Lesson 2: Herod the Great and the Romans

The Maccabean Revolt catalyzed tremendous religious and political change in ancient Palestine. And only a few generations after the family of the rebels established a dynasty, the region was sent into upheaval by the arrival of a new political force… the Romans. This lesson explores the consequences of Roman imperialism in the east and the complex figure of Herod.





Hasmonean, Ethnarch, Idumea, Pompey, Antipater, Josephus, Mariamne, Herodium, Masada, Caesarea Maritima, Augustus, Archelaus, Varus, Quirinius = Cyrenius



Jewish Encyclopedia: Temple of Herod

History.com: Inside’s Herod’s Temple

Livius.org: Herod

DIR: Augustus

Timeline: End of the Republic

History.com: Augustus



The Hasmonean Dynasty

The family of Mattathias, his sons, and their descendants is called the Hasmonean dynasty. It is significant that First Maccabees is framed around the family of Mattathias. Historians generally consider the book of First Maccabees, which was written under the Hasmoneans, as a court history meant to depict the Hasmoneans in a positive light. In a way, the book is propaganda. This does not make it any more or less true, although it might tell us to watch for favorable exaggerations. It clearly expresses a point of view: the Hasmoneans were the rightful rulers of Judea. This claim would not be necessary unless some Jews thought otherwise.

The Hasmonean line ruled Judea and much of Palestine from the triumph of Judas against the Seleucids in 160 BC until the accession of Herod the Great in 37 BC – over a century of independent Jewish rule. It is important to note that Judas Maccabee never took a title; he was simply the leader of the people. But he was clearly in charge. When he recaptured Jerusalem, it was he who appointed priests to oversee the rededication of the temple, and it was he who ordered Jews worldwide to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. When Judas was succeeded by his brother Jonathan in 160 BC, Jonathan continued to rule without official title until he became the high priest. This title was a remarkable development because it meant the unofficial leadership was recognized in the form of the Jewish traditional high office in the Second Temple period.

Upon Jonathan’s death in 142 BC, the last of the brothers, Simon, succeeded him as high priest and de facto leader of the people. Simon was recognized as high priest, general of the army, and ethnarch, a Greek term meaning “head of the nation.” Simon ruled until 135 BC, when he was assassinated. He was the last of the sons of Mattathias. Upon his death, Simon’s own son, John Hyrcanus, came into power. John Hyrcanus would rule for 31 years, from 135-104 BC, as high priest of the Jews and ethnarch of Judea. In the generations after Judas, Jonathan, and Simon, the Hasmoneans not only ruled Judea, but they also expanded their dominion beyond Judea and the Jewish heartland around Jerusalem. John Hyrcanus made inroads into the north and south, taking control over important towns in Samaria and Idumea, where he forced some of the inhabitants to convert to Judaism.

John Hyrcanus’ son, Alexander Jannaeus, ruled after him from 103-76 BC. The reign of Alexander Jannaeus is significant on two counts.
Coin of Alexander Jannaeus

First, Alexander declared himself not only high priest and commander, but also king. Alexander Jannaeus was the first king of the Jews since the destruction of the First Temple. He issued coins in Greek and Hebrew, declaring himself king and high priest. During this time, First Maccabees was written. It recorded the reign of Alexander Jannaeus and celebrated the origin of the Hasmoneans. First Maccabees, in other words, is a pro-Hasmonean book written at a time when the successors of the Maccabean Revolt were taking increasingly grander titles for themselves.

Second, Alexander expanded the frontiers of Hasmonean rule further than any of his successors. He brought Palestine under firm Hasmonean rule. He made Idumea a subject territory of the Hasmonean state. He secured Gaza and the towns along the southern coast. He brought the region of Samaria under his rule. It is likely that he also incorporated the region of Galilee, to the north of Samaria, with its mixed Jewish and pagan population. The long successive reigns of John Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus, which stretched from 135 to 76 BC, were the glory days of the Hasmonean dynasty.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, politics in Palestine were shaped by the confluence of two trends: the instability of the Hasmonean dynasty and the rise of Rome. Alexander Jannaeus left his kingdom to his wife. When she died, her two sons struggled for the throne. These events culminated in the intervention of the Romans, who were the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean by the 60s BC. Eventually, the Romans realized that a destabilized Palestine was harmful to their control of the region. The era of the Romans, and the demise of the Hasmoneans, was announced by the arrival of the great Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. Pompey intervened in the disputed Hasmonean succession and occupied Jerusalem. He himself entering the temple, profaning the Holy of Holies with his presence. Afterward, he declared – to the surprise of the pagan world – that there was nothing there. Naturally, there was no graven image of Yahweh.

