History of King Herod: Why was he called Great?

When the wise men asked Herod the King "Where is he who is born king of the Jews?" their question was not really spoken in a vacuum, for even the Roman author Suetonius wrote, "There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world". But as wise as they were, their inquiry before the King showed no great tact. For instead of understanding the question to mean "Where is he who will someday succeed you?" Herod’s suspicious mind warped the query into "Where is the REAL king, you impostor?" At the time Herod mistrusted everyone and thought himself surrounded by young aspirants all plotting to seize his throne.

Rather than clap the Magi in irons for asking such a question, his native shrewdness tried to ferret out whatever information he could from them in order to kill off a possible rival. From the information he had gained about the date of the appearance of the star, and from the Old Testament prophesies his own scholars knew of, Herod concluded that the “king of the Jews” was about 2 years old and living in Bethlehem. By the way, since Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was around 2, we might surmise that Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C. Furthermore, the wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, contrary to the Hallmark Christmas cards, but some time later, perhaps as much as 2 years later, when he was living in a house (Matthew 2:11.)
The young Herod had been an exceptionally able ruler, governing Palestine as client-king on behalf of the Roman emperor Augustus. The House of Herod had the uncanny knack of being able to sniff the airs of Mediterranean politics and make the right choices. Herod’s father had given crucial help to Julius Caesar when he was down in Egypt, cut off from his supplies, and Caesar rewarded him handsomely for that. Herod himself shrewdly advised his friend Mark Antony to drop Cleopatra and make peace with Rome — advice he should have followed. And once Augustus emerged victorious from the civil wars, he was so impressed with young Herod that he allowed him to become one of his most trusted friends.


  1. […] conquered Palestine and it was at this time a “client kingdom” ruled by a local king, Herod the Great, who was directly responsible to the Roman emperor. Augustus himself, grand nephew and adopted heir […]

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    […] of St. Stephen. December 28 is the Feast of The Holy Innocents, referring to those babies killed by King Herod the Great in […]

  3. […] Antipas was the son of Herod the Great (whom we met in the Christmas story) and Malthake. After his father’s death in 4 B.C. he was […]

  4. History of the Marathon | Bill Petro on April 19, 2010 at 1:03 am

    […] feature in the ancient Olympics and even the Apostle Paul seems to have been aware of it — King Herod the Great sponsored the Olympic games of 12 B.C. — and St. Paul was perhaps alluding to the Olympics […]

  5. […] the gospel of Matthew nor Luke mention either a specific year, nor time of year. Matthew ties it to King Herod, who we know died in 4 B.C., while Luke associates it with the census of Emperor Augustus when […]

  6. […] obvious that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1 , right? Wrong. What we do know is that Herod the Great (who killed all the babies in Bethlehem younger than 2 years of age) died in the Spring of 4 B.C. […]

  7. Very smoothly put. Still wondering though about his title ‘The Great’ because I’m wondering why did Josephus Flavius give him that title. Surely he didn’t because of the contempt on his part for him (as with Herod’s own contemporary subjects), and surely the Romans didn’t because (Not even Caesar or Augustus were worthy to bear the title of Alexander III of Macedon). So the question remains who on earth is responsible for his title? My suspicion lies with those who must have lived in his court that knew how to play with flattery to their own interest must have been the ones bestowing it. What do you think?

    • One cannot compare “the Great” in Herod’s name in an absolute sense to Alexander or other world rulers, any more than saying that Pliny the Younger was the youngest of all possible Plinys. Herod the Great lived in a very small corner of the world. But he was a great builder, especially in his younger years. He built the fabulous Temple in Jerusalem, rivaling Solomon’s. He rebuilt old cities, built new ones, created a large artificial harbor, hippodromes, pagan temples, settlements, fortresses, a fabulous palace and the Antonia Fortress. Parts of these are still visible today. I visited a few in Jerusalem years ago.


      • So from your response it sounds like you think that the Romans / Jews / were the ones who accorded him that title contemporaneously primarily because of his building feats? Without comparing him to Alexander? I’m not quite sure who you think gave it to him, but it does seem you think he is deserving of it.

        • Oh heavens no! Alexander and Herod were separated by 300 years and that each was called “the Great” by entirely different audiences for completely different reasons. Don’t assume that since I recount the title that I agree with it. Antiochus IV Epiphanies sacked Jerusalem, forbid observance of the Sabbath or circumcision, desecrated the Temple by dedicating it to Zeus and there sacrificed a pig. Epiphanies means “god manifest.”


    • I think it was because the Roman General Pompey had used the term ‘Pompey the Great” who conquered Palestine in 63 BC, and we know Herod loved to cuddle up and imitate the powers of the time which was Rome.

      • Patrick,

        Interesting observation. Herod would have been about 10 when Pompey conquered Palestine. Certainly they would have gotten the appellation “Magnus” for different reasons. I’m also thinking of Alexander and even Louis XIV of France, but Louis seems to have only been called that during his lifetime.


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