Reprinted by permission from the Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin, Volume 66 (2021): 21–36.
The consensus view of Herodian chronology has long been represented by the work of Emil Schürer, who assigned Herod the Great’s Roman appointment as king of Judea to 40 BC, his taking of Jerusalem to the summer of 37 BC, and his death to 4 BC (1890: 464–67 n. 165). Since the 1966 work of W. E. Filmer, however, some scholars have defended a revised chronology where Herod was named king in 39 BC, took Jerusalem in the fall of 36 BC, and died in 1 BC.
More recently, information derived primarily from the Roman histories of Plutarch and Cassius Dio has been alleged to support this revised chronology (Steinmann and Young 2020).1 This claim was evaluated by comparing its conclusions with five primary historical sources covering the Roman-Parthian War period, 41–38 BC: the epitomes of Livy (ca. 59 BC–AD 17) preserved in Periochae 126–28; Josephus’s (ca. AD 37–100) Antiquities (Ant.); Plutarch’s (ca. AD 46–120) Life of Antony (Plut.); Appian’s (ca. AD 95–165) Civil Wars (App.); and Cassius Dio’s (ca. AD 155–235) Roman History (Dio).2 It was discovered that the current paradigm of the Parthian War era has overlooked crucial historical information, leaving it open to certain erroneous assumptions with major implications for establishing an accurate chronology of Herod’s life.
TWO KEY ASSUMPTIONS
The scholar primarily responsible for the current Parthian War paradigm, Neilson C. Debevoise, defined its principal features in his definitive work A Political History of Parthia. Two key assumptions can be identified in Debevoise’s thesis. The first is that the Roman general Ventidius stayed in Italy from the time Octavian’s Perusine War ended in late winter 41–40 BC until sometime after Mark Antony arrived there. Debevoise observed,
In 39 B.C. Antony was sufficiently in control of the situation at home to begin a new campaign against the Parthians. He had sent Publius Ventidius Bassus in advance into Asia in 40 B.C. (1938: 114).
Although stating that Ventidius was dispatched to Asia in 40 BC, thus following Appian’s account (5.6.65) rather than that of Plutarch and Dio, Debevoise left unaddressed the question of where Ventidius was at that time. Hence, the idea that he was sent out from Italy is only an assumption. G. J. Wylie makes this assumption when he writes,
Ventidius must have escaped [after the Perusine War, 41–40 BC] without discredit and without joining Octavian, for we hear of the troops at Brundisium from the army of Plancus, who had fled to Greece, choosing him as leader (App. B.C. [Bellum Civili—i.e., Civil Wars] 5.50.211).…It appears that Ventidius then went south to Tarentum, where he remained, preparing for war with Octavian when Antony should arrive from the East. Hostilities were averted, however, and in September [40 BC] under the pact of Brundisium the triumvirs divided the empire between them, Antony taking the East and Octavian the West. Antony then proceeded to Athens to take up the administration of his new provinces. One of his first acts (App. B.C. 5.65.276) was to send Ventidius to the East as proconsul of Asia and Syria, to deal with a growing threat posed by a renegade Roman, Q. Labienus and the Parthian king’s son Pacorus. For Ventidius after frustrating months of inactivity, this commission in Asia—a token of his patron’s high approval—would have released a flood of pent-up energy (1993: 135; emphasis and bracketed notes added).
By writing that Antony went to Athens in 39 BC before Ventidius began his campaign against Labienus, Wylie aligns himself with a timeline drawn from Plutarch and Dio. In so doing he deviates from the paradigm, for Debevoise (1938: 114 n. 82) cited Appian 5.6.65 as evidence that Ventidius departed for Asia to start his Parthian campaign right after the Treaty of Brundisium was signed in the fall of 40 BC, even before the triumvirs traveled to Rome for Octavia’s wedding. Consistent with that, Debevoise also assigned Herod’s taking of Jerusalem to 37 BC (1938: 120), so those who diverge from this depart also from the paradigm. It comes down to deciding whether to follow the timeline of Plutarch and Dio or that of Appian and his exemplar Livy.3 It will be shown that a clear choice, grounded in historical evidence, can be made between these options.
A second major assumption is that Ventidius entered Judea in the fall of 39 BC. Debevoise observed,
[The Parthian general] Pacorus evidently then withdrew from Syria late in 39 B.C., and the country was occupied by Ventidius.…And Ventidius encamped near Jerusalem for some time, though he did not attack the city (1938: 116).
That Ventidius encamped near Jerusalem is a fact, but that it took place in 39 BC is an assumption which, it will be shown, conflicts with data from Antiquities. Ehsan Yarshater, in The Cambridge History of Iran, does not question this assumption, but by his highly similar language to that of Debevoise shows that he simply drew many of his points directly from his predecessor:
Late in 39 B.C., the Parthian crown prince Pacorus withdrew from Syria, and Ventidius was occupied in trying to reduce the cities that still remained pro-Parthian, but though he approached Jerusalem, did not attack it (1983: 58).
To summarize, these authorities make two major assumptions in analyzing the historical sources: they put Ventidius in Italy for an extended time after the Perusine War, and they have him arrive, after military conflicts with the Parthians in Cilicia and Syria from late winter of 40–39 BC into the following spring and summer (Dio 48.39.3–41.4), at Jerusalem in the fall of 39 BC. It will be shown that these assumptions do not hold up in the face of information drawn from Appian, Livy, and especially Josephus.
DID VENTIDIUS REMAIN IN ITALY DURING 40 BC?
Debevoise (1938: 108) takes up the history that concerns us with Antony’s demand that Cleopatra meet him in Cilicia in late summer of 41 BC (App. 5.10.1; Dio 48.24.2–3; Ant. 14.324; Plut. 25.1–28.1). This led to his succumbing to her charms and traveling to Egypt to spend the winter of 41–40 BC with her. Though he adopted a laid-back Greek lifestyle at this time (App. 5.1.10–11; Dio 48.27.1–2),4 he still kept apprised of his far-flung military interests through couriers. Two reports he received by midwinter in 40 BC5 were of particular importance. One informed him that in Italy, Antony’s neglected wife Fulvia and his brother Lucius had gone to war with Octavian, a conflict known as the Perusine War. The other had to do with the Parthian invasion of Cilicia and Syria:
While Antony was indulging in such trifles and youthful follies, he was surprised by reports from two quarters: one from Rome, that Lucius his brother and Fulvia his wife had first quarrelled with one another, and then had waged war with Octavius Caesar, but had lost their cause and were in flight from Italy; and another, not a whit more agreeable than this, that Labienus at the head of the Parthians was subduing Asia from the Euphrates and Syria as far as Lydia and Ionia (Plut. 30.1).
