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Herodian Dynasty

Several members of the family of Herod governed Jewish Palestine during the period of Roman domination.


The primary source for the Herods is Josephus; for the later Herods, especially Herod Antipas, Agrippa I, and Agrippa II, the New Testament makes a small contribution to our knowledge. Josephus's two main works, The Jewish War and The Jewish Antiquities, overlap in their coverage of the Herods. Regarding Antipater and Herod the Great, Josephus depended primarily on Nicolaus of Damascus, who was Herod's court historiographer. For the period from Herod's death (4 BCE) to the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE), Josephus relied for the most part on oral tradition and hence has far fewer historical particulars. There has been debate about Josephus's historical credibility, but most would grant him to be reliable, taking note, however, of his biases. Archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem, at Qumran, and elsewhere have supported many details of his works.

Origin of the Herodian Dynasty.

After the Maccabean Revolt (167–164 BCE), in 142 BCE the Jews became politically independent under the rule of the Hasmonean family. It was the Hasmonean Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE) who appointed the Herodian Antipater, Herod the Great's grandfather, as governor of Idumea. After Alexander's death in the struggle for power among his family members, Hyrcanus II, his eldest son, after ruling only three months as king and high priest, was forced out by his younger brother, Aristobulus II (67 BCE). In 63 BCE Antipater II, son of Antipater and father of Herod the Great, was instrumental in having Hyrcanus II reinstated and in deposing his younger brother. With Rome's intervention in Palestine (63 BCE), both brothers appealed for Roman support, and Pompey sided with Hyrcanus II, reinstating him as high priest. Later Julius Caesar, who had defeated Pompey (48 BCE), reconfirmed Hyrcanus II as high priest and granted Antipater II Roman citizenship with tax exemption, making him procurator of Judea. Antipater II appointed his sons Phasael as governor of Jerusalem and Herod as governor of Galilee (47 BCE).

Herod the Great (47–4 BCE).

Governor of Galilee (47–37 BCE).

Although Herod was only twenty‐five years old when he became governor of Galilee, he displayed efficient leadership. After the murder of Caesar in 44 BCE, Cassius, the Roman leader of Syria, appointed him as governor of Coele‐Syria. After Antony defeated Cassius (42 BCE), he appointed both Herod and Phasael as tetrarchs of Judea.

In 40 BCE troubles arose for the two new tetrarchs. When the Parthians arrived in Syria, they joined with Antigonus (the son of Hyrcanus II's deposed brother Aristobulus II) to depose Hyrcanus II. The Parthians besieged Jerusalem and sued for peace. Herod was suspicious of the offer, but Hyrcanus II and Phasael went to meet the Parthian king, who put them in chains. On hearing of this treachery, Herod, his family, and his troops moved to Masada and then to Petra. Antigonus mutilated his uncle Hyrcanus II's ears to prevent his being reinstated as high priest and sent him to Parthia. Phasael died of either poisoning or suicide.

Herod departed for Rome, where Antony, Octavius, and the senate declared him king of Judea. On returning to Palestine, Herod was able to regain Galilee and eventually to lay siege to Jerusalem in the spring of 37 BCE. Meanwhile, before the fall of Jerusalem he married Mariamne, niece of Antigonus, to whom he had been betrothed for five years. He did this not only to spite Antigonus but also to strengthen his claim to the throne, since she was a Hasmonean. In the summer of 37, Herod defeated Antigonus and became de facto the king of the Jews.

King of the Jews (37–4 BCE).

Herod's reign can be divided into three periods: consolidation (37–25 BCE), prosperity (25–14 BCE), and domestic troubles (14–4 BCE).

