Full House: Idumaean Preeminence in the Court of Judaea

The power struggles among these Idumaean nobles, which probably originated long before the Hasmonean annexation, were no longer simply local fights between petty elites. Instead, they were transported from a local Idumaean context to the national stage of the Judaean royal court and the Roman Near East.

See Also: The Many Faces of Herod the Great (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015)

By Adam Kolman Marshak
Gann Academy
Waltham, MA
February 2015

One of the hallmarks of the Hellenistic and Republican Levant was the active and close interaction of multiple ethnic groups within one kingdom and the merging of their social norms and identities together into new and innovative hybrids. Hasmonean Judaea was no exception. Far from being a uniquely and exclusively Judaean and Jewish kingdom, the Hasmonean realm and especially its royal court were an active “melting pot” in which multiple ethnicities participated equally and formed new relationships that had not existed previously. There is, perhaps, no better example than the family of Herod the Great, who are called the Antipatrids after Herod’s father Antipater. It was not alone, however. Indeed, Idumaean factions not only were present, but dominated the court of the last Hasmonean high priest and ethnarch, John Hyrcanus II, a political reality that demands we move beyond overly simplistic understandings of Hasmonean Judaea and its ethnic make-up to a deeper understanding of the complex ways in which ethnicities coexisted and interacted with each other in the ancient Greek East.

Building on the work I have done in several articles and in my monograph, The Many Faces of Herod the Great, I will present two case-studies that show just how integrated the Idumaeans, and in particular the Antipatrids, were within the court of John Hyrcanus. By the end of his reign, Idumaean aristocrats and their power struggles had moved from the local stage to national prominence within the royal court. It would not be unreasonable, therefore, to assert that Idumaean power struggles had become Judaean power struggles, conflicts that ultimately resulted in the rise of a mixed Idumaean/Judaean (Herodian/Hasmonean) dynasty, a truly Graeco-Roman institution, which was an ideal ally and friend to Rome.


The Hasmoneans under John Hyrcanus I, Judah Aristobulus I, and Alexander Jannaeus (ca. 134-76 BCE) were able to expand their territory significantly, and as a result, annexed large regions populated by non-Judaeans. As they expanded, they ruled their new territory through native vassals or “Friends,” known as philoi (Seth Schwartz, 2001, 70-72). Idumaea was one of these annexed territories. Along with a conversion to Judaism and allegiance to the Jerusalem Temple, Idumaea’s elites became a trusted and loyal part of the Hasmonean regime within a few generations. In particular, Herod’s father, Antipater, rose to become the most powerful man within the Hasmonean court largely because of his military and political skill; he had helped Hyrcanus win a civil war against his brother, Judah Aristobulus, and had aided Julius Caesar in his civil war with Pompey the Great, specifically reinforcing Caesar’s troops outside of Alexandria. In so doing, Antipater gained the support of Rome and its leaders. By the time Herod had entered public life, his family dominated all others. Nevertheless, during these the early years, his family’s hold on power was not entirely secure, and it competed for influence with a rival faction led by the courtier Malichos.

Our only sources for this individual, Josephus’ Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities, never tell us precisely of Malichos’ origins. An onomastic analysis suggests a Nabataean context (Abraham Schalit, 1969, 749-750). However, while Nabataea and Judaea were certainly allies during the reign of Hyrcanus II, Josephus provides us no additional indications of any other Nabataeans in the Judaean court.

But, there are several examples of Idumaean courtiers, and Idumaea had long been a part of the Judaean kingdom. As Aryeh Kasher has argued persuasively, Nabataeans began expanding into Idumaea during the Persian period (Kasher, 1988, 6-10). Thus, it is possible that Malichos and his family were Idumaean by geography but Nabataean by ethnicity. If so, Malichos’ rivalry with Antipater and Antipater’s clan may have been a continuation of a longstanding struggle for power and influence between two Idumaean aristocratic families who had become the preeminent factions within the court of Hyrcanus II. As we will see, the behavior of these two courtiers strongly supports such a picture.

