Who Was the Real King Herod?

The Wailing Wall, built by Herod
This image shows the Western (or "Wailing") Wall, a surviving part of the Second Temple that Herod built. No images of Herod survive today but remains from his many building projects do. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

King Herod, sometimes called "Herod the Great" (circa 74 to 4 B.C.) was a king of Judea who ruled the territory with Roman approval. While Judea was an independent kingdom it was under heavy Roman influence and Herod came to power with Roman support.

The Bible depicts Herod as a monster who tried to kill baby Jesus and, when he couldn't find him, killed every infant in Bethlehem. Historians today generally believe the story is fictional.

While Herod did execute one of his wives, and three of his children, he was also a prolific builder who renovated and expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, the most holy site in Judaism. He also helped save the ancient Olympic Games during a financial crisis. [In Photos: Experience Ancient Jerusalem's Spendor with Virtual-Reality App]

Rise to power

While it's uncertain precisely where Herod was born, it's known that his father, Antipater (died 43 B.C.), came from Idumea (also called Edom), a region by the southern coast of the Dead Sea. His mother, Cypros, was from Nabataea, a wealthy kingdom in Jordan that included the city of Petra.

A Roman force led by a general named Pompey waged a military campaign in the eastern Mediterranean in 63 B.C. that forced the Hasmoneans, a Jewish dynasty that controlled what is now Israel, to agree to Roman rule. Herod and his father supported the Romans and they were rewarded for it with greater power.

By 43 B.C., Antipater, Herod and Herod's eldest brother Phaesael "exercised quasi-royal powers in the land with the agreement of the ineffectual and accommodating Hasmonean High Priest Hyrcanus II, who ruled only in name," Geza Vermes, who was professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University until his death in 2013, wrote in his posthumously-published book, "The True Herod" (Bloomsbury, 2014).

However, the control the three men had was tenuous. In 43 B.C., Antipater was assassinated by poisoning. Then in 40 B.C., the Parthians, aided by a revolt, took over Jerusalem, killed Phaesael, installed a loyal regime and forced Herod to flee to Rome. After his arrival in Rome, Herod sought out the support of Octavian and Mark Antony, who were allied at the time. The two agreed to make him king of Judea. Herod returned to Judea and, by 37 B.C., he retook Jerusalem and other parts of the region with support from the Roman military. [In Photos: Ancient Home and Barracks of Roman Military Officer]

Herod's position was still weak, however. Family members from the Hasmonean Dynasty, who had been in power before the Romans arrived, resented the fact that the Romans had made Herod king of Judea. Herod married Mariamme, the granddaughter of the former high priest, Hyrcanus II, in an attempt to bring family members from the Hasmonean Dynasty into the fold. "She bore him three sons, Alexander and Aristobulus as well as a third son who died young in Rome, and two daughters," Vermes wrote.

Herod executed Mariamme in 29 B.C. over accusations that she had committed adultery and had tried to kill him. Herod had at least 10 wives and believed that Judaism allowed polygamy.

The king also executed his sons Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 B.C., and Antipater II, Herod's oldest son (whom he had with another wife) in 4 B.C. Herod accused the three sons of trying to kill him.

Herod confiscated property belonging to those who he believed did not support his rule. "The confiscation of the wealth of the hostile Jewish upper classes made him exceedingly rich and provided Herod with funds to pay for the continued goodwill of his Roman overlord, Mark Antony," Vermes wrote.

Additionally, Herod found himself in conflict with Cleopatra VII, the queen of Egypt and lover of Antony. Cleopatra VII coveted Herod's territory and used her influence with Antony to persuade him to turn over some of Herod's territory to her.

The alliance between Octavian and Antony came to an end in 32 B.C. and the two faced off in a civil war, with Antony controlling the eastern parts of the Roman Empire and Octavian the west. Herod supported Antony and ended up on the losing side as Antony was defeated at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C, and committed suicide in 30 B.C.

Herod sailed to Rhodes to meet Octavian, not sure what would happen to him. When he met Octavian, Herod took off his crown and told Octavian that he had supported Antony to the end, the ancient historian Josephus (A.D. 37-100) wrote.

