According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod is the villain of the piece in the Christmas story. It was he who received the Magi – or Three Kings or wise men, depending on your preference – and became very upset when they told him that a new king had just been born in Bethlehem. His response was to order the slaughter of every newborn baby in the town, an event that is generally known as the Massacre of the Innocents.
But does he deserve the reputation for cruelty that he has had down the centuries?
Herod was certainly a remarkable monarch in that he was able to retain his position as King of Judea for a very long time – from 37 to 4 BC – which he could certainly not have done if he had been a weak monarch or one who was not prepared to use strong-arm tactics when it suited him.
But he also had to be a considerable diplomat, not least because the real power in the land was the Roman Empire. He had to cultivate good relations firstly with Mark Anthony (of “Anthony and Cleopatra” fame) and then with Emperor Augustus.
He was thus able to act as Rome’s “puppet king” and reaped lavish rewards in terms of extra territory and Roman cash, which in turn allowed him to undertake lavish building projects such as the port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Kings who spent money on their country – even puppets of Rome – were always likely to earn a certain amount of popularity.
Herod’s court was renowned for its high degree of culture and refinement, being peopled by artists, poets and philosophers. Not for nothing was he known as Herod the Great.
But that did not stop him from also being cruel and tyrannical. In later life he became paranoid and possibly mentally unhinged.
Matthew’s description of the Massacre of the Innocents, despite being written around 70 years after the presumed event, may well have been inspired by a historical event that was very much in keeping with Herod’s character.
Having already executed his wife Mariamne he also killed two of his sons, whom he suspected of plotting against him. These were certainly not the only victims of his tyranny, which extended to anyone whom he suspected of disloyalty. His death in 4 BC was mourned by very few.
A king who was in the pocket of the hated Romans, who welcomed philosophers to his court, and who thought nothing of slaughtering people, however young, who threatened his position, was excellent source material for the King Herod who forced the Holy Family to flee to Egypt.
Just for good measure, there is even a theory that Mariamne was actually Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Herod was his father. Make of that what you will!