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The Roman Rule and Herod the Great

Roman Palestine
1011 Lecture 5
Original Date
June 21, 2010

Note: Please use also the tutorials appended to this lecture. See the following chart:



Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the Conquest of Judea

The Roman politician Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BCE), better known as Pompey, was one of the greatest generals of his age. In the seventies, he had pacified Hispania, and on his return to Italy, he had put an end to the slave revolt led by Spartacus. In 67, the Senate had ordered him to make an end to the menace of the pirates of Cilicia (the south of modern Turkey): in order to do this, he was given an extraordinary command that was to last three years. In three months, Pompey forced the pirates to surrender, and he decided to use the remaining thirty-three months to pacify the eastern Mediterranean.

There were several wars in which he could intervene. The kingdoms of Pontus (northern Turkey) and Armenia had joined forces against the Romans; and although the Roman commander Lucullus had been successful, he had not brought the war to an end. On Crete and in Syria, there was no recognized authority. And the Jewish queen Alexandra-Salome had died, after which their sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus had started a bloody civil war, which was ruining Judaea. To an ambitious man like Pompey, the situation offered opportunities he could not afford to miss. He invaded and annexed cin 66, went on to attack the Armenians, added several hitherto unknown Caucasian tribes to his battle roll of victories (65), almost reached the shores of the Caspian Sea, and then turned his attention to Syria, which he annexed in 64. Meanwhile, the conflict between the two Jewish princes had escalated. The Pharisees sided with Hyrcanus, the Sadducees with Aristobulus. During the festival of Passover of 63, Hyrcanus and his ally, the Arabian sheik Aretas of Petra, besieged Aristobulus and the Sadducees in the Temple of Jerusalem. However, Aristobulus managed to send an envoy to Pompey’s representative in Syria, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus. The Jewish leader promised 8,000 kg of silver, an offer that Aemilius could not refuse: he immediately ordered Aretas to leave. When Pompey arrived on the scene, he received an even larger present: Aristobulus sent him a golden vine of no less than 800 kg, which the Roman commander forwarded to the temple of Jupiter in Rome.

Having gained Pompey’s favor, Aristobulus was safe from his brother. Unfortunately, he had made a mistake. He sent an envoy to Pompey, asking him to punish Aemilius, who -according to Aristobulus- had extorted from him, 8,000 kg of silver. Pompey decided to come to Jerusalem to see for himself what was going on; there, he sided with Hyrcanus and had Aristobulus arrested.

Hyrcanus’ followers, the Pharisees, allowed Pompey to enter the lower town of Jerusalem, but Aristobulus’ adherents, the Sadducees, still occupied the Temple. In the west, there was a bridge between the Temple and the city, but this had been destroyed; in the south and east, there were deep valleys.

Therefore, Pompey decided to attack from the north. His soldiers could be seen constructing a large dam; they attacked on every day, except for the Sabbath. When the dam was completed, siege towers were rolled towards the wall of the Temple.

Catapults kept up a continuous pressure by hurling heavy stones; a battering ram broke the wall, and Pompey’s soldiers entered the Temple terrace, where they started to kill the defenders. Many Jewish soldiers committed suicide, because they did want to see the profanation of the sanctuary (July 63).

When the Romans controlled the Temple, Pompey and his officers entered the Holy of Holiest – according to the Jews a blasphemous act, because only the high priest was allowed to enter this room. The conqueror saw the Menorah, the treasury and all sacred vessels. His soldiers seem to have sacrificed to their standards (Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 6.1-6). Next day, he ordered the cleansing of the Temple, and he appointed Hyrcanus as high priest.

Meanwhile, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus attacked Aretas of Petra, but allowed himself to be bribed for another 6,000 kg of silver. Soon afterwards, he was killed. At that moment, Pompey had already left Judea, and after pacifying Crete, he returned to Rome, where he had become the most influential politician of his age. He took many prisoners with him, who were later released and settled in the large section of Rome beyond the river Tiber (Philo of Alexandria, Embassy to Caligula 155).

