This time we focuses on the Civil War’s “Wizard of the Saddle”

This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

Perhaps no general in America history elicits such a mix of admiration and repudiation as Nathan Bedford Forrest. While most historians admit his untutored, natural genius for war, they are mindful of his unsavory activities both before and after the American Civil War.

Known as “The Wizard of the Saddle”, Forrest was not only the finest cavalry commander that America ever produced; he was a first-rate practitioner of mobile warfare and combined arms. His campaigns are reminiscent of (and presage) those of such panzer leaders as Guderian and Rommel; and his rapidly moving strike forces were combined-arms formations composed of cavalry and mounted infantry, supported by batteries of horse artillery. He born to be a soldier, just as John Keats was born to be a poet. His grasp of tactics, the operational art, and ability to inspire men in battle were intuitive and self-taught, as he was without any kind of military education or experience.

1549921.jpgForrest’s background was that of a self-made millionaire; his fortune made before the war as a land speculator, planter, slave trader, and even Mississippi Riverboat Gambler! He had also gained a reputation as a duelist and a man of extreme personal courage. His fiery temper was terrifying to subordinates and superiors alike; and on at least one occasion threatened his superior (Braxton Bragg) with death.

A rank amateur with no military training, Forrest enlisted, along with his younger brother and son, as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles when the Civil War broke out; despite the exemption granted major planters from military service. He quickly showed his natural command ability. Upon seeing how badly equipped his fellow soldiers were, Forrest offered at his own expense to outfit a cavalry regiment. Despite having no formal military education, he was commissioned by the state’s Governor as a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized to recruit and train a regiment of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 this unit was christened, “Forrest’s Cavalry Corps”. The elite company of this force was his own Escort Company, for which he selected the best soldiers available; and became the best Confederate cavalry in the Western Theater.

1549914.jpgHis bold leadership and the quality of his command won early distinction; particularly at the Battle of Sacramento in December 1861, and two months later at Ft. Donelson. Here he refused to surrender his forces, and broke out of Grant’s encirclement with 4,000 men. After the surrender of Ft. Donelson, with Nashville on the verge of surrender, he evacuated machinery and key personnel from the city before it could fall into Union hands.

The day after the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh, Grant dispatched Sherman with two infantry brigades and two battalions of cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Confederate forces. At a place that came to be known as Fallen Timbers, Forrest with 300 of his horsemen charged Sherman’s vanguard. The Confederate riders charged through the Union picket line, and nearly captured Sherman himself. As more Federal infantry came up, the Confederates pulled back, except for Forrest; who found himself in the midst of an entire Union Brigade.  After emptying his revolver, he laid about himself with his saber; before being shot at close range, the bullet piercing his side and lodging near his spine. Forrest effected his escape by grabbing-up a union solder, and pulling him up onto the front of his saddle. Using this unfortunate as a human-shield, Forrest spurred out of the encirclement. (Throughout the war he is credited with personally killing, with his own hands, 30 enemy soldiers: the most ever by an American general. He had 29 horse killed under him throughout the war; causing Forrest to comment that he ended the war “one up”.)

1549918In July 1862, Forrest won the First Battle of Murfreesboro, causing the defeat and surrender of some 900 Federal troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Turpin Crittenden with all their armaments. During the Vicksburg Campaign he led his cavalry deep behind the Union lines; discomfiting Grant’s plans with mobile raids behind Union lines. His greatest victory came in 1864, at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. Here with a mere 3,500-man force he defeated 8,500 men under Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. Using  superior tactics and mobility, he captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms; inflicting on Sturgis’ force 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing (for a cost of only 96 Confederates killed).

Forrest spent the remainder of the war playing hit-and-run against vastly superior Union forces; causing a frustrated Sherman to call him “That devil, Forrest”. Though he never had more than a light division’s worth of troops under his command, and was constantly hampered by the orders of generals inferior to himself in ability, he ended the war as perhaps the most feared commander on either side. When asked after the war what the secret to his success was, he responded, “By getting there first with the most men.” (Not, as often quoted, “Git thar firstest with the mostest!”)

1549919.jpgIn 1866, after the end of the war, Forrest is alleged to have joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It is thought that Forrest spent some two years with the KKK, before disbanding the group (though it continued on in other forms to this day). Forrest however, in testimony before Congress in 1871, denied association with the Klan. In 1875, Forrest attended a racial reconciliation meeting with black southerners; for which he was criticized by white racists. His speech, which was characterized by the New York Times as “friendly”, seems to make clear that he was at odds with the goals of the Klan then and later:

I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going…When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.

Forrest died two years later, in 1877.

Forrest’s views on race or negro rights, and his connection (or not) with the KKK are still the subject of controversy. What is not in dispute is his amazing ability to discomfit his enemies by rapid maneuver and sudden and unexpected attack. He practice lightning warfare 80 years before the German blitzkrieg; a man born generations before his time. No less a judge than his old adversary, Sherman, gave him a fitting epitaph:

“He (Forrest) was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”


Great Captains: Frederick the Great

Great Captains: Napoleon Bonaparte

Great Captains: Alexander the Great

Great Captains: Julius Caesar

Great Captains: Hannibal Barca

Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

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“His presence on the battlefield is worth 60,000 men!”

This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode his world like a colossus. Rising amidst the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, he established a new order and left France a mythic hero to surpass Charlemagne. He began his career during the last days of the reign of King Louis XVI, as a young officer of artillery. When the Revolution swept away the monarchy, he pledged loyalty to the new Republic.

Napoleon first made his mark in 1794 as the commander of the artillery during the Siege of Toulon. The following year he saved the Republican government (The Directory) from a Parisian mob, by unleashing artillery fire into the crowd (the “whiff of grape shot”). He was rewarded with command of the French Army operating against the Austrians in northern Italy; all this at the age of 27.

