Herod Agrippa I

Herod Agrippa: Jewish king, ruled 37-44. Because of his good connections in Rome, he was the last to unite the Jewish territories.


Agrippa's kingdom

The Jewish king Herod the Great had many sons and one of them was Aristobulus. However, the prince and the king were not on speaking terms; after two trials before the Roman emperor Augustus, Herod had his son executed in 7 BCE. Aristobulus' son Agrippa, named after Augustus' friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, was spared.

The boy was only three years old - he was born in 11 - and was sent to Rome, where he received a Roman education with the princes of the ruling dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Among his companions were the later emperors Caligula and Claudius.

King Herod died in 4 BCE and was succeeded by three other sons: Herod Antipas was to rule Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch; Philip was to be tetrarch of the Golan heights in the north-east; and Archelaus became the ethnarch ('national leader') of Samaria and Judaea.

For the greater part of his live, Agrippa lived in Rome. Here he met his wife Cyprus, a distant relative, and here his five children were born: Drusus (who died young), Agrippa, Berenice, Mariamme and Drusilla. He spent all his money, went bankrupt and had to flee from his creditors at the beginning of the thirties.

In 33, we find Agrippa in Idumea, the southern part of Judaea. Later, he was official in Tiberias, the capital of Galilee founded by his uncle Herod Antipas. However, Agrippa fell out of favor, went to Antioch, where he quarreled with the Roman governor, spent some time in Alexandria, where he encountered troubles too. However, a rich man named Tiberius Julius Alexander (the brother of the philosopher Philo) gave money to his wife. In his despair, he decided to return to Rome, where his friend Caligula was probably able to solve his financial problems. He had to borrow money and was unable to pay for the passage of his family.


In Rome, he discovered that Caligula could only help him when he was emperor. Agrippa encouraged him to seize power, but the emperor Tiberius knew what was happening and had the Jewish prince imprisoned in the autumn of 36.


He left the house of detention as a king. In 34, Agrippa's uncle Philip had died without sons. The emperor Tiberius had ordered his realms to be added to the province of Syria, but on March 16, 37, he died. Caligula became emperor and almost immediately restored the principality; as its king, he appointed his loyal supporter Herod Agrippa. He was the first to be called "king" since his grandfather, Herod the Great, who had died almost forty years earlier.

Agrippa stayed in Rome. The relation between the Jewish king and the Roman emperor was excellent, which is remarkable, because many considered Caligula a madman, and he could be very cruel indeed. In the early summer of 38, Caligula sent Herod Agrippa on a diplomatic mission to Alexandria. He discovered that governor Flaccus was incompetent and unable to stop the anti-Semitic agitation in the city. It is probable that this was also the moment on which he married his daughter Berenice to Marcus, the son of the Tiberius Julius Alexander who had given him financial help.

In July or August 38, Agrippa arrived in his kingdom. One of his first acts was directed against bandits who had taken over a part of the realm. Not much is known about this period of Agrippa's reign.

In 39, Agrippa's uncle Herod Antipas tried to "steal" Agrippa's royal title. Caligula intervened: Agrippa's uncle was exiled to Gaul and his realm, Galilee and Peraea, was given to Agrippa.

At that moment, Agrippa was staying with Caligula, who was campaigning against the Germanic tribes along the Rhine. The ancient sources describe this war as a silly exercise of a mad emperor, but there is sufficient archaeological evidence of fighting in the neighborhood of Wiesbaden. There is also proof that in the winter of 39/40, the emperor and his entourage were present at a large military exercise near the mouth of the Rhine. A new campaign was launched against the Chauci on the shores of the North Sea. Agrippa must have been present, even though the details are unclear. The Jewish prince must have felt uncomfortable under the low skies of the Netherlands.

In January 41, Caligula (who was by now showing signs of complete insanity) and Herod Agrippa were in Rome. On the twenty-fourth, the emperor was murdered, and the Jewish king played a very important role during the accession of Claudius. The latter was grateful to Agrippa; Judaea and Samaria were added to Herod Agrippa's realm. He was now king of all the territories that had once been ruled by Herod the Great. Jerusalem was again the capital of Palestine as a whole and received new city walls. Agrippa's entry in the city of David and Herod was a triumph.

Like his uncles and grandfather, Agrippa was both a hellenistic and a Jewish ruler. His building program was essentially Greek; for example, he spent lavishly in Berytus, a "pagan" city. On the other hand, he did a lot for the temple in Jerusalem, repaired several buildings, and finished an aqueduct that had been ordered by Herod the Great and continued by Pontius Pilate. Some Jews will have appreciated how he took measures against a sect from Galilee, the Christians.


After these successes, a strange incident took place in 44.

King Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. [...] And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne and delivered an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, "It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!" And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and gave up the ghost.note

This was the story according to Luke, the author of the Acts of the apostles; he seems to delight in the terrible end of the man who had prosecuted the first Christians. The same story is told by Flavius Josephus:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea [...] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor [...] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out [...] that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature."
Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner."
After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.note

What to make of this story? It is obvious that Herod Agrippa was regarded by some as a divine being, maybe because he had reunited all Jewish territories and had liberated them from Roman rule. In other words, he had done the things that some people expected from a Messiah.

However, it is far from certain that Agrippa was seen as the Messiah. Caesarea was not a Jewish but a pagan city, and we must therefore interpret this incident in a pagan context: it is a theophany, a god appearing to mankind. Even when the audience were Jewish, it would never have called the Messiah "a god", because the Jews thought about their liberator as a human being. (The idea that the Messiah is a god, is Christian.)

After some troubles the last king of the Jews was succeeded in some of his territories by his son Julius Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa's daughter Drusilla was married to Marcus Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judaea (52-58); Agrippa's daughter Berenice was the mistress of the future emperor Titus.


This page was created in 2000; last modified on 11 October 2020.