During the last decades B.C., not far from Jerusalem, stood a truly magnificent sight. Herodium was a city-fortress-palace-entertainment complex, built atop a small mountain in the desert. Standing hundreds of feet tall, protected by imposing walls, the settlement could be seen for miles around. Built for the Judean king Herod, it also doubled as his burial site. At least, that’s what experts believed. Then, after decades of fruitless searching for his tomb, researchers made a huge discovery.
At the time of completion, Herodium must have been an incredible sight. Uncovered facilities there include a palace, a theatre space complete with ornate royal box, and an enormous swimming pool. As Judea’s second city, it also housed government offices and residences. But why would the king want to move everything from the country’s capital, Jerusalem, to the desert?
It seems that Herod felt there was a compelling reason to move wholesale to the middle of the desert. And it was all to do with his mother. The ruler and his entourage were travelling over uneven ground on the way to the city of Petra, in modern-day Jordan. Suddenly, his mom’s cart keeled over, and it looked for a time that she had been killed in the accident.
By some miracle, though, Herod’s mother made it out alive, which led the ruler to make an oath. He promised that his grave would be in the location of the accident. And despite being almost ten miles from Jerusalem, in the desert, the king set out to make his vision a reality.
The building of Herodium was an enormous undertaking. Water is an essential part of the construction process, never mind keeping workers alive in the heat. As a result, the king’s crew built an aqueduct several miles long to transport water there. Herod then had his palace built at the very summit of the mountain, making it visible for miles around.
Clearly, then, Herod was a powerful figure in the region. His ascension involved parents in high places and more than a touch of ruthlessness. Born in 73 B.C., the future king’s political rise was kick-started by his father’s close relationship with the Roman Empire. And this meant that after political rivals assassinated his dad, Herod had somewhere to hide.
Retreating to Rome, Herod found himself in favor with the imperial authorities. As a result, he was given the title King of Judea. From there, he stormed Jerusalem, taking the city in 37 B.C. The country was now again under the dominion of the Roman Empire, whose might helped the new ruler to expand his kingdom. And just as importantly, Herod’s wealth increased considerably as well.
For a large proportion of Judea’s citizens, however, their new king was a traitor. Herod himself was Jewish and seemingly had subjugated his own people in return for power and money. In perhaps the king’s most blatant flouting of his faith, he installed a golden eagle at the Temple in Jerusalem. The bird was a defining symbol of Rome, while the temple was the most sacred site in Judaism. And this act was simply too much for some of his people to bear.
The rebellion that followed the installation of the eagle showed the strength of feeling against the king. Herod, though, as you probably already know, has a fearsome reputation as a tyrant. And this label, it seems, was more than well deserved. Mass executions of those seen as a threat to his power were common. Moreover, being related to the king was almost as dangerous as opposing him.
In addition to a penchant for murdering family members, it seems that Herod also rather enjoyed getting married, which he did on at least ten occasions. Those unions produced an even greater number of children, giving him plenty of relations upon which to unleash his murderous tendencies. And for a man who became increasingly paranoid over the course of his reign, all those wives and heirs took on a sinister tone in his mind.
The king once accused Mariamne, reportedly his favorite wife, of cheating on him and consequently had her marked for execution. Her resulting withdrawal of affection only further convinced Herod of his queen’s unfaithfulness. By the time he realized he was wrong, however, she’d been put to death. And even though his mother-in-law had backed him over her daughter, he then murdered her as well.
Even slightly more distant relations of the king weren’t safe. Herod had not one, but two of his brothers-in-law murdered for perceived betrayals on their part. One of them was drowned in the midst of a particularly spirited game of water polo. Yes, in this tyrannical ruler’s hands, sport was a deadly weapon.
