26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great

Natasha sheldon - February 26, 2019

One of history’s great villains, Herod the Great is best known for his attempt to remove his rival, the “King of the Jews” by ordering the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ. Herod was a Roman puppet who was neither the legitimate king of Judea, well liked by his people- or even genuinely Jewish. So he had every reason to be paranoid about threats to his reign. However, while he did murder members of his own family, Herod probably did not order the massacre of babies, as St. Matthew claims. Nor was his reign all bad for the Kingdom of Judea. Here are twenty-six facts that give a fuller picture of the life and death of Herod the Great.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
The Ancient kingdom of Edom. Picture credit: Samuli Lintula. Wikimedia Commons. public Domain

26. Herod was not Judean by birth

Herod became King of Judea in 37 BC. However, he was not a Judean by birth. Herod was born in around 72/73 BC in the Kingdom of Idumea or Edom. Edom was a neighbor of ancient Israel, occupying what is now southwest Jordan. According to legend, the Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the eldest son of Isaac, who sold his birthright to his younger twin brother Jacob for a bowl of pottage. However, the God of Israel gifted Esau with the land of Edom as compensation. Over time, Edom was often in conflict with Judea and sometimes subject to it. However, the Judeans always regarded the Edomites as foreigners.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
The Nabataean City of Petra, home of Herod’s mother, Cyprus. Picture Credit: Brad Mering. Wikimedia Commons. Copyrighted free use.

25. Nor was he Strictly Jewish

As an Arabic group, the Edomites were not natural followers of the Jewish faith. However, large numbers of Edomites did convert to Judaism. Herod’s father, Antipater was one of them. However, his mother, Cyprus was the daughter of a Nabataean noble from Petra. According to the Code of Jewish law, to be considered Jewish, a child had to be born of a Jewish mother-, which Herod was not. So even though Herod was a practicing Jew, he was regarded as an outsider.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Antipater and Julius Caesar. Painting by Konrad Witz, c 1435. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

24. Herod’s Father, Antipater laid the foundations for his Son’s future.

Herod’s father, Antipater, owed his early power to his Nabataean connections and sponsorship by the Pharisees, a Jewish religious group composed of laymen and scribes who emerged as a distinct party after the Maccabean revolt of 165-160 BC. However, Antipater’s big break came when he backed the Hasmonean Prince Hyrcanus as a candidate to the throne of Judaea. The Roman general, Pompey, also supported Hyrcanus and intervened on his behalf. Hyrcanus became king, while Antipater acted as the power behind the throne. Antipater continued to court Roman support wisely, cannily siding with Julius Caesar rather than his old ally, Pompey, during the Roman civil wars. As a reward, Caesar made Antipater a Roman citizen in 47 BC- and appointed him the Governor of Judea.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
“Herod the Great.” Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

23. Herod became Governor of Galilee and rose to the position of Ethnarch of Judea.

Caesar made Herod a Roman Citizen at the same time as Antipater as an acknowledgment of his support. He also made the younger man Governor of Galilee as an additional reward. In 44 BC, angry Judeans murdered Antipater while he was collecting silver demanded by Caesar’s assassin, Cassius. Herod quickly sided with Mark Anthony and Octavian after the defeat of Caesar’s killers. Anthony made Herod and his brother, Phasael Tetrarchs or ‘rulers of a quarter’ of Judea. In 43 BC, Herod became “ethnarch” or governor of Judea in his father’s place. However, just three years later, the Parthians invaded Judea. They removed Hyrcanus from the throne replacing him with his nephew, Antigonus. The pro-Roman Herod had no choice but to flee to Rome.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King Herod in a theatre poster c 1902. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

22. The Romans made Herod King of Judea

Once in Rome, Herod busied himself making friends and influencing people. In addition to Mark Anthony, he also won over the future Emperor Augustus- Caesar’s heir Octavian and Octavian’s great friend and ally Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. It was through these influential friends that Herod finally managed to persuade the Roman senate to support his cause and, in 40 BC, the Senate voted Herod the title of King of the Jews. Herod, however, had to wait to take up his throne until 37 BC. Aided by the forces of Mark Anthony, Herod finally took back Jerusalem from the Parthians and their puppet Antigonus.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Phasaël tower (Jerusalem). Picture Credit: Pierre.hamelin. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

