What do you do when your entire world collapses around you? Since this happens to many of us, it is always interesting to study the way people try to recover – if they do. Herod, young as he was, had a large number of people depending on him when it happened, and his reactions were well documented by Josephus; they showed him as he was, but also gave a hint of the future.
Phasael, the brother he loved and relied on, had killed himself, as mentioned in the previous segment. Herod did not know it, but he was certain that death would come to Phasael sooner or later, and there was probably no way he could save him. Hyrcanus was also in the hands of the enemy, and the Parthians were debating whether to attack Herod immediately, or postpone the attack to the next day. The situation was desperate. His future mother-in-law, Alexandra (daughter of Hyrcanus and mother of Herod’s fiancé, Mariamne) was an intelligent woman, to whose advice Herod often listened, and she suggested immediate escape; she knew Herod could not defeat the Parthians, and he agreed.
Herod assembled his soldiers and told them to prepare to march to Idumea. Those who could not walk far, he mounted on beasts of burden or put them in wagons. Mostly women and children of the household and entourage, they included Alexandra, Mariamne, his own mother, sister, youngest brother, and all the children. Among the children there were several infants, who would find the escape very hard, if they survived it at all. The women were in tears, extremely scared, expecting capture, torture, and death. The children, naturally, were even worse.
Herod kept his head, at least for a while. He went back and forth along the procession, encouraging the people, trying to help them bear the burden. He insisted that giving in to grief would hinder their flight, and that as flight was their only hope of survival, they must control themselves. He kept this exemplary attitude until the wagon his mother was traveling in overturned; she was in mortal danger. At this minute, Herod broke down and panicked, probably for the first time in his life – but not the last. The danger to his beloved mother’s death was too devastating after losing his father and worrying about his brother Phasael, but but that was not the only issue. He also feared that the inevitable delay, while trying to fix the wagon, would allow the Parthians to catch up with his group, and the vision of what they would do to him caused him to do the unthinkable – he had drawn his sword and was about to stab himself to death.
Herod was restrained by those around him. While holding him they shamed him by saying that it was not the act of a noble man to free himself from danger and disregard that of his friends. The violence of being seized and the humiliation of being thought weak restored him to his senses. He went to help revive his mother, got her what medical care he had among his followers, and managed to get the group back on the road. He was attempting to reach the fortress of Masada on his way to Idumea, and perhaps fortify himself and meet the enemy from there.
What he did not realize was that the Jews would attack him on the road, even before the Parthians. He was a match for them, even while encumbered by the women and children, and won the battle. Later he would build a palace to commemorate the spot, with a city around it, called Herodia. But trouble continued even after he won the battle –Masada, while well-fortified, was too small to hold his large following. So he sent a many away, supplying them with provisions, and told them to hide in several places in Idumea. About eight hundred people he left in Masada, where sufficient grain, water, and other necessities were stored, and he himself, followed by soldiers, went to Petra in Arabia, to meet Malchus, the Arab king who was an old friend of the family. He knew that Malchus had large sums of money which were given to him for safekeeping by Antipater, Herod’s late father, and Herod wanted to take the money and try, hoping against hope, to ransom his brother Phasael from the Parthians. Malchus would not do it, and explained that the Parthians threatened him to not see or help Herod. This was a lie, of course. Malchus simply did not want to return the money.
Realizing that he would get no help from Malchus, Herod turned toward Egypt. On the border of Egypt, he finally heard the truth about his brother’s death. Strangely, Malchus had a change of heart and hurried after Herod, with intent of helping him, but it was too late. Herod by then already reached Pelusium, and despite some difficulties in obtaining a ship, succeeded in sailing to Alexandria. Cleopatra received him with honor and respect, and ignoring past difficulties between them, tried to detain him in Egypt. There is speculation as to what position she wanted him to accept, but it is of no great importance, because Herod had a new idea and would not remain with her. He meant to go to Rome – despite the rumors of disorder and trouble in Italy, and the fact that it was winter and sailing was extremely dangerous. This was a very important decision for both Herod and Judrea.