Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part II

Antiochus III the Great was the Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire. He ruled over the region of Syria and large parts of the rest of western Asia towards the end of the 3rd century BC. Rising to the throne at the age of eighteen in 222 BC, his early campaigns against the Ptolemaic Kingdom were unsuccessful, but in the following years Antiochus gained several military victories and substantially expanded the empire’s territory.

Hermeias had also his own reasons for advocating a Ptolemaic war. If the king was preoccupied with an Egyptian war, Hermeias’ own position, at his side, would be safer. Molon had contacted Akhaios with a view to coordinating their rebellions, but Akhaios was busy, and at the same time was eventually thinking of seizing the kingship, not merely displacing Hermeias. He presumably assumed that Hermeias’ measures would be sufficient to defeat Molon, so Molon had no wider support, and Akhaios was busy. Both men had protested their loyalty to Antiochos, whose attack on Ptolemy, the traditional enemy of the Seleukid dynasty, might well puncture any personal ambitions they had.

The position at the end of 222, therefore, was that in Asia Minor Akhaios had been successful in driving Attalos back to Pergamon, but was still at war with him; in the east Molon was facing the threat of attack by the army commanded by Xenon and Theodotos; in Syria Hermeias was working to persuade Antiochos to attack Ptolemy. This last task was evidently a slow process, with Antiochos apparently reluctant to agree; eventually Hermeias produced a letter, which Polybios claims to have been a forgery, in which Ptolemy is depicted as urging Akhaios to claim the kingship, and promising to assist him with ships and cash.

There seems no reason to believe that this letter was really a forgery. The situation was such that it would be expected that Ptolemy would contact Akhaios – his father had contacted Hierax, and he himself was in contact with Attalos – and, in the interests of self-defence (for he must have been aware of the policy recommended by Hermeias, if not in detail, then from an appreciation of the general situation), that he would offer an alliance. Ptolemy III had already intervened in support of Attalos in his war with Antiochos Hierax, and had sent his younger son Magas to Asia Minor in command of a military force. The defeat of Attalos by Akhaios coincided more or less with the death of Ptolemy III, and the new Ptolemaic regime turned against Magas, who was soon recalled and killed. Since the main object of Ptolemaic policy in this area was to oppose the Seleukid power, it would be expected that the alliance with Attalos would be abandoned and replaced by one with Akhaios, particularly if he showed signs of being ambitious to attack Antiochos and Hermeias. Here the ‘forged’ letter could well be part of a Ptolemaic diplomatic campaign; there is no need to believe it was forged.

The argument at the Seleukid court was not much of a secret with so many men involved and the passions which were evident. It must have been all too clear that there was a threat of a Seleukid attack on Ptolemy’s territories. So, even if, as Polybios claimed, the letter was a forgery, it did reflect accurately the political situation. Polybios’ case is somewhat weakened by the same accusation made about letters Antiochos is said to have sent to officers serving under Molon, threatening them with punishment if they should persist in doing so. Again, this is just the sort of action which the situation would require, and Polybios’ claim that Molon forged them is probably nonsense. What this does do is imply that Polybios was using as his source an ‘official’ account of the events put out by Antiochos or his people after these crises had been overcome, and that therefore it is necessary to have a care in accepting his interpretation.

Hermeias’ argument in favour of an Egyptian war made progress in the aftermath of the production of the letter, which Antiochos clearly accepted as genuine. Preparations for war were set in train, even though this would mean that the Seleukid army would be fighting on three fronts at a time when the attack went in. Meanwhile the marriage negotiations had succeeded. The apparently decisive actions by Akhaios in Asia Minor and in confronting Molon had obviously persuaded Mithradates that all was well, and Diognetos had escorted Laodike to Syria. Bride and groom met at Seleukeia-Zeugma on the Euphrates, which suggests that she had travelled by land through Kappadokia – another kingdom with a Seleukid queen. The marriage took place at once, with the appropriate splendour, and no doubt much publicity. The bride was then taken to Antioch, again a publicity gesture. The message was that the king was married, had allies, and the kingdom was heading for dynastic safety.

