Exploring the Reign of King Herod the Great

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Examine the complex rule of King Herod, from his use of architecture as a manifestation and extension of power, to his “horrid” demise that many suggest was well-deserved after a notoriously cruel reign. Photo: Hulton-Archive/Getty Images.

King Herod the Great ruled Judea from 37 B.C.E. until his death in 4 B.C.E. Outside of Judea, the Greeks and Romans found his charm (and his extravagant benefactions) irresistible. He generously endowed the Greek Olympic Games, sponsored building projects in prestigious cities such as Athens and Rhodes, and erected public buildings, palaces, and even entire cities, some of which still astonish visitors.

At home, however, King Herod was despised for his ruthless oppression and cruelty. His many endeavors came at a considerable cost to his Jewish subjects through heavy taxes. He executed his wife, Miriamme, because he suspected her of adultery. And he may be most well-known by biblical scholars for his order to kill all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus.

A new special collection from Biblical Archaeology Review brings together a hand-picked selection of articles recounting the impact of King Herod’s dominion over ancient Mediterranean lands. Read about Herod the man, the cruelty that defined his rule, and learn about the archaeological explorations of his buildings, and the Roman-inspired style that came to be known as “Herodian.”

Even with his extensive fame (or infamy), little is known about Herod’s appearance. In two mosaics from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Herod appears bearded and wearing a military costume with a blue cloak and a white diadem, framed by a nimbus (a circle of light around his head). This kind of portrait is typical in early Christian art, but it’s important to remember that these depictions of Herod were created several hundred years after his death, since Jewish laws of the time prohibited depictions of living beings.

Herod followed this law in an effort to appease his Jewish subjects, and as a result, there is no indication of any portrait of King Herod in Judea. To determine if any contemporary portraits of Herod exist, we have to leave his Judean kingdom. In the Greco-Roman world it was traditional to honor kings and benefactors with statues. In Athens, Kos, and the Syrian sanctuary of Sia, the inscribed bases of statues erected to acknowledge Herod are well preserved. Two statues of the king were placed on the Acropolis, and a third on the Agora. But do these depict the real Herod? It is quite possible that these statues were pre-existing and the bases were re-inscribed for him. In “Searching for Portraits of King Herod,” Ralf Krumeich and Achim Lichtenberger attempt to discover what can be known about Herod’s appearance from the scant evidence that remains.
Conquering the Sea
Photo: Courtesy of the Promontory Palace Excavations.

Architecture isn’t just about aesthetics; and for Herod it was a manifestation of power, as well as a means of extending and protecting that power. In “Building Power,” Kenneth G. Holum explores the cultural and political importance of Caesarea’s harbor, 30 miles north of modern day Tel Aviv. The ancient harbor is notable for the remarkable engineering required to build two massive breakwaters that extended 500 yards into the Mediterranean Sea. At the time of its construction, however, the area was prized for the public buildings that included a theater, hippodrome, temple, and “Herod’s praetorium,” where the Apostle Paul stood to face judgement from the Roman Governor Festus.

An Unpleasant Death

Herod’s rule came to an end in 4 B.C.E. when he died at the age of 70. Physicians have long debated the cause of his death, but there is no disagreement that his demise was painful. In “Herod’s Horrid Death,” Nikos Kokkinos reviews historical texts and modern medical literature to diagnose the illness that led to the end of Herod’s life and reign.

We know the king’s symptoms in some detail from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, based on the firsthand account of Herod’s daily companion Nicolaus of Damascus. In part, the text describes “an ulceration of the intestines with particularly terrible pains in the colon.”

Additionally, “there was a malignancy in the abdominal area, as well as a putrefaction in the private member which was creating worms.” Are these descriptions reliable? Are they accurate enough to form a clinical opinion of the cause of death? One thing is almost assuredly certain: Herod, reviled king of Israel, was horribly troubled in both body and mind when he finally met his end.

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