Norman Gelb is the author of many works of history, including The Berlin Wall, Less Than Glory, Desperate Venture, and Kings of the Jews. His most recent book is Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant. Born in New York, Gelb has spent many years in Europe, as a correspondent for the Mutual Broadcasting System in Berlin and London, and as U.K. correspondent for The New Leader magazine. He lives in London.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Herod the Great?
A: Herod was the subject of one of the chapters in my previous book, on the lives and times of the kings and reigning queens of ancient Israel. While researching that chapter, I came to appreciate how inaccurate was the prevailing popular image of this Jewish Arab ruler of the ancient kingdom of Judaea.
He has long been commonly portrayed as a creature of unmitigated malevolence though the evidence shows there was more to him than that. I felt the record of his horrific misdeeds and shortcomings should be weighed at greater length against his substantial positive achievements. Hence the book, which is meant to draw a more balanced picture of this extraordinary figure.
Q: As you write in the book, “This study is meant not only to tell the story of Herod but also to modify the persisting one-dimensional negative image of a monarch who, despite his failings, was a constructive and fascinating historical figure.” How would you characterize his role in history?
A: Rulers in Herod’s day commonly ruled their subjects in ways that today are considered barbaric, but Herod’s faults were egregious even by standards existing then. He allowed himself to be named king of the Jews by Rome to replace a popular king descended from the Maccabees. Challenged for supremacy in the Middle East by incursions from what is now Iran, the Romans insisted on a reliable figure loyal to them to administer Judaea, which then was the strategically positioned land-bridge between Asia and Africa.
Named king, Herod helped Roman legions bloodily conquer Jerusalem so he could mount the throne there in place of his predecessor. He then transformed Judaea into a draconian police state, murderously crushing all dissent to sustain his long reign despite the hostility of most of his subjects. In addition to being revolted by his brutal rule, they considered him at best a “half-Jew” and a Roman toady who catered excessively to non-Jews in his realm.
He executed members of the Sanhedrin supreme religious council whose loyalty he doubted. His homicidal insecurity and vindictiveness ultimately grew so extreme that he commanded that his soldiers be ordered to slaughter figures revered throughout the land on the day he died so that his subjects would mourn their death rather than celebrate his demise.
Nevertheless, Herod’s transgressions, shortcomings and atrocious deeds should rightly be weighed against his positive achievements. These included transforming his kingdom into a modern, thriving, flourishing state. He revived Judaea’s languishing economy through agricultural innovation, commercial initiative and enhanced international trade that brought relative prosperity to the land and its people.
He magnificently rebuilt the Holy Temple, beautified Jerusalem, brought state-of-the-art urban renewal to some of Judaea’s other cities, sponsored architectural projects in cities from Athens to Damascus, and acquired international significance and esteem for Judaea throughout the all-powerful Roman Empire, of which Judaea was but a tiny patch.
Despite hostility at home, Herod was acclaimed throughout the already extensive Diaspora. His respected standing in Rome earned Jewish communities throughout the Empire significant benefits, including exemption from Roman military service for their men because it would clash with their Sabbath observance, protection against discrimination by local non-Jewish majorities in the Diaspora and permission for Jews to be judged by their own rather than Roman courts.
Diaspora Jews basked in Judaea’s enhanced reputation during Herod’s reign and were gratified by the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple he rebuilt, the edifice at the heart of their faith to whose upkeep they contributed generously.
Atrocious though Herod’s shortcomings were, when he died, the tyrannically imposed order and peace that had marked his reign gave way almost immediately to turmoil, disarray and public disorder in Judaea. The thousand-year-old Jewish nation began spiraling toward a hopeless war with Rome that sealed its destruction from which it would not recover until the creation of modern Israel 2,000 years later.
Q: You describe Herod’s family as “the dysfunctional royal family in Jerusalem,” and indeed it was–among those he ordered executed were his favorite wife and his three oldest sons. What created this dysfunctional situation?
A: Herod’s paranoia was deeply embedded. It was apparent when, as a young official, he brutally suppressed unrest in Galilee and was almost condemned to death by the Sanhedrin religious council for exceeding his authority. As he graduated to greater positions of power, his insecurity expanded and deepened.