The rest of our story takes place in the context of the Roman Empire: the Romans will appoint Herod the Great as king of Judea, and a Roman governor will interrogate, try, and execute Jesus Christ. Paul, the great missionary and theologian, will be a Roman citizen who appeals to the Roman Emperor for trial, and who travels to Rome itself at the end of his life. For three centuries, the Roman government will look with distrust and disdain on the Christians. This era will be marked by sporadic episodes of brutal persecution until a Roman Emperor converts to Christianity and begins the process of turning the Roman Empire into a Christian state.

The Rise of the Romans

Rome is a western city situated on the Tiber River some fifteen miles inland from the western coast of Italy. Rome is perfectly located to control the entire Mediterranean, but the ancient Romans are the only people to have held the entire sea.

A Latin-speaking people, Roman civilization developed more slowly than that of the Greeks. When Alexander the Great launched his eastward expedition in 334 BC and conquered an empire stretching from Macedonia to India, Rome was still a city-state still locked in a mortal struggle with the other towns in central Italy. No Roman writers are extant before 200 BC, when the Greeks had already produced Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Greeks had produced Herodotus and Thucydides, but no Roman historians are known until the third century BC. The Greeks had seen men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but Rome had produced no philosophers. Yet what the Romans lacked in high culture was made up for in their politics, warfare, and law. The Romans were conquerors and administrators. In that respect, they have had few equals in all of history.

If Rome was still just a city-state in the age of Alexander the Great, the third century BC was the turning point. The Romans waged and won a series of wars against their mortal enemies in the western Mediterranean: the Carthaginians. The Romans emerged victorious from these conflicts, which are known as the Punic Wars. The Second Punic War ended in 201 BC with a complete Roman victory. Over the second century BC, the Romans conquered Greece and ended the line of Macedonian kings. They came to control Asia Minor, a strategically, culturally, and economically vital territory. This expansion brought the Romans directly into contact with the Seleucid kingdom (the old overlords of Palestine) which was centered on Syria.

The book of First Maccabees reveals one of the most interesting witnesses to the growth of Roman power in the second century: the treaties struck between the Roman senate and the leaders of the Maccabean rebellion. These treaties are significant for several reasons:

They demonstrate the nature of Roman imperialism. The Romans loved entangling alliances. Roman imperialism often occurred by taking sides in pre-existing feuds. The Romans struck up an alliance with the Maccabees, which only encouraged them to intervene in the east.

Strategically, the treaties show us that the Roman senate and the Hasmoneans had a common interest: pinching the Seleucids. The Roman senate was friendly to the rebels because Rome was in conflict with the Seleucids, not because the Roman senate loved Jewish religious freedom. The treaties had little practical effect, but they were moral support. Clearly, the rebels found it useful for a powerful foreign ally to recognize their legitimacy.

Notice that Roman foreign policy in the middle of the second century was conducted by the senate. Only a few generations later, the senate was losing control of state policy to powerful leaders such as Pompey, Caesar, Antony, and Augustus.

The story of Roman imperialism is inseparable from the development of internal Roman politics. Since the expulsion of their last king in 509 BC, the Romans enjoyed a republican form of government with a mixed constitution. The Roman constitution was “mixed” in that it exhibited features of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy.