Antony had three loyal generals in Italy named Ventidius, Asinius and Plancus. They hesitated to enter the Perusine conflict on the side of Lucius because Antony was incommunicado in Egypt, and they did not wish to act without his express orders (App. 5.4.32–33, 5.6.52; Dio 48.27.1). Bereft of their help, Lucius was besieged by Octavian at Perusia and, in dire straits from famine, capitulated very early in 40 BC; Appian (5.4.34) states that this famine was an issue as early as the Calends of January—i.e., New Year’s Day. Dio (48.15.1) further notes that this winter was in the consular year of Calvinus and Pollio, the same year Josephus (Ant. 14.389) says the Romans named Herod king of Judea, so a proper understanding of Herodian chronology must reconcile these two facts.
Expectation versus Reality
The close of the Perusine War thus found Ventidius at Brundisium, on the southeast coast of the “heel” of Italy along the Adriatic Sea. Taking command of the troops left by the departing Plancus, he and Asinius “wrote these facts to Antony, and they prepared landing-places, in expectation of his early arrival” (App. 5.6.50).
At this point an unwarranted assumption is often made: that the “expectation” of the generals about Antony’s plans was what actually took place—that Ventidius stayed in Italy until after Antony’s arrival in the latter half of 40 BC. The ancient histories do not state this, and problems with this inference are noticed on close inspection.
For one thing, Antony obviously did not arrive in Italy “early.” Apparently his generals anticipated he would immediately leave Egypt and accompany back to Italy the couriers who had borne the generals’ letter, but instead he wound up taking a months-long roundabout route there via Syria, Asia and Greece. For another, he “retained” the couriers, logically because he wanted them to convey a reply back that he was not immediately prepared to give: “As it was still winter, Antony retained the deputies of the colonized veterans, who had been sent to him, and still concealed his intentions” (App. 5.6.52). Since Italy was the couriers’ home, they must have returned there at some point, and it stands to reason that they carried a message from Antony back with them. Although the various histories are silent about what this message was, enough clues can be found to allow a reasonable guess.
The Situation in the East
This guess involves taking into account the situation in the East. According to Plutarch (28.1) and Dio (48.24.3–7), the erstwhile Roman commander Labienus, who went over to the Parthian side due to the proscriptions following Julius Caesar’s death, was ready to invade Syria in late 41 BC* even before Antony left for Egypt. The taking of Cilicia and Syria was accomplished with great speed because Labienus was well regarded by many of the Roman troops stationed there. He and Pacorus, son of the Parthian king Orodes, essentially swept through the whole region by early spring (Ant. 14.330; Dio 48.25.1–26.1).
The two pieces of bad news out of Italy and Syria shocked Antony out of his stupor in Egypt, and he began to consider what his next moves would be. Plutarch (30.2) and Dio (48.27.3) use quite similar language to relate the story,6 but the latter says that Antony undertook a voyage along the coast, while Appian tells us that rather than sailing to Tyre, the lone Syrian city that held fast against the Parthians (Ant. 14.333; Dio 48.26.1–2), he took an overland route (5.6.52). The amount of detail Appian gives, with abundant names, places, and events not found in Plutarch or Dio, plus his adherence to the timeline found in the earliest account (that of Livy), lends credence to his version.7 Dio (48.27.3) further informs us that Antony went to Tyre “with the intention of aiding it,” but it appears that he had neither a significant number of troops in Egypt nor a Roman ship at his disposal. How, then, did Antony plan to aid Tyre?
The Parthians’ Spring 40 BC Entry into Judea
Since no ancient historian clearly spells out all the details of how Ventidius was occupied from the end of the Perusine War to his being sent to Asia, we must try to tease out a picture from the limited clues. After rapidly taking over Syria during the winter of 41–40 BC, the Parthian commander Pacorus, son of the king of Parthia, continued south as far as Ptolemais (Ant. 14.331–33; Dio 48.26.1–3). From there he sent a “troop of horsemen” (Ant. 14.330) through Galilee into Judea to depose Hyrcanus and place Antigonus on the throne. It is important to note that this was not a full-scale invading army, but a limited foray primarily intended to enthrone a cooperative client king and, not incidentally, obtain significant compensation for the favor: a thousand talents of gold and 500 Jewish women (Ant. 14.331).
Skipping over many details, the important thing to note here is that things came to a head at the spring pilgrimage festival of Pentecost in 40 BC (Ant. 14.337). The result was that Herod and his adherents, including the 500 women intended to be part of Antigonus’s bribe (Ant. 14.379), fled Jerusalem in the night. Herod’s departure was quickly noticed, so some Parthians and their Jewish allies pursued him (Ant. 14.358–59). There were minor skirmishes as Herod made his way to the Masada fortress, so his enemies would have known his destination and promptly started the siege that followed (Ant. 14.390). Herod did not stick around, but immediately left in search of reinforcements in Arabia before the siege was organized (Ant. 14.362).
The Siege of Masada and Herod’s Hurried Journey to Rome, Early Summer 40 BC
At this point a characteristic of Josephus’s writing style must be pointed out: he moves through his narrative in general chronological order. In order to adequately cover individuals whose activities overlap in time, he jumps back and forth between them. For instance, in Antiquities 14.362 Josephus notes that after his flight to Masada, Herod “went directly for Petra, in Arabia.” His attention then turns briefly to Antigonus and Phasael. Then the section spanning 14.370–89 again returns to Herod, covering his departure from Masada up to his being named king by the Romans. That this transition resumes from 14.362 indicates that Herod’s journey began shortly after Pentecost in 40 BC.
