King on a Shrink's Couch

A critical and updated account of all we know about the historical, medical and psychiatric background of Herod the Great, from childhood to death.

"King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor: A Case Study in Psychohistory and Psychobiography" by Aryeh Kasher, in collaboration with Eliezer Witztum (translated from the Hebrew by Karen Gold), Walter de Gruyter, 514 pages, $193

Now that the world has heard about the discovery of Herod's tomb at Herodium, it also has an extraordinary book about him to read. Authors Prof. Aryeh Kasher, a historian from Tel Aviv University, and Prof. Eliezer Witztum, a psychiatrist from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, have produced a carefully researched and up-to-date historical and psychological analysis of Herod - a man of many exploits but also a raving lunatic. A meaningful analysis of the psyche of a historical character is not always possible, but thanks to the Roman Jewish historian Josephus (one of whose sources was Nicholas of Damascus, who tutored Herod's sons and served as his adviser), we have an abundance of details that seem to be reliable.

Many modern historians refer to the king in question as "Herod the Great." This is a way to distinguish him from the other Herods (among them, his sons), acknowledge his lengthy reign (34 years), and above all, to recognize his astonishing building legacy.

Herod was not only the greatest builder in the history of Eretz Israel, but one of the greatest builders in human history. He holds at least three architectural world records: largest palace (Lower Herodium), largest plaza (Temple Mount) and largest royal portico (Temple Mount). His palaces in Jericho and Caesarea, and his fortresses on Masada, Herodium and Machaerus, were only a fraction of his architectural endeavors. The port he built in Caesarea was one of the most sophisticated in the ancient world. His masterpiece, of course, was the Temple, possibly followed by the splendid edifice he built over the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

To list all the construction projects of Herod would require more than the few column inches allotted here. Ehud Netzer, who has devoted his life to studying Herodian architecture, counts 13 ambitious projects that Herod, hungry for international fame, financed outside his kingdom, from Damascus and Beirut to the island of Rhodes.

Herod was shrewd and clever, but also a cruel tyrant with no moral compunctions to speak of. His success depended largely on the support of the emperor, Augustus, who valued Herod's unwavering loyalty with good reason (although he reportedly said it was "better to be Herod's pig than his son"). That peace reigned in his day was also a major factor. Apart from two insignificant wars against the Nabateans, Herod was not troubled by warfare. This was clearly thanks to the tough policies of Rome, which kept its subjects in check.

"King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor" offers a precise, critical and updated account of all we know about Herod from childhood to death. He was born in 72 or 73 B.C.E., in Maresha, Idumaea (not to be confused with Edom, east of the Arava), a district that mostly lay west of Mount Hebron. This area was conquered by the Hasmonean leader Yochanan Hyrcanus I, who apparently forced its inhabitants to convert to Judaism (although Prof. Kasher belongs to the school that avoids ascribing any unpleasant acts to the Hasmoneans). Circumcising the men was no simple matter, as the circumcision implements were crude and antibiotics had not been invented yet.

This brutal conversion took place over 50 years before Herod was born, but there is no question that it left deep-seated resentment.

About Herod's childhood and early manhood we know very little, apart from an anecdote told by Josephus: Walking to his teacher's house, Herod met Menachem (Manaemus) the Essene, who told people's fortunes, and Menachem called him the "king of the Jews." Herod corrected him, saying he was just a private citizen. Menachem smiled and slapped him on the backside, and said he would be king someday. Later, when he did become king, Herod summoned Menachem and inquired how long he would remain on the throne. Menachem said nothing. Ten years? he asked. "More than 20 and more than 30," Menachem replied, leaving the exact figure open. From that day on, Herod treated the Essenes with great respect.

Governor at 25

Herod's grandfather and father also held high positions in the Hasmonean kingdom. By the time he was 25, he was appointed governor of the Galilee and ordered the suppression of the rebellion led by Hezekiah the Galilean. Herod did the job with the excessive brutality that characterized him his whole life. Summoned by the Sanhedrin for killing innocents, he arrived in the company of an armed band and put on a show of bullying and bravado. When he realized the court might find him guilty, he fled, and offered his services to the Roman governor of Syria. One day, he would settle the score with this respected court.

