Herod the Great: Friend of the Romans and Parthians?

Jason M. Schlude explores how King Herod manipulated his position between two regional powers

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.


 

King Herod is remembered as a Friend of the Romans. Jason Schlude suggests that Herod exploited the broader geopolitical circumstances of the day. Photo: Hulton-Archive/Getty Images.

Often we think of Herod the Great in relation to ancient Rome. We understand the king as steadfast in his loyalty to this western imperial power—and rightly so. Herod’s behavior routinely betrayed his Roman interests, and inscriptions attest to and advertise this allegiance by identifying him with such titles as “Friend of the Romans.” It is entirely appropriate then to apply the modern label “Roman client king” to Herod, as scholars have done for so long.

Another view of Herod, however, complicates this picture. Herod was not merely a passive subject of Rome. In fact, if we only view Herod against the Roman backdrop, we risk misunderstanding the circumstances of his rise to power and underestimating his accomplishment. While the Romans were indeed a key source of Herod’s authority, he rose to power and maintained his position through timely manipulations of the contentious geopolitics that defined his day.
 


 
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Rome was not the undisputed master of the Near East. The empire of Parthia stretched from modern Afghanistan through Iran to the Euphrates River in Iraq, encompassing territories once ruled by Persian kings and then by Alexander the Great and his successors. Existing for nearly 500 years (c. 250 B.C.E. to the 220s C.E.), the Parthian state was the only advanced civilization that bordered the Roman Empire. And the two states were not without violent encounters. In 53 B.C.E. the famed Crassus led Roman legions into the Parthian empire only to see his troops massacred and to die violently himself near Carrhae. Later, between 40 and 39 B.C.E., the Parthian king Orodes II conquered and controlled the Roman Near East, including Israel, until Mark Antony organized a counter-offensive that drove his forces from the region. But for the Romans, the damage was done; henceforth, no one would see the Romans as invincible and their control of the Near East certain.

Herod faced this volatile situation and exploited it to his advantage. Indeed it was no coincidence that the Romans entrusted the throne of Judaea to Herod the Great at the close of 40 B.C.E., the same year of the Parthian conquest. During the campaign the Parthians installed Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II and scion of the Hasmonean dynasty, as king of Judaea. Herod fled to Rome to use this event to make a bid for kingship. He sought out Antony and underscored the Parthian threat (and threw in a bribe for good measure!). As the ancient sources make clear, the strategy worked; the Parthian actions motivated the Senate to make Herod the Great king. In this situation, Herod is best seen as a manipulator of Rome’s confrontation with Parthia for his own advantage.
 


 
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Herod then took the first opportunity to further his position by working with the Parthians. On the Roman side, Herod was in good shape. After the Senate made him king and Herod pacified his new kingdom, Antony had Antigonus executed in 37 B.C.E. and thus eliminated Herod’s most potent rival. But Herod still had a Parthian problem. He must have feared another Parthian invasion of the Roman Near East.

When the Parthians invaded Palestine in 40 B.C.E., they arrested Hyrcanus II, a high priest and member of the Hasmonean family, and cut off his ears. The Parthians then carried him back to their empire in retreat from Roman troops. Despite the disfigurement, which disqualified him from holding the high priesthood, Hyrcanus remained the ranking member of the royal Hasmonean family. Might the Parthians not try to make Hyrcanus their own vassal king in Judaea? Herod hedged his bets. He wanted to have Hyrcanus in his own possession and to have the Parthians as friends. To achieve these ends, after Orodes perished in 37 B.C.E.—and with him, the worst of the bad blood between Herod and the Parthians—Herod immediately opened diplomatic relations with his successor Phraates IV in 36 B.C.E. He sent the new king presents and pledges and requested permission for the return of Hyrcanus, which was granted. Though not explicitly mentioned in the sources, this exchange must have resulted in some level of official amicability between Herod and the Parthians. In short, it was to the advantage of Herod to be friend of the Romans and the Parthians.
 


 
Learn about the archaeological evidence of King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, where the trial of Jesus may have occurred >>
 

 

King Herod is carried off by servants in a 17th-century German engraving. Hulton-Archive/Getty Images

It is ironic, however, that not long after Herod was compelled to break with the Parthian king. In 31/30 B.C.E. Herod’s Roman situation changed dramatically. Defeated at the battle of Actium, Antony took his own life, and Octavian (soon to be hailed “Augustus,” the first Roman emperor) now controlled the Near East. Before embarking for his well-known meeting with Octavian, Herod executed Hyrcanus and thereby eliminated the last surviving Hasmonean heir. This act limited Octavian’s choices and rendered Herod more necessary, even if unsavory, to the Romans. Herod’s judgment in this decision seems sound, at least in its effectiveness—he remained king. The high-profile murder, however, had its downside. It likely alienated Herod from Phraates IV, who would have been irritated by the political black eye Herod’s action created for him. The king’s subjects, especially the Babylonian Jews who honored Hyrcanus, would have been displeased with him, thinking either that Phraates conspired with Herod to bring about the Hasmonean’s death or that the turn of events reflected the king’s weakness of judgment and failure to command respect among regional dynasts. At the very least then Phraates would have had to cut off public diplomatic engagement with Herod. We certainly hear no more of diplomatic exchanges between the two monarchs. But perhaps for Herod there was a thin silver lining. Octavian now could be assured of his loyalty. Where else could Herod turn?

