By April 9, 2008 Read More →

Herod the Great 37-4, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

herod tomb

** CORRECTS BYLINE ** This undated photo made available by the Government Press Office, Tuesday, May 8, 2007, shows an aerial view of the the hilltop compound of Herodium near the west Bank town of Hebron. An Israeli archaeologist has found the tomb of King Herod, the legendary builder of ancient Jerusalem and the Holy Land, at a hilltop compound south of the city, the Hebrew University announced. (AP Photo/Yaacov Sa’ar/GPO) ** ISRAEL OUT **

Roman conquest and Roman might did not bring quiet to Judea. For the next twenty-three years the country seethed with rebellion and battle, until the last of the Hasmoneans briefly regained the throne, Jerusalem and Jewish independence.

Young Alexander had escaped en route to Rome, and in time assembled a considerable force of Jewish resistance groups who overran a good deal of Judea and advanced as far as Jerusalem. But they were compelled to retreat before overwhelming Roman strength. One of the Roman generals who opposed them was Mark Antony. And one of the forces under Antony was led by Antipater, “manipulator” of Hyrcanus and now the real power in Jerusalem. It was he indeed who greatly aided the Romans in suppressing revolts by Hasmonean-led rebels, and in so doing greatly advanced his own position, and that of his son Herod.

Not long thereafter, Aristobulus and his other son, Antigonus, escaped from Rome, and soon they too were rallying Jewish forces in Judea to regain independence. But they, too, after a series of stiff battles, were defeated.

Rome continued to rule, and Antipater to wield local power, managing by his subtlety to enjoy imperial backing no matter who was the Roman master. Though Pompey had been his patron, when the struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey ended in Caesar’s victory in the year 48, and particularly after Pompey’s assassination some months later, Antipater changed sides and courted Caesar. He was rewarded with the appointment of Commissioner of Judea, with Hyrcanus, now his puppet, confirmed as High Priest. He appointed his eldest son, Phasael, Governor of Jerusalem and district, and his next son, Herod, Governor of Galilee. With his death (he was poisoned) in 43, his tow sons shared his powers—though Herod’s share was the larger—as well as what meager political power Hyrcanus had commanded.

By now, the only independent Hasmonean still alive was Mattathias Antigonus. His father Aristobulus and brother Alexander had both been killed. He, the rebel outlaw, had not given up hopes of independence, and he now turned to the Parthians for help. They were the one significant power in the Middle East who still held out against Rome. In the year 40, a Parthian force together with Antigonus’ followers marched on Judea and adavanced to Jerusalem, capturing it after fierce fighting in the Temple stronghold and in the city. Herod managed to escape. Phasael was caught, and committed suicide while in custody. As for Hyrcanus, Antigonus, his nephew, ordered that his ears be cut off, so as to incapacitate him permanently as High Priest, because the holder of this office had to be a person “without blemish.” Antigonus became king, and Jerusalem and Judea were again independent under a Hasmonean.

Freedom was short-lived. Herod, whose road to kingship had been so carefully paved by his father, and by Roman favor, and who, by his own ambition and cunning, had come so close to gaining it, was not prepared to concede the prize. But there was little he could do, alone, in Judea itself. He could not rally the people of the land he sought to rule and exhort them to march with him against Mattathias Antigonus. The people of the land were Jews, and Antigonus was their king, a Hasmonean. Herod, on the other hand, was despised. He, like his father, was an outsider. They had wormed their way into high positions in Jerusalem, usurped authority, and maintained it by servile fawning upon the occupying Roman power, hated by the Jews. There was only one course for Herod if he wished to depose Antigonus and put himself on the throne—secure Roman help; and Roman help would also be required to keep him on the throne over an unwilling population.

Herod made his way to Rome, where he was warmly received by friends, like Mark Antony, whom he and his father had helped in the battles to crush the Jewish rebellions. Antony, seeing in Herod a pliable representative, one who would make Judea safe for the Romans, accordingly proposed to the Roman Senate, says Josephus, that “it would be a prudent measure to appoint Herod king of Judea; and in this proposition the Senate unanimously concurred. They deviated from their usual practice in thus conferring sovereignty upon a person not of royal decent.”

Herod returned to the Middle East and started his long and fierce campaign against Antigonus, aided by two Roman legions, units of mercenaries, Syrian auxiliaries and formations from his kinsmen, the Idumeans. Not until the third year of his being named king by the Romans did he reach Jerusalem and bring his army up to its walls. The next four months were months of bitter siege and battle, but the walls remained intact. Herod was then reinforced by the Roman general Sosius, whom Antony had appointed Governor of Syria and had instructed to assist Herod.

