Herod the Great, King of Judea, lay dying. Forty years earlier, he had launched his political career after Judea suffered disastrous internal strife that ended in conquest by the Romans. Seeking to restore the nation to grandeur, he befriended Rome, saved Jews from starvation during famine, and made Jerusalem’s temple precinct the largest in the world. But he was duplicitous, building shrines for emperor worship elsewhere even as he funded fabulous refurbishing of the Yahweh temple at Jerusalem. Never forgetting the assassination of his politician father, Herod was paranoid enough to fear even astrologers from the East who came seeking a mysterious newborn king.
Cruelty came easy to Herod, even if that meant slaughtering baby boys of Bethlehem or ordering, from his own deathbed, the execution of his son Antipater. A serial adulterer, he married ten times and murdered the favorite of his wives in a fit of bad judgment. Roman administrators understood that their client king was imbalanced, and Caesar Augustus famously remarked, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” Presumably a Jewish king would not eat pork!
Two millennia after Herod’s death in 4 BCE, I approach ruins of the winter palace near Jericho where he breathed his last. All is parched and brown. The nearby dry riverbed (Wadi Qelt) still periodically fills with water, which supplied cisterns and bath houses in Herod’s day. I locate Herod’s swimming pool. Is this where his seventeen year-old brother-in-law Aristobulus, newly appointed high priest at Jerusalem, “accidentally” drowned while swimming? The king was known to be threatened by his gifted relative, and first-century historian Josephus declares that Herod ordered the murder.
You can tell a lot about a person’s character by what happens at their funeral; even political foes may show up out of respect for an honorable leader. That was not going to happen when Herod expired, and he knew it. So in a deathbed act of cruelty recorded by Josephus, Herod ordered that “all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation” convene around him. When they arrived, he had them imprisoned in a nearby hippodrome (racetrack).
Most Jewish leaders despised Herod, and Josephus says the king knew his death would be “exceedingly acceptable to them.” So Herod ordered that at the moment he died, all the imprisoned Jewish leaders be executed without being told that he was gone. At least that way the entire nation would mourn instead of party. Mercifully, no one carried out the demented directive.
I pause at Herod’s bath house, built in classic Roman style. The sauna room is easy to identify, with its circular passageways in the foundation where hot air from a furnace heated the floor above. Herod suffered excruciating pain in his final days, and sought relief with baths. The old despot likely spent time here shortly before death, and I wonder what went through his mind. Any regrets? Could he have imagined that millions of people for centuries primarily would remember him as the ruler who tried to kill the newborn king who taught us to love our enemies and wash feet like a servant?