In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights (also known as the Feast of Dedication) is celebrated over eight days with the lighting of the ceremonial menorah: a unique nine-branched candelabrum. The origins of this festival, and the first Hanukkah, are found in the 2nd century BC, when the Jewish people were faced with one of the greatest threats to their religion, their cultural, and their very existence.
In 331 BC Alexander the Great marched through Philistia on his way to first Gaza and then Egypt; after defeating the Persians at Issus and capturing Phoenician Tyre in the two years previous. He likely visited Jerusalem while in the region, and would there have met with the Jewish temple authorities.
Judea now became part of the growing Macedonian Empire, which at Alexander’s death eight years later stretched from the Danube to the Indus. As with most of the indigenous people within his empire, Alexander granted the Jews a measure of local autonomy; allowing them the right to practice their religion without interference.
However, following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC his empire was convulsed in a series of wars between his friends and generals, fighting to carve out a piece of the realm for themselves (See Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones). When at last the Successor Wars ended a generation later, Judea became a province (“Coele-Syria“) of first the Kingdom of the Ptolemies; and then, after their victory at the Battle of Paneion in 200 BC, of the Empire of the Seleucids.
Throughout this period of Hellenistic control the Jews were left alone to conduct their religious affairs as they wished. However, in 175 BC a new king came to the Seleucid throne; one that would change the relationship between the King and his Jewish subjects, and of that between the Jews and Hellenism forever. It would lead to a seminal moment in Jewish history, when as a people they stood tall and defended their ancient religion. It would also give the Jews one of their greatest champions: Judah Maccabee, “the Hammer”.
THE MAD KING
Though often capable and even brilliant rulers and military commanders, a streak of eccentricity ran throughout the Seleucid royal family. But none of that illustrious line showed both faces, brilliant and eccentric, more clearly than the fourth Antiochus to sit the throne of Seleucus Nicator.
Second son of King Antiochus III (“The Great”), as a boy Antiochus IV was a political hostage in Rome. Following his father’s defeat at Magnesia and the subsequent Peace of Apamea in 188 BC, which limited Seleucid power in Anatolia and put strictures on their foreign policy, the Seleucid prince was handed over to the Romans as surety of his father’s good faith. In Rome Antiochus gained an appreciation for Roman Republican institutions and their incomparable fighting methods; the latter reflected in his reorganization of the Seleucid Army once he ascended to the throne (see Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids). After his release by the Romans following his father’s death, Antiochus spent time in Athens, imbibing the heady wine of Hellenism in this cultural center of Greek learning. Among the energetic and lively-minded Athenians he found himself perfectly at home, and was granted Athenian citizenship. Perhaps bemused at having a Seleucid prince in their midst, one eager to appear as simply one of the dêmos, the Athenians even elected him as one of their Archons for that year.
But when his older brother, the frugal and circumspect Seleucus IV Philopater, was assassinated by a powerful minister the prince decided to quit playing at being the heir to Demosthenes and instead to pick up the mantle of his ancestor Seleucus Nicator. Returning to Syria, the Graeco-Macedonian soldier-settlers that were the core of the royal army rallied to this scion of the House of Seleucus; and in 175 BC Antiochus was able to wrest the throne from the grasp of the usurper. Despite the fact that his nephew, Seleucus IV’s nine-year-old son Demetrius, who had taken his place as a hostage in Rome, was the most direct heir; Antiochus was proclaimed king. He adopted as his throne-name Epiphanes (“God Manifest”).
