"Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue."
~ Sallust — Roman historian and politician (86—34 BC)
"And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me."
It is a curious function of human history that certain, and otherwise, obscure individuals are thrust into historical prominence by being excessively vilified for the magnitude of their criminal acts. Meanwhile other rulers and their state-sponsored crimes, many of equal or greater enormities, are given a cursory wink and nod as if to say, "Boys will be boys."
One individual marked for historical denigration is the Seleucid king, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes, who reigned over the Syrian division of the Greek Empire, from 175 to 164 B.C. and who has been demonized as the very arch-type of the final "man of perdition."
Antiochus Epiphanes, admittedly, was the first king to proclaim himself a god on his country’s coinage — coins minted by Antiochus Epiphanes on the reverse side read "King Antiochus…God made visible." He is also the Syrian king who is accused of having profaned the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig on the altar and setting up an idol of Zeus. This one king is said to have almost single-handedly "Hellenized" the Jewish people by forcing them to abandon their historical faith or be murdered, putting an end to the daily sacrifices in the Temple and thus instigating a war with the Jewish people that lasted for 3 deadly years.
It would be easy to dismiss Antiochus Epiphanes as one of the greatest villains in history if this was the whole story. However, rarely is the case so simple.
Therefore, before we get into Antiochus Epiphanes reign, it is necessary to set the historical stage for his ascendancy to the Syrian throne.
The Historical Setting
Alexander the Great died on the 10th of June, 323 BC, while in Babylon. Knowing that Alexander was dying his friends asked: “To whom do you leave the kingdom?” To which Alexander replied: “To the best (the strongest).”
Alexander’s word were prophetic; by 300 BC, all that was left of Alexander’s empire were four smaller empires, each controlled by Alexander’s military generals who had staked their territorial claims and declared themselves kings. The results were that the once great Greek empire of Alexander the Great was now subdivided into the following factions:
- The Antigonid dynasty ruled Greece and Macedonia and eventually controlled Asia Minor.
- The Attalid dynasty originally took Asia Minor but later was incorporated into the Antigonid Empire of Greece and Macedonia.
- The Seleucid dynasty was started by Seleucus I and comprised the area of Mesopotamia along with the Middle East.
- The Ptolemy dynasty took control of Egypt. The Ptolemies advanced Greek learning and culture in Egypt, but adopted the Egyptian custom of allowing the kingship to pass through the maternal line. This act made possible the marriage of Cleopatra to Julius Caesar, and the still future military alliance between Egypt and Rome.
These sub-empires fought each other on a regular basis for the next 200 plus years. The reason for this continuing war was that none of these dynasties ever fully accepted the fact they weren’t the legitimate successor to all of Alexander’s empire. This put conquered countries, like Judah, under the control of one Greek dynasty after another as the fortunes of war shifted between the Ptolemies of Egypt and then the Seleucids of Syria and Mesopotamia and then back again.
The wealth the Greeks had acquired, from conquering the Persian Empire, was now in circulation, generally raising the standard of living throughout the whole area. This influx of wealth led to great humanitarian projects being undertaken, such as the building of the magnificent Library of Alexandra in Egypt around 200 BC.
All this troop movement had a chilling effect on the local cultures and language. From Italy to India and from Macedonia to Egypt the ancient world was "Hellenized," making Greek the preferred language of trade, and making Greek culture the dominate culture throughout the conquered lands. Among the Middle Eastern peoples, Greek names were becoming more common, replacing otherwise traditional cultural names.
This Hellenizing of the cultures had even affected religions. The Hebrew’s Holy Scriptures had been translated into Greek around 250 BC, almost a century before Antiochus Epiphanes took the throne, giving us the Bible known as the Septuagint. One book widely circulated among the Hebrews and the Middle East was the Wisdom of Ben Sira (known by the early Christians as Ecclesiasticus), which had been authored between 200—180 BC and is brimming with the Hellenistic Stoic philosophies.
