“deeply disturbed.” How deeply disturbed Herod was, and how dangerous that made life for Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus, can be seen from history. Herod was a suspicious, jealous, and evil man, and the group of Magi arriving in Jerusalem from Parthia and asking where the new king was born got his attention right away. Herod had a reputation for being ruthless in getting what he wanted and maintaining his authority. Early in his political career, before he was king of Judea, he was appointed by Antipater, under the rule of Cassius, to collect taxes, something at which he was so successful that Cassius appointed him ruler of Coele-Syria, a region of the Roman province of Syria, which was much larger than Syria today. Herod had to fight a number of wars and conflicts to come to the throne, as well as ingratiate himself to a number of leaders, some of whom he had even fought against. As it turned out, he was a brilliant tactician and could also read people very well, and thus he preserved and even increased his power when others would have likely been executed.
Herod was ruthless in getting rid of anyone he thought of as a rival of any kind. Over his life, he married ten women and so had many children and relatives that plotted against him and each other, which resulted in the death of a number of his relatives and children. For example, he had his brother-in-law, the High Priest, drowned in a swimming pool. He executed his wife, Mariamne, because of suspicions against her, and had her mother executed for plotting against him. Other sons were executed as well. Caesar Augustus is reported to have made the pun, “I would rather be Herod’s pig (Greek ‘hus’) than his son (Greek ‘huios’),” because Herod, acting Jewish, would not eat pork so his pigs got to live.
As it became certain that Herod was going to die very soon from the disease that ended his life, he summoned leaders of the Jews from all over his kingdom to come to Jerusalem. But when they arrived he imprisoned them in the hippodrome with orders that they all be killed the day he died so that day would be a day of mourning for the Jews instead of a day of rejoicing (as it turned out, when news of Herod’s death arrived in Jerusalem the guards let the men go free).
Herod’s reign was so ruthless and bloody that his having the children around Bethlehem killed to protect his throne from a potential rival did not even make it into the history books, and is only mentioned in the Bible.