Book Review: Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World


by Martin Goodman

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2024. Pp. xii, 227. Illus., maps, append., chron., personae, notes, biblio., index. $26.00. ISBN:0300228414

A Much Maligned King

"In December of 40 BCE Herod stood in the midst of the Senate in Rome – an exotic stranger examined with curiosity by a crowd of Roman aristocrats who debated his future in a language he did not understand…But by the end of the day he had been proclaimed king of Judaea." (page 1)

In Biblical history, Herod “the Great,” Rome’s client king of Judaea (ruled 40 - 4 BCE) was an evil tyrant. There is no actual evidence for the atrocity he is most remembered for, the “Massacre of the Innocents” (Matthew 2:16–18, written about seven decades after Herod’s death.) But he did order the execution of many of his subjects, including his wife, his mother-in-law, his uncle, and three of his own sons, prompting a famous quip by the emperor Augustus that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. (Pork-loving Romans were baffled by the Jewish dietary laws.)

Herod was born about 73 BCE. His father, Antipater, served the Hasmonean kings of Judaea, and befriended Julius Caesar, who made him a Roman citizen. Herod was an Idumean, a Semitic people living south of Jerusalem who had been conquered and converted to Judaism by the Hasmoneans. His mother was a princess of the Nabateans, the resourceful desert tribe who built the city of Petra.

We are unusually well-informed about Herod’s long career because his close friend and counselor, Nicolaus of Damascus, a Greek scholar, wrote a detailed biography. Like so many ancient texts, it has not survived, but it served as a major source for the Romanized Jewish historian Josephus, whose book Antiquities of the Jews is our best account of this dramatic era.

Herod was a great builder. He extensively reconstructed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, built the hilltop palace fortress of Masada, site of the heroic last stand of the Jewish rebels in 74 CE, and constructed the great artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima, which became the capital of Roman Palestine. In 4 BCE, Herod installed a gilded eagle above the gate of the Jerusalem Temple. This act infuriated some religious students, outraged by violation of the Second Commandments prohibition of idols (Exodus, 20:4-6.) They tore down the eagle and destroyed it. Herod had them burned alive. Soon afterward, he died in agony from an uncertain disease. In 2007, Israeli archaeologists found Herod’s empty tomb at the Herodium, a vast fortified palace 12 km (7.5 miles) south of Jerusalem that he modestly named for himself.

This masterful book by Oxford professor of Jewish Studies, Martin Goodman, combines ancient sources with the findings of modern archaeology to render a balanced and coherent story.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, Bohemond of Taranto, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Ancient Rome: Infographics, Byzantium and the Crusades, A Short History of the Byzantine Empire, Theoderic the Great, The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, Battle for the Island Kingdom, Vandal Heaven, and The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome



Note: Herod the Great is also available in e-editions.


                   StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium                                                                                                                                                                                                

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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