Herod’s Architectural Ambitions

Thanks to his partnership with Augustus Caesar, Herod became enormously wealthy. If Josephus is to believed, Herod’s wealth was truly staggering, and he put it to good use. In the broader world, he sponsored numerous buildings and improvements, and in one year even sponsored (and hosted) the Olympic Games at one of his new cities.

The continual warfare in the previous generation and an earthquake which hit the Levant in 31 BCE had taken its toll on the infrastructure and urban settlement of his kingdom. In response, Herod employed his wealth to rebuild his kingdom in the style he had observed in the Roman cities of Antioch and Alexandria, as well as the majestic capital, Rome. These were not provincial undertakings, but sweeping, expensive feats of civic planning.

As Byron McCane noted:

The sophistication of these structures and their resonances with the most important currents in the larger world of his day firmly establish Herod as a figure of high prominence in the early history of the Roman Empire. They also establish him as a figure of unparalleled prominence in the history of the Romanization of Palestine.

Rebuilt Urban Centers

Chief among the territories Caesar transferred to Herod in 26 BCE was the fortified city of Samaria. In celebration of Caesar’s new title, Herod renamed the city Sebaste (the Greek version of the title Augustus) and rebuilt it on a scale meant to “keep both the country and the city in awe” as a spine of security for his kingdom. Herod settled his Gentile veterans in the territory around the city – a nearby, ready reserve of trained soldiers.
Through war and machination, Herod became the exclusive purveyor of Asian goods to the Mediterranean world. To get them to market, Herod constructed an artificial harbor on the Mediterranean coast of his kingdom.

A new city rose around the harbor, which he named Caesarea Maritima in honor of his patron. “Caesarea Maritima employed new construction on the grand scale to create a comprehensive vision of the Empire as a destiny to be welcomed.” Caesarea was a magnificent feat of engineering that showed a harbor could be built anywhere it was advantageous to trade. As Avner Raba puts it, “Henceforth, harbor sites could be selected for economic or political considerations without regard for coastal topography.”

In Galilee, Herod rebuilt and fortified the city of Sepphoris as a strongpoint to keep an eye on the sometime troublesome Jewish residents. Sepphoris required an enormous investment, including the construction of massive cisterns and the building of an aqueduct. The scale tells us how vital it must have been to keep an eye on Galilee, which was probably the most populous region of his kingdom and certainly was home to the majority of conservative, Aramaic-speaking Jews.

Jerusalem’s Glory

For the centerpiece of his rebuilt kingdom, Herod turned his attention to the Jews’ holy city – Jerusalem. He rebuilt the city on a massive scale. Dan Bahat explained this saying:

“…the enhancement of the size of the city and the addition of the theatre, Hippodrome, and industrial and commercial quarters made the city of Herod a genuine Near Eastern metropolis, even in the writings of Roman historians.”

Josephus tells his readers that Herod’s most ambitious project was the Jewish Temple complex in Jerusalem. Supposedly, Herod wanted to rebuild the Temple to please the people he ruled, but they were suspect of his motives. He had to make extravagant promises about the continuity of worship during construction, going to extraordinary lengths to pacify the Jewish leaders. Josephus records a lengthy, emotional speech that Herod delivered to them as well as the concessions he made to persuade them.

After the reluctant Jewish leaders agreed to the proposal, Herod’s engineers set about constructing what is purported to be a marvel of the age. The Babylonian Talmud declares, “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building.” By any measure, the project was on a scale rarely seen in the ancient world. The Temple platform, which still exists today, was the largest artificial assembly space in the world until the eve of the Modern Age.

Herod’s plans for the Temple were ambitious and were not completed until 64 CE, over a half-century after his death in 4 BCE. Herod expanded the size of the Temple Mount, creating an enormous platform, much of which survives to this day.

Herod’s intentions were not altogether altruistic. Both ancient and modern commentators note that the platform was built to be global and political in its perspective. Surrounding the Jewish area (and separated from it by signs warning against crossing into them) was an enormous courtyard for all nations to gather. Herod freely accepted the gifts of wealthy pagans, and Rome still figured prominently in the life of the Temple. The adjoining fortress’ gate was adorned with a Roman Aquila (eagle), its wings spread out over all the earth.

The Temple headed by the high priesthood was the political-economic-religious institution by which the people of Judea were governed and revenues collected for the empire as well as the priesthood….The priests performed sacrifices on behalf of Rome and Caesar, and Roman soldiers stood guard on the porticoes of the Temple at Passover, lest excitement get out of hand during the people’s celebration of their deliverance from foreign rule in Egypt.

Personal Palace-Fortresses

His civic improvements exude confidence in his kingdom’s success as a crossroad for Roman and Jew, but his personal palaces tell a different story. Herod palaces are all fortified strongpoints. Inside they were full of every luxury imaginable, but outside they were all might. They give us a clue as to how delicate the balance was between the Roman and Jewish sides of his reign.

Of all of Herod’s great works, only one was attracting the attention of Roman writers long after his death – Masada. This impregnable fortress in the wilderness near the Dead Sea had been constructed by his predecessors, but Herod adopted it as his personal stronghold in 42 BCE, and rebuilt it on an epic scale. There are ten cisterns capable of holding a total of 39,500m3 (approximately 10 million gallons) and storehouses sufficient to provide food for years, and yet no expense was spared in decorating the interior of the three palaces and numerous auxiliary buildings. Despite the fastness of its wilderness location and its towering height above the desert floor, Herod surrounded this complex with an impregnable wall, running 1,300 meters around the plateau.

Just outside of Jerusalem, Herod constructed a personal monument known today as the Herodium. The palace itself sat inside a hollowed mountain, surrounded by battlements and turrets. It was completed in 15 BCE, and it is Herod’s final resting place – a testament to both his power and his need for security.

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