The political situation in Palestine throughout the first century played out against the demise of the Roman Republic, the rise of individual commanders of extraordinary power, and the struggles between these individuals: the civil wars of the late Roman republic, particularly the long and complex struggles between Pompey and Caesar, and then the following civil war between Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony and his heir Octavian, later known as Augustus. These wars were formative in the development of Palestinian politics. Indeed, it is striking that the Roman civil wars were largely decided by control of the eastern theater.
Bust of Pompey

For this, Pompey is to thank or to blame. If the Roman senate was the guiding force in Roman foreign policy during the second century, by the decade of the 60s BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great, was the dominant figure in the Roman East. Pompey was indeed a great figure, a popular leader, the greatest military commander of his generation, and a loyal patriot of Rome. More than any other individual, Pompey created and consolidated the eastern Roman empire. He systematically eliminated all threats to Roman power in the east. Pompey made Rome the absolute unchallenged power of the Mediterranean Sea. Then Pompey eliminated all opponents of Roman power on the borders of Asia Minor – he destroyed the kingdom of Mithridates on the Black Sea. In 64 BC, he took the battle south and deposed the last king of the Seleucids, annexing Syria as a Roman province. Rome was now in control of the Near East.

Roman Intervention in Palestine

By 64 BC, Pompey had fully secured the eastern sea, the frontiers of Asia Minor, and the territory of Syria. At precisely this moment, the Hasmonean dynasty controlling Palestine was in disarray. The death of Alexander Janneus had left his wife in control, but upon her death in 67 BC, her two sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus were involved in a dynastic struggle. Pompey could not tolerate the instability of a civil war on his southern flank, so he marched south with his army and occupied Judea in 63 BC. Pompey entered Jerusalem and became the first Roman general to take the holy city of the Jews.

Pompey came not to make Judea a province, but to pacify it and settle its internal troubles. Nevertheless, from 63 BC we can say that the Romans were effectively in control of Palestine. After this conquest, the Jews would not have an independent Judean state until the 20th century. Both factions of the Hasmonean dynasty, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, appealed to Pompey. Pompey chose Hyrcanus over Aristobulus – for good reasons. Hyrcanus was an easily controlled puppet with little ambition. His brother Aristobulus was a capable, ambitious military man. The Romans wanted someone docile, so they chose Hyrcanus and defeated Aristobulus. Even though the Hasmonean king Hyrcanus remained on the throne, we can date the beginning of Roman power in Palestine to this fateful moment in 63 BC when the Hasmoneans became client kings of Rome.

The transformation of Judea into a Roman satellite eventually led to the reign of Herod the Great. Pompey installed a Hasmonean, Hyrcanus, on the throne, but it was no secret that Hyrcanus was a puppet. The real power behind the throne was Antipater, a royal minister from Idumea, the region to the south south-east of Judea. Idumea was brought under Jewish rule during the expansionist reign of Alexander Janneus. This is an important fact because the Jews of Judea did not consider the people of Idumea fully Jewish. For two decades, Hasmoneans sat on the throne while the Idumean family of Antipater held the reins of power. Antipater was shrewd, and his success can be attributed to one fact: he understood that the Romans were the real power, and he always acted accordingly. He instilled this lesson in his son, Herod the Great, whom he appointed governor of Galilee at age 25. Antipater’s son showed himself a capable governor of Galilee, the northernmost district of the Jewish realm. Herod clearly absorbed the central lesson of his father’s political career: serve the Romans well, and you will survive.

Herod the Great would systematically rise to power by applying that lesson. By the late 40s BC, the Hasmoneans began to resent the power of Antipater the Idumean and his family. Antipater was assassinated, and an attempt was made on Herod’s life. In 40 BC, Herod was forced to flee Judea altogether, and he sailed for Rome. Once there, he reminded the Romans of the loyal and capable service which his father and he had done for them. He convinced the Romans to support him against the native Hasmonean government of Judea. In that same year of 40 BC, the Romans elected Herod King of the Jews in the city of Rome. He sailed back to Palestine with a Roman army. By 37 BC, he had captured Jerusalem and expelled the Hasmonean leadership. Herod, an Idumean backed by Roman forces, had become king of the Jews.

