Battle of Panion

An axis of exploitation had surfaced when the Macedonians and the Seleucids matched each other’s eagerness to take advantage of the stumbling Empire centred at Alexandria, whose assets also included Cyprus, Hellespontine Thrace, Samos, and much more south from Ephesus along the south coast of Anatolia. Threats to the places in Asia Minor and on the blue Aegean waters had been played out for some time, but now Antiochus could taste old ambitions unsatisfied, and this would bring the thunder of war to the very borders of Egypt itself. Philip and Antiochus were up to complete partition in 204, if we are to believe Appian, but far more likely is that both had limited ambitions; the former having his eyes on just what he could pick up around the Aegean while the latter wanted what he always had, the Lagid Levant.

The Seleucid army moved in strength in 202, with the royal regiments, mercenaries, local auxiliaries and elephants. They were intending a serious conquest, no mere foray. Their achievements are not detailed but were impressive, bringing Seleucid power to the margins of Egypt, although this was not the first occasion he had reached so far and last time it had ended at Raphia. The whole enterprise may have taken up two campaigning seasons, starting in 202. With the southern offensive accomplished sure and steady, it was only in the winter at the end of 201 that they pulled the main army back, leaving garrisons to hold the towns they had taken, while the leadership and royal regiments returned to Antioch.

The Ptolemaic ship of state had been navigating stormy waters since Tlepolemus took the helm, and despoliation in Thrace and Anatolia had undermined what little muscle there was in this playboy’s administration. But it was the invasion by Antiochus that eventually unseated him. Although affable and brave, he could not match what the despised Agathocles and Sosibius had managed in 217. So in another coup, of which we know nothing, there was a change at the power seat behind the child throne of Ptolemy V. The new man was Aristomenes, an Acarnanian officer of the royal bodyguard, who started up the greasy pole by playing sycophant in the entourage of Agathocles, but who, once given his chance at the head of things, showed great quality. Support by Scopas, the Aetolian marshal, must have been both crucial in his power bid and in maintaining supremacy afterwards. He had been, for a while, a key player in the military. Indeed, he had been perceived as enough of a threat for Agathocles to send him off on a recruiting mission when he was getting rid of rivals a couple of years before. Since then, he had returned and become a key performer in the intrigues that played out in the Alexandrine court. In the new arrangement, the Acarnanian guardian shored up the home administration while the Aetolian took responsibility for the Levantine front.

This was back to field command for Scopas, and it would eventually end in one of the decisive battles of the era. Even before the Social War, he had been one of the most significant of those leaders that had steered the fortunes of the Aetolian League. Always a front-foot fighter, he had started that war with an invasion of Thessaly, and in the twenty odd years since, he was a stalwart of the war party that took on Macedonia, the Achaeans and the rest of Symmachy. Perhaps, in the end, that had contributed to his undoing in Aetolia; associated with a couple of wars that had ended not so well and had driven many of his people into deep debt. Scopas had been strategos in 205/4, after the wars, and with another old warhorse, Dorimachus, he tried to propose reforms. The radical debts cancellation they pushed was not unheard of as a solution, and the reason was the same; to give relief to the infantry class that filled the army, not to mention some personal debts of his own. But, this was always a potentially dangerous road, as was made all too plain when his services were dispensed with by the people after being outmanoeuvred, and his reforms scuppered by a man called Alexander, who had recently held office as hipparch and was clearly on the up in the politics of the League. Like many a Greek before with a military reputation, when rebuffed at home, he took service in Egypt.

Polybius, for some reason, directs considerable ire at Scopas for being the epitome of greed, saying: `he delivered his soul for money’. He castigates him for not being satisfied with his lot and compares him to a dropsy sufferer: `the thirst of the sufferer never ceases and is never allayed by the administration of liquids from without, unless we cure the morbid condition of the body itself, so it is impossible to satiate the greed for gain.’ A charge that could be levelled at many a condottiere in the Hellenistic Age.

He clearly retained clout in Aetolia, as when he was sent back to recruit, 6,000 infantry and 500 cavalry enrolled under his standard. Apparently, even then, he had to be pulled up short, or he would have emptied the country of soldiers altogether. It was with this considerable force, plus what the Lagid military had already mustered, that Scopas now marched.

