Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Simply Irresistible: Augustus, Herod, and the Empire

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Simply Irresistible: Augustus, Herod, and the Empire

Article excerpt

Recent scholarship has been arriving at increasingly appreciative evaluations of Herod the Great. A generation ago the consensus about Herod could be summed up with words and phrases like "ruthless," "little more than a creature of cruelty," or "one of the most wicked of men . . . ignorant [and] insensitive . . . bent solely on the affairs of this world."1 Although such views still persist - a widely used introductory NT textbook describes Herod as "renowned for his ruthless exercise of power"-more and more frequently we read that "Herod was not a monster," but rather a leader whose actions, within their historical context, were "reasonable."2 He can now be described as "thoroughly in tune with the cultural developments of his age," and as a ruler who "wished to convey to his people a new self-confidence in the spirit of the age."3 Ehud Netzer expressed the emerging new perspective well when he closed his magisterial book on Herod with these words:

He was a practical and thorough man, with a broad world view, outstanding organizational talent and improvisational ability (in the best sense of the term), able to adapt himself to his surroundings and to changing situations-a man who anticipated the future and had his two feet planted firmly on the ground.4

Herod the Great has been getting a makeover.

The improvement in Herod's reputation is based on two significant changes in the status quaestionis. First, an unprecedented amount of archaeological evidence can now be brought to bear on historical analysis of Herod the Great. Excavations at Caesarea Maritima, Herodium, Jericho, Jerusalem, Machaerus, Masada, and Sebaste have dramatically expanded the scope of our database. Fifty years ago, Stewart Perowne's The Life and Times of Herod the Great devoted only fourteen pages to discussion of all the archaeological sites just mentioned. In Netzer's book, analysis of those sites takes up 356 pages. The new and more positive assessment of Herod rests on evidence that was still in the ground when older, more pessimistic judgments were being written.

Second, the rehabilitated Herod is considerably more Roman than his older counterpart. In the new portrait of Herod, he faces west toward Rome and Augustus rather than east toward the Hellenistic kingdoms, and he is described as "a friend of the Romans" rather than as "an Arab monarch."5 An earlier generation of scholars certainly knew that Herod had traveled to Rome more than once and that he had maintained a long and close relationship with Augustus, but this information did not figure prominently in their judgments. Arnaldo Momigliano expressed their collective sentiment when he wrote that Herod had "no deep understanding of the spiritual values of Graeco-Roman civilization . . . [but] always retained the suspicion and cruelty of an Oriental prince."6 Recent scholarship, by contrast, situates Herod within the constellation of political, economic, social, and cultural changes designated by the term "Romanization."7 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, for example, has recently characterized the Roman Empire as "the construction of a new epistemological system," in which bodies of knowledge previously controlled by republican elites in the city of Rome were transformed into a diffused "multiplicity of knowledges that were linked and interconnected" around the Mediterranean world.8 In addition, Ramsay MacMullen has described the spread of Romanization as a combination of "push" and "pull," meaning that both compulsion and attraction helped motivate participation in the empire. As MacMullen puts it, "Baths and wine and so forth recommended themselves to the senses without need of an introduction. They felt or they looked good."9 From this perspective, Herod seems to have been not a petty eastern tyrant but rather an influential purveyor of powerful and attractive new Roman forms of knowledge.

In this article, I support the ongoing reinterpretation of Herod by offering two case studies in Herodian archaeology and Romanization. …

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