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Herodes o Grande.

Herod the Great

The notable phrase “Til death us do part” has dripped from impassioned lips during marriage vows since 1549, having been altered slightly from the earlier “Till death us depart.” The meaning is self-explanatory: “I will love you until we are parted by death.” However, this natural end to any marriage has recently been called into question by the alleged Egyptian law which would allow men to legally have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after their death. This ‘farewell intercourse’ law proposal wasn’t actually true but the premise is nothing new.

Anecdotes of spousal necrophilia have existed for thousands of years: The tyrant Periander of Corinth is said to have murdered his pregnant wife Melissa and had sex with her corpse in the 6th Century BC. The tale was told by Herodotus (who also told us of the wandering hands of the Egyptian embalmers) and gave rise to the necro-euphemistic phrase “Placing your loaves into a cold oven.” Herod the Great, we are told, preserved the body of his deceased wife, the beautiful Mariamne, in honey for seven years in order to have intercourse with her after he’d had her killed.

In a similar vein, a salesman called Bradley from Utah met and fell in love with a woman in 1881. Unfortunately, she had consumption and died before their wedding, but as an honourable man he kept his word (since he’d promised he wouldn’t let her go to the grave unwed) and married her at her funeral. Pall bearers rubbed shoulders with bridesmaids and wedding guests at this sad ceremony which was recounted in the Illustrated Police News:

Herod was a notorious figure in the ancient world, but his problems might have run even deeper than we realize. He wasn’t actually born a Judean or a royal, but married into the Hasmonean/Maccabee dynasty that ruled the area; his wife was called Mariamne. A beautiful lady, Mariamne made Herod super-jealous of any guy she smiled at. So, thanks to some conspiring from his own family, Herod had her killed.

Horrifyingly, he couldn’t let her go after her death. The Talmud claims that Herod kept her dead body and still made love to it for seven whole years. And that must have been a sticky situation, considering Mariamne’s body was supposedly preserved in honey!

Baronet Sir John Pryce (died 1761) is described as a well-known ‘eccentric’ who married three times. His last wife Eleanor Jones, the widow of Roger Jones of Buckland, had to insist upon the removal of not one but two embalmed corpses from Sir John’s bedroom before she agreed to marry him – they were the remains of his wives one and two, preserved and kept, one on each side of his bed.

And it’s not just men who may need to fill the void left by the death of a lover by preserving the corpse. Joanna of Castile (also known as “Joanna the Mad” or “Juana la Loca”) was the older sister of Catherine of Aragon. She refused to abandon the corpse of her husband Philip the Handsome when he died of typhus at the young age of 28 in 1506. She kept his casket close to her, embracing his corpse at night, and made her servants treat him as though he were still alive.

Model of Herod’s Temple.

Herod was born 73 BCE as the son of a man from Idumea named Antipater and a woman named Cyprus, the daughter of an Arabian sheikh. Antipater was an adherent of Hyrcanus, one of two princes who struggling to become king of Judaea.

In this conflict, the Roman general Pompey intervened in Hyrcanus’ favour. Having favoured the winning side in the conflict, Antipater’s star rose, especially since he cooperated with the Romans as much as possible. In the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, Hyrcanus and Antipater sided with the latter, for which especially the courtier was rewarded: in 47, he was appointed epitropos (“regent”) and received the Roman citizenship.

It was obvious that Antipater was the real power behind Hyrcanus’ throne. He managed to secure the appointment of his son Herod to the important task of the governor of Galilee. He launched a small crusade against bandits, which made him very popular with the populace and impopular with the Sanhedrin.

On March 15, 44 BCE, Caesar was murdered. The new leaders in Rome were Caesar’s nephew Octavian and Caesar’s powerful second-in-command Mark Antony. They announced that they would punish Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, who fled to the East. Cassius ordered all provinces and principalities to pay money for their struggle against Octavian and Mark Antony, and Judaea had to pay some 15,000 kg of silver. Antipater and his sons had to take harsh measures to get the money, and in the ensuing troubles, Antipater was killed. With Roman help, Herod killed his father’s murderer.