It began as a winter war. Scopas reoccupied Coele Syria in the winter of 201/200 and retook most of what had been lost, including Jerusalem. The counter strike reached up as far as the Golan Heights, towards the Lebanon valley, and along the coast to Sidon. It comes over as something of a promenade, so perhaps Antiochus’ previous triumphs had not been so complete, or perhaps many places still cleaved loyally to the Ptolemies and sprang back into their arms when they arrived in the region in force. Certainly, Scopas took some Jewish leaders back to Egypt to firm up Ptolemaic influence amongst those people. But finally, it was always down to who won on the battlefield, and so in the following spring of 200, Scopas was back in force and pushing on towards Lebanon. But this year would be no walkover; Scopas found himself faced with the main Seleucid army, with the Great King at its head and battle took place on the road from Lebanon to Palestine at Panion.

Some have suggested the numbers involved in this encounter as approaching the magnitude of those at Raphia. But this is problematic, as that was the culmination of an extraordinary Ptolemaic effort, and there is no evidence that this was the case before Panion. Certainly, Scopas had recruited in Greece, but we do not hear of the wholesale purchase of warlord and mercenary service that occurred in 217. Still, both sides must have been present in great force. The Ptolemaic army that navigated the well-trodden roads east from Pelusium would have comprised a large phalanx: those Thracians and Galatians who had been stalwarts in the Ptolemaic army for decades, the Aetolians and elephants too.

Josephus explains that Panion, although near, is not actually the source of the Jordan and, ever affable, lets us know that fishing is good in the area. The site of the battlefield is reasonably clear, despite the fact that our main source Polybius is once more sidetracked. Here, instead of giving the details of the battle, he devotes most of his description to a refutation of his source and contemporary, Zeno of Rhodes. Criticizing him for sacrificing accuracy for style, Polybius raises many pertinent points for a military historian, but somewhat spoils the effect by obsessing about a number of matters. The best example is his insistence that Antiochus had only one son at the battle, despite Zeno’s clear statement that there were two. Young Royals frequently appear on the battlefield in command roles, supported by more experienced officers, so Polybius’ obduracy on this issue is difficult to understand. Fascinatingly, Polybius actually wrote to Zeno, pointing out his geographical errors. Zeno, showing admirable forbearance beyond the point of duty, thanked him courteously for his criticism but replied that he had already published his work and it was too late to change anything. His real feelings may well have been considerably different. Be that as it may, Polybius’ account does give us something of an idea of the terrain and flavour of the encounter.

Antiochus had advanced down the ancient Damascus-Egypt road and descended the Golan Heights to Panion, where he camped with the river to the west, between him and Scopas. Antiochus deployed at sunrise on the day of battle, and initially the Seleucids anchored the right of their battle line on the lower slopes of an adjacent mountain, presumably north of Panion. This force consisted of mixed infantry and horse, but it was just an outpost, and the main right wing was below on the plain. Most likely, the rest of the army formed conventionally, with the phalanx in the centre and another cavalry wing on the left, with the river across the front of the whole force. From this initial posting, the Great King had sent forward his elder son `just before the morning watch’ to occupy high ground that commanded the enemy camp, possibly a spur west of Panion, and the river above the open plain that lay south of there and east of the 1949 Israeli and Syrian armistice line. Then, at the signal to advance, the Seleucids lined up to offer battle and crossed over the river. Their dressing remained largely predictable; the phalanx of heavy-armed pikemen were in the centre and the cavalry took position on the flanks. One side, under the command of the king’s younger son, also called Antiochus, probably was on the right, the position of honour. Who commanded on the left is uncertain, but in front of the whole – right, centre and left – were the elephants with their guards of archers and slingers, and there must have been a considerable number, probably as many as the 102 present at Raphia. Antiochus had lost some at that encounter, but equally had garnered many more during his recent anabasis to Bactria and India. And, more than this, an officer named Antipater led out the Tarentine light horse as a skirmish line in front of the elephants; `while he [Antiochus] himself with his horse and foot guards took up a position behind the elephants.’

So, the king himself was leading from the front of the phalanx with the Companions and footguards, a location for a commander-in-chief we do not hear of in any other encounter, and which would appear impractical as he might be crushed between friend and enemy when the phalanxes clashed. So, perhaps it should be understood that when the centres stepped forward to enter combat, these glittering staff men with their escorts would slip back through avenues left by the pike men before they closed up again for hostilities.

