Ronald L. Ecker

Illustrations from the works
Gustave Doré

Incestuous marriage and lust. Religious persecution. Beheadings. Burning people alive. The massacre of a town's male infants.

Meet the horrible Herods. This site (with illustrations by the French artist Gustave Doré) is a brief introduction to the Herod family and its scandalous doings, as known from the Bible and extrabiblical accounts, with links to additional sources.

We begin with . . .

A Reign of Terror

Herod the Great

Bust of Herod the Great

Herod the Great (74-4 B.C.), the son of an Idumean (Edomite) father and Arabian mother, became king of Judea in 37 B.C. through the favor of Rome. Though of non-Jewish blood, Herod professed to observe Jewish law, and rebuilt the ruined temple in Jerusalem. But he also taxed the people excessively and was notoriously ruthless. Herod executed three of his own sons and Mariamne, one of his ten wives. (The Roman leader Octavian is said to have punned in Greek [alluding also to the Jewish law against eating pork], "It is better to be Herod's swine [(hus] than his son [huis].") When some pious Jews removed the golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, that adorned the new temple's entrance, Herod had the removers burned alive.

On his deathbed, Herod ordered that all the important men of Judea be summoned to Jericho and imprisoned, to be slain there when he died, so there would be mourning at the time of his death. (The order was not carried out.)

Herod is most famous for ordering the massacre of all male children two years old or younger in the town and region of Bethlehem, for fear that a prophesied king of the Jews had been born there.

Though the story of the Bethlehem massacre is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and some scholars thus question the event's historicity, the story is credible. Herod the Great, history shows, was more than capable of committing such an atrocity.

Massacre of the Innocents

Upon his death, Herod's kingdom was divided among his sons Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip. Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea so badly that he was removed by the Romans after two years and banished to Gaul.

Dancing to Get Ahead

When ascetic, camel hair-clad John the Baptist appeared in the Judean wilderness (c. 30 A.D.) preaching "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," even Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and tetrarch (governor) of Galilee, considered him "a righteous and holy man." This opinion was not shared by Antipas' wife Herodias, however, when John attacked their incestuous marriage. "It is not lawful," John told Herod Antipas, "for thee to have thy brother's wife."

Herodias was not only Herod Antipas' sister-in-law but his niece (being the daughter of Antipas' half-brother Aristobulus). Even the gospel writers got confused by this incestuous family. Herodias' previous husband, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, was not (as biblically stated) Herod Antipas' half-brother Philip, tetrarch of the region east of Galilee, but Herod Philip, another half-brother, in Rome. It was Salome, Herodias' daughter from the marriage to Herod Philip, who eventually married the tetrarch Philip, both Salome's and her mother's uncle.

Herod Antipas had John imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus, not so much to punish him as to protect him from Herodias, who wanted "to kill him." But then, at a birthday banquet for Herod Antipas, young Salome danced for her stepfather and his guests. The only gospel description of the dance is that it "pleased Herod" (the so-called dance of the seven veils is of modern origin), but Herod Antipas' words of appreciation suggest a remarkable performance indeed. "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it," he told Salome. "Whatever you ask for I will give you, even half of my kingdom."

Salome consulted with her mother Herodias, who told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Salome duly made the request, and Herod Antipas, not wanting to renege on a promise before his guests, reluctantly gave the order. John's head, we are told in Matthew (14:11), "was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother."

Herod's Daughter

The Herods and the Christ

As previously noted, Herod the Great's slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem was an attempt to eliminate the newborn prophesied Christ. Years later, when word of Jesus and his miraculous powers reached Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee thought fearfully that John the Baptist, whom he had beheaded, had been raised from the dead.

When the arrested Jesus, being from Galilee, was sent by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate to Herod Antipas (in Jerusalem for Passover), the tetrarch hoped to see him perform some wonder. When Jesus would not answer his questions, Herod Antipas and his soldiers treated Jesus with contempt and mocked him, arrayed him in a robe, and sent him back to Pilate. Christ's crucifixion followed shortly thereafter. Herod Antipas and Pilate, the Gospel of Luke notes, became friends that very day.

Christ Mocked

Herod Agrippa I (a grandson of Herod the Great), whose kingdom included Galilee after the downfall of his uncle Herod Antipas, ordered a persecution of Christ's followers (c. 46 A.D.) that included the beheading of James the son of Zebedee and the imprisonment of Peter. When Agrippa I was about to have Peter executed, the book of Acts (chapter 12) says "the angel of the Lord" helped Peter escape from the prison. Agrippa I had the sentries who were in charge of the prisoner put to death.

Peter Is Delivered from Prison

Agrippa I's own death, according to Josephus, followed five days of violent pain in his belly, agony which began immediately upon the king being hailed as a god in Caesarea. (According to Acts, he was smitten by the angel of the Lord, and died from being "eaten of worms.")

Herod Agrippa II (son of Herod Agrippa I) was the king before whom the imprisoned apostle Paul appeared in Caesarea (c. 60 A.D.) before being sent to Rome for trial (Acts 25-26). Seated by Agrippa II for the hearing was his mistress Bernice, who was also his sister, formerly married to her uncle Herod of Chalcis. (Another sister, Drusilla, wife of the Roman procurator Felix, is mentioned in Acts 24:24.) The incestuous pair listened to Paul's defense, after which Agrippa II said to Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."

It is the first known use of the term Christian, used only one other time in the Bible (1 Peter 4:16). Whether or not he was serious about being almost persuaded, Herod Agrippa II was the last important and least horrid Herod.

The tetrarch Philip, who may have been at the banquet, married his young niece Salome. By 34 A.D. he was dead. Herodias, meanwhile, proved to be the ruin of Herod Antipas. She goaded Antipas into seeking from the Roman emperor Caligula the title of king of Galilee. (Caligula, after all, had made Herodias' brother, Herod Agrippa I, king of Philip's tetrarchy following Philip's demise.) Herod Antipas accordingly sought the royal title, only to be banished by Caligula to Gaul. Herodias followed Herod Antipas into exile, where he died around 39 A.D.

Resources and Links

Articles and Literature

The Herods

Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:1-23)

Josephus on Herod the Great (Index)

What Killed King Herod?

Cause of King Herod's Death

Jesus before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:1-12)

Peter's Escape, and Death of Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-23)

Paul before Agrippa II (Acts 25:1-26:32)

Catholic Encyclopedia

Jona Lendering

Elizabeth Cary's play (1613)

"The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry"

John the Baptist

Gospel of Matthew 14:1-12

Gospel of Mark 6:14-29

Gustave Flaubert's story "Herodias"

English translation

Oscar Wilde's play "Salome"

Original French text

English translation

Nancy Thuleen


Slaughter of the Innocents

Domenico Ghirlandaio


Franz von Stuck

The Liberation of St. Peter

Raffaello Sanzio

Other Related Websites

Herod's Temple

Rita Hayworth as Salome

Fortress of Machaerus

King Herod's Tomb


On Herods, Jesus, and Apostles

Coins of the Herods

Veil dancing

Copyright 2002-2012 by Ronald L. Ecker

hobrad at outlook dot com

Ecker's Biblical Web Pages

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