King Herod's Tomb

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy.

Katie: And Sara read a really cool article that got us thinking about King Herod of all people.

Sara: I did. A few months back, National Geographic had a really neat article about King Herod's tomb, and then recently Smithsonian just put out one, and I got to thinking, we need to talk about this.

Katie: Historical celebrity. So most of us know King Herod from his biblical reputation, which is about the massacre of the innocents, where in preparation for the birth of the messiah, he had all of the male infants in Bethlehem killed.

Sara: But it's kind of unlikely that this actually happened. The only recorded instance of it is in the gospel of Matthew, so biblical scholars debate whether this really went down.

Katie: But even if he didn't kill all the babies of Bethlehem, he definitely killed plenty of people on his own time.

Sara: Including his own children.

Katie: And his favorite wife.

Sara: And mother-in-law, nobles. Really, anybody who got on his bad side!

Katie: Or anybody he thought might usurp his place on the throne, like his wife's brothers. But with a huge family - ten wives and more than a dozen kids - he had plenty to be paranoid about. And he was also living in a time of a lot of conflict and strike. So let's go back to the beginnings of Herod. He was born in 73 B.C. and grew up in Judea, in Palestine, which was a time of civil war and plenty of enemies. The monarchy of Judea, the Hasmonean monarchy, was split between two fighting brothers over who would take the throne. And the Romans and the Partheons on either side of the kingdom were fighting over Judea as well. Herod's father was an advisor to one of the brothers who wanted the kingship, and he was also a general, and decided to side with the Romans, which is a thread that will keep coming up in Herod's life.

Sara: Herod sticks with the Romans for the long haul, definitely.

Katie: Which made a lot of people feel that he was a traitor to the Jewish people/. But we'll get into that a little bit later. His mother was an Arab, and his father was an Edomite, so he was what they called a half Jew and a bit of an outsider, even though he was raised Jewish. And in 43 B.C., his father was poisoned, and the Partheons invaded Judea. And considering that Herod's family was on the Roman's side, this didn't go well for them. The Partheons mutilated and killed the king, and they came after Herod, who left Jerusalem with his family and went to Rome for help. But at the site that would later become Herodium, he defeated the Partheons and went to Rome where the senate named him the Judean king. And if you can picture this, picture him walking out of the senate with Mark Antony on one side and Octavian on the other.

Sara: That's a celebrity crowd there isn't it?

Katie: The paparazzi missed that one. And he proceeded to make a sacrifice at the temple of Job, which of course was a pagan thing to do, and as a Jew, a bit scandalous. He had the kingship, but he had to fight for years to actually get control of his kingdom, and he finally captured Jerusalem in 37 B.C., divorced his wife, and married a Hasminian princess, hoping that he would get in better with the people. And then he had a brother drowned, so that probably didn't go over so great.

Sara: Another famous monarch living in this time, Cleopatra, is also involved with Herod. She tries to get bits of his kingdom from Mark Antony, who gives them to her because they're in a relationship, and she also tries to seduce Herod, which really fuels Cleopatra's reputation, doesn't it?

Katie: and it didn't work. He said no. But in 31 B.C. at the battle of Actium, Octavian crushes Mark Antony and Cleopatra's armies. And this isn't looking great for Herod because he's Mark Antony's good buddy, so he runs off to Rhodes to see Octavian and to pledge his allegiance. He goes without his crown. And Octavian not only confirmed him king, but gave him even more land. And this is when the good stuff starts. Despite his reputation, Herod was actually a pretty great ruler, and two decades of prosperity and peace follow his kingship. He gets very cultural and invites poets and artists and architects -

Sara: Leads a lot of time for building, doesn't it?

Katie: Which he really, really loves? He builds a deep water harbor on the north coast of Judea, and also the northern palace at Masada, which goes down a cliff face on terraces, and rebuilds the Second Temple. But that's not the only thing he builds.

