Ptolemaic Empire: The Third Syrian War (246-241), the empire in its greatest extent

Antiochus I died in 262 BC, leaving the kingdom to his drunkard son Antiochus II. We know very little about Antiochus II or the major battle he fought in 246 BC, except that he lost Syria and his entire corps of Asian war elephants to Ptolemy III Euergetes of Egypt. The only source extant is a basalt monument installed by Euergetes along the coast of Eritrea. Som e details are intriguing:

The great king Ptolemy… set out on a campaign into Asia with military and cavalry forces and a naval armament and elephants both Troglodyte [Sudanese] and Ethiopie which his father and he himself first captured by hunting from these places, and, bringing them to Egypt, trained them in military use.

Ptolemy III hired Ethiopian and Sudanese mahouts to train and control the African Forest elephants caught along the Nile River. Unfortunately, we have no accounts of the battle and do not know how the elephant forces were deployed or fared in the battle. Ptolemy did “capture” and not destroy the enemy elephant corps, which shows the value commanders placed on the beasts.


The army of Ptolemy I was recruited from Greek and Macedonian soldiers who had served with him under Alexander the Great. Following the failed invasion of Egypt by Perdikkas (321 BC), many of the Macedonian troops stayed and enlisted in Ptolemy’s army. In a similar way, he gained many deserters following the attempted invasion of Antigonos Monophthalmos (306 BC). These troops were settled as cleruchs, notably in the Fayum region. This early Ptolemaic army was essentially Greek with some mercenary troops such as Gauls and Thracians. In organization, it was modeled on the Macedonian army in which the phalanx was the main heavy infantry fighting body, with light infantry (peltasts), cavalry, and the addition (copying the Seleukids) of elephants. The 20 years of peace at the end of the reign of Ptolemy III meant that the army lacked training and experience. According to Polybios, Egypt was no longer able to defend herself. Ptolemy IV therefore recruited Egyptians (machimoi) into the army. The victory of this new force at Raphia (217 BC) actually prompted civil war.

The later Ptolemaic army was increasingly influenced by Roman organization. It employed Egyptians as well as Greek settlers and mercenaries, notably Jews. The new structure was based upon the semeia (perhaps derived from the Egyptian demotic word seten) with probably six per regiment; each semeia was divided into two centuries commanded by hekatontarchoi and two pentekontarchia with a herald/trumpeter and standard-bearer (semeiophoros). The cavalry was divided into hipparchies of at least two squadrons (ilai), each ile being at least 250. Ten hipparchies are attested.

Ptolemeic Heavy Infantry

The seeds of the subsequent clash with the Seleukid empire had already been sown in the aftermath of the Second Syrian War when Antiochos II had married a daughter of Ptolemy II called Berenike. Antiochos II died under suspicious circumstances in 246 at the residence of his former wife Laodike in Ephesos, only a few months after the accession of Ptolemy III. Also with Laodike were her two sons from the marriage with Antiochos II, Seleukos and Antiochos. The former queen maintained that on his deathbed the king had named one of her sons, Seleukos II (246-226/5), as his successor and thus had passed over his young son from his union with Berenike. Berenike, who was living in Antioch, refused to go along with this and thus proclaimed her own son as king (his name remains unknown) and appealed to Ptolemy III for help. This situation led to the outbreak of another war, the Third Syrian War, also known as the Laodicean War. Seleukos II was only recognized in large parts of Seleukid Asia Minor and even there not entirely. The procurator of Ephesos, Sophron, decided in favour of Berenike’s son and probably fled to Ptolemy III who took up the challenge.

The most important source for the initial phase of the war is a report obviously published by the Ptolemaic king himself (papytus from Gurob). To begin with, Berenike ordered a naval expedition to Cilicia. With the help of the citizens of Cilician Soloi, the expeditionary force succeeded in taking the city as well as its citadel. The Seleukid governor of Cilicia, Aribazos, would no doubt have wanted to bring the local treasure, worth 1,500 talents, to Laodike in Ephesos and so it was seized and transported to Seleukeia. Aribazos was murdered in the Tauros by local inhabitants while attempting to flee and his head was sent to Antioch. The heart of the Seleukid empire around Seleukeia and Antioch remained firmly in the hands of Berenike.

