And He shall put a yoke of iron on thy neck until He have destroyed thee. -- Deut. xxviii.
Aristobulus, the son of Hyrcanus, was called King, as well as High Priest of the Jews; but the mixture of worldly policy with the sacred office did not suit well, and the Asmonean Kings were not like their fathers, the Maccabees. Still their courage and steadiness made the Jews much respected; and the Greeks and Romans around them began to read their books, and there were some few who perceived that the religion, there taught, was purer than idolatry, and wiser than the beat philosophy. The kings were assisted in government by what was called the Sanhedrim, a council of a hundred and twenty of the Scribes and of the chief priests, namely, the heads of the courses of priests. This council met daily in a hall near the great gate of the Temple, and heard cases brought before them for judgment, after the example of the seventy elders appointed by Moses. Alexander Janneus, the son of Aristobulus, reigned from B.C.104 to B.C.77, and left his kingdom to his wife, Alexandra, who trusted much to the Pharisees, and raised them to great power. Her eldest son, Hyrcanus, was High Priest, and she left the kingdom to him at her death, B.C.69; but his brother, Aristobulus, rebelling, with the help of the Sadducees, defeated him, and drove him from his throne.
Hyrcanua was indolent, and was rather glad to be relieved from the trouble of reigning; but his friend, Antipas, an Edomite by birth, and of the Jewish religion, persuaded him that his life would not be safe in Judea, and stirred him up to ask help, first from the Arabs, and when they were beaten, from the Romans, to whom however, Aristobulus had already sent a present of a golden vine, in hopes of winning their support.
The great awfulness of the Roman power was in the sureness of its conquests. It did not fly onward without touching the earth, like the great eastern conquerors; but let it set one claw on a nation, and the doom of that nation was fixed. First the help of the Romans was asked and readily given; then in return a tribute was demanded and paid; then the Romans would meddle with the government, till their interference became intolerable, and there was a rising against it, which they called rebellion; then they sent an army, and ruined the nation for ever. The king, queen, generals, and all the riches, were carried to Rome, where the conqueror came in to enjoy what was called a triumph. He was seated in a chariot drawn by white horses, a laurel wreath round his head, and all his captives and spoils displayed behind him; the senate or council coming out to meet him, and the people shouting for joy as they led him to the Temple of Jupiter to give thanks. The captives were afterwards slain; and, as a farther festival, the people were entertained with shows of gladiators, namely, slaves trained to fight, even to death, with each other or with wild beasts. Then the conquered land became a Roman province. After the magistrates had served a year at Rome, they were allowed to choose which province they would govern; and there they did as they pleased, and laid heavy burthens on the poor inhabitants, for all men, not of Roman birth, they called barbarian, and used like slaves; nor was there any hope of breaking this heavy bondage, for each city was a station of Roman soldiers, who were the bravest and best disciplined in the world. The army was divided into legions, each about 6,000 men strong, with a silver eagle for the standard; these were again subdivided into cohorts, and again into hundreds, each commanded by a centurion, whose helmet had some mark by which his men might know him. No soldier could miss his place, either in battle, on a march, or in the perfect square camps which they set up wherever they halted; they obeyed the least word, and feared nothing; and nothing could hold out against their steady skill, perseverance, and progress. Wherever they went they built fortresses, and made wonderful straight solid roads, some of which remain to this day; and their ships and messengers going for ever from one province to another, made their empire all like one country; where the stern Roman was the lord, and the native was crushed down under his feet,
They had just at this time put down the kingdom of Syria, and conquered nearly all Asia Minor. Their great general, Pompey, was holding a court at Damascus, whither, among ten other suppliant princes, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus came to lay their cause before him, thus asking a heathen who should be the Priest of the Most High. Pompey took the part of the elder, as the rightful heir, and led an army against Jerusalem. The siege lasted three months, and so strong was the place, that it would have held out much longer, but that the Jews would not defend themselves on the Sabbath, at least no more than enough to protect their own lives. They would not disturb any of the operations of the siege, nor keep the engines from the walls on that day; and thus, B.C.63, the Gentiles again entered Jerusalem on the very day observed as a fast in memory of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest.
Pompey spared the city from plunder, and touched none of the treasure in the Temple; but he would not be withheld from going into every part, even into the Holy of Holies; and though no immediate judgment followed, it was remarked that from that time his prosperity left him. He set up Hyrcanus as High Priest, but not as King -- made him pay a tribute, put him under the control of Antipas, and forbade him to extend his domains. Aristobulus and his sons were carried off to appear in Pompey's triumph, but their lives were spared. Thus Judea, by her own fault, fell under the dominion of the fourth power with the teeth of iron.
