Herod Agrippa I (Third Generation)
Agrippa I, Herodias’ brother, acquired all the territory of his grandfather, Herod the Great and ruled over it as king for seven years. His reign was short and he died unexpectedly. His death in 44 A.D. is recorded in Acts chapter 12. He was the only Herod to gain support from the more orthodox Jews. He did so by executing James the Apostle and imprisoning Peter (Acts 12). Agrippa’s territory comprised most of Israel, and included Judea, Galilee, Batanaea, and Perea. It extended east to include Trachonitis. (see map).
Herod Agrippa I was one of the children of Mariamne and Aristobulus, the son of Herod the Great. Aristobulus was executed by his father in 7 B.C, but Agrippa’s life was spared at the age of four. Agrippa was born in 10 B.C. according to Josephus. He was named Marcus Julius Agrippa—after the Roman statesman Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. He was also the brother of Herodias, wife of Herod Philip, who later married Herod Antipas—the one who killed John the Baptist.
Josephus records the following: Agrippa appears to have been a man of gracious manners, very kind, gifted with eloquence, yet filled with vanity. In religion he was a zealous rather than a devout Jew, attentive to “tithe mint and dill and cummin,” but neglectful of “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” He was keenly fond of popularity and possessed much personal magnetism.
Because of his Roman connections, he was the last to unite the Jewish territories. His life illustrates the dependence of the Judean rulers upon the favor of the Roman emperors of the first century.
Raised With Royalty
At age eleven he was sent to Rome for an education with the princes of the ruling dynasty. Among his companions were the later emperors Caligula and Claudius, as well as the son of Emperor Tiberias, Drusus. Claudius was Agrippa’s age and Drusus was slightly older.
Agrippa lived careless and extravagant, especially after his mother Bernice’s death. He borrowed large sums of money and accumulated significant debt. In 23 A.D. his childhood companion Drusus suddenly died—poisoned by Sejanus, who was tried and executed. Agrippa lost the support of Emperor Tiberius and was forced to retire quietly to Malatha, a fortress in Idumea. He had no money and owed many angry Roman creditors. He was depressed and humiliated. Josephus wrote he contemplated suicide.
Agrippa’s wife, Cypros, won favor for Agrippa with his sister’s husband, Herod Antipas. Antipas gave Agrippa a home, a large allowance, and a new job as supervisor of Antipas’ new capital city Tiberias. Agrippa found his new position inadequate. His relationship with Antipas deteriorated one evening at a feast in Tyre. Antipas blamed Agrippa for his poverty and declared Agrippa owed him the very food he was eating.
Agrippa was humiliated and angry. He departed to Italy but stopped to visit Tiberius Caesar on the island of Capri. However, a complaint arrived from an angry Herennius Capito regarding Agrippa’s debt to the Roman treasury. Tiberius prevented Agrippa’s entry to Capri until his debt to the imperial treasury had been paid in full. Later Antonia loaned Agrippa the required sum to pay the debt, because he had been raised with her son, Claudius. Agrippa later returned to the island of Capri and met Tiberius, who employed him as teacher of his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. During that time Agrippa befriended Antonia’s grandson, Caligula.
Treason in Rome
A Samaritan freedman of Tiberius loaned a huge sum of money to Agrippa. He paid his debt to Antonia and continued lavish spending while his friendship with Caligula grew. One day Agrippa and Caligula were riding together in a chariot, driven by Eutychus, a freedman. In the course of conversation, Agrippa enthusiastically confided to Caligula that he wished old Tiberius would die, so Caligula could assume the throne. Eutychus overheard the remark and reported it to Emperor Tiberius, who immediately ordered Agrippa chained and imprisoned for treason.
Agrippa remained in prison for six months until Emperor Tiberius died in 37 A.D. Caligula succeeded Tiberius as emperor. Agrippa shaved and presented himself to his friend, Caligula, the new emperor. He hoped to obtain his freedom. Caligula immediately “put a diadem upon Agrippa’s head, and appointed him king of the tetrarchy of his uncle Philip and that of Lysanius.” He also “changed his iron chain for a gold one of equal weight,” which he hung about his neck.
Afterward this golden chain was:
“hung up within the limits of the temple at Jerusalem, over the treasury, that it might be a memorial of the severe fate he had lain under, . . .that it might be a demonstration how the greatest prosperity may have a fall, and that God sometimes raises what is fallen down: for this chain thus dedicated, afforded a document to all men, that King Agrippa had once been bound in a chain for a small cause, but recovered his former dignity once again; . . . and was advanced to be a more illustrious king than he was before”
The Roman Senate also gave him the honorary position of praetor, and when he returned to Judea in the summer of 38 A.D. he passed through Alexandria and eclipsed the Roman prefect of Egypt in his splendor. Agrippa was declared ‘king’ of the territories of Gaulanitis (Golan Heights), Auranitis, Batanaea, and Trachonitis, which his uncle Philip the Tetrarch had held (see map).
Herod Agrippa arrived in Palestine with the title of “king.” That stirred the envy of Herod Antipas and enraged his wife, Herodias—Agrippa’s sister. She badgered Antipas to go to Rome to acquire the title of ‘King’ also. Antipas relented to her pressure in A.D. 39 and journeyed to Rome, seeking this new title.
