The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder


by Ehud Netzer

Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006, 443 pp.
$195 (hardback)

Reviewed by Hillel Geva

Herod the Great is widely recognized as the greatest builder of ancient times in the Land of Israel. The remains of structures he erected form a major portion of the architectural landscape at the turn of the era. Their size and grandeur still evoke awe after 2,000 years. Indeed, these remains eternalize Herod as the builder non pareil.

Archaeologist and architect Ehud Netzer here summarizes and interprets the numerous building projects Herod undertook in the Land of Israel throughout his reign (37–4 B.C.E.).

Herod erected a variety of buildings serving a wide range of functions. His ambitions as builder knew no bounds. He overcame every natural, economic and political obstacle. When difficulties arose, he found creative solutions. His buildings served his political aims, as well as his personal ambitions.

Herod founded new cities like Caesarea Maritima, where he constructed a unique deep-water harbor, as well as a pagan temple and various large public buildings.

Ehud Netzer was a member of BAR’s editorial advisory board for 30 years and frequently wrote for the magazine. In commemoration of his scholarship, we’ve made all of his publications in the BAS Library available for free. Click here to read a collection of works by the illustrious scholar, including the posthumously published “In Search of Herod’s Tomb.”

In Jerusalem he built a new temple for his Jewish subjects within a compound unparalleled in size and splendor. Nothing like it has been found in the entire Roman Empire.

He supplied an abundance of water to a series of fortresses in the Judean Desert, such as Masada and Herodion (also called Herodium). In this way these fortresses could be transformed into grand palaces.

Herod was also the first to construct traditional Roman public entertainment facilities in the Land of Israel. According to Josephus, Herod built a theater and amphitheater/hippodrome in Jerusalem in honor of Caesar, which offended Jewish sensitivities. However, the remains of these buildings have never been found to date, despite the more than 150 years of intensive archaeological research that have been conducted in Jerusalem and its vicinity and the huge dimensions of the structures Josephus describes. Did they in fact exist? Perhaps we just haven’t found them, or maybe they never existed. The decorations on the structures were no doubt adapted to make them acceptable to his Jewish subjects. We know that Herod avoided the representation of all human and animal figures even in the closed and private parts of his palaces.

Herod knew how to enjoy his wealth and position, and he did not stint on decorating the buildings he erected. To decorate his numerous palaces, he brought talented artisans from abroad to create mosaics and frescos using expensive imported materials but without transgressing the Second Commandment.

The Israel Museum’s new exhibit Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey guides visitors through the Herodian world and the end of the illustrious king’s life, as brought to light by the late archaeologist Ehud Netzer. Read the article “Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey” by Suzanne F. Singer as it appears in the March/April 2013 issue of BAR, and take a look at additional web-exclusive highlights from the exhibit in the Bible History Daily slideshow.

Herod also introduced numerous architectural innovations and construction techniques in the Land of Israel: for example, the domes inside the Double Gate to the Temple Mount. He adapted the mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath) for use as the frigidarium in the Roman-style bathhouses in his many palaces.

He introduced an innovative combination of palace and fortress. Several of these, like the Antonia in Jerusalem and at Herodion in the Judean Desert about 2 miles south of Bethlehem, have (or had) one tower higher and stronger than the others. Herod’s fortification innovations were precursors of patterns in the military architecture of subsequent generations.

In assessing Herod’s construction projects, Netzer enjoys the advantage of having personally uncovered many of these sites, giving him an intimate familiarity with the subject. He has published numerous excavation reports and other research papers dealing with a variety of aspects of the Herod’s construction in the Land of Israel.

In Part I of this book, Netzer summarizes the history of each site and its Herodian building remains. Part II comprises synthetic chapters dealing with important aspects of Herodian architecture. At the end of the book are appendices by Netzer, Orit Peleg, Silvia Rozenberg and Rina Talgam dealing with architectural elements and decorations in Herodian buildings.

Netzer deserves our congratulations for this gargantuan effort, bringing together all of these studies in a single volume in clear and instructive language.

Like other books of this kind, this one expresses the author’s own views. And of course a reviewer may question and even differ.
For example, Netzer divides Herod’s buildings at Masada into three chronologically distinct building phases. According to him, the casemate wall surrounding the site was constructed only in the third construction phase (c. 15 B.C.E.). This means that for a lengthy period, including the years following the second building phase in which most of the buildings, including the Northern Palace and the storerooms, were constructed, the site was without a defensive wall! I wonder. This conclusion seems to run counter to the view that Masada (as well as Herod’s other fortresses) were erected early in his reign (Table 1, p. 303) in order to fortify and safeguard his control over the country. In the dense line of desert fortresses, Masada played a special role, intended as the last refuge for Herod and his family, as Netzer recognizes (p. 40). Would it not have been surrounded by a wall? On the other hand, it is true that the complex of royal buildings and administrative facilities at Lower Herodion was not surrounded by a wall. There is no question about this. A wall of course would have provided security to the king and his entourage.

Netzer reconstructs the Antonia fortress, located at the northwestern corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as projecting into the Temple Mount temenos (platform). This view is not supported, however, either by written sources or by the present appearance of the rock cliff at this point, which is cut at a right angle with straight sides where the western and northern walls of the Temple Mount meet. Netzer’s explanation—that the rock projection was straightened during the Umayyad period by the builders of the mosques—appears forced and unfounded.

A few technical observations: All of the plans in the book are drawn with full black lines, rather than using dotted lines for reconstructed walls. Thus, it is not possible to tell which parts of the structures were found intact and which are restorations. Some of the buildings at Masada were found with full plans; in contrast, structures on the Temple Mount (the Antonia and the Temple) are entirely hypothetical reconstructions based on literary sources. How is the reader unfamiliar with the material to tell the difference when the lines in the drawings are solid black and the captions of all of the plans indicate “reconstructed”?

A book this important should also have better quality pictures. Color photographs, particularly of the mosaic floors and the frescoes, would have enabled the reader to appreciate the full power and grandeur of Herodian architecture. A glossary would also have been useful to readers unfamiliar with the technical architectural terms used throughout the book.

As is well known, archaeological research is a never-ending affair. New discoveries are constantly surprising us. This is certainly true of Herod’s building enterprises. Several years ago, for example, a Herodian temple was discovered at Omrit near Banias.a Netzer also discusses his longstanding effort to locate Herod’s tomb based on Josephus’ description of the elaborate funeral and burial at Herodion. Indeed, since the publication of this book, Netzer appears to have found the mausoleum at Herodion where Herod was laid to rest. Exposure of the remains of this structure are only beginning, and we look forward to following it both in print and on site.

Hillel Geva excavated the Jewish Quarter with the late Nahman Avigad. Currently at the Israel Exploration Society, Geva edited and published the report from the excavation in the old city of Jerusalem.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published November 2, 2011.

Herod greatly expanded the eastern fortress at Machaerus, the infamous site where John the Baptist was beheaded. Read the free Bible History Daily feature “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist,” featuring BHD-exclusive color reconstructions of the site, or read Győző Vörös’s full article “Machaerus: Where Salome Danced and John the Baptist Was Beheaded” in the BAS Library as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2012.

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1 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    Looks like an interesting book. Unfortunately, I will never be able to read it. Why are publishers so greedy? At $195, very few will be able to afford it, including libraries.

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1 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    Looks like an interesting book. Unfortunately, I will never be able to read it. Why are publishers so greedy? At $195, very few will be able to afford it, including libraries.

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