Erode il grande (Herod the Great) (1959)



 Director:  Amaldo Genoino

Starring:  Edmund Purdom (Herod), Sylvia Lopez (Miriam), Massimo Girotti (Octavius),  Sandra Milo (Sarah), Elena Zareschi (Alexandra), Ettore Manni (Aaron). 

Country:  Italian.


A not very good story of Roman-appointed king of Judaea (37-4 BC), who built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land but who was the centre of political and family intrigues in his later years, including his troubles with his wife's admirers. The New Testament portrays him as a tyrant, into whose kingdom Jesus of Nazareth was born.  


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Herod is King of Judaea.  He order to crucify two men is being carried out.  A mother of one of the men cries that her son is not guilty.  A man in the crowd says that the man is being crucified because he called King Herod a murderer.

Bad news arrives for Herod about the Battle of Actium between their allies Cleopatra and Marc Antony against Octavius.  Aaron, captain of the Royal Guards, reports that most of their soldiers have been taken prisoner, are in flight or dead.  There is only a handful of the Royal Guards left.  His allies, including the Arabs, were also wiped out.  Antony has fled and all their ships have been sunk. 

Herod is very upset about the loss.  His kingdom is in ruins.  He won't let anybody in to see him.  Aaron visits his wife Sarah and tells her she must warn Queen Miriam about Herod's mood because she will be able to save him.  Miriam's mother, who does not like Herod, does not want her to see the King.  The King is considering suicide.  He says the whole city wants him dead.  But the Queen tells him to fight back, adding: "You must live.  I love you.".  The news that the Queen loves him buoys his spirits because she was originally brought to him as a slave and hated him.  

Herod's son Antipater is jealous of Daniel, the brother of Miriam, because it is said that Daniel will be the next king.  Herod tells his staff that he will go to Rhodes to pay homage to Octavius.  Aaron will accompany Herod.  Sarah is very sad to see her husband leave again so soon after he had just returned.  Miriam's mother hires one of the guards to kill Herod on the road to Rhodes.  Herod is suspicious of Miriam and others in the palace.  After Herod leaves, Miriam's mother starts to make her son Daniel the king. 

On his journey, King Herod  is warned to go no farther because the Romans are killing everybody.  Herod sends Aaron back to the palace to stay with Queen Miriam and protect her and then continues the journey. 

Roman encampment.  Herod has been arrested by the Romans.  He is brought to Octavius who is inclined to execute the man. But Herod masterfully pleads his case very well.  He tells Octavius that although he fought against him, he is a very useful man to have working for him.  Octavius agrees to save him and use him in his administration. 

The hired assassin returns to tells everyone in the palace that Herod is dead, his body devoured by dogs.  Miriam's mother is very happy about the news.  Now to clear the way for the coronation of Daniel, the loyal Aaron must be killed.  The hired assassin tries to kill Aaron, but Aaron is too good of a soldier and kills the man who was supposed to be his best friend..  Aaron then tells Miriam about the fate of Herod.  She is very upset and asks Aaron to kill her, but he refuses telling her she must live for her recently born son.  Aaron, Miriam and the young son flee along with the Royal Guards. 

The coronation ceremony for Daniel begins.  But news arrives that the Romans are coming.  Miriam's mother tries to finish the ceremony, but Herod and Roman Commander Claudius Serverus arrive to stop the ceremony.  Antipater now lies to his father saying that the disloyal Miriam had fled with Aaron and her son.  Herod searches for Miriam and finds her.  They go back to the palace.

Prince Daniel is found face down in the pool, dead.  His mother is very upset and calls Herod a murderer.  Miriam confronts Herod and asks if he had her brother killed.  After some verbal fumbling, Herod admits that he had Daniel killed.  The boy had tried to take the throne and that made him dangerous.  But now Miriam refuses to love Herod, which is naturally very upsetting to Herod. 

Antipater continues his calumny by telling Herod that Miriam had herself wanted to be the ruler in place of Herod.  He goes on to say that Miriam and Aaron had, after all, lived with each other after they fled the palace.  The naturally suspicious Herod starts to become unhinged.

Sarah asks Miriam about the sudden disappearance of her husband and his replacemen as Captain of the Guard by Ephrahaim.  Aaron has been arrested.  Miriam only talks to King Herod to free Aaron.  The now paranoid Herod demands that Miriam kill Aaron to prove her love for him. 

Antipater pretends he is on the side of Miriam.  He tells her that he will bribe the guards with gold from the sale of her expensive necklace.  The guard is bribed and Aaron is freed.  Antipater then kills the accomplice that actually carried out the bribing.   Aaron and Sarah flee the palace. 

With news that Aaron has been freed, Herod starts doubting the very paternity of Miriam's son.  Now he demands that Miriam ask him for his forgiveness for her committing adultery.  Miriam says "No, never!"  Miriam now fears for her baby's life.  She tells her mother to take the baby and flee. 

Antipater spreads his poison again saying that Miriam sold her necklace to bribe the guards to get her lover Aaron free.  Herod now makes Miriam a prisoner in her own palace. 

Herod sees a bright shining star in the sky.  He asks his astrologer what it means and the old man tells him that it is a warning to his enemies of his might.  He adds that is is not a sign of the coming of the Messiah as some will say. 

