Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World (Jewish Lives)

Image of Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World (Jewish Lives)
Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
Yale University Press
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"A fascinating portrait of a man who left his mark all over present-day Israel in his great buildings and an even bigger mark on Christian imagination."

Martin Goodman is an emeritus professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford and clearly knows the ancient Jewish and Roman world well. His ease in maneuvering through written sources and archeological evidence shines through these pages. It's not an easy task to bring to life someone who is as infamous as Herod and to do so in a way that illuminates a completely different sense of the man than the biblical stories of a brutal murderer. It's not until the end of the book that Goodman addresses the myth, dispatching it quickly and efficiently.

"Even if the chronological problem posed by Herod's death in 4 BCE is circumvented by positing that Jesus must have been born some years before the traditional date, the story is not likely to be true. It is not included in the other Gospels, nor is it mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament or in Josephus's rather full account of the end of Herod's reign. It also differs markedly from the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke."

So why did the myth become so entrenched in Christian thinking? Partly, Goodman suggests, to create a parallel between the infant Jesus and Moses, who escaped Pharaoh's massacre of the innocents. And partly because the name of Herod was conflated with other wicked rulers, "an image of tyrannical abuse of power." The Christians needed an evil Jewish king and Herod had enough of a bad reputation to serve the purpose well.

By this point in the book, Goodman has built up a solid sense of Herod as a man, Jew, and king. He opens the book with Herod's improbable ascent from minor aristocrat to King of Judea, given the title by the Roman senate, not granted it by any birthright. It wasn't easy to navigate the complicated politics of the Republic, but Herod had both great instincts and incredible luck.

"Finding a Roman patron was obviously the way ahead for a young man seeking advancement, but it was hard for a provincial in Jerusalem in the mid-fifties BCE to discern where power now lay in Romeā€”and therefore which Roman to court."

Partly, Herod relied on the good will his father had generated with the Romans. That reputation went a long way. Herod cemented it with gifts and a willingness to fight alongside the Romans, proving his loyalty in every possible way. He managed the difficult feat of first supporting Marc Anthony and then quickly switching allegiance to Octavian after Antony was defeated by Octavian in battle. Somehow he made it through the shifting sands to remain king until his death as an old man.

Herod built on a kingdom that had been "administered on Hellenistic lines, despite the role of the Jerusalem Temple as its central institution." The transition from Greek to Roman was one that was happening all over the region. Goodman provides essential context in describing the position of the area: "At the time of Herod's birth, Judea was a regional superpower." Herod expanded that reach, though his rule was not free from conflicts, both internal and external. This too, is described in a clear progression in these pages.

"In the long term Augustus's investment in Herod's energy and commitment were to pay off handsomely. Among Herod's most impressive achievements were the encouragement of international trade from across the Mediterranean into the southern Levant through the creation at Caesarea of the largest harbor in the eastern Roman Empire after Alexandria in Egypt, and the encouragement of international tourism to Jerusalem through the rebuilding of the Temple."

Goodman lays out the incredible building program Herod accomplished, from restoring the Temple in Jerusalem to building impressive palaces. And he describes Herod's sense of himself as a Jew, responsible for his people all over the Roman empire. But the biggest point he makes is how essentially Roman Herod was. Beyond owing his kingdom to the favor of Rome, he adopted Roman dining customs and built palaces and temples to rival those in the imperial capital.

"Herod was determined that his kingdom would be not only magnificent but also Roman, as befitted a close friend of the ruler of the Roman world. By the end of his reign the landscape of his realm had been transformed by the foundation of the new cities of Sebaste, Caesarea, and Agrippias to celebrate his Roman patrons. These new cities and his capital, Jerusalem, were adorned with buildings in modern styles imported from Rome."

The section on Herod's complicated family is especially adroit in balancing a host of details. The many wives and children, their intermarriages with each other to consolidate power, are all a lot to juggle. Herod's personal weaknesses are laid bare, his vanity and paranoia. Ultimately, however, Goodman considers Herod a strong king, if not a good husband or father:

"Herod was indeed an innovative and effective ruler. He rode out the storm of the Roman revolution with conspicuous success and transformed Judaea by integrating his kingdom into the Roman world, but he never received the adulation from his own people that he felt he deserved."

Different chapters fully explore both Herod's Roman identity and his Jewishness and the conflict each provoked. It all adds up to a fascinating portrait of a man who left his mark all over present-day Israel in his great buildings and an even bigger mark on Christian imagination.