Herod the Great: Jew­ish King in a Roman World

  • Review
By – April 15, 2024

The pri­ma­ry source for this biog­ra­phy is the ancient his­to­ri­an Jose­phus, born some forty years after Herod’s death. Jose­phus some­times cast Herod as a greedy tyrant reap­ing what he sowed, or as a king over the Jews rather than of the Jews. His his­to­ries record­ed Herod’s faults, but didn’t explore their caus­es. Mar­tin Good­man argues that the mod­ern biog­ra­ph­er needs to ask why Herod blun­dered and became so unhinged. Was it his trau­mat­ic upbring­ing? Good­man wants to give us Herod from Herod’s point of view — a tall order, to be sure.

Herod did have one con­tem­po­rary who wrote about him: Nico­laus of Dam­as­cus. Jose­phus doubt­ed his objec­tiv­i­ty; but then again, Herod prob­a­bly didn’t appre­ci­ate unvar­nished truth-telling, giv­en the num­ber of fam­i­ly and friends he had mur­dered. In any event, Nicolaus’s thoughts on Herod have sur­vived only through Josephus’s accounts, so every­thing we know about Herod is next-gen­er­a­tion hearsay. The mod­ern biog­ra­ph­er” can be for­giv­en for not find­ing any win­dow into Herod’s soul.

Good­man takes an indi­rect approach instead, high­light­ing key moments of Herod’s life that might have been for­ma­tive: his father receiv­ing Roman cit­i­zen­ship, Cleopa­tra beg­ging him to stay awhile” instead of rush­ing to Rome, and of course the many schem­ing wives he kept in-house, all with var­i­ous king­ship designs for their sons. The mile­stones Good­man dis­cuss­es may not have been defin­i­tive, but they give read­ers con­text, a taste of Herod’s world. We real­ize that Herod was rel­a­tive­ly young and inex­pe­ri­enced when Rome crowned him king of the Jews; he looked to Rome for approval the rest of his days. We under­stand that Herod lived his whole life in a mael­strom of intense polit­i­cal intrigue, in which back­stab­bing, shift­ing alliances, and the occa­sion­al poi­son­ing were all normal.

Good­man offers clues about Herod’s Jew­ish­ness, remind­ing us that hav­ing mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties, like being Roman and Jew­ish, was typ­i­cal in the ancient world. When Emper­or Augus­tus quips that he’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son, we know he’s jok­ing about Herod’s habit of killing off his sons — but he’s also allud­ing to the fact that Herod was known for not eat­ing pork. Most Jews would have praised his mag­nif­i­cent tem­ple ren­o­va­tions, were it not for the gold eagle hon­or­ing Augus­tus that Herod just couldn’t resist adding.

In the end, we don’t real­ly know how Jew­ish Herod felt, or how he felt about oth­er Jews. We don’t know why he mur­dered the one wife he real­ly seemed to adore and mere­ly ban­ished the oth­ers. Nor do we know what it was like for him, killing so many of his sons. Herod as a man may still be elu­sive, but read­ers come away from Goodman’s schol­ar­ship with some per­spec­tive about the dif­fi­cul­ties of oper­at­ing a Jew­ish state in a Roman empire.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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