Synagogue at MasadaExcerpted from Ancient Israel- From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

The Rise of the Herodian Dynasty

This new dynasty, usually called the Herodian dynasty after its most famous member, was founded by Herod’s father, Antipater the Idumean. The Idumeans, who lived in the area south of Judea, had been incorporated into the Hasmonean Empire and converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus (Hyrcanus I). Antipater gradually insinuated himself into the circle of Hyrcanus II. When Julius Caesar came to Syria in 47 B.C.E., he conferred various benefits on the Jews. Hyrcanus II was appointed ethnarch (literally, ruler of the nation), and Antipater the Idumean was appointed procurator (literally, caretaker).

A rival soon assassinated Antipater, and his mantle then fell to his son Herod. In 40 B.C.E. the Parthians invaded Syria, captured Hyrcanus II and installed the son of Aristobulus II as king and high priest of the Jews. Herod, now the Roman procurator, fled to Rome and persuaded the senate that only he could restore Roman rule in Judea. With Roman support Herod returned to Judea and, after some severe fighting, reconquered Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E. Herod remained the undisputed leader of the Jews for over 30 years (37–4 B.C.E.).

Herod the Great

Herod is an enigmatic figure. 6 A tyrant, a madman, a murderer, a builder of great cities and fortresses, a wily politician, a successful king, a Jew, a half-Jew, a gentile—Herod was all these and more. He is perhaps best known to posterity as the murderer of several of his wives, children and other relations. The murders were prompted by Herod’s suspicions (often justified) of anyone who had an equal or better claim to the throne than he. In the first years of his reign, Herod executed the surviving members of the Hasmonean aristocracy. Since he was married to Mariamme, the daughter of the Hasmonean king Hyrcanus II, Herod thus murdered his own wife’s relatives—her brother, her aunt and her father. Finally, he murdered Mariamme too. At the end of his reign, he executed the two sons Mariamme had borne him.

Herod also executed various other wives, sons and close relations. The Christian tradition of Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” (Matthew 2) is based on his unpleasant habit of killing anyone associated with the old aristocracy, including many teachers and religious leaders.

Herod created a new aristocracy that owed its status and prestige to him alone. He raised to the high priesthood men from families that had never previously supplied high priests, including families from the Diaspora (the Jewish communities outside the land of Israel). Herod was also a great builder. Many of the most popular tourist sites in Israel today were Herod’s projects—Masada, Herodium, Caesarea and many of the most conspicuous remains of ancient Jerusalem, including the so-called Tower of David, the Western Wall and much of the Temple Mount. As a result of Herod’s works, Jerusalem became “one of the most famous cities of the east” 7 and its Temple, which he rebuilt, was widely admired. In the new city of Caesarea, Herod created a magnificent harbor, using the latest technology in hydraulic cement and underwater construction. Herod also founded several other cities, notably Sebaste (on the site of ancient Samaria). He bestowed gifts and benefactions on cities and enterprises outside his own kingdom. Athens, Sparta, Rhodes and the Olympic games all enjoyed Herod’s largesse.

Herod’s building program had several purposes. 8 A network of fortresses (Masada, Herodium, Alexandrium, Hyrcania, Machaerus) was designed to provide refuge to Herod and his family in the event of insurrection. Herod rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple so that his kingdom would have a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur and he would win the support of the Jews both in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. Herod built Sebaste and other pagan cities (even Caesarea was a joint Jewish-pagan city) because he saw himself as the king not only of the Jews but also of the country’s substantial pagan population. And last, but not least, the benefactions to the cities of the eastern Mediterranean were prompted by Herod’s megalomania. Throughout his life Herod was hungry for power and prestige. He wanted desperately to be recognized as an important personage. He obtained that recognition through his lavish gifts. Even the city of Athens honored him with a public inscription.

Herod tried to win support and recognition from both the Jews and the pagans, both within his kingdom and outside of it. The support of these groups, however, would have meant nothing if Herod had not been supported by Rome. In 37 B.C.E., as we have seen, the Romans made Herod the leader of Judea. In the struggle that developed soon thereafter between Antony and Octavian, Herod supported Mark Antony. This was perhaps because Antony was headquartered in the East. But, as noted above, at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., Octavian defeated Antony, and the entire eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, came into the hands of Octavian.