Antiochus was unlike any king ever to sit the Seleucid throne before or after. His rule, like his personality, can best be described as erratic. Friendly and approachable one moment, brooding and sullen the next, he was alternately a whirlwind of cheerful action or a silent recluse. Today he might have been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. He was likely also a clinical narcissist (though a mundane narcissism is not unusual in rulers or politicians). His sojourn in Republican Rome and democratic Athens had left him with an odd taste for populous politics and a love for mingling with the hoi polloi. Occasionally he would don Roman toga and walk the teeming streets of his very-Greek capital, Antioch; “canvassing for votes” to republican Roman offices that did not exist in Syria: Curule Aedile, Praetor, Consul or Censor. Or by day he might join the citizens in the great public baths, exchanging jokes with the common people as though merely one of the demos of Antioch instead of the emperor of a vast empire. At nights he would carouse through the streets of the great city with a few chosen companions. A party of young men drinking late in some tavern or mansion might hear the approach of a new group of revelers, to be startled by the sudden appearance of the king and his cronies; who would join their party, drinking deep into the night. During festivals he would at times take to the stage, and like Nero perform for the populace; or join the dancers during festivals, leaping and whirling naked through the streets.
His eccentricities, his boyish enthusiasm and his good looks earned him a measure of popularity among the gregarious and volatile Antiochenes; so different from the sober, eastern pomposity of his predecessors. However, his sudden mood swings and vindictiveness when crossed made men uneasy; and like a panther he could switch from languid relaxation to fierce and violent action in the beat of a heart.
Soon his enemies, foreign and domestic, began to refer to him not as Antiochus “Epiphanes“, but as Epimanes (“The Mad One”).
HELLENIZING THE JEWS
The kingdom this “mad” king inherited was a skeleton of its former, muscular self. Defeated by Rome, surrounded by foes and rivals, it was an empire ever threatened with dissolution. Once stretching from the Aegean Sea to the borders of India, the Seleucid Empire was now withering around the edges, drawing back upon its center in Syria. On all sides its enemies awaited, eager for the empire’s dismemberment.
In the west loomed the towering shadow of Rome. Suspicious of any resurgence of the once-great Seleucid power, the Roman Senate kept a watchful eye on Antiochus and his dealings with his fellow Hellenistic rulers. It was Roman policy that no Hellenistic king should grow stronger than his fellows, and so to one day pose a challenge to Rome. A weak and divided Hellenistic east was exactly to Rome’s liking; most especially the Seleucid Empire. To this end, the Roman Senate was ever meddling in Seleucid affairs, and Roman diplomacy was backed by the implied threat of the terrifyingly effective Roman legions.
To the east, Seleucid control of Media (northern Iran) and the “Upper Satrapies” (those eastern Iranian provinces abutting Central Asia) was threatened by the emerging power of the Parthians, nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. There was also the question of Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan), a Seleucid province which was ever ready to break away from the empire, and which had at times been a strong independent Greek kingdom. Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had campaigned in the east to bring all of the lost provinces back into the fold. But in the troubled years since his defeat at Magnesia these territories had once again fallen away from the control of the Seleucid court.
But the most immediate threat to the empire was to the south, where the age-old rivalry with the Ptolemies threatened to burst once again into war over the question of Coele-Syria: Philistia, Judea, and southern Lebanon. The temper of the Alexandrian court was decidedly bellicose, and had never reconciled itself to the loss of this cross-roads border province between the two empires. This new Seleucid king, in their estimation, was untested and, if reports were to be believed, mentally unstable.
Upon taking the throne, Antiochus began implementing a plan that would ultimately unite and strengthen the Seleucid realm, and make it a power capable of standing against any of these threats.
The king was convinced that the problem with so sprawling an empire was its diversity of cultures and religions. What was needed was a single unifying culture, one that would make all the disparate people of his empire: Syrians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes and Persians; one people loyal to their king. This culture must be Hellenism, the culture of the ruling Graeo-Macedonian class. This had been the dream of Alexander the Great, a unity of peoples under Hellenic civilization. It was a dream Antiochus now made his own. One people, one culture, one ruler: Antiochus.
To this end, the king’s focus was soon drawn south to Judea.
Though a relatively small community within the Empire, the Jews were an important one. First, their land sat upon the strategic crossroads between Syria and Egypt, the respective centers of gravity of the two greatest Hellenistic monarchies. Secondly, Jews provided quality mercenaries to both empires. Fighting in the style known by Hellenistic military writers as thureophoroi, the Jews fought in loose-order with spear and javelin, and had earned a reputation for tenacity.