Large parts of the Jewish kingdom-essentially the most hellenized regions- were annexed by the Romans. From now on, Judea and Galilee were just one of Rome’s client kingdoms in the east.

Hyrcanus was high priest and received the title ethnarch (‘national leader’). His position was safe, although Aristobulus tried to come back from Rome in 57-55 BCE. In 49, however, there appeared a dark cloud on the horizon: a civil war broke out in the Roman Empire. Pompey was defeated by Julius Caesar, who pursued his enemy to the East. Caesar chose to co-operate with Hyrcanus, but appointed the latter’s courtier Antipater epitropos (‘regent’). When war broke out with the Parthians, Hyrcanus was taken prisoner (40 BCE). Antipater’s son Herod managed to bring him home, but Hyrcanus was no longer high priest and Herod, who became king, had him executed in 31 BCE.

In this conflict, the Roman general Pompey intervened in Hyrcanus’ favor. Having favored the winning side in the conflict, Antipater’s star rose, especially since he cooperated with the Romans as much as possible. In the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, Hyrcanus and Antipater sided with the latter, for which especially the courtier was rewarded: in 47, he was appointed epitropos (‘regent’) and received the Roman citizenship.

It was obvious that Antipater was the real power behind Hyrcanus’ throne. He managed to secure the appointment of his young son Herod to the important task of governor of Galilee. The boy, who was only sixteen years old, launched a small crusade against bandits, which made him very popular with the populace and impopular with the Sanhedrin.

On March 15, 44 BCE, Caesar was murdered. The new leaders in Rome were Caesar’s nephew Octavian and Caesar’s powerful second-in-command Mark Antony. They announced that they would punish Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, who fled to the East. Cassius ordered all provinces and principalities to pay money for their struggle against Octavian and Mark Antony, and Judaea had to pay some 15,000 kg of silver. Antipater and his sons had to take harsh measures to get the money, and in the ensuing troubles, Antipater was killed. With Roman help, Herod killed his father’s murderer.

In 43, Hyrcanus’ nephew Antigonus tried to obtain the throne. Herod defeated him, and secured the continuity of the line of Hyrcanus by marrying his daughter Mariamme. Of course, the young man was not blind to the fact that this marriage greatly enhanced his own claim to the throne.

Meanwhile, Octavian and Mark Antony had defeated Brutus and Cassius (at Philippi, in 42). Herod managed to convince Mark Antony, who made a tour through the eastern provinces that had supported Caesar’s murderers, that his father had been forced to support their side. The Roman leader was convinced, and awarded Herod with the title of tetrarch of Galilee, a title that was commonly used for the leaders of parts of vassal kingdoms. (Herod’s brother Phasael was to be tetrarch of Jerusalem; Hyrcanus remained the Jewish national leader in name only.)

This appointment caused a lot of resentment among the Jews. After all, Herod was not a Jew. He was the son of a man from Idumea; and although Antipater had been a pious man who had worshipped the Jewish God sincerely, the Jews had always looked down upon the Idumeans as racially impure. Worse, Herod had an Arabian mother, and it was commonly held that one could only be a Jew when one was born from a Jewish mother. When war broke out between the Romans and the Parthians (in Iran and Mesopotamia), the Jewish populace joined the latter. In 40, Hyrcanus was taken prisoner and brought to the Parthian capital Babylon; Antigonus became king in his place; Phasael committed suicide.

Herod managed to escape and went to Rome, where he persuaded Octavian and the Senate to order Mark Antony to restore him. And so it happened. After Mark Antony and his lieutenants had driven away the Parthians, Herod was brought back to Jerusalem by two legions, VI Ferrata (whose men had already fought in Gaul and the civil wars) and another legion, perhaps III Gallica (37 BCE). Antigonus was defeated and after he had besieged and captured Jerusalem, and had defeated the last opposition, Herod could start his reign as sole ruler of Judaea. He assumed the title of basileus, the highest possible title.

