Bible Archaeology

What Killed Herod the Great?

In the Montreal Gazette:

Jerusalem — If hockey is Canada’s national sport, archeology is Israel’s.  Wherever one walks, one treads on history; wherever one drives, one travels  through history. Whenever one talks — well, consider for example a recent phone  call I made to my daughter arranging to pick her up: “I’ll take the Valley of  the Cross (the reference is obvious), go up Gaza St. (the ancient route from  Jerusalem to the coast) and meet you just outside the Western Wall (the only  remainder of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple).” If I go hiking near our house, which  directly faces the Judean Hills (where John the Baptist hid out in his day),  each of my footsteps crunches on pottery shards strewn about rocky terraces  built more than 2,000 years ago by the Children of Israel (my forefathers).

When I learned a few years ago that the famous archeologist Ehud Netzer was  leading a tour of Herodium, the site where he had located the grave of Herod the  Great, I jumped at the chance. The outing was sponsored by a jewel of an  institution, the Bible Lands Museum (sponsored in large part by Canadian  philanthropy and itself worth a visit, either in person or via its website,

Herod the Great — as opposed to other Herods less grand — was a sort of  Jewish king who ruled Palestine under the umbrella of the Roman Empire from 37  BCE until his gruesome death (more on that later) in 4 CE. Among other things,  he was known for grandiose and extensive building; he made his kingdom a place  of wonder for, and even tourism from, the reaches of the Roman Empire. In  addition to Herodium, Herod erected magnificent buildings in Caesarea and  Masada, among others, and was responsible for renovating and refurbishing the  great temple in Jerusalem.

Herodium, a few kilometres southwest of Jerusalem, was one of the king’s  grandest building projects, serving as summer palace, monument and district  administrative capital. As our guide explained, “Think of Herodium’s  relationship to Jerusalem as Versailles’s to Paris.” As evidence of how  important it was to Herod, this complex was the only one of his many impressive  sites that he named after himself.

Above all, this was Herod’s self-chosen place of burial. Why there? As Prof.  Netzer recounted, at one point Herod, his family and his armed retainers had to  escape Jerusalem during a brief siege of the city by the Parthians, the Roman  enemy of the month. During this tactical retreat, Herod’s mother was almost  killed when her carriage crashed. But she survived, and Herod vowed he would  make the spot his place of burial. And so he did.

For the past 100 years, archeologists have worked at Herodium, but no one had  located Herod’s grave until just a few years ago, when Netzer, a trained  architect, experienced archeologist and professor at the Hebrew University of  Jerusalem, announced that he had discovered the mausoleum halfway up the slope  of the cone-shaped site. Why are most archeologists so certain that this was  indeed the site of the tomb and that Herod was actually buried there? Well, one  can read all about it from the pen of Flavius Josephus, a contemporary  historian.

The grand mausoleum is still being excavated and is not yet open to the  public — unless you happen to be accompanied by the archeologist who discovered  it. (Sadly, in 2010, a few months after our tour, Netzer died as a result of a  fall suffered at his beloved site.) As I took in the place, I couldn’t help but  wonder what illness Herod died from. In the case of most ancient personages, we  haven’t got a clue. But here, once again, Josephus steps into the breach.  Quoting more contemporary sources (Herod had died several decades before  Josephus wrote his own account), he describes the king’s symptoms:

“He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the  whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumours of the feet as in  dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen and gangrene of the privy parts.” He also  suffered, according to Josephus, from “limb convulsions, asthma and foul  breath.”

The doctors of the day were, not surprisingly, flummoxed by this combination  of symptoms. They used the contemporary therapeutic armamentarium, including  immersing the patient in a bath of hot oil. But Herod received no relief, and  the bath burned his eyes.

The clinically curious of today can turn to the more modern Historical  Clinicopathological Conference put on by the University of Maryland, which  brings experts together periodically to examine the death of a famous personage,  and which recently tackled Herod’s case. The combination of symptoms was a  challenging one, especially the presence of gangrene of the genitalia — something one does not see every day. The scientists used a clever bit of  clinical reasoning and came to a tentative conclusion: chronic kidney failure of  unknown cause complicated by the rare (thank God) Fournier’s gangrene of the  testicles. There are other candidates, of course, such as syphilis or other  sexually transmitted diseases, but the kidney diagnosis seemed to fit the  symptoms best.

Unfortunately for us and for medical history, Prof. Netzer found no human  remains in the mausoleum, probably because it had been ransacked by Jewish  rebels during the revolt against the Romans about 70 years after Herod died. So  we’ll never know the true cause of his death — but the speculation is  fascinating.


2 thoughts on “What Killed Herod the Great?

  1. Interesting but ugh, I don’t like people using “BCE” and “CE”.. What is a “common era”? It means nothing, as even if the Christian calendar is widely used, there are many others, so it is not “common” at all. It’s just that they don’t even want to say or write “Christ”.

    + PAX et BONUM

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