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At Caesar’s feet
Illustration: Uday Deb

What Herod didn’t understand was this — you can win a throne by force, but you can’t win people’s hearts. Wiping out competition to make himself look more splendid in isolation, he also wiped out his last chance of becoming a king who would be adored instead of feared. Mistrust infected him like an incurable disease. He became as edgy as an iron saw and as jumpy as a cat. He looked over his shoulder constantly and had a dozen tasters taste his food before he himself touched it. One day, for no reason, he decided his wife Mariamne, and her mother Alexandra were against him. Blinded by insecurity and arrogance, he had them both killed. No price was too high for Herod when it came to buying himself a sense of unquestioned suprema26tale_changecy.

Any other man would have been haunted by guilt. Not Herod. Only one thing could frighten him — the thought of losing his crown. A few years later, when Octavian defeated Antony, the King of Judea was, for the first time, petrified. He had always been closer to Antony than Octavian. With Antony out of the way, would Octavian now try to overthrow him?

Reduced to a bundle of nerves, Herod travelled to Rome to meet Caesar, prostrated himself before him and swore his undying loyalty. Luckily for him, Caesar had no plans of awarding Judea to anyone else. Herod was a competent king, his personal life was of no interest to the emperor, and neither was Antony’s fall from grace. No, Caesar had other things to think about. And so, instead of snatching Herod’s throne from him, Caesar confirmed his right to be king of Judea. He even granted him more land. Herod was not only king, he was king of a bigger kingdom!

It was about this time that a disturbing piece of news reached him. I was in court the day the reports came in. It seemed that three men, travellers by the look of their long dusty robes and sunburnt faces, had been asking in Jerusalem for the new king of the Jews. These men, it was reported, said they came all the way from the East after seeing a sign that told them the king of the Jews had been born, somewhere in Judea. It was to see and adore him that they had come such a long way, and were in such a great hurry.

The king of the Jews? By rights that meant him, Herod, King of Judea. But he hadn’t been born yesterday, he was an old hand. Much as he hated to admit it, they didn’t mean him. Genuinely alarmed, Herod called all his chief priests and his scribes for a meeting.

“Tell me,” he asked them. “Is what I hear true? Has there been born a new king of the Jews?”

The high priests and scribes were clearly nervous about telling the truth. Offending Herod was a dangerous thing! But their learning and piety bound them to the truth.

“Yes, Your Majesty, it is true. It has long been foretold by the prophets — that the leader of the people of Israel shall be born in Judea, and we believe that it has happened at last.”

“But where in Judea has this taken place?” Herod asked, beginning to sound tense.

“In Bethlehem, Your Majesty,” the scribes and high priests answered. “Just as it was written by the prophets.”

To be continued

Extracted from The Greatest Stories Ever Told;
By Sampurna Chattarji;
Publisher: Puffin

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