BMCR 1998.10.20

The Building Program of Herod the Great


Archaeological evidence for Herodian buildings has increased enormously over the past three decades. Professor Roller’s book is the first monograph on the subject, to which he brings a familiarity with the Herodian sites, especially Caesarea where he has worked. It is significant, however, that the word “architecture” does not occur in the title of this book, since its scope is considerably more circumscribed than the title would suggest. Literary Evidence for Herod’s Building Program would more accurately reflect the nature of the contents. But is it legitimate to attempt to assess Herod’s building program historically without examining its architecture in context?

Further, the use of “Building Program” in the title implies a conscious plan behind Herod’s constructions, the existence of which R. assumes but neither addresses nor defines. It is not at all clear precisely why Herod chose to build what, where and when he did, apart from conspicuously acknowledging the Roman authorities and possibly also aiding the scattered communities of the Jewish diaspora: any revealing geographical and chronological correlations have not yet been discerned. But the fatal flaw in the book is the assumption that only Roman and no other sources inspired Herod’s building program. R. does not attempt to prove this assumption since he does not examine and evaluate all other possible sources of influence. As a result, even on his own historical terms, R.’s conclusions cannot be unquestioningly accepted.

In the Preface R. raises his reader’s expectations, stating “This study is based on personal examination, during repeated trips to the eastern Mediterranean since the late 1970’s, of virtually every site at which Herod and his predecessors and dynastic successors built” (p.xii). The reader is thus led to anticipate some discussion of the archaeological evidence from the sites of Herod and his predecessors and successors visited by R.

The Introduction includes a brief biography of Herod, with comments on literary sources. The omissions here are more significant. R. makes no effort to assess the reliability of the architectural descriptions by Josephus and his sources. Moreover, despite many subsequent references requiring an understanding of Herod’s earlier life, R. offers no adequately detailed account of Herod’s formative years. It eventually becomes clear in Chapter 7 that to have done so would have encouraged a broader consideration of Herod’s Building Program than is offered here.

R.’s chapter titles give some indication of his bias: 1. Herod’s First Trip to Rome; 2. What Herod Saw in Rome; 3.Herod and Marcus Agrippa; 4. The Herodian Intellectual Circle; 5. Herod’s Second and Third Trips to Rome; 6. Early Roman Building in the Southern Levant; 7. The Building Program of Herod the Great; 8. Catalogue of Herod’s Building Program; 9. The Buildings of Herod’s Descendants; 10. The Legacy of Herod. Thus, only two of the chapters focus on Herod’s work in Judaea. There is not even any debate on the various possible sources of influence on Herod; the Roman is assumed and discussed to the virtual exclusion of any others.

It is always challenging to plunge in medias res without providing any background. In the case of Chapter 1, the author’s motivation is called into question: the device not only creates an unnecessarily convoluted first chapter but it also bypasses evidence contrary to R.’s thesis. By starting with Herod’s first trip to Rome c. 40 BC in his fourth decade, R. is forced to revert to several selective flashbacks. He speculates as to who might have been at these early meetings and which individuals Herod might have met in Rome. This is followed by discussions of the Jewish community in Rome and of possible members of literary circles there. Two changes might have improved the logical flow: retitle and refocus this chapter on Late Republican literary circles, the subject of a series of talks presented by R. (p.xii, n.8), and insert an additional first chapter discussing the Hasmonean and Hellenistic world in which Herod grew up for his first three decades before 40 BC. This information is not only needed by the reader, but it could also have provided some historical and biographical context for this chapter.

The lack of a preparatory chapter requires in Chapter 2 also brief flashbacks to Herod in Antioch and Alexandria, which should be major topics for discussion in themselves. R. describes the Rome of 40 BC, rightly noting the significance of the urban developments in the Campus Martius, but missing an opportunity to supply a map of Rome for the chapter. While he does attempt to identify what buildings Herod might have seen in Rome in 40, he does not, apart from footnote references, discuss either their architectural details or significance. The implicit assumption is that Herod was himself an active participant in his architectural creations who was affected by what he saw in Rome and who could implement his personal tastes back home, but nowhere in fact does R. try to demonstrate this architecturally.

Since there is no solid historical evidence that Herod and Agrippa ever met before the winter of 23 in Mytilene, by which time Herod’s building activities were already underway, R. must rely on speculation about any contacts before that date. Apart from general references to urban planning and sewers, R. does not examine any aspects or details of the actual public works of either Agrippa or Herod to indicate any effect of their meeting on Herod’s constructions. Agrippa visited Judaea late in 15 and in the following spring Herod sailed to the Kimmerian Bosporus to support Agrippa; they returned overland through Anatolia but, although it is referred to several times, there is no map provided for this journey. R. believes that “one cannot overemphasize the influence that Agrippa had on Herod” (p.52) but he presents no detailed architectural evidence in support of this belief. Discussing hydraulics, R. states that Herod “was to bring this peculiarly Roman art to the East” (pp.46-47) but neglects to consider eastern precursors of hydraulic engineering such as the Israelite Iron Age cisterns, Assyrian and Pergamene aqueducts and the Nabataean dam and terrace systems.

