Despised by the Jewish people, King Herod was a celebrated ruler to the Romans.
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King Herod the Great is remembered every year during the celebration of the Nativity as a great villain of the Jewish people. The Bible portrays a wicked king, who was willing to kill the first-born male of every Jewish family in order to protect his reign, but there were other places in his kingdom where Herod was a celebrated monarch.
In a recently published article, “Searching for Portraits of King Herod,” from the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ralf Krumeich and Achim Lichtenberger examine Herod’s reign based on the discovery of a limestone base of what was once a statue of the infamous Roman client king. While the statue no longer remains on the base, the block of limestone retains the footprints where the ruler’s image once stood.
From the footprints we can tell that the statue would have stood between five and seven feet tall, but unfortunately this is all we can glean about his appearance from this archaeological find. However, this small block of limestone with two little divots can teach us a lot about Herod’s political savvy.
Bible History Daily explains that, in Judea, there were no artistic representations of rulers presented to the public. This was because the Jewish people had a religious prohibition against images of living creatures, which came from Exodus 20:4:
You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth
The Jewish people were very serious about this prohibition, and in order to ensure there would be no uprisings against him, King Herod presented no images of his likeness to them. This means there were no statues of Herod in Judea, nor did the king engrave his portrait on his currency, which was his right as the ruler of the region and the custom of the time.
In other areas of the ancient Roman world we see a very different representation of King Herod the Great. Krumeich and Lichtenberger have identified no less than five such limestone bases where bronze statues of Herod once stood. These statues come from cities of which Herod was the benefactor: Athens, Kos (Greece), and Sia (Syria). Each of these bases still hold inscriptions that praise Herod as a benevolent ruler.
Meanwhile, in the Jewish tradition, there remains no reference to Herod in a positive light. In a passage from the book of Jewish Antiquities (17:6), Josephus explains that Herod once had his own wife and several of his sons put to death in order to maintain his own power. Here we find that Herod also had plans to have a group of notable Jewish leaders killed upon his own death.
These stone bases may not show what Herod looked like, but they give us a glimpse into his method of ruling. He was a shrewd king who was willing to do just about anything to stay in power, but clever enough to appease both the Romans and the Jews in a time when most Roman officials cared little for cultures other than their own.