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Right. I know it’s barely September, but it’s back to school – and I’m steadily unwrapping the history of Christmas betwixt now and, well, probably Christmas. So no time like the present. (Speaking of presents, imagine the joy of giving a loved one Hark! The Biography of Christmas as a gift, And buying a copy for yourself… Alright, I’m pushing it. But that’s my job. To push it. Now, to Herod’s job…)

We’ve got a long way to go till Christmas, so we won’t get too festive just yet – and we’ll start with one of the kickstarters of Christmas: King Herod. You know the fella. The snarly one in the Nativity story. Maybe you even played him in a school play, if you were effectively the school bully at the time, or looked like one.

As he’s top brass, he’s one of the few Nativity elements that can be verifiably checked against the secular history books. He was one of Rome’s ‘client kings’, delegated to rule on Rome’s behalf, since the republic had become so vast and unruly. Well not that unruly. Because Herod ruled it.

So what do the history books tell us of the “great” ruler (he named himself Herod the Great, but I ain’t buying that descriptive term)? Firstly, and perhaps crucially, he was raised Jewish – not common for Roman rulers. It meant that Rome decreed him “King of the Jews” in 40 BC. And no one was going to take that title away from him – especially not a baby. Even without his role in the Nativity story, he was known as a fierce tyrant, whose answer to everything was pretty much “Just kill them.”

  • SECRET OF SUCCESS… Herod prospered thanks to fierce ambition, ruthless tyranny, and his swift and fickle change of allegiance to whoever was Rome’s winning side.
  • MARRY ME, MARIAMNE… Herod had ten wives (not all at the same time), including a Cleopatra and two Mariamnes. His first wife had the earthier name of Doris.
  • BIG SPENDER… Herod was noted for rash spending, trying to win favour by ordering huge building projects, from harbours to fortresses to the Second Temple. The locals didn’t buy it though, largely because he was also busy…
  • KILLING PEOPLE… The execution of all Bethlehem boys under two, known as ‘the Massacre of the Innocents’, is in the Scriptures but not the history books of the day. It’s entirely likely though, in keeping with a tyrant who killed anyone in his way, including three of his own sons. He drowned his teenage brother-in-law at a party, and once made his mother-in-law testify against his wife, her daughter – before killing them both.
  • THE INNOCENTS… The massacre has been estimated at no more than twenty boys, since the order was gender-, age-, and location-specific; Bethlehem was little more than a village. It’s still awful, mind you.
  • SAFETY IN NUMBERS… If you ever wondered why no one killed him off, Herod had 2,000 bodyguards.
  • MISS ME?… The threat didn’t vanish when he died. Herod was gravely paranoid, and feared that he wouldn’t be mourned. So he ordered the mass executions of various distinguished and well-liked citizens, to take place between his death and funeral. That way his people would have something to cry about. Thankfully his next of kin chose not to carry out this wish. Herod died of kidney disease and gangrene – reportedly an excruciating exit.

So there you have it. All the stuff they leave out of the school nativity. Maybe one year they’ll do a Herod origin story – with a parental warning, I imagine…

Hark! The Biography of Christmas is published by Lion Hudson and priced £7.99, out Sept 15th 2017.