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Herod the great
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Herod the Great was a king in the Bible. He was full of contradictions. He was also shrewd, clever, far-sighted, but also cruel, paranoid, and barbaric. He murdered his beautiful royal wife, the princess Mariamme, and the two handsome sons he had with her, strangling them with a silken cord. But he also kept 1st century Palestine out of trouble with the Romans, something very few people could have done, and built cities, palaces and fortress whose ruins still impress. Of course, he had a temple built and look beautiful just to try to get the Jews to like him, but that did not work.

Herod the Great is the main antagonist of the Christmas story.

Did he order the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, at the time of Jesus' birth, as Matthew narrates? There is no other evidence for this event, but it would have been quite in character for Herod to do something like this. He saw plots against him everywhere, and given the number of people he put to death there were probably a fair few plots for him to fear. Certainly he was hated by a great many people.

His greatest achievement - apart from switching sides at the right moment from Mark Antony to Augustus - was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This mammoth task began in 19BC and took many decades to complete - Jesus, Mary and Joseph saw a work in progress when they visited the Temple, and it is even possible that Joseph may have worked on this or one of Herod's other mammoth building projects.

As Herod lay dying in terrible agony, he ordered that as soon his soldiers were to execute several hundred popular officials, so that there would be a public lamentation throughout the city at the moment of his death. Fortunately, his sister countermanded the order - but the incident gives some idea of just how his crazed mind worked.

Herod is mentioned by name in the grim Christmas classic song "The Coventry Carol", perhaps the only such song to deal with this dark part of the story.