This section repeatedly emphasizes Herod’s haste to get to Rome “as soon as possible” (Ant. 14.380) and return to Palestine with reinforcements because he had left his loved ones behind at Masada and feared for their safety. He “made haste” from Arabia to Egypt (Ant. 14.375–77), went thence to Rhodes where a shipwreck from a violent summer storm8 sidetracked him, and after a delay to outfit another ship9 arrived in Italy at Brundisium. By this time Antony and Octavian had made peace with each other at the Treaty of Brundisium in the fall of 40 BC (App. 5.7.64–65; Plut. 30.3–4; Dio 48.28.3) and had moved on to Rome (Plut. 31.1–4), where “with all speed” (Josephus, War 1.281) Herod finally caught up with them. There he was declared king of Judea just seven days after meeting with Antony (Ant. 14.387). It is clear that haste was driving every aspect of Herod’s travel to Rome, making him willing to risk the powerful storm that damaged his ship. This haste creates a strong presumption that his entire journey took place within 40 BC, thus placing his kingship grant in that year rather than 39 BC.
Transitional Phrases in Antiquities and a Train of Logic
Following Antiquities 14.370–89 covering Herod’s travel from Masada to Rome, Josephus turns to take up again the account of Antigonus at 14.390. Because it is critically important to a proper understanding of the chronology of this period, yet apparently overlooked by both the paradigm and the chronologists following Filmer, Antiquities 14.390–95 is now quoted as given in the Loeb translation of Ralph Marcus,10 with the transitional phrases emphasized:
All this time Antigonus was besieging those in Masada, who had all other necessary provisions and lacked only water; on this account Herod’s brother Joseph planned to flee with two hundred of his people to the Arabs, for he had heard that Malchus regretted the wrongs which he had done Herod. But he was stopped by a rain which God sent in the night, for once the cisterns were filled with water, they no longer needed to flee; instead, they were now encouraged, not merely because they had an abundance of what they had lacked before, but rather because this seemed an act of God’s providence; and so they sallied out, and engaging Antigonus’ men, sometimes openly and sometimes from under cover, destroyed many of them.
Meanwhile Ventidius, the Roman general sent from Syria to keep back the Parthians, after disposing of them, made a side-march into Judaea, ostensibly to give aid to Joseph, but in reality the whole business was a device to obtain money from Antigonus; at any rate he encamped very near Jerusalem and extorted from Antigonus as much money as he wanted. Then he himself withdrew with the greater part of his force; but in order that his extortion might not be detected, he left Silo behind with a certain number of soldiers; to him also Antigonus paid court in order that he might not cause any trouble, hoping at the same time that the Parthians would once more give him help.
By this time Herod had sailed from Italy to Ptolemais and had collected a not inconsiderable force of both foreigners and his countrymen, and was marching through Galilee against Antigonus. And he was supported by Silo and Ventidius, for they had been persuaded by Dellius, who had been sent by Antony, to join in restoring Herod to his country. And so while Ventidius was quieting the disturbances that had been created in the cities by the Parthians, Silo remained in Judaea, having been corrupted by bribes from Antigonus.
The Marcus translation smoothly ties together the contemporaneous events of Antigonus, Ventidius and Herod. The phrase “all this time” refers back to Herod’s journey set forth in 14.370–89. It indicates that the siege of Masada was going on at the same time Herod was hastening to reach Rome. The group Herod rescued included the 500 women Antigonus intended to be part of his promised bribe to the Parthians (Ant. 14.379); this provided a strong motive, along with Herod’s gold, for Antigonus's men to immediately besiege the fortress. Therefore, when the account takes up at 14.390 the focus on Antigonus’s affairs, which had been interrupted by the section covering Herod’s travels, the time remains shortly after Pentecost in 40 BC. This is confirmed by the observation that the Masada defenders lacked water, a situation fitting the dry summer months (a fact pointed out by translator Whiston long ago).11
It is at this point, with Herod’s brother Joseph resisting the siege of Masada, that Josephus brings Ventidius into his narrative. “Persuaded” by Antony’s emissary Dellius12 to “support” Herod’s return to Judea, the context of the narrative immediately connects Ventidius’s coming with Joseph’s situation in Idumea, south of Judea. Since Dellius’s concern is to facilitate Herod’s return, the work of Ventidius discussed here must directly relate to that. That the setting is the siege at Masada indicates that Ventidius’s immediate task was to relieve that siege, because leaving such adversaries in Palestine would create difficulties for Herod later. Since the “side-march” to Jerusalem is justified as helping Joseph, the Masada visit must have preceded it.
The problem, however, is that Antiquities 14.392 says Ventidius came “from Syria”—not Italy—in 40 BC (the year defined by the mention of Pentecost). Moreover, the reason he came was to “keep back the Parthians,” indicating they were still in the vicinity at the time. If this situation unfolded in the fall of 39 BC after Labienus and Pharnapates had already been defeated, there would have been no reason to “keep back” this enemy. They would have already been gone. This directly clashes with the assumption that Ventidius stayed in Italy and did not approach Jerusalem until the fall of 39 BC. Josephus’s transitional phrases clearly tie Ventidius’s Jerusalem visit to 40 BC, not long after the Feast of Pentecost. The assumption simply does not fit what Josephus reports.
In contrast, the scenario proposed here is consistent with the data. Understanding that Antony sent Dellius to Tyre to persuade Ventidius and Silo to facilitate Herod’s return to Judea, here we follow a train of logic. “Meanwhile”13 refers back to the two immediately preceding sections in Antiquities, 14.390–91, which told us that the siege of Masada had been countered by a bold sally by Herod’s brother Joseph. Since the siege followed closely after Herod’s departure from Palestine, “meanwhile” must mean that Ventidius was sent out of Syria during the summer of 40 BC. Since the only Syrian city still controlled by the Romans in 40 BC was Tyre, Ventidius would have been in Tyre at that time. In turn, since we know he was still in Italy in late winter of 41–40 BC, his arrival at Tyre must have occurred sometime between the end of the Perusine War and the end of spring in 40 BC. If context means anything at all in exegesis, it inexorably drives us to this conclusion: Ventidius was in Syria, not Italy, while the siege of Masada was going on in 40 BC. The assumption that he spent the whole spring and summer of 40 BC in Italy is false.
