1. Antipater the Idumean.—When the wise queen Salome Alexandra died (B.C. 70) the differences between the characters and the interests of her two sons resulted in open discord. A certain Antipater, the son of a governor of Idumea, found opportunity for his ambition in fanning the flame. He was a bold, crafty, unscrupulous man, this Antipater, and wanted the sovereignty for himself. He grasped the position at once. He saw that it would be important not to make enemies of both brothers. To gain his object he must seem to espouse the cause of one or the other. He did not covet the position of priest-king, only of king. Hyrcanus, the weak elder son of Alexander Jannæus, was already installed in the priesthood. Antipater determined, for the present, to support him in the double dignity. He shrewdly thought that it would be easier to hoodwink, and, when the time came, to supplant such a puppet as Hyrcanus, than to make a tool of the younger brother.
2. Rome arbitrates.—So after the death of their mother the two brothers began fighting for the crown. The Pharisees were mostly on the conservative side of Hyrcanus, and the Sadducees with the more attractive Aristobulus. In an evil hour Aristobulus asked Pompey, the great Roman consul, to arbitrate on the matter. Pompey was busy himself at the time with his conquests in Asia, but presently he received envoys at Damascus from the rival brothers. For a while Pompey’s decision was held doubtful, and the impatient Aristobulus one day withdrew without waiting for it any longer. This disrespectful action helped Pompey to come to a decision. The victorious Roman general determined to settle the dispute in his own fashion. He marched against Jerusalem, reduced it after a three months’ siege (B.C. 63), declared the possessions of Alexander Jannæus to be forfeit to Rome, proclaimed Aristobulus a rebel, and confirmed Hyrcanus in the priesthood, but with the lower title of ethnarch instead of king. It was a strong measure on the part of Pompey. Still it was strictly political and not religious warfare, and in that sense to be honourably distinguished from the tactics of Antiochus Epiphanes. Pompey made war on the Jews, and not on Judaism. Though the Temple was in his power, he left its altars undesecrated and its treasures untouched.
3. Antipater’s Plans.—It turned out a fortunate arbitration for Antipater. He was very clever and quite unscrupulous. He recognised the power of Rome, and having no feeling for Judea except as regarded himself, determined at all costs to keep friends with the Roman government. Great as Rome was at this time, she did not despise small partisans; and, like the mouse in the fable, Antipater more than once made himself really useful to the lion. Little by little he gained his object, and saw his own house rise and the house of the Asmoneans fall. He got his two sons, Herod and Phasael, appointed to the governorships of Jerusalem and Galilee. Later on, he arranged a marriage between his son Herod and a beautiful girl called Mariamne, the great-granddaughter of Alexander Jannæus. This alliance, he thought, made another firm rivet in the family chain he was forging. If he had only known, that seemingly strong link was fated to be the first to snap. But if he had known, it would probably have made no difference in his selfish, headlong course. Hyrcanus was such a puppet that he was left in possession of such shadowy dignity as the priesthood conferred. Antipater transacted state business in Hyrcanus’s name, and minor and local matters in the provinces were settled on the spot by representative councils, which were set up in five different places. Supreme authority on all subjects was exercised by the Sanhedrin, which had its seat in Jerusalem.
4. The Sanhedrin.—The Sanhedrin was a council consisting of seventy-one learned men, chosen entirely for their goodness and their wisdom. Character was the great point; no proselyte, no money-lender was admissible. The members of the Sanhedrin were taken from all ranks of the nation, but the high priest himself could not claim to be a member, and the king was excluded, lest his opinion, backed by his lofty position, might carry too much weight. Young men, too, who might be hasty in their judgments, and unmarried men, who might be harsh, were alike ineligible. Grave cases, of the sort which come before our English judges in the criminal courts, were brought to the Sanhedrin to decide upon, and it was finely thought that men, who had not the sympathy and experience which years and children bring, could not rightly weigh the temptations which lead less happy folks to sin. The Sanhedrin could settle small disputes arising out of civil or ceremonial law, and in serious cases it had the power of punishment, under some limitations, even to the extreme penalty of death. But this right was taken away by the Romans about the year 30. From that date the procurator had to confirm the order to any capital sentence which the Sanhedrin might pronounce. Some people think that the beginning of this national court of justice may be traced, like so many other good things, to Ezra. They think that the men of the Great Synagogue, which Ezra founded on the return to Palestine, gradually developed into the councillors of the Sanhedrin. Other historians say that the Great Synagogue and the Sanhedrin were quite distinct institutions, though both names come from Greek roots, and mean the same, an ‘assembling together.’
