History Files


Near East

Herod's Grisly Death is Examined

Edited from BBC News, 26 January 2002

Scholars in 2002 believed that they had solved a two-thousand year-old mystery regarding how King Herod died, suggesting that he was probably a victim of kidney disease.

The king, who reputedly ordered the executions of one wife and three sons, and the slaughter of thousands of baby boys in an attempt to destroy the baby Jesus, died aged sixty-nine in 4 BC.

In order to be able to supply their analysis, experts in the USA looked at texts which provided a description of Herod's symptoms during his final days. Research coordinator, Dr Jan Hirschmann, said: 'Herod the Great expired from chronic kidney disease which was probably complicated by Fournier's gangrene.

'The texts we depend upon for a close description of Herod's last days list several major features of the disease which caused his death - amongst them being intense itching, painful intestinal problems, breathlessness, convulsions in every limb, and gangrene of the genitalia.'

The researchers presented their conclusions on 25 January 2002 at the historical Clinical Pathologic Conference (CPC) in Baltimore, USA.

Dr Hirschmann said: 'When I first looked at the general diseases which cause itching, it became clear that most of them couldn't explain a majority of the features of Herod's illness.' He first considered Hodgkin's disease and some diseases of the liver, but concluded that the one disorder which accounted for nearly all of the features of Herod's illness was chronic kidney disease.

Model of Jerusalem in the first century AD
Hans Kroch build this model of the city of Jerusalem of the first century AD in the 1960s, with only the empty streets giving away the fact that it is not a full-sized city


However, one feature of Herod's illness - gangrene of the genitalia - was not explained by this diagnosis.

Dr Hirschmann said: 'I finally concluded that the most likely explanation was that his chronic kidney disease was complicated by an unusual infection of the male genitalia, which is known as Fournier's gangrene.'

However, the National Kidney Research Fund seemed reluctant to provide definitive support for the findings. A spokesman said: 'The National Kidney Research Fund is unable to conclusively confirm that King Herod died from chronic kidney disease, although many of the symptoms which the ruler displayed are common amongst kidney patients.

'Fortunately, recent medical and scientific advances have meant that treatments such as kidney transplantation and dialysis can now be used to relieve patient suffering. However, there remains no cure for many forms of kidney disease.'

  Herod the Great expired from chronic kidney disease probably complicated by Fournier's gangrene

Dr Jan Hirschmann
research co-ordinator


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