Herod I: The controversial king who transformed the Holy Land

Villain of the Christmas story, King Herod realized a bold new vision of a Roman Judaea.

King Herod (seated) questions the Magi in this 14th-century mosaic from Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice.
CAMERAPHOTO / BRIDGEMAN / AC

Few figures in history have had such a controversial reputation as King Herod I of Judaea. In the Christian tradition, Herod is the villain in the Christmas story. The Gospel of Matthew recounts how the king orders the death of all baby boys following the birth of Jesus, an event called the Massacre of the Innocents. Calling this king “great” hardly seems fitting, given that atrocity.

To many scholars, however, Herod’s honorific is deserved. The king of the Judaeans for the last part of the first century B.C. was a skilled administrator. He created magnificent public building works across Judaea, most notably the colossal reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod saved his people from famine in the mid-20s B.C. Although his reign was largely a time of peace and prosperity for Judaea, he was often treated with deep suspicion by his subjects. (See also: Herod's tomb discovered.)

Herod’s rule was an exquisite balancing act between appeasing his Roman masters and serving the needs of the Judaean people. The strain of this effort, plus the toxic environment of court intrigue, might have led Herod to become increasingly paranoid, cruel, and erratic toward the end of his life. Some historians believe his behavior during this later period made credible his ordering of the so-called Massacre of the Innocents despite a lack of historical evidence that such an atrocity ever occurred.

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