While the Seleucids continued their deadly game of "king of the hill" with the Ptolemies of Egypt, the first Punic war (264 to 241 B.C.) between Carthage and Rome was fought. This war was won by the Roman fleet off the Aegadian Isles bringing a substantial payment, in the form of a war indemnity of 1,000 talents (75,000 pounds of gold) paid immediately along with another 2,200 talents (165,000 pounds of gold) to be paid in 10 years, and the surrendering of Punic Sicily to Roman jurisdiction.
Hannibal Barca then initiated the second Punic war (218 to 201 B.C.), marched his army of 40,000 warriors over the French Alps and had almost conquered Rome. However, Rome prevailed and for her efforts was able to increase their territorial control by annexing Carthage’s Spanish province, Iberia. Carthage was reduced to a client state and forced to pay a war indemnity of 10,000 talents (approximately 750,000 pounds) in gold.
Rome had learned that empire building could be very profitable and was well on the way to becoming the governing empire of the ancient world.
In the mean time Hannibal was accused of engaging in a secret plot to raise another army and wanting again to force a war with the Romans. This caused him to flee from Carthage to Syria in 195 B.C. where he placed himself under the protection of Antiochus the Great who was Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes’ father.
Briefly, this is the world that Antiochus Epiphanes was brought up in; a world of religious tolerance, taught and practiced by his father Antiochus the Great, Alexander the Great, and the Persians, and inherent in the ancient philosophies of the time of both the Greeks and the Romans.
The reign of Antiochus Epiphanes
At the very beginning there was an ominous black cloud that followed Antiochus’ reign; a reign that began in 175 BC with his having to seize the Syrian throne from Heliodorus who had murdered Antiochus’ older brother, king Seleucus IV.
It wasn’t long after taking the throne that the new king learned how bad things really were.
It is certain that Antiochus wanted to annex all of Egypt with the Seleucid Empire. This was partly due to his wanting to imitate Alexander, but a greater urgency loomed in that he couldn’t have Rome gain a major foothold on his southern flank. This left no course for Antiochus to follow but to plan the inevitable war with Egypt and possibly Rome.
The prominence and importance of Judea, to the Syrian kingdom, resided in the geographical fact that Judah lay as the last staging field and the site of demarcation for any invasion of Egypt. Judah’s preeminence was further amplified by Antiochus’ fear that the Ptolemies of Egypt were trying to establish an alliance with the Jews and against Syria.
Antiochus’ fears were confirmed and exacerbated by the fact that Judah’s powerful priesthood was led by a pious, highly respected, but decidedly pro-Egyptian high priest by the name of Onias III.
These events made it necessary for Antiochus to seek a means of tightening his grip on Judea and keeping them in the fold.
The answer to Antiochus’ dilemma came from Jason, whose Hebrew name was Joshua, the brother of the High Priest Onias.
Jason, a confirmed Hellenist, was fully aware of Antiochus’ position and needs, so his offer was straight forward and to the point. What Jason purposed was that he would transfer, to Antiochus, a huge sum of funds to finance Antiochus’ campaigns against the Ptolemy’s of Egypt and Rome in exchange for Onias being deposed from the status of High Priest with that position then being transferred to Jason.
Well it didn’t take Antiochus long to accept Jason’s proposal and in 174 BC Jason became high priest and the head of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
Jason without consulting Antiochus built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem, here he hosted the nude Greek athletic games, which were opened by Hellenistic ceremonies and included sacrifices to the heathen gods. Jason’s leadership also saw many Jews, who were convinced of the Hellenistic ideals, undergo a painful reverse circumcision.
Jason honored his contract and paid Antiochus what he had promised. Antiochus, now armed with the beginnings of a substantial war chest, continued with his preparations for an invasion of Egypt.
Meanwhile, Judah was in the initial throws of chaos. Normal Jewish religious life continued unabated but the Hellenistic and pagan ideals of Jason were having a telling effect. Many traditional Jews began to leave Jerusalem while a group lead by a greedy upstart named Menelaus, who had the backing of the extremely wealthy and powerful Jewish family of Tobiad, thought Jason’s efforts in Hellenizing the Jews weren’t radical enough.
These feelings caused Menelaus, in 172 BC, to seek an audience with King Antiochus, in which he laid out his plan for forcefully Hellenizing the Jewish people. Like Jason’s, Menelaus’ plan was extremely simple. Menelaus wanted to be High Priest and he was willing to pay Antiochus another huge sum from the Jewish treasury to make him high priest.
