After Herod's visit to see Antony, and the subsequent visit of Cleopatra to Jerusalem, the ensuing years were not the most successful for Antony. His war against the Parthians was not exactly victorious. Worse still, in Rome his relations with Augustus had soured. In 31 BC matters came to a head and war was declared. It culminated with victory for Augustus in the naval battle at Actium. Cleopatra ordered her fleet to set sail for Egypt and Antony soon followed.
When the news reached Herod he was immediately aware of the consequences for himself. Octavian was now the emperor of Rome and Herod recognised that he had been on the losing side. He immediately set sail for Alexandria. Antony must be persuaded to abandon Cleopatra, even have her put to death, and be reconciled to Octavian. But Antony would have none of it. Herod was keenly aware that his crisis hour had struck.
Herod pondered his alternatives carefully and concluded that it must be all or nothing. Octavian had sailed for the island of Rhodes to celebrate his victory and Herod decided to also sail for Rhodes in a daring move to gain royal favour. Before he left, however, he had the opportunity to settle accounts with Hyrcarnus.
The latter was a mild man with no disposition to be involved in power politics, but his daughter Alexandra had no such inhibitions. Now that things looked bad for Herod she decided to cash in on the opportunity. She put heavy pressure on Hyrcanus to write to the governor of Arabia to arrange a military escort for her family to be conducted to Petra where they could negotiate to take over the government on Herod's death.
Hyrcanus was reluctant to take this step but Alexandra was not the type to be easily deterred and her pleas proved effective. Hyrcanus wrote the letter and entrusted it to a close friend to deliver it. But Herod's secret service did not let him down and he was informed of the plot. Herod thought it expedient to allow the letter to be taken to the king of Arabia to see what his reaction would be, but when the courier returned he seized the answer and sent for Hyrcanus. The High Priest denied any involvement. Herod had him where he wanted him. He called the Sanhedrin together and showed them the letter. There could be no defence and Herod promptly had the High Priest put to death. It was 30 BC.
Then, in case his venture was unsuccessful, he put his own house in order. He appointed his brother Pheroras to succeed him and instructed him in his duties as the future king. He sent his mother to Cyprus and his two sons by Mariamne, with his sister Salome, to the fortress of Masada. He took one more precaution. Despite Mariamne's waning love for Herod, he was still passionately in love with her and did not want her to fall into the arms of another man if he lost his life. He again arranged for her death and commissioned two trusted officials to have Mariamne and her mother killed if he did not return.
Herod, with a small, carefully chosen retinue, then boarded a ship at Caesarea that took him to Rhodes where he stood before the astonished Octavian. Herod came, not as an enemy suppliant craving pardon, but in his full royal regalia, diadem in hand, offering Octavian a political treaty. To Octavian's accusation that Herod had sided with his enemy, Antony, Herod boldly admitted that he had been a friend of Antony and had done everything he could to help him attain power. Now Antony was gone, Herod offered Octavian the same devoted loyalty that he had rendered to Antony.
Octavian was impressed with Herod's daring. He decided he could use the political acumen and bold confidence this man displayed. Taking the golden diadem that Herod held in his hand he placed it upon his head. The astute Herod fulfilled his vow. He was as loyal to Octavian and Rome as he had been to Antony. In any case, Herod returned in triumph to deal even more harshly with any of his subjects who may have aroused his suspicions.
It is possible that this incident provided the background for the parable Jesus Christ told sixty years later. "A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. ... But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him saying, 'We will not have this man to reign over us. ... When the nobleman returned he said, "Bring here those enemies of mine who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me." (Luke 19:12, 14, 27)
But while Herod was absent, Alexandra and Mariamne, in view of the orders Herod had issued prior to his previous absence, had some suspicion of what he may have done this time. They went about their enquiries in a very cautious manner, speaking kindly to Sohemus and while bestowing some expensive gifts upon him, carefully sounding him out about Herod's intentions. The unsuspecting Sohemus assured them of Herod's passionate love for Mariamne and in the course of conversation let slip that Herod was so passionately in love with Mariamne that he did not want her to fall into any other man's hands. He had even left orders for her to be put to death if he did not return. Unsurprisingly, Mariamne did not quite see it in the same way!
When Herod returned he hastened to Mariamne to tell her of his unexpected success and honours, only to be met by her sullen reaction. She even indicated that she would have been more pleased had he been unsuccessful. Herod was torn between his anger at her hatred, and his persistent love for her. His sister Salome and his mother did not help matters by relating any scandal they could dredge up against Mariarmne.
