The Many Faces of Herod the Great

The Many Faces of Herod the Great

The Many Faces of Herod the Great

The Many Faces of Herod the Great


An old, bloodthirsty tyrant hears from a group of Magi about the birth of the Messiah, king of the Jews. He vengefully sends his soldiers to Bethlehem with orders to kill all of the baby boys in the town in order to preserve his own throne. For most of the Western world, this is Herod the Great -- an icon of cruelty and evil, the epitome of a tyrant.

Adam Kolman Marshak portrays Herod the Great quite differently, however, carefully drawing on historical, archaeological, and literary sources. Marshak shows how Herod successfully ruled over his turbulent kingdom by skillfully interacting with his various audiences -- Roman, Hellenistic, and Judaean -- in myriad ways. Herod was indeed a master in political self-presentation.

Marshak's fascinating account chronicles how Herod moved from the bankrupt usurper he was at the beginning of his reign to a wealthy and powerful king who founded a dynasty and brought ancient Judaea to its greatest prominence and prosperity.


Few historical figures have worse reputations than Herod the Great. This is due in part to his cameo in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2. When he hears that a child has been born king of the Jews he becomes alarmed and asks the wise men to bring him word when they find him. When he realizes that they have not done so, he kills all the male children around Bethlehem who are aged two years or less. the story is fictional — Matthew 2 is a string of stories told to show how various prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus. But the brutality was in character for Herod, who was ruthless in killing anyone who might be a claimant to the throne. Those he had put to death included his wife Mariamme, who was of the Hasmonean line; her grandfather Hyrcanus ii, who had been High Priest; his brother-in-law Jonathan, whom he had appointed high priest at the age of seventeen; his sons by Mariamme, Alexander and Aristobulus; and finally Antipater, whose mother he had divorced to marry Mariamme. the Roman emperor Augustus once quipped that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. Yet he reigned for thirty-seven years. the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “in his life as a whole he was blessed, if ever a man was, by fortune; a commoner, he mounted to a throne, retained it for all those years, and bequeathed it to his own children. in his family life, on the contrary, no man was more unfortunate.”

Herod is called “the GreatU+20e Herodium and Masada. He made bequests to cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and he even endowed the Olympic games. True, there was a famine in Judaea . . .

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