Josephus, Antiquities 17.99.


I offer my translation (more literal than convenient) as an improvement upon that of Ralph Marcus in the Loeb Classical Library’s volume 8 of Josephus. While there are a few problems with the Greek text of Antiquities, only one is worth mentioning here. I translate the word odaxasthai as “to scratch.” This word is a modern but necessary emendation—the manuscripts erroneously give dexasthai, that is “to receive”—because in the parallel account of War the word is knêsmos, meaning “itch.” The problem is an old one. Already the Latin translator of Josephus, unable to emend the text, accepted the reading dexasthai and went on to render the sentence with food (cibus) in mind. But this is not right. Diagnoses based on the interpretation that Herod had a terrible desire “to receive” food or drink, are therefore invalid.


On Herod and his background, and for elaboration of any detail not referenced below, see my The Herodian Dynasty: Origins, Role in Society and Eclipse (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).


The attribution to Augustus is noted by the 5th-century writer Macrobius, in his Saturnalia 2.4.11.


Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1.8.4.


See T. Africa, “Worms and the Death of Kings: A Cautionary Note on Disease and History,” Classical Antiquity 1 (1982), pp. 1–17.


See C. Petrie, Philip II of Spain (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964), p. 309; G. Parker, Philip II (Boston: Little Brown, 1978), pp. 197–198.


The attempt by D.J. Ladouceur (“The Death of Herod the Great,” Classical Philology 76 [1981], pp. 25–34) to show that Herod’s final illness is based solely on Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague (History of the Peloponnesian War 2.49–50) is not convincing, and it still tampers with the Greek text. G. Mader (Josephus and the Politics of Historiography [Leiden: Brill, 2000], p. 56) supports Ladouceur but offers no evidence. We must recognize that the Greek literary assistants employed by Josephus in the War did not rely heavily on Thucydides (unlike Antiquities)—see H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian (repr. New York: Ktav, 1967), pp. 104–106; T. Rajak, Josephus the Historian and his Society (London: Duckworth, 1983), pp. 233–236; S. Schwartz, Josephus and Judaean Politics (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 24, 38.


Walter Loebl has been invited to contribute a full diagnosis in a Herodian volume I am editing—one of two volumes of papers read in the international conference The World of the Herods and the Nabataeans (held at the British Museum in April 2001). I am grateful for the permission to use his statements here.


Insulin is produced in the pancreas, so not surprisingly cancer of the pancreas has also been suggested. But Dr. Loebl observes that “in cancer of the pancreas the pain is in the back and not the abdomen.”


The graffito was discovered in the late 1980s by G.M.H. King, and will be published in her forthcoming collection of more than 2,000 Safaitic inscriptions. It was mentioned briefly by M.C.A. Macdonald, “Herodian Echoes in the Syrian Desert,” in S. Bourke and J.-P. Descoeudres (eds.), Trade, Contact and the Movement of Peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean: Studies in Honour of J.B. Hennessy (Sydney: Meditarch, 1995), p. 286. I thank both for sending me information at an early stage.


Poisoning: E. Renan, Les Apôtres (Paris: M. Lévy, 1886), p. 65; J. Preuss, Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin (Berlin: Karger, 1911), pp. 190–195.
Cardio-renal failure: E.M. Merrins, “The Deaths of Antiochus IV, Herod the Great, and Herod Agrippa I,” Bibliotheca Sacra 61 (1904), pp. 558–560; E.W.G. Masterman, Hygiene and Disease in Palestine in Modern and in Biblical Times (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1920), p. 55; N. Manson and V. Kalbian, published in S. Perowne, ed., The Life and Times of Herod the Great (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), pp. 185–186; A.T. Sandison, “The Last Illness of Herod the Great, King of Judaea,” Medical History 11 (1967), pp. 381–388; G.M. Burden, “Examination of Literary Evidence Points to Heart Failure as the Cause of Herod’s Death,” The Celator 6:1 (January, 1992), p. 34; S.S. Kottek, Medicine and Hygiene in the Works of Flavius Josephus (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 186–190.
Liver cirrhosis: M. Neuburger, Die Medizin in Flavius Josephus (Bad Reichenhall: Bachkunst, 1919), p. 58; J.O. Leibowitz, published in A.T. Sandison, “The Last Illness of Herod the Great, King of Judaea,” Medical History 11 (1967), p. 385; and in A. Schalit, Kônig Herodes: Der Mann und sein Werk (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969), pp. 639–640.
Sexually transmitted disease: R. Eisler Iêsous Vasileus ou Vasileusas, vol. 1, (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1929), p. 156.
Cancer of the bowels: A.H.M. Jones, The Herods of Judaea (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938), p. 47.
Diabetes mellitus: S. Muntner, “Qôrôth,” Vierteljahresschrift für die Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 1 (1953), pp. 134–142.; J. McSherry, “Worms, Diabetes and King Herod the Great,” Journal of Medical Biography 5 (1997), pp. 167–169; W.R. Litchfield, “The Bittersweet Demise of Herod the Great,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 91 (1998), pp. 283–284.
Cancer of the pancreas: J. Meyshan “The Disease of Herod the Great, King of Judaea,” Harefuah: Journal of the Medical Association of Israel 53 (1957), pp. 154–156 (in Hebrew with summaries in English and French); I. Buhacû, “Über die Erkrankung und den Tod des Herodes,” Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift 88 (1963), pp. 287–288.
Amoebic dysentery: A. Patrick, published in A.T. Sandison, “The Last Illness of Herod the Great, King of Judaea,” Medical History 11 (1967), pp. 385–386.