MAD KINGS AND MACCABEES (PART FOUR): ARMED RESISTANCE!

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In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

(To read Part Three go here)

It was in 167 BC that the deep resentment among the Jews towards the Hellenization policy of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes exploded into active rebellion. The spark was struck in the village of Modi’in, 19 miles to the west of Jerusalem.

Living in Modi’in  was an elderly priest of an ancient family, the Hasmoneans.  His name was Mattathias ben Johanan. He and his five  sons had returned to Modi’in following the Seleucid sack of Jerusalem and the purge of its Orthodox Jewish citizens the previous year (see Part Three).

To Modi’in came an official of the Seleucid court, whose name is now lost to history. He ordered the people of Modi’in and those in the region thereabout to gather together in the village center. Here an alter was set-up by the official’s servants. Standing before the throng the royal officer turned to Mattathias, standing with his sons in the forefront of the crowd. As a senior and respected priest, the official called upon Mattathias to comply with Antiochus’ orders and lead the Jews of Modi’in in giving sacrifice to the Olympian gods of the Greeks.

You are an honorable and great man in this city and strengthened with sons and brethren: Therefore, come and be first to fulfill the king’s commandment, like all the people of his empire have done; including the men of Judah and such as remain at Jerusalem.”

Before Mattathias he dangled a carrot:

“Do this, and your House will be numbered among the king’s friends (philoi), and thou and thy children shall be honored with silver and gold, and many (additional) rewards.”[1]

Mattathias would gain royal favor if only he would lead his fellow Jews in sacrificing to the Gods of the “gentiles”. But neither the king’s good will, nor the promise of riches held any allure for the old man. We can only imagine the stern set of his weathered countenance as he answered with loud voice:

“Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments: Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left.” [2]

Such a  firm and principled refusal can only have shocked and galvanized those Jews gathered that day. When another priest stepped forward to make the sacrifice in his place, rage overcame Mattathias. He slew the other priest, and in the scuffle that followed, the Seleucid official and his guards were all slain, likely by Mattathias’ sons and their friends.

With a bloody sword in hand, Mattathias addressed the assembled Jews: “Let everyone who has zeal for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!”

The die was cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Mattathias, his sons and their supporters fled into the hills. There, they resolved to defend their religion and their people’s unique place in the world from desecration and destruction.

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This would be a struggle not only for the existence of the Jewish people’s unique culture; but for monotheism over polytheist paganism. Would the Jews become just another Hellenized Syrian people? Or would they remain a singular people, considering themselves especially chosen by God, and governed by the laws of Moses?

THE SWORD OF APOLLONIUS

Mattathias and his sons fled into the hills of Samaria and northern Judea. There they gathered men likewise resolved to resist Seleucid authority. This armed band roamed from village-to-village, proclaiming revolt and destroying the pagan alters of the Hellenizers.  It can be presumed that they also attacked isolated Seleucid outposts and detachments, gathering up supplies in the process.

Mattathias died a year later. He left the leadership of the rebel movement in the capable hands of his strong son, Judah; who showed exemplary leadership skill and had likely been the military commander even while his father lived.

Meanwhile, word of what had occurred at Modi’in reached the Seleucid capital, Antioch and the sons of Mattathias and their small band of followers were declared outlaws.  Apollonius, Seleucid governor of Samaria[3], set out with a small force of some 2,000 soldiers (likely light-infantry mercenaries from local garrisons) to track down and destroy the rebels. He was the same man who had conducted the massacre at Jerusalem a few years earlier, and established the fortress known as the “Acra” in the heart of the city.

For days Apollonius soldiers searched the hills, with Judah’s small band eluding them. Tiring work for troops more used to the easy life of garrison towns. As the column wound its way through the Samarian hills, Judah and a force of some 600 fighters waited for them at a place called Nahal el-Haramiah (the wadi Haramia).

The modern road snakes through the hills around the wadi today; likely following the ancient track used by Apollonius’ army.

From the hills above, Judah’s warriors sprang from hiding, pelting the surprised Seleucid soldiers with javelin and sling-stone. Before the soldiers could organize themselves from road-march formation, Judah’s men charged down hill, falling upon Apollonius’ tired troops with a fury. Apollonius was among those cut-down, and by Judah’s own hand. His surviving soldiers fled.

This was the Jewish rebels first victory in battle against their foe. Judah took for himself Apollonius’ sword. He would use it for the rest of his life against their oppressors.

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A replica Greek kopis: very possibly the style of sword captured by Judah from Apollonius

It was about this time that Judah acquired the surname “Maccabee“: the “Hammer”[4]. Relentless foe of the gentiles and Hellenizing Jews who threatened his faith and his people’s identity, this was the first of many victories to come.

Following this victory, recruits flocked to the standard of the Maccabee. But Judah understood that the Seleucid army was nearly invincible on anything resembling flat or open terrain. Local Seleucid garrisons, comprised of low-quality militia or light-infantry mercenaries were one thing, the Seleucid “regular” army quite another.

The Seleucid king had a standing army of some 12,000 professional soldiers stationed around Antioch. These were Hellenistic phalangites and armored heavy cavalry of the Royal Guard. If called up from their farms or their military settlements all throughout Syria, the “regular” Seleucid army could also field some 20,000 additional Graeco-Macedonian phalangites. These cleruchs  were descendants of the veterans settled by the great Diadochii Antigonas One-Eyed and Seleucus Nicanor; men who’d fought for Alexander the Great or his Successors.  The “Macedonian” phalangites were the battle-winners of Hellenistic warfare and considered the best heavy infantry in the world for nearly two centuries. In the 2nd century BC, only the Roman legions were more respected and feared on the battlefield[5]. The Seleucid authorities could also call upon some 5,000 “imitation” Roman legionaries that comprised half of the king’s royal foot guards (See Armies of the Successors: the Seleucids). In battle, these formed the anvil upon which an enemy would be broken. The mallet was the superb armored cavalry lancers of the horse guards (the Hetairoi, or “Companions”, and the “Agema” elite regiments) and “line” cataphract regiments. These could scatter lighter-armed cavalry, and then roll-up the enemy’s main battle line. If this were not enough, the Seleucid dynasty famously maintained a royal herd of Indian elephants. The largest of the pachyderm species available to the ancient powers, these were highly prized and fearsome weapons on the battlefield.

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Judah understood that before his people could be free the formidable Seleucid army would have to be defeated . But he also understood that to have any chance of victory, he  must fight them at a time and place of his choosing. The rough, rocky hills of Samaria and Judea were the perfect terrain for a light guerrilla force such as his own; where Seleucid detachments could be ambushed as he had Apollonius’ army at the Haramia wadi, or fought on rock-strewn plains that would break-up the phalanx’s tight formation.

THE HAMMER

Following the defeat of Apollonius another force under an officer named Seron was dispatched to avenge the Seleucid defeat. This army was twice the size of that which Judah defeated at Nahal el-Haramiah, some 4,000 troops. Again, we have no knowledge of the composition of these forces; but it is likely that these were, again, mercenaries drawn from Seleucid garrisons in southern Syria.

The sources say Seron spread his forces to avoid the kind of ambush that had destroyed Apollonius’ forces. But tactically this makes little sense, as doing so instead invites defeat in detail. As the writers of these sources are all Jewish, they likely had no real understanding of Seron’s strategy. A more plausible theory is that he spread his forces in a wide net across the Samarian hills, moving south toward Judea, attempting to locate and bring the Maccabeean forces to battle. What we know is that Judah eluded detection, and instead caught the main detachment under Seron himself isolated as it climbed the pass of Beth Horon. This place had some  significance Jewish history, as it was the same place where the Israelite hero Joshua defeated the Amorites. No details survive of the Battle of Beth Horon, other than that Seron suffered the same fate as Apollonius, and his troops scattered in terror.

1880 drawing of the “ascent” of Beth Horon: A perfect place for Judah’s forces to attack from the heights above.

Once again, the doughty Jewish patriots had defeated the imperial forces; and the legend of Judah “the Hammer’s” continued to grow.

THE BATTLE OF EMMAUS

That same year, 166 BC. the Seleucid Empire was threatened by another, far deadlier enemy; far to the east. From out of the arid plains of central Asia, a nomadic people called the Parthians had invaded the so-called “Upper Satrapies” (modern eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan). In 167, the year before, they had captured the region of Herat, called by Herodotus “the bread-basket of Central Asia”.  Antiochus Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had won great fame by restoring this region to the empire following a three-year campaign (209 BC – 206 BC).

The revolt of the Maccabees was (at this stage) more annoyance than real threat to the Seleucid state. But the Parthian conquest of Herat threatened control of all the Upper Satrapies, and of cutting the Seleucids off from India, source of rich trade. Antiochus Epiphanes, the “Mad King”, now departed  Antioch at the head of a large army to repel the Parthians and restore the situation in the east. He appointed as regent and guardian of his six year old son-and-heir, the future Antiochus V Eupator, one  Lysias; a “distinguished man of royal lineage”[6]. He left his regent with a mandate “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation.”[7] While the 1st century historian Josephus may here be engaged in hyperbole, and Antiochus may not have ordered the destruction of the whole Jewish nation (only a small portion of which was actively engaged in revolt); it is clear he left instructions to his regent to crush the Maccabeen rebels and punish any who sided with them. Judea and Samaria were to be pacified, no matter how much blood it would take to do so.