In the fifth month of the siege, the combined forces of Herod and Sosius broke into Jerusalem, taking the first wall, then, some days later, the second wall, the outer quarters of the Temple and the lower town. The Jews retired to the middle of the Temple compound and the Upper City and continued the fight from there. But theirs could only be a delaying operation. The besieging armies poured in and carried out a grim carnage. (Herod is said to have tried to restrain the excesses of the Romans, but without success.) Mattathias Antigonus was carried away by Sosius and put to death.

Herod, king of the Jews by Roman title, was now king of Judea also in fact. The year was 37 BC. He was to reign until 4 BC and to leave his mark on Jerusalem.

Herod has been spared not a single unflattering adjective by the various historians and writers, ancient and modern, who have dealt with his character and activities. Cruel, cunning, savage, explosive, are a few, and his deeds assuredly justify such epithets. Upon his accession, he executed the leading adherents of Antigonus, which wiped out more than half the members of the Sanhedrin, supreme religious and civil council of the Jews. During the course of his reign, he executed or arranged to have murdered his wife Mariamne—who was a Hasmonean; her grandfather (old Hyrcanus); his popular brother-in-law; his mother-in-law; his two sons by Mariamne; and his eldest son. Apart from this palace slaughter, he was utterly faithful to his Roman overlords and rigidly suppressed any sign of rebelliousness among his subjects. In Jerusalem, he always had Roman legionaries on hand.

With it all, however, Herod was undoubtedly a most efficient administrator and brilliant organizer. Above all, he possessed a remarkable talent and passion for building. It was he who build the amazing fortifications on the top of Masada which were recently excavated; he who build the city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast—of such opulence that the Romans later used it as their capital; he who built other cities as well as fortresses and palaces all over the country. This genius he also brought to Jerusalem—relics of his handiwork may be seen to this day in the Old City—and completely changed its skyline.

Herod’s huge building projects in Jerusalem may have been prompted by the wish to curry favor with his sullen subjects; to preserve himself from their anger and strengthen internal security—as we shall see from the siting and design of two of his structures; and to glorify his name by the physical association of his works with the great city.

Scholars agree that he must first have repaired and strengthened the old walls which had suffered at his own hands during the siege, but we have no account of this. We do, however, have an account of his new structures—and the physical remains of some. The first was a magnificent royal palace which he build in the northwest corner of the Upper City (that is, on the southwest hill), close to today’s Jaffa Gate. At the northern end of the palace he erected three huge towers which “he consecrated to the memory of his brother, his friend and his wife” and which were accordingly known as the Phasael Tower, Hippicus Tower and Mariamne Tower. Each was built on a high, solid base of huge stones, with a revetment. The towers were provided with battlements and turrets. All that can be seen today is the base of the Phasael Tower, just inside the Jaffa Gate. Its stones are set closely to each other without mortar. The dimensions of the masonry approximate to those given by Josephus- each stone a cube of just over four feet. Visitors to Jerusalem see this Herodian ruin but may not know it as such, because some centuries after Herod’s death someone called it the Tower of David, and the name stuck.

Herod built a fourth tower, about a thousand yards to the northwest, which he named Psephinus. It was isolated from the other three, but later, in the time of King Agrippa (AD 41-44), they were connected by the new city wall he built, known as the Third Wall.

Herod’s royal Court or Palace was also, in fact, a citadel. Its north and west sides were bounded by the old wall, the First City Wall, and to complete the enclosure, matching walls were erected on the east and south sides. Two huge halls (each with couches for a hundred guests) and numerous chambers were set amid large open courts with colonnades and shrubberies. It received its water from a high level aqueduct.

Palace and towers dominated the entire Upper City. From them one could observe the local happenings; and in the event of trouble, the king would be well protected.

Herod had built well; so well, in fact, that his palace became the residence of his immediate successor and of the Roman procurators; a stronghold of the Jewish resisters in the great battle for Jerusalem I AD 70 where they were to hold out for one month after the rest of the city had fallen; the site of the Roman legion camp thereafter; the castle of the Byzantines; the fortress of the Moslems; the “Tower of David” of the Crusaders; and the Turkish citadel right up to our own times.

It is possible that Herod’s building of his great palace on this location which moved the centre of the city’s authority from the east to the southwest hill, gave rise to the eventual tradition that this southwest hill had been the site of the ancient stronghold of David. Modern scholars are all agreed that the City of David lay in the southeast, south of what later became the Temple Mount.

