Marshak, Adam Kolman. The Many Faces of Herod the Great. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 432 pp. Pb; $35.  Link to Eerdmans  

Herod the Great took the minor Hellenistic kingdom of Judea and successfully transformed it to a major kingdom with international influence and prestige. Although known to most Christians primarily for his pursuit of Jesus in Matthew 2, Herod was a masterful politician in the Roman world. Adam Marshak argues in this fascinating book that Herod succeeded as the King of Judea despite his dubious lineage and weak claim to the throne because of his political skill and flexibility (335). Adam Marshak wants to get beyond the popular view of Herod as an evil monster perpetuated in popular preaching and see Herod as an example of an ideal Roman client king.

Herod-The-GreatHerod appeared to the Romans as an ideal client king yet also claimed to be a successor to David and Solomon. Marshak offers an example of how Herod could be both a Roman and Jewish king. During the procuratorship of Felix there was a dispute over Caesarea—was it a Greek or Jewish city? Both sides appealed to Herod as the founder to support their claim (254). This illustrates something important about Herod, he was able to play to the interests of Roman, Greek, and Jewish constituencies in order to increase his own power and prestige. Marshak’s title, The Many Faces, alludes to Herod’s uncanny ability to appeal to all three of these cultures.

In order to study Herod within the proper cultural and intellectual milieu, Marshak begins with three chapters explaining why Rome used client kings and the ideal Hellenistic monarchy. As Rome expanded, it was expedient to use local kings to support Roman interests in newly acquired territories. Client kings were supported by the Roman army and were part of the Roman patronage system, often receiving citizenship and other honors. Since the client king relied on Roman patronage, the client king would honor patrons with gifts and other support. Although Rome allowed some autonomy for client kings, they had access to Roman culture and technology. Herod took advantage of advanced Roman engineering to build Caesarea and the Temple in Jerusalem. Hellenistic kings were expected to be virtuous lawgivers who were generous with their great wealth. In addition, Hellenistic kings were to protect their people and piously honor the gods.

The third chapter in this section is an overview of history from the Maccabees to Herod. Although this history is well known to most readers of the book, Marshak is interested in demonstrating the fact the Hasmoneans were already Hellenistic kings, despite their origins in the Maccabean revolt. By examining inscriptions and coinage, he describes the tension between the duties of a Hellenistic king and being a king of the Jews.

In the second section of the book, Marshak traces Herod’s rise to power. Herod began his career as a governor of Galilee in 47 BCE. Despite being an outsider in the Judean court, during this period Herod proved himself to be loyal to Hyrcanus II, but he was clearly ambitious (90). From 42-30 BCE Herod managed the difficult political waters of the Roman civil war first by supporting Anthony then Augustus in order to prove himself to be “a useful but unassertive client king.” After he was appointed as king by the Romans, Herod needed to present himself to the Jews as a “new Hasmonean.” This would be difficult since he was Idumean who ruled by the power of Rome. Herod married the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II, Mariamme, in order to have a claim to the Hasmonean throne. Herod also built or re-built several desert fortresses and palaces in order to defend Judea but also to connect his reign to the Hasmoneans. Marshak also examines Herod’s early coinage and argues the symbolism of these coins was intended to connect Herod to Jannaeus and the other Hasmonean kings (129).

The third section of the book describes Herod’s self-presentation as an ideal client king in an Augustan world. As Marshak showed in the first early chapters, a good Roman client king provided military support to Rome and sought Rome’s advice for major decisions. In addition, the client king publically honored his Roman patron and actively Romanized their kingdom (141). Herod was able to support Rome both militarily and financially. By sending gifts to Augustus, Herod bought the trust of the Emperor and demonstrated he was an important and powerful man in the Mediterranean world (145). He built Sebaste and Caesarea to honor the Emperor and publically honored the Emperor in other Hellenistic cities. For example, two inscriptions were found at the Acropolis in Athens describing Herod as a “friend of the Romans” and another as “Pious, Friend of Caesar” (155).