Lysias organized a large expedition (at least 5,000 men [8]) to carry out the king’s wishes,  under two generals: Nicanor son of Patrocles, a member of the king’s inner circle of “Friends” (philoi basilike) and another  general named Gorgias. Gorgias is a few years later found as the Seleucid military governor of Idumea, and he may have held this position at this earlier date. He is described only as “a general and a man of experience in military service”; and later in Second Maccabees he is called “the accursed man”[9]. Responsibility for overseeing the royal punishment of the rebels fell upon the shoulders of the Seleucid governor of Coele Syria (Palestine) and Phoenicia, Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes.

The composition of the Seleucid force is again unknown. But as the bulk of the “regular  army”marched east with the king, presumably including at least a large portion the elite royal guard units of foot and cavalry; what remained to Lysias in Antioch was those guards remaining and mercenaries. It is unlikely that he called-up the Seleucid phalanx, composed of Graeco-Macedonian settler-farmers. These were only mustered for major campaigns, and if any were mobilized for war in 166-165 BC they would likely have accompanied the king on his eastern expedition. As what guards remained in Antioch were likely there to protect the king’s heir and the royal family, what Lysias sent south with Nicanor and Gorgias were almost certainly mercenary foot, perhaps stiffened with a small number of “regulars”.

Marching along the coastal plain of Philistia (an area with a long history of hostility to the Jews of the interior), the Seleucid forces were accompanied by “a thousand slave-dealers”, to buy the vast number of prisoners anticipated.  Here the Seleucid force was augmented by garrisons and contingents from the coastal cities of Philistia, no doubt dispatched by order of the governor, Ptolemy son of Dorymenes. Contingents also arrived from Iudmea in the south, perhaps including an elite cavalry continent of Thessalian settlers (see Note 8). With these reinforcements, the Seleucid force may have numbered the 20,000 cited by 2 Maccabees.

The army turned east and camped  at  Emmaus at the mouth of the Ajalon Valley, 7.5 miles from Jerusalem and astride the road between that city and the coast. Located on the edge of the Judean hill country, from here the Seleucid generals could launch patrols into the hills that were home to the Maccabean rebels, and control egress from the hills into the coastal plain (still loyal to the Seleucid government). From this base they prepared for extensive mopping-up operations.

1615351.jpgAncient road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, winding through the Judean hills. 

Judah Maccabee had an active and effective intelligence and communications network, essential to the success of any guerrilla movement. Aware of his enemy’s movements and (likely) divining their intent, Judah here showed his abilities as a guerrilla-fighter of genius, as he prepared to bait for his foe that would prove irresistible.

Gathering his forces at Mitzpah, on the plateau north of Jerusalem, Judah arranged for word to leak to the Seleucid commanders at Emmaus of his presence there. Nothing could be more enticing to a regular force engaged against an elusive foe than the chance of catching and crushing that enemy encamped, unawares and concentrated at one vulnerable position. Leaving Nicanor and the contingents from the coast to guard the camp, Gorgias set out at sunset with 5,000 infantry (likely the troops from Antioch) and 1,000 “picked cavalry” (see Note 8, below) to conduct a march up into the hills with the intent of conducting a night attack on the rebel camp at Mitzpah.

This was precisely the response Judah was hoping for: he had lured his enemy into dividing their army.

Judah now carefully organized his forces. He selected his men according to the strict precepts found in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy; weeding them down to a select 3,000 men. These were then organized into squads and companies, each assigned a specific task in what he planned. To prepare them and bolster their morale, he recalled for them the victories of old, in the days of Joshua and Gideon, when Jewish guerrillas routed much larger forces.

He then set out from Mitzpah, on a circuitous night march of his own. Taking advantage of his intimate knowledge of the terrain, he avoided Gorgias’ approaching forces. When the Seleucid attackers arrived at Mitzpah, they found the camp deserted and their enemy gone. Thinking the Maccabean rebels had fled into the surrounding hills, Gorgias ordered his men to spread out and find their trail.

However, Judah was not fleeing; he was counter-attacking.

In the pre-dawn hours the Jewish rebels arrived in the hills south of Emmaus. From these heights, Judah could see the enemy camp below. As dawn broke, the Maccabee forces attacked, rushing down upon the  unprepared camp. Awakening from the their slumber, Nicanor’s men were astonished at the sudden appearance of the Jewish attackers, who they assumed Gorgias had put paid to that very night. Surprise turned quickly to panic, and the poorly trained levies fled in utter rout. Nicanor, the sources say, did not stop till he reached Antioch!

Though they found the camp filled with rich loot, Judah did not allow his men to get out of hand. But, maintaining their discipline, they took what they could carry and burned the rest. When Gorgias and his force returned later that morning, they found their base in flames, and Judah’s army drawn up and ready for battle. Astonished and demoralized by this sudden reversal of fortune, he avoided battle and withdrew as well.

Emmaus was an utter disaster for the Seleucids in their war against the Jewish rebels. Ptolemy son of Dorymenes, governor of Coele Syria, who was responsible to the capital for crushing the rebellion, was soon after sacked, losing his position. For Judah Maccabee, it was the greatest victory thus far. As they marched back into the Judean highlands that were their stronghold, the Jewish rebels rejoiced.

On their return they sang hymns and praises to Heaven, for he (God) is good, for his mercy endures forever. Thus Israel had a great deliverance that day… [10]

NEXT: THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE AND THE FIRST HANUKKAH 

NOTES

1. 1 Maccabees 2, 17-18
2. 1 Maccabees 2, 20-22
3. 2 Maccabees 6:1–11 suggests that Apollonius may have been an Athenian “senator”. If so, he may have been a friend of King Antiochus’ from his days in Athens prior to becoming king.
4. There are alternative explanations for this surname. One of these is that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?”; that  this may have been the battle-cry of the Jewish rebels. An even more obscure explanation comes from Rabbi Moshe Schreiber; who writes that it was an acronym for his father’s name, Mattityahu Kohen Ben Yochanan. Some scholars even maintain that the name is a shortened form of the Hebrew maqqab-ya ¯hû (from na ¯qab, ‘‘to mark, to designate’’), meaning ‘‘the one designated by Yahweh.’
5. See my earlier article,  Phalanx vs Legion 
6.  1 Macc 3:32. We know little more about Lysias’ lineage. Perhaps he was a cousin of the king. He almost certainly must  have been a member of Antiochus Epiphanes’ inner circle of trusted officers, the philoi basilike (“Royal Friends”).
7. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, vii, 2. Here Josephus may be engaged in hyperbole.
8. 1 Macc 3:39 – “…sent with them forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry to go into the land of Judah and destroy it, as the king had commanded.” These numbers are preposterous. The “grand army” of the Seleucid Empire numbered some 60,000 – 70,000; of which less than 40,000 were “regulars” (the rest being light-infantry skirmishers drawn from Asiatic levies and subject hill tribesmen); of which 7,000 cavalry would represent nearly the entirety of available Seleucid regular forces. But such armies were only mustered rarely, and always under the direct command of the king in person. With Antiochus Epiphanes leading a large force into the eastern satrapies, no such grand muster as would be required to field such an army was possible for Lysias at this time. It is more likely that the 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry Gorgias took with him to attack the Maccabee camp at Mitzpah was the bulk of the forces assigned for this expedition.  1 Macc 4:1 refers to the horsemen as “picked”.  At the Daphne parade in 166, there was a regiment of cavalry called the Epilektoi (“Picked”), numbering 1,000 troopers. These were recruited in the Seleucid military colony of Larissa in Trans-Jordan, named for the city in Thessaly and populated by Thessalian horsemen who’d served under Alexander. These were an elite among Graeco-Macedonian cavalry. It is likely that the “picked” cavalry under Gorgias was this regiment; especially as Gorgias was certainly later and may have at this time been governor of Iudmea, which province the colony of Larissa might have been a part of.
9. 2 Macc 12:35
10. 1 Macc 4:24-25

 

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com
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MAD KINGS AND MACCABEES (PART THREE)

In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

(To read Part Two go here)

For Antiochus, fourth of that name to rule the Seleucid Empire and self-named Epiphanes (“god made manifest”) the only way to unite the disparate peoples of his vast domain was through the promotion of Hellenism as the universal culture of the empire. A true zealot in the cause of Hellenism, Antiochus founded (or reorganized) Hellenic cities throughout the vast lands under his rule; engaging in a broad program of temple building and public works.

Close at hand to the center of his kingdom was Judea, home to the Jews. This long-disputed border province between the lands of the Seleucids and those of their traditional rivals, the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Coele-Syria (“Hollow Syria” as it was known to the Graeco-Macedonian rulers of this land) was too strategically important to be allowed to defy his edicts, and for the Jews to maintain their unique (and uniquely stubborn) religion and culture.