To consolidate his rule, Herod had to contend with four adversaries: the Pharisees, the aristocracy, the Hasmonean family, and Cleopatra of Egypt. The Pharisees, who disliked Herod because he was an Idumean, a half‐Jew, and a friend of the Romans, had great influence over the majority of the people. Herod punished both the Pharisees and their followers who opposed him and rewarded those who were loyal to him. The Sadducean aristocracy, most of whom were members of the Sanhedrin, were pro‐Antigonus. Herod executed forty‐five of them and confiscated their property in order to pay the demands that Antony placed on him. The Hasmonean family was upset because Herod had replaced the mutilated high priest Hyrcanus II with Ananel of the Aaronic line. Herod's mother‐in‐law Alexandra successfully connived to have Ananel replaced with her seventeen‐year old son Aristobulus (late 36 or early 35 BCE). Later Herod managed to have him drowned “accidentally,” and soon after he put Alexandra in chains. His last adversary was Cleopatra, who wanted to eliminate Herod and Malchus of Arabia and confiscate their lands. When civil war broke out between Octavius and Antony (32 BCE), Herod was prevented from helping Antony because Cleopatra wanted Herod to make war against Malchus, hoping to weaken both and acquire their territories.

After the defeat of Antony at the battle of Actium (31 BCE) Herod proceeded to cultivate Octavius's friendship. Convinced of his loyalty, Octavius returned Jericho to him and also gave him Gadara, Hippos, Samaria, Gaza, Anthedon, Joppa, and Strato's Tower (later Caesarea).

The last years of consolidation saw much tension in Herod's domestic affairs. Owing to a bizarre series of events, Herod executed his wife Mariamne (29 BCE), his mother‐in‐law Alexandra (28 BCE) after she attempted to overthrow him, and his brother‐in‐law Costobarus (25 BCE). Hence, all male relatives of Hyrcanus II were now removed, leaving no rival for Herod's throne.

The period from 25 to 14 BCE was marked largely by success, although there were still occasions of stress. Herod constructed theaters, amphitheaters, and hippodromes and introduced quinquennial games in honor of Caesar, thus violating Jewish law. On the site of Strato's Tower a large urban port was built and named Caesarea. In 24 BCE he built a royal palace in Jerusalem. His crowning achievement in construction was his plan to rebuild the Jewish Temple; work on this began ca. 20 BCE and was completed in 63 CE. Herod's territory was also greatly expanded in this period with the addition of Trachonitis, Batanea, Auranitis, the area between Trachonitis and Galilee containing Ulatha and Paneas, the area north and northeast of the Sea of Galilee, and Perea (Map 12:Y5). To gain the good will of the people, in 20 BCE he lowered taxes by a third and in 14 BCE by a fourth.

As Herod grew older a considerable amount of intrigue engulfed his life, much of which arose from his ten wives, each of whom wanted her son(s) to become his successor. This is evident in his changing his will six times. His first wife was Doris, by whom he had Antipater; he repudiated them when he married his second wife, Mariamne (37 BCE), by whom he had five children, of whom only Alexander and Aristobulus were notable. In 124/123 BCE he married his third wife, Mariamne II, by whom he had Herod (Philip). His fourth wife was a Samaritan, Malthace (23/22BCE), by whom he had Archelaus and Antipas. In 22 he took as his fifth wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, who became the mother of Philip the tetrarch. Of the other five wives, none were significant and the names of only three are known.

The main rivalry was between Mariamne's two sons Alexander and Aristobulus and Doris's son Antipater. In 22 BCE Herod made his first will naming Alexander and Aristobulus as his successors. Because of the alleged plots of these two sons, Herod made a second will in 13 BCE, naming Antipater as sole heir. Later there was reconciliation between Herod and Alexander and Aristobulus, and in 12 BCE he made out his third will naming Antipater as the first successor and next after him Alexander and Aristobulus. Because Alexander and Aristobulus became hostile in their attitude toward Herod, he finally ordered them to be executed by strangulation in 7 BCE. Immediately after their execution Herod drew up his fourth will, naming Antipater as sole heir, and, in the event of his death, Herod (Philip) as his successor. With the discovery of Antipater's plan to kill Herod, he was tried and imprisoned. A fifth will was made in which Herod passed over the next two oldest sons, Archelaus and Philip, because Antipater had influenced him against them, and he selected Antipas as sole heir. Five days before Herod's death, he executed Antipater and made his sixth will, in which he designated Archelaus as king, his brother Antipas as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and their half‐brother Philip as tetrarch of Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, Batanea, and Paneas. It is during this last period of Herod's life, complicated by illness and plots to obtain his throne, that the narrative of the Magi is set (Matt. 2.1–16).

