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The precise location of Herod's tomb remained a mystery for nearly two millennia, until April 2007, when Netzer and his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem unearthed it on the upper slopes of Herodium. The discovery provided new insights into one of the most enigmatic minds of the ancient world—and fresh evidence of the hatred that Herod excited among his contemporaries. It also became a political incident, with Palestinians arguing that the artifacts at the site belonged to them, and Jewish settlers saying that the tomb's presence strengthened their claim to the West Bank. To Netzer, whose work at various Herodian sites has for decades been interrupted by war, invasion, and uprisings, the controversy was hardly surprising. In the Holy Land, archaeology can be as political as kingship.

Herod was born in 73 B.C. and grew up in Judaea, a kingdom in the heart of ancient Palestine that was torn by civil war and caught between powerful enemies. The Hasmonaean monarchy that had ruled Judaea for 70 years was split by a vicious fight for the throne between two princely brothers, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The kingdom was in turn caught in a larger geopolitical struggle between the Roman legions to the north and west, and the Parthians, historic enemies of Rome, to the east. Herod's father, the chief adviser to Hyrcanus and a gifted general, threw in his lot with the Romans, who banished Aristobulus and made Hyrcanus king of Judaea.

From boyhood, Herod saw the benefits of entente with the Roman overlords—a stance that has long been judged a betrayal of the Jewish people—and it was the Romans who would eventually make Herod king. Throughout his career he strove to reconcile their demands with those of his Jewish subjects, who jealously guarded their political and religious independence. Maintaining this delicate balance was all the more difficult because of Herod's background; his mother was an ethnic Arab, and his father was an Edomite, and though Herod was raised as a Jew, he lacked the social status of the powerful old families in Jerusalem who were eligible to serve as high priest, as the Hasmonaean kings had traditionally done. Many of his subjects considered Herod an outsider—a "half Jew," as his early biographer, the Jewish soldier and aristocrat Flavius Josephus later wrote—and continued to fight for a Hasmonaean theocracy. In 43 B.C., Herod's father was poisoned by a Hasmonaean agent. Three years later, when the Parthians suddenly invaded Judaea, a rival Hasmonaean faction allied themselves with the invaders, deposed and mutilated Hyrcanus, and turned on Herod.

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