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Coin of Antiochus IV, with victory-bearing Zeus on the reverse. Zeus was the deity Antiochus identified with his reign; making the Olympian king the chief god of the Seleucid Empire

For years, Antiochus had patronized the ruling faction in Judea, that which embraced his program of Hellenizing the Jews. Menelaus, the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem and defacto chief magistrate of the Jews, towed the royal line and promoted Antiochus’ policies. However, he was venal and corrupt, and used his position to embezzle from the Temple treasury. Wildly unpopular even among many of the Hellenized Jewish elite he represented, a revolt against his rule erupted in 168-167 BC. The rebels in Jerusalem drove Menelaus into hiding and slaughtered many of his adherents.

Unfortunately, this revolt occurred at the very time when King Antiochus, campaigning in Egypt against the Ptolemies (See Part One and Part Two), most needed stability in this province which straddled the line of communications with his capital. Hearing of the events in Jerusalem, Antiochus was informed that the rebels had not just arisen against the corrupt Menelaus, but (falsely) that the rebels were anti-Seleucid and were killing Antiochus’ supporters in the city. Returning in frustration from Egypt, Antiochus entered Jerusalem and vented his spleen upon the helpless population.

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According to the Book of Maccabees, Antiochus “ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.[1]

At this moment occurred an event that has left an indelible mark on Jewish history. Antiochus profaned the Temple by entering the “Holy of Holies“, the inner sanctum where only the High Priest was allowed to enter on the Day of Atonement. Following the king’s orders, an alter to the Greek high-god, Zeus, was erected within the Temple upon the brazen alter. Animal sacrifices were given, and the Temple further defiled with the blood and flesh of these animals left scattered on the floor. This event came to be known in Jewish history, within the Torah and the Bible as the abomination of desolation.

Jerusalem was not alone in being signaled-out for desecration. In Samaria, on the sacred Mount Gerizim, the altar to Jehovah was defiled and replaced with one to Zeus.

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Early 20th century photo of Mount Gerizim, with the village of Nablus at its base.

The king departed Jerusalem bearing off the Temple treasury (allegedly some 135,000 pounds of silver) and many of the richly adorned sacred objects of Jewish worship, such as the golden menorah.

Still Antiochus’ wrath was not appeased. He seems to have  shifted the anger at his humiliation at the hands of the Romans in Egypt onto the Jews; perhaps somehow twisting the blame for the failure of his Egyptian campaign to the revolt in Jerusalem. This may perhaps help explain why of all the ethnic and religious minorities in his empire, the Jews drew his particular ire. It is often stated that his anger against them was only because of their refusal to accept Hellenization. However, this was only partially true: many Jews had already accepted Hellenism and Seleucid rule, and the seductive allure of Greek culture was spreading among the young men in the towns and villages of Judea and Samaria, as well as in the Jewish communities in the Trans-Jordan. Time seemed to favor Antiochus’ plans, as a new generation of Jews would be raised-up as “Hellenic” subjects. Patience was all that was required.

But the vindictive streak that was a part of Antiochus’ nature would not allow him to let go his anger towards the Jews. Departing Jerusalem for Antioch, he issued edicts outlawing many aspects of Jewish religious practice and traditions, including circumcision of male Jewish children. Worse still, he ordered the worship of Olympian Zeus (the deity Antiochus identified with his own person as ruler of the empire) as the supreme god [2] of the realm. This was anathema to the Jews, a direct attack upon their very existence as a “people apart”.

To enforce his orders, Antiochus reappointed Menelaus as High Priest and selected two military governors to administer the region. Over Judea he placed Philip, which the second book of Maccabees calls a “man of Phrygia”, “more evil than Antiochus himself”[3]; and over Samaria one Andronicus. Their instructions included Hellenizing (by force if necessary) the Jewish and Samaritan populations. Agents were sent out across the land, to oversee the erection and dedication of additional pagan alters, and to insure that the Jews offered sacrifices upon them.

Apparently there was enough resistance to the official Hellenizing policy that two years later, an angry Antiochus dispatched an army of some 22,000 under an officer named Apollonius (who may have been an Athenian “senator” [4] and friend of the king’s from his day’s in Athens). Apollonius was to take over as governor of Samaria (nothing is said of what became of the before-mentioned Andronicus).

But first he detoured south to Jerusalem.

Awaiting the Sabbath, when he knew the observant Jews would be at home and unwilling to take action, his army attacked the city. A massacre ensued, for the second time in as many years [5]. The Jewish population was killed or enslaved (save, perhaps, those confirmed Hellenized Jews supporting the regime). To hold the city, Jerusalem was garrisoned with a Seleucid force, and a fortress, the Acra, built within to house it:

And they built the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers, and made it a fortress [Greek: Acra] for them: And they placed there a sinful nation, wicked men, and they fortified themselves therein: and they stored up armor, and victuals, and gathered together the spoils of Jerusalem; And laid them up there: and they became a great snare. And this was a place to lie in wait against the sanctuary, and an evil devil in Israel.

The Acra of Jerusalem became the center of Hellenistic and Seleucid power in Judea; and Jerusalem home to only Hellenized Jews and foreign (Seleucid) elements. For the next 20 years it would stand as the living embodiment of “wickedness” and oppression for those Jews wishing to retain their heritage and culture.

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Jerusalem in the 2nd century, with the Seleucid Acra dominating the Temple Mount.

One such Jew who survived the massacre in Jerusalem, fleeing to his home village of Modin, was Judah, a son of a priest named Mattathias. His escape was to have lasting and (for the Hellenizers) catastrophic consequences. For he was to prove himself a man of great energy and military ability, and a deep and unshakable belief in God and his people’s unique place in the world. This piece of Seleucid treachery and brutality left him filled with an implacable fury and desire for revenge against his people’s oppressors.

Soon he would come to be known to his fellow Jews as Judah Maccabeus: “The Hammer”!

NEXT: ARMED RESISTANCE AND THE SWORD OF APOLLONIUS 

 

NOTES:

  1. 2 Maccabees 5. 11–14
  2. 2 Maccabees 6. 1-12
  3. 2 Maccabees 5. 22. Phyrgia was no longer a part of the Seleucid domain, given up in 188; along with all territories “beyond” the Taurus Mountains according to the terms of the Treaty of Apamea with Rome, following the Seleucid defeat at the Battle of Magnesia. This officer may have been a soldier of fortune come to Antiochus’ service.
  4. 2 Maccabees 6:1–11
  5. There may be confusion in the accounts, in which this second sack is merely a retelling of the first by Antiochus following his Egyptian campaign. It seems strange that after losing 80,000 inhabitants in the first sack that there would be a significant enough Jewish community only two years later to warrant another such attack and massacre; no matter how much Antiochus may have hated the Jews at this point in his reign.

 

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com
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MAD KINGS AND MACCABEES (PART TWO): HUMILIATION IN EGYPT AND REVOLT IN JUDEA

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In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

(To read Part One go here)

HUMILIATION IN EGYPT

In 168 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, was on the verge of accomplishing something no king of the House of Seleucus had ever come close to: the total defeat of their hereditary enemy, the House of Ptolemy and the conquest of Egypt. Where even the great Diadochi Perdiccas (general of and Regent for Alexander the Great), and Demetrius the Besieger  had failed; Antiochus, whose Army was camped at  Eleusis on the outskirts of Alexandria, was poised to achieve.  More, his fleet and another army had landed in Ptolemaic Cyprus, and was swiftly seizing control of the island. The Ptolemaic Kingdom seemed on the verge of annexation to the Seleucid Empire.

All this Antiochus had done against the will of the Rome, the arrogant arbiter of affairs throughout the Mediterranean. Here he was asserting Seleucid independence from Roman dominance in foreign affairs for the first time since his father’s defeat at Magnesia  in 190 BC. His army was now prepared to enter the Ptolemaic capital in triumph.

However, he first had to give an accounting to the newly-arrived envoy of the Roman Senate, the former Consul Gaius Popillius Laenas.

1584580.jpgAntiochus’ successful war against the Ptolemies had only been possible because Rome had been distracted, fully occupied with the Third Macedonian War against King Perseus.  Though the Roman Senate had no desire to see Seleucid power grow at the expense of the Ptolemies (her long-standing policy being to keep each of the Hellenistic monarchies weak and divided), Rome was unwilling to take an overt position against Antiochus for fear of driving him into an alliance with their enemy, Macedon.

But now the Macedonian king had been decisively defeated at the Battle of  Pydna in June 168 BC. Upon hearing of the Roman victory Popillius and his fellow commissioners waiting at Delos immediately set sail for Egypt.

Antiochus was well acquainted with and on friendly terms with Gaius Popillius and the other commissioners; from his long years as a youthful hostage in Rome. As they now arrived in his camp at Eleusis, he expected to welcome them as friends. What followed was a scene Roman pride would never forget.

When they were brought to the king’s pavilion, Antiochus walked forward, greeting Popillius loudly and holding out his hand. The Roman advanced upon the king with “a grim and stony irresponsiveness”[1].  Instead of taking his hand in friendship, Popillius reached into the folds of his toga, and withdrawing a scroll, placed this into Antiochus’ hand. Popillius bade him curtly to read it first before continuing.  It was a Senatus-Consultum, ordering the Seleucid king to withdraw immediately from Egypt.