5. The Fall of the Asmonean House.—Aristobulus and his two sons were taken prisoners to Rome by Pompey (61 B.C.). They escaped, and were recaptured, and revolted again; and a few years later Aristobulus died, and the elder son, Alexander, was beheaded by command of Pompey. Yet a few years more, and the younger son, Antigonus, after a desperate struggle, was executed by command of Mark Antony (37 B.C.). The interval was a stormy one. Under the successive changes in the Roman Government Judea remained tributary to Rome, and the Asmoneans were treated as rebels. Hyrcanus continued to reign, but did not govern, as the Roman nominee. Pompey, Cæsar, Cassius, and finally Mark Antony, all favoured Antipater, who was the virtual ruler. So much power had he, even over the Sanhedrin, that when his son Herod, the governor of Galilee, was once summoned before that assembly to answer for a lawless act of bloodshed of which he had been guilty, the very judge lost courage to accuse the son of the dreaded usurper. Herod, on his own responsibility, had had some captives executed. Sentence of death was the distinct, and solemn, and seldom exercised right of the Sanhedrin alone. It was, nevertheless, only with great difficulty that the poor weak Hyrcanus had been induced to summon the council. Herod came forward, bold and defiant, and at the sight of him and his armed followers, all the members of the Sanhedrin, save the old judge Shemaiah, lost their courage and dignity, and, with much greater haste than he had summoned it, Hyrcanus dissolved his council. There were endless insurrections. Under the triumvirate (Cassius, Cæsar, and Pompey) there was a serious revolt, and Jerusalem was occupied and the Temple robbed (52 B.C.). When Julius Cæsar came to be first consul of Rome and first power in the world there was a little breathing-time. He showed himself friendly to the Jews, and his murder (44 B.C.), which was so great a blunder that one a little forgets the crime of it, was nowhere more deplored than in Judea. The grief of the Jews lasted, perhaps, the longer because Julius Cæsar’s successor, Cassius, imposed a very heavy tribute on them. Herod was collector-in-chief, and showed himself more Roman than the Romans in his activity of extortion. The Roman government, so supported by the Idumean usurpers, continued consistent in its support of them. Antipater was poisoned during the consulship of Cassius, and his murderer was executed by Roman soldiers. At last Antigonus thought he had a chance. It was after the battle of Philippi, when Mark Antony came to Palestine (40 B.C.). Antigonus got the Parthians to help him, and for three years this brave descendant of the Maccabees held Jerusalem against the enemy. He got Phasael and Hyrcanus into his power, and Herod barely escaped. Phasael seems to have lacked the Idumean audacity; he killed himself in his prison. Poor old Hyrcanus had his ears cut off—a hard fate for the gentle, inoffensive old man. But the hope of Antigonus was not only an Asmonean restoration, but to unite and renew in his own person the offices of priest and king. No mutilated priest might stand at God’s altar, so Hyrcanus, by having his ears cut off, was as effectually put out of his nephew’s way as if he had been put to death. Possibly Hyrcanus, if he had been consulted, might have preferred the latter fate as the more merciful. He had it in the end. The triumph of Antigonus, great as it was while it lasted, lasted only a very little while. The Roman and his legions were more than a match for the Asmonean prince. Mark Antony took Jerusalem at last (37 B.C.), exactly twenty-six years, to the day, after Pompey’s capture of the city. Antigonus was put to death, and Herod the Idumean was proclaimed King of Judea.