Herod the Great, king of Judaea from 40–4 BCE, stood at multiple political and cultural crossroads. Rising to power as an Idumaean noble within the Hasmonean royal court, he was heavily involved in the violent and bloody transition from Roman Republic to Augustan Principate. Within this maelstrom, Herod deftly maneuvered between various Roman rivals and managed to survive and even thrive when many others did not. By positioning himself as a useful ally to Rome and advertising his loyalty through multiple media including coins, dedicatory inscriptions, and an extensive building program, Herod solidified his relationship with Rome and confirmed his legitimacy as king. Culturally, he ruled over a diverse and multiethnic kingdom and thus had to navigate between different stakeholders with vastly different agendas. In particular, he governed and was a neighbor to several Hellenized cities and kingdoms, all of which expected certain behaviors from him. In addition, he also had to cater to the cultural sensitivities and expectations of the majority of his kingdom, his Jewish subjects. This relationship was by far his most complicated one, as many within his realm questioned both his legitimacy as king and his membership in the Jewish community. In response, Herod sought legitimacy through a connection with past sources of Jewish monarchical authority, none more important than the Hasmonean and Davidic monarchies. This quest for approval from his Jewish subjects reached its pinnacle with his massive renovation, reconstruction, and expansion of the Temple Mount, a project that he hoped would gain him approval and glory as a Jewish king in his own right. As his most important source, Josephus, clearly states, Herod was a man of contrasts: ruthless and magnanimous, violent and creative, defender of Jewish rights and builder of multiple temples to Augustus. He is thus a perfect emblem of the time period in which he lived, one that saw massive religious, social, and economic change within his kingdom and the larger Mediterranean world and that culminated politically in the rise of Augustus.
Historical Overviews and Narratives
Historical analyses of Herod have existed for a long time, but only in the last fifty years have they utilized all the available evidence and examined Herod without being blinded by Christian accounts of his reign. Traditional analyses of Herod, such as Jones 1938 and Schürer 1973 focus primarily on Josephus’s narratives and emphasize Herod’s use of oppression at the expense of other tools of statecraft. More nuanced and objective analysis of Herod and his reign first appeared in monographs such as Schalit 2001, which examines Herod and his reign within the context of his larger political, cultural, and social milieu. This approach has been extremely influential on all subsequent scholarship, and more recent investigations have used it as a starting point for their own work. Richardson 1996 utilizes both literary sources and material culture in a comprehensive biography that places Herod squarely within the maelstrom of the first-century Mediterranean world in general and Roman/Jewish relations in particular. More recent investigations, such as Baltrusch 2012, Günther 2005, Günther 2007, Marshak 2015, Schwentzel 2011, and Zangenberg 2016 have continued the scholarly reassessment of Herod in light of his larger historical context. These investigations have taken advantage of the wealth of archaeological evidence that has become available in the last few decades to present a richer and more complete picture of Herod and his reign. Unlike older investigations, such as Jones 1938 and even Schalit 2001, they do not privilege Herod’s relationship with Rome at the expense of his internal Jewish and non-Jewish audiences as well as his regional non-Jewish neighbors. Instead, they specifically see Herod as an adept political chameleon, who successfully navigated around the complex and dangerous milieu of the Triumvirate and early Principate through the simultaneous use of multiple political personae.
Baltrusch, Ernst. Herodes: König im Heiligen Land. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2012.
Analysis of Herod’s reign with a focus on the system of identities he maintained throughout his life. Distinguishes five distinct identities: Idumaean, Roman, Jew, Hellenist, and Paterfamilias. Argues that Herod’s successful manipulation of these identities enabled him to seize power and maintain his hold on it for decades. Correspondingly, when these identities began to crumble in the last decade of his reign, his hold on power declined precipitously.
Günther, L. -M. Herodes der Große. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005.
Examination of Herod and his reign that begins with a focus on the Christian and Jewish reception of Herod and his sons. Proceeds to a biographical examination of Herod’s rise to power and concludes with an analysis of Herod’s reign that examines his relationship with Rome, his conflicts with the Nabataeans, and the internal struggles within his family. Emphasizes his identity as a “realpolitician” fully within the Hellenistic royal tradition.
Günther, L. -M., ed. Herodes und Rom. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2007.
Collection of essays arising from a conference held in 2006, whose aim is to reassess the figure of Herod the Great and his reign. Articles discuss a wide range of topics relevant to Herod’s reign including his building program, his court, his relationship with Augustus, and his status as a Jewish king.
Jones, A. H. M. The Herods of Judaea. Oxford: Clarendon, 1938.
General historical overview of Herod the Great as well as his sons, grandson, and great-grandson, all of whom ruled parts of his kingdom. Represents one of the major schools of thought on Herod, namely, that Herod was unpopular with his Jewish subjects despite his success with his Roman patrons.
Marshak, Adam Kolman. The Many Faces of Herod the Great. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.
Analysis of Herod’s life and reign through the lens of political self-presentation. Argues that Herod succeeded primarily because he was an effective political chameleon, who adroitly appealed simultaneously to his Roman, Greek, and Jewish audiences. Detailed discussion of the literary, archaeological, epigraphic, and numismatic evidence.
Richardson, Peter. Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Comprehensive and approachable historical biography of Herod the Great. Examines his reign primarily from the literary sources but also discusses archaeological, epigraphic, and numismatic material. Provides good initial exposure to Herod and his reign as well as many of the major scholarly topics.
Schalit, Abraham. König Herodes: Der Mann und Sein Werk. Reprint. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001.
Comprehensive and extremely influential overview of Herod and his reign. Places Herod firmly within the political and cultural milieu in which he operated, while emphasizing both his political dexterity and equal capacity for ruthlessness. Stresses his faith in Rome’s right to rule and Augustus’s soteric role as global unifier, a project in which Herod included himself as a partner. Originally published in Hebrew in 1960 and translated into German in 1969.
Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 BC–AD 135). Edited, Translated, and Revised by Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar. Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1973.
The first significant and comprehensive historical overview of Late Hellenistic and Roman Judaea. Although many of his conclusions have since been refuted, Schürer is still the monograph that all Herodian scholars reference.
Schwentzel, C. -G. Hérode le Grand. Paris: Pygmalion, 2011.
Analysis of Herod the Great and his reign through a focus on his royal ideology and propaganda, as well as the administration of his kingdom. Concludes with an investigation of Herod’s successors. Emphasizes Herod’s multiple political personae and his attempts to depict himself as a fully Jewish king and yet also completely integrated into both the Hellenistic royal world and the Roman system of client kingship.
Zangenberg, Jürgen, ed. Herodes: König von Judäa. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2016.
Collection of nine essays arising from a conference held in 2014. Focuses on the political and cultural significance of Herod’s reign as well as his New Testament status as a child-killer. Topics include discussions of Herod’s major building projects, as well as the material culture of everyday life in Judaea, and Herod’s reception in early Christianity. Contains several vivid pictures, plates, and sketches to accompany the text.
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