After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
- Matthew 2:1-12
Herod. "King" Herod. The man who wasn't really a king? Maybe. The man who actually was a king? Also maybe. There's some really weird things about Roman politics that I just don't understand about this.
Pompey the Great besieged and conquered Jerusalem in the year 63BC. Pompey had basically intervened in a dispute between between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II for the throne of the Hasmonean Kingdom, took both sets of thrones for himself and turned the province of Judea (if you can call it that) into a "client" kingdom of the Roman Republic. Following the events of the Ides of March in 44BC, when Julius Caesar was assassinated, Judea again became semi-autonomous and more or less ignored the conversion of Rome from the Republic to the Empire under Augustus.
Herod the Great's father, Antipater, was made procurator of Judea in 47BC; which meant that Herod inherited a fairly stable sort of power base. He was elected to be the governor of Galilee, then elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate and naturally was incredibly jealous of his title in a "client" kingdom which was relatively free from Roman Senatorial manipulation. This explains why he spent considerable money in keeping both the Pharisees and Sadducees happy in what otherwise would have amounted to a religiously based civil war of sorts.
So when you look at the circumstances which surround the coming of the magi, Herod was no doubt both incredibly scared that his power base would be lost. Second to this, the usual method of succession in the Roman Empire was the homicide of the person whom you wanted to take over from.
Herod's response here in the ordering of the destruction of possibly 178,000 is understandable I suppose but it's also incredibly lazy, selfish and horrible. I was looking this up in library this afternoon and found that the historian Justus of Tiberias calls the event "a great massacre of innocents". Josephus seems to be silent on the issue; so I don't know what that means either.
That aside, it is the laziness of Herod's destruction which strikes me the most. Rather than actually appoint his own guard to find the child king, he just orders the Magi to return with a report; they duly returned home via another route and never did so.
It appears that he died in about 1BC (which would be about when Christ was 3 or 4 years old), of chronic kidney failure. It seems that he suffered throughout his lifetime from depression and paranoia, which is also consistent with lead plumbing in wealthy Roman houses and would also explain his kidney failure. He would also go on to execute at least three of his own sons, which seems in keeping with the brutality of this monster.
I don't think that a lot of the Jewish world mourned the loss of Herod the Great; not could I find much reason to suggest why he was called "The Great". The Roman world certainly didn't find his death advantageous as this created a power vacuum which wouldn't properly be resolved and was probably one of the root causes of the Jewish Revolt of 70AD and ultimately resulted in Jerusalem's sacking and destruction.
Herod was a mad man, a bad man and a sad man - a perfect trifecta. No wonder the Magi went home via another route.