Sara: He also builds a huge fortress and pleasure palace at Herodium. It's basically on top of this volcano type mountain. It's not really a volcano, but it looks like one. It's a steep mountain with a flat top. And at the bottom of it is the pleasure palace sort of area, the lower Herodium. It fills 40 acres. It has homes and gardens and stables, and this huge pool that's about as big as a soccer field that even has an island in the middle. It's all very luxurious.

Katie: And upper Herodium at the top used to have a five story tower, and that was the palace and fortress.

Sara: But Herodium is located pretty far outside of Jerusalem, and Herod actually moves his whole operation there, his whole city. It takes about three or four hours on horseback to get there, so this is an inconvenient location.

Katie: An odd spot to Jews.

Sara: Did it remind you of Versailles at all?

Katie: A little bit.

Sara: Locating your capital to this sort of out of the way place and surrounding yourself with loyal families?

Katie: Building the ideal city. I mean, as far as urban planning goes, Herodium was very well set out.

Sara: Yeah, it has this royal theater with beautiful stucco landscapes done.

Katie: It's very symmetrical. There's clearly some sort of master plan that put everything together. It wasn't just built willy nilly.

Sara: Yeah. So despite Herodium looking like it's a pretty nice place, it's surrounded by desert, and it is out of the way, like we said. So why would Herod build his fortress and his palace in the middle of nowhere?

Katie: This is the good part of the story.

Sara: Yeah. So it turns out that it wasn't anything about strategy. It wasn't just a good location to build a fortress; it was all personal with Herod. When he had been governor of Galilee and the Partheons invaded, he got out because of the new king being named.

Katie: Right, and tried to flee to Rome.

Sara: And he had declared his allegiance and everything, and he fled with 5,000 of his people. And during this escape, his mother's wagon flips over, and Herod thinks she's dead. He's about to commit suicide when he realizes that she's actually okay. And later, he returns to the site and fights, like Katie talked about earlier, and he makes a promise that he'll be buried there as a tribute, both to his victory and to his mother's survival.

Katie: So if he says that he'll be buried there, where exactly is his tomb? Because we've talked about Herodium, but we haven't actually talked about Herod's Tomb!

Sara: And Herodium, people have actually known about it for awhile. Obviously it sort of faded off the map sometime after Herod's death. This is his spot, after all. But it was positively identified in 1838 by an American scholar, Edward Robins on, who compared it to a Greco-Roman historian's accounts and identified it as the historic site. But people still didn't know where the tomb was. And it has kind of become this biblical quest for archeologists to positively id Herod's tomb.

Katie: But we didn't find it until April of 2007 when Ehud Netzer, an archeologist, said that after 35 years of archeological work, he had positively found the tomb. Was absolutely sure that he found it!

Sara: And lots of folks had been looking for this tomb. The 1860s a French explorer was focusing on that island in the middle of the pool. He thought that would be the place that Herod was resting. Another archeologist checked out the summit of Herodium, and later Lambert Dolphin, which I thought Katie might like -

Katie: Not related.

Sara: Who was from Silicon Valley, thought that the tomb must be located at the base of the highest tower on the mountain top. But Netzer wasn't swayed by any of these previous expeditions.

Katie: And he wasn't looking for Herod's tomb when he even started excavating different locations, but at some point, it turned into an obsession, and in 2006, he saw an irregularity in a wall and decided that, again, since everything looked so planned out, if something was irregular, that must mean something bigger, and decided that's where they should look.

Sara: And he had already thoroughly covered the lower complex, he was pretty sure the tomb was not there. He had looked everywhere it could be.

Katie: So in 2007, they found fragments of hard pink limestone with rosettes on it, and thought there's a good chance that might be his sarcophagus. And then later in April, they found giant blocks of white limestone, which would have been part of a structure that was 80 feet high and according to the National Geographic article, there was a cube shaped first floor, a cylindrical second floor, and a high peaked roof. And they also found two other sarcophagi that weren't quite as nice, along with some human bones.

Sara: So Netzer suspects Herod probably changed his mind about the burial spot. This halfway up the mountain location is kind of surprising. It is the last place everyone looked, obviously. But there's still a little question about whether this is for sure Herod's tomb. It's definitely a royal person's tomb, but there's no inscription.

