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

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