But Herod’s murderous nature didn’t just extend to wives and their brothers. In fact, his children came into the firing line on no less than three occasions. Two of his sons were murdered on his say so, while a third was put to death for alleged betrayals. Tales of the large numbers of dead family members eventually reached Rome. The news reputedly caused Emperor Augustus to joke that “it’s better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
The children of other families, though, didn’t fare much better. As the king’s paranoia over keeping his throne grew, his murderous nature put many youngsters in Judea at risk. Following a visit by three wise men looking for the prophesied King of the Jews, also known as Jesus, Herod committed his most violent act yet.
According to the Bible, on hearing of the birth of Jesus, Herod decided to try to put a stop to the prophecy and the threat the baby apparently posed to his power. In order to make absolutely sure that the infant couldn’t usurp him, the ruler gave out a horrific order. All male children under the age of three in the town of Bethlehem were to be killed.
Some forms of Christianity hold that more than 14,000 male children were slaughtered on Herod’s orders. That number, however, may well not be accurate. In fact, it’s thought to be many times larger than the total number of people in Bethlehem at the time. So even if the story is true, the figure is likely no more than a handful. Which doesn’t make it any less disgusting, of course, but it might help explain why the Bible is the only source for this tale.
Indeed, for religious website Aleteia, the low number of deaths simply meant that the story wasn’t deemed significant at the time. Whatever the truth, the contemporary accounts that gave us more insight into Herod’s tyrannical paranoia also tell the story of a very ill human being. In the months before his death in 4 B.C., the ruler suffered from symptoms including abdominal pain, shortness of breath and palpitations.
This list of symptoms led doctors from the University of Maryland to choose Herod as a diagnosis subject for a conference in 2006. Using ancient texts as a guide to the king’s afflictions, the medics were able to come up with a more accurate diagnosis than was possible at the time. The ruler’s own team actually bathed him in boiling oil as an attempted cure. Unfortunately, this made things worse – he went blind for a period as a result.
Medicine has, of course, come a long way since ancient times. And back then doctors had some very different beliefs. According to their practices, for example, the body relied on the balance of four so-called humors: black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile. As such, any illness was thought to be a manifestation of an imbalance of these elements and nothing more. These days, we have a better understanding of how the body works, and modern physicians believe that Herod’s symptoms point to one thing.
Herod, it seems, was actually suffering from kidney failure. According to the findings at the Maryland conference, all but one of his symptoms point to that condition. One of the ruler’s afflictions, however, simply didn’t fit the diagnosis. Be warned, if you’re faint of stomach: you will not enjoy the following description.
Those ancient texts describe a very unusual symptom. Herod, it seems, had gangrene in his genitals, which in turn had caused an infestation of maggots in that area of his body. Known these days as the rare condition Fournier’s Gangrene, it meant that Herod most probably would have been in a great deal of pain before his death.
While Herod’s later years were characterized by illness and mania, ambitious and complex construction projects symbolized the early part of his reign. He had an excellent military and architectural mind, and the king’s collaboration with Rome led to the expansion of Judean territory, which was marked by massive civil engineering successes. And some of them survive to this day.
The ancient king was responsible for the fortress at Masada, at the very edge of the Judean desert. Built on a natural plateau and surrounded by nothing but sand, the complex boasted yet another Herodian castle, store rooms and a large perimeter wall. The king’s palace at Jericho was said to have raised gardens so that the flowers and foliage were at eye level. His projects didn’t end there, either.
The construction of the town and port at Caesarea took a whopping 12 years to complete. Once finished, it included an amphitheater, aqueduct, chariot-racing stadium and deep dock, all of which have survived to the present day. And Herod’s legacy there can be visited by tourists, as the site has become part of a national park.
But Herod’s most ambitious construction project was, of course, Herodium. So enormous was it, in fact, that when completed, the compound was the biggest of its kind in the entire Roman Empire. And as we mentioned earlier, the town was originally conceived to uphold the king’s earlier oath: for his grave to be where his mother had survived the cart accident.
During the final decade of Herod’s life, he concentrated on building an elaborate tomb. And the last part of the project involved a feat befitting a king: he made the mountain upon which the town lay taller. Workers moved tons of soil to the peak before his tomb was complete.
