Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris


What had been the result of the attempt of Alexander Janneus to force Judaism upon Idumea? It had begun by giving the Idumean Antipater, from the intimate relations created, the opportunity to make Hyrcanus his puppet, and ended by placing the Jewish crown upon the head of Herod, who was absolutely un-Jewish in ancestry and sympathies, and really a pagan at heart. Herod, in fact, delivered Judea to Rome that he might be made its vassal king.

He had married Mariamne, the beautiful grand daughter of the weak Hyrcanus—a stroke of policy, to be allied in marriage to Judah's royal family.

Herod as Man.

Undoubtedly he was a man of power of a sort, born to command; but there was no soft spot in his nature. He had all the instincts of a tyrant, and neither scruple nor pity deterred him from carrying out his passionate will and his insatiable ambition. He inherited all his father's cunning, allied with fine judgment and untiring energy. Though of undoubted bravery, he knew how to fawn before those in power.

The first dozen years of his reign were marked by storm and conflict with enemies both without and within. The feelings of the Jews can be imagined in having this alien thrust upon them by all-powerful Rome and whose first act was to slay their patriots and confiscate their property. Rebellion was put down with a merciless hand. Step by step he carried out his relentless purpose and put to death all the survivors of the royal line, the flower of the Jewish nobility, and likewise every member (except Shemaiah and Abtalion) of the Sanhedrin that had some years before censured one of his misdeeds.

Very unwillingly he appointed his wife's brother as High Priest. It was a fatal distinction for the young man, for the people too openly expressed their regard for this scion of the Hasmonean line. What was the consequence? One day when refreshing himself in the bath, he was held under the water till life was extinct. It was called an accident! Alexandra, his mother, a hard woman, appealed to Rome through Cleopatra to punish this murder. Herod was summoned to answer for his conduct before Antony, but his plausible manner aided by bribery won his acquittal. The tyrant marked his return by the execution of another brother-in-law, to whom he had entrusted Mariamne in his absence, and whom he jealously imagined disloyal.

That Antony at this time gave part of Palestine proper to Cleopatra, including even a bit of Judea, and that Herod must bear it without protest, showed on what slender tenure he held his throne. So completely was he under Rome's control that Antony, to satisfy the whim of Cleopatra who disliked Herod, commanded him to undertake a campaign against the Arabians, while she secretly assisted them.

When Antony fell at Actium in 31 in that contest between continents, Herod managed adroitly at the right moment to go over to the side of the victorious Octavian Augustus. Before departing for Rome to curry favor with the Emperor, he took a precaution, which only his cruelty deemed necessary. He put to death his own kinsman, the aged Hyrcanus, to whose weakness he in a measure owed his throne.

He returned in the good graces of Augustus, and received back all the lands taken from him by Antony for Cleopatra. But before his departure, he had repeated the order given prior to his previous visit, that Mariamne should be put to death in case his cause should take a fatal turn in Rome. Learning of this revolting plan in his absence, she upbraided him on his return. This gave his envious relatives opportunity to slander her and defame her honor. The jealous Herod believed the calumny against his innocent wife—and think of it—ordered her to be put to death, though, in his savage, sensual way, he loved her. Remorse came too late, which wild excesses could not drown. Soon her mother followed her to the block on the better founded charge of conspiracy. More deeds of needless bloodshed were perpetrated by his wanton command until every remnant of the Hasmonean house was destroyed.

Herod as Builder.

Herod was a renowned builder. He wanted to have a splendid capital with which he might dazzle Roman grandees and foreign plenipotentiaries. Notice the bent of his mind—his conception of a monarch—not a father of his people living up to such a maxim, for example, as ich dien (I serve) but the possessor of glory and with the power to play with the life and death of his subjects. He must needs have grandeur without, though there was misery enough within. He erected temples, amphitheatres and hippodromes. He built for himself a palace that was a fortress too, with parks and gardens around it. New cities were laid out, not for the honor of Israel but for the honor of Augustus Caesar and named after him. Samaria was rebuilt and renamed Sebaste. He rebuilt a city on the coast and called it Caesarea, with a fine haven. One he named Antipatris after his father, another after his brother, Phasaelis; Agrippaeum, after Agrippa, and Herodium, a stronghold, after himself. Existing fortresses were restored and strengthened. Nor did he neglect to mark the outlying provinces with examples of his building passion.