Chapter 4 on the Herodian Intellectual Circle is a combination of prosopography and speculation. According to R., “One can only guess at the innumerable unknown architects, sculptors, painters, and mosaicists who implemented his artistic program” (p.54). He accepts the suggestion of others that Herod may have founded his own library, but does not discuss whether its inspiration and intent were more Alexandrian or Roman. R. observes that “citizens of Damaskos, Kos, and Sparta all resided at the Herodian court, and it seems no accident that Herodian architectural patronage extended to those cities” (p.57), but does not pursue the investigation of this correlation further. This chapter includes a catalogue of twenty-one names of perhaps as many individuals who may have spent some time at Herod’s court.

Since “nothing is known about the details” (p.68) of Herod’s second trip to Rome, R. accepts a suggested date for it of 17 BC, coinciding with the celebration of the Ludi Saeculares. He assumes Herod would have seen the new buildings known to have been erected since his previous visit in 40, including the Campus Martius with the stone amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus, and the Mausoleum of Augustus. R. credits these two structures with being the direct inspiration for Herod’s amphitheatre at Caesarea and tomb at Herodeion (pp.70-1, 73). In a footnote, however (p.71, n. 35), he refers to his subsequent retraction of the Caesarea amphitheatre as being identifiable as Herodian. R. suggests that the hypothetical visit of Strabo to Judaea in 25 would have been responsible for the transmission of the concept of the round Mausoleum to Herodeion which was begun in the late 20s. This possibility requires, however, the acceptance of R.’s belief that the round structure at Herodeion is in fact Herod’s tomb. Of these two examples of Roman architectural influence on Herod, therefore, R. subsequently rejects the first and assumes but does not demonstrate the historical accuracy of the second.

Chapter 6 on Early Roman Building in the Southern Levant chronologically belongs at the beginning of the book since it deals with Roman architecture constructed during Herod’s childhood. It is also too narrowly focused, avoiding any reference to any other architecture visible in the region during Herod’s youth, such as the Hasmonean. R. cites the examples of Pompey and Aulus Gabinius as (re)builders of cities in Syria and the southern Levant. There is no mention that establishing cities was also a Seleukid tradition before the Romans arrived in the Levant, for which see John Grainger, The Cities of Seleukid Syria and G. Cohen, The Seleukid Colonies.

R. considers Antioch “the nexus of Roman architectural policy in this region” and then cites Caesar’s basilica, aqueducts, baths, and presumably temporary amphitheatre, as recorded by Malalas (pp.82-83), not mentioning here the hippodrome. R. continues: “Caesar’s work in Antioch was no less innovative than his constructions in Rome and was an important part of the western transmission of Hellenistic architectural forms, which would return to the East in their new Italian guise through the architecture of Herod. … The amphitheatre, however temporary, was the first in the East, and probably the first outside Italy, and it would have been a major influence on Herod’s amphitheatre at Caesarea, built thirty years later. Herod was in Antioch frequently, and nowhere else in the East could he have seen such examples of contemporary Roman architecture at its best. Always anxious to honor Caesar, Herod, too, was to be at his most innovative in Antioch” (p.83). If ancient Antioch was so central to the expression of Roman architectural aspirations in the east, and if one is going to pursue this line of argumentation, then why not focus on Antioch as much as on the more distant Rome as a more immediate source of Herod’s inspiration?

Chapter 7 on the Building Program of Herod the Great, though located in the middle of the book, most closely resembles a concluding chapter on the various building types, where the conclusions remain unsupported. It is also the most indicative of the difficulties R. has created for himself by ignoring the non-Roman evidence, the nature of which forces him to undermine the premise upon which the book’s organization is based.

R. embarks on a historical account of Herod’s building program, beginning with Judaea. “One can only suppose that building in Syria began early and continued throughout his reign” (p.90). R. considers as architecturally “innovative” Herod’s importing Italian-style rather than Greek temples for emperor worship, yet omits any discussion of their politically innovative motivation in which Hellenistic ruler cults were employed by Rome’s client-kings in the service of an empire united under Augustus (p.92). According to R., Herod’s use of the enclosed portico for the Jerusalem Temple derived from Roman inspirations like the fora and the Saepta Julia (p.93). Similarly, Herod’s choice of the Roman-style theatre over the Greek at least in the only one excavated at Caesarea indicates that “he aggressively followed Vitruvius’s principles in order to leave no doubt that he was building in the accepted Roman fashion” (p.94). R. demonstrates in a footnote that the terms agora and forum were linguistically equivalent in the extant literary sources without connoting the distinct architectural types that they do to us today, and then he goes on to assume without further comment or evidence that Josephus’ “agora” signified a Roman-style forum in Herod’s cities (p.94). R. happily notes that Herod was at the forefront of hydraulic technology, importing pozzolana and possibly also engineers from Italy (p.99) and made use of barrel-vaulted platforms and opus reticulatum. R. is on sounder ground here but does not pursue the engineering aspects of Herod’s building activities to strengthen his case. He conveniently explains Herod’s avoidance of erecting triumphal arches as symbols considered too indicative of Roman domination, an argument that would hardly suffice for Nikopolis.

