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The Controversial Figure of Herod the Great

Herod the Great was one of the most well-known rulers in the history of the Jewish state he has been praised for the creation of notable building projects, such as the Jerusalem temple, the extension of the Temple Mount, the erection of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the port at Caesarea Maritima, as well as the Masada and Herodium fortresses. However, Herod sparked controversy when it comes to his cruelty and brutality. As a historical figure, Herod is mentioned in the Christian Gospel of Matthew as the Judea ruler that ordered the Massacre of the Innocents around the time when Jesus was born. Even though biographers believe that the occurrence could be false, various historians criticized the role of Herod, with his reign as a Roman client king of Judea considered either a legacy of success or the remainder of authoritarian rule.

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Around 40 BCE, Herod the Great was appointed the king of Jews by the Roman senate, even though the Jews had already had a king, Antigonus occupying the throne whose legacy was attributed to an ancient Hasmonean family (Vermes, 2014). The issue of Herod’s appointment went beyond the throne being occupied, but also the problem of his heritage as the ‘king of Jews’ was only half-Jewish, with his father being an Idumean coming from Judea’s south who converted to Judaism while his mother being the Arab princess from Nabatea. Besides, before Herod was coronated in Rome, the Jewish ruler Antigonus, supported by the forces of the Parthians, which were the eastern enemies of the Roman Empire, got power in Jerusalem, thus setting Herod to flee the country in search of external support.

Deprived of his military power, family, friends, and supporters, Herod placed all of his hopes on the help of the Romans. The latter was in search of a strong and committed leader that could help them match the ongoing threat associated with the Parthians in order to recapture Israel as a part of the Roman Empire rule. The convergence of the interests of Herod and the Romans allowed for the unification of the forces with the objective of capturing power in Israel. When Herod was secured as the ‘king of Jews,’ his first deed was climbing up the stairs toward the temple of Jupiter in the Roman forum to give sacrifice and give an allegiance vow to the Roman Empire. Herod would attain his throne in Jerusalem three years after, through conquering his enemy in a bloody battle. During his ascending to the throne, there was no welcoming him as the loyalty to the Roman government foreshadowed the vital issue associated with his reign – whether he would be able to capture the hearts of the population.

Discussions about whether Herod was a good or an evil ruler are ongoing as the modern research points to several important issues influencing his reign on the Jewish subjects. Opinions on this matter vary as some historians describe him as a violent tyrant suffering from an extreme personality disorder and prone to violence. He was also considered to introduce an ancient version of the Gestapo government with a wide network of espionage, imprisonment, as well as the torture and execution of any person falling under a slight suspicion. According to Solomon Zeitlin (1973), in his reference to the ancestry and the impact of Herod on Jewish history, “he attained his kingdom as a fox, ruled like a tiger and died like a dog” (p. 312). This quote characterizes the determination of Herod to attain power and maintain his influence by any means that were available to him. However, it is essential to take into account that the cruelty of Herod as a ruler should not be juxtaposed to the modern sentiments but rather the standards of his time and the way in which all state rules approached the issue of crime and punishment.

Geza Vermes (2014) suggested that the controversial nature of Herod’s reign of Jerusalem can be effectively explained as a result of a seemingly impossible goal of helping the Jewish nation reach new heights through aligning with the Roman perspective and order. Because of this, although not entirely Jewish, he had to be a Jew to the Jews and comply with the customs, beliefs, and traditions. Examples of his efforts to seem a legitimate ruler of his people include the production of the mostly aniconic art and coins, marrying into an old Hasmonean family as well as the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. He also had to balance out his relationships with Romans by means of pressurizing the Jewish nation to abide and accept Roman standards such as emperor-dedicated temples or Greek sporting games.

The reputation of Herod as the builder and architectural commissioner gave him the chance to stand out against other rulers. The remains of the structures that were erected during his time on the throne made up a significant portion of the architectural landscape at the turn of their era. In Jerusalem, he built a temple for his Jewish subject to match those emerging in the Roman Empire. In the Judean Desert, Herod ordered an abundant supply of water to the fortresses of Masada and Herodeon in order for them to be transformed into palaces. Besides, to match the ancient Roman customs, Herod commissioned the building of a hippodrome or amphitheater in Jerusalem to honor Caesar despite the threat of offending the Jewish population (Cartwright, 2016). Besides, knowing how to enjoy his high position and wealth, Herod did not shy away from decorating the structures he erected and brought gifted artisans to create frescos and mosaics using expensive materials a match the artistic panache inherent to the Romans.

Thus, Herod’s goal was to introduce the Jewish state into the world order of Romans, but his aspirations did not come to fruition. The longer his reign lasted, the more trouble it brought, such as the Nabataea war in 9 BCE, which involved a growing base for Judean opposition groups. The ever-increasing discontentment of the Jewish people with their ruler, who tended to favor the opinion of the Roman government over anything else, planted significant seeds of dissatisfaction with the Roman world order, which eventually grew into a great rebellion against the Empire seventy years after Herod’s death. The kingdom ruled by Herod was ultimately divided by the Romans between his three sons, Herod Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus, forming a Herodian Tetrarchy.

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Cartwright, M. (2016). Herod the Great. Web.

Vermes, G. (2014). The true Herod. T&T Clark.

Zeitlin, S. (1973). Solomon Zeitlin’s studies in the early history of Judaism. Ktav Publishing House.

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