Herod negotiated the complex relationship of the various Jewish groups, his Roman masters and the nations surrounding him with cunning, if not with ease. Herod’s cities and Temple complex attempted to bridge the gaps among these various groups, but there were simply too many moving parts and fissures appeared, especially among the rural Jews of Galilee. Later generations of Jews would not see his works. They would instead look back on Herod as “an insolent king…bold and shameless” who used fear and violence to oppress the faithful because of their sin.
The inevitable destabilization of Herod’s kingdom came not from outside, but from inside. In the last decade of his life, Herod’s personal and physical stability became compromised. “In just the last ten years of his life (i.e. 13–4 BC), Herod wrote at least five separate wills, each one naming a different individual or individuals who should be his heir.”
Three Treacherous Sons
Early in his reign, Herod had executed both his father-in-law Hyrcanus and his wife Mariamne to secure the throne. Two of Herod’s sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, became extraordinarily rebellious during his last years, thanks to the machinations of an Arab named Syllaeus. Syllaeus betrayed Herod at every opportunity, even attempting to poison Herod’s relationship with Caesar. Had it not been for Herod’s capable friend, Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod would have lost his kingdom in 7 BCE. At Caesar’s urging, Herod assembled a council in Berytus (Beirut) to try Alexander and Aristobulus. After a long trial, Herod had their followers and a number of those who had allied with Syllaeus publicly executed. His sons he had strangled in private.
Herod then established his oldest surviving son Antipater as his co-ruler, only to have Antipater conspire against him as well. When a plot to poison Herod was brought to light by the Roman governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, Herod broke down in tears. Again, Nicolaus of Damascus, stepped in and deftly prosecuted the case against Antipater. In the end, Antipater was remanded to Varus and a message was sent to Caesar asking for a final determination. Caesar placed Antipater’s fate in Herod’s hands, and days before his own death, Herod had him killed. The body was thrown into a beggars’ grave.
Generations later, the Roman writer Macrobius wrote a series of puns he attributed to Caesar Augustus. Among them is a reference to this period. When told about Antipater’s plot, Augustus reportedly quipped, “It is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”
The Aquila Revolt
The knowledge that Herod’s health was failing began circulating in 4 BCE. Two popular Galilean teachers, Judas b. Sepphoris and Matthias b. Margalus, fomented a movement to remove the Roman Aquila (eagle) from the Temple complex. Somehow their followers heard false rumors that Herod was dead. About forty of them rushed to tear down the Aquila, but they were quickly rounded up by the guards and brought to Herod. Although quite sick, Herod flew into a rage. He had the leaders of the revolt publicly burned alive and then executed the rest of them.
The Fatal Illness
After the executions, Herod’s health took a turn for the worst. He developed a low fever, itching all over his body, inflammation of the colon and some kind of infected tumors on his feet. On top of this, he developed necrosis in his genitals. His body was racked by a terrible cough and he was unable to eat. The pain became so great that he even attempted to kill himself.
What was Herod dying of? This was not the first time Herod had experienced some of these symptoms. Nikos Kokkinos reviewed the symptoms with Dr. Walter Y. Loebl of the Royal College of Physicians in Londond, and in a 2002 article for Biblical Archaeology Review Kokkinos reported:
Dr. Loebl finds four of Herod’s symptoms particularly diagnostic. The intolerable itch can be attributed, he says, to kidney failure, which causes waste chemicals to accumulate in the blood. This would have been the end-stage of a number of processes, including “diminished oxygen to the kidneys due to arteriosclerosis [hardening of the arteries].”
Dr. Loebl interprets the transparent swelling around Herod’s feet as edema, a build-up of fluids that often occurs in older people, especially in their ankles and legs. Bedridden people can also get it in their lower back and genitalia, he says. The commonest causes are “heart failure, renal [kidney] failure and dilution of the blood in anemia.” Another type of edema—pulmonary edema, or edema of the lungs—may have contributed to his demise.
The related putrefaction in Herod’s private member, Dr. Loebl sees as “myiasis.” He explains that “the moist skin with edema and the hot climate would have attracted flies who laid eggs, developing larvae looking like worms—[like] maggots used by fishermen!”
Dr. Loebl regards Herod’s inability to breathe unless in an upright position (orthopnoia) as “the most reliable part of the description.” As used in clinical medicine, “orthopnea is a typical sign in heart failure, renal failure or anemia.”
His conclusion is that, most likely, “Herod died of age-related failure of his heart and kidneys with terminal edema of the lungs.”
Loebl’s theory is not the only one that has been put forward, but it does explain all of Herod’s symptoms. Herod must have been experiencing some of these symptoms before the execution of the revolt leaders, but Josephus does note that Herod probably pushed himself harder than he should have during the revolt. This would have accelerated the effect of the disease.
Josephus tells us that Herod lived only five days after the onset of these symptoms. His condition was made worse when he tried to seek relief through a visit to hot springs near Jericho. His doctors attempted to bathe him in warm oil, which triggered additional symptoms. He began to lose his sight and slip in and out of consciousness. After ordering the execution of Antipater, Herod’s torture body failed and he died. Two of his remaining sons, Archelaus and Antipas, arranged his funeral.