The second structure built, or rather enlarged, by Herod with internal security well in mind was the Antonia fortress. It replaced the Baris, the fort of the Hasmoneans, at the northwest corner of the Temple compound, and was named in honor of Mark Antony. He erected here a massive castle set upon a huge base with precipitous sides, carrying four huge towers at its corners. The southeastern one was higher than the others and served as a vigilant eye looking down upon the Temple. It was manned by a Roman infantry unit, and, particularly at Jewish festival times which drew crowds of worshippers, they would appear fully armed “to watch for any sign of popular discontent.” A secret staircase and passageway led from the fortress to the grounds of the Temple.

The interior of Antonia, says Josephus, “contained every kind of dwelling and other convenience, colonnades, bathes and broad courts for encampments, so that in possessing all manner of utilities it seemed a city, but in sumptuousness a palace.” This powerful Antonia fortress was also to play a key part in the successive battles of Jerusalem, and to figure, according to prevailing tradition, in the trial of Jesus at the beginning of the following century.

Many were the buildings which Herod raised I Jerusalem. But the pride of them all, and the one which was to leave the Herodian mark on the city to this day, was his reconstruction of the Temple. He started building it in 20 BC, the eighteenth year of his
Reign, and the House itself, the sanctuary, was completed very rapidly—in eighteen months. The cloisters and outer enclosures took another eight years, and work o the rest of the structure continued long after his death. It was finished only a few years before AD 70, when the whole edifice went up in flames, never to be replaced.

Why should the impious Herod, his heart strange to Judaic interests, have applied his hand to the glorification of Jewry’s central shrine? It was clearly a gesture of appeasement to the Jews, already hostile, and made more angry by his Hellenistic and Roman temples in the new cities he had established and the pagan games and spectacles he had introduced to Jerusalem. Here was something he would do for Judaism—and indulge his passion for buildings of magnificence. To appease them further, he trained a thousand priests as masons and carpenters to work on those parts of the sanctuary which profane hands were not allowed to touch.

The ground-plan and interior arrangements of the Temple proper, the house of worship itself, were exactly the same as before. These could not be altered. They were fixed by the Bible. But Herod doubled its height and vastly amplified the porch, so that the building seemed to soar. This impression was heightened by its being set atop a series of descending terraces with huge courts, colonnaded and walled. The Temple was built of large blocks of white stone, its façade plated with gold, so that at a distance “it appeared like a mountain covered with snow.”

In order to provide an appropriate base for his immense architectural enterprise—the sanctuary towering above broad terraced courts, all located on a hill—Herod built a most formidable platform, a great rectangular esplanade some 400 by 300 yards, supported by substructures and great buttress walls rising from the ravines that bounded the Temple Mount. The “Wailing Wall” or “West Wall,” revered by Jews throughout the world for the last 1900 years as their most sacred Holy Place, is one of these walls.

Standing high above the vast stone stage was the gold-façaded House of the Table of Shewbread, and a seven-branched candelabrum—and the Holy of Holies, now bare, but which in Solomon’s Temple held the Ark of the Law. One mortal alone was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies—the High Priest—and even he only one day in the year, the solemn Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Beyond the façade extended the now enlarged Porch. Twelve broad steps led down to the Altar Court, the Court of the Priests and the Court of the Israelites, which may all have been one large court with the appropriate sections marked off. The altar was of great unhewn stones. Priests alone performed the sacrifices. The Court of the Israelites was for male Jews who were offering sacrifices and who were required to watch the ceremony.

A stone wall bounded the eastern side of the Court of the Israelites, and through an impressive bronze gate in its center one descended fifteen steps to the Court of Women. (Since it was on a lower terrace, it may have held a gallery to enable women to view the services in the upper court.) Despite its name, the Court of Women could be entered by all “ceremonially clean” Jews, men and women, and this indeed was also where the administrative affairs of the Temple were conducted. This court had large chambers in its corners and from this level there was access to the vaults beneath the Court of the Israelites holding the Temple treasures and Temple dues offered by Jews from the country and from the Diaspora.

The courts and buildings mentioned so far all constituted the Inner Temple, and were enclosed in a high, towered and gated wall, which in turn was surrounded by a narrow terrace and ritual fence. It was a fortress in itself, and indeed in AD 70, the Jews held out in this separate citadel fro some time after the Roman Titus had penetrated the Outer Court.

This Outer Court, also known as the Court of the Gentiles, was fourteen steps lower down and constituted the floor terrace of the esplanade. It ran right round the Inner Temple, and was broader in the south and the east, so that the Sanctuary and Inner Temple were sited not in the center of the esplanade but in the northwest. Into this court came the crowds entering mostly through the south gates. Among them were also Gentiles from many lands who were permitted inside this enclosure alone; inscriptions on stone in Latin and Greek warned them against passing through the ritual fence to the Inner Temple, on pain of death.

