Herod the Great (ca. 73 B.C.-4 B.C.), King of Judea, was an example of a class of client princes who kept their thrones by balancing between being over thrown by their own peoples for too much sub servience to Rome and being dismissed by the Romans for too much independence.
Judea was one among the many petty states into which the Hellenistic East had fragmented, ruled by high priests of the Hasmonean dynasty, descendants of the leaders who had freed the country from Seleucid rule. These Hasmoneans, however, were eager to raise revolts and engage in civil wars against each other, and Palestine was a cockpit of contending factions and forces. Against this background Herod's family rose to prominence; a Hasmonean, King Alexander Jannaeus, had appointed Herod's grandfather, who was probably an Idumean, to some sort of governorship in Idumea. Herod's father, Antipater, took a prominent part in a civil war between two further Hasmoneans, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II and his descendants, and became one of Hyrcanus's chief ministers; he also established close relations with the Romans.
Herod's mother's family were perhaps Nabatean Arabs—Herod himself never lived down the charge that he was only a half Jew—and he seems to have spent part of his childhood among the Nabateans.
In 47 B.C., when Caesar momentarily settled Palestinian affairs, he seems to have entrusted Antipater with the effective civil government. Antipater named his eldest son, Phasael, governor of Jerusalem and his second son, Herod, governor of Galilee. Herod won favor with the Romans by his success in dealing with local guerrilla bands, but he executed a guerrilla leader out of hand, and opponents of the upstart Idumean family got the matter brought before the Sanhedrin. Herod was accused of murder. He did not quite dare ignore the summons of the Sanhedrin, but he did appear in Jerusalem with a large armed bodyguard, and the matter was dropped. He seems, however, to have lost his position in Galilee.
In 46 B.C. Herod was appointed governor of Coele-Syria and Samaria by Caesar's representative, but with the death of Caesar and the arrival of Cassius in Syria, Herod was quick to line up with the republicans. He won Cassius's favor by raising the 700 talents' tribute which Cassius exacted. He also married Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess and granddaughter of the high priest Hyrcanus II.
A Parthian invasion in 40 B.C. brought another change: Antigonus, a rival Hasmonean, became king of Judea, and Herod had to flee. He left his family in the fortress of Masada and went via Egypt to Rome. There both Antony and Octavian, the future Augustus, accepted him as a useful counter against the Parthians, and the Senate named him king of Judea.
The Jews of course did not recognize Rome's right to choose their king for them, and Herod, with Roman help, had to conquer his kingdom. Not until July 37 B.C. did he get Jerusalem. Antigonus and his chief followers were put to death, but on the whole Jerusalem was spared. Herod turned to the problem of the high priesthood; he himself had not the blood to claim the office, and he needed a priest who could not rival him in dignity. But the Hasmoneans, even those connected with Herod by marriage, would not forego their claims. By the end of this struggle, which raged for most of the reign, the priesthood had become only a temporary office held at the King's pleasure.
Herod's other chief difficulty during the first part of his reign stemmed from Cleopatra's desire to restore the lost empire of the Ptolemies. She did gain some territories, including the Jericho district, from Herod, but the coolness between them ultimately helped Herod as it kept him from being too close to Antony's party. When Antony fell, Herod found it relatively easy to shift his loyalty to Octavian. He, on his part, saw no reason to prefer some different puppet to Herod, who was eager to please, not fanatically Jewish, and already in possession. Octavian not merely confirmed Herod but restored Jericho and gave him other, particularly non-Jewish, territories.
The reason first Antony and then Augustus supported Herod for so long was that he pursued a policy they thoroughly favored, that of bringing Judea out of its isolation and religious exclusiveness and of putting it into the mainstream of Greco-Roman civilization. Herod consciously undertook to Hellenize every aspect of life in his kingdom. Officials were given the titles and functions of royal ministers elsewhere, and non-Jews were given many of the highest posts; the army was reconstructed and made into a mainly mercenary and non-Jewish force; theaters and circuses were built; and several of Herod's sons were sent to Rome for their training.
Herod also brought his kingdom considerable prosperity. He stabilized the coinage and maintained taxation at a bearable level. He encouraged trade and built the splendid port city of Caesarea. Indeed, he was a tremendous builder generally, and this too provided jobs. Much of his building naturally had a military purpose—fortresses like Masada were built or enlarged, military colonies were planted on the frontiers, and even many of Herod's numerous palaces were partly fortresses. His building in the cities had the further purpose of increasing Hellenization, for many of his cities, like Caesarea and Samaria (rebuilt and renamed Sebaste), were intentionally Hellenistic rather than Jewish, even to having a predominantly non-Jewish population.
During nearly his whole reign Herod faced trouble within his own family, stemming partly from the Hasmoneans' regal scorn for the Idumaean upstart, partly from Herod's Hellenizing policies, and partly from his paranoid tendency, when his suspicions were aroused, to turn and rend those he loved best. As early as 29 B.C. he had killed his wife, Mariamne, from jealousy. As the years went by, the whole matter was further complicated by the question of the succession, for like many people with a strong will to power, Herod showed little ability at facing the idea of losing it, even to death.
In the years of intricate scheming and counterscheming between Herod and his heirs, three of Herod's sons were put to death, and his brother "escaped death only by dying." And when Herod finally did die in 4 B.C., he left a disputed succession with two further sons both having some claim to the throne. Augustus finally resolved the matter by splitting the inheritance between these two sons and still a third one, and not allowing the title of king to any of them.
In an age when even the existence of the smaller states depended not on their own strength but on the will of Rome, Herod kept Judea safe, secure, and prosperous. And yet, throughout his career Herod suffered from being caught somewhere between Jew and Gentile. He loved Greek culture and showered money on the cities of the Greek East, but he began the rebuilding of the Temple and acted as protector and spokesman for various Jewish communities scattered about the world. He sought the favor of Rome and was ostentatious in his loyalty to it, yet he wished to strengthen the position of the Jewish state. In the final analysis, he failed to judge the temper of his people, and, though the great crisis did not come until the reign of Nero, his attempt to make the Jewish kingdom another civil state of the customary Mediterranean type was already a failure at his death.
The chief source of information on Herod is the two works by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews. Among the modern works see W. O. E. Oesterley, A History of Israel, vol. 2 (1932); Stewart Perowne, The Life and Times of Herod the Great (1959); and Samuel Sandmel, Herod: Profile of a Tyrant (1967), which is interesting but perhaps too psychological in its interpretation.