This was a watershed moment in the relationship between the Jews and Herod. Nothing he did could make things better or diminish their hatred of him. On the contrary: Whatever he did only made things worse. Proof of how despised the king was can be learned from the orders he gave his sister Salome and her husband, on his deathbed: He told them to assemble a large crowd of notables representing every town in Judea and to have his soldiers massacre them all, so that the day he died would be one of mourning rather than rejoicing. Salome was smart enough not to put this plan into action, but an uprising broke out, nonetheless, which the Romans harshly suppressed.

In 40 B.C.E., the Parthians conquered Judea, and Herod, with an entourage that included family members, managed to escape Jerusalem under cover of darkness. Near the site of what was later called Herodium, his mother's chariot overturned and Herod, believing she had been seriously injured, was beside himself with grief. If not for the intervention of those around him, he would have committed suicide. It was a sign of the mental instability that was to become a full-blown psychological illness later on.

That Herod was mentally ill has long been recognized by historians, but no one has ever made an exact diagnosis. A king who murders three of his sons, his beloved Hasmonean wife, Mariamne (whose death sent him into a deep depression), and countless other members of his close circle, is obviously not in his right mind. It reminds me of a story I heard many years ago: Walking down the street, the archaeologist Pesach Bar-Adon bumped into a colleague, the historian Prof. Abraham Schalit. Schalit told him he had just come from Prof. Lipman Heilprin, a famous psychiatrist, who said something about a clear case of paranoia. Bar-Adon, assuming that Schalit was talking about a family member, tried to console him. There are all kinds of therapies and medications today, he said. But Schalit was talking about Herod.

Extreme mood swings

The book carefully follows the king's history and his emotional problems. The last chapter briefly sums it all up, year by year. Lazy readers can use this as a crutch, but for those who are interested, the book provides a real medical record. In the same way that doctors have concluded that Herod's physical ailments (an arterial blockage that affected his heart and kidneys, leading to renal insufficiency; intense itching; and shortness of breath; and finally an infection of the penis), psychiatrists have been able to trace the stages of his mental decline.

Herod grew up with a vague sense of self. As a child and an adolescent he lived in an Idumaean- Hellenist environment in Maresha, and possibly Ashkelon, never meeting a Jew. In practice, he was "half-Jew" and "half-Idumaean/Nabatean." Aside from an unformed personality, he had an inferiority complex about his ancestry and his looks (his brother-in-law and sons were taller and better looking than him, as Josephus makes very clear).

From adolescence Herod showed signs of paranoia, exhibited in pathological suspiciousness. He trusted no one (apart from his quarrelsome sister) and had delusions that people were plotting against him. He suffered from extreme mood swings that became progressively worse over the years. His paranoia increased, too: Not only did he execute his bodyguards, servants and courtiers, but also his three sons (the last one five days before his own death), his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law and his adored wife. Some of his victims were cruelly tortured before their deaths, testifying to sadistic tendencies. No wonder the people, and presumably many of his close associates, feared and hated him.

Fifty years ago, Schalit published "Hordus hamelekh - ha'ish" (translated into German as "Koenig Herodes"). Readers have the right to ask if there is any justification for a new book. The answer is a resounding yes: Kasher and Witztum break new ground with psychohistorical and psychobiographical analyses that explain many of Herod's actions. Moreover, over the past 50 years our knowledge has been enriched by close examination of the writings of Josephus and many archaeological findings. During this time, large-scale digs were carried out all over the country, from Masada and the Banias to Jericho and Caesarea, which have added greatly to our understanding.

The book is also commendable in that it does not judge Herod, as so many earlier historians have. That is left up to the readers. Nearly everyone who has written about Herod has denounced him as a vile creature in no uncertain terms. The only scholar who ever spoke in his favor was a German by the name of Hugo Willrich, who defended Herod and complained that the Jewish people refused to be "reformed" by him - clearly an anti-Semitic stance.

Schalit also devotes the last 20 pages of his book to a sensitive analysis of Herod's deeds, even the most horrific, and argues that the king's bad name was a product of his failure to understand the Pharisees and vice versa. Schalit, a man of the right, was able to find something to admire in Herod, despite his tyranny, because of the enormity of what he did for the Jews.

Kasher and Witztum's book is a fine historical study and an excellent biography of one of the most important figures in the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

The author, an archaeologist and historian, is former curator of the Shrine of the Book, at the Israel Museum.