March 28, 2009

The Growth of Herod's Kingdom

Recently I had to write a paper on the Kingdom of Herod the Great. I have always been very interested in the person of Herod, he is one of those enigmatic characters that you cannot seem to grasp in your mind. In the study of his life should we pull for him or hate him? He is like that eccentric bad guy that we all love and hate at the same time, like Benjamin Linus on Lost or Rommel the famous German WWII general. Its difficult to know the right historical perspective that we should take or if there even is one. How should we view him historically? I'm still not sure. However, I am sure that Herod the Great is one of my favorite historical figures to study and this short paper was one of my favorite projects so far.

This paper will seek to summarize the growth of Herod the Great’s kingdom in Judea. This will be accomplished by chronicling the following phases: the end of the Hasmonean Kingdom (67-37 BCE), Herod’s formation of a kingdom (37-25 BCE), and Herod’s peaceful kingdom (25-13 BCE). Since the focus is on the growth aspect of Herod’s kingdom this paper will not discuss the later degeneration of Herod’s kingdom, instead it will focus on the surrounding events that enabled the growth of his kingdom. Herod received territory from Rome on four different occasions (40, 30, 23, 20 BCE) these dates will be discussed within their larger historical context in the kingdom of Judea. The events to be discussed are largely reconstructed by historians from the writings of Flavius Josephus whose source for much of the material from the latter part of the Hasmonean kingdom unto Herod the Great’s kingdom was Herod’s own court scribe, Nicholas of Damascus.1 Though Josephus writes over a century later (c. 95 CE) from Rome the events he describes pertaining to the period in question are particularly detailed, evidencing close adherence to his source material. In order to properly understand the rise of Herod’s kingdom it is necessary to briefly discuss the preceding local events of the dying Hasmonean Kingdom and the contemporaneous global events of the Roman Empire.

The End of the Hasmonean Kingdom (67 – 37 BCE)

The once proud and growing Hasmonean kingdom suffered a bloody suicide at the hands of its last two autonomous kings, John Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. These two brothers, the sons of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) and Alexandra Salome (76-67 BCE), waged a brutal civil war against one another calling upon the foreign armies of Rome (Pompey) and Nabatea (Aretas) to fight their battles, in so doing they surrendered much of their empire.2 Cunningly, Pompey played off of the sibling rivalry and managed to incorporate the former Hasmonean kingdom into the Roman Empire and installed John Hyrcanus II as the designated ethnarc (leader of ethnic group) of the Jewish people and high priest.3 Josephus also writes that Pompey further divided the kingdom by giving Syria a number of cities4 that had been conquered by the Hasmonean dynasty. Avi-Yonah comments on the effect of the loss of these important cities this way, “Pompey split up the country (the Hasmoneans) had united, separated the areas inhabited by the Jews into two, cut Judah off from access to the sea and encircled it with a belt of Greek cities.”5

The remaining seed of the Hasmoneans lead several insurrections that were beaten down by Roman forces. This resulted in the consolidation of power by Gabinus, Pompey’s general in Syria, who divided the land into five districts: Judea, Perea, the Jordan Valley, Galilee, and Idumea under the headship of Hyrcanus II6 During this consolidation Antipater II, an Idumean, became the governor of Idumea. Antipater’s father Antipater I had been a high-ranking official to John Hyrcanus I and had wisely married his son to Cypros, a Nabatean princess.7

Genealogy chart of the Hasmonean Dynasty.8

While these local shifts of power were occurring, a massive global shift was occurring in the form of the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the first Caesars. A civil war had broken out between Rome’s two leaders, Julius Caesar and Pompey, which lead to the death of Pompey (48 BCE) in Alexandria and the rise of Julius Caesar to supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. Initially Antipater aligned himself with Pompey, but after Pompey’s death he switched his allegiance to Caesar and displayed it by joining a relief force led by Mithradates from Pergamum that helped Julius Caesar crush his adversaries in Egypt. Afterward Caesar would repay this kindness to Antipater by bestowing Roman citizenship upon him and promoting him to procurator of Judea. Antipater would use this position to his advantage by placing two of his sons as governors, Phasael over Judea and Herod9 over Galilee.10

