Finding footprints of King Herod the Great
There is no doubt that King Herod the Great left his mark on history. Not only did he carry out impressive building projects throughout ancient Judea, but he also appears in the Bible and historical sources. Yet for all of this, no image of King Herod remains from his lifetime.
Nevertheless, Ralf Krumeich and Achim Lichtenberger show that while we may not have an image of King Herod, we still have his footprints. Literally. In their article “Searching for Portraits of King Herod,” published in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, they examine what remains of Herod’s portraits from his lifetime. Interestingly, Herod chose to present himself one way in Judea—before a Jewish audience—and a very different way in the rest of the world.
In Judea, Herod did not create portraits of himself. He displayed no statues, and he did not print his likeness on any coin. At least before his Jewish subjects, he abided by their religious prohibition on making images of living creatures (Exodus 20:4). This act hints to Herod’s shrewdness as a ruler. Other rulers of Judea who ignored this Jewish prohibition were often met with riot and revolt.
Outside of Judea is a different story. Searching the Mediterranean world for footprints of Herod’s legacy, Krumeich and Lichtenberger have identified five bases on which once stood bronze statues of King Herod. Three of these came from Athens. The other two came from Kos (Greece) and Sia (Syria). The accompanying inscriptions all praise Herod as a benefactor of the respective cities. From these, we see that Herod’s reservation to depict himself did not exist outside the boundaries of Judea. There, Herod presented himself as a promoter of Greco-Roman culture and welcomed honorific statues.
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In contrast to these positive portrayals, King Herod the Great is cast as a villain in the Bible. He is seen as a power-hungry tyrant who massacres all the infant boys in Bethlehem to protect his throne (Matthew 2:16–18). This episode, which is part of the Christmas story, is retold every December.
Similar to the biblical authors, the Jewish historian Josephus portrays Herod negatively. He recounts that Herod killed several of his sons and his wife Mariamne to solidify his power. Josephus also relates that Herod planned to kill a group of notable Jewish men at his death—just to guarantee there would be mourning in the kingdom (Jewish Antiquities 17.6).
Herod was powerful, but apparently not popular among his subjects. He was a clever ruler, who knew how to appease the Romans and—to an extent—the Jews. Yet his cruelty shines clearly in the texts of the period.
Explore all these sources and the complex image of Herod that emerges from them in Ralf Krumeich and Achim Lichtenberger’s article “Searching for Portraits of King Herod,” published in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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