Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes in his later years
If you plan to murder, rape, and pillage on a large scale, you must make sure you have a balanced budget. Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes did not. It presented a serious problem, since the king was about to tackle Judah Maccabee. He was tired of the incompetence of his generals, who could not squash this gnat, this Jewish guerilla and his band of scruffy men, so he decided to engage the enemy himself. I will not weary you (yet) with all the battles Judah and his brothers already won, but I assure you that the number of soldiers he managed to destroy was inconceivable. Antiochus could not understand how it happened, partly because he was away, engaged in other battles when these events took place, and partly because he did not understand the nature of the Hasmonean revolt at all.
The Hasmoneans were religious fanatics. Their entire identity was wrapped up in their God and their Temple, and without this connection they did not fully exist. When Judas went into battle, for example, he would start it by creating brilliant strategy, but he would continue by going berserk, literally, on the battlefield. He, and many of his followers who felt exactly as he did, experienced a kind of pure fury that multiplied their strength. A single Jewish soldier could whirl around, cutting down many of the enemy who surrounded him. They were unstoppable on the battlefield. Judah of course understood and relied on this psychological phenomenon, so much so that he instructed his soldiers to “despise” the large numbers of the enemy and trust in the Jews’ inevitable victory under any circumstances.
Antiochus’ father understood this religious fury and knew that as long as he allowed these strange people to adhere to their strict religion, they would not object to deal with him when it came to the mundane matters of taxes, military draft, etc. The strategy worked very well for both sides. Antiochus did not understand it. He was a sophisticated Greek-Syrian, and had very little interest in religion. When he wanted to put Zeus’ sculpture in the Temple in Jerusalem, it did not really occur to him that it could cause all that trouble. After all, if any king would have asked Antiochus for permission to put his deity in the Syrian temples, Antiochus would not care at all. And this blindness to the Judean culture cost him a great deal, considering that he only wanted to do it so that he could prove to the Romans that his kingdom was united…
So Josephus tells us that Antiochus made preparations to invade Judea in the beginning of spring. “But when he distributed the soldiers’ pay, he saw that his treasures were failing and that there was a lack of money – for not all the tribute had been paid because of the uprisings among the subject nations, and also, being munificent and liberal with gifts, he had not limited himself to his actual resources – and so he decided first to go to Persia and collect the tribute of this country.” Josephus puts it mildly. Antiochus’ extravagance was known everywhere at the time… and aside from the regular soldiers, one must remember that Antiochus paid a fortune to mercenaries, and that feeding and caring for his war elephants was not a cheap enterprise. And then no one is mentioning the ladies he probably liked to reward for their great charm, and jewelry can be very expensive.
He left the country under the charge of a man he trusted, called Lysias. The instructions were clear – Lysias was responsible for everything, from protecting Antiochus’ young child, to looking after some of the troops he left behind, taking care of all the elephants and governing the country. But most important, he had to fight Judah Maccabee. He told Lysias that “when he had subdued Judea and reduced its inhabitants to slavery, to make the end of Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish Race.” And with these words, which had been said before and would be said again during the unhappy history of the Jews, he left on his way to Persia.
Lysias got busy engaging generals to fight Judah, and more battles of great valor were occurring, but I will return to the battles and to Judah’s victories in another segment. What happened next with Antiochus is what I would like to continue with.
As he was marching to Persia, Antiochus heard about a city by the name of Elymais, where a temple of the goddess Artemis was said to contain an immense treasure, supposedly left there by Alexander the Great. Artemis was a goddess worshipped by Antiochus and his people, but that did not stop him from wishing to destroy her temple. Money was needed quickly and as we noted before, Antiochus was a sophisticated and secular man. So he attacked Elymais – and failed miserably. The city was well equipped to resist his siege, and in the process most of Antiochus’ army was either killed or dispersed. And just as he was whipped with this failure, a group of fugitives came from Judea to tell him that Judah was utterly victorious in all the battles with Antiochus’ generals. The horror of this double defeat finished the king. In the most modern description, Josephus says: “And so, with the anxiety over these events added to his former anxiety, he was overwhelmed, and in his despondency fell ill; and as his illness lingered on, and his sufferings increased, he perceived that he was about to die.” He appointed a regent, a man named Philip, since his son was still a boy, entrusted him with his son’s education, and died.
Back home, Lysias told the people of their king’s death, appointed the young boy as king, and renamed him Antiochus Eupator. And this was the end of one of the most celebrated villains in Jewish history – who probably was simply an extravagant fool and did not understand the nature of his subjects or his enemies.