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I am currently rereading Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I first read it about 6 years ago. A sentence that stayed with me from the first read was when Herod came to meet Augustus Caesar, after the defeat of Mark Anthony. Herod had been quite tight with Mark. At the time of the meeting with Octavian, Herod had been King of Judea for a while. He said to Octavian "Do not consider whose friend I was. But what sort of friend I was." His frank reduction of friendship to being a question of utility was a shrewd move. Octavian and Mark Anthony had initially made him king, because the restive nature of the region (the Jews were always revolting) and the periodic Parthian invasions required a ruler of Herod's talents. Talents that were displayed and recognized as early as his 15th year when, despite being Jewish himself, he crushed a local rebellion, pleasing Rome and angering the Sanhedrin. Octavian therefore confirmed his throne and let him be. He actually became friends with both the emperor and his friend Marcus Agrippa.

Herod was the son of Antipater, an advisor to Hyrcanus, a Maccabean leader. The never ending political struggles of the region gave Antipater an opportunity to elevate himself and his family when in return for supporting Julius Caesar in Egypt, he and his sons were given their own fiefs around 47BC. This culminated in Herod becoming king later on.

The intrigues and violence that got him the throne of Judea continued throughout his reign. While he did not usurp the previous dynasty, his ascension to the throne, and his expertise in intrigue made him eliminate any members of the previous dynasty who could have threatened his rule. He then married Mariamne I, a Hasmonean princess. He did this both to strengthen his claim to the throne, since as a descendant of Idumaeans, his Jewishness was sub-par. He also apparently loved Mariamne. Obsessively so because on many occasions, when he felt his life was in danger, he would issue instructions for her execution in the event of his death. He did eventually have her killed on allegations that she had bewitched him and was plotting his death. She was the 2nd of his 10 wives. He married another Mariamne, right after killing her predecessor. If Henry VIII had been in that neighborhood, he would not have stood out. He also killed quite a few of his children making Octavian to remark "I'd rather be Herod's pig than his son", since as a Jew, Herod would not kill a pig as he had no use for it.

Herod was a great builder, renovating and enlarging the temple in Jerusalem, building ports and fortresses, including Masada. One of the ceremonies of the Israeli Defense Forces includes the line "Masada shall not fall again". In Jewish history, it had often been a place for last stands. Herod could afford to build because according to the book, he was the richest man in the empire after the emperor. Some of his projects took 80 years to complete. The temple he built was destroyed in 70AD by the future emperor Titus. All that remains of it are the 4 retaining walls, of which the western one is the famous Wailing Wall.

In the New Testament, it is alleged that Herod ordered the killing of new born boys to frustrate the prophesy about the coming King of the Jews. Historians dismiss this allegation. Nevertheless, his reputation is mostly negative. He was supposedly a cruel and despotic ruler. He died (in either 4BC or 1BC) of an unknown ailment that supposedly had his body rotting while he was still alive. This was probably seen as divine punishment for his wicked ways. His kingdom was divided between 2 of his surviving sons.

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