It all began to go wrong soon after. The generals Xenon and Theodotos, starting from north Syria, will have taken at least a month to reach Babylonia, perhaps longer if they had a contingent of soldiers with them. Molon, having begun his rebellion well before that, had several months to prepare his response. He had the support of his brother Alexander and some of the local governors whom Polybios does not specify; he did not, it seems, have the support of the satraps of other nearby provinces, for the governors of Susiana and the Persian Gulf province came out publicly in support of the king later. But Molon had enough support among the officials and soldiers of Media to begin a march westwards, coming down through the Zagros Mountains by the Bisitun Pass, and so heading for the great cities of Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris and Babylon.

He encountered the Xenon-Theodotos army on emerging into Babylonia. The two generals had not been able to make any attempt to reach Media, either due to their late arrival, or because of a lack of military strength. They were shocked to find that Molon was in greater strength than they had expected, and they retreated into the cities. Molon based himself at or about Apollonia, which was evidently the first city he reached out of the pass, and planned to advance to attack Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, the place the Babylonians called ‘the royal city’. He found it impossible to cross the Tigris, however, because a local governor, Zeuxis, had collected all the boats. Molon made his winter quarters at Ktesiphon, just across the river from Seleukeia. The two royal commanders had thus failed in their primary mission, to suppress the rebellion, but at least had prevented Molon from advancing any further.

While this crisis in the East was developing, the king, persuaded by Hermeias, embarked on the invasion of Ptolemy IV’s kingdom. The region specifically in contention was the rest of Syria. The boundary of the two kingdoms lay along the Eleutheros River, south of Laodikeia and the island city of Arados (a Seleukid subject state). The valley of the river formed a major routeway, sometimes called the Homs gap, between the interior of Syria and the Mediterranean coast. The northern half was largely under the control of Arados, which also controlled a considerable length of the coast itself, north of the river’s mouth. Two major cities, Laodikeia on the coast (north of Arados’ territory) and Apameia close to the Orontes, had been developed by Seleukos I as his defensive fortresses, blocking any Ptolemaic invasion from the south along the coastal route or that along the plateau edge paralleling the Orontes Valley. In this the cities had been successful, for the only Ptolemaic invasion of the Seleukid part of Syria (in 246) had had to come by sea.

South of the Eleutheros Valley were the mountains of Lebanon, two major mountain ranges which divided the land into three north-south lowland areas. The coast, between the Lebanon range and the sea was studded with fortified cities from Orthosia and Tripolis to Tyre and Sidon, a situation which had foiled at least one earlier Seleukid invasion. Inland, between the Lebanon and Antilebanon ranges, was the valley of the Orontes River, called here the Bekaa Valley, a region which had been developing economically since the Ptolemaic conquest at the end of the wars of Alexander’s successors. East of the Antilebanon Mountains was the Syrian Desert, and along the foot of the mountains ran a desert route which was suitable for caravans of camels, but was not seen as a viable route for an army.

Antiochos’ forces thus had the choice of three invasion routes, the coast, the Bekaa, the desert. Inevitably he, or his generals, chose the Bekaa. The cities of the coast road were designed, at least in the minds of the Ptolemaic government, if not those of the inhabitants, to slow down or stop any invasion; the desert route was assumed to be too dry and difficult for an army. So the Bekaa was the obvious route for an invasion. Unfortunately the Ptolemaic generals had made the same calculations, and the Bekaa had been converted into a great cul-de-sac in which to trap an invader. Between the high mountain ranges the valley leads deceptively easily south. But there were few exits from the valley, and no easy ones. One pass lead over the Lebanon Mountains to the coast near Berytos (still the only reasonable route, taken by the modern road), and another exited southeast towards Damascus through the Barada River gorge; neither was easy and both were easily blocked.

The Ptolemaic defence relied on this geographical situation. Ignoring the pass towards the coast (for the coast road south was blocked by the cities to both north and south of Berytos) they had concentrated on preventing the invader from reaching the pass towards Damascus. At two neighbouring settlements, Gerrha and Brochoi, strong garrisons had been established, and at a narrow passage flanked by a lake and (presumably) the mountains, a palisade and ditch had been constructed to block the route. Behind this position the Ptolemaic army, commanded by Theodotos the Aitolian, stood on the defensive, preventing any further Seleukid advance. Polybios does not mention it, but it would be reasonable to suppose that the food supplies in the valley north of these fortifications had been collected and removed. At any rate Antiochos fairly quickly found himself in some difficulty.

