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 lost to history. He ordered the people of Modi’in and those in the region thereabout to gather 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”, said the official; “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 listened to this offer of 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 to comply with the royal edict must have shocked and galvanized those listening. 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 the 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 the Seleucids; and 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 quickly 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 they could organize themselves from road-march formation, Judah’s men charged down hill, falling upon Apollonius’ hired soldiers 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 on thing. But the Seleucids had a standing army of some 12,000 professional soldiers stationed around Antioch; Hellenistic phalangites and armored cavalry. If called up from their farms or their military settlements all throughout Syria, the “regular” Seleucid army could also field some 20,000 Graeco-Macedonian phalangites; descendants of the veterans settled by Antigonas One-Eyed and Seleucus Nicanor, men who’d fought for Alexander the Great or his Successors.  These were the battle-winners of Hellenistic warfare and among the best heavy infantry in the world for nearly two centuries. Only the Roman legions were more respected and feared on the battlefield; and the Seleucids could call upon some 5,000 “imitationRoman 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” 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.


The Seleucid forces would have to be defeated before his people could be free. But Judah knew he must fight them on ground 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 their tight formations.


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 or drawn from 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 invites defeat in detail instead. 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; the same place where the Israelite hero Joshua defeated the Amorites. No details survive, 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; and set off with a large army to repel the Parthians and restore the situation in the east. He appointed as regent in Antioch Lysias, a “distinguished man of royal lineage” [5]. He left his regent with the guardianship of his six year old son-and-heir, the future Antiochus Eupator; and a mandate “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation.” [6] While Josephus may be engaging 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 revolt and punish any who sided with the rebels. Judea and Samaria were to be pacified, no matter how much blood must be shed to do so.

Lysias organized a large expedition (at least 5,000 men [7]) 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 as well. 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”[8]. 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 7). 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 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 against the rebel’s stronghold.



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

The Maccabees 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 Maccabee showed his abilities as a guerrilla-fighter of genius; as he prepared a 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 and unawares. 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 7, 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 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… [9]



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. 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”).
6. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, vii, 2. Here Josephus may be engaged in hyperbole.
7. 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.
8. 2 Macc 12:35
9. 1 Macc 4:24-25
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