As the Roman world erupted into civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, the court in Jerusalem experienced its own internal struggle. During this upheaval, Antipater and his family sought the approval of the preeminent Roman official in the East at the time, Gaius Cassius Longinus (lead conspirator in the assassination of Caesar). Additionally, each side recruited a private army to defend its interests and attack the position of the other. Ultimately, Malichos was able to poison Antipater, but his victory was short-lived, as Herod and his brother Phasael were able to secure Cassius’ approval to execute Malichos. Although Malichos’ partisans attempted to avenge his death by attacking the Antipatrids and their supporters, Herod and his brother were able to suppress the Malichean faction and assume their father’s place as the preeminent men at court.

This entire story of the rivalry between the Antipatrids and Malichos is one of intense courtly rivalry that disintegrated into armed conflict and ultimately political murder. Each side was angling for greater power and influence within the court of Hyrcanus. As we have seen, the Antipatrids triumphed primarily because of their Roman support, a theme that would reoccur in all of the major courtly conflicts within the next decade; whoever befriended Rome controlled Judaea.

More importantly for our analysis of the Judaean court, this story also shows quite clearly the preeminence and dominance of the Idumaean factions within the court of John Hyrcanus II. As stated above, local Friends had long been the link between annexed territory and the Hasmonean center. The family of Malichos and the Antipatrids are two examples of these philoi. Although never explicitly stated, it is likely that these two families had been feuding and struggling for power even before Idumaea came under the control of the Hasmoneans. Their rivalry was thus transferred from a local Idumaean context onto the Judaean political stage, and victory by one faction over the other meant more than just control of Idumaea; it meant domination of the entire Judaean kingdom.

This theme of Idumaean conflicts becoming larger Judaean ones and Idumaean rivals threatening the security of Antipatrid dominance reappears in our next case study, the Kostobaros Affair. In this episode, Herod has become king, but rival Idumaean nobles are still a threat to him. This time, the threat comes from an unexpected corner: his brother-in-law.

Kostobaros and the Sons of Baba

Under Herod’s leadership, the Antipatrids were able to destroy their rivals, and in 40 BCE, the Romans appointed Herod king of Judaea, a position he secured with his defeat of the Hasmonean Mattathias Antigonus in 37 BCE. Following this victory, Herod ruthlessly eliminated any members of the Hasmonean family who he felt threatened his throne. By 29 BCE, all such Hasmonean were gone, except the Sons of Baba. These elusive figures appear within Josephus’ discussion of the plot to detach Idumaea from Judaea. In this plot, Kostobaros, who had married Herod’s sister Salome and been appointed strategos (governor) of Idumaea, sought to remove Idumaea from Judaean control. In his efforts, he had enlisted the support of Cleopatra, Herod’s rival in Egypt. Furthermore, according to Josephus, he appealed to an Idumaean particularism in order to secure the support of local nobles. Kostobaros’ family had been priests of the god Qos, as is indicated in his theophoric name, and one of his stated goals was removal of the Jerusalem cult and the resumption of the traditional Idumaean religious practices.

The Sons of Baba seem to have participated in this plot, although exactly what role they played is unclear. When Herod captured Jerusalem in 37 BCE, he ordered Kostobaros to block the city’s exits and capture any fleeing Hasmoneans. Instead, Kostobaros allowed the Sons of Baba to leave the city and offered them refuge on his estates in Idumaea. They remained there in hiding for more than a decade until he and they were hunted down and executed.

Why was Kostobaros so willing to help these Sons of Baba? We can begin to answer that question by determining their ethnicity, which, as Eliezer Oren, Uriel Rappaport and Israel Ronen have theorized, was Idumaean (Oren and Rappaport, 1984, 114-153; Ronen, 1988, 214-220). They would therefore represent yet another Idumaean clan that, like Herod’s, had married into the Hasmonean family. Marriage into the ruling family would suggest a relatively high status for the Sons of Baba and provide another example of an Idumaean family at the center of Judaean politics. Like Malichos and his family, the Sons of Baba opposed the Antipatrids, having sided against them in the civil war with Antigonus.

Evidence for their proposed ethnicity comes from their decision to hide on the Idumaean estates of Kostobaros. While it is possible that they could have remained undetected for twelve years regardless of their geographical origin, it certainly would have been easier for them to hide amongst their own people. An additional support for this theory is the existence of funerary inscriptions found in an explicitly Idumaean context in a necropolis in Marisa. In particular, a group of inscriptions mention a Babatas and Babas, a brother and sister, the children of Kosnatanos, son of Ammoios (Oren and Rappaport, 1984, 114-153; Peters and Thiersch, 1905, 45, nos. 10-11). Even if the Sons of Baba who appear in Josephus are not related to these two individuals, the appearance of these specific names in Marisa supports the theory that the Sons of Baba were of Idumaean origin.

