Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part III

217 BC – During the Wars of the Diadochi at the Battle of Raphia, Ptolemy IV Philopator of Egypt with 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 73 war elephants fought the army of Antiochus III. The Antiochids suffered just under 10,000 foot dead, about 300 horse and 5 elephants; 4,000 men were taken prisoner. The Ptolemaic losses were 1,500 foot, 700 horse and 16 elephants. Most of the Antiochid elephants were taken by the Ptolemies.

The royal coffers were empty. The constant campaigning of the past three years (and earlier) had been expensive, and there will have been no revenues coming in from Asia Minor (for the last twenty years) or from the east (since Molon’s rebellion). Babylonia was the major cash cow of the treasury, and nothing will have come in from there for the past year, since Molon’s conquest, or even before, since money will have been needed to organize resistance. So when the mutiny at Apameia began, the king was trapped. Hermeias seized the opportunity this offered to regain his influence. He offered to meet the soldiers’ demands from his own resources. That he was so rich he could pay for an army of perhaps 25,000 men might, to the suspicious mind, suggest that one of the reasons the royal treasury was empty was that Hermeias had been looting it. Whatever suspicions the king might have had to be suppressed, and he accepted Hermeias’ offer. But Hermeias had his own price, which has that Epigenes should not be allowed to accompany the king on the eastern campaign. Reluctantly Antiochos agreed.

Then Hermeias is said to have developed a plot which saw that Epigenes was implicated in Molon’s intrigues. Another letter was found, from Molon to Epigenes, presumably soliciting his support. This is claimed by Polybios to be another of Hermeias’ forgeries. The letter is said to have been planted in Epigenes’ quarters by a suborned slave, then found by the commander of the citadel at Apameia. The king being off on campaign, Epigenes was forthwith executed for complicity in the rebellion. There are, yet again, no reasons necessarily to accept the accusation of forgery; the disputes between Epigenes and Hermeias were well known, and Molon would obviously take advantage of it, so a letter from him to Epigenes is fully to be expected. Epigenes should, of course, have reported the letter to the king, but then his access to him was through Hermeias.

It was another sign that Hermeias felt that his position was under threat that he increased the guard around the king, a quite reasonable precaution given the mutiny and the fact that the king was heading for a new war. No doubt Hermeias expelled any man he did not feel he could rely on. He also decided to accompany the king on the eastern expedition. Part of the army, a regiment or corps called the Kyrrhestai, continued their mutiny (the rest expressed gratitude to Hermeias, who evidently made sure his action had been well publicized). The Kyrrhestai were a group of soldiers who had presumably been recruited from the northern region around the city of Kyrrhos. They marched away, presumably going home, but were pursued, defeated, and suppressed by a loyal force commanded by generals, though the fighting lasted for most of the year.44 The king ignored this and marched east.

That march took a long time. He went by the northern route, that used a century before by Alexander, along the better-watered lands along the foot of the mountains. Antiochos halted at the Euphrates, presumably to gather and organize his forces. A winter camp was made at Antioch-in-Mygdonia, which is the old city of Nisibis (this is the present Nusaybin), where the army stayed for ‘forty days’ – a period of time effectively vague. The army moved on to the Tigris in the spring.

At some point Antiochos linked up with the force under Zeuxis. (Diomedon drops out of the account; perhaps he was in command of the forces on the Euphrates.) By approaching along the northern route Antiochos was avoiding the more difficult route along the Euphrates, and at the same time protecting the forces there. Molon had concentrated his forces at Babylon, the better to be able to strike in whatever direction the king approached, and he still had to be concerned about the undefeated Diogenes in Susa.