With their early and rapid takeover of Syria and with the promised bribes of Antigonus as a goad, the Parthians probably pushed into the interior of Judea with Antigonus (Ant. 14.332) before Antony’s spring 40 BC march up the coast from Egypt. The histories indicate that during his short stay at Tyre, Antony was ignorant of Herod’s difficulties. After seeing the extent of the Syrian takeover, Antony did not tarry there but quickly left for Asia (Dio 48.27.3). If the news of Herod’s expulsion from Judea missed him at Tyre, as seems likely, he would probably have learned about it during his stop at Asia. The delays inherent in layovers at Cyprus and Rhodes (App. 5.6.52), plus the time required to take delivery and organizing in Asia of the 200 ships he had ordered, would suffice for the news of Herod’s flight from Judea to have reached him before he moved on to Athens, resulting in the dispatching of Dellius to Tyre to arrange assistance.
The second half of Antiquities 14.394 chronologically precedes the information given in 14.392–93 and serves to clarify the circumstances behind Ventidius’s entry into Palestine. If Antony summoned Ventidius to meet him at Tyre in spring 40 BC,14 Ventidius and Silo would have been in position to travel into Palestine “from Syria” as Josephus indicates. Since Antiquities 14.420–21 (to be discussed later) indicates that Ventidius never entered Palestine in 39 BC, their help in “restoring Herod to his country” should be understood as removing hindrances in advance of his late fall 40 BC return.
The immediate antecedent of the transition “by this time” at 14.394 was Silo being alone at Jerusalem; thus, Ventidius left Judea before Herod arrived. The additional details about Ventidius and Silo given in 14.395 just repeat what had already been said in 14.393 (“He himself withdrew with the greater part of his force,” 393; “Ventidius was quieting the disturbances that had been created in the cities by the Parthians,” 395; “He left Silo behind,” 393; “Silo remained in Judaea,” 395). The situation that greeted Herod upon his return was Judea and Idumea free of Parthians and coastal Phoenicia back under Roman control, but with Antigonus partisans within Jerusalem and Galilee and Parthians still controlling most of Syria.
The curious description of Dellius’s efforts as “persuading” Ventidius and Silo to assist Herod also warrants comment. If, as the assumption holds, Ventidius’s entry into Judea was a continuation of his pursuit of the Parthians out of Syria in 39 BC, it hardly seems necessary for Dellius to have done any “persuading.” It makes sense, though, if Ventidius had no clear-cut reason to leave Tyre in 40 BC and needed motivation to go to the trouble. The continued presence of the Parthians in Cilicia and Syria could have caused Ventidius to hesitate to leave his post at Tyre. The prospect of extorting money from Antigonus might have sealed the deal.
The assumption also begs the question of why the Parthians in Syria would have fled before Ventidius south into Judea instead of east back to Parthia. A retreat south in 39 BC is difficult to understand—Labienus was dead, Pharnapates was dead, and Prince Pacorus had long since returned with his hostage Hyrcanus to Parthia. If, however, Ventidius in 40 BC first went south into Idumea to relieve Joseph at Masada, the flight of Parthian besiegers back to friendly territory would have been north, through Judea and Galilee. The focus of Antiquities 14.390–92 on Herod’s brother Joseph at Masada, with its observation that Ventidius’s “side-march into Judaea” took place “after disposing of them [the Parthians],” indicates that Ventidius went to Joseph’s aid before proceeding to Jerusalem. Thus, “disposing of them” must refer to his driving of the relatively few Parthians from Masada, not to clearing them entirely from Syria with the small body of troops drawn from Tyre. That larger effort was still future.
In sum, it appears that Antiquities 14.390–95—with its transitional phrases, close connection to Pentecost in 40 BC, and placement of Ventidius in Syria that year—presents the following picture. While Herod was making his way to Rome, Antony learned in Asia that he had been expelled from Judea, and as a result of this news dispatched his companion Dellius back to Tyre, who “persuaded” Ventidius and Silo to facilitate Herod’s return. They accordingly first went south into Idumea, drove the enemy from the walls of Masada, and then pursued the enemy north. Taking a “side-march” to Jerusalem to extort considerable gold from Antigonus, they left the latter there with no Parthians to help him (Ant. 14.393). Leaving Silo encamped near the city, Ventidius then continued north, quelling rebellious Antigonus factions in some locations—notably Ptolemais—before continuing up the coast back to Tyre. Meanwhile, Herod had finally caught up with Antony at Rome and been named king of Judea. By late fall of 40 BC Herod returned to Palestine after Ventidius had already left, where he found Silo alone near Jerusalem. Unlike the assumption of a prolonged stay by Ventidius in Italy during 40 BC, this picture fits all the historical records.
WHEN WAS VENTIDIUS DISPATCHED TO ASIA?
Antiquities 14.390–95 thus indicates that Ventidius returned to Tyre after his foray into Palestine. This now needs to be tied in with the paradigm that follows Appian:
These [agreements at Brundisium] were the last conditions of peace between Octavian and Antony. Straightway each of them sent his friends to attend to urgent business. Antony despatched [sic] Ventidius to Asia against the Parthians and against Labienus (5.7.65; emphasis and bracketed information added).
This puts the sending of Ventidius into Asia to begin his campaign against Labienus “straightway” (Gk. εὐθύς, “immediately”) after the Treaty of Brundisium in September or October 40 BC, just before Antony’s winter spent at Rome (40–39 BC), not prior to his winter at Athens (39–38 BC). Since there is no evidence in Appian’s meticulous account that Ventidius was in Italy at the time of the Treaty of Brundisium, or that he returned to Italy from Tyre after his brief mission into Palestine, this indicates that Ventidius and Silo were probably sent to Asia via ship directly from Tyre. In this way Ventidius could bypass the Parthians controlling Syria and Cilicia and take them by surprise with an approach from the northwest in late winter (Dio 48.39.3).
Some may object that the translation “dispatched” in Appian implies that Ventidius was in Antony’s very presence in Italy, but this understanding is not required. The root πέµπω of the Greek verb περιέπεµπεν used there, “send around,” has the basic meaning “to send out.” This sending could have been accomplished via an intermediary, one of Antony’s unnamed “friends,” quite possibly the ubiquitous Dellius.15 The Bauer-Danker lexicon notes, “The idea of moving from one place to another, which is inherent in ‘sending,’ can retreat into the background, so that πέµπω takes on the meaning instruct, commission, appoint” (2000: 794). We can thus translate Appian 5.7.65 as, “Antony instructed Ventidius to go to Asia against the Parthians,” leaving the intermediary unmentioned. Ventidius, after all, was a senior general whom we would expect to stay in the field with his troops, so a courier could have conveyed Antony’s orders to him. Hence, it makes sense that it was at Tyre that the order sending Ventidius to Asia was conveyed to him by a “friend” of Antony right after the Treaty of Brundisium.