1584576.jpgReading the Senate’s demand,  Antiochus attempted to smooth over the moment by promising to discuss the matter with his “Friends” (Φιλοι, the kings inner circle of councilors). But Popillius would not let the king off the hook so easily. Polybius, working from the Scipionic family library, describes the next moments vividly:

…(Popillius) handed to the king, as he had it by him, the copy of the senatus-consultum, and told him to read it first; not thinking it proper, as it seems to me, to make the conventional sign of friendship before he knew if the intentions of him who was greeting him were friendly or hostile. But when the king, after reading it, said he would like to communicate with his (council of) friends about this intelligence, Popilius acted in a manner which was thought to be offensive and exceedingly arrogant. He was carrying a stick cut from a vine, and with this he drew a circle round Antiochus and told him he must remain inside this circle until he gave his decision about the contents of the letter. The king was astonished at this authoritative proceeding, but, after a few moments’ hesitation, said he would do all that the Romans demanded. Upon this Popilius and his suite all grasped him by the hand and greeted him warmly.[2]

Never before or since has an unarmed embassy so rudely bearded a conquering king, in the midst of his victorious army. Such was the power and terror of Rome that Antiochus swallowed his considerable pride rather than risk war against the Republic. Within the time frame specified by the Senate, Antiochus withdrew his army out of Egypt, returning to Syria in humiliation. (Once Antiochus had retreated, the Roman commissioners sailed to Cyprus, where they expelled the Seleucid occupying forces from there as well; returning the island to Ptolemaic control.)

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At the celebration at Daphne, the Seleucid army was paraded before the visiting dignitaries from across the Hellenic world. Here are different Seleucid infantry types (art by Angus McBride).

Upon his return to his capital, the no-doubt frustrated would-be conqueror held a magnificent victory celebration. Inviting dignitaries from every Greek city and state throughout the eastern Mediterranean to the Paradeisos of Daphne outside Antioch he hosted a week of feasts, athletic competitions, and crowned all with a stupendous parade of his mighty army. It is from this Parade at Daphne, described by Polybius, that we gain our strongest understanding of the Seleucid army at this time[3]. (For more on the Seleucid Army, see this earlier piece.) This was a wonderful piece of disinformation. Antiochus, though deprived by Rome of the fruits of victory, nevertheless presented himself (with some truth) as a conqueror to the Hellenic world.

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Parade at Daphne: Seleucid cavalry (art by Angus McBride).

However, before returning home to Antioch, the king had first to stop in Jerusalem, where civil disorder threatened the harmony of his empire. Little could he have known that this seemingly minor incident in a backwater corner of his empire would overshadow every other act of his reign; and set in motion a series of events that would rock the Seleucid realm to its foundations.

ANTIOCHUS, HELLENISM, AND THE JEWS 

The Jews at this time were divided between those who “followed the law”,  the Hasidim, adhering to Jewish traditions and resisting foreign influences; and the “Hellenizers” who sided with the Seleucid authorities in attempting to assimilate into the mainstream culture of the empire (Hellenism). In Judea the High Priest of the Temple  was both the religious and civil leader of the Jews. In 168 BC the High Priest was Jason[4], leader of the Hellenizers. He had been appointed to his position by Antiochus earlier in the king’s reign, replacing his more orthodox brother.

1584592.jpgTo curry favor with his Seleucid overlord Jason fostered the growth of Hellenic culture within Judea. To this goal he set about transforming Jerusalem into a classical Greek city. He built a gymnasium, where sons of the Jewish upper-classes exercised naked as in any Greek polis (an abomination to traditional Jews), pursuing the Hellenic ideal of bodily strength and beauty. The Hellenizers also took to wearing the petasos, the traditional Graeco-Macedonian hat. Some of the more dedicated Hellenized Jews ceased to circumcise their infant sons; and even adult males seeking to identify themselves as “civilized” in the eyes of the local Hellenes[5] had surgeries done upon themselves to correct their circumcisions, reattaching their foreskins.

To traditional-minded Jews such foreign ways were abhorrent and dangerously seductive. Judaism had survived (and even thrived) captivity in Babylon; and since returning to their homeland in Judea the Jews had resisted (as they ever had) foreign religious and cultural influences, remaining a “people apart”. But Hellenism was a far stronger and more alluring force than any Asian culture that preceded it; penetrating far deeper into the culture and daily practices of the peoples of Asia than the more superficial over-lordship of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. Hellenism was a force which (partly by the deliberate policy of the ruling Hellenistic dynasties, partly by its inherent power) changed the East as nothing had changed it before.

For their part, the Graeco-Macedonians who, after Alexander, came to rule over the near East viewed and treated the Jews with some respect. Jewish communities existed throughout the Hellenistic world, and these Jews for the most part were fully integrated and highly productive citizens of their new homelands. Jews often fought as light infantry in the armies of the Ptolemies; and had a reputation for tenacity and courage.

But the small Jewish community in the hills of Judea held tightly to “the Law” and their ancient customs. The Greeks who first encountered them in the wake of Alexander’s conquests didn’t quite know what to make of these strange, insular people; identifying them at first not as a nation, but as a sect of philosophers within the native Syrian population, akin to (and perhaps related to) the Brahmins of India:

The little people dwelt separate in their hill country and, while wars rolled past them and kingdoms clashed and changed, nursed the sacred ire and meditated on the Law of the Lord. Strange among the nations, a people apart, bound in all their practice by a mysterious rule, they were taken by Greek writers of the fourth century not so much for a nation or a political organism as a sect of ” philosophers, ” who stood to the other Syrians as the Brahmins did to the other Indians-in fact, they were no doubt an offshoot of the Brahmins. [6]

Centered in the hills around Jerusalem the tiny Jewish community in Judea was an island surrounded by other peoples: Philistines along the coast to their west; Arabs and Aramaeans in the southern deserts and in the Trans-Jordan; Samaritans, Syrians, and Phoenicians to the north. The Lost Tribes were long gone into Assyrian deportation; and though many had returned home from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah many more had stayed in their new homes abroad. A Jewish diaspora had spread Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean at the expense of the Jewish homeland. Worse yet, many of these foreign Jewish communities were much too ready to Hellenize, blending in with their hosts.

Small in number and desperate to hold onto their ancient identity, the Jews of Judea were nevertheless slowly assimilating into the greater Hellenistic world.

In the cause of Hellenism, Antiochus IV was a “true believer”. Not since Alexander himself was a Macedonian dynast so completely committed to the spread of Greek culture. Upon the throne of an empire that spanned the near east, ruling over a vast and disparate people, Antiochus saw in Hellenic culture a unifying force that could weld all this polyglot population into a true nation. To this supreme goal he dedicated his reign.

To this effect he built new Hellenic cities throughout the empire and restructured existing ones as self-governing Greek polis’. Following the example of Alexander, who had founded Graeco-Macedonian colonies named after himself throughout the east, Antiochus named these new (or reordered) cities after himself. He also instituted a lavish building program of temples, gymnasiums, and other public buildings in these cities (and particularly his capital). Throughout the Seleucid dominions, local leaders tripped over themselves in their eagerness to adopt the trappings of Greek culture, and accept his largess.

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The only remaining artifact from Antiochus IV’s lavish building program is the Temple of Zeus in Athens. A true patron of Hellenism, he spent enormous sums on such temples, even in foreign cities. Athens, the cultural center of the Greek world, was especially favored by Antiochus; who had spent time as young man in the city, even being made an honorary citizen and elected Archon. The gargantuan columns of this temple still stand; mute evidence to Antiochus’ grandiose design. The temple was not finished in Antiochus’ lifetime. It remained incomplete till finished by the Emperor Hadrian; himself a philhellene.

For this reason Antiochus patronized those Hellenizers among the Jewish elites. Jason, his appointed High Priest, carried out his program of rebuilding Jerusalem as a Greek city; renaming it Antioch-Hierosolyma. When Antiochus visited the city to see how the work was progressing, he was given a warm reception by the Jewish pro-Hellenes.

However, despite doing his King’s bidding, Jason was replaced as High Priest round 171 BC, after some political skulduggery by his own henchman, one Menelaus. It was this shady, unscrupulous toady who more than any other person (excepting perhaps Antiochus himself) was responsible for the violence that was to follow.

BLOOD IS DRAWN

No sooner had he bribed his way into the High Priesthood, a position for which he had little qualification (he was not even of the priestly tribe), Menelaus brought charges of disloyalty against his priestly opponents in the Temple to the Seleucid court. Stealing from the Temple treasury, Menelaus bribed one of Antiochus’ chief advisers, and thus his critics were found guilty and put to death. Such blatant and unjust corruption alienated many among the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem who were formerly loyal to the Seleucid monarchy. Thereafter, Menelaus and his supporters were able to deflect any opposition to his High Priesthood as disloyalty to Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire

While Antiochus was campaigning in Egypt a false rumor reached Jerusalem: that the king had met defeat and death. This led Jason, the former High Priest, who had been in exile among the Ammonites in Jordan, to return to Jerusalem and lead a coup against the reviled Menelaus. Jason took the city, as the common people, incensed at the corruption of the Temple under his administration, rose to support him. Murder ran riot in the streets, as supporters of Menelaus’ (who were in the eyes of the Royal Court the pro-Seleucid party) were massacred. The villain himself escaped into hiding, avoiding a retribution so richly deserved.