Once again, a pledge of gold was the only catalyst Antiochus needed to act, so he sent Menelaus back to Jerusalem with a garrison of soldiers who were to arrest Jason. However, Jason received word that his life and position were in danger, so by the time the Syrian troops arrived he had fled into what is now called the state of Jordon.
Jason’s departure left the position of high priest vacant and in 171 BC the vacancy was filled by Menelaus, with Antiochus’ blessing. This act sent the Jewish community into complete turmoil; for the first time since the second Temple had been built, with the blessing and protection of the Persian Empire, the title of High Priest was held by someone who was not of the tribe of Levi nor had he even been a priest. This constituted an act of the greatest heresy in the minds of many pious Jews.
However, Menelaus was not to be deterred. His program wasn’t designed to abolish Jewish Law; he wanted to liberalize it. He determined that if the Jews were going to live in the world they had to be pushed, even if kicking and screaming, into the modern times. Thus his assault was against the traditional symbols of Jewish socio-political identity which the Jewish Scriptures defined as:
- the practice of male circumcision
- the differentiation between places that were to be sacred from those that were blasphemous
- the differentiation between times which were sacred from those to be regarded as ordinary
- the differentiation between foods that were sacred from foods decreed to be ungodly and harmful
Menelaus sought to drop provisions that traditionally forbid or interfered with Jewish participation in Greek culture, like the ban on nudity. He wanted to reduce the law to an ethical commonality by combining the Greek idea of the polis with the Jewish ethical and moral God. This proposed marriage between Greek culture and Jewish universal monotheism, he thought, would usher in a universal utopia.
Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem became an ecumenical place of worship. In keeping with the idea of the commonality of all faiths, it would be Menelaus who would introduce a statue of Zeus and have it placed in the Temple. This act symbolically related the union of Greek universalism with the universal god of the Hebrews.
One of Menelaus’ problems was that the Greeks were polytheists and their concept of god was, for the most part, markedly different from that of the Jews. Greek gods were successful and renowned ancestors who had undergone an apotheosis, being elevated to the rank of the divine. For the Greeks and those who adhered to the Hellenistic ideals it was a natural step for them to deify a monarch, a concept that pious Jewry found anathema. However this did not keep the reformers from continuing to push towards a greater embrace of the Greek city-state culture.
Menelaus second problem was not a philosophical religious argument over the loss of the Jewish identity, but lay in the fact that the Hellenistic reformers were of the wealthy elite, who had levied excessive taxes. This had resulted in the hardships and a poor standard of living which was increasing among the general population.
Menelaus greatest problem arouse when he learned, in 169 BC, he had no means of paying Antiochus what he had promised.
The year (170 BC) before Menelaus discovered he couldn’t pay Antiochus, Antiochus had invaded Egypt, conquering all but the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Antiochus’ little war was ostensibly financed on the back of the Jewish people but even more disturbing was that Rome hadn’t said a word but had taken a ho-hum attitude towards another Greek war.
Rome’s lack of concern probably resulted from the fact that Antiochus allowed Ptolemy VI to continue to reign as Egypt’s king but in the capacity as a Syrian puppet. Whether or not this is why Rome said nothing we don’t know but Antiochus was delighted by the turn of events and returned to Syria to face the bad news from Menelaus.
Antiochus was fit to be tied at Menelaus’ inability to pay what he had promised so Antiochus summoned Menelaus to Antioch in 169 BC. Knowing that he was in real trouble Menelaus plundered some of the Temple’s gold vessels and took them with him in the hopes of appeasing if not fully pacifying Antiochus’ rage.
As a means of hedging his bet while in Antioch, Menelaus had his brother Lysimachus raid the Jewish Temple a second time taking a good deal of the gold that was sacred to the Jewish faithful. However, Menelaus’ initial payment seems to have had soothing effect on Antiochus for while in Antioch, the legendary pious High Priest Onias III was murdered.
When the Jewish people learned of the second raid on their gold and the death of their beloved High Priest they were enraged and petitioned Antiochus to remove Menelaus from the position, but their anger and petition were in vain and Antiochus reinstated Menelaus.