Ultimately it would unsettle the balance of his mind. When, as king, he was persuaded by backbiting siblings to doubt the faithfulness of his adored wife Miriamne, it overwhelmed the love he had for her and he had her killed. Her terrified mother, Alexandra, testified against her daughter at a rigged trial, but it did not save her from a similar fate. The sons Herod executed may or may not have been conspiring against their father, but his merest suspicion that they were assured their elimination.
Herod’s paranoia was deliberately fueled by his older sister Salome and younger brother Pheroras, both, like Herod, of more modest origins than his aristocratic victims. They were indignant about the disdain in which they were held by Miriamne, a scion of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty Herod had overthrown, and by the half-blue blooded sons he and she had conceived together.
Q: Why do you think Herod’s image has been negative and one-dimensional?
A: Almost all people for whom the name Herod has any significance have an image of him shaped by only one thing: a passage in the New Testament claiming that he ordered the massacre of infant boys in Bethlehem after being told that a new king of the Jews (Jesus Christ) had been born there.
The tale of that horrific deed has also been perpetuated over time by magnificent paintings of that horrific “Massacre of the Innocents” by Tintoretto, Peter Brueghel, Gustave Doré and a host of other esteemed artists, as well as in medieval religious plays.
The irony is that this atrocity for which Herod is best known is not likely to have taken place. The brief, single reference to it in the Matthew Gospel is not repeated in any of the other Christian gospels, though such a significant event in the story of Jesus might have been expected to be. Nor is there any mention of that supposed slaughter in the works of historian Josephus, though he is the primary source of our knowledge of Herod’s reign, misdeeds and all.
Nor is there a reference to it in the well-chronicled accounts of the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus who, though he befriended Herod, was recorded as having commented acerbically on Herod’s observance of Jewish dietary laws and his execution of his own oldest sons, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of your book said, “This is an exemplary illustration of revisionist history.” What do you think of that characterization?
A: I am as gratified by praise as others would be and am therefore delighted that my book has been described as “exemplary.” Having attempted to partially rehabilitate the image of Herod the Great, my book is certainly revisionist history, a category which sometimes seems to carry a pejorative tinge. But all new works of history that bring new perspectives and new ideas to old ones are, by definition, revisionist.
Q: What surprised you the most as you researched the book?
A: Two things.
I was most surprised by Herod’s most lasting achievement: how the high regard with which he was held during his reign in the Diaspora across the sprawling Roman Empire promoted and consolidated the emotional bond between men and women in those Diaspora Jewish communities and Judaea, a bond with the Jewish homeland that has endured right through to modern times.
I was also surprised by some of what I learned while researching my “Afterword” chapter for the book. I included that chapter on The Dawn of Christianity because, though Herod the Great was not involved with the birth of the Christian faith, it was the most significant historical event during the Herodian period, which can be considered to have extended until the war with Rome after Herod died.
What surprised me was how profoundly the embryonic Jesus movement in Jerusalem, Antioch and elsewhere in the region was based on, and conformed to, its Jewish heritage before it was co-opted and redirected by the self-appointed Apostle Paul, his evangelizers and those who followed Paul’s teachings rather than the wishes of James, the brother of the crucified Jesus, and the beliefs of the Apostle Peter who had vainly tried to keep the movement true to Torah law.
Q: Are there any particular historical figures to whom you would compare Herod, and if so, who and why?
A: Hard to say. So much depended on historical conditions, like those in which Herod found himself, an ambitious figure in an environment dominated by the Roman Empire and its battle-hardened legions. For example, for much of its existence, the ancient nation of the Jews existed in the shadow of a succession of devouring superpowers: the Assyrians who ultimately obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel (dispersing the “Lost Tribes” of the Jews), the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem and drove the Jews into temporary exile “by the waters of Babylon”, the Parthians and the Romans.
For many of its leaders, coping with such immediate or potential threats was an existential burden. I can’t say that any succeeded as well as Herod did, to the benefit of his subjects, his kingdom and himself.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I might take a break from history writing. Much as I enjoy the research process, in the past, for relaxing breaks from its demands, I also wrote two light novels under a pseudonym. Since Herod was finished, I’ve been toying with a third novel, the proverbial unfinished manuscript so many of us have buried in a bottom desk drawer, awaiting retrieval and reanimation.
This interview was conducted in partnership with Deborah Kalb. For more, visit http://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.