Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912
“Hérodias” opens with a harsh and unsparing landscape, the powerful citadel of Machaerous as it looms over the desert, no city of human beings but an incarnation of power, a huge, pointed crown suspended over an abyss. Great forces are at work in this unforgiving land, against whose barren geometry of forms human figures are dwarfed. Herod Antipas and his wife, Hérodias, dominate the foreground of the opening scene. He is surrounded by political factions and wracked by doubts, shaken by the voice of his prisoner Iaokanann. She is engaged in a remorseless pursuit of power, a pursuit furthered for her by Herod’s love, at the expense of divorce and the loss of her daughter. Herod’s love has died, but she still works to further his power because she may yet rule through him. Thus she arranges the death of her own brother in prison; such intrafamilial killings are as commonplace to her as they are to Herod. Their very marriage is founded on her divorce from Herod’s own brother. In Rome, such machinations are taken for granted, but to the peoples they rule, the marriage of Hérodias and Herod is incestuous, an abomination.
Iaokanann, whose last day this story chronicles from rising sun to rising sun, is the opposite of Hérodias; he denounces her as a Jezebel and threatens her power, his voice cuts off her breath, and she desires nothing so much as his death. All of her wiles are bent to this end from the moment that she appears on the scene. Because Herod is now dead to her charms, she does not hesitate to use other means: The first hint of the arrival of Salome comes through Hérodias’s reproaches to Herod. In Herod’s mind, Iaokanann is still valuable in bargaining with the many sects that he must manipulate to control Jerusalem. Locked deep in the bowels of the citadel, the prisoner seems harmless, though the rumble of his voice arises at times to trouble the already troubled ruler.
Herod is preparing to celebrate his birthday. The most important leaders of Jerusalem, religious and secular, the Roman proconsul Lucius Vitellius and his son, and the most important of his allies and political opponents are invited. Outside the citadel the king of the Arabs, Herod’s insulted first father-in-law, gathers forces for an attack. The progression of the day sees the interplay of these political forces as Herod attempts to maneuver himself into a position of safety and strength. There has even been a prophecy: Someone important will die in the citadel this day.
The arrival of various guests, especially of Lucius Vitellius and his son Aulus Vitellius, swamps the reader with names and a catalog of warring political and religious interests. Herod must meet and propitiate Samaritans, Essenes, Galileans, Pharisees, Nazarenes, Sadducees, Romans, and publicans, each of whom clamors for attention. Lucius Vitellius, representing the power of Tiberius Caesar, insists on inspecting the citadel and is led into all the storage rooms, the great beehive of the hollowed cliff under the fortress. Here armaments of all kinds are stockpiled, enough for forty thousand men.
There is even a subterranean stable with a hundred white war-horses, trained and groomed by a Babylonian. During this inspection, the underground cell of Iaokanann is discovered and opened. The powerful voice, rising from darkness into a scene where sunlight glints from armor and jewels, blasts Herod and his wife. The leaders of the Jewish sects are set abuzz; the Romans find Iaokanann’s accusations of adultery and incest against their host amusing but are more troubled to hear that he opposes paying taxes to Rome. So passes the afternoon of confusion and bargaining, in preparation for the evening’s feast. In the course of the afternoon, Herod twice catches a glimpse of a young girl—a stranger, but very beautiful—first from a distance, then in the rooms of Hérodias herself.
The feast is described in the most lavish of terms, a heaping up of all the excesses of Roman orgiastic cuisine for the benefit of the young Aulus Vitellius, who is already renowned as a glutton. The two cultures, Roman and Jewish, clash, and there are many conflicts of interest, both political and religious. Lucius Vitellius affects an interpreter but can understand the language of the people surrounding him; he hears them speak of a Messiah in connection with Iaokanann, one Jesus Christ, and must ask the definition of the term from the priests.
The climax of the evening is reached with the entrance of the lovely Salome, glimpsed earlier in the day. At her mother’s orders, Salome dances in such a seductive manner that she arouses all the men at the feast, and Herod, seeing in her the beauty that Hérodias has lost, offers her any reward she wishes. Her answer? The head of Iaokanann.
The actual execution is not described. Mannaei brings the severed head on a platter to Salome, then displays it to the guests. The banquet ends, and Herod remains, staring at the head and weeping. Phanuel, an Essene who had delivered the prophecy of death to Herod and had pleaded for the life of Iaokanann, prays.
At dawn the next day, Phanuel leaves the citadel with the head still on its platter. He meets two men, messengers returning to Iaokanann. The three continue together on the road to Galilee, carrying the heavy load by turns.