The exhibition currently on show at the Israel Museum reveals just a tiny fraction of the grandeur and ambition of King Herod, the Idumaean who once ruled Judea, with some help from his Roman patrons, and was known mainly for his grandiose building projects throughout the region, most notably the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and his murderous cruelty to all and sundry, including his own family. He could be said to have suffered from a diabolical combination of an edifice complex and paranoia. But that was pretty much par for the course at the time, those were murderous times, and as is well known by now, only the paranoid survive.
The Israel Museum has chosen to concentrate on Herod’s final years, paying special attention to the arrangements associated with the journey taken by the funeral cortege from his palace in Jericho to the tomb he had constructed to serve as his final resting place on the Judean hillside known as Herodium. The Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer, who spent almost twenty years excavating the site, despite the criticism and scepticism of his colleagues, was triumphant when he finally found the remains of the structure that appeared to be the actual tomb, a towering monument to Herod’s desire to commemorate himself in stone. By a terrible irony of fate, however, Netzer fell to his death at the site soon after making his memorable discovery. That tomb has now been partially reconstructed in the Museum’s exhibition gallery.
The exhibition includes many items of archaeological interest taken from Herod’s various palaces, which have been found at Massada, Jericho, Caesarea and elsewhere, illustrating the sophistication and lavishness of the way of life of the ruling class more than two thousand years ago. The influence of Rome apparently dominated their lifestyle, with their eating and drinking habits being indicated by the objects excavated at the site, as well as their taste in interior decoration. The heavy stones which were brought to the museum made it necessary to reinforce the floor of the exhibition gallery.
Huge photographs of the backdrop provided by the barren Judean hills confront visitors to the exhibition as they enter the exhibition, and the well-lit display cases give one a clear idea of the kind of vessels in which food and wine were stored and from which they were eaten and drunk.
By coincidence, I had just been reading John Williams’ thoroughly-researched book ‘Augustus,’ which gives a vivid picture of the life and times of ancient Rome, especially of the Emperor Octavius, later known as Augustus, who ruled in Rome at roughly the same time as Herod did in Judea. And Herod does in fact appear in the book from time to time as a client of Rome. It gave me a particular sense of satisfaction to see how the history of the Jewish people and the archaeology of the region tie in so neatly with the story of the Roman Empire. It is also instructive to note that the Romans are no longer with us, while the Jewish people still endures.