Herod’s reign

Herod’s monarchy was based on foreign military and political support; the start of his reign had been marked by bloodshed. His first aim was to establish his rule on a more solid base. Almost immediately, he sent envoys to the Parthian king to get Hyrcanus back from Babylon. The Parthian king was happy to let the old man go, because he was becoming dangerously popular among the Jews living in Babylonia. Although Hyrcanus was unfit to become high priest again, Herod kept his father-in-law in high esteem. The support of the old monarch gave an appearance of legality to his own rule.

The new king started an extensive building program: Jews could take pride in the new walls of Jerusalem and the citadel which guarded its Temple. (This fortress was called Antonia, in order to please Herod’s patron Mark Antony.)

Coins were minted in his own name and showed an incense burner on a tripod, intended to signify Herod’s care for the orthodox Jewish cult practices. These coins had a Greek legend -Hèrôdou Basileôs- which indicates that Herod considered his standing abroad.

And the new king continued to please the Romans, to make sure that they would continue their support. He sent lavish presents to their representative in the East, Mark Antony, and to his mistress, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

These gifts almost were Herod’s undoing. The relations between on the one hand Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the East and on the other hand Octavian and the Senate in the West became strained, and civil war broke out in 31. It did not last very long: in August, the western leader defeated the eastern leader, who fled to Alexandria. For the first time in his life, Herod had aligned himself with a looser.

He managed to solve this problem, however. First, he had Hyrcanus executed, making sure that no one else could claim his throne. Then, he sailed to the island of Rhodes, where he met Octavian. In a brilliant speech, Herod boasted of his loyalty to Mark Antony, and promised the same to the new master of the Roman Empire. Octavian was impressed by the man’s audacity, confirmed Herod’s monarchy, and even added the coast of Judaea and Samaria to his realm. Actually, Octavian did not have much choice: his opponents were still alive, and if he were to pursue them to Egypt, Herod could be a useful ally. As it turned out, Mark Antony and Cleopatra preferred death to surrender, and Octavian became the only ruler in the Roman world. Under the name Augustus, he became the first emperor. He rewarded his ally with new possessions: Jericho and Gaza, which had been independent.

He continued his building policy to win the hearts of his subjects. (A severe earthquake in 31 BCE had destroyed many houses, killing thousands of people.) In Jerusalem, the king built a new market, an amphitheater, a theater, a new building where the Sanhedrin could convene, a new royal palace, and last but not least, in 20 BCE he started to rebuild the Temple. And there were other cities where he ordered new buildings to be placed: Jericho and Samaria are examples. New fortresses served the security of both the Jews and their king: Herodion, Machaereus and Masada are among them. 

But Herod’s crowning achievement was a splendid new port, called Caesarea in honor of the emperor (the harbor was called Sebastos, the Greek translation of ‘Augustus’). This magnificent and opulent city, which was dedicated in 9 BCE, was build to rival Alexandria in the land trade to Arabia, from where spices, perfume and incense were imported. It was not an oriental town like Jerusalem; it was laid out on a Greek grid plan, with a market, an aqueduct, government offices, baths, villas, a circus, and pagan temples. (The most important of these was the temple where the emperor was worshipped; it commanded the port.) The port was a masterpiece of engineering: its piers were made from hydraulic concrete (which hardens underwater) and protected by unique wave-breaking structures.

Although Herod was a dependent client-king, he had a foreign policy of his own. He had already defeated the Arabs from Petra in 31, and repeated this in 9 BCE. The Romans did not like this independent behavior, but on the whole, they seem to have been very content with their king of Judaea. After all, he sent auxiliaries when they decided to send an army to the mysterious incense country (modern Yemen; 25 BCE). In 23, Iturea and the Golan heights were added to Herod’s realms, and in 20 several other districts.

