How Herod the tyrant saved the Olympics

Against his people’s will, a brutal despot spent a fortune to keep the games alive. No, this was millennia before Putin

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Britain's James Woods takes a jump during ski slopestyle training at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Britain's James Woods takes a jump during ski slopestyle training at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games, beginning Friday in Sochi, Russia, are the most expensive Olympics ever at over $51 billion. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dedication to the spirit of the Games pales before that of a different despot: Herod the Great — savior of the Olympics.

Herod, ruler of Judaea from 37-4 BCE, is best known for his massive building projects, the most grandiose of which was the reconstruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But despite his apparent dedication to the Abrahamic faith in renovating the Temple Mount, Herod was a committed Hellenist and an avid enthusiast of the Greco-Roman tradition of athletic games and blood sport.

Unlike their modern counterparts, the ancient Olympic Games were not a secular competition. The games were a quadrennial affair held in honor of the supreme god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus. At a sacred site marked by temples to Zeus and his consort Hera, athletes would compete for five days amid a ritual sacrifice of 100 bulls to the father god.

During the nearly 1,200 years of the ancient Olympics, athletes from around the Hellenistic world would make a pilgrimage to the city of Elis, the host city of the games, and from there ascend to Olympia. The cost of the prizes, sacrificial animals, banquets, equipment and boarding of athletes fell on the hellanodikai — the aristocratic judges of the games. But after the Roman Republic conquered Greece in 146 BCE, the impoverished province could no longer afford to finance the games, and the expensive “Olympia events were discontinued and victor’s statues failed to be erected,” wrote Dr. Duane Roller, author of The Building Program of Herod the Great.

Herod (Wikimedia Commons)
Herod (Wikimedia Commons)

Already in his 60s and in the waning years of his life, Herod made his third and final journey to Rome in 12 BCE, the 192nd Olympiad. On his trip, Herod surpassed the lavish gifts he had given various Greek cities across the eastern Mediterranean with the favors he bestowed upon the Eleans, “a donation not only in common to all Greece, but to all the habitable earth, as far as the glory of the Olympic games reached,” Josephus Flavius writes in The Jewish War.

“For when [Herod] perceived that they were come to nothing, for want of money, and that the only remains of ancient Greece were in a manner gone, he not only became one of the combatants in that return of the fifth-year games, which in his sailing to Rome he happened to be present at, but he settled upon them revenues of money for perpetuity, insomuch that his memorial as a combatant there can never fail,” Josephus recounts.

While Josephus doesn’t specify the precise nature of Herod’s endowment to the Eleans, Roller posits that the king must have had to pay for renovation and reconstruction at the ancient athletic site, as well as financing “the opening ceremony, official sacrifices and banquets, and possibly the cost of functionaries and even the victors’ statues.”

In return for his generosity, Herod was proclaimed president (agonothetes) of the Olympic Games for life — a position possibly created especially for him.

Caesarea Maritima (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Caesarea Maritima (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

After his return from Rome, Herod reintroduced Greco-Roman athletic culture to Judaea on an unprecedented scale. Josephus writes in Jewish Antiquities that Herod “appointed solemn games to be celebrated every fifth year, in honor of Caesar, and built a theater at Jerusalem, as also a very great amphitheater in the plain” outside the city. (Though archaeological evidence of the theater has never been found, Hebrew University’s Joseph Patrich suggests it may have been constructed out of wood in the earlier, more modest Roman design.)

At his newfound seaport at Caesarea Maritima, named in honor of his patron Caesar Augustus, Herod constructed a theater, arena, and hippodrome, remnants of which are visible today. Solomon Zeitlin writes in The Rise and Fall of the Judaean State that Herod inaugurated the city in 9 BCE with “great pomp and splendor,” which included “musical contests, athletic exercises, horse racing and fights by gladiators with wild beasts.” Herod also “arranged that Olympic Games be held at four-year intervals” in the Judaean port.

Herod’s legacy after his death in 4 BCE was divided between Romans and Jews. His city, Caesarea, would eventually become the Roman capital of Syria Palaestina and the region’s largest city. For the Jews, Herod’s embrace of the Olympic Games and Greco-Roman culture would further stain a bloody memory.

In the decades immediately after Herod’s death, the Pharisee rabbis who compiled the Mishnah taught that “those who visit stadiums or a [Roman army] camp and witness there [the performance] of sorcerers and enchanters… lo, this is ‘the seat of the scornful.'”

The Herodian theater at Caesarea Maritima (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
The Herodian theater at Caesarea Maritima (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

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