There appointment immediately caused hostility with the Jewish subjects, particularly the Sanhedrin, who saw Antipater and his sons as foreign rulers, despite their forced conversion to Judaism a century earlier. This hostility intensified when Herod ignored the Sanhedrin’s judicial power by capturing and executing a group of rebels in Galilee. After this injustice the Sanhedrin sought to punish Herod, but were warned to not touch Herod by Sextus Caesar, governor of Syria. In the end Herod was able to sidestep physical punishment, however, his father, Antipater, was murdered shortly after by Malichus, a Jerusalem aristocrat in 42 BCE. Over the next two years the Jewish leaders sought to have Herod removed from power, but were denied by Rome, because of the previous loyalty of Antipater.11 During the interlude between Antipater and Herod, Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II, allied himself with Parthian troops to kick out the sons of Antipater and those loyal to Rome. Hyrcanus betrothed his granddaughter Mariamne to Herod, who now had favor from parts of the remaining Hasmonean kingdom. In the ensuing war Antigonus succeeded in disposing of Phasael and Hyrcanus II12 and established a brief kingdom for himself that was backed by the Parthians. Herod looked to Rome for salvation and received it in the form of Mark Antony and Octavian giving him the whole of the kingdom of Judea. Herod returned and began to re-conquer Judea (39-37 BCE), culminating in the siege and capture of Jerusalem with the help of Roman forces led by Sossius. Subsequently, Antigonus was executed and the Hasmonean Kingdom and lineage was destroyed. Although Herod tried to legitimize his claims to the Hasmonean lineage by marrying Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, during the siege of Jerusalem, in so doing he entered the city as the “heir” of the Hasmonean line.13

Genealogy chart of the Herodian dynasty.14

Herod’s Formation of a Kingdom (37 B.C.E – 25 B.C.E.)

After establishing his rule in Jerusalem Herod became increasingly afraid of opponents and began taking action against those who “might” oppose him. He returned his elderly father-in-law Hyrcanus II out of exile and gave him a high-ranking position and promoted Hananel, a Babylonian Jew, to the position of high priest. At this news Herod’s Hasmonean in-laws became enraged, particularly Alexandra (mother of Mariamne and daughter of Hyrcanus II), because Aristobulus III was of the age to become the next high priest. Herod gave into their desire and made Aristobulus III high priest.15 However, it was a short-lived term, Herod upon becoming jealous of the people’s affections for his brother-in-law subsequently had him drowned in his Jericho palace’s swimming pool. Upon hearing of her son’s death Alexandra brought charges to Antony against Herod through Cleopatra, however, Antony exonerated Herod of charges. The political triangle of Herod, Cleopatra, and Antony is very intriguing and shaped the Herod’s kingdom during this period. Cleopatra sought to add to her considerable kingdom the regions of Judea and Arabia from Herod and Malchus king of Nabatea respectively. She used her “influence” over Antony to gain her own ends and succeeded in adding the coastal regions and the area around the Dead Sea given to Herod in 40 BCE. Herod was able to recoup the loss of his territory by leasing the area around the Dead Sea and Jericho from Cleopatra for 200 talents a year and by serving as guarantee for the tributes of Malchus king of Nabatea. This uneasy peace between Cleopatra and Herod remained the political climate for a few years until war broke out in 31 BCE between Octavian and Antony. Herod was under compulsion to fight for Antony, and even offered his services, however, the Nabateans had failed to bring tribute to Cleopatra and Antony advised Herod to take care of the Nabateans first. This proved to be Herod’s “saving grace” since Antony was defeated at Actium. Although Herod had not openly fought against Octavian he had certainly allied himself with Antony and now would have to repair his relationship with the new Roman ruler. The subsequent events would prove to be the defining moments of Herod’s life and rule over Judea.16