Along with Antiochus’ renewed support, Menelaus took back to Judah an edict from the king which was to go into effect in 167 BC. (This decree many scholars, including Jewish scholars, argue was so detailed that is was either proposed or written by Menelaus who then convinced Antiochus IV to issue it.) This law placed a prohibition on male circumcision, made it mandatory that sacrifices be made to Hellenistic deities, required that Antiochus IV be worshiped as the god Zeus, and forbade any religious worship on the Sabbath or traditional Jewish holidays. Furthermore, the image of Zeus was to become a permanent addition in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem, ritual prostitution was to be instituted and pig was to become part of the new Jewish diet.
(As a side note, here is one of the strongest arguments for Menelaus being the author of the decree. First: Neither the Greek nor the Syrian traditions had a priesthood that sacrificed pigs. The Greeks sacrificed goats almost exclusively. Second: The heresy of a pig being sacrificed on the alter, in the Temple of Jerusalem, would be a foreign idea to Antiochus but not to Menelaus who was well versed in Jewish Law.)
While these events were occurring in Antioch and Judah, the city of Alexandria chose Ptolemy Euergetes to be their king. It wasn’t long before the two brothers (The Syrian puppet Ptolemy VI and the Alexandrian king Ptolemy Euergetes) decided it was in their best interest to rule all of Egypt jointly. This infuriated Antiochus so in 168 BC he invaded Egypt again, this time with the intent of conquering the city Alexandria while his fleet conquered Cyprus.
As Antiochus neared Alexandria he was met by a Roman envoy who ordered him to withdraw from Egypt and Cyprus immediately. Antiochus not liking the idea of being ordered to do anything replied that he would present the subject of withdrawal to his war council, whereupon the Roman envoy drew a circle around Antiochus. He then told Antiochus that if he were to step out of the circle before deciding to withdraw his troops from Egypt and Cyprus he would be at war with Rome.
I am sure that Antiochus felt abased, degraded, demeaned, humbled, and rabid with anger but he knew he didn’t have the money to hire the troops needed for an extended war with Rome. This left Antiochus no choice but to agree to call off the siege of Alexandria and Cyprus and take his troops home.
What happened next is not justifiable by any code of ethics but it is understandable.
As Antiochus retreated from Egypt to Judea he was in a rage, he had just been humiliated before the whole known world and in particular his enemies. He was, for all intents and purposes, financially broke, but most of all he was spiritually, mentally, and emotionally shattered.
Antiochus’ dream of reuniting the Greek empire, as it had been under Alexander the Great, was in tatters.
While Antiochus was in Egypt the former high priest Jason had initiated a revolt against Menelaus with a majority of local support. This revolt against his appointed High Priest, Menelaus, was certainly viewed as a revolt against the Syrian Empire and the kingship of Antiochus.
The unrest in Judah was also proof that no longer could Antiochus count on his southern flank for protection from a southern invasion of the empire by either Rome or Egypt and this presented a huge security risk. Real or imagined, an invasion from the south had to have been on Antiochus’ mind. All Antiochus could do now was make sure his defenses were in place and wait.
Most of all these rebellious Jews owed Antiochus money!
As Antiochus marched back toward his capital city he passed through Jerusalem and the Temple was once again sacked of its treasure, which Antiochus then promptly sent to Rome as an act of appeasement. The ensuing slaughter left thousands of Jewish citizens dead, and Menelaus reinstated as the Jewish High Priest.
Shortly thereafter, Jerusalem’s walls were torn down and a new fortress, called the Acra, was set up on the west side of the Temple mount. The Acra was now the only security the inhabitants of Jerusalem had against an invasion since it housed the military governor, Lysias, along with a sizeable force of mercenaries. More importantly, to Antiochus, it was the central authority by which Antiochus’ was to impose his decrees on the Jewish culture.
In the month of Kislev (November and December) 167 BCE, Antiochus’ decree went into effect. The Jewish temple was immediately dedicated to the god Zeus, an image of the god Zeus was permanently installed on the sacrificial alter and all traditional Jewish items of worship were removed from the Temple. Shortly thereafter, on the 25th day of the month of Kislev sacrificial offerings of pigs began, with their blood being sprinkled on the Holies of Holies. This was followed by temple prostitutes being introduced on the Temple mount.
