Herod stood in the presence of a living god. Though he was dressed modestly, in a typical Roman tunic, this god, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, radiated power. Certainly, Herod reflected, he held the power over Herod’s own life and death in his hands. By coming here, Herod had given it to him.
“Herod, old friend,” Caesar addressed him directly, his voice warm with welcome. “This is a pleasant surprise indeed. I had not expected to see you so soon, never mind at Rhodes.” He swept his arm across the vista behind him, inviting Herod to take in the view from his balcony. “A most magnificent city, is she not?”
Herod could not see how the sea glittered, a thousand gemstones in the sunlight, nor could he see the dozens of ships trading in the harbor. His eyes could not perceive the ancient buildings of Rhodes, their expert craftsmanship having weathered both time and disaster. He could not hear the bustle of the city below them, the haggling from the markets common to every city or the debating of the philosophers familiar only to the Rhodesians. Herod could perceive none of these; he could barely breathe, so tight was his chest as he stood before the First Citizen of Rome—First Citizen in all but title, now.
Still, he managed to answer the man who may soon kill him. “Rhodes is not Rome, Senator, but she is a marvelous city. She does her people proud.”
Caesar smiled. “Well spoken as always, my friend. Come. Recline with me. It has been far too long.”
Herod approached the table laid out before Caesar. A sumptuous array of roasted meats and cheeses, nuts, and fruit were arrayed on the table. As he reclined, a slave poured wine, then retreated.
Though propriety dictated he wait for his host to eat first, Herod raised his winecup as Caesar reclined opposite him. If Caesar were going to kill him, poison would be a merciful end indeed. He spoke, “To your victory in Actium and the continuing prosperity of Rome under your gentle guidance, Lord Caesar.” With that, Herod drank deeply.
Caesar smiled and Herod thought perhaps his eyes flashed with approval.
“Tell me, Herod,” Caesar’s tone remained friendly as he retrieved a leg of lamb. “Why have you come to Rhodes?”
“I wish to reaffirm my friendship with you, my Lord.”
Caesar smiled as he chewed a bite of the lamb. “Indeed? I am glad to hear my friendship is worthy of such a difficult voyage.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
“But tell me, Herod.” Though he still grinned, his countenance had become decidedly wolfish. “Is your friendship so worthy?”
Herod’s heart sank. He breathed deeply, careful to show nothing. “My Lord?”
“Were you not Antony’s friend? Did you not swear fealty to him, to the traitor to Rome, to the very man whose defeat you just toasted? Is this your friendship, Herod? Did you sail all this way to offer me fool’s gold?”
Herod forced himself to eat a grape, a handful of olives, bites of meat. He had expected Octavian to say nothing less.
“Of course I was friends with Mark Antony, my Lord. He fought beside my father. He aided me in defeating the Nabateans. Without his aid, it is doubtful I would rule Israel. And Israel might serve Parthia rather than Rome.” The mention of Parthia was a risk. Their name could awaken Caesar’s fearsome wrath. But when Caesar gave no response, seemingly as careless as a child, Herod pressed on.
“How could I not be loyal to him? Though he has lost his way, Antony was a fine man. He served Rome well for many years. I was proud to call him friend.”
“Did you sail here to praise my enemy in my own court, Herod?” Though his words were sharp, Caesar’s tone was flat, unreadable.
“Did my Lord himself not once call Antony a friend? Does that make my Lord a fool?” At this, Caesar arched an eyebrow. Herod pressed on. “No. The fool is he who would not have called the Mark Antony of yesterday a true Roman and true friend.
”The fool would be he who does not mourn what he has become in the company of that Egyptian woman.
“I toast to your victory, my Lord, because it is good for Rome, and what is good for Rome is good for Israel. But I will mourn the loss of my friend Mark Antony. Though he yet breathes, the man I knew is dead.”
