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.
HUMILIATION IN EGYPT
In 168 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, was on the verge of accomplishing something no king of the House of Seleucus had ever come close to: the total defeat of their hereditary enemy, the House of Ptolemy and the conquest of Egypt. Where even the great Diadochi Perdiccas (general of and Regent for Alexander the Great), and Demetrius the Besieger had failed; Antiochus, whose Army was camped at Eleusis on the outskirts of Alexandria, was poised to achieve. More, his fleet and another army had landed in Ptolemaic Cyprus, and was swiftly seizing control of the island. The Ptolemaic Kingdom seemed on the verge of annexation to the Seleucid Empire.
All this Antiochus had done against the will of the Rome, the arrogant arbiter of affairs throughout the Mediterranean. Here he was asserting Seleucid independence from Roman dominance in foreign affairs for the first time since his father’s defeat at Magnesia in 190 BC. His army was now prepared to enter the Ptolemaic capital in triumph.
However, he first had to give an accounting to the newly-arrived envoy of the Roman Senate, the former Consul Gaius Popillius Laenas.
Antiochus’ 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”. 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.
Reading 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.
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. (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.
ANTIOCHUS, HELLENISM, AND THE JEWS
The Jews at this time were divided between those who “followed the law”, the Hasidim, adhering to Jewish traditions and resisting foreign influences; and the “Hellenizers” who sided with the Seleucid authorities in attempting to assimilate into the mainstream culture of the empire (Hellenism). In Judea the High Priest of the Temple was both the religious and civil leader of the Jews. In 168 BC the High Priest was Jason, leader of the Hellenizers. He had been appointed to his position by Antiochus earlier in the king’s reign, replacing his more orthodox brother.
To 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 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. 
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.
BLOOD IS DRAWN
No sooner had he bribed his way into the High Priesthood, a position for which he had little qualification (he was not even of the priestly tribe), Menelaus brought charges of disloyalty against his priestly opponents in the Temple to the Seleucid court. Stealing from the Temple treasury, Menelaus bribed one of Antiochus’ chief advisers, and thus his critics were found guilty and put to death. Such blatant and unjust corruption alienated many among the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem who were formerly loyal to the Seleucid monarchy. Thereafter, Menelaus and his supporters were able to deflect any opposition to his High Priesthood as disloyalty to Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire
While Antiochus was campaigning in Egypt a false rumor reached Jerusalem: that the king had met defeat and death. This led Jason, the former High Priest, who had been in exile among the Ammonites in Jordan, to return to Jerusalem and lead a coup against the reviled Menelaus. Jason took the city, as the common people, incensed at the corruption of the Temple under his administration, rose to support him. Murder ran riot in the streets, as supporters of Menelaus’ (who were in the eyes of the Royal Court the pro-Seleucid party) were massacred. The villain himself escaped into hiding, avoiding a retribution so richly deserved.
Word reached Antiochus in Egypt that Jerusalem had risen against him, and that the mob were killing the supporters of Seleucid rule. This, on top of his humiliation by the Romans at Eleusis, drove the ever-unstable king to a murderous rage.
As he returned with his army through Sinai, the wrathful Antiochus diverted his march to (in his mind) the treacherous city. Jason fled at word of Antiochus’ approach, and the king’s vengeance fell upon the hapless people of Jerusalem. The city was treated as any rebel town, and given over to sack and slaughter. Thousands were put to the sword by the Seleucid soldiery.
The Second Book of Maccabees records the horror:
When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.
Worse from the Jewish standpoint, Antiochus took this opportunity to enter the Temple, including the Holy of Holies. This was a place so sacred to Judaism that only the High Priest was allowed entry, and then only on Yom Kippur after sanctifying himself. The Jews watched with horror, no doubt expecting God to strike down the gentile for this act of profanity! But on this occasion, God withheld his hand; while Antiochus looted the Temple treasury, his soldiers carrying off the most sacred objects.
The king returned to his capital, Antioch; where he held his famous victory celebration described above. But he was not finished with the Jews, and their obstinate refusal to assimilate into the mainstream culture of his empire vexed him. Antiochus brooded on the problem. The solution he arrived at would challenge Judaism and threaten its very survival.
NEXT: THE SELEUCID CRACK-DOWN
- Bevan, Edwyn Robert: The House of Seleucus, Vol II, page 173
- Polyb. xxix. 27
- Polyb. xxx. 25
- Born Yeshua/Jesus, he had Hellenized his name to Jason.
- 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.
- Bevan, page 167
- 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.