Herod was called “the Great” because he was a great builder.  His two masterpieces were Masada and the Herodium.  Masada is a natural mountain stronghold on the southwestern shores of the Dead Sea, rising 1,300 feet into the air.  It was built deep in the desert, far from any reliable source of water, but designed to harvest flash floods into cisterns providing a secure water supply, plentiful enough for farming the plateau. It was a final fallback where Herod could live with a small garrison and withstand any siege. It was the equivalent of a nuclear bunker, but far more opulent. Herod had it kitted out with lovely bathhouses, beautiful dining areas and two palaces with beautiful mosaics and frescoes.

After Herod’s death, the Romans built a garrison at Masada. When the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans broke out in 66 A.D., a group of Jewish rebels known as the Sicarii, took over the Masada complex.  When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., the remaining Sicarii retreated to Masada to live in Herod’s former palaces.  The Romans turned their attention to taking down Masada, the last community in Judea with 960 rebels, including many women and children.  A legion of 8,000 Romans built camps surrounding the base, a siege wall, and a ramp on a slope of the Western side of the mountain made of earth and wooden supports.

When it became clear that the Romans were going to take over Masada, on April 15, 73 A.D., all but two women and five children, who hid in the cisterns and later told their stories, took their own lives rather than live as Roman slaves.

Whatever Herod’s virtues, they were decidedly overshadowed by his profound paranoia. He executed his uncle, his wife’s grandfather, his wife, his mother-in-law, and three of his sons.  However, a majority of Herod biographers and biblical scholars hold the “murder of the innocents”, in which Herod reportedly ordered the slaughter of all boys in Judea under the age of two, to be characteristic given Herod’s past, but fictional.