Kings of the Jews: Hasmoneans & Herodians
Following Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 B.C.E., the Jewish People became subject to a series of foreign empires—Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman. The Maccabean Revolt in 167 B.C.E. was successful in overthrowing the Syrian-Greek (Seleucid) regime and bequeathed the Jews 13o years of freedom under the Hasmonean dynasty until the Romans’ incorporation of Judaea into their expanding empire. Under Rome, the Herodian dynasty of client kings thrived for about a century until The Great Revolt (The First Revolt), which lasted from 66-73 C.E.. The biographies and histories of the Hasmoneans are related in Maccabees I & II and retold in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, while those of the Herodians are recounted in Josephus’ The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. Several Hasmonean and Herodian monarchs are mentioned variously in the Mishnah (e.g. Bikkurim and Sotah), as well as in the Qumranic literature such as Pesher Nachum.
- Simon Maccabee, a.k.a. Thassi (r. 142-134 B.C.E.) – The second eldest and last surviving son of Matityahu of Modi’in, who was praised by his dying father as a man of wise counsel and who eventually led the renascent nation after the deaths of his 4 brothers. Simon defeated the Syrian-Greek general Tryphon, who had murdered Jonathan Maccabee, then convinced the Seleucid ruler Demetrius II to exempt Judea from taxation of tribute. He also finally captured and demolished the Akra citadel in Jerusalem that had held out for so long as an imperial bastion. The alliances with Rome and Sparta originally negotiated by his brothers Judah and Jonathan were renewed under Simon. The people assembled in Jerusalem appointed Simon as their king, general, and high priest until such time as a prophet should arise (to appoint the messianic scion of the House of David as ruler). He was the only Maccabee who sired male scions, and thus directly founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which inherited his powers. Coins and contracts were dated according to Simon’s reign. His sons Johanan and Judah defeated the Syrian Greeks under Cendebeus. Simon was murdered with his sons Judah and Mattathias by Ptolemy, his son-in-law, at a banquet in the Judean desert fortress of Dok near Jericho, though not before he had placed his son Johanan in charge of part of his army. Simon was buried with his brothers and father in the Hasmonean tomb in their hometown of Modi’in.
- Johanan Hyrcanus (r. 134-104 B.C.E.) – The youngest and only surviving son of Simon Maccabee, who unsuccessfully tried to avenge his father’s murder and was unable to secure the release of his imprisoned mother who was tortured then killed. He was besieged in Jerusalem for a year by the Syrian ruler Antiochus VII Sidetes and compelled to render tribute and hostages and dismantle the battlements of Jerusalem’s walls. He was forced as a vassal to accompany Sidetes on his eastern campaign against the Parthians, a battle which cost Sidetes his life. With Syria weakened by political turmoil, Hyrcanus went on the offensive by rebuilding his armed forces and conquering a series of towns including Aleppo, Madaba, and Shechem, and by destroying the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. He then turned southward and subdued the Idumeans (Edomites), forcibly converting them to Judaism, an unprecedented measure in Jewish history. It was this fateful misstep that led to the eventual demise of the Hasmoneans, since the Herodians who unseated them originated in Idumea. Hyrcanus renewed hostilities against the belligerent Samaritans and besieged Samaria, but left the operation to his sons Judah Aristobulus and Antigonus who ultimately took Samaria as well as Bet Shean and the Jezreel Valley. Hyrcanus refortified the walls of Jerusalem, built the Baris fortress north of the Temple and the Judean Desert stronghold of Hyrcania (named after him), and firmly re-established Judean independence. Under his reign the religious factions—the aristocratic Sadducees, the popular Pharisees, and ascetic Essenes—took shape and promulgated their principles. Hyrcanus initially supported the Pharisees but came into conflict with them when they criticized his role as high priest; he thereafter switched his allegiance to the Sadducees. Hyrcanus never relinquished the high priesthood, but stipulated in his will that religious and secular authority should be divided, the posthumous compromise of a conflicted sovereign.
- Judah Aristobulus (r. 104-103 B.C.E.) – Eldest son of Johanan Hyrcanus, who was dissatisfied with the division of secular and religious authority and so, upon ascending the throne, cruelly imprisoned his mother, who had been given political power, and let her starve to death. He also incarcerated 3 of his brothers, and was the first Jewish ruler since before the Babylonian Captivity to use the title of king. Still, Aristobulus showed deference to the Pharisaic religious sect, and only used the title of high priest on his coinage. He waged war on Iturea and had its inhabitants forcibly circumcised and converted to Judaism. He ordered the execution of his favorite brother Antigonus who was allegedly plotting against his life—at least according to the court intrigue instigated by Queen Shalom Zion—only to suffer from deep-seated remorse after the fact of fratricide. His health was in decline and he is said to have died of grief over the deaths of his mother and brother. He died childless after a brief and bloody rule.