21. Herod may have gained a throne. However, he also lost his brother.

Herod did not gain the throne without suffering losses – specifically, his elder brother, Phasael. Phasael was noble and brave. When the Parthian’s invaded, rather than join Herod, their mother, and sister in their flight to Rome, Phasael remained at the side of King Hyrcanus and fought to hold Jerusalem. The Parthians captured the pair and handed them over to the new king, Antigonus. Antigonus had his Uncle mutilated to invalidate him for the Jewish high priesthood. Phasael was determined to escape this disgrace. So he committed suicide by dashing his brains out. Herod must have held Phasael in some esteem, for he later honored his brother’s memory by naming a new city “Phasaelis” after him, as well as a tower in his new palace.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Hyrcanus II. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

20. Herod wiped out the male Hasmonean line to consolidate his power.

Mark Anthony executed Antigonus shortly after the siege of Jerusalem, as he perceived that Herod’s gratitude would make him a useful Eastern ally- and that while he remained alive, Antigonus would remain a threat. Over the next few years, Herod also took steps of his own to ensure that no Hasmonean Prince could claim the throne of Judea again. In 36 BC, he invited the deposed and maimed Hyrcanus II back from exile to live as an honored guest at his court. That same year, he killed Hyrcanus’s grandson, Aristobulus- and in 30 BC executed Hyrcanus himself.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Mariamne I. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

19. However, he also married Mariamne, a Hasmonean Princess to lend his reign extra legitimacy

Herod knew that a reconquest of Judea with Roman backing was not going to be enough to win him the support of the Jewish people. So, to lend his reign a sense of legitimacy, in 37 BC, Herod married Mariamne, a Hasmonean Princess. Mariamne’s mother, the daughter of the maimed former King Hyrcanus, had arranged the match as an insurance policy for the Hasmoneans in 42 BC. However, the couple did not celebrate their marriage until Herod became King. Herod may not have just married Mariamne for her family connections for she was reputably beautiful and, according to Josephus, Herod was in love with her.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Herod the Great by James Tissot. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

18. Herod Ruthlessly Banished his first wife and son.

Mariamne was not Herod’s first wife. He initially married Doris or ‘Sarah,’ a woman from Jerusalem. The pair had one son, Antipater. When he decided to marry Mariamne, Herod did not just divorce Doris – he also exiled her. Once her and Mariamne had sons, he sent Antipater to join his mother, only allowing him to return to Jerusalem for festivals. Herod’s first family stayed banished until after Mariamne’s death in 14 BC. First Antipater and then Doris returned to Herod’s side briefly before she was once again sent away due to court intrigues.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Alexandra, Mother in Law of Herod the Great. From the Nuremberg Chronicles c1493. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

17. Herod had an interfering mother in law.

Herod may have had a good reason for wiping out his male Hasmonean in-laws. For in 35 BC, his mother-in-law, Alexandra began to plot to replace him with her teenage son, Aristobulus. Alexandra started by recruiting her daughter, Mariamne, to help her persuade Herod to replace his High Priest, Hananel with the 16-year-old Aristobulus. The new High priest was very popular with the public, much to Herod’s alarm. However, when Alexandra approached Cleopatra and Mark Anthony to win them over to Aristobulus’s side, Herod had to act. He was so alarmed that Anthony would shift his allegiance to his brother in law, he arranged for a servant to drown the teenager during a party in Jericho.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
A sculpted bust of tMark Antony, now located in the Vatican Museums. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

16. Herod switched sides from Mark Anthony to Augustus

Herod knew that Cleopatra hated him and coveted his territories. So when Anthony summoned him to Egypt after the murder of Aristobulus, Herod believed there was a real possibility his patron would execute him. Anthony, however, spared him and Herod stayed loyal to him when civil war broke out between Anthony and Augustus in 31 BC. When he realized he had backed the loser, however, Herod met with Augustus on Rhodes. He declared that he would show the same loyalty to Augustus as he had to Anthony- if Augustus continued to his rule. Herod then pledged troops to help finish Anthony off. Anthony’s suicide negated the use of these forces. However, Augustus was a pragmatist. He recognized Herod’s usefulness as an ally in the east, particularly as Herod had just put down a revolt by the Nabataean Arabs. So, in 30 BC, Augustus confirmed Herod’s position as King of Judea and added to his territories.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Eastern end of the outer portico, Herod the Great’s palace at Caesarea. Picture Credit: Ian Scott. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share similar to 2.0 Generic license.

