A Drop of History 68

April 1, 2009

The life and times of Herod
A tangled web of blood and incest

No matter how deep in the cellars of world history we delve, it is hard to find a reign of intrigue, slander, murder, and incest of all manners as absolute as that in the court of king Herod the Great of Judaea, that criminal mind whose rule saw the birth of Christ. What took place in his palace during the forty years of his reign is impossible to describe accurately, since the positions, names, incestuous combinations, crimes, accusations and counteraccusations involved were so numerous and so convoluted that they resemble, more than anything else, a tangled bloody web.

Herod took a total of ten wives. He exiled his first wife, Doris, together with their son, Antipatrus, to Rome when he fell in love and married the most important woman of his life, Mariamne. But Mariamne hated him, as did his mother-in-law, Alexandra. Those two women, mother and daughter, were constantly involved in intrigues and machinations, because, apart from all else, they belonged to the Hasmonean dynasty and considered Herod a usurper. They tried to persuade Herod to appoint his brother-in-law, Mariamne’s brother, Aristobulus, as religious leader, but Herod got tired of the pressure and had Aristobulus killed. Later, he also did away with an old Hasmonean leader, Hyrcanus, who had no ears because his nephew, Antigonus, had bitten them off. After that death, Mariamne and her mother rebelled, but Herod, enraged, killed both his wife (whom he loved madly) and his mother-in-law, and he was done with the conflict.

The apparent reason behind Mariamne’s execution was that she had an affair with Joseph, the husband of Herod’s sister, Salome. Herod killed Mariamne, Salome killed Joseph, and a few years later she remarried, to Costabarus – whom she murdered as well. This Salome, Herod’s sister, was not related to the other Salome, who performed the dance of the seven veils and had Herod promise her the head of John the Baptist. That second, and more famous, Salome was the daughter of Herodias, wife of Herod’s brother, who, after her husband’s death, consoled herself in her brother-in-law’s arms.

Herod might have killed Mariamne, but he loved her so much that he set her body in a clear casket filled with honey and kept it for seven years in his bedroom – where, of course, his other wives came and went all the while. His sister, Salome, hated the two sons that her brother had had with Mariamne before killing her. Despite that, she married her daughter, Berenice, to one of them, Aristobulus, although the couple were first cousins. After Mariamne’s death, the exiled first wife, Doris, and her son returned to the palace, which turned again into a witch’s cauldron, boiling, roiling, and threatening to overflow with hate, intrigue and scheming.

Herod’s sister soon informed him that a new conspiracy against him was being spun, with the participation of his brother, Pheroras, his wife and his mother-in-law, even Herod’s own sons. Which means that the sister snitched to her brother about her other brother and her nephews, one of whom was also her son-in-law, since he was married to her daughter. What a mess! Herod, enraged beyond reason, had them all strangled and moved on.

The news that he had strangled his own sons horrified even the uncouth Romans. It was then that emperor Augustus said the proverbial phrase: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son”. Herod, naturally, was nowise discouraged by such disapproval. While he lay gravely ill, he gathered dozens of eminent Jews in Jericho and ordered his sister to have them executed as soon as he died. The excuse was very simple: “Thus, the whole of Judaea, all clans, will they, nill they, will shed tears for me.” Salome, despite having killed not a few people herself, for once did not humour him; perhaps because the family had gone too far and had provoked the wrath of both the Romans and the Jewish populace.

The following example is quite telling: When Salome negotiated a third marriage (after having had her two previous husbands killed), empress Livia intervened and forbade her to remarry, reasoning simply that, although she did not know the prospective groom, she wanted to save him from certain death.

What a nice family to be related to…

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2007, All Rights Reserved

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