- Alexander Yannai, a.k.a. Alexander Jonathan (r. 103-76 B.C.E.) – The third son of Johanan Hyrcanus (by his second wife), who was imprisoned by his older half-brother Judah Aristobulus, on whose death Yannai was released by his widow, Queen Shalom Zion. In an act of levirate marriage, Yannai married the queen in spite of the fact that she was 13 years his senior. He besieged Akko (Ptolemais) and suffered defeat at the hands of Ptolemy Lathyrus, who invaded Judea from Cyprus; Yannai was rescued by Egyptian intervention on his behalf. He went on to capture Gadara and Amathus east of the Jordan River, then subdued Gaza. In his capacity as high priest, Yannai offered the prescribed water libation during the Sukkot festival, but allowed the water to run onto his feet, thus expressing his disdain for this Pharisaic ritual. Supporters of the Pharisees grew incensed at this provocation and pelted Yannai with the etrog citrons they held. Yannai loosed his mercenaries upon the defenceless worshipers, slaying 6,000 Pharisees within the Temple precincts. His warlike policies and military setbacks proved unpopular, and civil war broke out for 6 years with the Pharisees heading the opposition to the king. At their behest, Demetrius III of Syria invaded Judea and crushed Yannai’s forces near Shechem. The fugitive king escaped to the mountains of Ephraim and returned to Jerusalem embittered. The punitive Yannai had 800 of his opponents crucified in Jerusalem. With Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria waning, Yannai contended with the Nabatean Arabs, but otherwise found he had outlived many of his neighboring enemies and so was able to consolidate his territories east of the Jordan. Yannai built the Alexandrion (Alexandrium) and Machaerus fortresses, the former being named after him, and might have also built Masada (or it may have been constructed by his granduncle Jonathan Maccabee). Yannai had 2 sons with Shalom Zion: Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, both of whom reigned after him. Despite his persecution of the Pharisees, Yannai on his deathbed acknowledged their popular base and thus recommended accommodation with them to his wife, to whom he entrusted the throne. He died aged 51 while besieging the fortress of Regev (Ragaba) east of the Jordan, and was buried in Jerusalem.
- Aristobulus II (r. 67-63 B.C.E.) – The youngest son of Alexander Yannai and Shalom Zion. Upon his mother’s death, he directed his aggressive attentions toward his brother Hyrcanus II and in their ensuing struggle for the throne gained victory over him at Jericho. After 3 months in power, the rightful heir Hyrcanus renounced his claim. Still, relations between the brothers wavered between fraternal and fratricidal. The Pharisees sided with Hyrcanus, as did King Harith (Aretas) of Nabatea, whose invasion forced Aristobulus to retreat to Temple Mount. Both belligerent parties solicited the aid of the Roman general Pompey the Great, then in Damascus, who sided with Aristobulus after being bribed. Pompey ordered Harith to depart, and Aristobulus attacked the withdrawing Arabs, who suffered heavy casualties. But the damage had been done: Rome was now the kingmaker and Pompey decided on annexing Judea. To that end, he pursued Aristobulus to the Alexandrion citadel, detained him at camp, and besieged Jerusalem, which soon fell. Pompey slaughtered thousands in the sanctuary and entered the Holy of Holies. Aristobulus’ reign and Judean independence ended simultaneously. He was forced to march before Pompey’s chariot in a celebratory triumph in Rome, where Aristobulus was held hostage. He managed to escape from prison and return to Judea, where he fomented revolt, but the Romans recaptured him and hauled him back to Rome. Pompey’s rival, Julius Caesar, freed Aristobulus and dispatched him with a pair of Roman legions against Pompey in Syria. Aristobulus never reached Syria alive, however, as he was poisoned en route by Pompey’s loyalists. He was survived by two sons, Alexander and Mattathias Antigonus.
