Herod the Great: Friend of the Romans and Parthians?

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

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.

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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:

Herod the Great and the Herodian Family Tree

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



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.


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  • M says

    Very good summary.
    But I do not know how the Parthians became part of the Holy Roman Empire. They are mentioned as being part of a congregation of Christian emperors along with those of Rome, Spain, Hungary, Bavaria, England, etc. by the great Italian missionary Beschi in his Tamil Classic THEMBAVANI. (Please see internet).
    He calls them PAARTHTHAVAR.
    I first mistook it for Portugal.
    I find Parthia is more correct because he says that “they have won victories swallowing even the speed of arrows . . . and who possess flower-soft garments like the foam of milk.”
    But they were supposed to be always fighting with the Romans.
    Anyway I am sticking to Parthia in my English translation of THEMBAVANI.
    Your article has shown that by the time the HRE was at its peak, Parthia might have joined it, especially Armenia.

  • edward says

    If you go by the actual date of the birth of Jesus, we would be living in about .2022 AD or 2011 AD, depending on whether you go by Matthew or Luke.

  • CB says

    As this is Biblical archaeology, why are the dates given as “BCE” and “BC”? Would any Biblical student be offended by the traditional “BC” and “AD”? After all, both hinge on the once-calculated (albeit slightly wrongly) date for the birth of HaMashiach – the Messiah!

  • Dan says

    The episode circa BCE 40-36 during which Herod defeated the Parthians and brought Hyrcanus II back to Jerusalem as head of his council was the fulfillment of the first part of the prophecy recorded in the Book of Daniel, chapter 9, verse 25. If you have an interest, you can read about it on pages 22-24 of my book, HE IS THE ONE. A free copy is available for download in PDF format at: http://www.prophecysociety.org/PDF/HITO_FREE.pdf

  • 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

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