The Brutal Death Of King Herod

Herod the Great, who reigned in Judea (now roughly equivalent to the modern-day nation of Israel) from approximately 72 to 74 BCE until approximately 1 BCE, is one of the key secondary figures in New Testament history. For example, the Bible claims that he ordered the massacre of all the boys under 2 years old around Bethlehem, furious that a new king — which is to say, Jesus Christ — was rumored to have been born in the area. However, historian Paul Maier claimed in his article "Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem" that the event never happened.

History does, however, give something of a complete picture of his death, although multiple sources, some written years if not decades after the event, paint a confusing picture of what actually happened. What is known with almost absolute certainty is that his death was gruesome and painful, although if he came down with it today, it could be treated rather easily through modern medicine, lifestyle changes, and surgery.

Herod likely died of chronic kidney disease

In approximately 1 CE, which is to say, around four to five years after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the life and reign of Herod the Great came to an end. For the account of exactly how he died, we turn to the best historical source we have on the topic: the ancient text, "Antiquities of the Jews," written by Flavius Josephus approximately 90 years after Herod died.

Josephus writes of the king having his private parts putrefied, his breath so terrible that it was not unlike the smell of a decaying corpse and the presence of worms in his testes. He was also reportedly in such pain that he attempted suicide.

So what illness befell him? In 2002 medical researchers revisited the case. According to Jan Hirschmann, professor of medicine at the University of Washington, ancient records indicate Herod suffered from "intense itching, painful intestinal problems, breathlessness, convulsions of every limb, and gangrene of the genitalia," per ABC News. Modern doctors came to the conclusion that while at the end of his life, Herod was "a walking encyclopedia of disease," what killed him, they believe, was chronic kidney disease, which is known to cause bad breath, or halitosis. The unpleasant issue of his maggot-filled testicles was likely gangrene, a separate issue.