Agrippa I: An Archaeological Biography

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We’ve learned about two of the Herodian Rulers in our bioarchaeographies thus far: Herod Agrippa II, who was the ruler before whom the Apostle Paul made his defense in Acts 25-26, and Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist (Mt 6:17) and interviewed Jesus before his crucifixion (Lk 23:9).  In this archaeological biography, we’ll explore the life of Herod Agrippa I.

Herod Agrippa I was called Agrippa the Great even in his own day.1  He was the grandson of Herod the Great, and, through his friendship with the Roman imperial family, was granted the realms of Philip the Tetrarch and Herod Antipas under Caligula, and eventually the kingdom of his grandfather by Claudius.2 Thus, he ruled over various realms from AD 37 until his death in AD 44.

Agrippa in Historical Sources

Agrippa I Claudius Coin
A coin minted by Agrippa I bears laureate head of Tiberius and the inscription, “King Agrippa the Great, Friend of the Emperor.” Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Rudolf Künker GmbH & Co. KG, Osnabrück; Lübke & Wiedemann KG, Leonberg, http://www.kuenker.com

Agrippa was on intimate terms with Rome, but also devout in his Judaism, which made him popular with his Jewish subjects.  Josephus records an edict in which Claudius calls Agrippa a person “very dear” to him.3 He also writes that Agrippa ingratiated himself to the Jewish people when “he returned the kindness which the inhabitants of Jerusalem had shewed him. For he released them from the tax upon houses, every one of which paid it before: thinking it a good thing to requite the tender affection of those that loved him.”4

This desire to please the Jewish people is also seen in his persecution of the early Christian leaders, as described in the book of Acts:

“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” (Acts 12:1-3)

Agrippa was a skilled diplomat who knew how to appease both the Roman Emperor and the Jewish populace, staying in the good graces of both.

Agrippa’s Coins

Agrippa_I_prutah
A bronze prutah issued by Herod Agrippa I. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Within Jewish territories, Agrippa abided by the ban on graven images and issued a bronze prutah which featured a royal umbrella on one side, along with the inscription, “King Agrippa.”5 The reverse sided displayed three ears of barley and the date.

Agrippa’s other coins, which were circulated outside of the predominantly Jewish areas in his realm, bore graven images of either himself or the emperor.  The reverse sides included reliefs of temples and goddesses.  One rare coin featured his bust on one side and an image of his son, Agrippa II riding a horse on the reverse.

Agrippa’s Building Campaigns

Agrippa was not the builder that his grandfather was; indeed, none of the Herodian rulers that followed could match Herod the Great’s impressive construction campaigns.  He was, however, a great builder in his own right, and is perhaps most famous for two building campaigns in particular.

Josephus records that Agrippa initiated significant building projects in the city of Berytus (modern-day Beruit, Lebanon).  He writes:

“Now as Agrippa was a great builder in many places, he paid a peculiar regard to the people of Berytus. For he erected a theater for them, superior to many others of that sort, both in sumptuousness and elegance: as also an amphitheater, built at vast expenses: and besides these, he built them baths and porticos; and spared for no costs in any of his edifices, to render them both handsome and large.”6

Some ruins from Roman-era Berytus can still be seen in the center of Beruit today.

Roman_baths_beirut_AKKhalifeh_30
The remains of Roman baths at Berytus (modern-day Beirut. Photo: A.K.Khalifeh / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Josephus also describes a new wall, which he called the Third Wall, that Agrippa built to protect the northern part of the city as it grew.  Agrippa did not complete this wall, however, as he was afraid the emperor Claudius would think he was preparing the city for a rebellion. Josephus writes:

It was Agrippa who encompassed the parts added to the old city with this wall: which had been all naked before. For as the city grew more populous, it gradually crept beyond its old limits: and those parts of it that stood northward of the temple, and joined that hill to the city, made it considerably larger….Since therefore its inhabitants stood in need of a covering, the father of the present King, and of the same name with him, Agrippa, began that wall we spoke of. But he left off building it when he had only laid the foundations; out of the fear he was in of Claudius Cæsar: lest he should suspect that so strong a wall was built in order to make some innovation in public affairs.7

This wall was eventually completed by the Jewish insurgents of the Great Revolt who realized they needed protection after a Roman attack burned the undefended northern part of the city.

Agrippa Third Wall
A section of the Third Wall excavated by Sukenik and Mayer. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

The location of Agrippa’s Third Wall has been the matter of debate for many years.   Edwin Robinson identified the remains of an ancient wall north of the Old City as the Third Wall.  It was excavated from 1925-1927 by E.L Sukenik and L.A. Mayer, who concluded it was indeed Agrippa’s Third Wall.8  It was excavated again in 1965 by Kathleen Kenyon; while she never published an excavation report in her lifetime, she nevertheless concluded it was the siege wall (also known as a circumvallation wall), built by the Roman general, Titus.9 From 1972-1974, the wall was again excavated, this time by Sara Ben-Arieh and Ehud Netzer.  In an article published in the Israel Exploration Journal they concluded, “We can certainly ascribe this [wall section] to Josephus’s ‘Third Wall.’”10

More recently, excavations in Jerusalem’s downtown Russian Compound revealed the remains of a tower jutting out from an ancient wall.  On the western side of the tower, numerous ancient ballista and sling stones fired from Roman catapults during the Jewish Revolt were discovered on the ground.  Archaeologists have suggested it is part of Agrippa’s Third Wall.11

Agrippa’s Death

Agrippa’s death is recorded by the historians Luke and Josephus.  Both accounts appear to have independent sources, and agree at numerous points, although Josephus’ description is more detailed.