Herod the Great

Herod the Great ruled Palestine from 37 BC until his death in 4 BC. In many ways, he deserved his epithet, “the Great,” but he is not an easy figure to understand. Our knowledge of him derives principally from Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in Greek in the late first century AD. Josephus is an indispensable and generally reliable guide to the history of the Jews in the first centuries BC and AD, but we have to understand his point of view. Josephus was both pro-Jewish and pro-Roman. He himself was a “collaborator,” a Jew who was loyal to the Roman empire and favored Roman rule. However, he was also a pious and loyal Jew who was able to view Roman actions critically. His portrait of Herod the Great is thus ambiguous; this probably reflects the fact that Herod’s reign was remarkably successful in some respects but cruel and disastrous in others.

On the negative side, we must understand that Herod was ruthless and paranoid. But Herod had to be ruthless, and he had good reason to be paranoid. He inaugurated his reign by executing the inner circle of Hasmoneans who were his enemies. He also married Mariamne, a descendant of the Hasmoneans, in an effort to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Jewish people. Still, most Jews did not accept his reign. Recall that even the Hasmoneans were considered illegitimate by some Jews because they were not from the line of David. Herod came from Idumea (Biblical Edom), and his very presence on the throne was an offense to both pious Jews and Hasmonean supporters, some of whom had close ties to Mariamne. In other words, Herod was flanked on all sides by potential enemies. It is perfectly understandable why he was paranoid.

His response to these threats was ruthless, iron-handed rule backed by Roman power. Over his life, he would execute many of his closest friends, advisors, and relatives, culminating with the murder of his beloved wife Mariamne in 29 BC, an act which solidified Herod’s power but took its psychological toll on him.

Herod was a great builder, and his building projects exemplify his ambiguous legacy as a paranoid tyrant and a remarkable leader. Take, for instance, his defensive structures. Herod built numerous fortresses to protect himself from his own people. Seven miles to the south of Jerusalem, he constructed the Herodium, a building that was part pleasure dome, part paranoid palace. Perhaps most famously, he fortified the site of Masada, a remote mountainous retreat on the southern end of the Dead Sea. He built it as an impregnable refuge where he could escape from danger.

Not all of Herod’s building projects were born of paranoia. Nothing exemplifies his positive legacy like the creation of Caesarea Maritima, the great city built by Herod and named after his Roman patrons. As Maritima implies, it was on the coast. Herod constructed this enormous port city which would replace Joppa as the main port connecting Jerusalem to the wider Mediterranean world. Herod built the city along the town plans of a Greco-Roman city, complete with temples, colonnades, an agora, and an amphitheater. An aqueduct running from Mount Carmel in the north provided the city with fresh water, typifying Herod’s dependence on Rome (and their architecture) for his success. Caesarea became the largest port in the eastern Mediterranean.

It was one of Herod’s most lasting successes, and by 13 BC he wisely moved from Jerusalem to the coast and made Caesarea his capital. He and the Romans after him would rule Judea from Caesarea, leaving Jerusalem largely to the Jewish religious authorities – and a garrison of Roman troops.
Aqueduct at Caesarea

Herod rebuilt the Second Temple on an extraordinarily grand scale. He doubled the size of the temple mount. Before Herod, the Second Temple was relatively small and unspectacular. He had the existing temple torn down (although sacrifices were constantly maintained so that there is only one ‘Second Temple’ period). Herod proceeded carefully so that only ritually-pure workers and priests worked on the construction itself. The project was carried out to win the support of his Jewish populace, and Herod was careful not to offend their religious sensibilities. The end result was the architectural highlight of all Judea.

The key to Herod’s success lay in his commitment to Roman power and his ability to maintain his alliances with Rome throughout the political turbulence of the age. Herod, for instance, chose the wrong side in the civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar. Herod initially sided with Mark Antony, who had been the dominant Roman figure in the eastern provinces after the death of Julius Caesar. But when Octavian defeated Antony and it became clear that Octavian would become master of the Roman world, Herod switched his loyalties and went to Octavian in person. This time, Herod had chosen wisely, for Octavian not only defeated Antony in the civil war, but he also annexed Egypt as a Roman province, removing the last representative of the Ptolemaic line: Cleopatra.