Herod finished his campaign in Transjordan by succeeding in subduing the Nabateans and bringing them into his kingdom. His next step was to execute his traitorous father-in-law, Hyrcanus II, who had sought to go over to the Nabatean side while he was at war with them. Next he sailed to Rhodes in order to make amends with Octavian the new ruler of Rome. Herod made his case before Octavian by claiming that he continue to be loyal to Rome as he had been loyal to Antony, the local Roman ruler within his vicinity. Octavian in response to this declaration reestablished Herod’s kingdom, returned the territory taken by Cleopatra, and gave him the Greek cities of Gadara, Hippus, Samaria, Gaza, Anthedon, Joppa, and Strato’s Tower (as seen on map).17 Avi-Yonah speaks of the importance of Herod adding these Greek cities to his kingdom in this manner, “Herod must have understood by then that all his attempts to obtain the favor of his Jewish subjects would be in vain. A strengthening of the Hellenized population in the kingdom would, therefore, strengthen somewhat the foundations of his rule.”18 This second land bequest from Rome made Herod stronger than ever by giving him unrestricted access to the sea where the site of Strato’s Tower would become very important in the upcoming years. On this political coup Hohlfelder writes, “In a diplomatic stroke Herod not only saved his own life, persuading Rome’s new master that he would be a dependable client king, but he also acquired new territory on the coast of Judea and Samaria.”19 Despite the relative security found at the hand of Octavian, Herod still found himself in danger from his Hasmonean in-laws among others. Herod began a killing spree that included: Alexandra his mother-in-law, Costobar his ex-brother-in-law (ex-husband of Salome), and Mariamne his favorite wife. The execution of Mariamne caused major fallout for Herod. He would mourn her until he died and was forced to ruthlessly execute his two sons by her, Alexander and Aristobulus.20 Levine summarizes the effect of the execution of Mariamne like this,
“The specter of Mariamne returned to haunt Herod during the last decade of his life. His sons by her, Alexander and Aristobulus, could not forgive their father for this deed, and the tensions and intrigues in Herod’s court became unbearable and ultimately proved disastrous. The irony of events was such that Herod’s political fortunes were on the rise while his personal life was the scene of much anguish and pain.”21

The Growth of Herod's Kingdom 22

Herod’s Peaceful Kingdom (27 B.C.E – 13 B.C.E.)

This period marked the golden era of Herod’s reign and is the main reason why he is known as “the Great.” The kingdom of Judea experienced relative peace and prosperity over this fourteen-year period as Herod began a colossal building career and saw his territory further expanded by Octavian (now known as Augustus) on two different occasions. Both of these expansions, occurring in 23 BCE and 20 BCE respectively, were within the regions of the Golan Heights, Huleh Basin, and Bashan (known in the time of Herod as the regions of Gaulanitis, Batanea, Auranitis, and Trachonitis). The kingdom of the Itureans formerly ruled these regions until Antony killed their last king in 35 BCE. Since then Zenodorus, the tetrarch of Syria, had ruled over the regions, but had allowed the area to be overrun with brigands and was even profiting from their piracy. In response to this Augustus transferred the regions of Trachonitis, Batanea, and Auranitis to Herod’s kingdom in 23 BCE. Upon Zenodorus’ death three years later Augustus gave Herod the remainder of Zenodorus’ kingdom, the region of Gaulanitis, which included the city of Paneas (later known as Caesarea-Philippi). Herod’s dominion had now stretched to Davidic proportions, nearly reaching from Dan to Beersheba.23

Map of Herod’s Kingdom at its peak.24

Besides the expansion of his kingdom, Herod used these fourteen years of peace to develop perhaps the most prestigious building resume this world has ever known. The most celebrated of these building expeditions include: the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the Palace-Fortress of Masada in the Judean Wilderness.25 Discussing these projects and the many others that Herod undertook is beyond the focus of this discussion. So in an effort to understand the reasons that Herod undertook these projects one may look to possibly the greatest of all of Herod’s building projects, Caesarea.26 The site of Caesarea was built in 12 years (from 22 -10/9 BCE)27 encompassing an area of over 200,000 square yards (of which only 4% has been excavated).28 It was one of the four largest Mediterranean harbors of its time.29
On Herod’s purposes of building Caesarea Holum writes,
“Herod no doubt built this great harbor to satisfy a practical need, for there was no sheltered anchorage along the route from Alexandria, in Egypt, to the ports of Syria and Asia Minor. Herod also expected to bring in a nice profit from harbor tolls and customs that would help finance his building schemes. Yet there was another element at work as well, as noted by Josephus. The historian appears to have recorded the exact language of Nicholas of Damascus, a contemporary of Herod and a member of the royal court – the minister of propaganda, in effect. Josephus (and Nicholas) wrote that Herod built harbor in order to display the “innate greatness of his character” and because, in thrusting the massive breakwaters far out into the sea, the king displayed the ambition to ‘conquer nature herself.’”30

