Saturday, 4 June 2016

Herod The Great

Herod of Tipton
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi, (Matt. 2:16).
Most folk know King Herod (74BC - 4BC) through a few passages in the bible, and that is all. Glorious ignorance and brevity- great men deserve better. And according to that source, he cruelly put to death all the Bethlehem infants under 2 years to forestall a future rival king. The only known mention of the atrocity is a few scant verses in Mathew's gospel (2:16-18). Luke, Mark and John did not deem the event worthy of note to formulate comment. Luckily we have an independent source for Herod's life and deeds: Josephus, a Jewish writer under the protection of the Romans, wrote copiously about this intriguing Jewish King in the latter half of the first century AD. 

Actually, Herod was an Idumaean and therefore an Arab by birth. He was 'Jewish' due to the conquest of Idumaea during a Jewish expansionary phase under the Hasmonean dynasty (140BC - 63BC). King of Judea he may have been but many of his subjects considered him a foreign usurper placed upon the throne by hated Roman power. This sentiment was particularly strong amongst the priestly elite. And it was widely suspected that Herod's commitment to strict Judaism was lack lustre at best. 

Josephus was no fan of Herod and described in lurid detail Herod's cruelty (Antiquities of the Jews). King Herod was certainly a cruel man if challenged and dealt with rebellion, or even dissension, with ruthless efficiency. During his reign he had three sons and a wife put to death as well as other close relatives. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, had this to say about Herod: "I would rather be his pig than his son." The saying in Greek is more elegant than the English version due to the similar sounding words for 'pig' and 'son'.

Nowhere in Josephus' writing is any mention of the 'slaughter of the innocents'. If this had taken place Josephus would have mentioned it. The biblical story is fiction. It was placed there to draw parallels between the Patriarch of the Old Testament, Moses and the life of Jesus. Jewish literature is resplendent with such examples. 

At the time of Herod's reign, Judea was a client kingdom of Rome. Herod owed his position and continued reign as a consequence of Roman power. The Romans were a most practical of people and although they had an extensive Empire they did not always annex foreign territory, although within their military capability to do so. This policy was notable on the fringes of the Empire. Sometimes it was expedient for the Romans to rule through client kings. Although nominally free, the rulers had certain obligations and were effectively Roman vassals. They were more or less free to pursue an independent domestic policy unless catastrophic internal disorder intervened. The wise ruler maintained internal order and appeased the Romans. Herod was painfully aware of the brutal reality for his family and his people if he failed. Foreign policy was determined by the Romans. In addition, the client king had to supply the Romans with tribute, often a mixture of goods and hard currency. In return, the client had a degree of political freedom and enjoyed Roman military protection. However, if the Emperor beckoned the king would have to supply troops for Roman campaigns. For the Romans, client kingdoms represented imperialism on the cheap. The Romans received tribute but did not have the burden and cost of supplying garrison troops or maintaining order. Smart buggers them Romans. To be a successful Roman client, Herod had to maintain internal order. This was not easy in the Judea of the period. The land was awash with religious zealots and warring factions. There was an expectation that the Jewish god was about to intervene and to cleanse the land of the unjust and rule the known world through the Jewish people. Charismatic leaders and preachers sprang up in the land like nettles and whipped the people into a frenzy of ecstatic welts. Herod had a fine balancing act to perform if he wanted to maintain peace and prevent Roman intervention. Often his cruelty was not arbitrary, but the act of sound policy. But not always, sometimes Herod acted in pure irrational paranoia and spite. This is the Herod of biblical description.  

Nasty, paranoid and vicious, Herod was not a man you would want to cross, even when he was having a good day (and sober). Nonetheless, a smart and politically canny man for all his foibles and faults. On balance, Herod, was an able ruler of Judea; he had to be. The Romans certainly thought so and Herod remained in power for 37 years until his death in 4BC. And I haven't touched upon the great building projects he initiated which enriched his nation and provided much needed employment for his people. 

Does Herod deserve to be considered as belonging to the pantheon of 'Great Men'? I think so, although my viewpoint is controversial. Herod's early life was hard- go read about it. Astute Romans recognised his talents when he was a young man. He negotiated the turbulent politics of the Roman civil wars with raw/rare talent and came out on top. He out-smarted the indomitable ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra and let's face it, Cleopatra was no political or intellectual slouch herself. Into this mix we have to add the strangest people in antiquity; the Jews. Strange in their fanatical observance to their deity; and what an odd and demanding deity Yahweh was/is. The Jews deserve to be called a people drenched in their love and devotion to a god which rarely returns the complement. Herod ruled a turbulent folk in turbulent times; maintained internal order and kept his Roman masters satisfied for his reign of 37 years. No mean feat. This is why, in my book, he deserves the title, 'The Great'. Great men are not born, they are forged in the white heat of circumstance. Tranquil times make great men, not at all. And this is why I'm happy with the title: 'Herod the Great'.


Massacre of the innocents: Dat one ugly baby


  1. In fact, although the story of the Magi and the flight to Egypt are conflated with the other nativity tale, any reading of this version shows that it is a story of a child Jesus, not a newborn. The Magi mention that they saw 'the star' two years earlier, hence the fiction of Herod ordering the death of all children under two years old - a fate which John the Baptist (6 months older than Jesus, allegedly) survived! Since Herod died in 4 BCE this means Jesus was born in about 6 BCE in this version. In the other version Jesus was born between 6 and 12 CE when Cyrenius was governor. These must both be true of course because they are in the Bible!

    1. I've heard the argument that the 'slaughter of the innocents' could be a historical event. This is based on the supposition that the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago had a small population and that the number of infants slaughtered would have been less than 20 and therefore not worthy of reporting by Josephus. Desperate pleading by those who insist on the historical accuracy of the bible.