What loathsome disease did King Herod die of?

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Dear Cecil: What is Herod’s Evil? In the book I, Claudius, Herod succumbed to a disease that had symptoms described as “putrescent stomach, corpse-like breath, maggots breeding in the privy member, and a constant watery flow from the bowels causing inflamed madness.” Is this disease confined to the Herods, or shall I live in fear that I’ll catch it? Linda Z., Calumet City, Illinois


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Well, the typical person named Linda isn’t going to have to sweat the problem of maggots breeding in her privy member. But you could get the other stuff all right. Look on the bright side, though. Putrescent stomach, corpse-like breath, inflamed madness — sure, you’d be a long shot for homecoming queen. But you’d definitely be on the fast track for boss.

Modern science isn’t sure what Herod had, but the majority view is that it was arteriosclerosis, commonly known as hardening of the arteries. A bit dull, I suppose— what, no venereal disease? But the feeling is that arteriosclerosis, when accompanied by deterioration of the heart and kidneys, would result in the symptoms described. Bodily poisons wouldn’t be excreted properly and would accumulate in the blood, causing general itching, sharp, constant abdominal pain, diarrhea, and possible ulceration of the bowels. In extreme cases, which is plainly what we’re dealing with here, the scrotum could become distended and gangrenous, at which point a lesion might well become infested with maggots, personal hygiene not being a priority back then.

The minority view is that Herod succumbed to a combination of cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, and diabetes. Diabetes I suppose anybody could get, but cirrhosis and hypertension to me are signs that this person wasn’t leading a virtuous life. Eat your vegetables, don’t do bad things to newborn babies, and maybe you’ll escape Herod’s fate.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.