Once in command of his own army, the young Bonaparte went from victory-to-amazing-victory, never looking back.


After defeating the Austrians in Italy (1796) and conquering Mameluke Egypt (1798), he returned to France to take over the reins of government as First Consul of the Republic. After defeating the Austrians in Italy again in 1800 at the Battle of Marengo, his popularity and political dominance over France were assured. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French (L’Empereur des Français). At the head of a well-trained and drilled “Grande Armee“, he went on in the next eight years to conquer an empire surpassing that of Charlemagne. At its peak, the Napoleonic Empire spanned Europe from the Tagus to the Nieman; from Straits of Messina to the Skagerrak.

1342045.jpgBut after the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, which resulted in the destruction of the Grande Armee, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of hostile nations; financed by the wealth of the British Empire and determined upon his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually beaten and forced to retreat; ultimately to the very outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign by the now-aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue the struggle eroded away; and one-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France. Napoleon was forced to abdicate. In 1814, according to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was granted a genteel exile upon the Island of Elba, near Corsica, the place of his birth. After his departure, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.

1342050.jpgIn February of 1815, in response to growing national disaffection with the Bourbon government and the arrogance of the returning expatriate aristocracy, as well as a belief that the Allies were planning to violate the treaty and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic; Napoleon returned from exile. Marshal of France Michel Ney was dispatched with forces to arrest the exile. Ney promised the King he would bring “the Ogre” back to Paris in a cage. Instead, he and the veterans he commanded rallied around their former master; and the Bourbon’s once again fled France. Returning to Paris, Napoleon was once again firmly in place as Emperor of the French.

Immediately the Allied Powers prepared to invade France. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance, as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. At Waterloo, Napoleon faced the combined Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies; as well as the most capable of his enemy’s generals: the Duke of Wellington. A “near run thing”, he lost this, his last battle; and with it his throne and freedom.

1525649.jpgHe was taken by the victors to exile on St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic. He died there on May 5, 1821. His legacy is still debated. What is not is his extraordinary genius for war.



Great Captains: Frederick the Great

Great Captains: Alexander the Great

Great Captains: Julius Caesar

Great Captains: Hannibal Barca

Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

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Foolish political policies and military incompetence lead to bloody disaster for the British in the First Afghan War!

In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US Army’s 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless, defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal warriors is very well known in America thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.

What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British army just 34 years earlier, by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of eastern Afghanistan.

1461069.jpg Afghanistan was a pawn in the “Great Game” for control of Central Asia and India. Seen here in a political cartoon of the day, Afghanistan is courted (and squeezed between) its two suitors, the Russian bear and the British lion.

The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence and ultimate control of Central Asia, between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the Honorable East India Company (colloquial known as “John Company”). The vast sub-continent was garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, sipahi). These sepoy regiments were supported by a core of British “Queen’s Regiments”, units of the British Army rotated into India from the United Kingdom.

1461037.jpg“John Company” Sepoy soldiers. Though brave, loyal, well-trained and equipped with the same weapons as their British counterparts (in “the Queen’s regiments”), the Bengali sepoys often lacked shoes or wore sandals; and suffered terribly in the Afghan winter

The great fear among Britain’s leaders was of a Russian invasion of the Indian Sub-continent. With reinforcement from England half-a-year’s journey by sea from India, an invasion in force by Russian forces based in Central Asia had every chance of prying the “Jewel in the Crown” from Britain’s grasp.

To invade India from their dominions in Central Asia, the Czar’s forces would need to transit through independent Afghanistan. In 1838 Russia’s ally, the Shah of Persia, laid siege to the western Afghan city of Herat. This caused ripples of fear within government circles in Calcutta, that this was the prelude to just such an invasion.

The Kingdom of Afghanistan at that time was ruled by Shah Dost Mohammed of the Durrani dynasty. For a variety of (irrational) reasons, it was felt that Dost Mohammed should be replaced with a ruler more pliable to British interests. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the deposed and aged former ruler of Afghanistan, Shuja Shah Durrani, would be restored by armed force to his lost throne in Kabul; as a British client-ruler.

The stage was thus set for the First Afghan War.


In the early months of 1839 an East India Company army of 20,500 men, commanded by Sir John Keane (a veteran of the Peninsula War and the Battle of New Orleans), invaded Afghanistan. The British entered the country through the Bolan Pass, initially meeting no resistance. Once in Afghanistan, they marched north toward Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s capital. The “John Company” troops proved irresistible, storming the “impregnable” fortress of Gazni; the Medieval capital of the 11th century conqueror, Muhammad of Ghazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.

1461080.jpgThe Afghans were overawed; impressed by the seeming unbeatable British forces. Shuja Shah was installed within the massive walls of the Bala Hissar, Kabul’s Medieval fortress. The fugitive Dost Mohammed was soon captured and taken back to India as a “guest” of the British Raj.

With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and very lopsided British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the conquering forces withdrew back to India. To keep order in the country and forestall Russian invasion, garrisons were established at Kandahar, Gazni, Jalalabad, and, primarily, in unfortified cantonments outside of Kabul. In total, only 8,000 troops were left to hold down the entire country.

1461081.jpgUnfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some four Brigades at Kabul were placed under the command of one of history’s most ineffectual generals: Major General Sir William George Keith Elphinstone.

Known as “Elphy Bey” by the sepoy troops under his command, Elphinstone was a veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded a battalion of foot. By the time he was assigned to command the Kabul garrison, he was a Companion of the Bath and former aide-de-camp to King George IV. Sadly, he was also a doddering 60 years old; and by his own admission, not fit for command.

He was not only old, he was also perpetually ill. Beyond that, he was a man who seemed at every turn incapable of making a decision, and vacillated constantly between one option and another. To make matters even worse, he was peevish and jealous of his younger subordinates, refusing to delegate decisions.