Rome had hitherto been ruled by two consuls, who were chosen every year, and after their rule at home was over, went to make war in the provinces; but of late this plan had been wearing our, and the great general, Julius Caesar, who had conquered France, then called Gaul, and had visited Britain, was making himself over-powerful. Pompey stood up for the old laws, but Caesar was too strong for him, and at last hunted him to Egypt, where he was murdered by the last of the Ptolemies. Julius Caesar, who was one of the greatest warriors and most able men who ever lived, managed Rome as he chose, and coming to Syria, confirmed Hyrcanus in his rank, and finding him careless and indolent, made Antipas procurator, or governor for the Romans; and thus Antipas and his son, Herod, held all the real power in their hands, though still under the Romans. Going back to Rome, Julius Caesar became so powerful, that it was thought he would make himself king, and after four years, some of the friends of the old laws killed him with their daggers in the Senate House, B. C.44. After this, there was great confusion; and while Augustus Caesar, the nephew of Julius, gained power in the west, Mark Antony, another Roman general, came to Egypt to attend to the affairs of the East. He was a selfish licentious man, who cared more for Cleopatra, the beautiful sister of the last Ptolemy, and Queen of Egypt, than for Rome or for his duty; and he took bribes from Herod to support his power over the old prince, Hyrcanus, to whose daughter, Mariamne, Herod was betrothed.
The son of the deposed Aristobulus, Antigonus by name, made friends with the Parthians, the descendants of the old Persians, and bursting into Judaea when the nation was unprepared, carried off poor old Hyrcanus as a prisoner, and cut off his ears that such a blemish might prevent him from ministering again as High Priest. Herod escaping, went to Rome, where he represented his case so ably, that Augustus and Antony gave him men and money that he might drive out Antigonus, and promised that he should himself be king under them. The Roman army helped him to win back the country; and as the caves in the hills were full of robbers, he let down soldiers in boxes over the face of the precipices, and thus contrived to destroy them all. After a siege of six months he took Jerusalem, and Antigonus surrendered to the Romans, who kept him prisoner for some time, and then, at Herod's entreaty, put him to death.
Herod thus became King of the Jews, B.C.37. He married Mariamne, who was very beautiful and amiable, and thus he hoped to please the Jews who were attached to the old line; but as he was an Idumean, and therefore could not be High Priest, he gave the holy office to her brother, until becoming fearful of the young prince's just rights to the crown, he caused his attendants to drown him while bathing, and afterwards appointed High Priests, as he chose, from the chief priests of the Sanhedrim. Indeed Herod lived in constant fear and hatred of every Asmonean, and at last even turned against his own wife, Mariamne. He caused her to be put to death, and then nearly broke his heart with grief for her; and afterwards the same dread of the old royal stock led him to kill the two sons she had left to him.
The seventy weeks of Daniel were drawing to a close, and everyone expected that the long-promised Deliverer and King would appear. Some flatterers said it was Herod himself, the blood-stained Edomite, and he did all in his power to maintain the notion, by repairing the Temple with great care and cost, making restorations there that were forty-six years in progress, and spreading a golden vine over the front of the Sanctuary.
There were others who said the one great King, whom even the heathen expected, was coming to Rome. Augustus Caesar had gained all the power; he had beaten Antony and Cleopatra in a sea-fight, and following them to Egypt, found that they had both killed themselves, Antony with his sword, Cleopatra by the bite of an asp, in order to save themselves from being made prisoners. Augustus was welcomed at Rome with a great triumph, and was called Emperor, the name always given to a victorious general; the Romans gave him all their offices of state, and he ruled over all their great dominions without anyone to dispute his power, any enemy to conquer at home or abroad. There was a great lull and hush all over the world, for the time was come at last. But the King was neither Herod in Judea, nor Augustus at Rome! Nay Herod, as a son of Edom, was but proving that the Sceptre had departed from Judah; and the reign of Augustus was a time when darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people, for the Greeks and Romans had lost all the good that had been left in them, and were given up to wicked cruelty and foul self-indulgence; when one of their own heathen oracles was caused to announce to Augustus that the greatest foe of the Roman power should be a child born among the Hebrews.