that he was unfit to rule Judea, and as well as 2 of her brothers on suspicion of plotting against him. Many of his wives after Mariamne would find a similar fate, as would another son. Rome knew about his brutal methods but weren’t particularly bothered. As long as he kept the rebellious Israelites in check they didn’t care.
However, Emperor Augustus is believed to have said that ‘It is better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children.’
In one of the more bizarre rumours, a young girl who Herod desired is believed to have killed herself to avoid marrying him. But ever persistent, Herod allegedly had her corpse preserved in honey for 7 years and embalmed so he could have intercourse with her!
After ruling for 37 years, Herod the Great died a painful death from gangrene and chronic kidney disease at a ripe old age of 70.