Scopas, a veteran now, on the other side, was well aware of what was afoot and broke his men out of camp at the double. He, too, deployed his well-drilled phalanx in a great block in the centre and presumably ranged his horsemen either side. The Ptolemaic army, too, must have had its elephant corps; after all, they won at Raphia, and had had nearly twenty years to recruit from Sudan to fill out the ranks of the veteran animals who had died of wounds or old age. But how many and how they fared in battle we do not know, although it is reasonable to assume, as at Raphia, that they did not do well against their bigger Asian cousins.

Events commenced on the Seleucid right, as was so often the case, and here Antiochus, the younger, had Cataphracts as his spearhead. They were armoured all over but without a shield, which most Hellenistic horsemen had started using over the third century. Again, their strength is unknown, but what is certain is that they must have been picked up by Antiochus III in the east as they are not heard of in the army before. Whatever the exact composition of this force, it was successful in routing the Ptolemaic wing opposite. Certainly, here Zeno’s account as filtered through Polybius is difficult if, is as claimed, he says that they are firstly on level ground then charge downhill. What is clear, though, is that the heavy mailed fist on the right of the Seleucid line swung to hit. They drove off the horse opposite commanded by Ptolemy, son of Aeropus, but some of his men from the left side of the battle line did not flee but stayed and fought for their lives.

But here Polybius, in criticizing Zeno, does ask a question that is relevant to virtually all accounts of ancient warfare. It is never explained how the main phalanxes got at each other when in the initial layout there might be any number of other troops between them, elephants, light infantry or cavalry, unless, as was possible with Antiochus III and his staff, the phalangites were drilled to form lanes for them to exit down.

Already, after the bloody initial coming to blows of the sarissa-men, the Seleucid phalanx was being forced back by the more agile Aetolians. Whether these are the same Aetolians mentioned as making a good fight of it after Antiochus the younger had swept away the Ptolemaic left flank, is not clear, but whoever they were, presumably they were not phalangites but thureophoroi/ peltasts, so typical of Aetolian soldiery, who perhaps had attacked the Seleucid phalanx in the flank when they were engaged in the front by the Egyptian phalanx.

These men were sweating in their armour, unable to face about while controlling their long pikes and under fire from men with javelins, who might also come in sword-in-hand on their unshielded side. They were saved by a charge of elephants, which were deployed behind the Seleucid phalanx; `while the elephants received the retreating line’ and tore into the Aetolians.

Zeno is quizzed as to how this is possible, as he previously placed all the elephants at the front of the phalanx, and he is equally taxed on how they could have been effective because the two lines were mixed together, and the animals could not tell friend from foe. This second could be contended in any encounter including elephants, and indeed, not infrequently they did fatally fail to discriminate at all between the enemy and their own side. Any imaging of this fighting between the huge animals must include tens of light infantry from their escorts skirmishing in the dust around their feet that presumably generally precluded anything but the most rudimentary recognition of who was who. Hard tasking from a man who is far from completely inculpable in this kind of thing himself. He also questions how some Aetolian cavalry, presumably on the Lagid right, could be frightened by elephants, as he assumes these Aetolians must be in the centre. This is all tendentious stuff, as it is possible there was more than one group of elephants; a group held on the flank may have panicked the Aetolian horse.

This heaving mass of men and animals in the centre of the battle could not seem to achieve a decision. Many fell wounded or exhausted in the summer heat, but the phalanxes were presumably evenly matched in numbers and quality, because it needed something else to separate them. And it came from the younger Antiochus, who returned from pursuing the enemy left, which his armoured troopers had trounced so soundly. The hot taste of glory meant that they plunged ahead to cut the enemy down, but enough officers among them kept cool heads and were able to make the decisive impact. Sufficient of them drew rein to allow a sizable force to cohesively form behind the unprotected rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx.

There are two different versions of Scopas’ part in the attack, the first being: `when he saw the younger Antiochus returning from the pursuit and threatening the phalanx from the rear he despaired of victory and retreated.’ So when Antiochus the younger’s troopers crashed murderously into the back of the enemy line, the Aetolian was already looking to save his skin. Yet also, Zeno says: `the hottest part of the battle began, upon the phalanx being surrounded by the elephants and cavalry, and now Scopas was the last to leave the field.’ Whether he was the first or last to flee once the Lagid phalanx had both enemy cavalry and elephants trampling down their rear rank, the contest was over.