Word reached Antiochus in Egypt that Jerusalem had risen against him, and that the mob were killing the supporters of Seleucid rule. This, on top of his humiliation by the Romans at Eleusis, drove the ever-unstable king to a murderous rage.

As he returned with his army through Sinai,  the wrathful Antiochus diverted his march to (in his mind) the treacherous city. Jason fled at word of Antiochus’ approach, and the king’s vengeance fell upon the hapless people of Jerusalem. The city was treated as any rebel town, and given over to sack and slaughter. Thousands were put to the sword by the Seleucid soldiery.

The Second Book of Maccabees records the horror:

When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.

Worse from the Jewish standpoint, Antiochus took this opportunity to enter the Temple, including the Holy of Holies. This was a place so sacred to Judaism that only the High Priest was allowed entry, and then only on Yom Kippur after sanctifying himself. The Jews watched with horror, no doubt expecting God to strike down the gentile for this act of profanity! But on this occasion, God withheld his hand; while  Antiochus looted the Temple treasury, his soldiers carrying off the most sacred objects.[7]

1584600.jpgThe king returned to his capital, Antioch; where he held his famous victory celebration described above. But he was not finished with the Jews, and their obstinate refusal to assimilate into the mainstream culture of his empire vexed him. Antiochus brooded on the problem. The solution he arrived at would challenge Judaism and threaten its very survival.

NEXT: THE SELEUCID CRACK-DOWN

 

  1. Bevan, Edwyn Robert: The House of Seleucus, Vol II, page 173
  2. Polyb. xxix. 27
  3. Polyb. xxx. 25
  4. Born Yeshua/Jesus, he had Hellenized his name to Jason.
  5. Within and surrounding Judea and particularly Samaria were Graeco-Macedonian settlements established by Alexander or later by his Successors. The city of Samaria itself was refounded as a Greek city by Alexander in 331, with a colony of Macedonian veterans settled within. Jerusalem had its share of Greek residents as well, and a merchant class that must have included some Greek or Hellenized Asiatics.
  6. Bevan, page 167
  7. Perennially short of funds, the extravagant and spendthrift Antiochus often seized treasures from temples within his domains; a sin for which his father lost his life committing. So this act of desecration was not singularly directed against the Jewish faith; nor at this phase of his reign was Antiochus particularly disposed against Judaism.

 

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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MAD KINGS AND MACCABEES: THE FIRST HANUKKAH

In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights (also known as the Feast of Dedication) is celebrated with the lighting, over eight days, of the ceremonial menorah: a unique nine-branched candelabrum. The origins of this festival, and the first Hanukkah, are found in the 2nd century BC, when the Jewish people were faced with one of the greatest threats to their religion, their cultural, and their very existence.

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In 331 BC Alexander the Great marched through Palestine on his way to Egypt, after defeating the Persians at Issus and capturing Phoenician Tyre in the two years previous. He likely visited Jerusalem while passing through Judea, and would there have met with the Jewish temple authorities.[1]

Judea now became part of the growing Macedonian Empire, which by the time Alexander died eight years later stretched from the Danube to the Indus. As with most of the people in his empire, Alexander granted the Jews a measure of local autonomy, with the right to practice their customs and (most importantly to the Jews) religion without interference.

However, following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC, his empire was convulsed in a series of wars between his friends and generals, fighting to carve out a piece of the realm for themselves (See Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones). When at last the Successor Wars ended a generation later, Judea became a province (“Coele-Syria“) of first the Kingdom of the Ptolemies; and then, after their victory at the Battle of Paneion in 200 BC, of the Empire of the Seleucids.

Throughout this period of Hellenistic control the Jews were left alone to conduct their religious affairs as they wished. However, in 175 BC a new king came to the Seleucid throne; one that would change the relationship between the King and his Jewish subjects, and of that between Jews and Hellenism forever. It would lead to a seminal moment in Jewish history, when as a people they stood tall and defended their ancient religion. It would also give the Jews one of their greatest champions: Judah Maccabee, “the Hammer”.

THE MAD KING

Though often capable and even brilliant rulers and military commanders, a streak of eccentricity ran throughout the Seleucid royal family. But none of that illustrious line showed both faces, brilliant and eccentric, more clearly than the fourth Antiochus to sit the throne of Seleucus Nicator.

Second son of King Antiochus III (“The Great”), Antiochus became a political hostage in Rome following his father’s defeat at Magnesia and the subsequent Peace of Apamea in 188 BC, which limited Seleucid power in Anatolia and put strictures on their foreign policy. In Rome the Seleucid prince gained an appreciation for Roman fighting methods,  which were later reflected in his reorganization of the Seleucid Army once he ascended to the throne (see Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids). After his release by the Romans following his father’s death, Antiochus spent time in Athens; imbibing the heady wine of Hellenism in this cultural center of Greek learning. Among the energetic and lively minded Athenians he found himself perfectly at home, and was granted Athenian citizenship. Perhaps bemused at having a Seleucid prince in their midst, who was eager to appear simply as one of the dêmos, the Athenians even elected him as one of their Archons for that year.

But when his brother, the frugal and circumspect Seleucus IV Philopater was assassinated by a powerful minister, the prince decided to quit playing at being the heir to Demosthenes and instead to pick up the mantle of his ancestor Seleucus Nicator. Returning to Syria, the Graeco-Macedonian soldier-settlers that were the core of the royal army rallied to this scion of the House of Seleucus; and in 175 BC Antiochus was able to wrest the throne from the grasp of the usurper. Despite the fact that his nephew, Seleucus IV’s nine-year-old son Demetrius, who had taken his place as a hostage in Rome, was the most direct heir; Antiochus was proclaimed king. He adopted as his throne-name Epiphanes (“God Manifest”)[2].

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Antiochus was unlike any king ever to sit the Seleucid throne before or after. His rule, like his personality, can best be described as erratic. Friendly and approachable one moment, brooding and sullen the next; he was alternately a whirlwind of cheerful action or a silent recluse. Today he might have been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. He was also likely a clinical narcissist (though a less clinical and more mundane narcissism is not unusual in rulers or politicians). His sojourn in Republican Rome and democratic Athens had left him with an odd taste for populous politics and a love for mingling with the hoi polloi. Occasionally he would don Roman toga and walk the teeming streets of his very-Greek capital, Antioch; “canvassing for votes” to republican Roman offices that did not exist in Syria: Curule Aedile, Praetor, Consul or Censor.[3] Or by day he might join the citizens in the great public baths, exchanging jokes with the common people as though merely one of the demos of Antioch instead of the emperor of a vast empire. At nights he would carouse through the streets of the great city[4] with a few chosen companions. A party of young men drinking late in some tavern or mansion might hear the approach of a new group of revelers, to be startled by the sudden appearance of the king and his cronies; who would join their party, drinking deep into the night. During festivals he would at times take to the stage, and like Nero perform for the populace; or join the dancers during festivals, leaping and whirling naked through the streets.

His eccentricities, his boyish enthusiasm and good looks earned him a measure of popularity among the gregarious and volatile Antiochenes; so different from the sober, ceremonial pomposity of his predecessors. However, his sudden mood swings and vindictiveness when crossed made men uneasy; and like a panther he could switch from languid relaxation to fierce and violent action in the beat of a heart.

Soon his enemies, foreign and domestic, began to refer to him not as Antiochus “Epiphanes“, but as Epimanes (“The Mad One”).

HELLENIZING THE JEWS

The kingdom this “mad” king inherited was a skeleton of its former, muscular self; an empire ever threatened with dissolution. Once stretching from the Aegean Sea to the border of India, it was withering around its edges, drawing back upon its center in Syria. On all sides enemies awaited, eager to see the empire dismembered.

In the west loomed the towering shadow of Rome. Suspicious of any resurgence of the once-great Seleucid power, the Roman Senate kept a watchful eye on Antiochus and his dealings with his fellow Hellenistic rulers. It was Roman policy that no Hellenistic king should grow stronger than his fellows, and so to one day pose a challenge to Rome. A weak and divided Hellenistic east was to Rome’s liking; most especially the Seleucid Empire. To this end, the Roman Senate was ever meddling in Seleucid affairs, and Roman diplomacy was backed by the implied threat of the terrifyingly effective Roman legions.[5]

To the east, Seleucid control of Media (northern Iran) and the “Upper Satrapies” (those eastern Iranian provinces abutting Central Asia) was threatened by the emerging power of the Parthians, nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. There was also the question of Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan), a Seleucid province which was ever ready to break away from the empire, and which had at times been a strong independent Greek kingdom. Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had campaigned in the east to bring all of the lost provinces back into the fold. But in the troubled years since Magnesia these had once again fallen away from the control of the Seleucid court.

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But the most immediate threat to the empire was to the south, where the age-old rivalry with the Ptolemies threatened to burst once again into war over the question of Coele-Syria: Philistia, Judea, and southern Lebanon. The temper of the Alexandrian court was decidedly bellicose; and had never reconciled itself to the loss of this cross-roads border province between the two empires. This new Seleucid king, in their estimation, was untested and, if reports were to be believed, mentally unstable.