Herod had supported the losing side. He was obviously in deep trouble. But, ever the survivor, Herod managed to convince Octavian that everyone’s best interests would be served if he remained king of Judea. He had been loyal to Antony, Herod argued, and now would be loyal to Octavian. Octavian accepted Herod’s argument and never had cause to regret his decision. Herod was true to his word, and during the course of his long reign was rewarded several times by the emperor (now called Augustus) with grants of additional territory.

Like all other vassal kings subservient to the Romans, Herod was authorized to govern his subjects as he pleased as long as he maintained peace and stability, did not engage in any unauthorized activities outside his kingdom and actively supported Roman administrative and military activities in the area. Herod knew his place and followed these rules. At home he was the tyrant, but in his dealings with the Romans he was ever the dutiful subject. Before engaging in any major enterprise (killing his sons, for example), he consulted the Roman governor of Syria or even the emperor himself. Herod’s popularity during his own lifetime is hard to estimate. Our major evidence, indeed virtually our only evidence, is provided by Josephus. His two books give somewhat varying appraisals. In the earlier work, The Jewish War, Josephus paints a portrait of Herod that is basically favorable- a brilliant and successful king who was plagued by personal disaster and calamity. Nevertheless, even here Josephus reports Herod’s madness and the fact that he was widely hated. It is in The Jewish War that Josephus tells the (true?) story that Herod, fearing that his funeral would be an occasion for rejoicing among the Jews, planned to ensure general mourning by ordering that the distinguished men of the country be assembled and killed upon the news of his death.
Nevertheless, as a rule, The Jewish War treats the king kindly and regards him as unfortunate rather than mad, and as powerful rather than unpopular. This is probably due both to the biases of Josephus’s primary source, Nicolaus of Damascus, and by his desire not to question the wisdom of Augustus, the deified ancestor of Josephus’s Roman patron. Here is the final verdict-

In his life as a whole he was blessed, if ever man was, by fortune; a commoner, he mounted to a throne, retained it for all those years and bequeathed it to his own children; in his family life, on the contrary, no man was more unfortunate. 9

Although Jewish Antiquities, completed in 93/4 C.E., repeats this verdict in almost identical words, 10 its perspective is somewhat different. Jewish Antiquities includes much more material unfavorable to Herod. The Jewish War either deemphasizes this unfavorable material or omits it altogether.

According to Jewish Antiquities, Herod maintained his rule through terror and brutality. His secret police were everywhere and reported to the king any murmurings of discontent. Many citizens were taken to Hyrcania, one of Herod’s fortresses, never to be seen again. Herod is even supposed to have prohibited his subjects from assembling in public. These security measures were required because of the general dislike for Herod among the Jews.

Jewish Antiquities broadly recounts two major complaints the Jews had against Herod, aside from his violence and brutality. First was his violation of traditional Jewish laws. He built a theater and an amphitheater in Jerusalem (neither has yet been discovered by archaeologists) where he staged gladitorial games and other forms of entertainment that were foreign to Judaism and inimical to many Jews. He built pagan cities and temples, and seemed to favor the pagan and Samaritan elements in the population over the Jews. Furthermore, many of his judicial and administrative enactments were not in accordance with Jewish law. Certain elements in the population were offended at his introduction of Roman trophies into the Jerusalem Temple and his erection of a golden eagle over its entrance.

The second reason for the general dislike of Herod was his oppressive taxation. Someone had to pay for Herod’s munificent benefactions to the cities of the East, generous gifts to the Romans and extravagant building projects at home. The Jewish citizens of Herod’s kingdom had to foot the bill, and they objected.

But if Jewish Antiquities condemns Herod in these respects, it also reflects a certain ambivalence. It includes pro-Herodian material as well. Even if in his private life Herod did not follow the traditional Jewish observances (for example, Jewish law does not approve of the murder of one’s wife and children), in his public life he often took care not to cause offense. He built no pagan temples or cities in the Jewish areas of the country, and he ordered that only priests were to work on the construction of the sacred precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. Coins he intended for use in Jewish areas of the country were struck without images. Foreign princes who wished to marry a woman of the Herodian house had to be circumcised first. Moreover, it is in Jewish Antiquities that we find reports of several reductions in taxes. Here, too, Josephus notes that Herod was conspicuously generous in the distribution of food to the people during a famine.