Herod let a moment of silence pass. Then another. When Caesar seemed still content to watch, Herod spoke a final time. “I come to offer you the same friendship I gave to Mark Antony. The same loyalty. The same faithfulness.”
At this, Caesar threw down the apple he’d been holding and roared with mirth. “Herod, you are truly more cunning than Minerva herself. Come with me.”
Confused, Herod stood and followed Caesar to the balcony. Caesar put his hand on Herod’s shoulder and pointed to the harbor. “A pity we live too late to see the Colossus. They say he stood a hundred feet high, a true marvel. But do you know what fell him, my friend?”
Herod said only, “An earthquake, my Lord.”
“Yes, Herod. The earth shook and the Sun God fell from his perch and sank into the Sea. Two centuries later, we have only memories and tales.
”Rome has been shaken, Herod. Since my father was murdered, we have known no peace. For more than a decade now, the Roman people have been in turmoil. If peace is not achieved soon, the Sun God may topple yet again into the Sea.
Seeing the Bad Guy’s Point of View
“I will sail for Alexandria and I will make an end of the man we once called friend. I will bring peace once again to the Earth. And you, my friend, will return to Israel. You will give me peace in the East. Always, Parthia circles. They have grown bold while we have been . . . distracted. You will ensure the vultures have nothing on which they can feast.“
Caesar’s grip on Herod’s shoulder tightened and Herod fought not to wince.
“I will have peace, my friend. Woe to anyone who would stand against me.“
Herod swallowed thickly. “Yes, my Lord. Woe indeed to anyone who would invite your wrath upon them.”
Caesar dismissed him and Herod returned at once to his throne.
Herod’s close, public ties to Rome caused him no end of problems with the Jewish people, who already didn’t see Herod as a true Jew. Antipater was an Idumean, a tribe related to, but distinct from, Israel. In order to pacify the Jewish people—so that their discontent did not grow loud enough to draw Augustus’ attention—Herod did much to improve the reputation of Judea on the world stage. Most impressively, he undertook a massive renovation of the Second Temple around 20 BCE. This renovation was one of the largest construction projects in the world in the first century BCE. Herod more than doubled the size of the existing Temple Mount, and by the time it was finished, Herod’s Temple was one of the most beautiful temples in the world, rivaling the Temples in Rome.
On the other hand, Herod was also responsible for Caesarea Maritima. Israel had no port on the Mediterranean Sea, and Herod decided they needed one. His goal was to build a port to rival the port of Alexandria, at the time the second largest port in the world after Rome herself. Since the Jewish coastline had no natural breakwaters, Herod decided to build one. He chose a deserted stretch of land on the coast and, using bleeding-edge engineering technology, constructed artificial breakwaters. He filled giant wooden boxes with a volcanic ash that essentially turns into concrete on contact with water. Herod floated the boxes into position in the Mediterranean, filled them with ash and sank them, creating an artificial harbor. He built an ultra-modern city along the coast, complete with a Hippodrome for horseracing, a Greek-style theater and an enormous, beautiful palace. That stretch of land is dominated by a gently sloping hill that overlooks Herod’s new harbor; on top of it, Herod built a Roman temple dedicated to Augustus himself. And just in case there was any confusion over which person this city was built to honor, Herod named it Caesarea Maritima, or “Caesar by the Sea.”
In the meantime, Herod built palaces for himself all over Israel—in the Galilee, in Jericho, atop a mesa called the Masada that stands against the Dead Sea in the middle of the Judean desert. These palaces were more fortresses in truth, and reflected a paranoia that plagued Herod all his life. He executed his second wife, Mariamne, in 29 BCE. By the last decade of the first century BCE, Herod saw enemies everywhere. Between 7–4 BCE, when Herod died, he executed three of his eldest sons for plotting against him. He changed his will countless times, to the point that when three of his surviving sons arrived in Rome to dispute who should rightfully rule, Augustus simply issued a ruling rather than confirming any of Herod’s wills.
Cover image by Lydia Abigail.
Sign Up Today
You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.