Upon taking the throne, Antiochus began implementing a plan that would ultimately unite and strengthen the Seleucid realm, and make it a power capable of standing against any of these threats.

The king was convinced that the problem with so sprawling an empire was its diversity of cultures and religions. What was needed was a single unifying culture, one that would make all the disparate people of his empire: Syrians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes and Persians, one people loyal to their king. This culture must be Hellenism, the culture of the ruling Graeo-Macedonian class. This had been the dream of Alexander the Great, a unity of peoples under Hellenic civilization. It was a dream Antiochus now made his own. One people, one culture, one ruler: Antiochus.

To this end, the king’s focus was soon drawn south to Judea.

Though a relatively small community within the Empire, the Jews were an important one. First, their land sat upon the strategic crossroads between Syria and Egypt, the respective centers of gravity of the two greatest Hellenistic monarchies.[6] Secondly, Jews provided quality mercenaries to both empires. Fighting in the style known by Hellenistic military writers as thureophoroi, the Jews fought in loose-order with spear and javelin, and had earned a reputation for tenacity.

Previous Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers had left the Jews to run their own affairs. The High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem was their de facto ruler. It was to the High Priest that the first the Ptolemaic and later the Seleucid kings addressed their concerns. He was both the religious and secular head of the Jewish community.

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However there was disunity within Judea, between those who clung to “the old ways”, and those who embraced aspects of Hellenism, the culture of the Greeks. At the ascension of Antiochus IV, the High Priest in Jerusalem was Onias III. A member of the traditionalist (“faithful to the law”) faction, he was no friend of the Hellenists[7] or of Seleucid rule. He was opposed by his own brother, Jason, the leader of the Hellenist-faction. At the death of the previous king, Seleucus IV, there had been rioting in Jerusalem between the two factions. Blood ran in the streets.

Upon taking the throne, Antiochus summoned Onias and Jason to Antioch for an accounting. Jason described the desire of himself and others to fully embrace and promote the mainstream culture of the Seleucid Empire, Hellenism. He offered to build in Jerusalem public symbols of Greek culture, such as a gymnasium and public baths; and to remake Jerusalem as a Greek polis, a self-governing city-state within the empire. He also offered the king’ advisers a considerable bribe to convince Antiochus to make him High Priest in his brother’s place, in order for him to enact these changes. Antiochus came away impressed that in Jason he had found a useful agent. Onias was deposed and Jason put in his place.

Plans were laid to implement this policy of Hellenizing the peoples of the empire, and he would start with the Jews. If this stiff-necked, “backward” people could be Hellenized, so could any in the empire.

But first, he had to secure his hold on Coele-Syria, the rule of which was once again being challenged by his rivals in Egypt.

WAR IN EGYPT

 

In 171 the  broke out between Rome and Perseus, king of Macedon; who along with his father, Philip V, had for years been carefully preparing to throw off the shackles of Roman domination. With Rome so distracted, Antiochus decided the time was ripe to secure his southern border, and to settle with Egypt the issue of Coele-Syria once-and-for-all.

The Sixth Syrian War began in 170 BC with the “Mad King” marching south at the head of a large and well-supplied army. Crossing the northern Sinai desert, he met as large a Ptolemaic force near Pelusium led by Eulaeus and Lenaeus, the chief ministers of the Alexandrian court; who were at that same moment on their way to invading Coele-Syria. Battle was joined, and the result was complete victory for Antiochus and the Seleucid army. As the routed Ptolemaic soldiers fled the battlefield, Antiochus rode at the head of his pursuing troops, sparing the enemy soldiers from slaughter. Most of the Ptolemaic troops were Graeco-Macedonians. Like their Seleucid opponents they were either descendants of Graeco-Macedonian soldiers settled in Egypt after Alexander’s death, or Greek mercenaries. In either case, the ties of racial kindred and military professionalism combined with reasons of diplomacy to stay Antiochus’ hand. Encouraged by his mercy, many of the mercenaries went over to him, joining and bolstering his army.

The defeat at Pelusium threw the Ptolemaic court into a panic. Foolishly, the child-king, Ptolemy VI Philometer was put on-board a ship, to be spirited away to safety in Ptolemaic Cyprus. His ship, however, was overtaken by a Seleucid squadron and Ptolemy captured.

This was a good start for Antiochus. But mindful that to attempt to annex Egypt might trigger Roman intervention, Antiochus now decided to install the boy-king Ptolemy Philometor (who, due to a diplomatic marriage years before, was in any case his own sister’s son and thus his nephew) back upon his throne as a Seleucid puppet. First, however, Antiochus had to capture the fortress of Pelusium, the key to Egypt. Alexandria sent a naval squadron to supply the garrison, but this relief force was defeated at sea by the Seleucid fleet. Upon news of this reverse, the demoralized fortress surrendered to Antiochus. The way now open, the Seleucid monarch marched into Egypt with young Ptolemy in tow.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria the citizens rose up and proclaimed the child-king’s even-younger brother as their king, under the name Ptolemy Euergetes II. Antiochus turned this event to his advantage, presenting himself as the champion of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. Throwing a bridge across the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, the Seleucid army soon overran lower Egypt, except Alexandria, which held for Euergetes.

Antiochus proceeded up-river to Memphis, the ancient pharaonic capital. There he established an alternate government in the name of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. From Memphis he was able to cut off food supplies downriver to Alexandria. Discomfited, the “war faction” in Alexandria was overthrown and emissaries were sent to Memphis to negotiate peace, offering to confirm Seleucid rule in Coele-Syria. But that issue was no longer Antiochus’ war-goal. Now the prospect loomed of an Egyptian vassal kingdom, something every Seleucid king since the first had at least dreamed of (if not outright conquest of Egypt).

Refusing the offer, Antiochus marched north upriver, and laid siege to Alexandria.

However, his small fleet was not sufficient to the task of cutting the city off from the sea, and so starving Alexandria into submission was not possible. Storming so great a city was a ghastly prospect, as the ever-prickly Alexandrians would assuredly resist his soldiers from every rooftop and alley-way. So, at the end of 169, he withdrew with his army. He had the satisfaction of leaving Egypt divided between two warring brothers, his baggage train filled with looted treasure, and with Pelusium in his control. With this fortress in his grasp the gateway to Egypt remained unbolted against his later return.

However, the rival brothers soon quickly patched-up a peace between them. Agreeing to a joint monarchy, Philometer entered Alexandria and put an end to his role as a Seleucid puppet.

Antiochus reversed his progress home, and in 168 once again marched on Egypt; at the same time sending his fleet with a force to occupy Ptolemaic Cyprus. As his army approached the Delta, envoys from the court at Alexandria arrived in his camp. They politely thanked him for returning Philometer to his throne; and inquired why he had returned. Antiochus replied that guarantees for the future security of his realm were needed: he demanded Cyprus and the formal hand-over of Pelusium (still occupied by his garrison).

When the Alexandrian court delayed giving him an answer, Antiochus continued his advance. Returning first to Memphis, he repeated his march down river of the previous year. But as he approached Alexandria this second time, envoys from Rome awaited him. At a place called Eleusis, they arrived in his camp; the embassy led by Popillius Laenas, a Roman Senator and friendly acquaintance from his days in Rome.

1452778.jpgSeleucid soldiers, circa 160 BC

Till now Rome had watched Antiochus’ successes in Egypt with unease. But the Republic had been too distracted by its war with Macedon to intervene. However, as Antiochus marched on Egypt the final chapter in the story of the last Antigonid king of Macedon had played out. Brought to battle at Pydna, Perseus had been utterly defeated by the Roman Proconsul, Aemilius Paullus. Macedon would be reduced to the status of Roman province, and its last king, Perseus, taken to Rome in chains.

Rome was now free to deal with the ambitions of the “mad king”.

NEXT: HUMILIATION IN EGYPT AND REVOLT IN JUDEA

 

NOTES:

  1. The story of Alexander sacrificing to “God” on the Temple Mount are likely apocryphal.
  2. Hellenistic monarchies did not denote the difference between kings of the same name by numbering; but instead by adding an additional “throne-name”.
  3. Whether this bizarre mime was but a bit of eccentric play-acting or evidence of delusional behavior is, from the distance of two millennia, impossible to say.
  4. During the late Hellenistic period Antioch’s population reached its peak of of between 400,000 to 600,000 people, and was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. The city was composed of four quarters, and was for this reason known as a tetrapolis. Lying along the Orontes River, the whole was about 4 miles quarter was added by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC); thenceforth Antioch was known as Tetrapolis. From west to east the whole was about 4 miles wide from east to west, and a bit less from north to south.
  5. See Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate
  6. The Seleucid Empire and the Kingdom of the Ptolemies.
  7. Those who had adopted the culture of the ruling Graeco-Macedonian and sought to spread and enforce it among their fellow Jews.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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THE CRUSADES PART 4: JERUSALEM AND THE KINGDOM

This is the third part of Deadliest Blogger’s look at the religious and military phenomenon known as the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades, but with the politically correct blinders often found in modern scholarship removed. In these initial installments we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.