- Hyrcanus II (r. 63-40 B.C.E.) – The eldest son of Alexander Yannai and Shalom Zion, who was throughout his life dominated by others. Although deposed by his younger brother Aristobulus II, Hyrcanus possessed an important ally in the Idumean Antipater II, whose intervention secured the support of King Harith of Nabatea. Like Antipater, the Romans preferred the puppet Hyrcanus over his more assertive brother Aristobulus, and Hyrcanus was reappointed high priest but without political authority until Julius Caesar restored it to him. Feckless as ever, Hyrcanus left affairs of state to his Idumean advisor Antipater, who all along had in mind to usurp power in Judea. When the Parthians helped crown his nephew Mattathias Antigonus as king and high priest, the hapless Hyrcanus was deposed again and cruelly shorn of his ears, thereby prohibiting him from priestly service. Hyrcanus was seized and banished to Babylonia where he remained for 4 years. In defeating Antigonus, Antipater’s ambitious son Herod avenged Hyrcanus and as a reward was betrothed to the latter’s granddaughter Miriam, thereby combining the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. Herod invited his exiled grandfather-in-law Hyrcanus back to Judea, and Hyrcanus accepted despite warnings against trusting the Idumean upstart. These ignored urgings proved well-founded: Herod eventually had Hyrcanus condemned and executed for treason so as to eliminate all Hasmonean males who might potentially be elevated to power in his stead by the mighty Augustus Caesar.
- Mattathias Antigonus (r. 40-37 B.C.E.) – The younger son of Aristobulus II, and the last Hasmonean to claim control over Judea. With his father, Antigonus was taken prisoner by Pompey and held in Rome until his escape and return to Judea. He recognized his uncle Hyrcanus II as but a puppet of the Idumean advisor Antipater II, and so initiated a series of futile rebellions against Roman rule during his father’s period as a hostage in Rome. With the murder of Antipater, Antigonus made a last-ditch effort to wrest control of Judea, but was defeated in battle by Antipater’s younger son Herod. Down but not out, the opportunistic Antigonus allied himself with the Parthians who were challenging Rome for sovereignty over the Levant. The Parthians conquered Jerusalem in 40 B.C.E., removed Hyrcanus from the high priesthood, took Herod’s older brother Phasael hostage, and installed Antigonus as nominal monarch over Judea. Herod fled and garnered the support of Roman general Marc Antony, who defeated the Parthians, leaving a vulnerable Antigonus to be captured in Jerusalem by Herod and transferred to the Romans at Antioch, where he was decapitated, the first such instance of Rome beheading a conquered king.
- Herod the Great (r. 40-4 B.C.E.) – The son of Antipater II the Idumean and Cypros, a Nabatean Arab noblewoman. Herod was an ambitious, mercurial, and violent tyrant who had 10 wives in succession. When appointed prefect of Galilee by his father, Herod was arraigned before the Sanhedrin for arrogating to himself powers under their jurisdiction, and threatened vengeance against the tribunal until his father and brother Phasael dissuaded him from it. The Romans promoted Herod to prefect of Coele-Syria. He won the favor of Marc Antony through flattery and bribes, and declined a generalship offered him by Cleopatra VII of Egypt. After winning over Octavian, the Roman Senate awarded Herod the kingship he craved. He returned to Judaea via Akko at the head of an army, and with Roman help besieged Jerusalem which fell after several months. He repudiated his first wife Doris and married Miriam, a Hasmonean princess. Herod had Antigonus’ partisans and most of the Sanhedrin executed. He faced the bitter enmity of his Hasmonean mother-in-law Alexandra, who repeatedly appealed for help to Cleopatra whose closeness with Marc Antony Herod feared. Herod established a brutal secret police service and slaughtered all dissidents. Among those he had murdered were his brother-in-law the high priest Aristobulus III, his uncle and brother-in-law Joseph, his grandfather-in-law and former high priest Hyrcanus II, his own wife Miriam, and his mother-in-law Alexandra. When Antony was defeated, Herod transferred his allegiance to Octavian (Augustus Caesar) whom he successfully entreated at Rhodes. Augustus returned Jericho to Herod (after Antony had given it to Cleopatra) and granted him the towns of Gadara, Hippos, Samaria, Gaza, Anthedon, Jaffa, and Strato’s Tower. Herod built a series of fortresses throughout Judaea which he might avail himself of in times of crisis, including Sebaste (on the ruins of Samaria), Herodium (near Tekoa), and at Jericho. He also built the towns of Antipatris, Cypros, and Phasaelis to honor his family members. He refortified the Hasmonean desert citadels of Alexandrium, Hyrcania, Machaerus, and Masada, whose three-tiered Herodian northern palace complete with columns and frescoes offered a spectacular view of the Dead Sea. In Jerusalem, Herod outdid himself by dramatically expanding Temple Mount by constructing huge encasement walls and filling them in with earth, creating a large trapezoid. The Temple itself and its courtyards were enlarged and defended by the robust Antonia fortress, honoring Marc Antony. Herod protected the western entrance of Jerusalem with a huge triple-towered fortress called the Citadel, and built a theater, amphitheater, and hippodrome in the capital. Despite his many architectural feats, Herod’s reign was overshadowed by bloody horrors: his resentful sister Salome and his ambitious son Antipater conspired to dispense with Herod’s sons by Miriam—Aristobulus IV and Alexander. Herod eventually ordered them strangled to death at Sebaste, and later the conspiring Antipater was also ordered executed by his father, who died 5 days afterwards in Jericho. Herod was buried at Herodium.
