Physicians have long debated what caused King Herod’s death, but there is no doubt (or disagreement) that his demise was a horrid one. Many would say it was also well-deserved.
We know the king’s symptoms in some detail from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus actually wrote two accounts, the first in his Jewish War—a narrative of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, 66–70 C.E., written in the late 70s—and the second in his Jewish Antiquities—a much longer history of the Jewish people, written in the 90s. He wrote both works while he was in Rome. The second account of Herod’s final illness is more detailed than the first, but both are largely dependent on the firsthand account of Nicolaus of Damascus, who was Herod’s daily companion and thus an eyewitness to the king’s condition.1 Nicolaus was also in direct contact with the court physicians who treated Herod. Nicolaus wrote a 144-volume history of the world, but unfortunately almost all that remains of the Jewish section of this work is what was quoted or otherwise used by Josephus.