Like Herod when he first seized the throne of Judaea, Kostobaros initially would have lacked any real legitimacy and would have needed support to succeed in his revolt. Besides Cleopatra’s aid, he might have hoped that the Idumaean and Hasmonean Sons of Baba would help him gain the allegiance of elites within Idumaea and the acquiescence of disaffected nobles within Judaea. The combined support of the extremely powerful Egyptian queen and the Sons of Baba, the only remaining important Hasmonean opposition, would have been enough to unite those opposed to Herod’s rule and would have helped Kostobaros secure his new regime. Perhaps an independent Idumaea under his control was Kostobaros’ price for hiding the Sons of Baba until they could depose Herod and regain the throne for the Hasmonean family. If so, he had been planning his revolt for more than a decade before he actually attempted to carry it out. Regardless of Kostobaros’ aims, his plans ultimately failed, and Herod successfully crushed the conspiracy.

This episode is important for our purposes because it highlights the power and centrality of Idumaean aristocrats within the Judaean kingdom and its political intrigues. In this case, Kostobaros, whose family had been Idumaean nobility long before Idumaea’s annexation to the Hasmonean kingdom, sought greater power through an alliance with Cleopatra and a rebellion against Herod. Additionally, he formed an alliance with the Sons of Baba, who seem to have been Hasmoneans of Idumaean origin. While described by Josephus within a Judaean context, this alliance was one Idumaean elite attempting to enlist the support of other Idumaean nobility in his quest for autonomy and an Idumaea independent of Judaean control.

Another one of these Idumaean nobles who conspired against Herod was the courtier Dositheos. His background and story shed even more light on the various interests involved in Kostobaros’ scheme. Dositheos had been a member of the Hasmonean court even before Herod ascended the throne. In the early days of Herod’s tetrarchy (42 BCE), Dositheos’ family had sided against Herod and his brother Phasael and, in a delegation to Marc Antony at Tyre, attempted to persuade him not to support the Antipatrids. The delegation failed, and Dositheos’ family members were executed. Although we do not know for sure that Dositheos supported his family’s petition, Josephus strongly suggests that he did (A.J. 15.169). Despite the family’s initial animosity towards the Antipatrids, they must have made their peace with Herod. Less than a decade later, Dositheos’ brother Joseph married Herod’s sister Salome, becoming strategos of Idumaea in the process and achieving significant influence within the Herodian court.

After a short marriage, however, Salome accused Joseph of impropriety with Herod’s wife Mariamme, and he was executed. Dositheos himself survived his brother’s fall and remained at court, but Joseph’s death must have left him on the periphery and disaffected with the regime. As a result, he was the logical choice to act as an intermediary with the Nabataean king when John Hyrcanus and his daughter Alexandra were attempting to flee Judaea and seek refuge in Nabataea. Unfortunately for them, Dositheos saw this attempted flight as an opportunity to regain his former status within the Herodian court, and he revealed the plans to Herod. With this act of betrayal, he must have regained some of his lost status because he was important enough, even if only in Idumaea, that Kostobaros sought him out as a co-conspirator, perhaps playing on Dositheos’ unstable position as the brother and relative of several individuals whom Herod had executed. In the end, his plotting accomplished little in the way of tangible gains, and he was executed along with Kostobaros.

While this plot of a few Idumaean nobles may have receded into the background of a much larger Herodian narrative, their story offers us a glimpse of the courtly machinations that went on during the reign of Herod the Great. In this particular incident, it was a group of Idumaean nobility in the Judaean capital of Jerusalem plotting against another Idumaean (i.e. Herod) for control of their homeland. Family rivalries and animosities seem to have played a large role in Kostobaros’ and Dositheos’ actions. With the added involvement of Cleopatra, as well as Roman interests in the Levant, this conflict, which originated in an Idumaean context, moved far beyond its local origins and transferred to the larger stage of the Judaean kingdom and the Roman Near East.