To come to a full appreciation of Herod the Great, we must understand him as more than a one-dimensional Roman front man. He actively and aggressively manipulated the complex imperial circumstances of his day to secure a position of authority for himself. In the process, the “Friend of the Romans” also became a friend of the Parthians, even if the friendship appears short-lived. After more than a century of intense scholarly scrutiny, there remains much more to learn about Herod the Great.1
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 29, 2013.
 

 
Jason Schlude is an Assistant Professor of Classics at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and specializes in the relationships shared by ancient Rome, the Near East and the Parthian empire. He is an Associate Director of the archaeological excavations at Omrit in northern Israel.
 

 

Read more in Bible History Daily

Herodium: The Tomb of King Herod Revisited

Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey

Monumental Entryway to King Herod’s Palace at Herodium Excavated

Ehud Netzer Publications Available to Public

The Stones of Herod’s Temple Reveal Temple Mount History

The Masada Siege: The Roman assault on Herod’s desert fortress

Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist
 


 

Notes

1. For the events of Herod’s career recounted here, see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 14.330–491, 15.1-21, 161-196; Jewish War 1.248–357, 386–393, 433–434.
 


 

Posted in People in the Bible, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  1. Ric says

    “To come to a full appreciation of Herod the Great, we must understand him as more than a one-dimensional Roman front man.”

    I agreed, completely.

    “The high-profile murder, however, had its downside. It likely alienated Herod from Phraates IV, who would have been irritated by the political black eye Herod’s action created for him.”

    Considering ancient “great kings” constant need for wealth, the black-eye of Phraates IV; who would have wanted no more Roman incursions into his newly acquired “Great King” lands with a new infusion of Herodian wealth couldn’t heal.

    Nice article, thanks.

  2. Mark says

    Nice article.
    I have a couple of questions here for the author or others here who can help or point me in the right direction.
    1. From Josephus we know that Herod was able to secure (from the Romans) the safe transfer of “sacred” money from Jews living outside Judea to the temple. Did Herod get a cut of this money? – and if so – what would have been his “share”? If no proof I would appreciate an educated guess.
    2. Did he also have a deal like this with the Parthians for the large Jewish population within their territories? And did the Babylonian Jews typically travel to Jerusalem for the festivals?
    Thank you in advance.

  3. Jim says

    Steven Collins is author of the book The “Lost” Ten Tribes of Israel Found. In it, he explains that it was at least some of the tribe that owned the Parthian empire. He, among some other researchers, convincingly show that these United States are also an Israelite nation.

  4. JAllan says

    British and American fundamentalists have claimed since Victorian times that the lost tribes became English, Scottish, or whatever. There is no scientific evidence either in culture (Britons and other Celts were pre-literate headhunters — literally — with animistic beliefs until the Romans brought Christianity), language (Celtic tongues like Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic, and Germanic tongues spoken by Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, are part of the Indo-European family, which includes all but a few of the languages spoken across Europe, Persia and India, while Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic are Semitic languages with no connection to Indo-European tongues), or history. The lost tribes were broken up into individual households and deported to various parts of the Assyrian Empire, which came nowhere near Greece, much less Britain, and households from other conquered nations were imported into Samaria. The few remaining Israelites and the newcomers formed the Samaritans, who are the closest remnant of the lost tribes (apparently the hatred they received from Jews moved some Samaritans to become Christian, and there was a significant Samaritan-Assyrian church until recently, with a few remaining members even today). The deportees assimilated into the national identity of their new neighbors wherever they went, and so are truly LOST to history.

    The Persians may have had some Israelite deportees among them, but they left no cultural stamp on Persian culture in ancient times, except possibly for Darius the Great being friendly to the Jewish people. In later times, Islam, based upon Judaism, conquered Persia and left that indirect stamp on modern Iran. And of course, the early British settlers of America INCLUDED Puritans (while others were mostly Anglicans), from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The fact that Puritan clergy considered themselves a “new Israel” and promoted the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language (which went nowhere) may mislead some “researchers” of a fundamentalist tradition into assuming an Israelite ancestry for Anglo-American settlers.

  5. Rick says

    How might the Parthian line of kings named Orodes relate to the Nabatean line of kings named Aretas, and were the Nabateans considered by the Parthians to be under their sphere of influence? Not mentioned in this analysis is the Nabatean angle and the (promise of the) marriage of Aretas IV’s daughter to Antipas as part of the peace settlement between Aretas and Herod I. Nevertheless, there is the continuance of Herod I as “Friend of the Romans” during the relatively sudden transfer of Judea’s immediate animosity to Nabatea from Parthia. Pilate’s “Friend of Caesar” title sounds to be a similar – or same – reward.