Having discussed temples and fora, R. spends the rest of this chapter admitting the non-Roman influence on Herod’s building program. Recognizing Inge Nielsen’s recent Hellenistic Palaces: Tradition and Renewal, R. at last acknowledges that there is evidence for non-Roman architectural influence on Herod and implicitly accepts her conclusions that Herod’s later palaces show Roman influence in their peristyle courtyards and porticoes. Similarly, discussing streets and lighthouses R. admits that “other aspects of the Herodian building program had purer Greek antecedents, or so mix Greek and Roman elements that it is difficult to determine exactly where the inspiration originated” (p.100). Herod “was not averse to using that ancestor of the portico, the Greek stoa” (p.100). The Tower of the Winds in Athens provides a glimpse “perhaps of the nature of Herod’s constructions” (p.115). “Herod was a founder of cities … a traditionally Greek talent … recently … adopted by the Romans” (p.115). In his military colonies Herod “had both Seleukid and Roman precedents but was probably guided by the former; the Seleukid military organization of the southern Levant had inspired his early residences and also influenced the numerous forts, especially in the eastern parts of his kingdom” (p.116). “A particularly important influence on the Herodian program, more Greek than Roman, was his interest in athletics. Athletic construction forms the largest single class of Herodian buildings… Gymnasia and stadia were frequent Herodian constructions” (p.116). Generally ignoring any Hellenistic evidence outside Italy for painting or mosaics, R. asserts “Herod’s use of architectural decoration also demonstrated his interest in the latest Roman styles”(p.118), although some geometric patterns such as the honeycomb mosaic “come not from Greco-Roman sources but from Babylonia and Assyria” (p.118).

Thus, apart from temples and fora, R. has here accepted non-Roman influence on Herodian palaces, streets, lighthouses, stoas, military colonies, forts, gymnasia, stadia, and some mosaic patterns, although the rest of his book assumes purely Roman influence. Just because most of Antioch and Alexandria are lost to us, that does not mean that we can safely ignore their possible influence on Herod.

A larger issue that R. does not deal with is the societal context of Herod’s building program. Influence, motivation and society’s perception are separate though related aspects of Herod’s building activities. Indeed, the many unasked questions here include to what extent the various inhabitants of Judaea “read” or perceived, or were able to perceive, various aspects of the new buildings such as Roman-style theatres in identifiably nationalistic terms; perhaps they did, but it is not safe for us to assume so unquestioningly.

R. ends this chapter with a necessarily inconclusive discussion of how Herod financed his building program and yet still managed to leave a surplus at his death. Even the historical sources themselves are not entirely plumbed in this regard since no effort is made to examine or even speculate as to how Herod paid for his massive works and largesse despite the brief references to the fact of repeated complaints about Herod by his (overtaxed?) subjects (pp.13; 45,n.25); R. does not try to discern any correlations between the times and places of the complaints and the known building activities.

Perhaps the reason this book is so frustrating is the unrealized potential of all the material that is available to R. but not discussed. For example, the Hasmonean and Herodian palatial complexes at Jericho not only enable a more detailed chronological analysis of structural aspects, but also make abundantly clear that Herod’s “building program” was not static but evolved visibly through the decades. R. is certainly familiar with the topography of Herodian sites, as illustrated in his own photographs, and yet does not pursue it. For example, even in historical terms, could Herod have been aware of the potential economic consequences of irrigation efforts in selected areas?

The Catalogue of sites and projects in Chapter 8 is perhaps the most disappointing, not because of any errors of commission but because of the omission of analyses and architectural evidence. Moreover, the catalogue is presented alphabetically, as though intended for consultation and yet there are no footnotes to facilitate further research, merely a chronologically arranged bibliography, lacking titles, at the end of each site listed; The discussion of Jerusalem, for example, derives from 45 untitled references to challenge the curious reader. The survey of each site confines itself to the literary evidence, R.’s own topographical observations, and a brief outline of any archaeological remains.