15. Herod began a Civic Building programme to win over the Jewish People.

In between disposing of inconvenient in-laws and shifting allegiances, Herod undertook a massive building program. In 31 BC, an earthquake devastated Judea, destroying buildings and killing thousands. Herod’s response was not merely to replace the lost buildings, but to rebuild bigger and better in the hope of winning over his people. In Jerusalem, he constructed a new market, a theater and amphitheater and a new meeting hall for the Sanhedrin- as well as a new palace for himself. In 20 BC, he rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem in opulent fashion, sticking strictly to Jewish law. However, the port of Caesarea, built on the new territories ceded to him by Augustus was his crowning achievement, a masterpiece of engineering and architecture.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
View of the fortress of Masada, constructed by Herod the Great. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

14. Part of this Program strengthened Herod’s military defenses.

Before he began his public building program, Herod started strengthening Judea’s defenses. He started rebuilding the fortifications in Jerusalem, constructing new city walls and a new citadel to guard the Temple of Jerusalem. Herod named the new fort “The Antonia” – after his patron Mark Anthony. The Antonia aside, Herod also built a new fortress at Masada. The Romans tolerated Herod’s fortifications because he had proved his worth policing the region, thereby supporting Roman policy. However, Herod’s fortifications must have made them uneasy. They had no cause. Herod stayed true to his Roman allies.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Roman bust believed to portray the Jewish Historian Josephus. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


13. Despite Herod’s best efforts, the Jewish People detested him.

Despite his efforts to improve the infrastructure of Judea, the Judean people detested Herod. This dislike was not merely because of his dubious Jewishness for Herod had been popular enough when he was governor of Galilee- mainly because he actively chased the bandits plaguing the countryside. Nor was it because he had murdered most of the Hasmonean royal family. According to Josephus, the chief reason Herod was hated was due to his excessive taxation. Rates varied between 8.6% to 10.7% – and Herod allowed the use of violence to ensure collection of taxes in full. Ironically, taxes were high to enable Herod to finance the building program he so hoped would win him popularity.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
The Judgment of the Sanhedrin: He is Guilty! Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

12. He was equally unpopular with the Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin was the council of 71 rabbis who served as Judea’s ecclesiastical judges. They also hated Herod. Sanhedrin enmity predated Herod’s reign as King. While he was still a tetrarch, the council had reported Herod’s brutality to Mark Anthony. However, the Roman dismissed the charges. Once Herod became King, matters grew steadily worse. Herod could not be the high priest, but he could appoint them. So he chose men sympathetic to him. The high priest’s dependence on Herod increased with the fact that the office was no longer for life, meaning they depended on Herod’s good will to stay in office. Worse still, Herod shifted some of the Sanhedrin’s powers to his royal court, which was increasingly populated by foreigners.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Coin of Herod the Great. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

11. Herod’s unpopularity was made worse by his love of Greek Culture.

Herod’s Hellenism made his unpopularity worse. His childhood tutor, the Grecian Nicolaus of Damascus had instilled in Herod a love of Greek culture and philosophy. It was an admiration that Herod actively acted upon as King. He became a patron of the city of Athens- and the Olympic games, which he financed and presided over in 12 BC. Herod designed his port of Caesarea on Greek lines. He also had his currency designed incorporating a Greek legend “Herodou Basileos” alongside an incense burner on a tripod – a desperate attempt to show his consideration of Orthodox Jewish practice. It did not work. Most Judean’s saw his love of Hellenism as another sign of their King’s non-Jewishness.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Celtic Warriors served amongst Herod, the Great’s bodyguard. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