It was a myopic appointment and the best argument against a strict seniority system: granting command of an army in one of the most dangerous countries in the world to a dithering old man. The blame for what was to follow rests equally on the frail shoulders of Elphinstone and those in Calcutta who appointed him.

1461097.jpgA flattering portrait of Lord Elphinstone (“Elphy Bey” to his troops). At the time of his appointment to command the Kabul garrison, he was a doddering 60 years old; far to infirm to be placed in command of an army occupying one of the most warlike and volatile places on earth. His dithering indecisiveness allowed a series of minor provocations to go unchecked and ignite a general uprising.

The late historical fiction writer, George McDonald Frasier, through the mouth of his creation, that incomparable rascal Harry Paget Flashman, sums up Elphinstone’s contribution to what followed thus:

“Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth-century – Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan – I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment – in short, for the true talent for catastrophe – Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.
“Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War (to spiral out of control) and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision; and managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, wrought out of order complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.”[1]

An excellent assessment of the incompetent General Lord Elphinstone!

With the British occupation forces reduced, and with the Afghans becoming familiar with their occupiers (and with familiarity came contempt), trouble soon began.


It started with minor incidents in the distant hills, where tribesmen began sniping at isolated British garrisons and columns.

In Spring of 1841, despite these signs of simmering discontent among the hill tribes, and following the misguided advice of the British Emissary in Kabul, Sir William Hay Macnaghten (who as Lord Auckland’s senior aid had been the principal architect of Britain’s Afghan involvement), the Government in Calcutta further reduced not only the garrison strength of Elphinstone’s Army of Kabul from four to two brigades. At the same time it was decided to reduced the subsidies (i.e., bribes) paid to the tribes in the hills to keep open the vital passes connecting the British forces with their base in India.

1461100.jpgThe result was predictable. Taking insult, the tribes rose in rebellion, immediately closing the passes. Throughout the hill country that summer and into the autumn, British patrols found themselves engaged in running skirmishes with local tribesmen; and every remote outpost subject to desultory harassment. In November, one of the withdrawing Brigades, under the command of General Robert (“Fighting Bob”) Sale, in route though the passes back to India, found itself under attack; and had to cut a bloody path out of Afghanistan.

On the afternoon of November 2, a mob rose in Kabul and marched on the house of the British political agent in Kabul, the celebrated Sir Alexander “Sekunder” Burnes. Burnes had been warned by his Afghan servants that there was a stir in the city, and that, if he remained his life would be in danger. With a insouciance bordering on arrogant stupidity, Burnes dismissed these warnings. An “old hand” in the region and fluent in several of the Afghan languages and dialects, he was sure he had the measure of the local temperament, and that there was little danger from “the Kabul shopkeepers”.[2]

1615363.jpg Burnes in local garb. Fluent in the local languages, Burnes liked to go out among the population to “take the temperament” of the man on the street; and to fraternize with local Afghan girls. This latter activity earned him resentment which ultimately flamed to hatred.

When the mob attacked and set fire to the gate to his home, attempting to storm the compound, Burnes and those inside (his younger brother Charlie, his political assistant Major William Broadfoot[3], and a guard of 15 sepoys) fought back fiercely. Burnes was informed that help was on the way from Shah Sujah in the Bala Hissar. Burnes took to the roof, watching for relief; but none was forthcoming. For hours he waited in vain. When an Afghan offered to lead them safely out of the compound to the Bala Hissar, Burnes and his party disguised themselves in local garb. However, two blocks away the mob caught them in a garbage-strewn back-alley, and butchered all with knives and cleavers. The mutilated bodies of Burnes, his brother, and Broadfoot were hung from meat hooks in the city’s bazaar.

1615364 Murder of Burnes and his party.

Elphinstone, with an army only 1.5 miles outside the city, could decide on no course of action in response. For hours, while the Kabul mob besieged Burnes’ residence, the furious troops, ready to rush to the aide of their famous countryman, remained idle in their cantonment. When word came of Burnes’ death, the soldiers were eager to be led into the city to exact retribution. But, at Macnaghten’s urging, Elphinstone decided to take no action other than retrieving the remains of Burnes’ and the others; then retreating back into their camp. This humiliating failure to protect their own against a mob of “shop keepers”, or to seek revenge after the fact, was seen by the Afghans as evidence of British weakness, and only fanned the flames of revolt.

1461083.jpg The British cantonments outside of Kabul; seen here in an almost idyllic painting, before the rising of the tribes. In the far background is the city of Kabul; the Medieval walls of the Bala Hissar rising up the hill on the left. The Beymaroo Heights, from which Afghan snipers fired down upon the camp, can be seen on the right of the painting.

Afghan warriors began streaming down from the hills, to strike a blow against the hated ferengi[4] at Kabul. By mid-November, the British found themselves under virtual siege in their lightly defended camp; with Afghan snipers firing into the camp from the surrounding high ground. On November 23, a large force of Afghans occupied the Beymaroo Heights, overlooking the British cantonments; laying down a deadly fire with their jezails (the ubiquitous Afghan long-barreled rifle) and from a pair of guns.

Two attempts were made to drive the Afghans off the heights. The first time the Afghans retired, but returned soon after the British withdrew back into their cantonment. A second attempt was made ten days later, this one led by Elphinstone’s second-in-command, the equally incompetent Brigadier John Shelton; leading the single British regiment on scene, the 44th Regiment of Foot. The Brigadier had lost an arm earlier in his career, but despite this handicap was a pugnacious fighting leader. Stubbornly brave, he was unfortunately not blessed with an abundance of good judgement. Where angels feared to tread, Shelton bulled his way through. Taking the 44th up the sloops of Beymaroo, he occupied the heights, his command taking heavy casualties to long-range fire from the Afghan’s jezails. These out-ranged the British soldier’s smooth-bore Brown Bess Muskets, and the Afghans quickly learned exactly how close they could safely come to a British formation.