A few salient points: Herod imported pozzolana from Italy for his extensive harbourworks at Caesarea “in order to be totally Roman” (p.138), though it might well have been believed at that time that only the best available ingredients would suffice for underwater concrete. Herod may have used the Seleukid foot in Jerusalem (p.180); what other evidence is there for this and what would that suggest about Herod’s workers in Jerusalem? The entire effect of the summit of Masada was “that of a Persian paradeisos and its pavilions” (p.189); did this reflect Herod’s personal taste at the time materialized at a site far removed from public appreciation?

In The Buildings of Herod’s Descendants R. briefly outlines the constructions of Herod’s successors and relations such as Agrippa II and Archelaos of Kappadokia. It is presumably for this chapter that the 14 genealogical stemmata are reproduced in Appendix 3, although not explicitly referred to here. R. makes no attempt to compare and contrast Herod’s program with those of his successors, nor to discern the effect if any of growing up in Rome upon the building programs of the children of the client kings. It would seem obvious if not unavoidable that comparative examples from Herod’s predecessors as well as successors ought to be included in the survey in order to evaluate Herod’s Building Program in its historical context.

The Legacy of Herod actually concerns the effects of Herod’s building program on the surrounding areas. Throughout is the implicit assumption that the only influence on these subsequent builders was Herod’s, not their mutual predecessors, not the Hellenized East, not Rome, not even Herod’s engineers. This is not to say that Herod himself was not personally influential in setting an example, merely that the argumentation is lacking here to support such a proposition. “The Herodian building program established the pattern for Roman architecture in Syria and the Levant, and indeed much of the Roman East” (p.254), but precisely what made this pattern distinctive and identifiable for so long is not articulated. More insightful of the method of architectural diffusion being assumed here is Hohlfelder’s observation cited by R. that Herod’s engineers from Caesarea may have moved on to Paphos to help restore the devastated city in 15 BC (p.258, n. 25). While suggesting that Herod’s palaces may have been among the influences on later Roman palace construction, R. notes that Hadrian “probably saw the remains of Herod’s buildings. Herodeion in particular, with its curved forms, seems to have been an inspiration at Tivoli, noted for incorporating the architecture of famous places” (p.258 n.29). While the round structure with its ritual baths and triclinia at Herodeion does merit comparison with Hadrian’s Maritime Theatre at Tivoli, a difficulty that R. has created for himself here is that he considers that the round structure at Herodeion was actually “eminently sensible” as Herod’s tomb (p.167).

R. stresses “three unusual qualities to the Herodian building program: its extent, a range equaled or surpassed only by the Roman emperors; Herod’s quickness to adopt Roman forms when Hellenistic ones were more obvious; and the concentration of architecturally interesting buildings in a region that had had no history of monumental architecture, thus bringing Judaea, however briefly, into the Greco-Roman architectural mainstream” (pp.259-260). R. explains Herod’s motivation as doing what “was reasonable and necessary within his cultural environment, part of his obligations as a late Hellenistic dynast and client king of Rome’s” (p.259).

In Appendix 1 on late Armenian references to Herod, R. suggests that they might instead refer to possible Herodian activity in Edessa, for which no evidence has yet been found. Discussing possible depictions of Herod in Appendix 2, R. accepts a suggestion that a marble head in Boston may represent Mark Antony reworked with stucco to resemble Herod. In Appendix 3, R. adds fourteen genealogical stemmata for the Hasmoneans, the Antipatrids, Herod’s ten wives and their known children, relations with Asian dynasts, and selected Julio-Claudians. While it is convenient to have readily available a source for such material, its inclusion here emphasizes R.’s historical interests.

For a hint of the opportunities that R. has missed, see Inge Nielsen’s descriptive Hellenistic Palaces, Chapter 9, in which she discerns the architectural evidence for increased Roman influence in Herod’s late palaces. If it were possible to date these securely to the years after 18 BC, then we would have evidence for the direct effect on Herodian palatial architecture of his second visit to Rome. For a more analytical and balanced approach to Herod’s building program, both historical and architectural, and with a chronologically arranged catalogue, see Peter Richardson’s Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans.

Relatively minor quibbles: for a more recent discussion than R.’s source for the construction date of the Roman hippodrome at Antioch, add John H. Humphrey’s Roman Circuses, pp. 444-461. The Alexandrian Pharos is not “only known through literary descriptions” but from coins and excavations as well (p.115). Drafted margins, often alleged to be diagnostic of Herodian architecture in Israel, are decorative schemes applied to ashlar facades; they are not examples of anathyrosis, which is a structural feature applied to the adjoining and unseen sides of ashlar blocks (p.99, n. 59).

Thus R.’s book is a disappointment, the more so because it contains so much historical data awaiting analysis and integration with the architecture. Indeed, the assemblage of the historical information and bibliography is its chief merit and the reason why it should be in all Herodian libraries. While this book is not about the architecture of Herod’s building program, it does form a necessary preliminary study for such a book and lay the historical foundation for the real examination of Herod’s Building Program.