In addition to this, in his report Ptolemy III gave news of his own expedition to Seleukeia with a small fleet. There he was enthusiastically received by ‘the priests, the city-magistrates, the remaining citizens as well as officers and soldiers, who had garlanded with wreaths the streets leading to the harbour’. Even the Seleukid satraps and strategoi are said to have paid their respects to the king; perhaps Berenike herself had hastily summoned them there. The reception in Antiocheia that followed was even more enthusiastic much to the surprise of the king; the satraps and other functionaries were again at hand. In the evening he betook himself to his ‘sister’ and arranged various matters in the palace. The literary tradition unanimously asserts, however, that Berenike and her son had already been murdered by Laodike’s thugs before the arrival of the Ptolemaic king. It is possible that Ptolemy III first learned of their murder when he entered his sister’s chamber, kept quiet about it for a while and took up official duties in the name of Berenike and the boy (as per Polyaen. VIII. 50)

Having begun a huge campaign, Ptolemy suddenly found himself faced with an entirely new situation once he arrived in Antioch. Despite the sympathy shown to him by many, even if it was orchestrated by supporters of Berenike, the new situation brought on by the death of his sister still meant that he would have to go home empty-handed. But he refused to do this. Instead, he led a campaign through Syria, which the sources claim was the most successful one in Ptolemaic history, and reached Mesopotamia without fighting a single battle. The Adulis inscription describes the trail of conquest of the ‘Great King Ptolemy’ as a pharaonic enterprise in the manner of the eighteenth dynasty and thus alleges that he subjugated the Seleukid empire as far as Baktria; Polyaenus (VIII. 50) declares that his empire extended as far as India. To be sure, Ptolemy may have received the homage of the satraps (or their envoys) already in Seleukeia or Antioch (cf. the account of the Gurob papyrus) or, later on in Babylon, and this could have been interpreted in the tradition as tantamount to the establishment of a Ptolemaic hegemony.

It is quite certain that Ptolemy III broke off the campaign in Mesopotamia as early as the first half of 245, set up another governor (strategos) for the region ‘on the other side’ of the Euphrates as well as one to administer the newly acquired territory of Cilicia and finally returned home with an enormous quantity of spoils. As part of a propaganda campaign meant to portray him as a victorious pharaoh in full enjoyment of religious legitimacy, he took on the cult title of Euergetes (‘benefactor’). The royal couple appeared as the ‘Theoi Euergetai’ from 243.

Ptolemy III was in sore need of a title of ideological significance such as ‘benefactor’, since his sudden return to Egypt had been occasioned by an uprising of the local Egyptians, the first of its kind in Ptolemaic history (Just. XXVII. 1.9; Porph: FGrHist. 260F 43). During the Second Syrian War, Philadelphos had already been forced to increase pressure on the Egyptian populace to put at the state’s disposal as much of the land’s resources as possible. During the first years of Euergetes’ reign, social equilibrium was seriously threatened because of the injustices that the economic and administrative system visited upon Egyptian workers and farmers. The uprising, triggered by the demands of his campaign and encouraged by the king’s absence, was quickly put down by the pharaoh and this in spite of the additional problems caused by inadequate flooding of the Nile in 245. As a special recourse, grain had to be imported to Egypt ‘from Syria, Phoenicia, Cyprus and many other lands at great cost’.

Apart from the situation in Egypt, Ptolemy III must have soon realized that a Ptolemaic government in eastern Syria, let alone in Mesopotamia, could only be of an ephemeral nature. Indeed, Seleukos II quickly went on the counter-offensive and was recognized as ruler in Babylon by July of 245. The news of the death of Berenike’s son probably also influenced a change of opinion in favour of the legitimate Seleukid; Ptolemy III could now have even fewer hopes of being successful against the opposition of the local rulers. In view of this, the triumphant campaign to Mesopotamia was without any long-term results and thus would be more accurately described as an exercise in plundering and pillaging. Toward the end of the war (242/1) there was some fighting near Damascus, the outcome of which is unclear (Porph: FGrHist. 260F 32.8). It is even said that Seleukos II attempted an attack on Egypt (Just. XXVII. 2.5).