Although, like Plutarch, he disagrees substantially with Appian’s timeline, Dio provides some evidence that Ventidius was indeed sent to Asia in late 40 BC:
[Antony] sent [προύπεµψεν] Publius Ventidius before him into Asia. This officer came upon Labienus before his coming had been announced and terrified him by the suddenness of his approach and by his legions; for Labienus was without his Parthians and had with him only the soldiers from the neighbourhood. Ventidius found he would not even risk a conflict with him and so thrust him forthwith out of that country and pursued him into Syria, taking the lightest part of his army with him. He overtook him near the Taurus range [southern Turkey] and allowed him to proceed no farther, but they encamped there for several days and made no move, for Labienus was awaiting the Parthians and Ventidius his heavy-armed troops (48.39.2–4; bracketed clarifications added).
By using the word προύπεµψεν, “he was sent before,” Dio avoids any implication that Ventidius was dispatched from Italy. And very significantly, he puts Ventidius’s entry into Asia in the context of a confrontation with Labienus that took place in late winter, when the latter’s Parthian troops were still in winter quarters. This directly conflicts with an argument put forth by Steinmann and Young (2020: 444), which asserts that, due to the naval blockade of Rome by Sextus Pompeius, Ventidius was unable to begin the campaign against the Parthians until after the Pact of Misenum, which took place in the second half of August 39 BC. Immediately after this, they say, Ventidius departed “for Syria” (not the province of Asia) and “landed there” (by an assumed sea journey to Ptolemais) “in the early fall of 39” (2020: 444). Thus, though Ventidius’s journey is introduced as one to Asia to deal with Labienus, Steinmann and Young’s reconstruction changes it into a theoretical late-summer sea voyage directly to Syria to aid Herod. This reconstruction finds no support in either Dio or the histories of Livy and Appian.
It must also be pointed out that Appian includes a stipulation of the Brundisium agreement: “Octavian was to make war against Pompeius unless they should come to some agreement, and Antony was to make war against the Parthians” (App. 5.7.65). This makes it clear that the division of labor agreed to at Brundisium made issues with Sextus Octavian’s problem, not Antony’s. Though Steinmann and Young claim (2020: 444) that ongoing problems with Sextus kept Antony preoccupied with Italian affairs and unable to undertake activity of any sort against the Parthians until after the Pact of Misenum in August 39 BC, Appian’s statement should allay that objection. At most we might say that Antony was too busy to micromanage his field commander Ventidius, who was to have free rein during 39 BC to prosecute the war against the Parthians as circumstances on the ground dictated.
From these considerations we should conclude that Ventidius was sent to Asia from Tyre right after the Treaty of Brundisium in the fall of 40 BC. Since the histories derived from Plutarch and Dio conflict with those of Appian and Livy, it is now necessary to suggest an explanation for the differences.
THE OVERSIGHT OF PLUTARCH AND DIO: ANTONY AND OCTAVIAN AT ROME
The Treaty of Brundisium having been ratified and the triumvirs reconciled, the next big event was the wedding of Octavia and Antony at Rome (App. 5.7.66; Dio 48.31.2–3; Plut. 31.1–3). Neither Plutarch nor Dio, however, joins Appian in having Ventidius sent to Asia in 40 BC. Although Plutarch does report that Antony sent out Ventidius before a winter break, he places that sending before the lengthy 39–38 BC fall and winter stay at Athens, after the Pact of Misenum, instead of prior to the 40–39 BC winter at Rome (Plut. 32.1–2, 33.1). Either Plutarch and Dio are both in error, or Appian and Livy. There is no reconciling them.
The evidence is very strong that Antony spent the winter of 40–39 BC with Octavian at Rome. Their interactions leading to the recall of Salvidenus place them together there after the wedding (App. 5.7.66), and Antony’s continued presence in Rome is confirmed by his rescuing Octavian from the mob (App. 5.7.68). The famine that triggered the mob was due to the naval blockade by Sextus, and Antony and Octavian did not part ways until that problem was dealt with at Misenum in August 39 BC. Hence, Antony was at Rome with Octavian during both the fall and winter of 40–39 BC—which fits the situation when Herod was granted the kingship of Judea. Meanwhile, Ventidius was busy in Asia getting ready to undertake his 39 BC campaign against Labienus, little affected by subsequent complications in Italy due to Sextus.
The Evidence from Livy: the Periochae
Livy, whose life overlapped with Herod and who constitutes our earliest source of information on the Parthian War, validates Appian’s information by his timeline preserved in the Periochae. With additional details supplied by Appian in brackets, Periochae 127 presents the following sequence of events: (1) the Parthians under Labienus took over Syria; (2) Antony made peace with Octavian [at Brundisium in 40 BC; 5.6.56–65] and married his sister Octavia [right after the treaty, at Rome; 5.6.66]; (3) Antony [while still at Rome; 5.6.66] revealed to Octavian the latter’s betrayal by Salvidenus; (4) Ventidius [who was sent to Asia as soon as the Brundisium treaty was concluded; 5.6.65] killed Labienus and drove the Parthians out of Syria; and (5) Antony and Octavian, still together, made peace with Sextus [in late August 39 BC at the Pact of Misenum—i.e., Puteoli; 5.8.72]. Livy’s earliest records thus put Ventidius’s journey to Asia and his victory over Labienus before the Pact of Misenum, in agreement with Appian’s account.
Periochae 128 goes on to add that Ventidius’s final victory over the Parthians (the killing of Pacorus) in 38 BC was followed by the defeat of the Jews by “a deputy of Antony,” apparently Herod or the Roman commander Sosius. Since Livy’s timeline puts the Jewish defeat prior to preparations for the Sicilian war against Sextus, which began in July of 36 BC,16 it puts the fall of Jerusalem prior to the early fall 36 BC date of Steinmann and Young. Livy’s timeline thus agrees with the consensus Herodian chronology, which puts the fall of Jerusalem in summer of 37 BC.