- Archelaus (r. 4 B.C.E.-6 C.E.) – The son of Herod the Great and Malthace, a Samaritan, who was designated his father’s heir just before Herod died. Judaeans were gladdened by the tyrant’s death and thus Archelaus was initially well received. He married his widowed sister-in-law Glaphyra, a union that met with much public disapproval. When he temporized in the face of the Pharisees’ demand to remove the Sadducean high priest Joezer, the people grew insistent, and on the day before Passover Archelaus sent his troops against them leaving 3,000 dead on Temple Mount. Archelaus sought confirmation of his rule from Augustus in Rome, but the emperor instead divided the Herodian realm into three, appointing Archelaus as ethnarch over Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea. In Archelaus’ absence, insurrection broke out in Judaea which was only suppressed by the Syrian legate Varus. Archelaus’ return to Judaea was unwelcomed, despite the fact that he finally removed the Sadducean high priest from office (after being bribed). In all, Archelaus had 3 high priests ousted for personal profit. He restored the palace at Jericho and had palm groves planted thereabouts, and founded a city called Archelais in his own honor. Still, a delegation of Jews and Samaritans brought charges against Archelaus before Augustus in Rome. Archelaus was instantly summoned to Rome, removed from office, and banished to Vienne, Gaul (France) where he lived out his days.
- Antipas (r. 6-39 C.E.) – The youngest son of Herod the Great and Malthace, and brother to Archelaus. He, too, was educated in Rome and well-traveled. When Augustus divided Herod’s realm, Antipas was made tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea. He was initially designated as Herod’s heir, but the will was emended shortly before his father’s death. Augustus Caesar ratified Herod’s final will, and Antipas frequently but unsuccessfully sought Roman approval to enlarge his domains. He was able to rebuild several existing towns including Bet Haran in Peraea, his capital of Tzippori (Sepphoris), and the Hasmonean desert fortress Machaerus (where John the Baptist preached and was jailed). Antipas also built Tiberias on the shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), replete with palace and stadium, which he named in honor of Emperor Tiberius and which he made the new capital of Galilee. He married twice, first to a Nabatean princess and then to his own niece Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother Philip. His first wife repaid Antipas for his inconstancy by convincing her father Harith (Aretas) IV to invade her husband’s tetrarchy. Antipas’ army was defeated and his rule saved only by the Nabateans’ withdrawal. He also intrigued against Roman officials such as the proconsul Vitellius and the procurator Pontius Pilate, earning him their animosity. He was also unpopular among the Judaeans for various reasons, particularly for his marriage to Herodias for which he was publicly denounced by the Baptist. He put the Baptist to death and, while sojourning in Jerusalem, conducted the preliminary hearing of the defendant Jesus of Nazareth. Antipas was denounced by his nephew and brother-in-law Agrippa I to Emperor Caligula for amassing a stockpile of arms; Caligula stripped Antipas of his lands and titles and banished him to Lugdunum in Gaul, where Herodias joined him. Antipas died shortly thereafter in Spain. ‘Antipas’ is a contraction of ‘Antipater’, and Antipas is usually referred to generically as ‘Herod’ in the Gospels.