Once atop the crest of the heights, the British stood for hours while under sustained long-range fire from all around, to which they could not reply effectively. Compounding their dilemma, Shelton had the men form squares; a formation suitable for repelling cavalry attack, but which made the closely-packed troops better targets for the Afghan skirmishers harassing them. One officer, Lieutenant (later Major General) Vincent Eyre, scathingly observed:

“All have heard of the British squares at Waterloo, which defied the repeated desperate onsets of Napoleon’s choicest cavalry. At Beymaroo we formed squares to resist the distant fire of infantry, thus presenting a solid mass against the aim of perhaps the best marksmen in the world, the said squares being securely perched on the summit of a steep and narrow ridge, up which no cavalry could charge with effect …” [5]

Captain Colin Mackenzie, wounded during the battle, wrote:

“The front ranks had been literally mowed away … Our ammunition was almost expended and by one pm the men were faint from fatigue and thirst. But no water was procurable and the number of killed and wounded was swelled every instant. I tried to persuade Shelton to effect a retreat only to be told: ‘Oh no, we will hold the hill some time longer.’ On Shelton’s refusal to retire, Colonel Oliver, who was a very stout man, remarked that the inevitable result would be a general flight to cantonments, and that, as he was too unwieldy to run, the sooner he got shot the better. He then exposed himself to the enemy’s fire and fell mortally wounded.[6]

For hours Shelton kept the 44th sitting on top of the barren heights, exposed to a destructive fire. Finally, the troops could take no more and Shelton (himself having sustained five wounds) attempted to withdraw back to camp. Carrying the numerous wounded was slow going, and as the British were still descending the slopes, Afghan cavalry, brandishing wickedly-sharp talwars, swarmed up to and occupied the crest of the heights they had just abandoned. Stragglers, many of whom were wounded and unable to keep up with the main body of the regiment, were were cut off and butchered. The horsemen then charged down upon the retreating 44th. The regiment responded with a massive volley of musketry. So old and inaccurate were their Brown Bess Muskets that when the smoke cleared, not a single Afghan appeared to have had been hit. Astonished and demoralized, the regiment broke, pursued back to the safety of the camp by whooping Afghan horsemen. George St. Patrick Lawrence, who had watched helplessly from his post in the cantonment during the battle, wrote of his horror at witnessing how “our flying troops [were] hotly pursued and mixed up with the enemy, who were slaughtering them on all sides: the scene was so fearful that I can never forget it.”[7]

As can be expected, this disastrous engagement had a terrible effect on the army’s morale. Shelton came under general opprobrium for his disgraceful lack of judgement. Captain Mackenzie (quoted above), who like most of the officers blamed the reverse on Shelton, wrote that the Brigadier’s incompetence “neutralized the heroism of the officers. Their spirit was gone and discipline had almost disappeared.” No less an observer than General Charles Napier, conqueror of Sind, later went so far as to blame Shelton for the debacle about to unfold, writing after the fact, “It seems to me that to Shelton may be traced the whole misfortune of this Army.” Napier went on to suggest that Shelton should have been shot as “the author of all ill”. While all this may be warranted, Elphinstone was the man in command of the Army of Kabul, and bears ultimate responsibility. It should be noted that Elphinstone showed not the least initiative, doing nothing to support his Second-in-Command in his (ineffectual) efforts on the Beymaroo Heights.

After this, no more effort was made to clear the heights of snipers. Shelton recommended an immediate withdrawal from Kabul back to India, before the tactical situation grew worse and the winter closed passes. Elphinstone however dithered, unable to come to a decision. Instead, he held daily “command meetings”, scornfully described by Eyre as “Jackdaw Parliaments”, during which Elphinstone seemed to be swayed by the argument of the last man speaking. By this time even the most junior officers held their commander in contempt, and spoke to him in a manner “most insubordinate and at times down right rude”.[8]

Time was running out for a decision to withdraw, yet still Elphinstone vacillated, unable to decide. He sent for reinforcements from Kandahar to the south, but the snows of winter had by now closed the southern passes. Sale’s Brigade, which had reached Jalalabad on November 12 after weeks of fighting; was unwilling to come back through the blood-stained passes they had just traversed. The decision made in the spring to reduce the size of the Kabul army (not to mention cutting of the subsidies paid to the hill tribes) must have, on reflection, seemed foolish in the extreme.

At this moment the situation worsened for Elphy Bey and the British at Kabul with the arrival on the scene of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s deceitful but charismatic and capable son. Possessed of great charm and some degree of military ability, Akbar Khan soon became the rallying point and leader for the anti-British/anti-Shuja forces.

1461101.jpg Akbar Khan

At the instigation of Akbar Khan, peace talks were initiated. Macnaghten and an escort of British officers met the young Afghan prince outside the cantonments. Arriving at the designated location, an open meadow beside the river, the British party found a carpet spread and Akbar waiting with a small band of warriors.

The British reined-up, but had no sooner dismounted to greet the Afghans than Sir William was seized and murdered; along with several of the officers of his escort. Thus ended the less-than-illustrious career and life of William Hay Macnaghten, the man whose foolishness had done much to create the disaster unfolding at Kabul.

1461104 The seizure and murder of Macnaghten and his escort by Akbar Khan and his guards.

Again, as when Burnes was murdered, Elphinstone did nothing but dither.

Finally, in late December, negotiations were renewed. With troop morale in complete collapse, and his subordinate officers incapable of agreeing on a course of positive action, Elphinstone accepted Akbar Khan’s offer of safe conduct for the British army out of Kabul, back to India.


The retreat from Kabul started on January 6, 1842. Snow was falling, and the temperatures were dropping rapidly. The mountains before them were already ice-capped, and the passes promised to be treacherous.