Thus began a reign of terror and war between the Hellenists and pious Jews which was to last for 3 long grueling years, ending finally with the defeat of the Syrian forces and the death of Antiochus Epiphanes.
Many declare the Jewish rebellion was due, exclusively, to the religious heresy. However, this was not the case. Too often we ignore the economic side of the story. Whatever religious arguments there were, the revolt was first and foremost a revolt by peasant groups and the masses of urban working-class against the injustices and excesses of the merchants, landowners and elite. The assault on their religion was simply the final catalyst which brought the Jews to insurrection.
What are we then to think of Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes? Was he the arch-type of the "man of perdition" or was he just a weak insane monarch who was manipulated by greedy, ambitious men?
The historian Titus Livy in his work, From the Founding of The City (of Rome), say this of Antiochus IV.
"Having set out an ivory seat in the Roman style (Antiochus IV) would pronounce judgment and decide disputes regarding minute matters… Thus, to some he seemed not to know what he wanted. Some simply laughed at him. Others were saying he was doubtlessly insane." 41.20.1-4
One classic Latin summary of Livy’s text includes the following overview of Antiochus Epiphanes:
"Apart from being religious, which led him to erect many magnificent temples in many places — (e.g.) the one to Olympian Zeus at Athens and to Capitoline Zeus [Jupiter] at Antioch — he was very poor at playing the king." — Periocha 41.
Although Antiochus took the name Epiphanes, which means, "The Illustrious," it applies in name only. "Nothing," says Prideaux, on the authority of Polybius, Livy, and Diodorus Siculus, "could be more alien to his true character; because of his vile and extravagant folly his contemporaries thought of Antiochus IV as a fool and changed his name from Epiphanes, u2018The Illustrious,’ to Epimanes, u2018The Madman.’" (Humphrey Prideaux, The Old and New Testament Connected in the History of the Jews, Vol. II, pp. 106, 107)
Were the seeds of rebellion sown because of Antiochus’ delusions of Hellenistic superiority? No, the whole madness was fueled by treachery, the lust of power, driving unreasonable arrogance, and greed, from a weak crazed king and a few within the ranks of the Jews who felt they were eminently qualified to define the social, religious, and cultural standards of others. Here are the seeds that when mature resulted in the horrific events that overtook the Jewish communities from 175 to 164 B.C.
The history of Antiochus Epimanes has a myriad of lessons for modern man and especially the circumstances we find ourselves in today.
Again, we are witnessing the self-aggrandizing absurdity of an elite group thinking they know what another ancient people needs to succeed, culturally and socially in the "modern" world.
We are paying for wars and permanent military installations throughout the world that are intent on "enforcing" Washington DC’s humanitarian decrees; a doctrine not markedly different from the Hellenism of Antiochus’ era.
The press and religious orders bemoan the hundreds of deaths of those who were "gassed" during a reign of evil but trumpet the murder of innocent civilians, in numbers greater by the thousands, under the guise of bringing the "seeds of freedom." What kind of nonsense is this? What do the dead know of "freedom?"
Our state, like the deluded traitor Menelaus, whines that if only peoples of the empire would do things our way we all could achieve the long sought universal utopia. George Bush’s recent words could have come directly from Menelaus: "… (W)hatever lies ahead in the war against this ideology, the outcome is not in doubt: Those who despise freedom and progress have condemned themselves to isolation, decline and collapse."
Now we have our executive leadership screaming that they will not allow history to be revised. President Bush announced: “While it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.”
Then let it be so, let’s call a lie, a lie. Let’s address foolish, scheming, cozen officials by the title "Epimanes." Let us be sure that history records the names, actions and deeds of the traitors among our officials.
Most of all let’s NOT make Alexander Solzhenitsyn words prophetic!
"Things have almost reached rock bottom. A universal spiritual death has already touched us all, and physical death will soon flare up and consume us both and our children — but as before we still smile in a cowardly way and mumble without tongues tied. But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength?"