Herodium PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The site
The tomb
Later history
Eight miles south of Jerusalem, amid the desert hills, a cone stands out. It was shaped by Herod, who named it Herodium after himself. Shaped is the word, for it too had once been a hill. He crowned this with a circular palace-fortress and later, after a change of mind, lopped the top from a neighboring hill and stacked its earth to cover the palace's lower stories. (It may seem odd to say that "he" did this, since the laborers were Tom, Dick and Harry.) Yet his architectural style is so distinctive—for example, at Masada, Caesarea Maritima, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Tombs in Hebron—that we feel his hand. Herod wanted us to be talking about him 2000 years later, and not just in connection with the slaughter of the innocent children.

Aerial shot of Herodium

There were other motives too for these mighty works. All previous kings of the Jews could claim divine right: the Davidic line harked back to God's covenant with David; their successors, the Hasmoneans, could present themselves as instruments of God. But Herod had mounted the throne by dint of might alone. Rome, not God, had crowned him, and to Rome, not God, he was beholden. The Jewish people's awe before God did not protect him, and so he had to arouse an equivalent awe. This he did by building. The mighty works were a substitute for divine right. The choice—awe before God or awe before Herod—came to expression decades after his death, in Mark 13:1-2.
As he went out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, see what stones, what  buildings!” Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”
This surge against the desert sky, then, Herodium—what do we see? We see an act of self-assertion. "Here am I, Herod, mover of mountains!" (Compare Job 9: 5 - God "moves mountains without their knowing it.") After the cone was shaped, the Judeans couldn't look toward the desert from, say, the Mount of Olives, or the Bethlehem road, without having Herod thrust in their faces, as we have him in ours today. What required great expense and effort from the king, however, would be easy, according to Jesus of Nazareth, for one with faith. From Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, he might have gestured toward Herodium when he said, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Aerial photo: from Jerusalem to Herodium

Herod had a deeper motive still for his intensive building activities, though not necessarily a conscious one. For when we read his story in Josephus (who used a multivolume biography written by a courtier, Nicholas of Damascus), we see a man of enormous energy, fighting battle after battle in his quest for power. When finally he did achieve the throne, and especially after the Pax Romana set in (under Augustus in the 20's BC), what was Herod to do with all his energy? He poured it into building. Even that wasn't enough, however. The remainder curdled into paranoia.

But why did Herod choose precisely this spot to imprint himself? We can omit at once any reference to strategic ends. The only threats from the desert would have been in the form of Bedouin raids—hardly enough to justify a stupendous project like Herodium. Ehud Netzer, the chief archaeologist here for 38 years, abstained from listing Herodium among the desert fortresses. Besides, apart from the lack of strategic value, its water was too easily interrupted: it came through an aqueduct from the Artas spring three miles away at Solomon's Pools. The local rainfall would not have sufficed. When Jewish rebels tried to use Herodium as a refuge after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, they could not hold out.  

To judge from the structures above and below, during Herod's lifetime the place served as a recreational complex near the capital—a kind of Camp David. And, as said, he appointed it to be the site of his tomb, turning the whole hill into a monument.

We can best understand his choice of this spot if we go back to an event that occurred here during his struggle for power. But to understand the event, we need a little historical background, which is only to be found in Josephus.

The story

The Hasmoneans, after fighting for 26 years, led the Jewish people to independence in 141 BC. They ruled, often cruelly, until the late 60's BC, when two Hasmonean brothers got into a quarrel about which of them should be king/high priest. In 63, both sought help from the Roman general, Pompey, who had recently arrived in Syria. Pompey decided in favor of the older, Hyrcanus II, because the younger, Aristobulus II, struck him as rather too arrogant. Aristobulus rebelled against this decision, and Pompey had to enter the land to enforce it. After taking most of Jerusalem without a battle, he besieged the Temple for three months, building siege ramps on Sabbath, when the Jews would not resist (a hint, perhaps, as to how the Romans later managed to build the ramp at Masada). When at last he took the Temple, slaughtering many, he entered the Holy of Holies for a look. This was a major violation: only the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. The Jews would never forgive him.

Pompey reinstated Hyrcanus as high priest, although Aristobulus and his sons occasionally mounted rebellions. Josephus portrays Hyrcanus as a weak character (although he may have been the "Wicked Priest" of the Dead Sea Scrolls). At his right hand, however, he had a crafty, strong and energetic advisor named Antipater, an Idumean whose father had converted to Judaism under compulsion. This Antipater was the father of two sons: Phasael and Herod.

In the wider Roman realm, in 49, civil war broke out between Pompey and another successful general, Julius Caesar. A year later Pompey was defeated. Now Hyrcanus and Antipater swung over to Caesar's party. The former was reconfirmed as high priest and received the title of ethnarch. Antipater became procurator of Judea. His son Phasael was charged with the rule of Judea and Perea, Herod with that of Galilee. On this basis they were able to maintain small armies.

In 44 Caesar was assassinated, and a year later, so was Antipater. A son of Aristobulus, called Antigonus, tried again to unseat Hyrcanus, but in vain.  

In 40 came a reversal. Rome's inveterate enemy in the East, the Parthians, invaded its provinces here. This posed a major threat, because Rome was the world's biggest city in population (a few decades later its grain consumption would amount to 300,000 tons per year) and ships bearing grain from Egypt required safe harborage on the coast. Antigonus allied himself with the Parthians, promising much money and many women in return for deposing Hyrcanus and giving him the Jewish throne. The Parthian general took the bribe and swept down on Jerusalem. Because of his anti-Roman stance, Antigonus got support from Jewish pilgrims, who were coming in for the Feast of Weeks. They and the Parthians held the temple and much of the city, while Herod and Phasael held the palace on the western hill (near the Jaffa Gate) and part of the wall. It was a stalemate. But then, writes Josephus, Phasael and Hyrcanus were lured into Galilee under the pretext of negotiations—and imprisoned. Before his confinement, however, Phasael was able to send a note to his brother in Jerusalem.

Realizing the hopeless position, Herod gathered his family and fled the city, accompanied by a band of soldiers. His aim was to reach Masada, a natural fortress. Soon into the journey, however, his mother, Kypros, was thrown from her chariot. Thinking her dead and knowing that his enemies would soon catch up, Herod drew his sword and pointed it toward his belly. His companions grabbed him. They accused him of cowardice: would he leave them to the mercies of their foes? In the midst of this commotion, Kypros regained consciousness and the escape continued. Eight miles south of Jerusalem, however, a force of Jews attacked. Against the odds, Herod won. He and his family then continued undisturbed to Masada.

Herod's escape to Masada in 40 BC

He would remember the day and the place. He would name the battle site after himself, build a palace on its hill, shape the hill into a mountain, and designate it for his burial.

To round off the story: Unwilling to be held hostage against his brother, Phasael killed himself—it is said by bashing his head against the wall of his prison. Hyrcanus was delivered to Antigonus, who proceeded to cut or bite his ears off (a mutilated man cannot be High Priest). Herod left his family on Masada and, after an adventure with Cleopatra, reached Rome, where the triumvirate and the senate made him king of Judea. He returned, and now with solid Roman support, battled his way to power in 37 BC. Fifteen years or so later he sent builders to the hill that would become Herodium.