In 43, Hyrcanus’ nephew Antigonus tried to obtain the throne. Herod defeated him and secured the continuity of the line of Hyrcanus by marrying his daughter Mariamme. Of course, the young man was not blind to the fact that this marriage greatly enhanced his own claim to the throne.

Meanwhile, Octavian and Mark Antony had defeated Brutus and Cassius (at Philippi, in 42). Herod managed to convince Mark Antony, who made a tour through the eastern provinces that had supported Caesar’s murderers, that his father had been forced to support their side. The Roman leader was convinced and awarded Herod with the title of tetrarch of Galilee, a title that was commonly used for the leaders of parts of vassal kingdoms. (Herod’s brother Phasael was to be tetrarch of Jerusalem; Hyrcanus remained the Jewish national leader in name only.)

Coin of Herod the Great.

This appointment caused a lot of resentment among the Jews. After all, Herod was not a Jew. He was the son of a man from Idumea; and although Antipater had been a pious man who had worshipped the Jewish God sincerely, the Jews had always looked down upon the Idumeans as racially impure. Worse, Herod had an Arabian mother, and it was commonly held that one could only be a Jew when one was born from a Jewish mother. When war broke out between the Romans and the Parthians (in Iran and Mesopotamia), the Jewish populace joined the latter. In 40, Hyrcanus was taken prisoner and brought to the Parthian capital Babylon; Antigonus became king in his place; Phasael committed suicide.

Herod managed to escape and went to Rome, where he persuaded Octavian and the Senate to order Mark Antony to restore him. And so it happened. After Mark Antony and his lieutenants had driven away from the Parthians, Herod was brought back to Jerusalem by two legions, VI Ferrata (whose men had already fought in Gaul and the civil wars) and another legion, perhaps III Gallica (37 BCE). Antigonus was defeated and after he had besieged and captured Jerusalem, and had defeated the last opposition (more), Herod could start his reign as sole ruler of Judaea. He assumed the title of basileus, the highest possible title.

Bronze coin of Herod the Great minted at Samaria.

Herod’s monarchy was based on foreign weapons; the start of his reign had been marked by bloodshed. His first aim was to establish his rule on a more solid base. Almost immediately, he sent envoys to the Parthian king to get Hyrcanus back from Babylon. The Parthian king was happy to let the old man go, because he was becoming dangerously popular among the Jews living in Babylonia. Although Hyrcanus was unfit to become high priest again, Herod kept his father-in-law in high esteem. The support of the old monarch gave an appearance of legality to his own rule.

The new king started an extensive building program: Jews could take pride in the new walls of Jerusalem and the citadel which guarded its Temple. (This fortress was called Antonia, in order to please Herod’s patron Mark Antony.) Coins were minted in his own name and showed an incense burner on a tripod, intended to signify Herod’s care for the orthodox Jewish cult practices. These coins had a Greek legend – HÈRÔDOU BASILEÔS – which indicates that Herod considered his standing abroad. And the new king continued to please the Romans, to make sure that they would continue their support. He sent lavish presents to their representative in the East, Mark Antony, and to his mistress, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

These gifts almost were Herod’s undoing. The relations between on the one hand Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the East and on the other hand Octavian and the Senate in the West became strained, and civil war broke out in 31. It did not last very long: in August, the western leader defeated the eastern leader, who fled to Alexandria. For the first time in his life, Herod had aligned himself with a loser.

He managed to solve this problem, however. First, he had Hyrcanus executed, making sure that no one else could claim his throne. Then, he sailed to the island of Rhodes, where he met Octavian. In a brilliant speech, Herod boasted of his loyalty to Mark Antony and promised the same to the new master of the Roman Empire. Octavian was impressed by the man’s audacity, confirmed Herod’s monarchy, and even added the coast of Judaea and Samaria to his realm. Actually, Octavian did not have much choice: his opponents were still alive, and if he were to pursue them to Egypt, Herod could be a useful ally. As it turned out, Mark Antony and Cleopatra preferred death to surrender, and Octavian became the only ruler in the Roman world. Under the name Augustus, he became the first emperor. He rewarded his ally with new possessions: a.o. Jericho and Gaza, which had been independent.