In conclusion, although Herod was a successful king who was highly regarded by the Romans, his personal life was plagued by domestic troubles. After the death of Herod the Great in the spring of 4 BCE, Antipas and Archelaus contested his last two wills before the emperor in Rome. Antipas favored the fifth will because in it he was sole heir; Archelaus, of course, preferred the sixth. After some delay the emperor made Archelaus ruler over Idumea, Judea, and Samaria with the title of ethnarch, promising that he could become king if he showed good leadership. He appointed Antipas tetrarch over Galilee and Perea and Philip tetrarch over Gaulanitis, Auranitis, Trachonitis, Batanea, Paneas, and Iturea.

Archelaus (4 BCE–16 CE).

Archelaus, the son of Herod and Malthace, was made ethnarch over Idumea, Judea, and Samaria in 4 BCE. Before he left for Rome to contest his father's will he was given control of the realm and proceeded to kill about three thousand people; after this there was a prolonged revolt at the feast of Pentecost. On his return he treated both Jews and Samaritans with brutality and tyranny; this is the background of Matthew 2.20–23. Archelaus continued the building policy of his father, but his rule became intolerable. Finally, in 6 CE, the emperor deposed him and exiled him to Gaul. His domain became an imperial province governed by prefects appointed by the emperor.

Antipas (4 BCE–39 CE).

Antipas, the son of Herod and Malthace and a full brother of Archelaus, was appointed tetrarch over Galilee and Perea in 4 BCE. After Archelaus had been deposed, Antipas was given the dynastic title Herod, which had great political significance at home and in Rome. He rebuilt what had been destroyed in the widespread revolt after his father's death, including the largest city, Sepphoris, and moved his capital to a new city, Tiberias (named in honor of the emperor Tiberius).

Herod Antipas's greatest notoriety is the imprisonment and beheading of John the Baptist (Matt. 14.1–12 par.). This incident occurred after he had married Herodias, who was his niece and the wife of his brother Herod (Philip). John the Baptist boldly criticized the marriage, for according to the Mosaic law it was unlawful to marry a brother's wife (Lev. 18.16; 20.21), except for levirate marriage (Deut. 25.5). As a result, John was imprisoned, and eventually, at the instigation of Herodias with Salome's help, Herod beheaded John at Machaerus in 31 or 32 CE.

According to the Gospels, Antipas thought that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected (Matt. 14.1–2; Mark 6.14–16; Luke 9.7–9) and desired to see him, but Jesus withdrew from his territories. Later, during Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem, the Pharisees warned him to leave Galilee because Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13.31). According to Luke, during Jesus' trial Pilate sent Jesus to Herod when he heard that Jesus was from Galilee (Luke 23:6–12).

In 36 CE the Nabatean king Aretas IV defeated Antipas in retaliation for Antipas's deserting his daughter to marry Herodias. Although Antipas had hoped to get help from Rome, it was not forthcoming because of the change of emperors. On his accession, Caligula (37 CE) gave his friend Agrippa I, brother of Herodias as well as nephew of Antipas, the territories of Philip the tetrarch, who had died in 34 CE, and granted Lysanius the coveted title of king. His sister Herodias became intensely jealous and urged her husband to seek the title of king for his long, faithful service. When Antipas and Herodias went to Rome in 39 CE to request the title, Agrippa brought charges against Antipas, and consequently Caligula banished him to Gaul. Agrippa I obtained his territories.