In summary, it appears that Plutarch (30.3–4) overlooked the winter Antony spent at Rome, which both Appian and Livy account for—the winter that immediately preceded Ventidius’s campaign against Labienus. Dio (48.28.3) follows Plutarch in this error. The result is a corrupted chronology, since overlooking the 40–39 BC winter Antony spent at Rome pushes the 39 BC campaign against Labienus a year forward into 38 BC. As a result, the subsequent confrontation with Pacorus (Plut. 34.1) would be moved forward from 38 to 37 BC, which leads in turn to moving the taking of Jerusalem by Herod and Sosius from 37 to 36 BC. By building almost exclusively on Plutarch and Dio at the expense of Appian and Livy, the chronology that follows Filmer has incorporated their very significant timeline error.
WHEN DID VENTIDIUS ENTER JUDEA?
This timeline from Appian and Livy can be further checked by looking closely at the common assumption that Ventidius entered Judea in the fall of 39 BC. While Herod operated in Galilee during the winter of 40–39 BC (Ant. 14.413–14) and Antony stayed in Rome with Octavian,* Ventidius had moved from Asia into Cilicia in early 39 BC. The details given by Dio of the successful early-spring campaign against Labienus (48.39.3–40.6) and the later victory over Pharnapates in Syria (48.41.1–4) appear accurate, but as pointed out earlier, Dio, like his predecessor Plutarch, misplaces these events as beginning after the 39–38 BC winter at Athens.
Nevertheless, Plutarch correctly, albeit inconsistently, observed that Ventidius was sent into Asia after Misenum to oppose the “further progress” of the Parthians (Plut. 33.1). Their original progress was the rapid takeover of most of Syria in early 40 BC. The fear of “further” progress thus had to be from the perspective of late 40 BC in regard to potential advances the Parthians might make in 39 BC. Once their initial invasion was resoundingly repulsed by the defeats of Labienus and Pharnapates by the end of summer in 39 BC, there would have been no realistic expectation that they would progress further in Syria during 38 BC.
Plutarch likewise gets correct the detail that
it was while he [Antony] was spending the winter at Athens that word was brought to him of the first successes of Ventidius, who had conquered the Parthians in battle and slain Labienus, as well as Pharnapates (Plut. 33.4; emphasis added).
Since the “first successes” of Ventidius were those against Labienus and Pharnapates in the spring and summer of 39 BC, Antony must have learned of them near the beginning of his extended stay at Athens. Ventidius’s victory over Pharnapates probably did not take place until summer in 39 BC, so early fall of that year would have been the earliest the news could have reached Antony. These details also indicate that Appian’s version of the sending of Ventidius to Asia is correct; it took place in 40 BC after the Treaty of Brundisium, rather than after the Pact of Misenum in 39 BC as Plutarch and Dio (48.39.1–2) have it.
After discussing the defeat of Pharnapates, Dio continues, “In this way he [Ventidius] took over Syria without a battle, now that it was deserted by the Parthians” (48.41.4). “Now that” (καὶ οὕτω) signifies “because.” Ventidius had no further battles in 39 BC after Pharnapates’s defeat because there was nothing left to do that year. The Parthians were gone, having already deserted both Syria and Palestine without leaving behind any troubles requiring Ventidius’s intervention. There was thus no reason for Ventidius to approach Jerusalem any time during 39 BC.
Ventidius Sends Silo into Galilee to Help Herod, Summer 39 BC
Consistent with this analysis is what Josephus records:
Ventidius, who was now in Syria, sent for Silo, and commanded him to assist Herod, in the first place, to finish the present war [Herod’s campaign in Galilee], and then to send for their confederates [Herod’s forces] for the war they [Ventidius’s forces in Syria] were themselves engaged in; but as for Herod, he went in haste against the robbers that were in the caves [in Galilee], and sent Silo away to Ventidius, while he [Herod] marched against them [the Galilean rebels] (Ant. 14.420–21; emphasis and bracketed clarifications added).
This is a crucial piece of historical data, yet it is overlooked in all treatments of the Parthian era that I have examined since Debevoise’s seminal work over eighty years ago. The paradigm assumes that after first securing Syria, Ventidius went into Palestine in the latter half of 39 BC. As Debevoise writes,
Pacorus evidently then withdrew from Syria late in 39 B.C., and the country was occupied by Ventidius. Fighting continued sporadically in many quarters; Aradus offered prolonged resistance, and Ventidius encamped near Jerusalem for some time, though he did not attack the city. When he departed he…turned northward to reduce those cities which still remained pro-Parthian (1938: 116; emphasis added).
In contrast, the evidence from Josephus is that Ventidius was “now in Syria” because he had progressed from Italy > Tyre > Palestine > Tyre > Asia > Cilicia > Syria. In the summer of 40 BC Ventidius and Silo had been together at Tyre, from which both entered Palestine to remove obstacles to Herod’s return. In 39 BC, however, Ventidius, now governor of Cilicia and Syria after victories against Labienus and Pharnapates, sent Silo out alone to assist Herod’s efforts in his “present war” of putting down the Antigonus-aligned rebels in Galilee. That Herod refused the help and sent Silo “away” back to Ventidius confirms that the latter was not in Palestine with Silo.
Therefore, we must conclude that Ventidius did not enter Palestine in the fall of 39 BC as the paradigm and the Filmerian view teach. Only Silo did. Moreover, at this time Silo did not go to Jerusalem as in 40 BC, but into Galilee as support for Herod’s campaign there. Herod did not arrive at that time as a newly-minted king, but had already been hard at work in Galilee since the preceding winter eliminating as much opposition as he could.
DID JOSEPHUS ERR IN HIS CONSULAR YEAR OR OLYMPIAD?
Filmer’s view of Herodian chronology incorporates the assumptions discussed above, and to that degree shares the paradigm’s shortcomings. This is primarily due to Filmer’s uncritical embrace of the erroneous Plutarch/Dio timeline, which overlooks the contradictory data from Appian and Livy. But in addition, this view makes undemonstrated assumptions about Josephus’s dating discrepancy found in Antiquities 14.389, where the Olympiad and consular year are obviously out of sync.