The news of the check to the Xenon-Theodotos campaign in Babylonia had reached Syria while Antiochos was on campaign in the Bekaa. Hermeias, without much difficulty, persuaded him to send another commander, Xenoetas, to take over in Babylonia. It does not seem that Xenoetas was given any more troops, and so it is not surprising that he also eventually failed. Hermeias’ clinching argument for sending a general rather than that the king himself should go was that it was the task of a king to command over all, planning the strategy, and if it came to a fight, he should combat another king, but that rebels should be confronted by generals. One might suppose that Hermeias based his decision on rather more information than we have, and understood that Xenoetas was a more capable commander than those already defeated.

Xenoetas began with some sensible moves. He based himself at Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, facing Molon’s winter camp at Ktesiphon, and called up the forces commanded by the satraps of Susiana (Diogenes) and of the Persian Gulf satrapy (Pythiadas), and joined them with the forces in central Babylonia. He also was encouraged by the arrival of deserters from Molon’s army. This was something which Epigenes had predicted would happen, but he had pointed out that the desertion was likely to be much more vigorous if it was the king the deserters were joining. Xenoetas, however, had already developed an arrogance which had alienated some of his friends and colleagues; the appearance of deserters further increased his over-confidence. The deserters, of course, claimed that the whole of Molon’s army was ready to join the royal army if Xenoetas would only cross the river. (Polybios does not take the opportunity to claim that this was part of Molon’s misinformation, but it is quite possible.)

One or other of the rival armies would need to attack, which meant one of them crossing the river. Xenoetas made a plan. Feinting to make a crossing at one place (though since he made no real preparations, it was really feinting a feint; Molon ignored it), he got an advanced force across further away, and Molon’s counter-attack, using a cavalry force, collapsed in the mud and marshes and canals. (This makes it clear that it was in the spring, when the rains come.) Xenoetas brought across the rest of his forces and moved up to threaten Molon’s camp directly.

Molon withdrew, though in sufficient disorder to seem to be in flight, leaving the army’s baggage in his former camp. So far, therefore, Xenoetas had been successful, though Molon’s army, less the deserters, had not joined him en masse as he had expected. Instead the enemy troops had gone off with Molon, who stopped not far along his march and thought. It is possible that he had either spies near Xenoetas’ camp (possibly late arrivals or escapees) or a good idea of what would happen there. Xenoetas’ confidence was high, and at this point he made his mistakes. He brought his full force over the river from the city and now he gave his soldiers a speech claiming that Molon had fled and that tomorrow they would pursue the beaten enemy. But he did not send out scouts to locate the enemy precisely.

The soldiers, taking their cue from their commander, celebrated, and having the supplies collected for Molon’s forces to hand, proceeded to eat and drink and then fall into a drunken sleep. Molon returned, saw his enemy stupefied, and recaptured the camp. Many of Xenoetas’ soldiers died in their beds, others in trying to swim the river. Xenoetas, finally realizing his mistake, charged into the enemy and was killed.36 More constructively, other commanders escaped the slaughter to resume their official responsibilities.

Diogenes returned to Susiana and garrisoned the city of Susa and its acropolis. Molon immediately threatened Seleukeia; Diomedon, the city’s governor, withdrew with his forces; then, with Zeuxis, he pulled back to the north. (The whereabouts of Pythiadas is unknown; perhaps he had died in the battle at the camp.)

It is worth pointing out that this was the first violence in Molon’s rebellion. The army of Xenon and Theodotos Hemiolios had not stood to fight. Of course, violence was implicit in Molon’s actions, but he could claim to have been threatened in his satrapy by Xenon-Theodotos and that his advance into Babylonia was defensive. It would not be much of an argument, but his original quarrel was with Hermeias, and it might have been possible to settle the dispute by negotiation. Such an approach was never attempted, so far as we know. And now, with extensive casualties among the royal army, the position on both sides changed.