Philip the Tetrarch (4 BCE–34 CE).

Philip was the son of Herod the Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem. In the settlement of Herod's will, he was appointed tetrarch over northern Transjordan, including Gaulinitis, Auranitis, Trachonitis, Bananea, Paneas, and Iturea (Map 13:Y2–3). He rebuilt two cities: Paneas, which he renamed Caesarea Philippi, the site of Peter's confession of Christ (Matt. 16.16), and Bethsaida, where Jesus healed a blind man (Mark 8.22–26). Philip married Herodias's daughter Salome, but they had no offspring. When he died in 34 CE, Tiberias annexed his territories to Syria and, when Caligula became emperor (37 CE), they were given to Agrippa I, Herodias's brother.

Agrippa I (37–44 CE).

Agrippa I, the son of Aristobulus (son of Herod the Great and Mariamne) and Bernice (daughter of Herod's sister, Salome, and Costobarus) and the brother of Herodias, was born in 10 BCE. He lived extravagantly and with creditors pursuing him. Sometime ca. 27–30 CE Antipas provided him with a home and a position as inspector of markets in Antipas's new capital, Tiberias. Not long afterward he went to Rome and befriended Gaius Caligula. Owing to an unwise remark favoring Caligula as emperor, Tiberius put him in prison, where he remained until Tiberius's death six months later. In 37 CE when Caligula became emperor, he released Agrippa I and gave him a gold chain equal in weight to his prison chain. He also gave him the territories of Philip the tetrarch and of Lysanius, with the coveted title king. On Caligula's death in 41 CE, Claudius confirmed the rule of Agrippa I and added Judea and Samaria to his kingdom.

Of all the Herods, Agrippa I was the most liked by the Jews and, according to Acts 2, was a persecutor of early Christians. In 44 CE he died suddenly in Caesarea (Acts 12.22–23; Josephus Ant. 19.8.343–52). Because Agrippa's son was only seventeen years old, his territories were reduced to a Roman province. His daughter Drusilla eventually married the Roman procurator Felix (Acts 24.24).

Agrippa II (50–100 CE).

Agrippa II, son of Agrippa I and Cypros, daughter of Phasael (Herod the Great's nephew), was born in 27 CE. Because of his young age he was not allowed to rule immediately, but in 50 CE Claudius appointed him king of Chalcis. In 53 Claudius gave him Abilene, Trachonitis, and Arca in exchange for Chalcis. Shortly after the accession of Nero in 54 CE, he acquired the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Tarichea, with their surrounding areas, and the Perean cities of Julias (or Betharamphtha) and Abila, with their surrounding land.

The private life of Agrippa II was not exemplary, for he had an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice. In his public life he was in charge of the vestments of the high priest and could appoint him. The Romans would seek his counsel on religious issues, and this may be why Festus asked him to hear Paul at Caesarea (Acts 25.13–26.32).

Agrippa II failed to quell the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 CE and sided with the Romans throughout the war of 66–70. He died childless ca. 100 CE; with his death, the Herodian dynasty ended.


Herodian rule brought stability to the region. With its domination of the eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea, it was important for Rome to have a peaceful Palestine, because it acted as a buffer state between Rome and the Parthians and was crucial for the trade routes north and south of Palestine. To be a ruler of the Jews was difficult primarily because of their religion. Although the Herods were enamored of Hellenism and adopted some of its elements, they were aware of Jewish religious sensitivities. After the deposition of Archelaus, direct Roman rule of Judea by prefects like Pilate brought instability, much of it due to lack of understanding of Judaism.

Although each of the Herods (except possibly Archelaus) contributed to this stability, it was the pioneering rule of Herod the Great that laid its foundation. As a vassal king, he made it possible for Judea to be somewhat independent. Rome allowed this because he brought stability to the area and because he had proved his loyalty to Rome both militarily and financially.

See also Roman Empire


Harold W. Hoehner

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