The characters of Herod and Augustus were as far apart as their capitals. Extremes of temperament were in these two. The Roman was cold, calm, of unfailing prudence; the Jew hot-blooded, reckless, and warmed by a word into startling and frank ferocity. The one was keen and delicate, the other blunt and robust. The emperor was a fox, the king a lion. Herod and his people were now worried with mutual distrust. He had no faith in any man, and no man -- not even the emperor by whose sufferance he held the crown -- had any faith in him. The king feared the people and the people feared the king.
Herod began his career with good purposes. An erect, powerful, and handsome youth of Arabic and Idumaean blood, brave with lance and charger, he raided the bandit chieftain Hezekias and slew him, with all his followers. The Sanhedrim thought not of his valor but only of the ancient law he had broken. They put him on trial for usurping the power of life and death. In the midst of his peril he escaped, taking with him the seed of those dark revenges which, when he got the crown, destroyed all save a single member of the old court of justice and the confidence of his people.
His household became the scene of bloody intrigues which even stirred the tongue of Caesar with contempt. Herod became the dupe of a designing sister, of base flatterers, and of an evil and ambitious son. They undermined his confidence in all who deserved it. His beloved wife Mariamne, his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus, and many others of exceptional good repute in the kingdom were unjustly put to death. Then, swiftly, as he penetrated the maze of plot and counterplot, those who had fooled him began to fall before his wrath. He was now, indeed, a forlorn, loveless, and terrible creature.
Many thought him afflicted with madness. There were noble folk in Jerusalem who said they had seen the body of Mariamne embalmed in honey, above the king's chamber, where every day he could look upon it. Some had seen him wandering about the palace at night with a candle, mourning over his loss and raging at his own folly. Some had seen him so shaken by remorse that he roared like a lion goaded by hunger and the lance. At such a time it was, indeed, a peril to come before him. Plots against his life had worried him, and, distrusting his helpers, he was wont to go about the city in disguise seeking information. Twice he had forgiven Antipater, his favorite son, for crimes in the royal household.
Now, in his seventy-sixth year, the king was, indeed, sorely pressed with trouble. Jerusalem was the centre of a plot formidable and far-reaching. Its object was, in part, clear to him, or so he thought, and with some reason. It seemed to aim at his removal and the crowning of a mysterious king of prophecy, who, many said, was now waiting the death of Herod. It baffled him. He saw signs that many had their heads together in this plot. So far, however, he had not been able to lay hands upon them. There were many theories about the new king. They were strange and conflicting and zealously put forth. They differed as to whether he were yet born and as to his divinity, his character, and his purposes. The Sanhedrim held that when he came into the world there would be certain signs and portents seen of all men. This conflict of authority increased the confusion of Herod. When Vergilius came to his capital the king was mired on the very edge of the great mystery.
Powers of darkness ruled the city of Jerusalem. The sword, the lance, the dagger, and the wheel were wreaking vengeance and creating new perils while they were removing old ones. The king had tried vainly to repair the past. He gave freely to the poor; he erected gorgeous places of amusement; he built the new temple and a great palace in the upper city. The splendor of the latter structures had outdone the imperator. No shape born of barbaric dreams, to be slowly spread upon the earth in marble and gold, had so taxed the cunning and the patience of human hands. Such, in brief, were the character, the troubles, the home, and the city of Herod.