With building projects, the expansion of his territories, the establishment of a sound bureaucracy, and the development of economic resources, he did much for his country, at least on a material level. The standing of his country -foreign and at home- was certainly enhanced. However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked Herod’s Greek taste – a taste he showed not only in his building projects, but also in several transgressions of the Mosaic Law.

The orthodox were not to only ones who came to hate the new king. The Sadducees hated him because he had terminated the rule of the old royal house to which many of them were related; their own influence in the Sanhedrin was curtailed. The Pharisees despised any ruler who despised the Law. And probably all his subjects resented his excessive taxation. According to Flavius Josephus, there were two taxes in kind at annual rates equivalent to 10.7% and 8.6%, which is extremely high in any pre-industrial society (Jewish Antiquities 14.202-206). It comes as no surprise that Herod sometimes had to revert to violence, employing mercenaries and a secret police to enforce order.

On moments like that, it was clear to anyone that Herod was not a Jewish but a Roman king. He had become the ruler of the Jews with Roman help and he boasted to be philokaisar (‘the emperor’s friend’), entertaining Agrippa, Augustus’ right-hand man. On top of the gate of the new Temple, a golden eagle was erected, a symbol of Roman power in the heart of the holy city resented by all pious believers. Worse, Augustus ordered and paid the priests of the Temple to sacrifice twice a day on behalf of himself, the Roman senate and people. The Jewish people started to believe rumors that their pagan ruler had violated Jewish tombs, stealing golden objects from the tomb of David and Solomon.

Herod concluded ten marriages, all for political purposes.  They were probably all unhappy. His wives were: 

  1. Doris, from an unknown family in Jerusalem: married c.47, sent away 37; recalled 14, sent away 7/6. She was the mother of Antipater, who was executed in 4.
  2. The Hasmonaean princess Mariamme I: married 37, executed in 29/28. According to Flavius Josephus, Herod was passionately devoted to this woman, but she hated him just as passionately.  Five children: Alexander, Aristobulus, a nameless son, Salampsio and Cyprus. 
  3. An unknown niece: married 37. No children. 
  4. An unknown cousin: married c.34/33. No children.
  5. The daughter of a Jerusalem priest named Simon, Mariamme II: married 29/28, divorced 7/6. They had a son named Herod. 
  6. A Samarian woman named Malthace: married 28, died 5/4. Their children were Antipas, Archelaus and Olympias. 
  7. A Jerusalem woman named Cleopatra: married 28. They had two sons named, Herod and Philip. 
  8. Pallas: married 16. They had a son named Phasael. 
  9. Phaedra: married 16.  They had a daughter named Roxane. 
  10. Elpis: married 16. They had a daughter named Salome.

Herod’s reign ended in terror. The monastery at Qumran, the home of the Essenes, suffered a violent and deliberate destruction by fire in 8 BCE, for which Herod may have been responsible. When the king fell ill, two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle from the entrance of the Temple: after all, according to the Ten Commandments, it was a sin to make idols. The teachers and the pupils were burned alive. Some Jewish scholars had discovered that seventy-six generations had passed since the Creation, and there was a well-known prophecy that the Messiah was to deliver Israel from its foreign rulers in the seventy-seventh generation. The story about the slaughter of infants of Bethlehem in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is not known from other sources, but it would have been totally in character for the later Herod to commit such a terrible act.

A horrible disease (probably a cancer-like affection called Fournier’s gangrene) made acute the problem of Herod’s succession, and the result was factional strife in his family. Shortly before his death, Herod decided against his sons Aristobulus and Antipater, who were executed in 7 and 4 BCE, causing the emperor Augustus to joke that it was preferable to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios) – a very insulting remark to any Jew.

However, the emperor confirmed Herod’s last will. After his death in 4 BCE, the kingdom was divided among his sons. Herod Antipas was to rule Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch; Philip was to be tetrarch of the Golan heights in the north-east; and Archelaus became the ethnarch (‘national leader’) of Samaria and Judaea. Herod was buried in one of the fortresses he had build, Herodion. Few will have wept.