Herod, The Builder

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.


Caesarea, Herod’s tribute to the Roman Empire

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.

5 thoughts on “Herod, The Builder

    • Hey Jeff, it’s been a while. Hope all is well in Zambia. I believe that Herod did not change the design of the actual Temple building, since that was more or less “scriptural.” The whole Temple platform, however, was an addition and all of the courts and colonnades were his.

      The Hasmonean dynasty expanded the mount as well, Herod’s retaining walls are beyond those built by the Hasmoneans. I have a picture of a spot on the Temple mount where you can see the old Hasmonean wall, I should post it here.


  1. Yeah, it has been a while. Our internet connection here is very unreliable.
    Yeah, that would be neat to see that picture. I appreciate the pics to the left of your blog.


  2. At least you have a connection. I will dig out that pic in the next couple of days, Freshmen are arriving today so there are many things to prepare for next week!


  3. Reading both this blog and Strauss’ writings on Herod has been very interesting. It is hard to reconcile Herod and his cruelty with his many architectural accomplishments. Having visited both Caesarea Maritima and Masada, it is astonishing to not only see firsthand the things he had built (and are still standing), but to associate those same accomplishments with the ruler who ordered infants to be slaughtered. I remember standing underneath the remains of the aqueduct at Caesarea and marveling at just the sheer ingenuity that was necessary to build these massive structures. How could someone who was so evil also do so much for the prosperity of Judea? To me, it truly emphasizes his madness. Herod “presented himself as the protector of Judaism and sought to gain the favor of the Jews” (Strauss p.134) in tangible ways including rebuilding the temple “to a greater splendor than even in the time of Solomon” (Strauss p. 134). But he was a horrible, paranoid ruler. In the end, no amount of great works can atone for the atrocities he committed. I find it interesting to see how someone’s obsession with not only greatness, but a need of acceptance by the Jews, led to such a desire to prove his worth. Strauss embodies his sheer insanity in this one sentence, “Herod the Great was a volatile combination of a clever and efficient ruler and a cruel tyrant” (p. 133). Looking back in history at the many ruler’s that could be defined similarly, there is a part of me which struggles to understand just why God allows people such as Herod to be put in a position of power and control. Yet in the end, I know that God is in control of all things. This knowledge, while admittedly hard to fully understand at times, is what can bring comfort when faced with difficulties that seem defeating.


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