10. All this Opposition made Herod dangerously paranoid.

Plotting priests, relatives, and general discontent led to Herod becoming increasingly paranoid about his position as King. He began to employ more and more non-Jews in positions of trust – especially amongst those entrusted with his safety. Aside from foreign courtiers and advisers, the King had a personal guard of over 2000 men, composed of Thracians, Germans and a battalion of Celtics who once served Cleopatra. These foreign appointments may have made the King feel better. However, they did nothing to alleviate the growing resentment towards Herod in the population. So Herod set up a secret police force to root out plots and conspiracies.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod. Painting by John William Waterhouse. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

9. Herod killed his favorite wife, Mariamne because of his paranoia.

After the assassination of Aristobulus, Herod was called to Egypt to explain himself to Mark Anthony. Fearful of death, he left his wife Mariamne in the care of his Uncle, Joseph, with express orders to kill her if Anthony executed him. Josephus told Mariamne of Herod’s intentions, which left the young queen understandably bitter. Matters became worse when Herod’s mother and sister, Salome, accused Mariamne of adultery with Joseph. Herod believed his uncle would have only betrayed the death sentence to Mariamne if he had designs on her. So he executed him but spared Mariamne. However, over the years Mariamne’s enmity grew so much that when Salome accused her of plotting to poison Herod, Herod believed it. So in 29 BC, Herod executed his once beloved wife.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Mariamne, Wife of King Herod, and Her Children going to Their Execution. Painting by Edward Hopley c1868. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

8. Herod killed three of his sons due to the same paranoia that killed his wife.

Mariamne and Herod’s sons, Alexander and Aristobulus were brought up in Rome. In 7 BC, they returned to Judea, harboring a bitter resentment towards their father. The feeling was mutual. Herod resented the two young men because the people loved them and their Hasmonean blood gave them a solid claim to the throne. By this time, Antipater, Herod’s eldest son, had been recalled from exile. He now began to work against his brothers and convinced Herod that Alexander and Aristobulus were plotting his death. So in 7 BC, Herod had his two sons strangled in Sebaste, the place he married Mariamne, despite the protest of Emperor Augustus. As for Antipater, he followed his brothers in 4 BC when Herod had him executed for treason – five days before his own death.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
The massacre of the innocents, St. Lorenz church – Nuremberg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

7. Herod may have killed his children. However, he may not have “murdered the innocents ” as the gospels claim.

Herod’s most infamous crime is the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem. On hearing of the birth of a rival the “king of the Jews” Herod, as paranoid as ever, ordered his soldiers to kill all the male infants under the age of two. The incident assured Herod a place in history. However, it probably never happened. Out of the four gospels chronicling Christ’s life, only St. Matthew mentions the event. Equally silent is Herod’s unstinting biographer, historian Josephus. Herod also died in 4 BC – four years before Christ’s supposed birth. Even if Christ was born in the last year of Herod’s reign, as some historians believe, most now accept that St. Matthew used Herod’s murderous reputation to create a story that emphasized the significance of Christ’s birth.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
French medieval manuscript showing Herod the Great and his wives.Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

6. In all, Herod married ten times.

Mariamne and Doris aside, Herod married ten times, which produced plenty of children to make up for the ones he murdered. The names of two of his wives are lost. 28 BC was a bumper year for wives as Herod married a Samarian woman named Malthace and a Jerusalem woman, Cleopatra. Herod’s final batch of wives, Pallas, Phaedra, and Elpis came in 16 BC and produced him only daughters. However, shortly after Mariamne’s death, Herod married another Mariamne, the daughter of Simon, a priest. Mariamne II had a son, also named before Herod divorced her in 6 BC. Out of all Herod’s children from Malthace and Cleopatra, three of the boys, Antipas, Archelaus and Philip managed to survive their father and inherit his Kingdom.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
The funeral of Herod the Great. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