Previous Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers had left the Jews to run their own affairs. The High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem was their de facto ruler. It was to the High Priest that the first the Ptolemaic and later the Seleucid kings addressed their concerns. He was both the religious and secular head of the Jewish community.
However there was disunity within Judea, conflict between those who clung to “the old ways”, and those who embraced aspects of Hellenism, the culture of the Greeks. At the ascension of Antiochus IV, the High Priest in Jerusalem was Onias III. A member of the traditionalist (“faithful to the law”) faction, he was no friend of the Hellenists or of Seleucid rule. He was opposed by his own brother, Jason, who was ironically the leader of the Hellenist-faction. At the death of the previous king, Seleucus IV, there had been rioting in Jerusalem between the two factions. Blood ran in the streets.
Upon taking the throne, Antiochus summoned Onias and Jason to Antioch for an accounting. Jason described the desire of himself and others to fully embrace and promote the mainstream culture of the Seleucid Empire, Hellenism. He offered to build in Jerusalem public symbols of Greek culture, such as a gymnasium and public baths; and to remake Jerusalem as a Greek polis, a self-governing city-state within the empire. He also offered the king’ advisers a considerable bribe to convince Antiochus to make him High Priest in his brother’s place, in order for him to enact these changes. Antiochus came away impressed that in Jason he had found a useful agent. Onias was deposed and Jason put in his place.
Plans were laid to implement this policy of Hellenizing the peoples of the empire, starting with the Jews. If this stiff-necked, “backward” people could be Hellenized, so could any in the empire.
But first, he had to secure his hold on Coele-Syria, the rule of which was once again being challenged by his rivals in Egypt.
WAR IN EGYPT
In 171 war broke out between Rome and Perseus, king of Macedon; who along with his father, Philip V, had for years been carefully preparing to throw off the shackles of Roman domination. With Rome so distracted, Antiochus decided the time was ripe to secure his southern border, and to settle with Egypt the issue of Coele-Syria once-and-for-all.
The Sixth Syrian War began in 170 BC with the “Mad King” marching south at the head of a large and well-supplied army. Crossing the northern Sinai desert, he met an equally large Ptolemaic force near Pelusium led by the chief ministers of the Ptolemaic kingdom, Eulaeus and Lenaeus; who were at that same moment on their way to invading Coele-Syria! Battle was joined, and the result was complete victory for Antiochus and the Seleucid army. As the routed Ptolemaic soldiers fled the battlefield, Antiochus rode at the head of his pursuing troops, sparing the enemy soldiers from slaughter. Most of the Ptolemaic troops were Graeco-Macedonians. Like their Seleucid opponents they were either descendants of Graeco-Macedonian soldiers settled in Egypt after Alexander’s death, or Greek mercenaries. In either case, the ties of racial kindred and military professionalism combined with reasons of diplomacy to stay Antiochus’ hand. Encouraged by his mercy, many of the mercenaries went over to him, joining and bolstering his army.
The defeat at Pelusium threw the Ptolemaic court into a panic. Foolishly, the child-king, Ptolemy VI Philometer was put on-board a ship, to be spirited away to safety in Ptolemaic Cyprus. His ship, however, was overtaken by a Seleucid squadron and Ptolemy captured.
This was a good start for Antiochus. But mindful that to attempt to annex Egypt might trigger Roman intervention, Antiochus now decided to install the boy-king Ptolemy Philometor (who, due to a diplomatic marriage years before, was in any case his own sister’s son and thus his nephew) back upon his throne as a Seleucid puppet. First, however, Antiochus had to capture the fortress of Pelusium, the key to Egypt. Alexandria sent a naval squadron to supply the garrison, but this relief force was defeated at sea by the Seleucid fleet. Upon news of this reverse, the demoralized fortress surrendered to Antiochus. The way now open, the Seleucid army marched into Egypt with young Ptolemy in tow.