Since a good client king Romanizes his territory, Herod slowly brings Judea into the Roman sphere. Marshak devotes two chapters to this issue. First, he lists a series of practices Herod introduced to make Judea a part of the larger Roman world. First, he sent eight of his sons to Rome for their education. Second, Herod imported luxury goods from Rome. At Masada sixty-five amphorae were discovered with Latin commercial inscriptions. These contained imported wine, honey, apples and Garum, a Roman fish sauce (178). These imports are evidence of economic trade relations with the west. Third, Herod may have Romanized the army, although there is no irrefutable evidence for this (190). Fourth, Herod built Roman style buildings throughout his kingdom, including baths, villas, amphitheaters and theaters, hippostadiums. Perhaps the most significant Roman buildings were temples at Sebaste and Caesarea (Augusteum). These temples included cult statues to Roma and Augustus (212). Fifth, Herod took advantage of advanced Roman engineering to build the artificial harbor at Caesarea and in his expansion of the Temple Mount. Last, Herod used Roman decorative techniques in al of his buildings (opus reticulatum and opus sectile).

Marshak also demonstrates Herod was an ideal Hellenistic king. He lists a number of examples of Herod’s many benefactions (euergetism) divided into four categories: buildings and urban structures, endowments, tax assistance and monetary gifts, and personal intercession (232). Since Herod was an extremely wealthy king, he would be expected to do “good works” with that wealth. Herod gave money and assistance to cities outside his control (including Athens and Antioch). Although Herod’s benefactions were gifts, they were calculated to create friendship and good will with Rome and its leaders (247). Within Judea, Herod spent huge sums on buildings designed to bring honor and prestige to Judea, increasing his own honor. The best example of this is the Herodium, which Marshak accepts as Herod’s tomb (264).

Of the characteristics of a Hellenisitic king, piety toward the gods was the most difficult for Herod since offering proper respect to the gods of Rome at Sebaste or Caesarea would offend his Jewish population. Marshak describes Herod’s “careful political triangulation” of three cultures (273). With respect to Imperial worship, for Herod what happens in Caesarea stays in Caesarea. Although the detail are held until the final chapter of the book, Herod’s efforts to expand the Temple to largest in the ancient world made Jerusalem a pilgrimage destination for Diaspora Jews and demonstrated is piety toward the God of Israel.

The final two chapters of the book deal with Herod as the king of the Jews, Melekh HaYehudim. Just as he intentionally styled himself as an ideal Hellenistic king, Herod wanted to be seen as a legitimate successor to David and Solomon. Because he was Idumean this was impossible and it was equally impossible for him to be seen as the founder of Jerusalem. For this reason he sought to build in and around Jerusalem. According to Marshak, Herod “is engaging with his Jewish past by using a Hellenistic vocabulary” (281). The Temple is the key example of Herod’s piety, but also an indication Herod wanted to be seen as a new Solomon.

Marshak concludes that Herod was not a Hellenized Jewish king who was enamored with Rome. He was “a fully Hellenistic, Romanized Jewish king, the first of a new breed of Jewish rulers who felt at home in each of these worlds” (285).Was Herod successful? As Marshak observes, he had a long peaceful reign and died at an old age, leaving his kingdom to his sons for several generations (311).

Conclusion. Marshak contributes a scholarly yet readable introduction to Herod the Great. Yet the book is also valuable for understanding the client kings in the Roman world. Marshak provides rich footnotes on virtually every topic in the book, making this book a valuable resource for future research. This book is a welcome addition to Nikos Kokkinos The Herodian Dynasty (Sheffield, 1998) and his more recent The World of the Herods (Franz Steiner, 2007). Although Marshak includes many architectural details, his books should be supplemented with Ehud Netzer’s Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder (Baker, 2008).

It is possible most readers will approach this book as “background” for the New Testament, but that is not the purpose of the book. There are only nine references to the New Testament listed in the index, all in footnotes. Certainly a better understanding how Herod controlled Judea prior to the events of the Gospels and Acts will illuminate biblical texts, but that is not Marshak’s immediate goal. Herod’s “careful political triangulation” of Roman, Greek and Jewish cultures is exactly the kind of world in which Jesus lived. Paul’s mission also was a “careful triangulation” of these three cultures. This book contributes to our growing understanding of the tensions Jewish people experienced in the Second Temple period.

Bonus: Watch a short book teaser from Eerdmans:

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.