(To read Part One, go here; for Part Three go here)

At long last the Crusaders had reached the goal of their pilgrimage, the holy city of Jerusalem, and many a man wept at the sight. The army had shrunk considerably in the years since departing Europe, now estimated at some 12,000 men, of which only 1,500 (at best) were still mounted. They found a city strongly fortified, an Egyptian garrison holding the walls, and the gates barred against them. The countryside surrounding the city was nearly barren, lacking in water (the wells poisoned) or food supplies. Another long and exhausting siege seemed in the offing, and the prospect must have been daunting after the ordeal they had endured at Antioch.

The Crusaders made two camps, blockading Jerusalem. Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Tancred camped to the north of the city with the Norman, north French, and Low Country contingents; while Raymond and the southern French camped to the south of the city. A probing attack on the walls was made soon after arriving, on June 13, using ladders made from locally scavenged wood (in short supply). Though initially gaining lodgement upon the walls, the assault was soon thrown back.

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At this point, however, a group of knights claimed to have been visited in a vision by the now-dead and sorely missed Papal Legate, Bishop Adhemar. They claimed he had instructed them to march around the city walls barefoot, in penance and humility, to show their worthiness to take possession of the Holy City. This they did, the army marching around the city walls and singing holy psalms. After which Peter the Hermit held religious sermons in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the Mount of Olives. This greatly boosted the Crusaders’ morale; and now in a state of religious zeal, they were prepared to do what must be done to storm the city.

Material aid came at this time from the coast. On June 17th a party of Genoese sailors arrived with supplies of wood taken from their dismantled ships, and the fittings needed to assemble siege engines. After five weeks spent constructing a pair of siege towers (“Belfry”), an assault was planned for July 13th.

The attack on the walls took three days, with the defenders exchanging fire from stone-throwing mangonels (which also hurled balls of flammable material covered in pitch) as well as arrows. On the 15th the towers were rolled towards the walls, it taking several hours to push the towers against the battlements. The Muslim garrison had hung quilted cotton pads from the top of the walls, to pad the stone face against the impact from the mangonel fire. However, in the north flaming arrows had lit this cotton covering ablaze, and the rising heat from the flames soon drove the defenders back from the battlements. This allowed Godfrey’s tower to reach the wall unimpeded. The draw-bridge dropped onto the walls, and the first to storm across were two Flemish knights named Lethalde and Engelbert , followed closely by Duke Godfrey, his brother Eustace, the giant Tancred, and their men.[1]

The Franks hacked their way across the walls, clearing the defenders and entering the city below. In this melee they were served well by their heavier armor and larger stature than their Muslim opponents. In the south, where Count Raymond’s tower had caught fire and the attack there had stalled, many of the defenders were called off to try to stem the tide in the north. But this allowed Raymond’s men to batter down a gate and enter as well. Soon the city was swarming with Franks, slaughtering enemy warriors and civilians with equal gusto.

Some of the Fatimid garrison, including their commander, Iftikhar ad-Dawla, took refuge in the citadel along the western ramparts; called the Tower of David:

A band of Muslims barricaded themselves in the mihrab Da’ud (Tower of David) and fought on for several days. They were granted their lives in return for surrendering.[2]

The governor surrendered the citadel to Raymond, whose men showed greater restraint in the ongoing sack. The count honored his agreement with ad-Dawla and the surviving members of the Fatimid garrison, Egyptians and Sudanese, retired to Ascalon where a Muslim relief army was approaching.

Tower of David by night; part of the extensive citadel complex

The slaughter went on into the next day. A great number of Muslims took refuge on the Temple Mount. There they were attacked on the 16th by Franks with “unsheathed swords”. According to (the not-unbiased) Ibn al-Athir some 70,000 in all perished, and a great loot of silver was carried away in the form of adornments stripped from the interior of the Dome of the Rock. Jews suffered almost as badly as Muslims, a great many slain in their synagogue where they had taken refuge.

The massacre of the populace of Jerusalem was indeed a terrible blight upon the history of the Crusades; but neither unique to Christian armies nor unusual in its day. Under the commonly understood conventions governing war, a city or fortress that refused surrender and held out until stormed by the attackers was acknowledged to have forfeited all rights to mercy. Its people and goods were forfeit to the rage of the conquering army. Had the city surrendered before the belfreys were constructed and rolled towards the walls, the Fatimid garrison and population would likely have been spared.

The capture is often portrayed as a general massacre of the entire population. That would be an overstatement. The Gesta Francorum states: “Our men took many prisoners, both men and women in the Temple. They killed whom they chose, and whom they chose, they saved alive.” The exact casualty count among the city’s population is unknown, but there was not a general massacre.

The victors spent the next week cleaning out the piles of bodies, using Muslim captives to drag the corpses out of the city before their decomposition could start a “pestilence”.

The object of the Crusade had been achieved: Jerusalem, holy city of three great religions, was again in Christian control for the first time since the armies of Islam had wrested it from the Byzantines in the first flush of Arab conquest, four-and-a-half centuries earlier.

On 22 July, eight days after the city was captured, the Frankish leaders held a council in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whose purpose was to choose a king for the newly created Kingdom of Jerusalem. Duke Godfrey, who had resigned his title in Europe and had made it known he planned to stay in the Holy Land, was chosen; though out of humility he refused the title “king”. Instead this humble hero accepted only the title of  Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri ( “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre).[3]

THE BATTLE OF ASCALON

The Crusaders could not afford to wrest upon their laurels. A Fatimid army was gathering 58 miles to the west at Ascalon (modern Ashkelon, 8 miles north of the Gaza Strip), to recapture the city and destroy the Crusade once and for all. Jerusalem was in no condition to stand a siege so soon after its capture. Perhaps mindful of being in the same situation after the fall of Antioch, the Franks decided to sally out and meet the Fatimid army in the field.

The Fatimid forces assembling at Ascalon to retake Jerusalem were led by vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah. The vizier  commanded perhaps as many as 50,000 troops[4]; the core of which consisted of the professional ghulams of his own and perhaps the Caliph’s guard, as well as other professional regiments of Berber, Egyptian, and Sudanese subjects. He was awaiting the arrival of his fleet, perhaps carrying the siege equipment necessary to take back Jerusalem, as well as the local bedouin tribes of southern Palestine who normally helped defend the region. Al-Afdal camped outside Ascalon, likely northeast of the city where drinkable water could be found. Here he was joined by local Muslim levies (the ahdath militia).

The size of the Frankish forces coming from Jerusalem is uncertain. Raymond of Aguilers states that there were 1,200 knights and 9,000 infantry present, a reasonable number; while the highest estimate is 20,000 men (unlikely after so much privation and struggle). Oddly enough the Fatimids appear to have been unaware of the Frank’s approach, and had posted no scouts or pickets to give early warning. On August 11 the crusaders found herds of livestock meant to feed the Fatimid camp, and as they continued their approach the next day, these accompanied their forces, the rising dust cloud from the herds exaggerating and concealing the true size of the Frankish forces.

The following morning, August 12, 1099 the Franks rose at dawn and marched on the Fatimid camp. They were  organized into nine divisions: Godfrey led the left wing, Raymond the right, and Tancred, Eustace, Robert of Normandy and Gaston IV of Béarn made up the center. Each of these division was proceeded by the foot-soldiers, the foremost rank of which consisted of dismounted knights and armored sergeants, supported by crossbowmen and other lighter foot. Behind the foot were the mounted forces, ready to support the infantry and deliver the decisive charge. There is speculation that the nine division formation consisted of three division in each of three lines, and was adopted from central Asian and Turkish tactics. If so, it is hard to see how this box formation could also consist of a left, right, and center commands.

By all account the Fatimids were caught unprepared:

“The Arabs remained their camp in the belief that at news of their coming we would remain close to our walls (Jerusalem)… They had daily reports on desertions (among the Frankish forces) in Jerusalem, the small size of our army, and the enfeebles state of our people and horses…[5]

The Fatimids hastily arrayed for battle, and there is possibility that their cavalry sallied out first and attacked the approaching Frankish lines, as one chronicler states that the Frankish crossbowmen repelled such an attack before the knights charged. In any case, the battle was short-lived, and the unprepared Muslim forces quickly panicked and broke.

The Fatimid left, pursued by Raymond, fled around the northwest side of the city towards their ships, and at least some were chased into the sea and slaughtered. The Fatimid center escaped into the city, but their right wing was driven south by Godfrey’s men, into an orchard. There some climbed trees, which were lit on fire to drive them out, where  they were then killed with arrows. Al-Afdal escaped with his staff, but left behind his camp and its treasures, which was captured by Robert and Tancred. Crusader losses are unknown but presumably light. The Muslim losses were great, about 10–12,000 men.