Meanwhile in Alexandria the citizens rose up and proclaimed the child-king’s even-younger brother as their king, under the name Ptolemy Euergetes II. Antiochus turned this event to his advantage, presenting himself as the champion of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. Throwing a bridge across the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, the Seleucid army soon overran lower Egypt, except Alexandria, which held for Euergetes.
Antiochus proceeded up-river to Memphis, the ancient pharaonic capital. There he established an alternate government in the name of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. From Memphis he was able to cut off food supplies downriver to Alexandria. Discomfited, the “war faction” in Alexandria was overthrown and emissaries were sent to Memphis to negotiate peace, offering to confirm Seleucid rule in Coele-Syria. But that issue was no longer Antiochus’ war-goal. Now the prospect loomed of an Egyptian vassal kingdom, something every Seleucid king since the first had at least dreamed of (if not outright conquest of Egypt).
Refusing the offer, Antiochus marched north and laid siege to Alexandria.
However, his small fleet was not sufficient to the task of cutting the city off from the sea, and thus starving Alexandria into submission was not possible. Storming so great a city was a ghastly prospect, as the ever-prickly Alexandrians would assuredly resist his soldiers from every rooftop and alley-way. So, at the end of 169, he withdrew with his army. He had the satisfaction of leaving Egypt divided between two warring brothers, his baggage train filled with looted treasure, and with Pelusium in his control. With this fortress in his grasp the gateway to Egypt remained unbolted against his later return.
However, the rival brothers soon quickly patched-up a peace between them. Agreeing to a joint monarchy, Philometer entered Alexandria and put an end to his role as a Seleucid puppet.
Antiochus reversed his progress home, and in 168 once again marched on Egypt. At the same time he sent his fleet with a force to occupy Ptolemaic Cyprus. As his army approached the Delta, envoys from the court at Alexandria arrived in his camp. They politely thanked him for returning Philometer to his throne, and inquired why he had returned. Antiochus replied that guarantees for the future security of his realm were needed: he demanded Cyprus and the formal hand-over of Pelusium (still occupied by his garrison).
When the Alexandrian court delayed giving him an answer, Antiochus continued his advance. Returning first to Memphis, he repeated his march down river of the previous year. But as he approached Alexandria this second time, envoys from Rome awaited him. At a place called Eleusis, they arrived in his camp; the embassy led by Popillius Laenas, a Roman Senator and friendly acquaintance from his days in Rome.
Seleucid soldiers, circa 160 BC
Till now Rome had watched Antiochus’ successes in Egypt with unease. But the Republic had been too distracted by its war with Macedon to interfere. However, as Antiochus marched on Egypt the final chapter in the story of the last Antigonid king of Macedon had played out. Brought to battle at Pydna, Perseus had been utterly defeated by the Roman Proconsul, Aemilius Paullus. Macedon would be reduced to the status of Roman province, and its last king, Perseus, taken to Rome in chains.
Rome was now free to deal with the ambitions of the “Mad King”.
- The story of Alexander sacrificing to “God” on the Temple Mount are likely apocryphal.
- Hellenistic monarchies did not denote the difference between kings of the same name by numbering; but instead by adding an additional “throne-name”.
- Whether this bizarre mime was but a bit of eccentric play-acting or evidence of delusional behavior is, from the distance of two millennia, impossible to say.
- During the late Hellenistic period Antioch’s population reached its peak of of between 400,000 to 600,000 people, and was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. The city was composed of four quarters, and was for this reason known as a tetrapolis. Lying along the Orontes River, the whole was about 4 miles quarter was added by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC); thenceforth Antioch was known as Tetrapolis. From west to east the whole was about 4 miles wide from east to west, and a bit less from north to south.
- See Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate
- The Seleucid Empire and the Kingdom of the Ptolemies.
- Those who had adopted the culture of the ruling Graeco-Macedonian and sought to spread and enforce it among their fellow Jews.
- See Armies of the Successor Kingdoms: The Ptolemies
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.