Because of the bad press Herod has received, both in Josephus and in the New Testament, he is occasionally vilified by contemporary scholars as a “malevolent maniac” or worse, but he is too complex a figure to be dismissed so easily. As we have seen, even in Jewish Antiquities, which is the major source of anti-Herodian material, we find a more nuanced picture. Herod aimed to be both king of the Jews and king of Judea; he benefited the Jews both of the land of Israel and of the Diaspora. But he never forgot that his kingdom consisted of other groups as well.

Perhaps Herod’s policy was dictated by the fact that he himself was the offspring of one of these groups, the Idumeans, who had been converted to Judaism only three generations earlier. Herod’s court historian, Nicolaus of Damascus, claimed that Herod was a scion of one of Judea’s noblest families, which had returned from Babylonia in the time of the Persians; but Herod’s detractors called him a “half-Jew,” or even a gentile, because of his Idumean extraction. 11

His marginal status in the native Jewish community perhaps explains his eagerness to solicit the support of the Samaritans and the gentiles of the country. Herod was also an astute politician who never forgot that the key to his success lay in the hands of the Romans. Above all else, he was resilient and resourceful. Protected by his paranoia, he succeeded in reigning 33 years in a period of tremendous upheaval and instability.

From Herod’s Death to the First Jewish Revolt

Herod’s death in 4 B.C.E. released the accumulated passions and frustrations of the people who had been kept in check by his brutality. As Herod lay on his deathbed, two pious men and their followers removed the golden eagle that Herod had erected over the entrance to the Temple and hacked the bird to pieces. Immediately after Herod’s death, riots and rebellions broke out in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee and the Transjordan (Perea). The leaders of the riots had diverse goals. Some were simply venting their anger at a hated and feared regime; others were eager to profit from a period of chaos and disorder; still others dreamed of ridding themselves of Roman rule and proclaiming themselves king.

These riots illustrate the underside of Herodian rule. Herod’s high taxes and extravagant spending caused, or at least accelerated, the impoverishment of broad sections of the population. A clear sign of social distress was the resurgence of brigands—landless men who marauded the countryside in groups and were either hailed by the peasants as heroes (like Robin Hood) or hunted as villains. Brigandage had surfaced earlier, decades after Pompey’s conquest in 63 B.C.E. Although Pompey himself had respected the Temple and the property of the Jews, the governors he left behind (Gabinius and Crassus) did not. They engaged in robbery and pillage; Crassus even plundered the Temple. Perhaps as a result of these depredations Galilee was almost overrun by brigands. In 47/6 B.C.E. Herod routed and suppressed the brigands. Several years later, they resurfaced and Herod again suppressed them. Brigandage reemerged in the years after Herod’s death, especially, as we shall see below, in the period from 44 C.E. to the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. The impoverishment of the country and its consequent social distress were an unfortunate legacy of Herod the Great. 12

Roman-Jewish Relations

During the first half of the first century C.E., the Romans used vassal kings to govern those areas of the eastern empire that, like Judea, were neither urbanized nor greatly “Hellenized” but were home to vigorous national cultures. Administration through a vassal king, a native aristocrat who could understand the peculiar ways of the population, was thought preferable to direct Roman rule. Thus, throughout eastern Asia Minor, northern Syria, and Palestine, native dynasts governed their territories in accordance with the wishes of the Romans. In accordance with this policy, after Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided among three of his sons. Antipas received Galilee and Perea; Philip, the Golan heights and points east. Archelaus became ruler of the largest and most important part of Herod’s kingdom—Judea. In 6 C.E., however, the Romans deposed Archelaus for misrule and Judea, along with Idumea, Samaria and much of the Mediterranean coast, was annexed to the province of Syria. Henceforth Judea was administered by functionaries in the Roman civil service known as prefects or (after 44 C.E.)procurators. The rest of the country remained in the hands of Antipas and Philip for another 30 years, but then became the domain of Herod’s grandson Agrippa I. In 41 C.E. Agrippa I received from the emperor Claudius the kingship over Judea as well, thereby reigning over a kingdom almost as large as Herod’s own. Agrippa I died, however, three years later, in 44 C.E.