Elphinstone’s army at this point consisted of the one British infantry battalion, the 44th Regiment of Foot; three Sepoy regiments of regular Bengal Native Infantry; one regiment of Afghans loyal to Shah Shujah (who was retreating out of Afghanistan along with his patrons); two regiments of Bengal Horse; and six guns of the Bengal Horse Artillery. In total, there were 700 British and 3,800 Indian troops. Including camp followers (mostly the families of the soldiers, British and Indian), 16,000 souls set out under the nominal leadership of Elphy Bey for Jalalabad, some 140 km away.

1461108.jpgBetween them and safety lay 85 miles of high mountains and icy cold, snow-bound passes.

With the 44th forming the vanguard, the column set off with some attempt at military order. The march started late, as arrangements between the British and Akbar concerning where the column was to camp that first night were still not complete. Despite Akbar Khan’s guarantees of safe passage, the rear guard of the column had not yet completely marched out of the cantonments when bands of Afghan horsemen descended upon the camp like jackels. The stores of supplies meant to feed the column on the march were lost, before the British had even gotten free of the cantonments. Stragglers were cut down by Afghan horsemen, who hovered at the rear and flanks of the column like packs of hungry wolves. The British wounded, left behind under pledges of protection, were butchered in their sick beds in the camp hospital.

1615374.jpg 1879 panoramic photo of the Bala Hissar

As they passed the grim battlements of the Bala Hissar, the British could even at this late moment have saved themselves by turning and occupying the fortress; which course many officers (and Shah Shujah) begged Elphinstone to take. The Bala Hissar was well-provisioned and situated for defense. From its safety the army could have held Kabul until spring opened the passes for a relief column to reach them.

Instead, the column trudged on fatefully towards the glowering mountains, and the shadowy passes winding their way through.

Though it was militarily necessary to push through the first of the great passes ahead, the looming Khord-Kabul Pass, on that first day; the column, encumbered by 12,000 cold and terrified camp followers and 2,000 camels and other animals loaded with stores and baggage, moved at a snail’s pace. Instead, Elphinstone chose to halt the march that first day at 2pm just 6 miles outside Kabul and stopping for the night make a cold camp. Without tents or food, the army shivered all night long in the snow.

1461109.jpg This pass, through some of the highest mountains in the world, was covered with snow and ice when Elphinstone’s column retreated through it those terrible day in January 1842

The next day was wasted in frequent halts while Elphinstone attempted negotiations with Akbar, who continued to promise food and firewood, as well as escort; none of which appeared. Instead, Afghan tribesmen sniped continuously from the heights above, which the British failed to picket in advance. Occasionally, bodies of Afghan horsemen would savage the column, cutting down the shivering and miserable fugitives.

Oddly, no attempt was made by Elphinstone or Shelton to send detachments to clear and picket the heights overlooking the passes. This was rudimentary tactics in mountain warfare, and by just such expedient Alexander the Great had moved through these same mountains unmolested. It was not as if such history was unknown to the educated British officers: Even Lady Sale, the formidable wife to Brigadier Robert Sale and among the non-combatants in the column, noted the lack of pickets and suggested (to no effect) that Elphinstone correct the situation.[9]

The British soldiers time-and-again sallied forth with bayonet to drive marauding Afghans from the way; or to protect women and children. But at every turn, their efforts were hampered by the narrowness of the terrain (in places the passes were only yards wide and the cliffs thousands of feet high); and by the throngs of terrified and stampeding non-combatants.

1461110.jpgThis was the pattern that would continue for the next five days, as the Army of Kabul slowly died in the snow. Each morning those strong enough to go on rose out of the snow that had covered them in the night, and trundled along on bloody and frozen feet. Like sheep, the non-combatants would at times break into panicked flight, as harassing Afghan cavalry galloped among them, slashing and killing with wicked sharp blades.

In the myriad of vicious little skirmishes over those terrible eleven days, Shelton found some measure of redemption. Responding to attacks up and down the column, Shelton led a small “fire brigade” in attempting to repulse the reivers. Captain Hugh Johnson wrote:

Nothing could exceed the bravery of Shelton. He was like a bulldog assaulted on all sides by a lot of curs trying to snap at his head, tail and sides. Shelton’s small band was attacked by horse and foot, and although the latter were fifty to one, not a man dared to come close.[10]

1461687.jpgAt one point, Akbar demanded that Elphinstone, Shelton, and the senior non-combatants such Lady Sale, be handed over to his “protection”; and to the shame of the British Army, Elphy Bey and his senior officers surrendered themselves while their troops pushed on without them. (To his credit, Shelton protested and demanded to be allowed to return to his men.)


The bottleneck passes of the Khord-Kabul, the Huft Kotul, the Tezeen, and the Jugdulluk were scenes of unspeakable nightmare; as women and children were butchered and left in piles. The Sepoys were particularly affected by the cold (many had no shoes); and in the end merely huddled like sheep, waiting for the butcher’s knife to put them out of their misery.

1461688.jpg Jugdulluk, seen in the spring 1842 when the British Army of Retribution returned through the pass. They found the way carpeted with the skeletal remains of the dead from Elphinstone’s column.

In this last pass, Jugdulluk, the Army of Kabul finally died. In this grim, mountain-shadowed place the Afghans blocked the way with logs of prickly holly-oak. The soldiers tore at the sharp spiny branches with bloody hands, to clear the way; all the while the Afghans poured deadly fire from the heights above. With scimitar in hand, tribesmen rushed down on the column, butchering the defenseless women and children. Finally, the few surviving men of the 44th fought through the blockage and gained the relative safety beyond. Of the 4,500 soldiers Elphinstone had departed Kabul with just 6 days earlier, only twenty officers and forty-five soldiers survived the Jugdulluk massacre.

1461115 (1).jpgThese surviving scarecrows reached the village of Gandamack on the 13th of January. At first the villagers came out to greet them and engaged in seemingly friendly conversation. But they soon attempted to seize the soldier’s muskets from their hands. Driving them fiercely away, the British sealed their doom.

