Whether viewed as ruthless tyrant or resourceful visionary, the man known to history as Herod the Great (73 BC– 4 BC) served as one of the early Roman Empire’s most influential client rulers. Never referred to as “the Great” in his own lifetime, Herod was apparently more popular with Romans than Judaeans. In particular, Herod infamously exploited resources at his disposal to carry out grandiose architectural projects that rivaled, or even exceeded, Rome.
Herod’s mother was Cypros, a Nabatean. His father, Antipater, and his grandfather, Antipas, served as advisors to the Hasmonean monarchs, who, in turn, served as Rome’s clients following Pompey’s Judaean conquest in 63 BC. After Pompey’s demise, Antipater allied with Julius Caesar, coming to the latter’s rescue during the 47 BC siege of Alexandria. Thusly was the way paved for Herod, through an intricate series of politico-military maneuvers, to eventually usurp Judaea’s throne. Supported by Rome’s triumvirate, particularly Marc Antony, the Senate declared Herod as king in 40 BC. After three years of civil conflict, Herod emerged victorious, and cemented his position by banishing his current wife and son (Doris and Antipater, respectively) in order to wed the Hasmonean princess Mariamne. Such marital re-arrangement for political gain was not unusual. Indeed, in this respect Herod borrowed from the practices of Rome's aristocracy.
Also mimicking his Roman patrons, Herod apparently gave no quarter to those with perceived disloyalty. Among his first decrees was the execution of dozens of Judaean councilmen who supported his Hasmonean predecessors. Most notorious was the biblical account of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents,” although that atrocity was likely apocryphal. Herod’s paranoia did not exclude his own kin; reportedly, his suspicions prompted the execution of his wife and his two sons she bore him. Augustus opined that “it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son,” referencing his client king’s refusal to consume pork in adherence with Judaean custom (although Herod reportedly disregarded many other religious laws and customs).
Like Augustus, Herod earned fame for colossal building projects. Most renown was a massive expansion of Jerusalem’s Temple. Herod also created a new port, Caesarea Maritima, employing cutting-edge technologies. He set multiple new records in ancient construction, including the world’s largest palace (Herodium) and the longest building (the stoa on the Temple Mount). Herod even erected some pagan cities, such as Sebaste. His pathological distrusts led him to erect several mountain fortresses connecting his realm to Nabataea, serving as palatial resort getaways. His numerous building projects, both within his own territory and abroad, included gymnasia (e.g., Ptolemais), marketplaces (e.g., Tyre), theatres (e.g.,Damascus), aqueducts (e.g., Laodicea ad Mare) and baths (e.g, Ashqelon).
Herod’s gargantuan construction projects required commensurate resources. Not to mention that the Jewish king boasted a lavish court, and sponsored Olympic games throughout the Hellenistic world. To support such expenditures, Herod taxed his subjects rather aggressively. He also struck coins that conveniently generated a profit since their worth exceeded the value of their metal content.
This ancient bronze provides an example. Its denomination is 2-prutot (Herod also issued 1-, 4-, and 8-prutot coins). The obverse depicts a diadem, a gold band or ribbon worn symbolically by kings, signifying their status. The diadem surrounds a symbol that is often referred to as a cross. More precisely, the cross represents the Greek letter chi, associated with the anointment of Judaea’s high priest. Interestingly, Herod was Judaea’s first king lacking the qualifications to serve as high priest. He was not born of a priestly family, but rather one that recently converted to Judaism. In this case, the obverse imagery of chi within a diadem advertised King Herod’s control over the Temple via selection of its high priest.
The coin’s reverse is equally interesting, featuring a flat object on a tripod table flanked by palm leaves. Such tables were part of the furnishings of Jerusalem’s Temple. The table represented on this coin is consistent with the silver table holding the service vessels for religious ceremonies. As such, this table was especially sacred. Herod’s decision to depict this particular table, despite the Judaean decree forbidding such a depiction, was likely intended to commemorate, or otherwise draw attention to, the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple.
Herod struck coins as Judaea’s ruler up until his death in 4 BC, an impressively long tenure. Even at the end, the monarch’s mania manifested. Herod captured several innocent, distinguished men, and ordered their deaths after his own demise, thusly ensuring his subjects’ mourning. Although Herod’s heirs did not carry out that final decree, the king’s intent reflects his relationship with his subjects. To this day, Herod’s legacy remains suspect, comprising equal elements of tyranny and grandeur, as befits the most famous of all the Roman Empire’s client kings.
Additional Reading: Guide to Biblical Coins, D. Hendin, Amphora Press, 2010 (5th Edition).
Coin Details: JUDAEA, Herodian Kingdom, Herod I, 40 BC - 4 BC, AE 2 prutot (18.08 mm, 3.37 g), Jerusalem mint, NGC Grade: F, Strike: 4/5, Surface: 3/5, Obverse: Cross within closed diadem, HPΩΔOY BAΣIΛEΩΣ, Reverse: tripod table, flat object (vessel) upon it, flanked by palm branches, References: Hendin 1178; Meshorer TJC 48; RPC 4905; ex. David Hendin.