A different description of the encounter has been effectively argued that sees the combat developing as a fight of two halves, separated by the river. The benefit of this explanation is it does have a role for Antiochus’ eldest son, who is envisaged holding the left of the Seleucid line on a hill to the east of the river, and this also being the sector in which the Aetolians are seen off by the elephants. And it very satisfactorily clarifies how Scopas both leaves the field as soon as the enemy gets behind the main phalanx and also fights to the very end. In this account, he leaves the left section of his army, when it is clear they are not going to win, and goes over the right side to try and make a difference there, and when it goes against him on that side too, he battles to the end in an effort to extricate the remains of his army and get them on the road to Sidon. But this account still accepts that the key victory that overwhelmed the Ptolemaic phalanx occurred on the small plateau west of the river. While this thesis is perfectly arguable, it is based on assumptions that we do not feel confident to make, and we find errors of reporting and transcribing just as likely to be enlightening on the inconsistencies in the story of the affray. Either account would fit what little we know, and our thinking is based on the fact that it would be very unconventional for a battle in this era to be fought in two parts separated by a river. But, then again, anybody interested in the world of the Hellenes and their heirs knows unconventionality is far from being unheard of. And, if an argument of numbers is made, then accepting that the sides were considerably smaller, perhaps a half or two thirds those at Raphia, this would allow all the combat to take place in the northern area west of the river, on the plateau, which it could not have done if the manpower had really been equivalent to the fight in 217. Whatever the exact details, the outcome was clear. `Antiochus overcame Scopas, in a battle fought at the fountains of Jordan, and destroyed a great part of his army.’

While 10,000 got away and followed Scopas to find refuge in Sidon, Antiochus was not going to let the fruits of this victory slip away. He chased them down with all the energy at his command. And, after the siege-lines were drawn round Sidon, it soon became clear that there was no absolute steel in the defence, and although the government at Alexandria sent a force under four `famous’ generals to relieve them, the attempt failed, and Scopas and the remnants of the Panion army were left to work out their own fate. It took empty bellies inside of Sidon to ensure an outcome, but Scopas at least ensured he got back to Alexandria as part of the deal. It is probable that as the siege had moved to its conclusion his eyes had become more and more focused on what was happening back in Alexandria. He was not egregious, but certainly egotistical, and looked now to the priority of securing of his own power base there.

After this triumph, the Seleucid army now marched south, intent on making their presence permanent in this region that had changed hands so often in the past decades. Antiochus took the Batanaea region, Abila and Gadara, Greek cities east of Jordan, and then the Samarians and Jews submitted. He had to fight to take the citadel of Jerusalem from its Ptolemaic garrison, but the king was clearly pleased with the Jewish authorities for their cooperation and solicitude in looking after his men and elephants.

After this, it was onto the siege of Gaza, another of those epics of which we get only the faintest echo: `It seems to me both just and proper here to testify, as they merit, to the character of the people of Gaza.’ Polybius admired this people’s fidelity to the Egyptians who had ruled them for so long. Their overlord had been vanquished in battle, but they still defended their walls, despite there being no prospect of succour from Alexandria. It was a pattern; the Gazans had stood firm to the end against Alexander the Great 130 years before. But the latest besieger was irritated, not impressed, by their tenacity, and even knowing himself to be in a line with the Great Macedonian, did not mollify him, and Antiochus destroyed the place as soon as he took it.

Scopas still had some juice in the tank, as would be expected for a man with his extraordinary career. Back at Alexandria, despite disasters in the Golan Heights and at Sidon, he had loyal regiments at his back, which was what counted. He was still well connected in the military, certainly best of friends with the officer in charge of the elephant hunts that recruited for the royal herds, and he apparently had access to the royal money as well. All this in a few years overcame any loss of confidence due to Panion, and he made a bid for supreme power in about 196. But Aristomenes did not have a pedigree in Agathocles’ court for nothing. He was too sharp for the general, and had him arrested and tried in front of all the Greek diplomatic officials, including Aetolians, in the capital. Like Socrates, if lacking his cachet, he too was given a cup of poison to take him away from the troubles of a world in turmoil.

The Battle of Panion

The Battle of Fort Panion

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