What have we learned from these two particular case studies? Like many royal courts in the Graeco-Roman world, the Judaean one was composed of individuals representing several different ethnic groups and identities including: Jewish Judaeans, Hellenized and non-Jewish Syro-Phoenician, Babylonians, Egyptians and even Romans. The two case studies we have examined illustrate an important period in the political history of Judaea (i.e. the reigns of John Hyrcanus II and Herod the Great) when the preeminent powers at court were not in fact ethnic Judaeans but actually Idumaeans. The power struggles among these Idumaean nobles, which probably originated long before the Hasmonean annexation, were no longer simply local fights between petty elites. Instead, they were transported from a local Idumaean context to the national stage of the Judaean royal court and the Roman Near East.

In the first case, whichever faction, Antipatrid or Malichean, could defeat the other would control the Hasmonean court and the throne. In the second case, Kostobaros, an ambitious Idumaean, enlisted the help of other Idumaean nobles, most notably the Sons of Baba and the courtier Dositheos, to rebel against the authority of another Idumaean noble, Herod the son of Antipater, who had managed to become king of Judaea. Thus, both cases show the thorough integration and pervasive dominance of Idumaean nobility within Judaea.

The ramifications of such analysis are extensive: perhaps this integration of Idumaeans into the Judaean world explains why only one hundred years after these conflicts, Idumaeans flocked to Jerusalem to defend the Temple and the city from Roman conquest. This integration might also explain the fraternal conflict between Hyrcanus and his brother Judah Aristobulus II. In this context, Hyrcanus’ support and utilization of Idumaean nobility at the expense of ethnic Judaeans would have infuriated the “old guard,” specifically conservative Judaean Sadducees, who were the foundation of Aristobulus’ power base and who would have resented these Idumaean “New Jews.” From this perspective, the conflict between the two Hasmonean brothers becomes a fight between the old Judaean priestly aristocracy and the new Idumaean nobility with the ultimate result being the ascendancy of Herod and the elimination of any aristocrats, Idumaean or Judaean, who opposed him.

Select Bibliography

Kasher, Aryeh. Jews, Idumaeans and Ancient Arabs: Relations of the Jews in Eretz-Israel with Nations of the Frontier and the Desert during the Hellenistic and Roman Era (332 BCE-70 CE). Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1988.

Marshak, Adam Kolman. “Rise of the Idumaeans: Ethnicity and Politics in Herod's Judaea.” In Jewish Identity and Politics between the Maccabees and Bar Kokhba. Edited by Benedikt Eckhardt. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012, 117-129.

—. The Many Faces of Herod the Great. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.

Oren Eliezer D. and Uriel Rappaport. “The Necropolis of Maresha-Beth Govrin.” IEJ 34 (1984), 114-153.

Peters John P. and Hermann Thiersch. Painted tombs in the Necropolis of Marissa. Edited by Stanley A Cook. London, Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1905.

Rocca, Samuel. Herod’s Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classical World. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.

Ronen, Israel. “Formation of Jewish Nationalism Among the Idumaeans.” In Aryeh Kasher, Jews, Idumaeans and Ancient Arabs: Relations of the Jews in Eretz-Israel with Nations of the Frontier and the Desert during the Hellenistic and Roman Era (332 BCE-70 CE). Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1988, 214-220.

Schalit, Abraham, König Herodes: der Mann und Sein Werk. Rev. ed. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001.

Schwartz, Seth. “Herod, Friend of the Jews.” In Jerusalem and Eretz Israel: The Arie Kindler Volume. Edited by Joshua Schwartz, Zohar Amar and Irit Ziffer. Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum and The Ingeborg Center For Jerusalem Studies, 2001, 67-76.

Comments (1)


I like how you tackle the multiple layers of the conflicts: from local clan rivalries in Idumaea, to tensions within Idumaea between sincere Jewish converts and old-guard Qos-worshipers, to tensions between Judeans and Idumaeans in general, to tensions between different Judean clans, to tensions between ethnic Judean Jews and Idumaean converts, and how this all played out within the context of Antony and Cleopatra's attempt to rule the Greek East during the Roman civil war--we need more multi-variate analyses like these that attempt to look at the interactions between ideologies, local loyalties, and pure power politics within imperial contexts.

If nothing else it reminds us that history is messy, and that things did not necessarily HAVE to play out the way they did.

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 02/13/2015 - 00:17

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