Josephus describes the Israelite constitution as a theocracy and as an aristocracy. Since this constitution comes from God, according to Josephus, the implication is that aristocracy is an acceptable form of government, perhaps the best. Aristocracy was a fact of life for much of the Greco-Roman world at this time. In many cities, the poor were barred from taking an active role in government because of property qualifications and other barriers. In practice the boards of councillors that ran daily life were wealthy elites who realized the limits of their power in relation to the will of Rome. Within Rome itself, the Senate knew that it ultimately had to submit to the emperor, who could overrule its wishes through the collection of powers he wielded (intercessio; maius imperium; ius primae relationis; tribunicia potestas; etc.). Even in cities where democracy still existed in some form, it was a far cry from the kind of democracy we experience today: women, slaves, resident foreigners – these groups were generally (but not always) banned from taking part in elections and public debates.
The aristocracy that Josephus envisaged was a priestly one, and this is hardly surprising given the fact that he came from the priestly Hasmonean family (AKA the Maccabees), which had ruled Judea from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes until the advent of Pompey the Great and the rise of Herod. Even where the Torah permits the rule of a king, Josephus in his paraphrase adds the clause that the king may do nothing without the consent of the High Priest and the “senators” (which may represent the elders and/or the class of priests). At a stroke, he reduced monarchy to aristocracy. In the charged political climate of Josephus’ day, it was important to distance Judea from a certain kind of kingship, and aristocracy served as a recognizable substitute, acceptable to Rome (although the question remained of who would be in this aristocracy).
Kingship had an unfortunate history in Judea, and the Romans were not always sensitive to the fact that kingship meant something quite different for the Judeans. In principle Rome could tolerate kingship around the empire (but not within Rome itself, where wise emperors were careful to avoid referring to themselves as “king”). Kings of various territories were understood as intermediaries between the centre and the periphery. These kings are referred to as “client-kings” in the academic literature. Their people showed them appropriate respect that was symbolized through elaborate ceremony and nomenclature; but they submitted to the emperor and Senate, and they liaised with the provincial governors. The emperor, in principle, could set up anyone he liked as king (although it was in his interest to select someone with strong local support). Ruling indirectly through locals as they did in the case of client-kings is known as “soft power”, and it distinguished the Republic and early Empire from the later periods of Roman rule, where kings were abolished and replaced by bureaucratic officials.
But kingship in Judea was another matter. There had been a long period during which the Judeans had no king, the Exile to the first Hasmonean king. Traditionalists of a certain kind believed that kingship in Israel belonged to the House of David alone, and there were those who believed that when God restored the king to Israel, that king would be the Messiah. Such a king would not be answerable to Rome: he would answer to God alone. Into this world came the Hasmonean kings, priests from the family of Levi – not Judah. Propaganda exists from the Second Temple period that sought to prove the legitimacy of the Levitical claim to kingship: some accepted it; others did not. Indeed, there were those who interpreted certain events from that time as punishment from God for the usurpation of the royal name by the Hasmoneans.
If the Hasmoneans were problematic, Herod was more so. He was not even a true Israelite in the reckoning of some; he was an Idumean, an Edomite. Edom was the age-old enemy and brother of Israel. The Edomites had rejected their ties of kinship with Israel, and had rejoiced over Israel’s suffering (schadenfreude) when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and deported her inhabitants. The prophetic Book of Obadiah reflects God’s anger regarding the attitude of Edom, and prophesied that God would one day destroy Edom. This was fulfilled when their territory (today southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia) was invaded by the Nabatean Arabs. Petra, famous for its red stone and Greco-Roman architecture is the capital of these Nabatean Arabs.
To resume our story, the Edomites, known in Greek as Idumeans, drifted into southern Israel, where they were forced to convert to Judaism during the days of the Hasmonaean supremacy. During that period, Herod’s father rose to prominence and power under one of the last Hasmonean kings. Herod himself gained the title of king from the Romans – first the from the Second Triumvirate, then from Octavian. As has been said before (https://jessicahof.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/herod-the-king/), Herod’s story is complex, and this is not the place to go over all its details. Suffice it to say, as this post closes, Herod illustrated the problems of Judean kingship under Roman suzerainty. It was impossible to please everyone in that world. While he understood local and international politics very well, that did not prevent him from making some very serious mistakes. Admired by some, hated by others, his political and private life was a mess. Josephus hoped that the future would bring better rulers.