The Reign of Herod the Great
Herod, also known as Herod the Great, ruled in Judea from 37 B.C.E. to 4 C.E. Through his friendship with Marc Antony, the Roman politician and soldier who is most well known for his affair with Cleopatra, Herod secured the title of king of Judea. Though Herod could not assume the role of high priest, he had the power to appoint and dismiss others for this role. In Judea, Herod's control over matters both secular and religious was practically absolute.
The Golden Age of the Second Temple
Generally, Herod made efforts to mollify the Jews. He publicly observed Halakhah and re-established the Jewish religious court known as the Sanhedrin. One of his greatest achievements was the improvements he made in the construction of the Second Temple. Under Herod's guidance, the Temple was transformed into a magnificent structure known throughout the Roman Empire. The Western (Wailing) Wall that remains standing in the Old City of Jerusalem is merely the platform upon which the Herodian Temple stood.
During Herod's reign, the Temple was a hub of activity with thousands of priests, scribes, Levites, and pious Jews conducting religious ceremonies. Each morning and again at sunset, two lambs were slaughtered as sacrificial offerings. The services ended with the ritual drinking of wine, reading of scriptures, and singing of hymns and psalms.
Herod's architectural projects extended far beyond the improvements of the Temple. Herod erected several imposing edifices throughout Judea and established several new cities, the most famous of which is Caesarea, a seaport built on the Mediterranean coast. He also built a string of fortresses, most notably the citadel on top of a mountain in the Judean desert, known as Masada.
A Brutal Leader
Herod was a brilliant politician, able to maintain a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with Rome, and he was a visionary architect, but he was also a depraved and cruel ruler. Some of Herod's brutality was calculated. For example, he wanted complete autonomy regarding secular matters, and he tolerated no interference from the religious leadership. When the Sanhedrin tried to apply Mosaic Law to secular issues, he executed forty-six of its members to demonstrate who was in charge.
Fear of losing power made Herod wary of the surviving Hasmoneans, and he embarked upon a mission to kill as many of them as he could. Unfortunately, this meant doing away with some of his immediate family. Herod had married ten times and one of his wives, Mariamne, was a Hasmonean—she was a granddaughter of Hyrcanus II. Deeming her a threat, Herod issued the order to kill both his wife and their two sons, Aristobulus and Alexander. He also ordered the execution of Antipater, his son from his first wife, when he discovered that Antipater had been complicit in certain intrigues regarding evidence against Aristobulus and Alexander. The bloodshed went to such an extreme that it has been suggested that Herod may have suffered from paranoia or a psychosis.
The Kingdom Is Divided
When Herod died in 4 B.C.E., the Jewish kingdom he controlled was divided among three of his sons. His son Archelaus ruled much of Palestine until 6 C.E., when Rome deposed him after receiving so many complaints from his subjects. From that point on, this area (referred to by the Romans as Judea) would be ruled directly by the Romans.
Another son, Herod Antipas, was the tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea and achieved notoriety in executing John the Baptist. He fell out of favor with his subjects after repudiating his wife to marry his niece, and he was banished by the Emperor Caligula in 39 C.E.
According to Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote the history of the Jewish people (see pages 154-155), John the Baptist was a Jew who preached “virtue, righteousness toward one another and piety toward God.” His influence over the Jewish people became threatening to Herod Antipas, who ordered John the Baptist's death.
The eldest son, Herod Agrippa I, actually ruled with some competence in the northern part of his father's kingdom until his death in 44 C.E. The last son, Herod Agrippa II, was also a poor monarch who briefly reigned over Judea between 41 and 44 C.E., the year Jerusalem fell at the hands of the Romans.