Claim to fame: Tries to kill baby Jesus. Fails. (Huzzah!)
Jealousy, thy name is Herod. This guy is so insecure, even the birth of a baby makes him freak out. To be fair, he is told by three pretty wise-looking men that the kid is gonna grow up to be King of the Jews (2:2). That might put a little crimp in Herod's retirement plans.
Rage Against the Baby
Matthew's Gospel tells us that after hearing about the birth of Jesus, Herod "was frightened" (2:3). Babies don't usually strike fear into people's hearts, so what's up?
Herod understands that this child is going to be a new ruler for the Jewish people. Since Herod has already been set up by Rome as the Jewish leader in Judah, that is not something that he's welcoming. See, Herod's got the power and no one, definitely not some drooling infant, is going to take it from him.
So how bad does he want to maintain his vice-like grip on authority? Um, enough to massacre "all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old" (2:16). Luckily for Jesus, he and his family get out of Bethlehem just in time. Of course, we can't say the same for all the other children.
Herod does die without ever getting Jesus, though, so there's that. Evil foiled…just a little too late to save a bunch of innocent kids.
Was He Really That Bad?
It's clear that the Gospel doesn't have nice things to say about Herod, but was the real Herod the terrible guy Matthew makes him out to be?
Yeah, kind of. He's known throughout history as Herod the Great, but many scholars regard that epithet as kind of a joke. Herod the Homicidal Maniac would have been a more accurate description. Though it wouldn't look as nice on a commemorative plaque.
The real Herod was set up as a puppet ruler in Judah by the Roman government. This was their way of saying, "Hey, look, we've got Jews in power. We're not so bad." But in reality, when Rome said, "Jump," Herod said, "How high? And how many people do you want me to kill while doing it?"
Herod was pretty much a bad dude. He was ambitious, cruel, paranoid, brutal, and ruthless. He killed both of his sons and his brother-in-law out of jealousy for their growing popularity. He even ordered his own beloved wife, Miriam, murdered in a fit of jealous rage. And he had countless numbers of his own people killed for their refusal to submit to Roman rule. Cheery. (Source.)
So, yeah, he totally could have murdered all those kids. But scholars think it's unlikely that Matthew's massacre ever happened. For one, if tons of children were killed in and around Bethlehem, you can bet other Jewish writers of the time (who didn't have nice things to say about Herod) would have included a story like that. Matthew is the only ancient source for the story, so it's much more likely that he's just trying to draw a parallel between the slaughter of the first-borns during the first Passover (Exodus 12:12).
That's His Boy
It's worth noting that Herod the Great should not be confused with his son, Herod Antipas. The younger Herod got the honor of putting John the Baptist to death and giving the thumbs down to Jesus at the end of his life. Like father, like son.