Caesarea like the rest of Herod’s kingdom was built with a western orientation. That is to say everything he did/built was meant to reflect his adoration of the Roman Empire while establishing his own considerable niche within it. Even the temple mount complex in Jerusalem with its necessary Jewish peculiarities (i.e. court of the Gentiles, eastern orientation, etc.) was meant to draw awe from his western inferiors, peers, and superiors. The port city of Caesarea perhaps best displays Herod’s inclinations. His massive temple31 has a pronaos (front porch) that is westward oriented toward Rome.32 Moreover, the theatre at Caesarea unlike other theatres throughout Judea and the Decapolis is western oriented.33 Caesarea was Herod’s lighthouse and memorial to the Roman world, which had given him his kingdom.

Herod’s ambitious building projects attest to his ambitious, thoroughly Roman attitude. He carved out for himself an empire of his own making and liking, despite his placement in the remote region of Judea. In some he ways his outlook can be compared to the outlook the founders of the Roman republic. Reid comments on the humble beginnings of the early Romans this way, “They started out as a tiny backwater in Mediterranean world dominated by city-states - and eventually took that world, and all its great cities, under their own dominion.”34 Likewise Herod started out from a relatively unimportant family and road to prominence upon the backs of Providence and amazing political and engineering abilities. However, Herod’s private life was anything but peaceful, and he ultimately ended his life alone and afraid of losing what he had built.

Geopolitical Chronology35

ROME - Roman Republic 509 to 127–27 BCE - Roman Empire 27 BCE to 310 CE

  • Pompey killed in Alexandria 48 BCE
  • Julius Caesar assassinated 44 BCE
  • Mark Antony defeated at Actium 31 BCE
  • Julius Caesar 45 to 44 BCE
  • Augustus, Octavius 27 BCE to 14 CE (Luke 2:1)
  • Flavius Josephus 95 CE
GREECE - Roman Empire 146 BCE to 395 CE

ASIA (ANATOLIA) - Roman Empire 133–67 BCE to 395 CE

PERSIA - Parthian Empire 238 BCE to 224 CE

MESOPOTAMIA - Parthian Empire ca. 150 BCE to ca. 224 CE

ARAM (SYRIA) - Roman Empire 64 BCE to 400 CE

ISRAEL/JUDEA - Roman Empire 63 BCE to 400 CE

  • Second Temple Rebuilt, Herod’s Temple 20/19 BCE to 62–64 CE
Contemporary Sources:
  • Dead Sea Scrolls ca. 250 BCE to 67 CE
Historical Figures:
  • Paul, Saul 10 BCE to 67–68 CE (Acts-Philemon)
  • John the Baptist 6/5 BCE to 31 CE (Matt. 3:1-6; 11:2-15; 14:1-12; Mark 1:2-6; 8:28; Luke 3:3-6; 9:7-9; John 1)
  • Jesus, Christ 5/4 BCE to 33 CE (Matthew-John)
  • Hyrcanus II 63 to 40 BCE
  • Herod the Great 37 to 4 BCE
EGYPT - Ptolemaic Period 323 to 30 BCE - Roman Empire 30 BCE to 395 CE

  • Julius Caesar in Egypt 48 to 47 BCE
  • Cleopatra in Rome 46 to 44 BCE
  • Cleopatra Marries Marc Antony 37 BCE
  • Octavian Enters Alexandria 30 BCE
  • Cleopatra VII 52 to 30 BCE