It is clear that Antiochos had learned a good deal about military campaigning. He was accompanied by Hermeias, who had some notion of military strategy, and it may have been by his advice that the northern route was chosen. But having collected Zeuxis and his forces the king had also gained access to independent advice. Zeuxis had been a middle-ranking officer before Molon’s invasion, and had emerged as a sensible commander under the pressure of events and as his superiors were killed or otherwise driven away. He had thus come to command all the remnant royal forces in northern Babylonia. The rest of the royal council had been intimidated into supporting whatever Hermeias was saying, but Zeuxis arrived free of that influence, though it is said that he knew of the fate of Epigenes, which means he knew of Hermeias’ part in contriving that fate.

The army moved on from Nisibis to a place called Libba. This is not located, though one modern historian puts it at about the site of the former Assyrian city of Assur, just north of the junction of the Tigris with the Little Zab River. Certainly Libba must have been somewhere in that area. A council was held to decide the next stage in the campaign. In the knowledge that Molon was in Babylon or nearby, Hermeias recommended a march along the west bank of the Tigris, no doubt with the aim of trapping the enemy army by getting between Seleukeia and Babylon. Zeuxis, however, who clearly knew more about the local geography than anyone else present, recommended marching along the east bank of the Tigris. He pointed out that the west bank was less well supplied with provisions, and that the army would eventually reach the Royal Canal, which it would be unable to cross. The Royal Canal connected the Euphrates and the Tigris, reaching the latter at Seleukeia; Molon would thus be able to use it for protection on his north. This must have reminded Antiochos of the cul-de-sac he had marched into in the Bekaa Valley. The east bank, however, had ample provisions and Antiochos would have the Tigris as a flank protection. By moving swiftly the enemy army could be trapped inside Babylonia and would be unable to reach Media. It was clearly desirable to finish him off without having to conduct a campaign in Media. The key was the Diyala Valley, in which Apollonia was – this was the place Molon had used as his base after his irruption from the mountains.

The two armies had about the same distance to march to reach Apollonia, but Antiochos’ set off first. It would take a few days for the news of Antiochos’ direction of march to reach Babylon – the straight line distance from Libba to Babylon is about 250km – so he had that much start. Molon immediately understood the threat and marched off at once to try to reach Apollonia first. He failed, in part because he had first to construct a bridge over the Tigris to get his army across. The two armies camped about 7.5km apart. Molon appreciated his problem, which was that his army was now less reliable than ever, and that he was outnumbered. He tried to organize a night attack, usually guaranteed to cause panic in the victim, but during the march he found that a ten-man unit had deserted and he had to assume that Antiochos now knew of his intention; he returned to his camp, causing a brief panic at the unexpectedness of his arrival.

So it came down to a battle. Antiochos must have hoped to avoid one – the enemy was his own troops, after all, and casualties amongst his forces had not been light in the last years – but Molon had no choice now. The battlefield appears to have been in a wideish pass where the Diyala cut through the Jebel Hamrin. The terrain did not favour the usual phalanx attack, being uneven. So both commanders put the phalanx in the centre, on the least unfavourable ground, with cavalry on each flank. But Antiochos took out a force of infantry and cavalry for a reserve, in two sections. The disposition of the armies was thus traditional, but Molon had concentrated much of his cavalry on his left wing, where they faced Antiochos himself. The two cavalry wings were to be the active elements, and Molon and his brother Neolaos commanded right and left wings respectively; Antiochos took command of his right (facing Neolaos) and the royal left was under the joint command of Hermeias and Zeuxis (an interesting combination). We are not told who commanded the phalanx forces, probably because once launched they were uncontrollable, and in this case were scarcely involved.

Polybios’ account of the battle suffers from his use of a source which favoured Antiochos over Hermeias and Molon probably produced by Antiochos’ propaganda department a short time later. He attributed the victory to the king’s presence, which induced Neolaos’ forces to surrender as soon as the fight began. It has been pointed out, however, that Neolaos’ force was largely composed of Median horsemen, who were much less automatically loyal to the dynasty than the Macedonians of the phalanx. This does not preclude their surrendering, of course, particularly since the officers were probably Greeks and Macedonians, and so susceptible, but it leaves the Polybian explanation less compelling, particularly as it had been evoked all too often in the previous pages. It has therefore been suggested that the reserve was used as a surprise flanking manoeuvre, and this may be so, despite there being no evidence for it. Whatever the reason, Neolaos’ wing surrendered.