Agrippa heard of Antipas’ intentions, then dispatched his freedmen, Fortunatus, to Rome to accuse Antipas of treason and insurrection against the Roman emperor. He charged Antipas conspired with the Parthians against Rome. He stated Antipas’ arsenal at the capital, Tiberias, contained enough weapons to equip 70,000 men.
Caligula agreed with the charges and stripped Antipas of his rule and his possessions. He then exiled Antipas to Gaul (ancient Lyons, France) in 39 A.D. Caligula granted Agrippa the tetrarchy of Antipas (Galilee and Perea) in addition to his previous territories. Caligula offered Herodias an estate of her own, but she decided to follow her husband into exile. Herod Antipas died shortly thereafter.
At about the same time, Caligula’s behavior demonstrated he was clearly slipping into insanity. He demanded deification and adoration as a god and craved the worship of his subjects. Caligula ordered Petronius, Syrian governor, to place a gilded statue of himself in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple and commanded the worship of his Jewish subjects. This horrified the Jews. Agrippa acted shrewdly and furnished a magnificent banquet to honor Caligula. Agrippa toasted his health after the emperor was quite intoxicated with wine. Caligula generously proposed to do anything within his power to contribute to Agrippa’s happiness. Agrippa, on behalf of his Jewish brethren, said, “My petition is this, that thou wilt no longer think of the dedication of that statue which thou hast ordered to be set up in the Jewish temple by Petronius.” Caligula rescinded the order “as a favor to Agrippa.” 
Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D. Agrippa played an important role negotiating succession for Claudius as Roman Emperor. Josephus records Agrippa’s role was central and crucial. Agrippa convinced Claudius to stand up to the Senate and petitioned the Senate to avoid attacking Claudius. Claudius ascended the throne without a bloody civil war. As a result, Claudius granted rule of Judea, Abilene and Samaria to Agrippa. He now ruled nearly the entire kingdom of his grandfather, Herod the Great. Claudius even honored Agrippa’s new position in the great Forum at Rome.
When Agrippa returned to his enlarged kingdom he initiated building projects in Jerusalem and several other cities—including Berytus (Beirut, Lebanon). Agrippa built a theatre, amphitheater, baths, and porticoes in Berytus. Claudius did not permit Agrippa to finish fortifications surrounding Jerusalem—despite their friendship. Agrippa closely observed the Jewish traditions, but he fiercely persecuted Christians. He executed James and chained Peter in prison.
“After the Passover Feast in 44 A.D. Agrippa suddenly became ill while he presided at a festival at Caesarea Maritima (Strato’s Tower). The Jewish historian Josephus recounts the event as follows: “Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honor of Caesar, for whose well-being he’d been informed that a certain festival was being celebrated. At this festival a great number were gathered together of the principal persons of dignity of his province. On the second day of the spectacles he put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. (During his imprisonment by Emperor Tiberius a similar omen had been interpreted as portending his speedy release and future kingship, with the warning that should he behold the same sight again, he would die.) A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he had said this, his pain became violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die soon. The multitude sat in sackcloth, men, women and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground he could not keep himself from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign. He ruled four years under Caius Caesar (Caligula), three of them were over Philip’s tetrarchy only, and on the fourth that of Herod was added to it; and he reigned, besides those, three years under Claudius Caesar, during which time he had Judea added to his lands, as well as Samaria and Caesarea. The revenues that he received out of them were very great, no less than twelve millions of drachmae. But he borrowed great sums from others, for he was so very liberal that his expenses exceeded his incomes, and his generosity was boundless.”
Jewish and Christian accounts of Herod Agrippa I appear somewhat contradictory. The Jews generally write favorably of this ruler. But Christian historians view Agrippa negatively. This is understandable in light of his intense persecution of the Christian Church during his reign.
Agrippa returned to Judea and governed it to the satisfaction of the Jews. Agrippa’s enthusiasm for Judaism is recorded by Josephus, Philo the Alexandrian, and the rabbis. Perhaps because of this, his passage through Alexandria, Egypt in the year 38 A.D. instigated anti-Jewish riots. At the risk of his own life, he interceded with Caligula on behalf of the Jews, to halt erection of the gold statue of Caligula in the Holy of Holies (as noted previously). The historian, Josephus, was a Sadducee, descending from the Hasmonean dynasty. Herod Agrippa was the grandson of Mariamne—also a descendant of the highest placed Hasmonean rulers. It is reasonable Josephus might have viewed Herod Agrippa from his own lineage and be biased towards his good qualities.
