Eight miles south of Jerusalem, where the last stunted olive trees and stony cornfields fade into the naked badlands of the Judaean desert, a hill rises abruptly, a steep cone sliced off at the top like a small volcano. This is Herodium, one of the grand architectural creations of Herod the Great, King of Judaea, who raised a low knoll into a towering memorial of snowy stonework and surrounded it with pleasure palaces, splashing pools, and terraced gardens. An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew's Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became an image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew's account. But children he certainly slew, including three of his own sons, along with his wife, his mother-in-law, and numerous other members of his court. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination.
Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer has spent the past half century searching for the real Herod, as he is portrayed not in words but in stone. He has excavated many of Herod's major building sites throughout the Holy Land, exploring the palaces where the king lived, the fortresses where he fought, the landscapes where he felt most at home. Of Herod's many imaginative building projects, Herodium was the only one that bore his name, and was perhaps the closest to his heart. It was here, at the end of his daring and bloodstained career, that he was laid to rest in a noble mausoleum.
The precise location of Herod's tomb remained a mystery for nearly two millennia, until April 2007, when Netzer and his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem unearthed it on the upper slopes of Herodium. The discovery provided new insights into one of the most enigmatic minds of the ancient world—and fresh evidence of the hatred that Herod excited among his contemporaries. It also became a political incident, with Palestinians arguing that the artifacts at the site belonged to them, and Jewish settlers saying that the tomb's presence strengthened their claim to the West Bank. To Netzer, whose work at various Herodian sites has for decades been interrupted by war, invasion, and uprisings, the controversy was hardly surprising. In the Holy Land, archaeology can be as political as kingship.
Herod was born in 73 B.C. and grew up in Judaea, a kingdom in the heart of ancient Palestine that was torn by civil war and caught between powerful enemies. The Hasmonaean monarchy that had ruled Judaea for 70 years was split by a vicious fight for the throne between two princely brothers, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The kingdom was in turn caught in a larger geopolitical struggle between the Roman legions to the north and west, and the Parthians, historic enemies of Rome, to the east. Herod's father, the chief adviser to Hyrcanus and a gifted general, threw in his lot with the Romans, who banished Aristobulus and made Hyrcanus king of Judaea.
From boyhood, Herod saw the benefits of entente with the Roman overlords—a stance that has long been judged a betrayal of the Jewish people—and it was the Romans who would eventually make Herod king. Throughout his career he strove to reconcile their demands with those of his Jewish subjects, who jealously guarded their political and religious independence. Maintaining this delicate balance was all the more difficult because of Herod's background; his mother was an ethnic Arab, and his father was an Edomite, and though Herod was raised as a Jew, he lacked the social status of the powerful old families in Jerusalem who were eligible to serve as high priest, as the Hasmonaean kings had traditionally done. Many of his subjects considered Herod an outsider—a "half Jew," as his early biographer, the Jewish soldier and aristocrat Flavius Josephus later wrote—and continued to fight for a Hasmonaean theocracy. In 43 B.C., Herod's father was poisoned by a Hasmonaean agent. Three years later, when the Parthians suddenly invaded Judaea, a rival Hasmonaean faction allied themselves with the invaders, deposed and mutilated Hyrcanus, and turned on Herod.
In this moment of crisis, Herod looked to the Romans for help. He fled Jerusalem with his family under cover of darkness, and after defeating the Parthians and their Jewish allies in a desperate battle at the site where he would later build Herodium, he traveled on to Rome, where the senate, remembering his unswerving loyalty, named him King of Judaea. He walked out of the senate building arm in arm with the two most powerful men in the Roman world: Mark Antony, the soldier and orator who ruled the Roman east, and Octavian, the young patrician who ruled the west, and who, nine years later, would defeat Antony and assume command of the entire empire, subsequently taking the title "Augustus." Then, in an act that symbolized the many accommodations he would have to make to keep his slippery grip on power, Herod led the procession up the Capitoline Hill to the Temple of Jove, Rome's most sacred shrine, and there the King of Judaea offered sacrifice to the gods of pagan Rome.
Now Herod had his kingdom, but he still had to conquer it, which took three years of hard fighting. Finally, in 37 B.C., he captured Jerusalem, and Judaea was hisâ€”at least politically. To bolster his social and religious authority, he divorced his first wife, Doris, and married Mariamne, a Hasmonaean princess. But the Hasmonaean threat remained. Two years later, at Passover, Mariamne's teenage brother, the high priest in the Second Temple, received a warm ovation from the crowds of worshippers; Herod, fearing that the young man might one day usurp his throne, had him drowned in a swimming pool in his palace in Jericho.
The Hasmonaeans were not his only concern. From 42 to 31 B.C., while Mark Antony ruled the Roman east, Herod remained his staunch friend and ally, despite the ambitions of AnÂtony's beautiful Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, who persuaded her love-struck husband to carve out choice portions of Herod's kingdom for her, and even tried to seduce Herod. (He declined her advances.) In 31 B.C., the political landscape was transformed by the Battle of Actium, during which Octavian crushed the combined armies of Antony and Cleopatra and became the first emperor of Rome. Herod, knowing that Octavian would take a dim view of his long-standing friendship with Antony, rushed to the island of Rhodes to meet the emperor and presented himself without his crown, but with all of his kingly dignity. Instead of downplaying his devotion to Antony, he underscored it and promised to serve his new master, Octavian, with the same loyalty in the future. Octavian was so impressed by Herod's frankness and poise that he confirmed him as King of Judaea, and later added other territories to his realm, saying that Herod's megalopsychiaâ€”his greatness of spiritâ€”was too large to fit a small kingdom like Judaea.
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 familyâ€”ten wives and more than a dozen childrenâ€”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.)