They were surrounded on a hillock by gathering villagers. When called to surrender, one British sergeant gave the famous answer, “Not bloody likely!”

The last stand of the 44th at Gandamack

The Afghans swarmed about, shooting the soldiers down at their leisure; then rushed in with sword. Only a bare 6 men of Elphinstone’s army survived to be taken prisoner.

At Jalalabad, General Sale’s Brigade, ignorant of what was befalling their comrades in the passes, waited for the army to arrive. At last a lone horseman, an army surgeon named Dr. William Brydon, rode up to the gates. Asked where the Army of Kabul was, he replied: “I am the Army”!


Dr. Brydon rides into Jalalabad, the sole man of Elphinstone’s army to make it through the passes.



The First Afghan War didn’t end there. The British returned that summer and exacted bloody revenge on the populace of Kabul, destroying much of the city in the process. They relieved their remaining garrisons; and the hostages and prisoners were returned, including Shelton (who was subsequently court martialed) and Lady Sale. Elphinstone died in captivity, his last words reportedly being, “‘It really is too bad.”

Then, Britain’s policy having changed, they withdrew from the country altogether; returning Dost Mohammed once more on his throne with a treaty of friendship in place.
The disaster was forgotten by many in the years that followed. But it was not without lasting consequences.

Before Afghanistan, the British and John Company’s army had an almost mythical reputation, an aura of invincibility. After The Retreat, that myth was forever shattered. Following Kabul, the Sikhs of the Punjab, a strong military state, lost their fear of Britain’s displeasure. The bloody Anglo-Sikh Wars would follow just a few years after Kabul; and just a few years after these, the Great Mutiny would shake the Empire to its core.

Blame for the disaster must be placed squarely upon the foolish appointment of one frail, dithering old man to command an army on deadly ground. But a lesson from today can also be drawn here: In the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, where every tribal male was a marksman and a warrior; where tribes fight each other constantly, only uniting to eject foreigners; no effort to modernize and “nation build” by an outside power has any chance to succeed. The Afghans are best left to their own devices, a good buffer state but an impossible vassal.

DTCP_03_06_08_Afghan_Assault_25.jpg Modern British soldiers patrolling the fields of Afghanistan, where their red-coated ancestors once fought and bled; pawns in the “Great Game”.


1. Fraser, George MacDonald, Flashman; Barrie & Jenkins, 1969

2. Burnes was a famous explorer of the remote regions of India and central Asia in the 1820s and 30s. His 1834 book, “Travels into Bokhara”, was a bestseller in England. He spoke Persian fluently, as well as Pashtan and several other dialects of Central Asia. Burnes was particularly hated by the local Afghans in Kabul, not only as a visible symbol of British occupation; but because he was very active with the local Afghan women. Burnes was not alone in “fraternizing” with Afghan women, who at least in Kabul were more-than-willing to engage in relations with the foreign conquerors. However, in a land where women were and still are routinely killed in “honor killings” for the mere suspicion of engaging in extramarital sex, and which is seen as a slur against the manhood of their male family members, this activity fanned the flames of hatred against the British and Burnes in particular.

3. William Broadfoot was the brother of the more celebrated George Broadfoot ; who had gained a great reputation with the Afghans and was then serving with Sale’s Brigade at Jalalabad. George Broadfoot would himself die in battle 4 years later, in the First Sikh War.

4. Ferengi, the Arabic term for “foreigner”; deriving from the Persian word for “Franks”, or Europeans.

5. Eyre, Sir Vincent (1843). The Military Operations at Cabul: Which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842. With a Journal of Imprisonment in Affghanistan. John Murray. pp. 115–16.

6. Dalrymple, William (2013). Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 332

7. Macrory, Patrick: The Fierce Pawns; J.B. Lippincott Co., 1966; P. 208. The author is working off of the first-hand accounts of eye witnesses.

8. Eyre, p. 123

9. Dalrymple, p. 372

10. Dalrymple, p. 380

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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 Four, go here)


Following the debacle at Emmaus, the Seleucid regent Lysias realized that his position and very life depended upon destroying Judah Maccabee and his rebel forces. The “mad king”, Antiochus IV, had departed to fight the Parthians in the east; commanding Lysias in his absence to crush the Judean rebellion and punish the Jews. His mercurial master was unforgiving of failure: Lysias had no choice but to personally attend to this matter, leading the next campaign in person.

To this end he set about raising yet another army. This was no easy task, as the bulk of the Seleucid royal army had gone east with the king, and those remaining troops that were left to the Regent had already been raised and sent south on Nicanor and Gorgias‘ doomed expedition. Lysias managed, despite these difficulties, to raise another army; perhaps calling-up those cleruch military settlers remaining after the king marched east. If he did this was a sign of just how extreme the situation had become, as the phalanx was only called-up in time of major campaigns or threat to the integrity of the kingdom.[1]

First Maccabees states the numbers raised by Lysias for this campaign:

In the following year Lysias gathered an army of 60,000 well-trained infantry and 5,000 cavalry, intending to conquer the Jews. [2]

The Second Book of Maccabees goes into more detail, but presents an even more improbable figure of horse and foot:

He (Lysias) became angry (following the Battle of Emmaus) and led 80,000 infantry and all his cavalry against the Jews with the intention of turning Jerusalem into a Greek city.[3]

Considering the strain to its military manpower the empire must have been experiencing at this time, both these numbers seem impossibly high. The “grande armee” of the Seleucid empire, fully mustered for war and led by the king in person could scarcely number 50,000 foot and 6,000 horse at this time in its history.[4] While we can only guess at the force Lysias was able to muster in 164 BC, a more plausible number is around 20,000 (heavily augmented by those local levies gathered on the march); a similar number to that raised for  Nicanor and Gorgias’ expedition.