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AFTERMATH

After the battle, the Crusader force withdrew back to Jerusalem. There, while some returned to Europe others were stayed and were granted fiefs in the new Crusader Kingdom created in Palestine and the Levant. Godfrey became the first King of Jerusalem (though see note 3 below); Raymond became the Count of Tripoli; and Bohemond of Taranto was named the Prince of Antioch. Lesser princes received lesser fiefs: Tancred became Prince of the Galilee region, and Baldwin (brother of Godfrey) ruled in Edessa as count. A native European aristocracy took root, ruling over the local populace (many of which were members of the centuries old Maronite Christian Church, and were only too happy to exchange Christian for Muslim rulers). Castles were constructed to dominate the countryside, and every town was well fortified. The Military Orders of the Knights Templars (headquartered in the Temple in Jerusalem) and the Knights of St. John warded the kingdom and the pilgrim’s route from brigands and Muslim incursions. These Orders also provided the Kingdom with a semi-professional corps-de-elite available to the King in battle. Their fanaticism matched that of the their worst Ghazi enemy. They came to be feared and hated by the Muslim foes of the Kingdom.

orders

During this time, the Turks in the northern part of Mesopotamia and Syria were slowly united under the leadership of the Zengids. First by Zengi (Imad ad-Din Zengi, or Zangi), the Seljuk Atabeg (ruler) of Mosul; then under his successors, Nureddin (Nur ad-Din Zangi) and his Kurdish lieutenant, Saladin (salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the Zengids succeeded in pushing back the frontiers of the Crusader state. The capture of Edessa by Zengi led to a Second Crusade, but this failed in its objective of capturing Damascus, the acquisition of which would have given the Crusader kingdom more “breathing room” and cut the Muslim powers in northern Mesopotamia off from their brethren in Egypt.

Nureddin dreamed of a united Sultanate from the Nile to the Tigris, and he nearly achieved his dream before his death. Saladin inherited and expanded this authority, becoming the most famous Muslim ruler-general perhaps of all time. But as great a general as Saladin was, he was soon to come face-to-face with the greatest warrior-king of the age: Richard the Lionheart!

NEXT: ISLAM STRIKES BACK AND THE THIRD CRUSADE

1374299 The Krak des Chevaliers castle in Syria was home to the Knights of St. John of the Hospital (the “Hospitalers”) during the Crusader period. The strength of such places allowed the numerically outnumbered Franks to hold off their Muslim enemies and dominate the countryside for two centuries.

 

NOTES:

  1. Gesta Francorum
  2. Ibn al-Athir
  3. Godfry’s title during his life is the subject of some controversy. He seems to have used the more ambiguous term princeps (prince), or continued to style himself by his older title of Duke. William of Tyre, writing later in the 12th century, claims Godfrey refused to wear “a crown of gold” where Christ had worn “a crown of thorns”. His brother and successor, Baldwin, was the first to use the title “King of Jerusalem”.
  4. The Gesta Francorum puts the Fatimid forces at an improbable 200,000; and this is the high-end of estimates. Others vary between 20,000 and 30,000.
  5. Raymond d’Aguilers

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

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HISTORY BITES: SON OF A GUN!

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Now for a “bite-sized” piece of history!

Though seldom used today, a centuries-old exclamation in our language is, “Son of a gun!”

This term is used in a variety of ways reflecting very different emotions; from admiration and excitement, to mild annoyance, to a substitute for the more offensive “son of a bitch”! The original meaning is closest to the last of these, used to describe an individual of particularly ornery temperament.

The term hearkens back to the days of the “tall ships”. In the 17th and 18th century, the crewmen of those majestic sailing vessels slept below deck, in hammocks slung (among other places) between the guns.

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Deprived for long periods at sea of feminine companionship the crew were often allowed to have their women on board when the ship was in port; the ladies kept discreetly below deck (the Officer of the Deck, presumably, turning a blind-eye).

When one of the crew’s pregnant wives went into labor, and the labor proved particularly long and difficult, the woman was laid down upon the deck between two guns (or cannons, for those unused to military terminology). The gunners would then simultaneously fire off both guns, one on either side of the mother-to-be. The terrific concussion of the guns simultaneously firing would serve to jar the baby loose.

A child delivered by such a violent method was often observed, throughout his or her life, to be possessed of a particularly irascible, pugnacious temperament. Not surprising, considering the damage the concussion may have caused the child’s tender brain tissue. Such a child (and, in later life, adult) was thereafter called, “A son of a gun”!

So the next time you meet a particularly obnoxious, annoying person you’ll know how to refer to them, and why: “Now THERE is a real son of a gun“!

 

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GREAT WARSHIPS OF HISTORY: SHIP OF THE LINE, THE KING OF NAVAL BATTLE IN THE AGE OF SAIL

Deadliest Blogger continues its presentation of the great warships of history with a look as the main battleships of the Age of Sail: the Ship of the Line!

In the first half of the 16th century, the northern European maritime nations began developing purpose-built men-of-war, designed specifically to be warships, in place of outfitting a merchant Cog for combat in time of war. Though still used to carry cargo and conduct trade, these ocean-going ships were advanced platforms for naval gunnery. Developed from the cog these ships (beginning with the carracks) were ocean-going gun platform; and allowed first the Spanish and Portuguese, and later the English, Dutch and French to create great trading and colonial empires that spanned the globe.

The Galleon developed out of the carrack, becoming the main warship of European navies in the 16th century. The English development of a faster, sleeker version, the Race-Built Galleon; which helped them to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 and to begin their rise to the premiere naval power in the world.

As the European powers spread their trade networks across the globe in the 17th century, the need to protect their merchant ships and far-flung colonies led to the growth of professional navies; as all-too frequent wars and age-old rivalries now spread onto the world’s oceans. The galleons, with high bow and stern castles, evolved throughout the 17th century into powerful, seaworthy warships, festooned with a variety of guns. In 1610, the English launched the world’s first triple-deck ship of the line, the Prince Royal. With a third gun deck added, she carried 55 guns (later increased to 70). Her fore and aft castles were cut down to further reduce wind sheer, making her both handier in strong winds and a more stable gun platform. In 1637, on the orders of King Charles I to build a Great Ship, the English launched the 102-gun Sovereign of the Seas (later renamed Sovereign, and then Royal Sovereign). These were true “ships of the line”, meant to take their place in a line of battle, exchanging broadsides with other such ships.

1512026.jpg HMS Prince Royal (following its 1663 rebuild; into a 90-gun “first rate”) 1512028.jpg The HMS Sovereign of the Seas/Sovereign going into battle.

As so often happened in world history, an arms race began; as every great nation of Europe built fleets of ships of the line of various size and armament. A rating system developed, based originally on the size of the ship’s crew. This soon evolving to one based instead upon the number of guns the ship carried. A “first rate” ship of the line was ones sporting 98 or more guns, and tended to be used as flagships. “Second rate” ships of the line were armed with 98 guns down to 75. “Third rate” ships carried from 74 to 60 guns. There were even smaller “fourth rates”, of about 50 or 60 guns on two decks; though by the middle of the 18th century such ships were considered too small for pitched battles. The larger fourth rates, between 60 and 64 guns, were reclassified in the last quarter of the 18th century as third rates. The largest ships of the line were the Spanish Santísima Trinidad , which in 1804 sported 140 guns; an the USS Pennsylvania, a mammoth four-decked 140-gun ship of the line of the United States Navy, launched in 1837.

Fleets of such ships, dominating the seas and coastal waters, provided a tool of “power-projection” like none previously known. It should be borne in mind that a single ship of the line sported more and far bigger guns than Napoleon’s entire Grande Battery at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815! These were ships designed to pound coastal defenses into rubble, as well as opposing fleets into splinters.

In the wars of the 17th and 18th century, Britain slowly gained dominance, defeating first the Dutch and later the Spanish and French in various engagements and wars. By the Napoleonic Era, Britain was able to defeat both the Spanish and French combined fleets in battle at Trafalgar in 1805; becoming the dominant world naval power till World War Two (when supplanted by the United States). Throughout here period of dominance it was British policy to maintain more ships than all their European rivals combined.

1512044.jpg Battle of Trafalgar, 1805 1512048.jpgHMS Victory, 104-gun ship of the line. Flagship of Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, it is the only first-rate still in existence 1512046.jpgIn the 17th century European naval strategists developed codified “fighting instructions”, that specified that admirals handle their fleets in line of battle. As naval gunnery came to replace boarding as the main tactic, this tactic allowed a fleet to bring all of its guns (on one or both sides of each ship) to bear, as they engaged enemy fleets in line of battle. These fighting instructions were rigid, and meant to prevent commanders from risking ships.  Ship’s captains and fleet commanders risked their careers if they violated these fighting instructions. But these restrictions prevented fleet actions from reaching a decisive conclusion; and by the end of the 18th century European naval tactics had become moribund.

Horatio Nelson won everlasting fame by throwing away the “fighting instructions” and driving into and through the enemy’s line of battle; bringing more guns to bear and gaining victory in close-quarters actions. In place of rigid instructions, Nelson merely suggested “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”; allowing the superior gunnery skills of the English seamen to win the day. Aboard his flagship, the 104 gun HMS Victory, Nelson defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar; but was himself killed in the action.

With fleets of ships-of-the-line , supported by faster, lighter frigates and sloops, the European powers were able to dominate the globe in the 18th and 19th century; and Britain to “rule the seas”, creating an empire upon which the sun never set.

1512059.jpgGun deck, HMS Victory

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