Herod was born in 73 BCE, during the heyday of the Hasmonean Period, to a Nabatean mother named Cypros and an Idumean father named Antipater, from a distinguished family. Like many members of the Idumean elite, the family had converted to Judaism and become part of the Hasmonean administration. Herod, who along with his brothers followed their father into a public career, quickly developed an appetite for power and demonstrated an impressive aptitude for politics. The rulers of Rome appreciated his talents and in 40 BCE, the Roman senate appointed him king of Judea. In order to secure his position in the eyes of his countrymen, Herod married Mariamme the Hasmonean, granddaughter of King Hyrcanus II.

The peace and prosperity of Herod's reign made it possible for him to devote tremendous resources to construction, thereby changing the face of the land. Historical sources and even rabbinic literature praise Herod as "the greatest builder the land has ever known." But they also present the darker sides of his personality. Herod was known for his cruelty, jealousy, and suspicion, which culminated in the execution of his beloved wife Mariamme the Hasmonean and three eldest sons.

In 4 BCE, at the age of 69, the ailing king passed away at Jericho. His body was borne in an elaborate funerary procession to Herodium, where it was buried.