The True Herod
by Géza Vermès, Bloomsbury, £20 Buy here
A complete rehabilitation of Herod the Great’s reputation is impossible. Some sins cannot be scrubbed clean. Géza Vermès simply wanted us to recognise that Herod was not always quite so beastly as we’d been led to believe.
The main reason we boo at Herod is his association with the massacre of the babes in Bethlehem. For Vermès, this has absolutely no basis in historical fact. We also assume that Herod was none too fond of the Jews. This is erroneous. He “legally counted” as a Jew, although his ancestors had only recently converted, and when in Jerusalem he appears to have been suitably observant. More importantly, perhaps, he did many favours for the people of Judaea.
When he first arrived as ruler, Herod stopped the Roman armies from pillaging Jerusalem. When famine struck he paid, out of his own pocket, for food to be brought in from Egypt and then lowered taxes to assist financial recovery. He also did wonders for the region’s architecture. Impressive palaces, fortresses and amphitheatres sprang up and, crucially, he made a very good job of rebuilding Jerusalem’s Temple.
Before you start liking Herod too much, you should be reminded that he could be brutal. He had lots of wives and this meant many sons. They didn’t always get along and, when familial rivalries got out of hand, Herod took radical action. Alexander and Aristobulus were accused (falsely, it appears) of plotting their father’s death. They were strangled for their troubles. Antipater was accused (accurately) of planning to poison Herod. A dramatic court case ensued and, at one point, the poison intended for Herod was handed to a man already found guilty of a capital crime. The criminal drank the liquid and dropped down dead in the court room.
This, I suppose, could all be excused in the context of its time. What, after all, was a father to do when he thought his sons were trying to do away with him?
There are two events, however, that rem-ain unpalatable. The first was the execution of one of Herod’s wives, Mariamne. This was unjust, which is perhaps reflected in the fact that Herod almost went insane after the deed was done. The second event occurred on Herod’s deathbed in 4 BC.
He had a hunch that some sections of the local population would celebrate his passing. This, for Herod, seemed inappropriate, so he arranged for some of the leading citizens of Judaea to be incarcerated in the hippodrome at Jericho. As soon as Herod died, the men were to be slaughtered. One way or another, Judaea would weep with grief at the moment of Herod’s death. Mercifully, these orders were never carried out, but this hardly diminishes the vindictiveness that lay behind them.
Given all this, Vermès’s adjudication (“heroic and horrible”) seems about right. Herod was an able soldier and, more importantly, a brilliant politician. His career coincided with the chaotic events in Roman history that you will remember from your schooldays. Herod was a survivor and switched allegiances with consummate skill. It is worth noting, however, that he was always fiercely loyal to whoever happened to rule the roost at any given moment and his commitment to improving Judaea’s fortunes was genuine. He “dreamt of lifting his Jewish kingdom to a central position and of endowing it with genuine significance in the Roman empire”.
The goal of this book is to expose the prevailing “caricature of the true Herod”. As Vermès reminds us, Jerusalem had endured more wicked overlords. Little more than a century earlier, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV had massacred hundreds, prohibited Jews from following Sabbath and circumcision laws, and set up a pagan altar in the Temple so sacrifices could be made to Zeus. Herod had his vile moments, but he never went this far. He was a vain man and there are tales of anyone taller than him being obliged to stoop in his presence. He was also a violent man. Even during the early days as governor of Galilee he put brigands to the sword. Yet his story was more complicated than such an image allows.
Géza Vermès died in 2013. He left behind him an astonishing corpus of writings about Jewish and biblical history. This final little book is very different from the mighty, ground-breaking scholarly tomes, but it shares the same determination to challenge preconceptions. It is intended, Vermès wrote in his introduction, for “all and sundry”, and there is comfort in knowing that the widest possible readership will, or should, encounter Vermès one last time. You may, all along, have disagreed with some things that he wrote, but you’d have been a fool to ignore them.
In a poignant foreword, Margaret Vermès reveals that her husband, though in failing health, was adding touches to this text just four days before he died. Who among us would still be worrying about their scholarship so close to the end? Only those with a passion I cannot begin to fathom.
Book reviews should not morph into belated obituaries, but hang the rules. Géza Vermès RIP.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/1/15)