After Agrippa’s death, all of the Jewish portions of the country were governed by Roman procurators. For a few years, from the middle of the century until the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E., a small piece of Galilee was given to Agrippa’s son, known as Agrippa II, but otherwise, an overall change in Roman policy and administration was unmistakable. At the beginning of the first century, the land of Israel was governed by vassal rulers—men like Herod and his sons; by the middle of the century it was governed by Roman procurators (with the exception of Agrippa II). This same shift can be found elsewhere inthe Roman East. 13

Judea, on the other hand, was governed by Roman prefects from 6 C.E. Of the six or seven Roman prefects who governed Judea following Archelaus’s deposition, most are bare names to us. Even Josephus has little to say about them. The exception is the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (c. 26 to 36 C.E.). Pilate receives a negative assessment in the Gospels, in Philo, as well as in Josephus. According to the Gospels, Pilate massacred a group of Galileans (Luke 13-1) and brutally suppressed a rebellion (Mark 15-7), quite aside from crucifying Jesus. According to Philo, Pilate introduced into Herod’s former palace in Jerusalem some golden shields inscribed with the name of the emperor Tiberius. The Jews objected strenuously, because they felt that any object associated with emperor worship, not to mention emperor worship itself, was idolatrous and an offense to the Jewish religion. Previous Roman governors had respected Jewish sensitivities in this matter, but Pilate did not. After being petitioned by the Jews, the emperor ordered Pilate to remove the shields from Jerusalem and to deposit them in the temple of Augustus in Caesarea, a mixed Jewish-pagan city. Josephus narrates a similar incident (or perhaps a different version of the same incident) involving the importation of military standards (which of course contained images) into Jerusalem. The people protested loudly, saying they would rather die than see the ancestral law violated. Pilate relented and ordered the images to be removed. Ultimately, Pilate was removed from office when the Jews complained to his superiors. 14

When a procurator like Pilate was brutal or corrupt, the Jews could appeal to the governor of Syria or even to the emperor himself to remove the malefactor. But when the emperor was responsible for actions that were deleterious to the Jewish community, the Jews had nowhere to turn. This was the dilemma that confronted the Jews of both Alexandria and the land of Israel during the reign of the emperor Caligula (37–41 C.E.).

The Romans realized that Judaism was unlike the numerous other native religions of the empire; the Jews refused to worship any god but their own, refused to acknowledge the emperor’s right to divine honors, refused to tolerate images in public places and buildings, and refused to perform any sort of work every seventh day. Aware of these peculiarities, the Romans, following the practice of the Seleucids, permitted Jewish citizens to refrain from participation in pagan ceremonies; allowed priests of the Jerusalem Temple to offer sacrifices on behalf of, rather than to, the emperor; minted coins in Judea without images (even if many of the coins that circulated in the country were minted elsewhere and bore images); and exempted the Jews from military service and ensured that they would not be called to court on the Sabbath or lose any official benefits as a result of their Sabbath observances. In many of the cities of the East, the Romans authorized the Jews to create polituemata (singular, politeuma) autonomous ethnic communities, that allowed the Jews to govern their own communal affairs. 15

Riots in Alexandria

The mad emperor Caligula and his legate in Egypt withdrew, or attempted to withdraw, these rights and privileges. Riots erupted first in Alexandria—the “Greeks” (that is, the Greek-speaking population of the city, most of whom were not “Greek” at all) against the Jews. Exactly who or what started the riots is not clear. The root cause of the conflict, however, was the ambiguous status of the city’s Jews. On the one hand, the Alexandrians resented the Jewish politeuma and regarded it as a diminution of the prestige and autonomy of their own city. On the other hand, the Jews thought that membership in their own politeuma should confer on them the same rights and privileges the citizens of the city had. The result of these conflicting claims was bloodshed and destruction. Aided by the Roman governor of Egypt, the Greeks attacked the Jews, pillaged Jewish property, desecrated or destroyed Jewish synagogues and herded the Jews into a “ghetto.” The Jews were hardly passive during these events, and resisted both militarily and diplomatically. The most distinguished Jew of the city, the philosopher Philo, led a delegation to the emperor to argue the Jewish cause.

While in Rome Philo learned of another, even more serious, assault on Judaism by the state. Angered by the Jews’ refusal to accord him divine honors, Caligula ordered the governor of Syria to erect a colossal statue of the emperor in the Temple of Jerusalem. Whether something more than coincidence ties together the anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria with Caligula’s assault on the Temple is not clear, especially because of some uncertainty in the relative chronology of the two sets of events. 16