Luke records the incident as occurring at Caesarea (Acts 12:19) and says, “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (Acts 12:21-23).

Israel Aerial View
Caesarea Maritima – The remains of Herod the Great’s seaside palace can be seen in the middle of the photo jutting out into the sea. The amphitheater is to the left and the theater is to the right. Photo: Courtesy of Ferrell Jenkins, https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2012/11/27/acts-24-photo-illustrations-caesarea/

Compare Luke’s account with Josephus’:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Cesarea; which was formerly called Strato’s tower. And there he exhibited shews, in honour of Cesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together, of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shews, he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful; and came into the theater early in the morning. At which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflexion of the suns rays upon it, shone out after a surprizing manner: and was so resplendent as to spread an horror over those that looked intently upon him. And presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another; (though not for his good;) that “He was a God.” And they added, “Be thou merciful to us. For although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the King did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.…A severe pain also arose in his belly; and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life: while providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me. And I who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what providence allots, as it pleases God. For we have by no means lived ill: but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace: and the rumour went abroad every where that he would certainly die in a little time.…And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly, for five days, he departed this life. Being in the fifty fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.12

It is easy to see the points of similarity: Agrippa’s beautiful robe, the people hailing him as a god, Agrippa accepting their praise, and suffering an immediate, painful death as a result.

Because of the details in Josephus’ account, it is possible to pinpoint the exact location of this account.  In Caesarea, Herod Agrippa almost certainly resided in his grandfather’s luxurious seaside palace.  On either side of it was the amphitheater and the theater.  Josephus says it occurred in the theater, and today many tourists flock to the remains of the theater.  However, clues in his description lead to the conclusion that this event occurred within the amphitheater, and it is to this structure Josephus is referring with the imprecise term of “theater.”  Todd Bolen has given three reasons to believe Agrippa accepted the worship of people in the amphitheater13:

  1. The Time of Day – Josephus specifically says this occurred, “early in the morning,” when the sun’s rays reflected off of his dazzling robe. The Theater is west-facing, however, and the height of the seating makes it improbable that the sun would have reflected off of his robes in the morning if he was seated in the position of honor near the stage.  The amphitheater on the other hand, has fewer rows of seating, and the sun’s rays would have easily reflected off of the king’s robes if he had been in the western stands.
  2. Josephus says Agrippa was in the theater on the “second day” of a “festival” in “honor of Caesar.” Scholars have suggested that this was either the quinquennial celebration of the founding of Caesarea on March 5, AD 44, or a celebration of the emperor Claudius’ birthday on August 1, AD 44.  Both were known to have included sports as part of the festivities, and, thus, the amphitheater is the more logical location.
  3. Josephus describes another incident in Caesarea in which Pilate sat on his tribunal (bema) in the great stadium.14 It is reasonable to conclude that the bema from which Agrippa addressed the crowd was still located in the amphitheater a decade later.

The accounts by Josephus and Luke independently corroborate each other and the various lines of evidence suggest that Agrippa’s fateful decision to accept the praise of the people as a god occurred in the amphitheater of Caesarea in AD 44.

Caesarea-S-027
The low seating of the amphitheater would have made it possible for the sun to shine off of Agrippa’s silver robe in the early morning light. Photo: Bukvoed / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL / CC-BY 3.0

CONCLUSION

Like many of the Herodian rulers, King Agrippa I sought to maintain the support of Rome.  Unlike his grandfather, Herod the Great, who was despised by the Jewish people, Agrippa enjoyed the good will of his subjects and actively sought to seek their favor.  This is reflected in various ancient historical sources, be they biblical (Luke) or extra-biblical (Josephus).

 

Title Photo:  Courtesy of Todd Bolen, Bibleplaces.com.

Endnotes:

1 Josephus, Antiquities 7.2.2. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-7.html (Accessed April 2, 2020).

2 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Herod Agrippa I,” Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-Agrippa-I (Accessed March 11, 2020).

3 Josephus, Antiquities 19.5.3. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-19.html (Accessed April 2, 2020).

4 Josephus, Antiquities 19.6.3. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-19.html (Accessed April 2, 2020).

5 Mel Wacks, “Herod’s Grandchildren.” The Handbook of Biblical Numismatics. April 30 2008. http://www.amuseum.org/book/page11.html (Accessed April 2, 2020).

6 Josephus, Antiquities 19.7.5. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-19.html (Accessed April 2, 2020).

7 Josephus, War 5.4.2. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-5.html (Accessed April 4, 2020).

8 Hershel Shanks, “The Jerusalem Wall That Shouldn’t Be There.” BAR 13:3 (May/June 1987), 49.

9 Ibid, 50.

10 Sara Ben-Arieh, “The ‘Third Wall’ of Jerusalem,” in Jerusalem Revealed, ed. Yigael Yadin (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1975), 60, 62.

11 Daniel K. Eisenbud, “Evidence unearthed of Jerusalem’s protective ‘Third Wall’ from Second Temple period.” Jerusalem Post, October 20, 2016. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/evidence-unearthed-of-jerusalems-protective-third-wall-from-second-temple-period-470545 (Accessed April 4, 2020).

12 Josephus, Antiquities 19.8.2. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-19.html (Accessed April 2, 2020).

13 Todd Bolen, “Not in the Theater: Challenging Josephus’s Location for the Place of Herod Agrippa’s Death.” The Bible and Interpretation. July 2010. https://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/agrippa357926.shtml#sdfootnote1sym (Accessed April 2, 2020).

14 Josephus War 2.9.3. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-2.html (Accessed April 4, 2020).

 

 

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