Agrippa I - King Herod Agrippa

© 2002 Dr. Barbara Thiering from QOF website

Agrippa I (born 11 BC, ruled AD 37-41 then 41-44 with wider powers, died AD 44) had all the personal gifts of his grandfather, was equally erratic, but lived in more demanding times. His rise to power is recorded in Ant. 18, 143-204, 224-256. He was educated from boyhood in Rome, as all the Herod sons were. Herod the Great had established a house there at the time of his alliance with Augustus in 31 BC. Interest in this gifted family and in the eastern country they represented brought the young Agrippa into the highest Roman court circles. He became a close friend of the emperor Tiberius' son, and his mother Bernice became a close friend of Antonia, the sister-in-law of Tiberius. Agrippa was also "brought up with Claudius and his circle".

Antonia may be seen as a key player in the history. She was highly respected as " a virtuous and chaste woman", who "kept her life free from reproach" by refusing to remarry after the death of her husband the emperor's brother. She became a patron of the young Agrippa, and when he fell into huge debt because of his extravagance, she paid his debts. During following years it appears - although this is not pointed out- that the chief advisers on Jewish affairs to the Roman court were the leading women. Subsequently Agrippina the wife of Claudius played a decisive role, then Poppaea the wife of Nero.

Agrippa fell into debt because of lavish entertaining in his Rome house, inviting distinguished Romans to banquets in order to gain political influence. His single aim was to regain the Herod monarchy that had been abolished in AD 6. He particularly cultivated Gaius, the grandson of Antonia, who was much favoured because his father Germanicus had been a war hero. As a child, Gaius played around the army camps, wearing military boots, and was given the nickname Caligula, or 'Little Boots'.

Agrippa, bankrupt, was eventually banished from Rome by the dour Tiberius. Arriving back in his homeland, he was determined to commit suicide. He was saved by his faithful wife Cypros, who contacted Agrippa's sister Herodias asking for financial help from the Herod property. The notorious Herodias- she who had married the tetrarch Antipas after being married to his half-brother - persuaded her husband to give Agrippa a job, but the two sides of the family remained in tension.

Towards the end of Tiberius' reign, about AD 34, the news came to Agrippa that the emperor was declining in health and that Gaius Caligula was a favourite to succeed him. Agrippa scraped up money to pay his debts and made his way back to Rome. He courted Gaius, but one day made a mistake that nearly cost him his hopes. Out riding in a chariot with Gaius, he flattered him by saying that he would be a far better emperor, and he hoped Tiberius would soon relinquish his office. He was overheard by his chariot-driver Eutychus, who went to report him to the prefect of the city then was sent in chains to Capri, where Tiberius preferred to live. After Tiberius' usual procrastination, Antonia intervened and secured a hearing for Eutychus. As a result Agrippa was arrested, and kept in prison for six months until March AD 37 when Tiberius died. Gaius Caligula did succeed him, and Agrippa quickly called on his old friend to give him back the royal status of the Herods. This event was the real turning-point of the history for Christians, as may be shown.

For the next seven years, Agrippa I swung from one side to the other of the pressure groups in his kingdom, favouring at first the pro-Roman Sadducees, then anti-Roman Pharisees. Caligula's descent into insanity was a cause of considerable embarrassment, and after he was assassinated Agrippa turned to another former friend, the new emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), gaining wider powers. But Caligula's example seems to have affected him. He saw himself as an eastern Caesar, at the least a deputy to Rome, and best believed by the populace to be a god. His self-proclamation as a godlike, messianic figure is described in colourful detail by Josephus (Ant. 19, 343-351). After appearing at daybreak on a rooftop in Caesarea in a glittering silver garment, receiving organised adulation as a god, he was suddenly stricken with acute pains in the abdomen, and after five days of agony he died. The parallel account in Acts 12: 20-23 says that he was struck by an angel of the Lord, and eaten by worms. The pesher of those phrases means that he was poisoned by a leader of the Qumran community.

Return to Biographies
  • Return to main page