Herod’s position was still insecure. He continued his building policy to win the hearts of his subjects. (A severe earthquake in 31 BCE had destroyed many houses, killing thousands of people.) In Jerusalem, the king built a new market, an amphitheatre, a theatre, a new building where the Sanhedrin could convene, a new royal palace, and last but not least, in 20 BCE he started to rebuild the Temple. And there were other cities where he ordered new buildings to be placed: Jericho and Samaria are examples. New fortresses served the security of both the Jews and their king: Herodion, Machaerus, and Masada are among them.

But Herod’s crowning achievement was a splendid new port, called Caesarea in honour of the emperor (the harbour was called Sebastos, the Greek translation of “Augustus”). This magnificent and opulent city, which was dedicated in 9 BCE, was built to rival Alexandria in the land trade to Arabia, from where spices, perfume and incense were imported. It was not an oriental town like Jerusalem; it was laid out on a Greek grid plan, with a market, an aqueduct, government offices, baths, villas, a circus, and pagan temples. (The most important of these was the temple where the emperor was worshipped; it commanded the port.) The port was a masterpiece of engineering: its piers were made from hydraulic concrete (which hardens underwater) and protected by unique wave-breaking structures.

Tomb of Herod.

Although Herod was a dependent client-king, he had a foreign policy of his own. He had already defeated the Arabs from Petra in 31 and repeated this in 9 BCE. The Romans did not like this independent behaviour, but on the whole, they seem to have been very content with their king of Judaea. After all, he sent auxiliaries when they decided to send an army to the mysterious incense country (modern Yemen; 25 BCE). In 23, Iturea and the Golan heights were added to Herod’s realms, and in 20 several other districts.

With building projects, the expansion of his territories, the establishment of a sound bureaucracy, and the development of economic resources, he did much for his country, at least on a material level. The standing of his country -foreign and at home- was certainly enhanced. However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked Herod’s Greek taste – a taste he showed not only in his building projects but also in several transgressions of the Mosaic Law.

The Orthodox were not to only ones who came to hate the new king. The Sadducees hated him because he had terminated the rule of the old royal house to which many of them were related; their own influence in the Sanhedrin was curtailed. The Pharisees despised any ruler who despised the Law. And probably all his subjects resented his excessive taxation. According to Flavius Josephus, there were two taxes in kind at annual rates equivalent to 10.7% and 8.6%, which is extremely high in any pre-industrial society.  It comes as no surprise that Herod sometimes had to revert to violence, employing mercenaries and a secret police to enforce order.

On moments like that, it was clear to anyone that Herod was not a Jewish but a Roman king. He had become the ruler of the Jews with Roman help and he boasted to be philokaisar (“the emperor’s friend”), entertaining Agrippa, Augustus’ right-hand man. On top of the gate of the new Temple, a golden eagle was erected, a symbol of Roman power in the heart of the holy city resented by all pious believers. Worse, Augustus ordered and paid the priests of the Temple to sacrifice twice a day on behalf of himself, the Roman senate, and people. The Jewish populace started to believe rumours that their pagan ruler had violated Jewish tombs, stealing golden objects from the tomb of David and Solomon.

Herod concluded ten marriages, all for political purposes.  They were probably all unhappy. His wives were:

  1. Doris, from an unknown family in Jerusalem.She was the mother of Antipater, who was executed in 4.
  1. The Hasmonaean princess Mariamme I. According to Flavius Josephus, Herod was passionately devoted to this woman, but she hated him just as passionately.
    • Five children: Alexander, Aristobulus, a nameless son, Salampsio and Cyprus.
  2. An unknown niece: married 37. No children.
  3. An unknown cousin: married. No children.
  4. The daughter of a Jerusalem priest named Simon, Mariamme II:
    • They had a son named Herod.
  5. A Samarian woman named Malthace.
  6. A Jerusalem woman named Cleopatra.
    • They had two sons named, Herod and Philip.
  7. Pallas: married.
    • They had a son named Phasael.
  8. Phaedra: married.
    • They had a daughter named Roxane.
  9. Elpis: married.
    • They had a daughter named Salome.

Mariamne I from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.”

Mariamne I also called Mariamne the Hasmonean (died 29 BCE) was the second wife of Herod the Great. She was known for her great beauty, as was her brother Aristobulus. Her husband loved her because of her beauty alone and not for what was in her heart and soul. Ultimately this was the main reason for the downfall of the Hasmonean dynasty of Judea.