The wing under Molon himself did well, but having lost a large part of his army, Molon himself was defeated. The phalanx could now be taken in flank, and this always induced a rapid surrender. Molon committed suicide, and his forces either fled or surrendered. It seems that casualties were relatively few, at least among the ordinary soldiers and junior officers. The high command, however, knew that the king would take his revenge, and ‘all who had taken part in the plot’ fled and killed themselves. Polybios is vague on numbers and details, but illustrates the matter by describing the end of Molon’s family: Neolaos killed his mother, his own family, Molon’s family, persuaded Alexander to commit suicide, and then did so himself.

This was sufficient for the king’s purposes. He displayed Molon’s body in the pass leading to Media as a clear warning, and as a message to all concerned that the rebellion was over. Then, having complained about their conduct, he accepted the surrendered troops back into his service.

Antiochos is credited with the victory by Polybios, but to go from incompetence and bad planning to a clear strategy and victory in a few months suggests that others were involved. The account of the decisive royal council before the advance on Apollonia alternatively suggests that the king had few clear ideas of his own, if the advance was really a matter of choosing between the plans of Hermeias and Zeuxis. Yet this is exactly what a council is for, and that he chose the better of the options placed before him (and the more adventurous) implies a modicum of sense in the king. In the actual execution it would seem he had the services of competent officers, for his staff work – the march, supplies, the disposition of the forces, perhaps the use of the reserve – all suggest professional expertise. In Hellenistic warfare it was the advance preparations, and such simple notions as using a reserve unexpectedly, which produced victory; once battle was joined the commanders usually had little influence over events other than to unleash the reserve at the right moment; indeed they usually fought in person, which would surely prevent any carefully thought-out decisions in the heat of the action.

Nevertheless the king would necessarily receive the credit – he was, after all, in overall command – and this would obviously enhance his personal authority in the council, and among the soldiers, and build his own confidence. Hermeias was nevertheless still a potent force. The balance of internal power was shown in the aftermath. The surrendered army was given new officers and sent back to their Median home. The victorious army had to go home the opposite way, and some were presumably sent off almost at once. The governing group went to Seleukeia from where new arrangements for provincial affairs were made.

The city had played an equivocal role in the rebellion. Having first been held by Diomedon after Xenoetas’ defeat, it then apparently tamely surrendered to Molon, though to be sure this was after Diomedon and Zeuxis had withdrawn with their forces. It was well fortified and had a large population, and was on the west bank of the Tigris, so it could have been defended for some time. Zeuxis had originally prevented Molon crossing the river by seizing all the boats in the vicinity, but this was probably not possible this time, for they had been used to transfer Xenoetas’ army across the river and were no doubt now scattered along both banks. Molon would therefore need to besiege the city, but this did not happen; evidently it surrendered at Molon’s arrival.

Hermeias set about ordering punishments. Those who arranged the surrender were the city magistrates, who had the old Macedonian name of the Adeiganes. He exiled them, and others who had supported them were punished ‘by mutilation, the sword, or the rack’, as Polybios graphically puts it. The distinction between the responsible magistrates and others implies that the Adeiganes had only surrendered as a result of pressure from the citizenry, and that the city greeted Molon in a divided and no doubt fearful state. Hermeias also imposed a fine of 1,000 talents on the city collectively.