Following Herod’s painful and, frankly, gross death in 4 B.C., the leader was laid to rest in Herodium after an extravagant ceremony. And, as far as anyone knew, that’s where he stayed for the next couple of millennia. The town itself fell to ruin, eventually claimed by the desert. And for a while, its very location was lost to time.
The town of Herodium wouldn’t be rediscovered until the early 19th century, in fact. Successive archeologists then uncovered the impressive facilities we mentioned earlier, as well cisterns, pipe systems and tunnels buried deep within the mountain. But try as they might, none of the teams could find the tomb of Herod. And they looked for the better part of two centuries.
Given the historical evidence of Herod’s burial left behind by historians such as Josephus, you’d think that finding the king’s tomb would have been fairly straight-forward. In reality, though, the search turned out to be anything but. Multiple digs at the base and summit of the mountain had uncovered literally no trace of Herod.
Having arrived on the site in 1972, archeologist Ehud Netzer eventually began to hone in on the mysterious tomb. For decades, he remained convinced that the burial chamber must lie at the foot of the mount. But by 2005, he was still empty handed. So Netzer then began digging around in the mid-way point of the mountain.
Why the middle of the mountain, though? Well, Netzer had noticed a section of wall that, for his money, looked very unusual. So, his team began to excavate. And for nearly 12 months, they came up empty handed. Then, however, in 2007 the Hebrew University archeologists found something they weren’t expecting.
Sifting through the sandy soil, Netzer and his team hit upon fragments of pink limestone. The slabs were also intricately decorated. Sure they were on to something – the nature of the stone indicated a wealthy individual – they continued to dig. And then something incredible came out of the ground.
During that very dig, the team uncovered a lavish sarcophagus. So highly decorated was it, that for Netzer, it could only have been created to house a king. As he later told National Geographic magazine “It’s a sarcophagus we just don’t see anymore. It is something very special.”
So, after millennia buried in the desert, and then a decades-long search by Netzer, King Herod’s tomb had finally been found. And once the burial site had been identified, the discoveries came thick and fast. In addition to a couple of other sarcophagi, an enormous set of stairs and a huge reception zone also emerged from the soil.
But, despite the incredible discoveries, no marker specifically naming Herod has been found. In addition, no remains were recovered in or around the burial site. The king’s bones, experts believe, will most probably not be unearthed – with good reason. And it’s all to do with that relationship between Herod and Rome.
Much of the grave area, it seems, was destroyed around 60 years after Herod’s death by Jewish insurgents who opposed Rome. For them, the former king symbolized their subjugation and his relationship with the empire was nothing but collaboration. As a result, reducing his tomb to rubble and possibly scattering his bones would have been the ultimate act of revenge.
All of which means, of course, that the tomb may never be definitively assigned to Herod. That lack of identification, along with there being no sign of a monument to mark the burial location means that, for many, Netzer has yet to prove beyond doubt that the site once held the king’s remains. For instance, in the absence of an inscription, the sarcophagus could have belonged to any wealthy, high-status individual.
For Netzer, though, that apparent lack of a monument is easily explained. There is, in fact, a monument to Herod – and it’s the entire town of Herodium. From the palace to the theater and swimming pool, the complex stands as testament to his achievements. Or as the professor put it to National Geographic, the whole town simply says, “Behold me!”
Netzer added, “Like a pyramid, the entire mountain was turned into a monument.” Added to this is the fact that, at the time of Herod’s death, Jewish people often didn’t add inscriptions to their burial caskets. All in all, for the professor, the evidence points to one inevitable conclusion: that Herodium is a very special place indeed.
As Netzer told the Smithsonian magazine in 2009, “In my field, ancient archeology… once circumstances give me the opportunity to be quite certain, it’s not in my character to have further doubts.” No matter who the tomb once housed, the professor’s determination eventually unearthed precious evidence of an ancient way of life. And that, surely, is the mark of a true archeologist.