Every person interested in antiquity certainly associates the figure of the king of Judea, Herod the Great. He was remembered as a great builder, philhellene, but also as a cruel despot and tyrant. However, much less is said about his descendant, an equally interesting figure who influenced not only the fate of Jews and their homeland, but also partly the fate of the entire Roman Empire. This figure is the grandson of Herod the Great, King Herod Agrippa I.
The origin and rise to power
Herod Agrippa I was born around 10 BCE, the son of Aristobulus and Berenice. He came from a royal family—his grandfather (the father of Aristobulus) was Herod the Great. Actually, as a Roman citizen, his name was Marcus Julius Agrippa (in honor of Augustus’ friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa), while the name Herod used in the context of this character refers to his origin from the Jewish royal dynasty. In the works of Josephus, he is most often referred to as Agrippa, while Acts is referred to as Herod Agrippa or simply Herod.
Agrippa grew up without a father because he was murdered in 7 BCE as a result of being accused of conspiring against Herod the Great. Agrippa, together with his mother and siblings, settled in Rome when he was a few years old. He moved in a group of people closely associated with the reigning Augustus. His mother’s friend was Antonia – daughter of Mark Antony and sister of Emperor Octavia. Agrippa himself became friends with the son of Tiberius, Drusus, called Drusus the Younger.
After the death of Augustus in 14 CE, Drusus, as the son of the reigning emperor, became the obvious heir to the throne, which only strengthened the position of his friend Agrippa at court. However, the situation changed in 23 CE, when Drusus died. In the same year, Agrippa left Rome and went east. His grandfather’s kingdom was left in 4 BCE divided into 3 parts, each of which was ruled by one of Herod’s sons: Archelaus took the title of ethnarch and ruled Judea, Samaria and Idumea; Philip became tetrarch of Galaunitides, Trachonitides, Paneas and Banatea; Antipas, in turn, received Perea and Galilee. In 6 CE Archelaus was deprived of power and his domain was transformed into a Roman province. Thus, during the time of Agrippa’s stay in the east, only two of his uncles remained in power in the lands of the former kingdom of Herod the Great.
During his journey, Herod Agrippa led a rather lavish life, and not having sufficient funds, he was forced to incur debts, among others, with the brother of Philo of Alexandria, Alexander. In 36 CE Agrippa returned to Italy. Thanks to the help of his mother’s friend, Antonia, he managed to pay off his debts in the East. The already elderly emperor Tiberius entrusted Agrippa with the care of one of the emperor’s successors, the son of Drusus the Younger, Tiberius Gemellus. The second, older than Gemellus, pretender to the throne was Gaius, son of Germanicus, who went down in history as Caligula. Agrippa became friends with Gaius quite quickly, and want to sneak in the favour of the emperor’s successor as much as possible, he admitted that he hoped that he would soon take the place of Tiberius. These words were heard by one of Agrippa’s freedmen, who reported Herod to the emperor. Agrippa was locked up in custody. During his time in prison, however, he enjoyed special privileges: he could be visited, he ate well, and he could take a bath every day. The special favours he received were due to his friendship with Gaius. The praetorians who were in charge of Agrippa, realizing that soon his friend would sit on the imperial throne, did not want to offend Herod.
When in 37 CE Gaius ascended the throne, Agrippa was released. The emperor offered his friend the royal title and entrusted him with the lands, until his death in 34 CE his uncle Philip was in charge. Gaius was also to give Agrippa a gold chain, which the king later presented to the temple of Jerusalem. During the reign of Caligula, Herod went to his kingdom only once, in 38 CE. In 39 CE Agrippa’s rule was enlarged by the lands of the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, whom Caesar sentenced to exile to Spain. Agrippa in 40 CE earned the gratitude of his Jewish subjects. It was then that Caligula ordered that his statue be erected in the temple in Jerusalem. This, of course, was completely against the principles of the Mosaic religion. Thanks to Agrippa’s pleas and arguments, the emperor abandoned his idea.
The increasing despotism and tyranny of Caligula led to a conspiracy and murder of the princeps in January 41 CE. The praetorians proclaimed the new emperor Claudius, brother of Germanicus, previously pushed to the margins of public life, while the senate, sitting at the same time in the Capitol, debated returning to the republican form of government and not appointing a new princeps. An envoy between senators and Claudius according to Joseph Flavius was Agrippa, his action was to lead to the recognition of the power of the new Caesar by the senators and to a bloodless end to the potential conflict. The reward that Agrippa received from the hands of the new ruler was enormous: his kingdom was enlarged by Judea and Samaria, and thus the monarchy managed by the Jewish king returned to the size it had reached during the reign of Herod the Great. Agrippa also received ornamenta consularia, a reward of consular insignia.
The new arrangement between the ruler of Judea and Rome was officially announced at the Forum. The awards received by Herod Agrippa may be a premise for accepting the image of Agrippa’s merits – an envoy between Claudius and the Senate, created on the pages of Joseph Flavius’ Jewish War. The king went in the year 41 CE to Jerusalem, his capital. He started building a new part of the city’s defensive walls, but the work was stopped by Claudius, who was warned by the concerned governor of Syria about the possibility of Agrippa becoming too strong. Herod also convened a congress of several monarchs to Tiberias in Galilee: Sampsigeramus of Emesa, Ptolemon of Pontus, Cotys of Armenia, Antiochus of Commagene, and Agrippa’s brother, Herod of Hilkas. Due to the fears of the same governor of Syria, Vibius Marsus, that this meeting could lead to the destabilization of the current order in the east and to the excessive strengthening of the position of the kings, these monarchs were sent back to their countries. During his rule, Agrippa tried to defend Jewish orthodoxy. He did not tolerate Christians, whom the Jews of the time considered blasphemers and traitors to the Mosaic religion. He dealt bloodily with the representatives of the new religion. On his orders, the apostle James was murdered, and Simon Peter was imprisoned.
Death and successor
The king died in 44 CE in Caesarea. After Herod’s death, his Kingdom was taken over directly by the Roman administration. Only after a few years, was the power over part of the monarchy of Herod Agrippa I taken over by his son Herod Agrippa II, but the Jewish monarchy never reached such great dimensions as in the times of Agrippa I.
Herod Agrippa I is a perfect example of a king who comes to power thanks to the patronage of influential personalities of the then-world power – Rome. However, he is not just a passive observer or a puppet in the hands of the Empire. Thanks to his talents and connections, he gains respect, recognition, and thus also a direct influence on the events in Rome itself, as exemplified by his attitude and importance at the time of Claudius’s takeover of power. Although initially not a contender for the royal throne, Agrippa reigned over all the territories governed by his grandfather Herod the Great, becoming the last such powerful king from the Herodian dynasty.