Steinmann (2009: 7) argues that this discrepancy must be attributed to Josephus using the wrong consular year, which leads him to conclude that Herod was appointed Judean king by the Romans in 39 BC and that, in turn, Jerusalem was taken in 36 BC. Steinmann says this is a logical conclusion because the consuls Calvinus and Pollio did not begin their terms in office until after the Treaty of Brundisium in the fall of 40 BC; he says that, due to the civil war between Antony and Octavian, the consular year did not start until then. Because the Olympiad transitioned from the 184th specified by Josephus (Ant. 14.389) to the 185th on July 1, he argues that the consular year Josephus gives is wrong, and hence his dates for Herod’s reign are likewise in error.
However, there is another way of looking at the situation, one that none of the Filmerian chronologists appear to have considered: that the consular year was correct, and it is in the Olympiad Josephus gives that the error lies. This error is not surprising, because Josephus composed his account in Antiquities by first mentioning the Olympiad and then the consular year. This ordering unfortunately serves to frame the issue for many exegetes, predisposing them to take the Olympiad as the given and the consular year as subject to confirmation.
The root of the error lies in the assumption that a Roman consular year began in the month a consul began his term. This was actually not true. A consul elected to start a year—termed a consul ordinarius—had his name applied as a label for the entire year from January 1 (Bickerman 1968: 64), regardless of when his term actually began. When a consul began serving during that year was immaterial. Recall also that Dio (48.15.1) said that the beginning of 40 BC, while it was still winter, was reckoned as being in the consular year of Calvinus and Pollio. Dio thus validates this understanding. This means that Josephus’s error was only a matter of overlooking that by the fall of 40 BC, the 184th Olympiad had advanced to the next. It is thus a minor error of the Olympiad only. The consular year Josephus gave for the start of Herod’s Roman appointment stands independently of his erroneous Olympiad.
In addition, the record of Herod’s kingship grant was archived at the capitol (Ant. 14.388). Since Josephus took up residence in Rome in the court of Vespasian after the fall of Jerusalem, this permanent record was one he (or anyone else) could have checked his data against. Furthermore, Josephus’s description of Pentecost as “a feast of ours so called” (Ant. 14.337) only makes sense if Romans, not Jews, were his target audience. This strongly implies that he would have been mindful to use consular years correctly in his dates, since Olympiads would not have been his first choice for this audience. That the Olympiad is mentioned first in Antiquities may stem from carryover from his earlier work, The Jewish War, which may have been composed before he had access to all of the Roman records.
Steinmann (2009: 7) also defends the Filmerian chronology by citing Appian 5.8.75, alleging that the 39 BC appointments of Herod mentioned there indicate that was also the year of his appointment to the Judean kingship. But Herod’s 39 BC appointments were very specifically to Idumea and Samaria, and in Appian’s context applied to preparations Antony was making before he departed for Athens, not before the winter he spent together with Octavian at Rome. Furthermore, Herod’s Judean appointment involved the Senate addressing just that single matter (Ant. 14.384), not issuing a blank check to Antony to assign kings wherever he wanted, as Appian says: “He [Antony] set up kings here and there as he pleased, on condition of their paying a prescribed tribute.” Finally, it also depends on the timeline of Dio, which has been demonstrated to be in error.
One final point that Steinmann makes, that Antiquities 14.376 “implies that Herod did not journey to Rome until winter” (2009: 7), requires assuming that the storm Herod encountered after leaving Egypt was a winter storm. It has been demonstrated above that Herod fled from Jerusalem shortly after Pentecost in the spring of 40 BC (Ant. 14.337) and that his subsequent travel to Egypt was very hurried, so this claim cannot be supported from the histories.
This study has demonstrated that the reigning paradigm of the Parthian War period has allowed scholars to embrace certain inaccurate assumptions. They arose largely because neither Debevoise nor his successors accounted for certain material in Josephus’s Antiquities. These assumptions, together with a failure to directly address the conflict the histories of Plutarch and Dio present with those of Appian and Livy, contributed to Filmer’s revised chronology of the reign of Herod the Great. When the faulty assumptions arising from the Parthian War paradigm are recognized and corrected, one sees that the older analysis of the ancient records by Schürer was on the right track, as was the earlier Parthian War analysis of Bürcklein. When one adds to these corrections the recognition that the supposedly fatal error of Josephus concerning the consular years was actually an understandable oversight of not updating the Olympiad after mid-year, it is seen that the foundation of Filmer’s theory of a 39–36 BC reign for Herod the Great cannot be sustained by the original historical sources.
* Typos corrected 9/26/2022.