"I am defeated with Antony and with his fall I lay aside my crown. I have come to you placing my hope of safety on my unblemished character, and believing that you will wish to know not whose friend, but what sort of friend, I have been," Josephus wrote (translation by English classicist G.A. Williamson). Octavian was so impressed that he not only allowed Herod to remain king but gave him back territory that Antony had given to Cleopatra VII.

Herod the builder

"Without a doubt he [Herod] was the greatest builder in the Holy Land, planning and overseeing the execution of palaces, fortresses, theatres, amphitheatres, harbours and the entire city of Caesarea, and to crown them all, he organized the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem," Vermes wrote.

The First Temple, which had been built by King Solomon, had been destroyed when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 587 B.C. While a Jewish temple was built on the site in the late 6th century B.C., Herod built a new temple that was far larger. Historians today often call it the "Second Temple."

Although much of the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, a section of it still remains. "The monumental section that still survives is the famous Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, a glorious memorial of the past for some, and the most holy place of Jewish worship for others," Vermes wrote.

Other famous sites Herod constructed include Masada, a clifftop palace-fortress decorated with beautiful mosaics; and the Herodium, a complex located 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from Jerusalem that contains palaces, a bathhouse, a pool house and other structures that are constructed on top of a human-made hill.

Herod also helped save the ancient Olympic Games. He donated "a large sum of money for the financial support of the quadrennial Olympic games, the survival of which was threatened by lack of funds." Vermes wrote. And because of Herod's financial assistance, "the organizers of the ancient games elected Herod perpetual Olympic president and recorded it in inscriptions."

Did he kill Jesus?

Historians generally believe that Herod died in 4 B.C., although there have been arguments made that he died in 5 B.C. or 1 B.C. The Gospel of Matthew claims that he tried to kill baby Jesus and succeeded in killing all the other babies in Bethlehem in an event that is sometimes called the "massacre of the innocents." Today, historians generally regard these claims as untrue.

"The legendary 'massacre of the innocents' may reflect a Christian dramatization of Herod's execution of his own children," Peter Richardson, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Toronto, and Amy Marie Fisher, an adjunct instructor of religion at the University of Edmonton, wrote in their book "Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans: Second edition" (Routledge, 2018).

Another story that mentions Herod, told in the Gospel of Luke, claims that Mary and Joseph (the parents of Jesus) had to be registered in a census at the time Jesus was born. This is also believed by modern-day historians to be untrue, as there's no evidence of a census occuring during Herod's reign.

"As for the census, whose purpose was to prepare the introduction of Roman taxation in Judaea, it could not have occurred during Herod's reign. As a friend of Rome, a rex socius or allied king, he was exempt from such interference," Vermes wrote, noting that no census occurred in Judea until A.D. 6.

The fact that the Bible claims that Jesus was born before Herod died creates a problem that scholars have long been debating. Was Jesus actually born in 4 B.C, before Herod died? Or, did Herod live longer than the historical records suggest, and not die until closer to 1 B.C? Or, is the Bible's claim that Jesus was born before Herod died not true? The answers to these questions have been debated by scholars for well over a century.

Grim ending

Rebellion brewed near the end of Herod's life. Shortly before Herod died there was a group that tried to pull down an eagle, a Roman symbol, from the Second Temple. Herod had the people involved with the act executed. The expectation of his death "began to release the tensions buried just beneath the surface of a calm kingdom…." Richardson and Fisher wrote.

Josephus claimed that Herod was so despised in his final days and Herod had become so bitter toward his own people, that he asked his sister, Salome, to kill many of them after he died. He supposedly gathered the most eminent men of every village in Judea, locked them up in a hippodrome, and gave orders to his sister Salome to kill them when he died.

According to Josephus, Herod announced, "'I know the Jews will greet my death with wild rejoicings; but I can be mourned on other people's account and make sure of a magnificent funeral if you will do as I tell you. These men under guard — as soon as I die, kill them all….'" Salome disobeyed, and released the prisoners when Herod died, Josephus added.

After Herod's death, a massive rebellion broke out in his kingdom and Rome had to send in military reinforcements.

No surviving images of Herod exist today. Herod did not put his image on his coins and rarely built statues of himself out of concern of offending Jewish beliefs that sometimes opposed "the representation of human figures," Vermes wrote.

Additional resources:

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.