Molon pursued Diogenes, who reached Susa first. The city itself fell to Molon’s forces, but not the acropolis, where Diogenes held out. This was one of the treasure repositories of the Seleukid kingdom, which was probably why Molon went so far out of his way to attack it. Diogenes remained defiant, and Molon returned north to Seleukeia, then moved on further north, following Zeuxis and Diomedon, to seize the fortified town of Doura-Europos on the Euphrates and Doura on the Tigris as advanced defensive posts, or posts from which to advance further, whichever became needed.

This clearly took some time. The defeat of Xenon-Theodotos happened late in 222, for Molon soon after went into winter quarters. Xenoetas had travelled east in the winter and launched his attack in the spring, and Molon’s cavalry attack had blundered into the wet lands (‘pools and marshes’) which had been made wetter drenched by the spring rains. The actual fighting clearly took only a few days, but then Molon diverted to attack Susa. This is 400km from Seleukeia, a journey, even if he took only his cavalry, which would take at least three weeks – and then three weeks for the return journey. He spent some time seizing Susa and vainly attacking the acropolis. He returned north to Seleukeia and then went on to the two Douras, more marches of 400km. So, from the victory over Xenoetas to the occupation of Doura was at least ten weeks, and quite likely half as much again. If the battle took place in the spring, it was high summer before Molon’s army seized Doura-Europos and Doura.

So, whereas Molon had benefited in his first year from the slow response from Syria to his advance – due mainly to the distance that Xenoetas had to travel – he had now forfeited that advantage. The news of the defeat of Xenoetas will have reached Hermeias rapidly, quite possibly by a courier crossing by the desert route by way of Doura and Palmyra, and then Antiochos almost as quickly. And one further piece of news will have arrived: Molon had taken the royal title. Polybios does not mention this, but coins were produced at Seleukeia in his name as king. After winning battles, especially that against Xenoetas’ army, it is quite likely that the army had insisted he make himself king. It was a move which might well solidify his support in the forces, either by suggesting confidence in his powers or by implying that they were complicit, and therefore would be regarded as traitors by Antiochos. Thus Molon had been driven by his victory to that proclamation; it was now quite impossible for him to make any compromise, either with Hermeias or with Antiochos. (The absence of the mention of Molon’s kingship by Polybios is another sign that he was using a pro-Antiochos source, which would have, no doubt, consistently denigrated Molon’s claims.)

This was also the news which finally destroyed Hermeias’ argument. If Molon was now a king, he was clearly a suitable object for Antiochos to attack. He was also now a direct threat to Antiochos himself, and not just to Hermeias, and this was also a solution to the obvious necessity of marching the full royal force to deal with the rebel. It also rescued Antiochos from the lack of progress in the Bekaa Valley. He could now abandon the offensive there with a clear conscience, as there was a more urgent matter to be dealt with.

A royal council held at Apameia degenerated into a slanging match between Epigenes and Hermeias, the former recommending a rapid march to the east with the king in command. Hermeias, clearly feeling his political footing unstable, abused Epigenes, but the latter had the better of the argument so that Hermeias swung round to support him. This is presented by Polybios as deviousness and insecurity on Hermeias’ part, particularly in his decision to change his position and support Epigenes’ argument for rapid action. And yet this, as noted before, is just what the royal council was for: to discuss responses to crises. There is obviously scope for disagreement, and with the importance of the issue, no doubt the argument was heated. It is a later interpretation, reflected in Polybios’ account, which insists that Hermeias was entirely selfseeking and unpleasant.

By now, however, the army was disgruntled. It had not been paid, and, whatever arguments had been advanced for abandoning the offensive in Syria, the soldiers knew they had suffered a clear defeat. Confidence in the king was no doubt at a low ebb, and the news of disagreements in the council cannot have helped the soldiers’ morale. Now they were about to be ordered to march east for a new campaign, a march which would take perhaps two months. A mutiny developed, demanding their pay.

1 thought on “Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part II

  1. Pingback: Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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