Advancing south, Lysias bypassed Judea. Learning from the failures of past incursions against the Jews, he avoided the obvious routs of entry onto the Judaean plateau from the north and west; which paths were well-observed by Judah’s forces and supporting populace. Instead he took his army southwest of Judea, to march on Jerusalem from friendly  Idumaea (Biblical Edom), where the defeated general Gorgidas was still governor, and likely mustering local contingents for Lysias’ army).

The southern route to Jerusalem climbs out of the Valley of Elah onto the Judaean plateau.  

The fortress of Beth-Zur, some 27 miles from Jerusalem, blocked approach to the city from the southwest. In later years it was strongly fortified by Hasmonaean princes, and Josephus calls it the “mightiest stronghold in Judea”. But we do not know to what extent it was fortified in Judah’s time. Lysias had first to secure Beth-Zur before moving on to Jerusalem, where he could reinforce the Seleucid garrison holding the Akra, and bring Judah to battle on ground of his choosing.

At the foot of the road that climbed the southern face of the Judaean plateau lies the fertile Valley of Elah. Here the forces of Saul had in ancient times faced the Philistines, and David had slain Goliath. No doubt Lysias rested his forces here before beginning its march towards Beth-Zur, on its way to Jerusalem.

Judah Maccabee, like all successful guerrilla leaders throughout history, maintained an extensive intelligence network of spies and informants. He was likely aware of the regent’s approach. The account in Maccabees states, however, that he first got word of Lysias’ attack when the regent was laying siege to Beth-Zur. This may be a case of the author confusing the later campaign of 162 that led to the Battle Beth-Zechariah , for we cannot be certain that Beth-Zur was fortified and garrisoned by Maccabean troops this early. In any case, Judah assembled his forces, some 10,000 strong, and marched on Beth-Zur to meet the regent.

The battle is poorly described in both First and Second Maccabees:

The battle began, and in the hand-to-hand fighting about 5,000 of Lysias’ men were killed. When Lysias saw that his army was being defeated and when he saw the reckless courage of Judas and his men, who showed that they were ready to live or die with honor, he returned to Antioch.[5]

Second Maccabees gives tells a similar (and similarly simplistic) tale:

Then they charged into the enemy like lions, killing 11,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry, and forcing the rest to run for their lives. Most of those who ran were wounded and had lost their weapons, and Lysias himself managed to escape only because he ran away like a coward.[5]

While it is possible that the Jewish forces fell upon the head of the Seleucid column and inflicted a bloody reverse, it is unlikely that Lysias lost anything like the numbers stated above. He would have had lost his position and his head had he led another army to annihilation. What is more likely is that seeing a large Maccabean force drawn up in the high ground at the top of the pass and waiting, and his plans to attain the top of the plateau without a battle thwarted; that he withdrew, perhaps after a bloody skirmish.

What is more likely to have determined Lysias’ withdrawal is dramatic news from the east: the Mad King was dying!


It was the life-long goal of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to restore the Empire of the Seleucids to its former glory. He saw that the disparate peoples of this vast swath of territory, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, could become a mighty nation, one perhaps capable of standing up to Roman bullying, if its people were unified under one culture. That culture, of course, being Hellenism. To this end he promoted the establishment and enhancements of Greek colonies, temples, and civic centers throughout his empire.

Besides lavishing his treasure upon the adornment of existing Greek cities (founded by Alexander or earlier Seleucid monarchs), he created new ones. He also adjusted the constitutions and forms of city life more closely to the Hellenic ideal.  The capital (Antioch) naturally received a great share of his attention. He added a new quarter, Epiphanea, which climbed the slopes of Mount Silpius behind the older Antioch, and included within its wall precipitous places and rushing torrents… The theater, whose remains can still be traced, was in this region. It had perhaps existed before the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, only without the city. Here too was the Senate- house, erected doubtless by Antiochus, and perhaps already adorned with the porticoes and pictures described by Libanius. High up in the new city, near the ” Citadel,” … Antiochus reared a temple of Jupiter Capitolinus — at once gratifying his passion for splendor and advancing his policy.[6]

Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews comes out of their stubborn refusal to accept Hellenism, the worship of Zeus (Jupiter Capitolinus) as the supreme god, and to take a subordinate place within the Hellenic nation the king envisioned. Certainly Antiochus saw himself as a physical manifestation of Zeus Nicephoros, “victory-bearing”. His surname “Theos Epiphanes” proclaims as much, god made manifest in human flesh. While other Hellenistic and later Roman rulers were proclaimed “divine” either during or after their life times, Antiochus IV seems to have placed more stress upon this claim than other monarchs, certainly those of his dynasty. This megalomania, reminiscent of Caligula (minus the violent and delusional paranoia and extreme sexual excesses) may have also contributed to his hatred of the Jews, who refused to acknowledge his divinity.

The cost of Antiochus’ magnificent building projects was staggering, and very soon exhausted the imperial treasury. Ever short of funds, the “Mad King” resorted to confiscation of rich temple treasuries throughout first Syria, and then throughout the empire.

His march east against the Arsacid Parthians, then encroaching on Media, brought him first to Armenia, a break-away province that fell from Seleucid control after his father’s defeat at Magnesia. Antiochus defeated the local dynast, but left him enthroned as a Seleucid client. We lose sight of his progress after this, but he appears to have come to Media, and perhaps strengthened it against Parthian incursion. The northern region about Rhagae had fallen to the Parthians before his ascension to the throne; but the bulk was still administered for the Seleucid realm by his governor, Timarchus of Miletus. There is no mention of a battle against the Arsacid forces, but Media remained in the Seleucid fold for at least another 30 years. His establishment of Hellenistic cities, and reestablishment of older ones in the model of the Hellenic polis  extended here to the ancient Median capital of Ecbatana, once a Persian royal residence. It was now  refounded as an “Epiphanea” in the sovereign’s honor; and perhaps received a colony of Greek settlers.