This Outer Court was deeply cloistered, two rows of columns skirting the north, west and east sides, and a splendid colonnade of four rows, comprising 162 Corinthian columns, forming with was known as the Stoa Basilica or Royal Cloister, on the south side. Each column was fashioned from a single, massive block of stone, locally quarried. (One, apparently broken in the handling, was left on the site of the mishap where it has remained to this day. From it one can gauge the extraordinary dimensions of the original building. The site is now Jerusalem’s Russian Compound.)

Surrounding the Outer Court and enclosing the entire Temple platform was a massive wall with strong gates. The gate in the north overlooked the suburb of Bethesda, that in the east wall the Kidron valley. In the south, facing the Lower City and the site of David’s City, there were at least the two “Gates of Huldah,” one double, one triple. Set low in the wall they gave entry to passages which led beneath the Royal Cloister and emerged on to the Outer Court. These were the entrances most widely used, and their remains may be seen today. The wall in the west, according to Josephus, had four gates which gave on to the Upper City. Two of them offered access to two bridges which linked the East Hill to the West Hill, that is the Temple Mount to the Upper City- the “Royal bridge” and the “Priests’ Bridge.” The springer to an arch of the first and a complete arch supporting the second have been preserved to this day and are known respectively as Robinson’s Arch and Wilson’s Arch after the men who discovered them- Edward Robinson in 1838 and Charles Wilson thirty years later.

Such, then, was the marvel of Herod’s rebuilt Temple. Herod may have been hated by his subjects, but they must certainly have been powerfully impressed by the reconstructed shrine. We learn from the Talmud that the rabbinical sages, who could say of the wonders of Jerusalem that it was “the city blessed with nine measures of beauty,” made this observation on the architecture of the despised monarch- “He who has not set eyes upon the structure of Herod has not seen a structure of beauty in all his life.”

Herod’s gory death in the year 4 BC was the signal for a Jewish uprising which was harshly suppressed by Roman legions personally led by the Roman Governor of Syria, Varus. Following the rebellion, Varus appointed one of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, puppet ruler of Judea. He lasted ten years (4 BC to AD 6) before the Romans removed him and resolved to put Judea under open and direct Roman rule. It became an annexed possession. Henceforth, except for the years AD 41-44, Judea was governed by Roman officials, who were call procurators.

The interruption of their administration in AD 41 came with the appointment of Agrippa as king of Judea. The mad Caligula had become emperor of Rome, and Agrippa, who had been raised at the Roman court, was a boyhood friend. Agrippa was the grandson of Herod and Mariamne—son of the father whom his grandfather had murdered—and so, through Mariamne, a Hasmonean. As such he was beloved of the Jews; and as friend of the emperor, he was accepted by the Romans. His dealings with both were such that his brief reign was one of unmixed popularity. It must be added, though, that the enthusiasm of his Jewish subjects stemmed also from his sedulous worship, his strict adherence to the Torah, his benevolence and his magnanimity. He was deeply concerned in furthering the interests not of Rome but of the Jews. There is reason to suppose that this soon became recognized by Rome. When he died, suddenly, in AD 44, there was a reversion to rule by procurator.

Agrippa’s major physical contribution to Jerusalem was his construction of a new city wall, known as the Third Wall, in the north. His intention was to give protection to the new northern suburb of Bethesda, which had sprung up and was developing outside the walls, and strengthen that side of the city which was so vulnerable to outside attack—the northern side. Agrippa’s wall ran from Herod’s Hippicus Tower northwest to the Psephinus; from there it turned northeast to a point called the Corner Tower—and along this stretch stood what Josephus terms the “Women’s Towers;” and from there southwards to the Kidron, towards the northeast corner of the Temple platform. IT enclosed the whole of Bethesda, and had a ditch on its outer side. (The foundations of the “Women’s Towers” and the “Corner Tower” were discovered some years ago. From her latest excavations, British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon reaches the conclusion that the course of Agrippa’s wall was roughly that followed by today’s northern wall. This is disputed by other archaeologists, who still hold that Agrippa’s wall lay much further north, and the only ancient wall matched by the line of today’s wall is that of Hadrian, in the second century AD.)

Agrippa was not allowed to complete this wall, although most of it was up before the Romans ordered him to stop work. He and his subjects were in too close harmony for his act of fortification not to be suspected as a prelude to insurrection.

Posted in: Roman Period I

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