- Agrippa I, a.k.a. Marcus Julius Agrippa (r. 41-44 C.E.) – The son of Aristobulus IV and Berenice I, brother of Herodias, and husband to Cypros II. Educated in Rome, Agrippa befriended Tiberius’ son Drusus. Originally dissolute and heavily indebted, Agrippa returned to Idumaea and was subsequently appointed by his uncle and brother-in-law Antipas as market overseer in Tiberias. He quarrelled with Antipas and wound up again in Rome, where he befriended Gaius, the future Emperor Caligula. His drunken remark about preferring Caligula over Tiberius as emperor landed him in prison for 6 months. When he attained the purple, Caligula personally released Agrippa and gave him the domains of his uncle Philip’s tetrarchy (Batanaea and Trachonitis, plus Gaulanitis), then awarded him the deposed Antipas’ wealth and territories (Galilee and Peraea). Agrippa was in Rome when Caligula was murdered. Upon his accession to the throne, in which Agrippa played a crucial part, Emperor Claudius gave Agrippa control over Judaea and Samaria, making Agrippa king of a dominion equal to that of his grandfather Herod the Great. The Roman procuratorship in Judaea was temporarily suspended. Not only did Agrippa rule a reunited Judaean kingdom, but unlike his dynastic predecessors he was zealous for Judaism and consequently admired by Judaeans, especially the Pharisees with whom he identified. As a grandson of Miriam the Hasmonean, Agrippa combined the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, further endearing him to the populace. In addition, Agrippa skillfully interceded and persuaded Caligula to rescind his odious edict to set up a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Temple, and he also obtained from Claudius an edict of privileges on behalf of Alexandria’s Jews. He built public buildings in Berytus (Beirut) and elsewhere, and held games honoring Claudius at Caesarea, where Agrippa died suddenly of heart and abdominal pains, likely the result of poisoning by the Romans. He was survived by his son Agrippa II and daughters Berenice II, Miriam IV, and Drusilla. After Agrippa’s death Judaea reverted to Roman procuratorship status.
- Agrippa II, a.k.a. Marcus Julius Agrippa II (r. 44-100 C.E.) – The son of Agrippa I and Cypros II, and brother of Berenice II. He was educated in Rome like his father and there learned of the latter’s sudden demise. Emperor Claudius reluctantly deprived him of the throne due to his young age (17). Instead, he was given the minor kingdom of Chalcis when his uncle Herod II of Chalcis died. Claudius allowed him to supervise the Temple in Jerusalem and nominate the high priest. Agrippa was in constant strife with the Jewish priesthood and frequently appointed new high priests. Chalcis was taken from him in exchange for the larger areas of Batanaea, Trachonitis, and Gaulanitis. At Caesarea Maritima, Paul the Apostle pleaded his case before Agrippa and his sister Berenice; both royals were also friends and distant relatives of the historian Josephus. He made his capital Caesarea Philippi, which he also called Neronias in honor of Nero, who granted him rule over Tiberias and Migdal (Magdala-Tarichaeae) in Galilee and towns east of the Jordan River. Agrippa was in Alexandria, Egypt when The Great Revolt against Rome broke out in Judaea in 66 C.E.. He hurried back to Jerusalem but was unsuccessful in convincing his countrymen to abandon rebellion. Thus he supported the Romans in the ensuing war, and joined Vespasian’s campaign in which he was lightly injured during the siege of Gamla in the Golan. When Nero died, Agrippa set sail with Titus for Rome; they learned en route of the new emperor Galba’s murder. Titus immediately returned to Judaea while Agrippa continued to Rome. Once Agrippa received word that Vespasian was exalted as emperor, he surreptitiously fled Rome and rendered services to the new Caesar. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Agrippa and his sister Berenice went to Rome. Vespasian conferred the title of praetor on him and awarded him additional territories. There were rumors of an incestuous relationship between Agrippa and Berenice, although this may have been gossip based on the fact that Berenice lived for several years in her brother’s home. Agrippa died childless and was the last ruler of both the Herodian and Hasmonean lines.
Although of the same lineage, the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans proved to be markedly different in character and conduct. While the 5 Maccabean brothers were devout, fought Israel’s foes, and restored religious and political freedom to the Jews, their Hasmonean descendants increasingly Hellenized and preoccupied themselves with internecine intrigues and bloody civil wars. Power corrupted the Hasmonean kings, whose machinations crippled Judea and made it ripe for usurpation by the ambitious and ruthless Herodians. With the despotic and neurotic Herod the Great as their founder, the Herodians were inevitably influenced by his murderous and incestuous example. Only with the advent of the Agrippas did the Herodians begin to overcome their ignominious provenance and embark upon greater statesmanship and religious sensitivity in Judaea. Above all, though, imperial Rome required vassals and client kings who could keep the peace, which the Herodians failed to do. The Jews were deprived both sovereignty and autonomy, but continued to rebel under direct Roman occupation. The Bar Kokhba Revolt (The Second Revolt) fell short, leading to 1,813 years of exile.