The old Temple, built in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, now looked shabby among these fine edifices, and he determined to rebuild it. This was one of his great achievements. There was no religious motive whatever in the project, for he had built outside of Jerusalem many heathen shrines. The purpose was wholly worldly. If there is to be a Temple, let it be gorgeous to gratify my vanity! It took many years to build and was not finished till long after Herod's death. The whole circumference of the Temple, including the fortress of Antonia connected with it, covered almost a mile. It must have been magnificent, for a proverb arose, "He who has not seen Herod's Temple has never seen anything beautiful." Yet, with all his grandeur, he was but a subject king under the sway of the Roman emperor. He could not make treaties or war without the consent of the emperor, to whom he had to supply on demand troops and money.

The introduction of heathen games in theatres and race-courses, in which the lives of gladiators and runners were lightly sacrificed to gratify the brutal instincts of the spectators, deeply grieved the Jews, imbued with the sanctity of human life. It was in such violent antagonism to the ethics of Judaism. But what could they do? They were in the power of this pagan tyrant.

He gathered in his capital, too, Greek litterateurs and artists. To these scholars were given state positions of trust. But this was no more an indication of love of culture than Temple building was love of religion. Ostentation was at the root of both.

Yet the Pharisaic party (the great mass of the people) was too strong for him to carry his paganizing influence as far as he wished. He ungraciously yielded, out of prudence, now and then to the religious sensibilities of the people. The building of the sanctuary proper he entrusted to priests, nor were images placed on the Jerusalem buildings. But the Roman eagle was later erected over the Temple gate. For an attempt to remove it, forty-two young men, zealous for the law, were burnt alive. The Jewish Sanhedrin was shorn of all power.

He appointed unfit men as High Priests and removed them when they did not do his bidding. That such appointments should be left in his unsympathetic hands. Finally, the people were heavily taxed to support heathen splendor of which they did not approve. So his reign, so hateful to them, was maintained only by despotism and force. An attempt was even made to assassinate him. The populace had to be watched by spies. Yet in the year 25 he brought all his energies to the fore to save the people from the consequences of famine. Let us remember this in his favor; also that he used his power to secure protection for Jews in the Diaspora.

Herod as Father.

By paying lavish court to the emperor and his son-in-law, Agrippa, his territory was gradually doubled. A splendid kingdom viewed superficially, but it brought no happiness to this unscrupulous man. Peace in the home, domestic joy, these are the things that prowess and power cannot buy. The story of how this barbarian had put to death his favorite wife, Mariamne, has already been told. Her two sons were now grown to man's estate. But Herod's sister, the wicked Salome, who had plotted against their mother, now tried to fill the king's mind with suspicions against her sons. In this purpose she was aided by Antipater, son of Herod by another of his wives. Learning that their mother had been put to death by their father's mandate, they openly expressed their anger, which so increased the king's suspicions, that he accused his sons before the emperor. The mildness of Augustus could only postpone the eventual tragedy—the execution of the young men by order of their own father. Antipater—the real conspirator against Herod, though his favorite son,—was at last detected, and of course executed also. Surely the latter days of this king were bitter.

These domestic troubles were aggravated by bodily disease and the knowledge that he was hated by his people. Determined to be mourned at all costs, he imprisoned some of the most distinguished men of the nation with orders that they were to be killed at the moment of his death. Thus would he obtain a mourning at his funeral! Was not this the climax of savagery! This fiendish purpose was, however, never carried out; so he died unwept and unmourned.

He is called "Great" to distinguish him from some puny Herods that followed in the fast dying Jewish State. We can call him "Great" only in a bad sense—an awful example of the abuse of power in the hands of an unscrupulous and blood-thirsty man.


Mariamne.—Zirndorf, Some Jewish Women. (Jewish Pub. Soc.) Grace Aguilar, Women of Israel.

Rome.—In Talmudic literature "Edom" is often a disguised term for Rome, because in the Bible story Esau is the rival of Jacob. When we remember that Antipater and Herod were Idumeans (Edom) and that they practically delivered Judea to Rome for the price of a crown, the rabbinic usage is peculiarly appropriate.

Herod.—In Stephen Phillip's dramatic poem of this name, the character is idealized.

Theme for discussion:—Did Herod succeed or did he fail?