She was the daughter of the Hasmonean Alexandros, and thus one of the last heirs to the Hasmonean dynasty of Judea. Her mother, Alexandra, arranged for her betrothal to Herod in 41 BCE, but the two were not wed for four years, in Samaria. Mariamne bore Herod four children: two sons, Alexandros and Aristobulus (both executed in 7 BCE), and two daughters, Salampsio and Cyprus. Mariamne’s only sibling was Aristobulus III of Judea. Her father, Alexander of Judaea, the son of Aristobulus II, married his cousin Alexandra, daughter of his uncle Hyrcanus II, in order to cement the line of inheritance from Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, but the inheritance soon continued the blood feud of previous generations, and eventually led to the downfall of the Hasmonean line. By virtue of her parents’ union, Mariamne claimed Hasmonean royalty on both sides of her family lineage.

It was because of Mariamne’s vehement insistence that Herod made her brother, Aristobulus, High Priest. Aristobulus, who was not even eighteen, drowned within a year of his appointment; Alexandra, his mother, blamed Herod. Alexandra wrote to Cleopatra, begging her assistance in avenging the boy’s murder. Cleopatra, in turn, urged Marc Antony to punish Herod for the crime and Antony sent for him to make his defence. Herod left his young wife in the care of his uncle Joseph, along with the instructions that if Antony should kill him, Joseph should kill Mariamne. Herod believed his wife to be so beautiful that she would become engaged to another man after his death and that his great love for Mariamne prevented him from enduring a separation from her, even in death. Joseph became familiar with the Queen and eventually divulged this information to her and the other women of the household, which did not have the hoped-for effect of proving Herod’s devotion to his wife.

Rumours soon circulated that Herod had been killed by Antony, and Alexandra persuaded Joseph to take Mariamne and her to the Roman legions for protection. However, Herod was released by Antony and returned home, only to be informed of Alexandra’s plan by his mother and sister, Salome. Salome also accused Mariamne of committing adultery with Joseph, a charge which Herod initially dismissed after discussing it with his wife. After Herod forgave her, Mariamne inquired about the order given to Joseph to kill her should Herod be killed, and Herod then became convinced of her infidelity, saying that Joseph would only have confided that to her were the two of them intimate. He gave orders for Joseph to be executed and for Alexandra to be confined but did not punish his wife.

Because of this conflict between Mariamne and Salome, when Herod visited Augustus in Rhodes, he separated the women – he left his sister and his sons in Masada while he moved his wife and mother-in-law, Alexandra, to Alexandrium. Again, Herod left instructions that should he die, the charge of the government was to be left to Salome and his sons, and Mariamne and her mother were to be killed. Mariamne and Alexandra were left in the charge of another man named Sohemus, and after gaining his trust again learned of the instructions Herod provided should harm befall him.

Mariamne became convinced that Herod did not truly love her and resented that he would not let her survive him. When Herod returned home, Mariamne treated him coldly and did not conceal her hatred for him. Salome and her mother preyed on this opportunity, feeding Herod false information to fuel his dislike. Herod still favoured her; but she refused to have sexual relations with him and accused him of killing her grandfather, Hyrcanus II, and her brother. Salome insinuated that Mariamne planned to poison Herod, and Herod had Mariamne’s favourite eunuch tortured to learn more. The eunuch knew nothing of a plot to poison the king but confessed the only thing he did know: that Mariamne was dissatisfied with the king because of the orders given to Sohemus. Outraged, Herod called for the immediate execution of Sohemus but permitted Mariamne to stand trial for the alleged murder plot. To gain favour with Herod, Mariamne’s mother even implied Mariamne was plotting to commit lèse majesté.

Herod’s attempt to kill himself, medieval miniature.

The reign of Herod became more troubled the longer it lasted. In 9 BCE a war broke out with Nabataea, Herod’s southern neighbours, which had become a base for Judean opposition factions. The situation worsened when Augustus initially sided with the Nabataeans in the dispute. Fortunately, Herod’s envoy, Nicolaus of Damascus, was able to present the king’s case, and Augustus changed policy.