In any case, the rights of the Jews of Alexandria and the sanctity of the Temple in Jerusalem were threatened simultaneously. The Roman governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, realizing that the execution of Caligula’s order to erect his statue in the Temple could not be accomplished without riots and a tremendous loss of life, procrastinated. In a letter to Caligula, Petronius explained that the matter should be delayed because otherwise it would interfere with the harvest; in a second letter, he asked the emperor to rescind his order outright. In the meantime, Agrippa II, who was a friend of Caligula’s, convinced the emperor to rescind his demand. Caligula did so but was angered when he received Petronius’s second letter, which indicated that Petronius had no intention of following the imperial order. In reply, Caligula ordered Petronius to commit suicide. Petronius received this ultimatum, however, only after he learned that Caligula had been assassinated. This brought to an end the potential troubles in the land of Israel. The troubles in Alexandria were settled by Claudius, Caligula’s successor, who ordered both the Jews and the Greeks to return to the status quo- The Jews were to maintain their politeuma, but were not to ask for more rights than was their due.

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of these events was the refusal of the Jews even to consider rebellion against the empire. In Alexandria, the Jews took up arms only in self-defense and only with reluctance—at least this is what Philo tells us. The Jews directed their fighting against their enemies, not against the emperor or the Roman Empire. In the land of Israel itself, when Caligula’s edict to erect a statue of himself in the Temple became known, the Jews assembled before Petronius en masse and declared that he would have to kill every one of them before they would allow the Temple to be desecrated. But the Jews did not threaten rebellion. Instead, in anticipation of Mahatma Gandhi in India in the 20th century, they offered passive resistance. Because Petronius was an ethical man with a conscience, he was convinced by these mass demonstrations not to carry out his assignment. Even a governor with less moral fiber might have been persuaded by these tactics- Pontius Pilate removed the golden shields from Jerusalem after the Jews protested, declaring that they would rather be killed than allow the images to remain in the Temple. At no point in either story do “brigands” or revolutionaries make an appearance.

Agrippa I

Despite the success of this policy of passive resistance, the years after Caligula’s reign saw the growth of violent resistance to Roman rule. Caligula’s madness seems to have driven home the point that the beneficence of Roman rule was not secure, and that the only way to ensure the safety and sanctity of the Temple was to expel the Romans from the country and to remove those Jews who actively supported them.

This process might have been prevented had Agrippa I been blessed with as long a reign as his grandfather, Herod the Great. Instead, Agrippa I ruled for only three years (41–44 C.E.). Despite his short reign, he was a popular king; both Josephus and rabbinic literature have only nice things to say about him. In some respects he resembled his grandfather. He was a wily and able politician. He sponsored pagan games at Caesarea and bestowed magnificent gifts on Beirut, a pagan city. But, unlike Herod, he was not criticized for these donations, for in other respects he was Herod’s superior. He lacked Herod’s brutality. Whereas Herod refrained from flouting traditional Jewish laws in the Jewish areas of his domain, Agrippa was conspicuous for observing them. In the political sphere, he tried to attain a modest degree of independence from Rome. He even began the construction of a new wall on the northern side of Jerusalem; had it been completed, Josephus says, the city would have been impregnable during the Jewish revolt that erupted in 66 C.E.

Had Agrippa reigned a long time, perhaps the disaffected elements in Judea would have been reconciled again to foreign dominion. On Agrippa’s death in 44 C.E., however, Judea once again became the domain of the Roman procurators. There was no longer a Jewish authority who, despite ultimate subservience to Rome, could satisfy Jewish nationalist aspirations.

Moreover, the procurators after 44 C.E. were incompetent and insensitive at best, corrupt and wicked at worst. A country that, even in the face of Caligula’s assault on its religious sensitivities, had maintained peace was brought to rebellion after little more than 20 years of rule by the Roman procurators who followed Agrippa I. Josephus narrates a long string of minor incidents, disturbances, riots, assassinations and lootings, which, in retrospect, were forerunners of the Great Revolt against Rome. The participants in these incidents probably never realized that they were preparing the way for war. Nevertheless, various elements in the population were expressing their frustrations with the status quo, and the procurators were using the power of their office for fun and profit.

In the fall of 66 C.E., after Gessius Florus (who would be the last of the procurators) had stolen money from the Temple treasury (for overdue taxes, he claimed), a particularly violent riot led to the massacre of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The governor of Syria intervened, but even he failed to restore the peace. He was forced to withdraw from Jerusalem, suffering a major defeat. The Jews of Judea had rebelled against the Roman Empire.

Before recounting the story of this rebellion and its disastrous consequences, let us pause to look at the religious atmosphere generally and the social texture of Palestine in the first century C.E.