The Jewish Encyclopedia also promotes a benevolent record of Agrippa’s reign. It records the few years of his rule afforded the Jews a brief period of peace and prosperity. The following is a quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“The evil consequences of a ruler’s unbridled passions and tyranny had been sufficiently evident to him in Rome, and they had taught him moderation and strict self-control. His people regarded him with love and devotion, because he healed with tender hand the deep wounds inflicted upon the national susceptibilities by brutal Roman governors. He ruled his subjects with compassion and friendliness. Like the ancestral Hasmoneans from whom he sprang through his noble grandmother Mariamne, he honored the Law. Like the merest commoner, he carried his basket of first-fruits to the Temple; with the people he celebrated appropriately the Feast of Tabernacles, and he devoted to the sanctuary a golden chain with which Caligula had honored him. On one occasion, while in the street, he met a bridal procession, which drew up to let him pass, but he halted and bade it take precedence. He sought to lighten taxation, remitting the impost on houses in Jerusalem. On the coins minted by him he carefully avoided placing any symbols, which could offend the people’s religious sentiment. Thus, prosperity and comfort seemed to be dawning anew for the Jews. The Romans, however, became jealous of this rising prosperity, and—sometimes covertly, sometimes openly—laid all manner of obstacles in his way. When he began to repair the fortifications of the capital, he was abruptly bidden to cease. His attempts to fraternize with neighboring peoples—vassals of Rome—were construed as portending rebellion. His sudden death at the games in Cæsarea, 44 A.D., must be considered as a stroke of Roman politics. His death, while in the full vigor of his years, was deeply lamented by his people, notwithstanding the fact that he had made many considerable concessions to heathen manners and customs.”
Account in the New Testament
The “King” Herod mentioned in Acts chapter 12, is Herod Agrippa I. This identification is based on the description of Agrippa’s death, which is very similar to Josephus’ account, although Josephus does not include the claim that “an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms.”
King Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne and delivered an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, ‘It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!’ And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and gave up the ghost” (Acts of the apostles 12.19b, 21-23).
Further evidence is his identification in Acts 12:1 as “Herod the king,” since Agrippa is the only Herod who had authority in Jerusalem at that time. He was also the only Herod given the title, ‘King,’ from the Roman emperor, except for Herod the Great many years earlier. The description of Herod Agrippa as a cruel, heartless king who persecuted the Jerusalem church, killed the Apostle James and imprisoned the Apostle, Peter, seems to contradict Josephus’ account of a benevolent man.
Agrippa married Cypros, a distant relative. They had five children: Drusus (who died young), Agrippa, Berenice, Mariamne and Drusilla.
- Herod Agrippa II became the seventh and final king of the Herodian dynasty. He will be the subject of the last article of this series.
- Berenice initially married Marcus Julius Alexander, son of Alexander the Alabarch. After Marcus Julius died, she married her uncle Herod, King of Chalcis. After his death, she lived with her brother Agrippa II, reportedly in an incestuous relationship. She and her brother, Herod Agrippa II were audience to the Apostle Paul in Caesarea Maritima. She then married Polamo, king of Cilicia. Berenice was also mistress of the Roman emperor Titus.
- Mariamne married Gaius Julius Archelaus Antiochus Epiphanes. They later divorced.
- Drusilla initially married Gaius Julius Azizus, King of Emesa. She then wed Antonius Felix, the governor of Judea. The Apostle Paul addressed Felix, Drusilla, and her brother Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea Maritima. Drusilla and her son Marcus Antonius Agrippa died in Pompeii during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The life of Herod Agrippa I seems a story for TV soap operas. He was prone to lavish spending and owed many debtors. He had impressive leadership skills. The Roman rulers respected him and the Jews embraced him as a Hasmonean ruler rather than an Edomite. But he was consumed with vanity. King Agrippa I used worldly opportunities for his own selfish gain and prestige.
King Agrippa I was known for his many debts. However, his greatest debt was the one he owed God for his own sins. All his riches and territories could never pay that debt. The precious blood of Jesus Christ was his only hope. He left a historical record of killing and persecuting Christians—those who proclaimed salvation by none other than Jesus. According to all historical records, Herod Agrippa I never accepted that priceless gift of salvation. He died a rich man in terrible pain and agony. He left his worldly riches behind. His eternal judgment is a severe one. He will remain in pain and agony for all eternity, bereft of any hope of a relationship with the One who died for his sins.
Bibliography and Works Cited
 Josephus. Antiquities. 14.9, 2.
 Josephus; Ant. 19.6.1-2; 19.7.3.
 Mason, Charles Peter (1867), “Agrippa Herodes I,” in Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company; pp. 77-78.
 Josephus. Antiquities.18.6.10.
 Philo In Flaccum 26-29.
 Josephus. Antiquities. 18.8.7-8. Ibid. 19.8.2.p 345–350.
Philo, “Legatio ad Cajum,” pp 30-43.
 Schwartz, Daniel R. Agrippa I Mohr 1990
 Ibid. 19:275.
 Acts 12:1-5.
 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361.
 Agrippa I, Daniel R. Schwartz, 1990
 Rajak, Tessa (1996), “Iulius Agrippa (1) I, Marcus”, in Hornblower, Simon, Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2012-01-28.
Josephus, Ant. xviii. 6, xix. 5-9;
Philo, In Flaccum, 55, 56;
 Acts 12:1-23.
 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361.
 Acts 12:1-19.
 Acts 25:13 – 26:32
 Juvenal, Satires. 6. pg.156.
 Suetonius, Titus 7
 Acts 25:13 – 26:32