Miriam is found guilty of adultery by the court.  She did not confess, did not ask for mercy.  She only asked mercy for the men who had judged her.  Herod says the sentence should be carried out.  She will be stoned to death. 

Sarah learns of the fate of Miriam.  She hesitates to tell her husband for fear he loves Miriam.  But Aaron keeps asking about Miriam and Sarah tells him.  He tells Sarah that he is going to the palace in spite of his wounds from the torture inflicted upon him in jail.  His wife begs him not to go. 

Antipater, still up to his old tricks, tells his father of the signs of a new messiah who will become King of Judaea.  Herod tells his men to go to Bethlehem and kill all the new born males. 

Miriam is to be stoned.  She is told that if she confesses they will let her go.  But she will not confess and so she is stoned to death.  Aaron arrives to late to save her.  Herod, learning that she refused to confess to save herself, concludes that this is proof that she was innocent.  He then turns his anger on his son Antipater.  He tells him that he was the one who killed Miriam and he strangles his son to death.  Herod has now completely lost touch with reality.  He starts accusing his own shadow of trying to usurp the crown.  He is delusional and thinks that his hands are covered in blood.  He finally drops dead. 

The ending statement is:  "There must be a place in the world for love rather than hate." 


This was an o.k. movie, but a little maddening.  Any one could see that Herod had a tendency to paranoia.  His wife rejects her husband because he had her brother killed.  But if you know anything about history, royalty usually kills its competitors.  Daniel would have been the rallying point for any revolt against Herod.  But rather than accept this, Miriam decides to reject her husband and not talk to him.  This gives his son Antipater the perfect opportunity to spread lies without being contradicted by the truth.  In a sense, Miriam seals her own fate (with help from Antipater) because she refuses to communicate with her husband and refute some of the lies he has heard from Antipater.  Miriam chooses to be a martyr rather than simply be honest with her husband.  Herod did not want to execute his wife, but she would absolutely do nothing in her own defense.  I thought, because of this, that Miriam was not a very sympathetic person.  Even with his tendency to paranoia, Herod actually gave her many opportunities to get out of her own execution.  She would not take any of the opportunities to save herself.  Therefore, I thought the ending line was pretty sappy and misleading for Herod truly loved Miriam more than Miriam loved Herod.  Sylvia Lopez as Miriam and Sandra Milo as Sarah are both nice to look at.  Edmund was pretty good as Herod. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


73 BC  --  born, Latin HERODES MAGNUS, southern Palestine, son of Antipater, an Edomite (an Arab from the region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba). Antipater was a man of great influence and wealth, who increased both by marrying the daughter of a noble from Petra (in southwestern Jordan), at that time the capital of the rising Nabataean kingdom. Thus Herod was, although a practicing Jew, of Arab origin on both sides.

63  --  Pompey invades Palestine; Antipater supports his campaign and begins a long association with Rome, from which both he and Herod benefit.

69  --  Herod meets Mark Antony, whose lifelong friend he remains.

47  --  Julius Caesar appoints Antipater procurator of Judaea and confers on him Roman citizenship. Antipater appoints Herod governor of Galilee.

53  --  Mark Antony makes Herod tetrarch of Galilee.

40 --  the Parthians invade Palestine, civil war breaks out, and Herod flees to Rome. The senate nominates him king of Judaea and equips him with an army to make good his claim.

37  --  at the age of 36, Herod becomes unchallenged ruler of Judaea (for the next 32 years). He divorces his first wife, Doris, and marries Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess.

During the conflict between the two triumvirs Octavian and Antony, the heirs to Caesar's power, Herod supports his friend Antony, even when Antony's mistress, Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, uses her influence with Antony to gain much of Herod's best land.

31  --  Antony's final defeat at Actium; Herod frankly confesses to the victorious Octavian which side he had taken. Octavian makes Herod the ruler of Palestine. He also restores to Herod the land Cleopatra had taken.

22  and 20 -- Herod's lands increase to include not only Palestine but parts of what are now the kingdom of Jordan to the east of the river and southern Lebanon and Syria. 

He creates the port of Caesarea Palaestinae on the coast between Joppa (Jaffa) and Haifa, which later becomes the capital of Roman Palestine, and Sebaste on the long-desolate site of ancient Samaria. He rebuilds the Temple and patronizes the Olympic Games, whose president he becomes.

He is always fighting with the Pharisees, the leading faction of Judaism.

As he grows older, Herod gets meaner and more unstable.  His mental instability is fed by the intrigue and deception that went on within his own family. He becomes very jealous of his beloved wife, Mariamne, and his sister and mother-in-law make use of this to poison his mind against his wife.  Herod murders Mariamne, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother. Besides Doris and Mariamne, Herod had eight other wives and a total of 14 children.

Herod suffers from arteriosclerosis and is in great pain and is mentally unstable.  He has to repress a revolt involving his Nabataean neighbors, and finally loses the favor of Augustus. Finds himself in mental and physical disorder. He alters his will three times and finally disinherits and kills his firstborn, Antipater.

4 B.C.  --  shortly before Herod's death, he orders the slayings of the infants of Bethlehem. He dies in Jericho, Judaea, after a failed attempt at suicide. His final testament provided that, subject to Augustus' sanction, his realm would be divided among his sons: Archelaus, king of Judaea and Samaria with Philip and Antipas sharing the remainder.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)