Herod (73-04 B.C.) was king of Judaea at the time of the birth of Christ and rebuilder of the Temple in Jerusalem. His murderousness was legendary: he killed many of his children and wives — the Romans joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a family member. The Massacre of the Innocents which the Bible ascribes to him is very much in keeping with what we know of personality. He is the subject of a number of Christmas carols and ballads, such as the Coventry Carol, The Carnel and the Crane, and St. Stephen and Herod, and appears in seasonal drama as a raging tyrant. In Christmas art, he was portrayed as a rather big, old man, crowned and sitting on a throne. He is always bearded with long dark hair and wearing royal garments.
The twelfth-century abbey of Fleury in France staged a dramatic presentation that has come to be known as The Play of Herod. It describes the Nativity with its attendant angels, midwives and shepherds, the encounter between King Herod and the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents which the king orders. Of the surviving medieval plays with these themes the Fleury Herod is considered to be the most artistically satisfying.