While Herod pondered what course to pursue, news came that Antony and Cleopatra were dead and Octavian had occupied Egypt. Herod hastened to Egypt to congratulate the victorious Octavian, who responded by restoring to him the territories that had been taken from him and given to Cleopatra, adding also Samaria, Gaza, Joppa, Ashkelon and Strato's Tower, later to be known as Caesarea. Herod accompanied Octavian back to Antioch in Syria.
But Herod's satisfaction over his political success could not appease him for his domestic misery. Mariamne taunted him and his sister with their lowly birth and treated Salome with imperious disdain. This went on for a whole year.
One day Herod took to his bed and summoned Mariamne to appear before him. She came but refused to lie with him, and reproached him for killing her father and brother. Herod did not take kindly to her angry words, and was further incensed when he had Mariamne's eunuch tortured and learned that Sohemus had told Mariamne of Herod's death order for her. He concluded that Sohemus must have had an affair with Mariamne and immediately had Sohemus put to death. He put Mariamne on trial and the court sentenced her to death too. In 29 BC, Mariamne, with the dignity of a Maccabean princess, went calmly to her fate.
After her death, Herod was never the same again. He was filled with remorse and brooded over the loss of his beloved wife. Publicly he maintained a calm and authoritative exterior, but inwardly he was morose and suspicious, fearful of any new conspiracy. Josephus wrote:
"At this time his love to Mariarnne seemed to seize him in such a peculiar manner, as looked like divine vengeance upon him for taking away her life, for he would frequently call for her, and frequently lament for her, in a most indecent manner. He would order his servants to call for Mariamne as if she were still alive, and could still hear them."
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews p. 326)
He had fortresses and palaces at Jericho, Samaria, Masada, Jotapata, Caesarea and Sepphoris and shuttled frequently between them, presumably to confuse potential contenders for the throne. He tried to sublimate his mental torture by frequent banquets and hunting expeditions, but it was all to no avail. His mental disturbance resulted in physical disorders. He appealed to the physicians in vain. The medications they prescribed only aggravated his complaints.
Herod's family affairs went from bad to worse. There were accusations and counter-accusations. Herod trusted nobody and tortured any whom he suspected. In 29 BC, Alexandra was indiscreet enough to attempt a coup by seizing the forts of Jerusalem. Herod had her put to death. He was "readier than ever upon all occasions to inflict punishment upon those that fell under his hand. He also slew the most intimate of his friends, Costoborus, and Lysymachus and Gadias, who was also called Antipater, as also Dositheus." Josephus notes rather despairingly, "There were now none at all left of the kindred of Hyrcanus." (p.327)
No doubt to try and divert his mind further from his broodings, Herod turned to the pleasures of the flesh that were current in the Roman world. He built a theatre in Jerusalem and an amphitheatre on the plain where he held athletic contests in which the competitors ran naked, chariots raced, and gladiators fought against each other and against wild beasts. No doubt the careless throngs loved it but the pious Jews were outraged at these vulgar exhibitions, and ten men conspired to kill Herod and were prepared to die for their cause.
The conspirators went to the amphitheatre with daggers under their belts in the hope of getting close enough to Herod to assassinate him, but one of Herod's spies got wind of it and informed Herod. He retired to his palace and had the ten men brought before him. They boldly admitted their guilt on the grounds that it was a just cause.
Herod had them tortured and put to death, but the pious Jews were incensed. Learning who it was who had betrayed the men, they tore him apart, limb from limb, and gave the pieces to the dogs. Herod was not about to let that reprisal go unpunished and had some women who had witnessed the scene tortured in front of him. When they finally disclosed the names of the culprits he had their entire families wiped out.
Strange to say, Herod, who was anything but pious, had a soft spot for the rigid sect of the Essenes and exempted them from taxation. Of all the Jews, the Essenes were most resentful of Herod's adoption of Roman culture and games. But one of their number, Menahem, was reputed to have the prophetic gift, and when he had seen Herod as a child had saluted him as a king. Later, when Herod became king he sent for Menahem and asked him if he was likely to reign for ten years. Menahem replied, "Yes, twenty, nay thirty years." This naturally pleased Herod and made him kindly disposed to the Essenes.
Herod then turned his mind to building activities. He rebuilt Samaria and called it Sebaste after the title of Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus. (Sebaste is the Greek word meaning "Augustus.") He also built a magnificent city and harbour at Caesarea, but a severe drought around 25 BC hit the country and famine followed. To everyone's surprise, Herod sold off all his own expensive furniture and palace ornaments and purchased food from Egypt. This did much to restore him to favour with the people.
© David Down