Herod’s Judaea by Samuel Rocca

Herod's JudaeaHerod’s Judaea by Samuel Rocca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fabulously expensive book gives a wide-ranging, well-researched survey of the kingdom of Herod the Great.

Even though this book appeared to be exactly what I wanted and needed for research into my own historical work in progress, I hesitated to buy it for a year or more because of its price. As of today, the book is offered on the website of its publisher, Mohr Siebeck of Tübingen, Germany, for €129; on bookfinder.com the lowest price for a new copy is Cdn$163.48 (and for a used copy? $175.20!). I believe in free markets and I believe that every product and service in a free market should be priced so as to maximize profit to the seller. The exorbitant prices being asked for this book tell me that the market in this case is not a free one, for even an eager buyer, like me, is deterred by the price. There must be some captive market for it, such as academic students, although it’s hard to imagine there are enough of these to justify the practice.

So it’s a mystery. But here I lodge my protest at being gouged. Before too long, I think that the e-book revolution will put an end to such practices. It can’t be soon enough. However, I don’t factor price into my rating of a book, so the publisher has escaped my wrath on that score; and presumably pricing has nothing to do with the author.

I probably would never have rolled the dice on Herod’s Judaea if I had not already read another work by Samuel Rocca: The Army of Herod the Great, part of Osprey Publishing’s Men-at-Arms series. I had been well pleased with that, so I felt confident enough to give this more expensive volume a try. And for my purposes, Samuel Rocca delivered the goods.

As I recall, the book began as Mr. Rocca’s PhD thesis. Perhaps for that reason, it begins with a 17-page discussion of the purpose of the research and its methodology. I believe all of that should have been cut from the book, since the content and the arguments used become manifest as one reads.

But then Rocca gets down to business, examining the reign of Herod the Great in 8 chapters:

  1. Herod the king: royalty and the ideology of power
  2. The court of King Herod
  3. The army of King Herod
  4. The administration and economy of the Herodian kingdom
  5. The ruling bodies of Herodian Judaea
  6. The cults of the Herodian kingdom
  7. The Herodian city
  8. Herod’s burial

His mission is not to discuss Herod’s biography or character, but only his reign and its effects on the country. And the result is a revisionist view of King Herod: one that sees him as a bringer of peace and stability to a land that had known little of these, as a shrewd and competent monarch who managed to maintain formal independence from Rome while enjoying a good relationship with the new emperor Augustus, and as a visionary whose munificence and vast architectural projects turned Judea, in the world’s eyes, from a backward little country into a place of some splendor.

In the author’s view, Herod modeled his kingship mainly on three figures: on Alexander the Great, as the epitome of the charismatic monarch; on Solomon, as the emblem of Judaea’s own past greatness; and on Augustus himself, as a citizen of no royal birth who made himself master of the world’s dominant empire. With these examples in mind, Herod refashioned the state of Judaea and its institutions so as to put an end, for a time, to the internecine strife that had plagued it for so long.

In the course of developing these arguments the book goes into lots of fascinating detail. I loved reading the author’s reconstruction of Herod’s court, based on what is known of the ancient Israelite royal courts and of the surrounding Hellenistic courts. He discusses Herod’s palaces and their staff, and includes architectural plans of these. His discussion of Herod’s army also is well-informed and authoritative—as I expected after reading his book for Osprey Publishing. This section discusses the different kinds of fortifications, again with accompanying architectural diagrams. I learned that Herod very likely had a navy, as did his Hasmonean predecessors, with ships patrolling even the Dead Sea. Interesting.

The author also naturally spends time discussing the administration of the kingdom—its structure of governance and its system of justice, as well as how it was likely taxed. Rocca believes that Jews were not so heavily taxed by Herod as is usually assumed. He thinks that that burden of taxation fell mainly on the richest subjects, and also that Herod had large sources of revenue other than taxation, such as the income of royal estates and tolls on the caravan trade. For this reason, among others, Rocca thinks that ordinary Jews would likely have had a favorable view of their new king.

Nowadays King Herod is proverbial as a tyrant, but the author believes that this view is not warranted by what history tells us. For example, Herod’s infamous slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is attested nowhere outside the Bible, and it seem unlikely that Josephus, for one, would have remained silent on this. Nonetheless, Herod is known to have had wives and sons executed—although such acts of wrath are common in the annals of monarchs generally. Rocca believes that much of the opprobrium that has fallen on Herod is due to his apparent lapse into madness at the end of his life. (In a footnote, the author says that according to Dr. Jan Hirshmann, Herod died of chronic kidney disease, complicated by a rare condition called Fournier’s genital gangrene!)

In all I found that this book was mostly what I hoped it would be. The actual prose is readable and straightforward, although tending to some wordiness and also occasional repetition of the same information in the main text and in footnotes. The bibliography is large and it’s clear that the author did a great deal of study to prepare his text, and his effort has borne fruit. I learned a lot about Herod and about ancient Judaea—and I’ve been doing some studying of my own.

No, the only thing I can really fault this book on is the price. Grrr.

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