Herod was the son of Antipater the Idumean. Herod dethroned Mattathias Antigonus, the last of the Hasmoneans. With the support of the Romans, he assumed the throne in 37 B.C. and reigned until his death in 4 B.C. His modern appellation “the Great” is well deserved, for he was great in his deeds—both good and evil. Herod was a cautious politician who, throughout his life, was able to garner unstinting Roman support by appeasing the rulers of Rome. This enabled him to rule without serious competition and to extend his hegemony over more of the Holy Land than any of his predecessors, and even to lands far beyond. He was uncompromisingly cruel in suppressing the Hasmoneans, and relentless in the persecution of his opponents among his subjects and his own kinsfolk. Jewish enmity toward him stemmed from opposition to his foreign origin, and from his being a usurper who exterminated the Hasmoneans, the legal dynasty in Judea.

As a king, Herod aspired to glorify both his kingdom and his name. He was among the most extreme admirers of Hellenistic-Roman culture, and his desire to gain a standing for Jerusalem equal to that of the foremost Hellenistic cities led him to imbue his capital with a decidedly Hellenistic flavor. This found expression in the dominant architectural style of the buildings and their monumental proportions, as well as in the life style, which called for theaters, gymnasiums, hippodromes and “the games”—a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a luxurious court. This was neither entirely new nor unique in Jerusalem, where Hellenistic influence had already taken a hold under the Hasmoneans among the Jews of the city.

Herod’s penchant for the grandiose led to one of the most important facets of his rule—especially for us today. He was undoubtedly the greatest builder Palestine has ever known. His craving for construction projects had no bounds. Josephus dwells at length on his many building activities in this country and abroad. Indeed, his impressive monuments, including fortresses, palaces, and even whole cities, have been revealed at various sites scattered about the country. He fulfilled his wish to impress his Roman imperial patrons by building new cities according to the best of Roman standards: his port city of Caesarea, and the town of Samaria, which he renamed “Sebaste” (Greek for “Augustus”), with a Temple of Augustus at its crown. These served well to express Herod’s extreme admiration for Roman urbanization, architecture, and art. In the fortresses and palaces which he built at Masada, Herodium, and Jericho, Herod gave full architectural expression to his daring eccentricity, in which he sought to combine security, luxurious living, and tranquility with desert solitude. His winter and summer palaces established norms which deeply permeated the material aspect of the lives of the upper crust in Judea. It is noteworthy that in all these projects he strove to avoid any ornamental motifs which might give offense to the tenets of traditional Judaism—in deference to the customs of his people.

From the English translation of Discovering Jerusalem—Recent Archaeological Excavation in the Old City by Nahman Avigad, to be published in the fall of 1983 by Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers. © 1983 by Nahman Avigad.