email a friend iconprinter friendly iconHerod
Page [ 4 ] of 9

In the two decades of economic prosperity and relative peace that followed, Herod made his court a hotbed of Hellenistic and Roman culture, gathering around him some of the leading scholars, poets, sculptors, painters, and architects of the east and west. He gave with kingly generosity, to his own subjects in times of famine and natural disaster, and far beyond the boundaries of his kingdom, in Greece and Asia Minor. (The citizens of Olympia were so grateful for his lavish donations that they elected him agonothete, or president, of the Olympic Games.) And he undertook building projects of remarkable scope, ambition, and creativity. Since the north coast of Judaea lacked a natural deepwater harbor, he built one from scratch at Caesarea, using an innovative building technique to make an enormous breakwater from massive blocks of hydraulic concrete. Herod's Northern Palace at Masada cascades breathtakingly down a cliff face on three narrow terraces, creating an airy and luminous residence that was also a virtually impregnable fortress. In rebuilding the Second Temple, Herod used gargantuan foundation stones, some over 40 feet long and weighing 600 tons. What remains of this stonework, the Western Wall, is Judaism's most sacred place. Upon it rests Islam's third holiest site, the Dome of the Rock.

The outward grandeur and prosperity of Herod's reign concealed the increasing turbulence of his private life. Like many Hellenistic rulers of his time, he had a large and fractious family—ten wives and more than a dozen children—whose frequent conspiracies brought out Herod's cruelty and paranoia. In 29 B.C., in a blaze of jealousy deftly stoked by his sister Salome, he executed his wife Mariamne, though he still loved her deeply, and lived for months afterward in blackest depression, calling her name as if to summon her back from the dead. In his later years he dispatched three of his sons for alleged conspiracies to overthrow him, and redrew his will six times. During his last illness he devised a scheme to plunge the entire kingdom into mourning when he died, ordering his army to imprison a crowd of leading Judaean citizens in the hippodrome in Jericho, and to massacre them when his death was announced. (Fortunately for these well-heeled Judaeans, his command was not carried out.)

Herod's final illness, like the rest of his career, was larger than life—at least according to Josephus, who lists its symptoms with ill-concealed glee: internal pains and burning sensations, swelling of the feet, convulsions, a ravenous appetite, an ulcerated colon, putrefied and worm-eaten genitals, and very, very bad breath. Generations of scholars have exercised their imaginations trying to identify Herod's condition, producing diagnoses that include syphilis, diabetes leading to cirrhosis of the liver, and chronic kidney disease complicated by Fournier's gangrene. Yet in the final analysis, Herod's most serious disorder may have been a hostile biographer. In fact, the symptoms Josephus mentions were part of a stock repertoire of rank and randy ailments, widely considered signs of God's wrath, that had already been used for centuries by Greek and Roman historians to drop the curtain on evil rulers.

Page [ 4 ] of 9