Appendix: Timeline of the Journeys of Herod, 41–37 BC
Winter 41–40 BC
- Antony in Egypt with Cleopatra
- The Perusine War ends; Ventidius and Asinius write to Antony
- Parthians under Labienus and Pacorus begin overrunning Syria
Late Winter 40 BC
- Antony receives letter from Ventidius about end of Perusine War and learns of Parthian invasion
- Ventidius expecting Antony in Italy, while not knowing his plans
Early Spring 40 BC
- Antony sends dispatch from Egypt ordering Ventidius from Italy to Tyre
- Parthians advance south as far as Ptolemais, make side trip into Judea to install Antigonus
Spring 40 BC
- Antony leaves Alexandria, travels overland to Tyre
- Ventidius arrives by ship to Tyre
- Herod and Phasael come to Hyrcanus’s aid at Pentecost
Late Spring 40 BC
- Hyrcanus and Phasael betrayed to the Parthians in Galilee
- Herod flees Jerusalem for Masada just after Pentecost, then immediately goes to Arabia
- Antony departs Tyre for Asia by ship, leaves Ventidius and Silo at Tyre
Early Summer 40 BC
- Siege of Masada begins
- Herod leaves Palestine, misses Antony in Egypt, hastens to Rome, is delayed at Rhodes
- Antony reaches Asia, learns Herod was expelled from Judea
- Antony dispatches Dellius from Asia to Tyre to aid Herod’s return
Summer 40 BC
- Antony leaves Asia, meets Fulvia at Athens, she dies at Sicyon
- Ventidius and Silo enter Idumea, end siege of Masada, go to Jerusalem
Late Summer 40 BC
- Ventidius leaves Silo at Jerusalem, composes Galilean cities, returns to Tyre
- Herod leaves Rhodes, sails for Brundisium
Early Fall 40 BC
- Treaty of Brundisium, September
- Ventidius sent from Tyre to Asia immediately after Treaty of Brundisium
- Antony and Octavian go to Rome for Octavia’s marriage, late September
Fall 40 BC
- Herod arrives at Rome from Brundisium, meets Antony
- Herod named king of Judea at Rome, early October
- Herod leaves Rome for Ptolemais, mid-October
Late Fall / Early Winter 40 BC
- Herod arrives at Ptolemais, rescues family from Masada
Winter 40–39 BC
- Antony stays in Rome with Octavian
- Ventidius gathers forces in Asia for Parthian campaign
- Herod starts then suspends siege against Jerusalem, starts campaign in Galilee
Early Spring 39 BC
- Ventidius moves forces from Asia into Cilicia against Labienus
- Herod campaigns against Antigonus’s garrisons in Galilee
- Octavian and Antony begin contending with Sextus Pompeius
Early Summer 39 BC
- Ventidius moves from Cilicia into Syria against Pharnapates, kills him
Summer 39 BC
- Ventidius governs Syria and Cilicia, sends Silo alone into Galilee to help Herod
Late Summer 39 BC
- Pact of Misenum brings temporary peace to Octavian, Antony and Sextus
- Antony prepares for 38 BC Parthian campaign, adds Idumea and Samaria to Herod’s oversight
Early Fall 39 BC
- Antony leaves Italy for Athens with Octavia
- Antony learns of “first successes” of Ventidius against Labienus and Pharnapates
Winter 39–38 BC
- Antony lives like a Greek in Athens, Ventidius stays in Syria as governor
Spring 38 BC
- Ventidius defeats Pacorus at Mount Gindarus
- Ventidius besieges Antiochus at Samosata
Summer 38 BC
- Antony removes Ventidius from command, takes over at Samosata with support from Herod
Fall 38 BC
- Ventidius sent home and has triumph at Rome, Sosius becomes governor of Syria and Cilicia
Winter 38–37 BC
- Herod with Roman troops sets up siegeworks at Jerusalem
Early Spring 37 BC
- Sosius arrives from Syria to assist Herod at Antony’s command, siege of Jerusalem begins
Summer 37 BC
- Herod and Sosius take Jerusalem, Herod becomes de facto king
1 The essentials of the Steinmann-Young paper were presented at the 2019 Near East Archaeological Society annual meeting and are posted at http://www.rcyoung.org/articles/Herod.pdf (accessed June 12, 2020). The second half of that paper cites the sabbatical year formulation of Ben Zion Wacholder in support of Steinmann and Young’s Herodian chronology. The reader interested in tying sabbatical year matters in with the conclusions of the present paper is directed to the author’s online article “The Going Forth of Artaxerxes’ Decree Part 2” (https://biblearchaeology.org/abr-projects/the-daniel-9-24-27-project-2/4590-the-going-forth-of-artaxerxes-decree-part2).
2 These texts can be found online as well as in widely available print editions. Except where otherwise noted, references from Antiquities in this article follow the Loeb edition’s numbering, but the quotations use the accessible Whiston translation.
3 Livy—the earliest source of information on the Parthian War period, whose life overlapped with it—agrees with Appian’s timeline of events. See Books 127 and 128 of the Periochae of Livy (https://www.livius.org/sources/content/livy/livy-periochae-126-130/#127.1). Apart from acknowledging them as historical sources, Steinmann and Young (2020) ignore Appian and Livy and do not discuss their very substantial differences from Plutarch and Dio.
4 Antony’s behaving like a Greek is also noted during his winter at Athens in 39–38 BC.
5 This letter could have reached Alexandria from Rome in as little as 11 days in January. All travel estimates in this article are derived from ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, https://orbis.stanford.edu/orbis2012/#mapping (accessed September 12, 2022).
6 The highly similar language of Dio to his predecessor Plutarch indicates that he adopted the timeline of the latter.
7 The generally overlooked source-critical study (in German) of August Bürcklein also concluded that Appian’s account was the most reliable of a multitude of ancient sources Bürcklein investigated: “And I see no other reason that somehow compelled us to depart from Appian’s statement, our most reliable source” (1879: 52; my translation). Likewise, “We will therefore accept Appian’s testimony, that Ventidius was posted under the Brundisium Treaty, that is in the second half of 714 [40 BC], as correct, and that the information given by the other two writers [Plutarch and Dio] must be mistaken” (1879: 53; my translation).
8 This could not have been a winter storm, since only a few weeks had passed since Pentecost.
9 The overriding haste of Herod to get to Rome precluded the time and expense of building a ship from scratch. Since the Greek term κατασκευάσας used in Ant. 14.377–78 can mean to make ready, prepare, furnish or equip, we should adopt this understanding—reflected in War 1.281—as best aligning with the overall emphasis on Herod’s hurried travel.
10 The quoted extracts are from pages 655 and 657 of the Internet Archive copy of the Loeb edition of Antiquities Book 14, beginning at https://archive.org/details/Josephus02War13/Josephus%2007%20Antiquities%2012-14/page/654/mode/2up.
11 See Whiston’s note on Ant. 14.390: “This grievous want of water at Masada, till the place had like to have been taken by the Parthians, (mentioned both here, and Of the War, B. I. ch. 15. sect. 1,) is an indication that it was now summer time.”
12 Cf. Plut. 25.2, where Dellius is described as Antony’s messenger to Cleopatra.
13 Whiston, “at the same time.”
14 Per ORBIS, a letter from Alexandria would have taken about 14 days to get to Brundisium by fast ship.
15 Bürcklein makes a strong case that the original records of Antony’s involvement in the Parthian War were drawn from the eyewitness accounts of Dellius. After an extensive analysis of numerous ancient sources, he concludes, “It follows from the above investigation that Dellius’ writing has become the basis for the entire tradition of the Parthian campaign, insofar as it is available to us” (1879: 33; my translation).
16 The comprehensive timeline at Attalus.org (http://www.attalus.org/bc1/year36.html#6) states that Octavian began his Sicilian campaign against Sextus on July 1, 36 BC. This means that the taking of Jerusalem by Herod was before the early fall 36 BC date proposed by Steinmann and Young. Livy thus supports the summer 37 BC timeline of Schürer.
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