Octavian ended the era of republican rule in Rome; he left the senate and the assemblies in place, but he gradually usurped all effective power for himself, slowly accumulating titles, privileges, and offices. In 27 BC, he received the honorary title Augustus, the “revered one,” and effectively became the first emperor of Rome, inaugurating what we call the imperial (in contrast to the republican) period of Roman history. After ending two generations of bloody civil war, Augustus was literally regarded as a “savior,” and the euangelion (the gospel) of his reign was announced throughout the world.

Surrounded on both sides, Syria and Egypt, by official Roman provinces, Herod continued to rule Palestine as King of the Jews on behalf of the emperor Augustus.

Although Herod ruled from 37 –4 BC, the latter years of his reign were marked by a particularly cruel cycle of paranoia and violence. Recall that Herod’s reign was not only an offense against pious Jews who considered him an outsider without legitimacy; his reign was also marked by factional struggle between the Idumean and Hasmonean branches of his family. In his last years, Herod had three of his own sons put to death, believing that each was plotting to kill him and take control of the family.

As the end approached, Herod himself grew ill, described in gruesome detail by Josephus. He suffered physically from his intestinal disease, politically from his vulnerable position, and personally from his heinous cruelty. As word of his illness spread, unrest grew. Herod realized he would die a man hated by his family and his people. Therefore, he had hundreds of innocent political opponents locked in the hippodrome at Jericho. He gave orders for the prisoners to be massacred when he died so that the country would go into mourning on his death – even if not on his behalf. This massacre is partly responsible for the memory of Herod as murderous and paranoid at the end of his reign.

Certainly, the widespread memory of Herod’s cruelty contributed to the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew, which claims that Herod had all children under two years of age murdered to forestall the birth of a new king. Matthew closely connects the birth of Jesus with the death of Herod. As the tyrannical and false king of the Jews died a miserable, lonely, and murderous death, the true anointed king was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. As we will see, the Gospel of Matthew is powerfully set within the historical framework of Jewish history. The story of a baby boy who flees to Egypt and escapes a wicked king – who is killing baby children – parallels the Old Testament story of Moses escaping the efforts of the evil Pharoah to kill all newborn children.

In Herod’s last days, he appointed Archelaus, one of his remaining sons, as the successor to his throne. Herod finally succumbed to his illness and died in 4 BC. Archelaus refused to accept the title of king until Herod’s will had been approved by Augustus. He sailed to Rome to receive the blessing of Caesar. In Archelaus’ absence, violent resistance erupted. The governor of Syria, a man named Varus, was forced to enter Judea and quell the violence; he did so by crucifying 2,000 rebels in Jerusalem. Varus sent word of events to Augustus, who recognized the delicacy of the situation. Augustus forged a compromise and withheld the title of king from Archelaus. Instead, Augustus instead named Archelaus an ethnarch (a leader of the people). Archelaus returned to Judea, but he was not the natural politician that his father was. His ten-year reign was a period of constant upheaval and violence in which Archelaus mimicked his father’s cruelty but not his savvy.

In 6 AD, Augustus summoned Archelaus to Rome, ended his reign, and exiled him to Gaul, where he lived out his days far from Palestine. In that same year of 6 AD, the Romans annexed Judea, completing their imperial control of the entire Mediterranean. First an ally and then a client kingdom, Judea was finally a Roman province under the direct administration of a Roman official. The governor of Syria, a man named Quirinius, was in charge of the annexation. The inhabitants of Judea would now pay taxes directly to the Roman administration. Indeed, as soon as the Romans annexed the region, they conducted a census to act as the basis of tax charges.

This census is famously recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem.”

Just as the Gospel of Matthew connects the birth of Jesus with the death of Herod, so the Gospel of Luke connects it with the beginning of Roman rule in Judea. For Luke, the birth of Jesus was connected to events in Roman history: the reign of Augustus and the census which marked the beginning of Roman administration in Judea. The census is an important starting point. As we will see, tax collectors, local agents acting on behalf of the Roman government who were hated, are prominent characters in the gospel stories.

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