Marching south, he entered Mesopotamia and Babylonia, founding or refounding Greek settlements as he passed. At the confluence of the Tigris and the Eulæus west of Susa he refounded one of Alexander’s establishments, which had fallen into disrepair, as another “Antioch”; again likely placing a colony of Greek (or Hellenized Syrian) settlers in place to hold it loyally for the dynasty.

It was here in Elymaea (ancient Elam) that Antiochus got into the same deadly sort of skirmish with locals that took the life of his father. While attempting to confiscated the
treasures which were heaped up in the Elymaean temples of some native goddess (Istar or Anaitis) his guards were set upon by the priests and the local populace. He fared better than his father in so far that he escaped with his life. But as seen in Judea, against a people filled with religious frenzy the soldiers fighting merely for pay could make no headway.

Soon after this Antiochus Epiphanes was seized by a fatal malady. He is recorded as falling from his chariot (more likely a horse, as chariots were not used for conveyance at this late date in history). It has been suggested that he had an epileptic seizure, though an aneurysm bursting would make just as much sense. The every high-strung king was given to bursts of erratic energy and irrational decisions. One cannot help but see the vein of (brilliant) madness lying just beneath the surface in Antiochus IV all through his life. Perhaps the pressure of kingship and the Herculean task he had set himself of restoring a crumbling empire proved in the end too much for his system.[7]

He died at Tabae in Persis in the winter of 164. With him passed the last best chance for the House of Seleucus.

News of the king’s illness and then death reached Lysias just after the campaign the culminated in the repulse at Beth-Zur. For this reason he hastily withdrew back to Antioch, to take possession of the heir and the court, and to secure his own position. For now, the matter of Judea was on the “back-burner”.


With Lysias withdrawal, the Hellenized Jews and other Seleucid supporters were without protection. They took refuge within the mighty walls of the Akra in Jerusalem. For Judah and the Maccabean rebels the way was now open to take the city and blockade (and later siege) the fortress.

The first order of business was the Temple.

They found the Temple in disgraceful condition. Weeds grew between the flagstones of the outer courtyard. Within the Holy of Holies now stood a statue of Olympian Zeus, and the remains of burnt animals sacrifices lay on an altar erected to the chief pagan deity. The symbols of pagan worship were dismantled and taken away, buried in a cave. The Temple was purified, and uncut stones were used to build a new alter, in the traditional manner. Judah then made new holy vessels (among them a candelabrum, an altar for incense, a table, and curtains) and set the 25th of Kislev as the date for the rededication of the Temple. They made offerings to the Lord in his Temple for the first time in two years:

Now Maccabeus (Judah) and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; and they tore down the altars which had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. And when they had done this, they fell prostrate and besought the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.[8]

So on the third anniversary of the profaning of the Temple, when sacrifice to Zeus was made on God’s altar, the priest of Israel “offered a Lawful sacrifice of burnt offering which they had made”. There followed eight days of celebration and festivity.

This was the first Hanukkah celebration!

In later centuries a legend grew that the priests found only enough oil to light the menorah for two days. But when kindled, the oil lasted for eight days. This “miracle” became part of the legend of the first Hanukkah. However, this story is almost surely a myth. Even the Encyclopedia Judaica states, “All these stories seem to be nothing but legends, and the authenticity of the ‘oil cruse’ story has already been questioned in the Middle Ages.”

The real “miracle” of Hanukkah is this: that a handful of “freedom fighters” stood against one of the great powers of the ancient world and saved their culture and religion from destruction. Had Judah and his followers chosen the “easy” way of submission to authority, of place their personal gain over the welfare of their people, there would be no Jewish people today. The Jewish faith would have succumbed to the allure of Hellenism, and the Jewish people faded away as just another minority within ancient Middle East.

Without Judaism surviving into the first century AD, there could have been no Christianity to build and expand upon it. Thus Judeo-Christian values and culture would not have spread throughout the Roman Empire, and through that become a moralizing force within Western Civilization. Nor, for that matter, could Islam have grown as it did out of Judaism under its Prophet. Thus the world’s great monotheistic religions would never have come into being had Judah Maccabeus failed in his mission to save his people.


The struggle against the Seleucids did not end in 164 BC with the purification of the Temple and the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Various Seleucid regents and rulers would attempt to regain control of Judea for decades. Judah Maccabeus would fall in battle at Elasa just four years later. But his brothers would carry on the fight, and in the end establish an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty, that would last into the first century AD; eventually becoming first a Roman client, before being absorbed into that mightiest of ancient empires.


  1. See Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids
  2. I Maccabees 4:28ff
  3. II Maccabees 11:1-2
  4. A generation early, during the reign of Antiochus the Great, when the empire had extended beyond the Taurus Mountains and reached to the Aegean Sea, the army at Raphia numbered some 62,000 infantry (32,000 of which were phalangites, the rest lighter infantry) and 6,000 cavalry. At Magnesia the Seleucid infantry numbered between 45,000 and 58,000 supported by 12,000 cavalry. These numbers must be accepted as representing the maximum levy of the empire at this period; again, a time when it was stronger, wealthier, and encompassing greater territory than it did a generation later at the time of the Maccabees revolt. Thus the numbers suggested by First and Second Maccabees must be dismissed as absurd.
  5. I Maccabees 4:34-35
  6. Bevan, House of Seleucus, Vol II, p. 149
  7. Polyb claims that he was supernaturally deranged; while the story in 2 Macc. 8, 7, that he fell out his chariot may be true. It is more plausible than the sensational description of his disease as a corruption of the flesh (reminiscent of how Herod the Great was said to have suffered and died; a common trope with Jewish historians, inventing just ends for evil or tyrannical enemies).
  8. II Maccabees 10 (RSV)
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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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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]



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.
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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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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”!




  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.
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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)


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



  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.


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