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Having heard the prophesy of a child about to be born who would grow up to be King of the Jews, Herod, according to the Biblical account, ordered that all children under two years old be killed so as to eliminate competition to his rule, something he had done with great determination through his long reign. This poem imagines Herod's thoughts toward the end of his life when he has heard of this new competitor to his power and he is trying, once again, to will himself to defend himself through violence, as he has always done before, although he feels both his moral and his physical strength flagging.
The historical Herod was also a great builder of cities and buildings. In this regard, his most significant achievement was the building of what came to be known as the Third Temple on the site of Solomon's. It was a magnificent edifice, but ironically, Herod himself was not permitted into the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, because as an Idumean, a descendant of Esau, not Jacob, and he was not a member of one of the twelve tribes, and therefore technically not a Jew.
To preserve his rule, Herod ruthlessly killed all those who were plotting against him, or those he thought were plotting against him, including most dramatically, and intensely, Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess he had married to legitimatize his claim to being the King of the Hebrews. He governed at the pleasure of Roman emperors, securing his position by carrying out their policies. This role, of course, did not endear him to the people he ruled.
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