Herod the Great is one of the well-known historical figures from the New Testament. Although he dies just after Jesus is born, his influence continues well after his death. His sons rule the region of Palestine until the Jewish War in A.D. 66. He was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C., and King in 37 B. C. Since Herod was only half-Jewish, and was hated by the Jews because he was an “outsider.” He was an excellent administrator and politician. Since he ruled with the ruthless efficiency respected by Roman Empire he was left to run his kingdom with no interference from Rome. He began an aggressive building campaign throughout the region, but especially Jerusalem.
Despite marrying an Hasmonean princess, Mariamme, he was never accepted by the Jewish people as a Jewish king. His family was Idumean, forcible converts to Judaism, and therefore not really Jewish. Perhaps in an attempt to win favor with the Jewish people he expanded the Temple mount and re-built the whole complex, making it one of the most beautiful temples in the ancient world.
Herod was increasingly paranoid with a well-documented history of cruelty toward family and friends. This included the execution of his wife, whom he appears to have truly loved and his brother, whom he suspected of plotting against him. Because of his cruelty, Augustus is reputed to have said “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Herod wrote a will that divided Palestine between three of his sons (he had ten wives, all of whom wanted their child to succeed him.) The three remaining sons, each took the title “Tetrarch” (ruler of a fourth) or “Ethnarch” (ruler of people).
Herod is usually remembered as the madman who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Messiah. This is true, Herod was a brutal and paranoid man who killed his own wife and children in order to prevent them from rebelling against him. It is true that Herod was a evil person who ruled with an iron fist. But early in his reign he was a skillful administrator who was able to control a rebellious province. What is more, he initiated many building projects which brought Judea respect in the Roman world.
Herod built several fortress-palaces, included Masada and the Herodium. Masada is a well known desert palace built by Herod, although the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus was the first for fortify the mountain. The Herodium is near Bethlehem and was designed by Herod as a fortress and burial site.
Perhaps Herod’s greatest achievement was this renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem. When it was finished, it rivaled Solomon’s Temple in glory. He began in 19 B.C., and finished the temple in 18 months, but took another 8 years to build the courtyards. Although the complete Temple complex was not finished until A.D. 64, Herod doubled the size of Zerubbabel’s temple. Since the design of the Temple is found in scripture, Herod expanded the buildings around the Temple, enclosing the original mountain in a rectangular box and expanded the buildings associated with the Temple area.
The port-city of Caesarea Maritima was marvel of architecture and engineering. Herod built a thoroughly Roman city which was a tribute it his power and wealth. The artificial port at Caesarea is one of the more amazing structures built by Herod. Caesarea was built as a Roman city included a theater and hippodrome.
The best text on Herod’s building projects is Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). This is an excellent description of Herod’s projects. It is technical, but still readable.