The king allowed this to go on for a time, then intervened, reducing the fine to 150 talents (harsh enough in all conscience). The punishments had created even more fear and disturbance, and it was apparently this which persuaded the king to call a halt. It is noticeable that he did not rescind the other punishments – Polybios’ pro-Antiochos source would undoubtedly have pointed this out had it occurred. He depicts the matter as a dispute between Antiochos and Hermeias, and so it may have been, but only in retrospect. Hermeias’ policy largely prevailed, and it was only when it became obvious that harshness was causing even more trouble that the policy was relaxed. Without that interpretation one might see the affair as evidence of a double-act operation of good-cop-bad-cop, the king’s forgiveness being a political ploy, possibly pre-arranged with Hermeias, to bring the city back to loyalty. It is evident that Hermeias was still able to make policy on his own.

The governors of the region all needed to be replaced. Molon’s position in Media went to Diogenes, the loyal defender of the Susa acropolis, whose decision to return there after the defeat of Xenoetas was important in distracting Molon for a decisive couple of months; his post was now filled by Apollodoros, otherwise unknown, presumably one of the officers and royal philoi who had proved himself in the past year as both loyal and competent. The Persian Gulf province, formerly governed by the now disappeared Pythiadas, went to Tychon, another man who had presumably proved to be both loyal and able during the campaign.

In Iran there were other problems. The southern regions of Elymais and Persis were semi-autonomous, but were far too distant for the king to deal with when he was in Seleukeia, and meanwhile affairs in the west were demanding his attention. In northern Iran, however, was another sub-kingdom, Media Atropatene, whose King Artabarzanes had evidently supported Molon in his rebellion. He may, in fact, have had no real choice in the matter, but the situation was uncertain enough to require royal attention. Artabarzanes was also the nearest of these sub-kings to Seleukeia and to reduce him to subservience would have a useful wider effect on the other sub-kingdoms. He was regarded as the ‘most important and vigorous’ of the sub-kings, according to Polybios; his support of Molon now that Molon had gone, may have translated into full independence. Also Hermeias opposed the idea of the royal expedition in Iran, which was an inducement for Antiochos to undertake it.

Two items of news received from the west illustrate the instability of these court politics. Queen Laodike gave birth to a son – Antiochos had evidently done his dynastic duty with despatch – which would be a cause for celebration. To Hermeias it was another opportunity. He changed to supporting the king’s campaign into Media, in the knowledge that it was quite possible that the king would not survive it, and that then he would have the opportunity for a lengthy regency for the infant. Once again the interpretation of Hermeias’ actions is put in the worst possible light. As a senior royal adviser coping with the aftermath of Molon’s rebellion it must have been obvious to Hermeias that the expedition against Artarbazanes was a sensible idea. It is quite possible he did anticipate, even hope for, the king’s death, and it would be remiss of him not to take the possibility into account; it is even possible that he attempted to secure the king’s death, but this looks like an interpolation by later pro-Antiochos propagandists, for nothing actually happened.

Antiochos took a force into Media and successfully intimidated Artabazanes into surrender. While on this campaign the second piece of news from the west arrived, that Akhaios in Asia Minor had declared himself king. Polybios links this with Antiochos’ expedition and the possibility of his death on campaign. This conjunction and interpretation might be thought to imply that Hermeias was involved somehow in Akhaios’ usurpation, but Hermeias was out for his own hand, and having Akhaios as king would hardly be in his interest; we may assume that Akhaios thought the moment right for his declaration – he may possibly have heard a rumour that Antiochos had been killed on campaign. He was, in fact, now as much of a threat to Hermeias as to Antiochos.

This was an even more urgent matter for the king than to view his own new son. It was to be expected that Akhaios would attempt to secure control of north Syria as soon as possible. He might thus be able to seize control of the new prince, who, if Antiochos died in his adventure, he could become regent for, or kill. Or he could take up with the Kyrrhestai, still holding out in their mutiny; even if Antiochos survived his adventure in Iran, Akhaios in control of Asia Minor and Syria (and possibly allied with Ptolemy) would be in a powerful position to defeat a royal counter-attack, and Antiochos in such a case will have had to rely to a degree on the Median army he had just defeated.