Katie: Which is the kind of positive identification you really want. But part of the problem with that was that the sarcophagi had been destroyed about 70 years after Herod's death, during one of the Jewish revolts against the Romans. And it's clearly been smashed to pieces with hammers. So even if there had been some sort of identification, it may have been purposely destroyed.

Sara: So while Herod was obviously unpopular enough to get his tomb smashed 70 or so years after he died, he wasn't super well liked even immediately after he died. Part of that comes from his great deathbed idea to imprison a lot of the local notables, Jewish notables, and ordering them to be killed after he died.

Katie: Because that way everyone would be even sadder that he was dead, because not only had you lost your king, you lost all your notable Judean citizens.

Sara: But obviously Herod dies, and these guys are let go, and everybody celebrates, because hey, all of our notable citizens are alive.

Katie: And they were none too impressed with their king at that point. Although we've talked about Herod's tomb, we haven't talked about his actual death, and it's a bit grisly.

Sara: He has a pretty remarkable, if disgusting, death. I love these modern day diagnostics.

Katie: I know, me too.

Sara: Like what happened recently with Mozart.

Katie: Mozart and streptococcus.

Sara: Just where modern doctors go back and look at the case hist ory of some famous, long dead patient, and try to diagnose how they died. And this happened a few years ago. A doctor Jan Hershman made a diagnosis based on the biography of Herod, by Flavius Josephus, which was itself based on account of Herod's court historian. And Josephus had written that Herod had "a fever, but not a raging one. And intolerable itching of the whole skin! Continuous pains in the intestines. Tumors of the feet! Inflammation of the abdomen, and gangrene of the privy parts." Also, he has asthma, limb convulsions, and bad breath.

Katie: I saw the bad breath thing too. Putrefied and worm eaten genitals, along with a ravenous appetite and an ulcerated colon.

Sara: So some people have thought that Herod died of gonorrhea.

Katie: Or syphilis.

Sara: Or syphilis. But Hershman figured that all the symptoms, except for the genital gangrene, signified chronic kidney disease, figured that the gangrene was actually caused by a rare infection called Fournier's gangrene.

Katie: But some people have said that these may all have been a figment of his biographer's imagination, because again, Herod wasn't so popular at that particular time. He was called Herod the Great a bit sarcastically. So he may have just listed all of the things that could happen to you if you had incurred the wrath of God, which they assumed that Herod had. He was looked at as the Antichrist during the middle ages. So you might not put it past a biographer, after the fact, to make his death as disgusting as possible.

Sara: Yeah, if you really didn't like somebody, these are the symptoms I think you would probably give them.

Katie: Worm eaten genitals, remember that one.

Sara: But regardless of how it went down, Herod died in Jericho, which was his winter palace, and his people carried him 25 miles on a golden bier. His family, army in full battle gear, five hundred servants and free slaves, all just walking to Herodium! The place he promised to be buried.

Katie: He had gemstones and purple drapes and his crown and scepter, so he was still shown a royal dignity in death. Again, even if he wasn't he favorite! And after he died, everything in Judea just completely fell apart. His fortune was spent by his family, harmony was destroyed. Things started to get into conflict again, and Herod's son was so bad at ruling that the Romans finally put someone else in there to rule, which just intensified the conflict between the Jews and the Romans. So the Jews first revolted in the 60s A.D. and vandalized Herod's tomb, changed his dining room into a synagogue, dug mikvehs in the courtyard, and they lost and at Masada, it said they killed themselves to avoid becoming Roman slaves. In the second revolt was in the 130s, where they again used Herodium and Masada as fortresses and dug tunnels into the hills at Herodium, which you can still see today.

Sara: So if you'd like to learn more about Jerusalem, Jerusalem syndrome, archeology, and the battle of Actium, you can go to our home page at and type it into the search bar. And also take a look at our blog.

Katie: And if you have any comments or questions, send us an email at For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.