1. Louis Feldman, “Josephus,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. by David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:981.
2. Anson Rainey and Steve Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. Carta: Jerusalem, 2006, 334-337.
3. Anson Rainey and Steve Notley, 336.
4. Gadara, Hippus, Scythopolis, Pella, Dium, Samaria, Marisa, Azotus, Jamnia, Arethusa, Gaza, Joppa, Dora, and Strato’s Tower (Ant. 14:75-76; War 1:156-157).
5. Michael Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land. A Historical Geography from the Persian Period to the Arab Conquest (586 B.C. to 640 A.D.), Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966, 1977, 79.
6. Rainey and Notley, 336.
7. Lee I. Levine, “Herod the Great,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. by David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:161-169.
8. David Braund, “The Herodian Dynasty,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. by David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:161-169.
9. Herod was about 25 at the time of his appointment (born in the late 70’s B.C.E.) Ibid, 3:161-169.
10. Adapted from Rainey and Notley, 337.
11. Levine, 3:161-169.
12. Antigonus disqualified Hyrcanus from the priesthood by mutilating his ear (Ant. 14:366) (Lev. 21:17-23).
13. Adapted from Anson Rainey and Steve Notley, 337-339.
14. Braund, 3:161-169.
15. He did this under pressure from Cleopatra whom Alexandra had appealed too. Rainey and Notley, 342.
16. Adapted from Rainey and Notley, 342-343 and Levine, 3:161-169.
17. Ant. 14:75; 15:294; 15:217.
18. Avi-Yonah, 89-90.
19. It included the strip of land where the ruins of a Phoenician settlement (known as “Strato’s Tower”) stood, together with and an ancient roadstead. On this site Herod would establish Caesarea a city majestic enough to impress even an emperor of Rome.
20. Adapted from Rainey and Notley, 342-343 and Levine, 3:161-169.
21. Levine, 161-169.
22. Rainey and Notley, 343.
23. Adapted from Rainey and Notley, 343 and Levine, 161-169.
24. Accordance Bible Atlas, Version 2, Map Backgrounds and data copyright 2006, 2008 OakTree Software, Inc. Map Data prepared by Greg Ward and David Lang.
25. For more information on Herod’s building projects refer to Ehud Netzer, “Herod’s Building Program” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. by David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:161-169.
26. The importance of Caesarea from an archaeological perspective cannot be underestimated. It is a vital key in understanding maritime trade and harbor engineering in the Roman period. It is the only ancient port from the period that is open to archaeology, unlike Rome’s Portus, which is under an airport, Leptis Magna in Libya, which is silted in, Alexandria in Egypt and Piraeus in Athens, which are both still operational. Robert L. Hohlfelder, “Herod the Great’s City on the Sea – Caesarea Maritima,” National Geographic Magazine 171/2 (1987): 273.
27. Yosef Porat, “Vegas on the Med: A Tour of Caesarea’s Entertainment District,” BAR 30/5 (2004): 26.
28. Porat, 33.
29. Hohlfelder, 271.
30. Kenneth G. Holum, “Building Power: The Politics of Architecture,” BAR 30/5 (2004): 35.
31. Dedicated to Augustus, named Sebastos, which is a Greek translation of Augustus. Apparently the harbor (Sebastos) and the city (Caesarea) had separate names – the harbor belonging to the emperor and Rome although still accessible to the city. Kenneth G. Holum, “Caesarea’s Temple Hill,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67/4 (2004): 190.
32. Holum, 57.
33. Theatres were generally eastern oriented in order to catch the falling western sunlight at sunset.
34. T.R. Reid, “The World According to Rome,” National Geographic Magazine 192/2 (1997): 82.
35. Adapted from Accordance Bible Timeline, Data copyright 2006, 2008 OakTree Software, Inc. Map Data prepared by David Lang.


Aharoni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Micael. The Carta Bible Atlas. 4th ed. Carta: Jerusalem, 2002.

Avi-Yonah, Michael. The Holy Land. A Historical Geography from the Persian Period to the Arab Conquest (586 B.C. to 640 A.D.). Baker: Grand Rapids, 1966, 1977.

Braund, David. “The Herodion Dynasty.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Feldman, Louis. “Josephus.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Gracey, M.H. “Herodion Army.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992

Hammond, Philip. “New Light on the Nabataeans.” BAR 30/5 (2004): 24-35,57.

Hohlfelder, Robert. “Herod the Great’s City on the Sea – Caesarea Maritima.” National Geographic Magazine 171/2 (1987): 260-279.

Holum, Kenneth. “Caesarea’s Temple Hill.” Near Eastern Archaeology 67/4 (2004): 184-199.

______. “Building Power: The Politics of Architecture.” BAR 30/5 (2004): 24-35,57.

Levine, Lee. “Herod the Great.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Netzer, Ehud. “Herod’s Building Program.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

______. “Herodium.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Porat, Yosef. “Vegas on the Med: A Tour of Caesarea’s Entertainment District.” BAR 30/5 (2004): 24-35.

Rainey, Anson and Notley, Steve. The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. Carta: Jerusalem, 2006.

Rasmussen, Carl. Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.

Reid, T.R. “The World According to Rome.” National Geographic Magazine 192/2 (1997): 54-83.

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