5. Herod died a uniquely horrific death.

In 4 BC when he was 69, Herod the Great finally succumbed to a horrible affliction that came to be known as “Herod’s Evil.” The disease was so painful that Herod tried to commit suicide to escape the pain. The king’s flesh was reputedly riddled with worms and an intense itching, painful bowels and convulsions plagued him. Gangrene also infested the King’s genitals. It was a horrible way to die. Experts now believe that Herod was suffering from a number of ailments at once, including kidney disease and Fournier’s gangrene that could have developed in the King’s genitals when a bowel and urinary infection spread to his groin. He was also probably suffering from some form of gonorrhea.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
The Head of Herod by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. c1566 Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

4. Herod ordered his sister to assassinate his rivals after his death.

People might have supposed that the prospect of death would curb Herod’s murderous tendencies. However, even in the throes of agony, the king was plotting more carnage. Herod left explicit orders with his sister, Salome, that in the event of his death, she was to order the execution of a group of prominent and popular public figures. Herod knew that no one would mourn his passing. So, he chose individuals whose demise would cause the maximum amount of sorrow, which would create celebrations to mark his death. However, Herod’s last wish remained unfulfilled. None of the men died, and Herod’s death passed without any show of national grief.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Relief depicting Herod Antipas. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

3. Civic Unrest did break out, and Herod’s kingdom split.

Herod’s death may have passed without mourning or celebration. However, civic unrest erupted. During Herod’s final days, encouraged by the king’s imminent demise, a group of students removed the golden eagles Herod had set at the entrance of the Temple of Jerusalem, claiming they were false idols. Two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, had incited the students. Once captured, students and teachers were all burned alive. Once Herod was dead, Augustus enforced his will and divided his territories between his three surviving sons. Herod Antipas inherited Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan, Philip became the ruler of the Golan Heights, and Archelaus became ruler of Samaria and Judaea.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Herod’s tomb in Herodion. Picture Credit: Deror Avi. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


2. Herod was buried in Herodium. His tomb was rediscovered in 2007… but not his body.

Josephus described how Herod’s body was carried by “two hundred furlongs’ from Jerusalem to Herodium. Here, the deceased King had given orders for his tomb to be built next to a pool called the Serpent’s Pool. The builders appropriated private gardens and land which they leveled, and the tomb was constructed halfway up a hill. In 2007, archaeologists used Josephus’s description to pinpoint the exact location of the tomb. They excavated and found that Herod’s sarcophagus, although broken, remained inside. However, there was no sign of Herod’s body.

26 Facts About One of History’s Greatest Villains, Herod the Great
Methuselah Date Palm at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel.Picture Credit: DASonnenfeld. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. wikimedia Commons

1. Herod’s palace at Masada, however, contains a positive relic.

In 1963, archaeologists excavated Herod’s palace at Masada. They discovered a cache of seeds on the site that proved to belong to a species of Judean date palm experts had believed to be extinct for nearly a thousand years. In 2005, one of the seeds was planted and germinated and the resulting plant was named Methuselah because of its great age. However, the plant was male and so unable to produce fruit. It looked like Methuselah was finally doomed to die out until in 2015 more seeds were planted. These germinated into female plants, meaning Methuselah’s future is assured. Herod’s historical reputation may have been one of carnage and death. However, at least this part of his legacy is one of life.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources.”

Whose who in the Roman World, John Hazel, Routledge, 2002

Edom, Idumaea, Bible Study Tools

Antipater, Idumaean Governor of Judea, Encyclopedia Brittanica, July 20, 1998

Edom, Encyclopedia Brittanica, June 4, 2017

Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal? Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin, Chabad.org,

Herod the Great, Livius.org, April 12, 2018

Meet the Hasmoneans: A Brief History of a Violent Epoch, Elon Gilad, Haaretz, December 23, 2014

Phasael, Richard Gottheil, and Samuel Krauss, Jewish Encyclopedia

Mariamne, Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss, Jewish Encyclopedia

The Wars of the Jews, Flavius Josephus (ed William Whiston) Perseus

The Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, (ed William Whiston) Perseus

“Herod the Great.”New World Encyclopedia, Dec 22, 2017

Researchers Diagnose Herod the Great, Amanda Onion, ABC News, January 25, 2002