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

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)

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.


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’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 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.

Posted in: Roman Period I

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