In terms of his designs to create an eastern Mediterranean hegemony, the Seleukid territories on the Anatolian coast and in Thrace will have been more important to Ptolemy than the eastern campaign. The Ptolemaic fleets achieved lasting victories on these coasts, even though they obviously suffered a serious set-back at the hands of the Macedonian king who was reacting to what he saw as disturbing developments in the area.

The Adulis inscription, a work of propaganda given to some exaggeration, lists Cilicia, Pamphylia, Ionia, the Hellespont and Thrace (cf. Plb. V. 24.7- 8) as having been acquired and even more specifically as having been won back during the Third Syrian War. The epigraphic evidence tells us two very important things about this event: (1) it is evident that the south Thracian cities of Ainos and Maroneia, if not others, were under Ptolemaic rule as of 243, and furthermore in Ainos, a ‘priest of the king’ is attested; (2) a certain Ptolemy Andromachos (or so-called son of Andromachos) conquered various places in Thrace, among which Ainos is explicitly mentioned. It appears reasonable then to place the activities of this Ptolemy in the early stages of the Third Syrian War. He actually was the son of Philadelphos and was probably an illegitimate offspring born to one of the king’s mistresses, although he may have been raised under the assumed name of ‘son of Andromachos’. He is, at any rate, clearly the same person who was the priest of Alexander in 251150.

Ptolemy Andromachos, we may assume, was able to procure the city of Ephesos for the Ptolemaic empire already in 246 and this without too much of a struggle owing to the desertion of the Seleukid commander. He then set up a substantial garrison there for which there is still testimony at the time of the reign of the fourth Ptolemy (Plb. V. 35.1l). Ephesos remained a cornerstone of the Ptolemaic hegemony in the Aegean until 197.

This extremely successful Ptolemy, nonetheless, lost a significant naval battle against Antigonos Gonatas at Andros. Some time thereafter he was killed by his own Thracian soldiers (Athen. XIII. 593 a_b).

In 241, a peace was agreed upon which was very favourable for the Ptolemies (Just. XXVII. 2.9). The Seleukid empire had been shaken by some serious upheavals. Soon after the mid-third century, the satraps of Baktria and Parthia had become practically independent. A Greek-Baktrian kingdom arose in Baktria; the former satrap bore the title of king as of 239/8. The Parnians who had invaded Parthia took power there under a new name, the Parthians. The Ptolemaic empire emerged from the Third Syrian War as the most powerful Hellenistic state without much effort because of the weaknesses of the Seleukid empire. With the exception of Pamphylia, which in Euergetes’ reign was lost once again, the empire remained basically the same until the end of the third century. Epigraphic, papyrological and literary sources for Ptolemaic domination or influence in Cilicia, Lycia, Caria, Ionia, in the Dardanelles and Thracia are widely scattered in chronological terms. One of the most significant territories acquired in the Third Syrian War is the Ptolemaic enclave surrounding Seleukia in Pieria (northern Syria) (Plb. V. 58.10). Seleukia was one of Seleukos I’s residential cities (until 281) and next to Laodikeia the most important harbour-city of the Seleukids. Analogous to Alexandria, Seleukia was the Seleukid gateway to the Mediterranean, a final stop for distant trade routes, an excellent fortress and naval base, in whose shipyards ships would now be constructed for the Ptolemies. By taking over the city with its convenient connections by sea to the newly conquered territories of Cilicia and Pamphylia, as well as to Ptolemaic Cyprus and Coele Syria, Ptolemy III hit a vital nerve in the Seleukid empire. Ptolemy Ill’s empire now encompassed, with only a few gaps, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean basin from the eastern part of the Greater Syrte in Libya up to Thrace where it directly bordered on Macedonia (cf. Plb. V. 34). In poetic accounts as brief as they are to the point, Callimachus and after him Catullus both describe the ‘conquest of Asia’ as well as its annexation to the Egyptian empire.