As well as diplomatic problems Herod had family issues to deal with, too. Suspecting his wife Mariamme of being unfaithful he had her executed in 29 BCE. Their two sons were suspected of loyalties to the opposition threatening Herod from Nabataea, and so Herod ruthlessly dispatched them c. 6 BCE, along with his eldest son Antipater two years later. By now, though, the ageing king was suffering severe health problems which affected his internal organs, and he died in 4 BCE. Herod was buried in a purpose-built tomb on the slopes of the Herodium. In 2007 CE this tomb was excavated, but the sarcophagus within it was damaged and empty. Probably it had been opened during the first Jewish Revolt in the century after Herod’s death. Herod’s kingdom was divided by the Romans between Herod’s three sons: Herod Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip.

There is a Talmudic legend concerning the marriage and death of Mariamne, although her name is not mentioned. It is to the effect that when the whole house of the Hasmoneans had been rooted out, she threw herself from the roof and was killed (B. B. 3b). Out of love for her, Herod is said to have kept her body preserved in honey for seven years. In the Talmud this sort of mental derangement is called a “deed of Herod.”  Also after her death Herod tried in hunting and banqueting to forget his loss, but that even his strong nature succumbed and he fell ill in Samaria, where he had made Mariamne his wife The Mariamne tower in Jerusalem, built by Herod, was without doubt named after her; it was called also “Queen”

Herod’s reign ended in terror. When the king fell ill, two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle from the entrance of the Temple: after all, according to the Ten Commandments, it was a sin to make idols. The teachers and the pupils were burned alive. Some Jewish scholars had discovered that seventy-six generations had passed since the Creation, and there was a well-known prophecy that the Messiah was to deliver Israel from its foreign rulers in the seventy-seventh generation (more…). The story about the slaughter of infants of Bethlehem in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is not known from other sources, but it would have been totally in character for the later Herod to commit such an act.

A horrible disease (probably a cancer-like affection called Fournier’s gangrene) made acute the problem of Herod’s succession, and the result was factional strife in his family. Shortly before his death, Herod decided against his sons Aristobulus and Antipater, who were executed in 7 and 4 BCE, causing the emperor Augustus to joke that it was preferable to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios) – a very insulting remark to any Jew.note

However, the emperor confirmed Herod’s last will. After his death in 4 BCE, the kingdom was divided among his sons. Herod Antipas was to rule Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch; Philip was to be tetrarch of the Golan heights in the north-east; and Archelaus became the ethnarch (“national leader”) of Samaria and Judaea. Herod was buried in one of the fortresses he had built, Herodion. Few will have wept.

Aerial photo of Herodium from the southwest.

The Herodium fortress, one of seven built by Herod, has been identified by archaeologists as the Jebel Fureidis mountain on the edge of the Judean desert. The classic cone-shaped mountain was an ideal location for the fortress which Herod built to commemorate his victory over Antigonus and the Parthians in 37 BCE. The fortress was to provide Herod with a place of refuge if his rule were ever challenged and, perhaps too, act as his mausoleum. It was built by digging out the peak of the mountain and using the recovered earth as part of the ramparts. A large palace was built within its walls which was supplied with water by a system of aqueducts. The whole complex was completed c. 15 BCE. At the base of the mountain, a small town was constructed, which included administrative buildings, gardens, a synagogue, mausoleums, and a large pool. The site has been excavated, and highlights include the large pool of the lower town and one of the earliest Roman domed roofs inside the palaces baths.

Herod the Great – AllAboutArchaeology.org

Herod the Great – Wikipedia

Herod the Great – Livius

Herod | king of Judaea | Britannica.com

Herod the Great Biography – life, family, death, wife, son, information …

Herod the Great – Ancient History Encyclopedia

What Disease Killed King Herod? – National Geographic

Herod the Great | My Jewish Learning

Herod the Great – Jewish Encyclopedia

BBC – Religions – Christianity: King Herod

King Herod the great, Herod temple – Aish.com

Herod the Great’s Israel – The New York Times

Why Herod the Great Was Not So Great – History by the Slice

Herod the Great: How He Died and Where He Was Buried – Amazing …

 


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