    I think that the dating of Antipas’ divorce of Aretas’ daughter and marriage to Herodias was crucual to dating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

  6. Roger says

    Heroe, called ‘The Great’ possibly did deserve the title. As the above says he concluded some clever diplomacy. This was also evident after the defeat of Antony after Actium, Herod went to Octavian/Augustus with his diadem in his hand. He also had a highly skilled and forceful Lawyer friend, Nicholas of Damascus who undertook diplomatic missions for him.
    It was only in late life that his control began to bread down because of his terrible disease causing his body to corrupt and to stink. Even then he tried to outwit the ‘Wise Men’ who were warned by God to avoid him and his manipulation.
    My Book on Herod sees him as a Statesman, Commander and Builder.

  7. Evon says

    What was Herod The Great first name?

  8. John says

    One aspect of Herod’s service to himself and to Rome was his valuable service as a guarantor of peace on the sea between Egypt and Rome. In Roman times grain ships could not traverse a straight line from Alexandria to Italy. Grain ships hugged the Levantine coast on their Rome-ward journey. The Mediterranean had not yet become Rome’s “mare nostrum” at the turn of the era. Rome depended on grain sent from Egypt (and to a lesser degree from Herod’s “granary” in the trans-Jordan which garnered him a financial killing because it got to Rome weeks before ships from Egypt). Politically Egyptian grain was to Rome what Middle Eastern oil has been to the West in modern times. Rome’s aristocratic Senate had an historic aversion against maintaining an organized maritime presence on the Mediterranean. Roman ships defeated Carthage, but were burned after victory was assured. Roman fleets with Roman naviarchs and Roman sailors policing the Mediterranean would come later in the first and second centuries CE. At Herod’s time client kingdoms like Mauretania, Cilicia and Thrace served Augustus by keeping sea lanes open. In this regard Herod was the alpha dog among client kings. Herod built Caesarea Maratima, an ancient maritime marvel that would have its engineering (example: underwater concrete) copied by Rome in Ostia, but only under Augustus’ successors. The legacy of Pompey’s clearance of the eastern Mediterranean of pirates in the early 1st century BCE was bequeathed to Herod at the end of that century. Herod did a great job. Grain arrived year after year in Rome because Herod’s fleet was on maritime duty. The Romans even used Herod’s triremes to police the Black Sea if Josephus is to be believed. Herod’s overall greatness cannot be fully appreciated without factoring in his bargain to do for Augustus on the sea what the Roman Senate was reluctant to do.

  9. colette says

    Since this is a Biblical post, I feel free to comment. None of these figures are worth further study. It’s funny thought History how man tries to justify Nations and rulers. As I was reading I got a sense of poor Rome…..poor Herod…..they were doing the best they could. I disagree. Science and technology has been used as a cover for great violations of Humanity. Rome on its own was not better than any other Nation. It was their ownership of collective knowledge and the withholding of it to the rest of Humanity. As is being done to this very day. They are credited with achievements built on what they took by force. I believe if we truly followed the Bible instead of dissecting it, we would find our selves so advanced that we would drop the fantasy of Aliens.

  10. Bruce E says

    Does Jackie Chan’s movie, “Dragon Blade,” contribute to the understanding of this period in central Asian history?

  11. Heidi says

    The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 A.D., alludes to Jewish roots of the Scots much earlier than the Victorian era.

  12. Jerry says

    The record indicates that the Parthians took Herod for their implacable foe. They wanted him dead in the year 40 Before the Common Era (that is why they tried to kill him in Jerusalem) before he escaped their siege and fled to Masada, Petra, Egypt, and then on to Rome. Herod was the master of political manipulation with the Romans. That is so true.

    It is one thing to say something based on speculation; it is quite another thing to base something on historical accounts that you are reading, such as Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. If there is written evidence that Herod was at one-time pro-Parthian, let’s see the evidence. If it is speculation, then let us call it that. Herod lined up with Rome and that is why he was the enemy of Parthia.

    Jerry Knoblet
    Author of Herod the Great
    University Press of America

  13. Avinoam says

    Thank you Jason for this interesting hindsight of international politics of the Empires of the past.
    One comment to the A/M article, you state:
    ” Herod executed Hyrcanus and thereby eliminated the last surviving Hasmonean heir. ”

    Hyrcanus was not the last surviving Hasmonean heir. To appease the Jews for his political manipulations and his military campaigns in the service of Rome against Jewish insurgents, Herod married Mariamne I, daughter of Hasmonean Alexandros, whom he executed on 29 BCE.
    Then he executed her sons with him:
    Alexander, executed 7 BCE
    Aristobulus IV, executed 7 BCE
    daughter Salampsio
    daughter Cypros

Continuing the Discussion

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    […] Jason M. Schlude | Biblical Archaeology Society  […]

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    […] became more conservative over time (like McMaster Divinity College).Excellent piece over at BAR on Herod the Great: Friend of the Romans and the Parthians. When I ask the students about the “Parthians” most stare at me with blank faces. And […]

  3. Barclay discusses Paul, McGrath discusses Lewis, and more | Near Emmaus linked to this post on May 15, 2013

    […] – Jason M. Schlude wrote an interesting article titled “Herod the Great: Friend of Rome and Parthians?” […]


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