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Herod's crime — or mere legend? "The Massacre Of The Innocents", 1611-12, by Peter Paul Rubens

The True Herod is the last book by Geza Vermes, who died in May last year. Among his best-known publications are The Dead Sea Scrolls in English and Jesus the Jew. In these and other writings he showed himself to be a meticulously scrupulous historian with a deeply-felt concern — and talent — for sharing his discoveries with a wider public.

Knowing that this book was to be his last, he poured into it the accumulated research of decades, but at the same time fashioned it into an elegant and entertaining account of the life and times of one of the most fascinating and maligned figures in Jewish history. I myself recall vividly the lectures he gave in his first year of teaching at Oxford in the mid-Sixties. Those lectures already contained a well-developed version of the story told nearly half a century later in The True Herod.

If Herod the Great had not existed it would be impossible to invent him. He was a larger-than-life figure, who led a truly extraordinary life, and rose to almost unrivalled power in the Near East during the last years of the Roman republic and the transition to empire. Vermes quotes Ernst Baltrusch, whose excellent biography of Herod was published in German in 2012, as stressing "Herod's outstanding position on the world scene. He was literally the ‘Third Man' in the Roman empire, standing immediately after Augustus and his greatest friend, Agrippa."

Herod has not enjoyed a good press. The image he has left behind for many is that of the cruel and wily king in Matthew's Gospel, who massacred the infants of Bethlehem for fear that one of them would grow up to usurp his throne. Among his many authentic acts of savagery this one, Vermes insists, is fiction: the legend was probably based on the account of the birth of Moses in the biblical book of Exodus, when the wicked king of Egypt ordered all the Israelite male infants to be killed. But it may also have been influenced by his murder of several of his own sons, giving rise to the dictum (a Greek pun) attributed to the emperor Augustus, that he would rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son.

In the judgment of the great historian of Rome Theodor Mommsen, "There is probably no royal house of any age in which bloody feuds raged in an equal degree between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and between brothers and sisters." Yet Mommsen also salutes "the energy, the constancy, the yielding to the inevitable, the military and political dexterity" of the king of the Jews, and he acutely remarks that Herod may himself have endured no less suffering than he inflicted on others. The ancient historian of the Jews, Josephus, who was fascinated by Herod to the point of devoting to him a large part of his two main works, The Jewish War and The Jewish Antiquities, is no less nuanced in his judgment, describing in relentless detail his violent excesses, but also writing admiringly of his great political and military skill, and his magnificent building works.

Geza Vermes, too, admits to being fascinated by Herod, whom he sums up epigrammatically as "heroic and horrible". His book presents a rounded pen-portrait of a man who was gifted with many talents, who rose to great heights of power and influence, but found no satisfaction or happiness, and destroyed much of what he had made. "He was a typical split personality and his two opposite qualities turned him into a genuine tragic hero."

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