Yet another piece of news had its effect on all involved. The death of Ptolemy III had produced a nasty crisis in the court in Alexandria. The first minister, Sosibios, had evidently felt under threat, and had reacted with a series of murders – any of the new king’s relatives he could reach, including at least two of his brothers and his mother. In this he was acting very much with the king’s agreement. Clearly this was destabilizing far beyond the confines of the court, and Antiochos may already have become aware that the governor of Koile Syria, Theodotos the Aitolian, who had defeated his attack in the Bekaa Valley, was now disaffected and fearful for his own safety. There was thus much to bring Antiochos back to Syria, but first he had to solve his own court problem and get free of Hermeias.

Hermeias’ reputation has suffered severely from his treatment in Polybios’ narrative – the only source available. There is enough information in it, however, to provide an alternative story. For one thing he was clearly an able man. A foreigner, perhaps not even a Greek, he had secured his high position by his own ability, for he can have had no source of influence in the Seleukid kingdom. His advice may not always have been followed, but it had always been in the interest of the king, even if it also was to his own benefit. His mistake was no doubt arrogance, to be expected in a man in his position, and he clearly used violence, both overt and covert, to stay in power. But his main error was to stay on too long. There was no tradition of graceful retirement in the ancient world, though it would have been best, both for Hermeias and for the king, had he invented such a manoeuvre. But once in power he had no choice but to stay there, and having surrounded the king with guards, both men were stuck in their positions, the one unable to let go, the other unable to get free except by violence.

The story of the elimination of Hermeias has some curious aspects, one of which is that it is unclear just what happened despite the apparent detail of Polybios’ account. Polybios places it after the submission of Artabarzanes, but apparently before the news of the rebellion of Akhaios arrived; nor is it clear where it took place, though the implication is that it took place in Media, and soon after the expedition into Atropatene ended. But the story is almost free of connections with other events, as though Polybios was consulting a version which was essentially free-standing.

The account Polybios presents is that Antiochos, already uneasy about Hermeias’ power and intentions, was contacted by his doctor, Apollophanes, who expressed his own fears for the king’s safety (and incidentally his own). Given that Hermeias’ conduct for the past year and more had been overbearing and even threatening, one would have thought that such an exchange of views was coming rather late in the day. The involvement of Apollophanes may well be emphasized (or invented) in order to deflect criticism from the king, for it is the doctor who is described as organizing the plot which removed the minister, with Antiochos given a purely passive role. In fact, these roles might well be reversed to provide an even better narrative. A pretence at illness allowed the king to be isolated from the guards who surrounded him – guards who were primarily loyal to Hermeias – and for contacts to be made with those whom Antiochos trusted. Hermeias was then summoned to a meeting at an unusually early hour, unaccompanied by his own people; he was stabbed to death by Antiochos’ conspirators.

The plot, once the king had achieved his pseudo-medical isolation, did not need the doctor, and he fades away from the story. In fact it is clear that the king was the prime mover in the whole sequence. In the actual assassination he is said to have gone aside, leaving his followers to commit the murder, a transparent device of the storyteller to transfer the guilt away from the king, and one which, after all the plotting and secrecy, is wholly unbelievable; if Antiochos was so keen to eliminate Hermeias that he contrived, or even organized, the plot, he would surely be present to see that it was carried out.

The deed is said to have met with widespread approval, and the king on his way back to Syria was greeted approvingly, which may have owed more to his defeat of Molon and the relief felt at the end of the war than any knowledge people had of the death of Hermeias. One wonders also if the apparent approval masked a certain fear; a king who could kill his own senior adviser in a secret plot may well inspire widespread fear. (It is also possible, of course, that the approval was invented by the author of Polybios’ source.) In Apameia it is said that Hermeias’ wife was killed by stoning by the women of the city, and that his sons similarly by the children. One can believe that the family was murdered, for this was the standard practice to prevent a vendetta arising, but the allocation of the task to women and children leaves a very bad taste.

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

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

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