Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.28

Peter Franz Mittag, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie. Klio: Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte. Beihefte, neue Folge Band 11.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 429.  ISBN 3-05-004205-2.  €69.80.  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (
Word count: 2339 words

The reign of Antiochos IV Epiphanes, the eighth king of the Seleukid Empire (ruled 175-164 BCE), has always attracted a lot of scholarly attention -- more attention even than the better attested reigns of his more illustrious forebears Seleukos Nikator and Antiochos the Great. The modern fascination stems from his role as archetypal wicked despot in Maccabees, Polybios' portrayal of Antiochos Epiphanes as a classic "mad king", and his guest appearance as an obscene eschatological thing in Daniel 7. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars have endeavored to understand the reportedly irrational behavior of mad, bad Epiphanes by trying to find sound political designs beyond the partisan and hostile reports in Polybios and Maccabees respectively. And so the image arose of Antiochos the reformer, who tried his best to re-consolidate his crumbling empire in the shadow of Rome, but failed to carry out his plans because of his untimely death through illness in 164 in Elam.1 The most authoritative general study is Otto Morkholm's Antiochus IV of Syria (Copenhagen 1966), a balanced re-evaluation of the reign using numismatic evidence as an important additional source of information. However, the more rational Antiochos' overall policy appeared, the more enigmatic specific controversial actions of his became. Notably the meaning of the persecutions in Judea in 167 continues to be disputed with no end of the debate yet in sight.

Peter Franz Mittag's meticulously researched Antiochos IV Epiphanes: Eine politische Biographie is the most extensive study of Antiochos' reign to date. The book is a reworked version of Mittag's "Habilitationsschrift" from 2004. He aims to reconstruct Epiphanes' policy in its historical context. Special attention is paid to economic and fiscal aspects of the reign, based on detailed studies of imperial and local coinage. With its more than 300 pages of careful scholarship, packed with footnotes and detailed discussions, Mittag's study does not make Morkholm's shorter (and English) general biography obsolete, especially not for students. But it does provide a solid, up-to-date starting point for anyone wishing to study aspects of the life and times of Antiochos Epiphanes in depth.

A new biography of Antiochos Epiphanes is a welcome addition to the growing number of recent publications about the Middle East in the Hellenistic Age -- not only because of the availability of new evidence, but also because our views of the Seleukid Empire have changed drastically since Morkholm's days. As we now know that Seleukid decline, and the foundation of irrevocable Roman hegemony in the Levant, should better be dated after Antiochos Epiphanes' reign, the impact of Rome on Antiochos' actions can be reconsidered. Furthermore, the "eastern" side of the empire, although it has always fascinated historians, has been thoroughly studied only since the 1980s: today, no one speaks of "Antiochus IV of Syria" anymore. Indeed, the eastern aspects of this successor state of the Achaemenid Empire have been illuminated so carefully in the past decades, that the main challenge for the future may be to elucidate the significance of the Seleukid Empire's Greco-Macedonian character in its heterogeneous oriental context.

But although referring to most of the relevant recent literature (with a pronounced emphasis on German scholarship), Mittag does not explicitly address the question how Greek or "eastern" Antiochos' empire was. He neither joins in with the current "new approach" which views the Seleukid Empire as essentially an oriental empire, as expressed e.g. in From Samarkhand to Sardis by Kuhrt and Sherwin-White (London 1992), nor tries to take the discussion beyond this view. This is not the book's aim.

Antiochos IV. Epiphanes: Eine politische Biographie is divided into fifteen chapters. After the Introduction, in which Mittag positions his study vis-à-vis earlier scholarship, the available sources are briefly considered in Chapter 2 (but there is more precise source criticism throughout the book). Chapter 3 deals with the political situation in the Seleukid Empire before Antiochos' accession and the little we know about the protagonist's early life: the uncertain date of his birth (between 218 and 200), his life in Rome as a hostage (189-178), and his return, via Greece, to the Middle East, where in accordance to custom he married the widow of his murdered brother Seleukos IV Philopator in October 175, and assumed the regency for his brother' infant successor, Antiochos the Child. What I found particularly fascinating here is the cautious argument that Antiochos Epiphanes may originally have been named "Mithridates" (or rather: "Mithradates"), taking the throne name "Antiochos" at his accession.2 Chapter 4 gives an overview of the state of the empire that Antiochos inherited when succeeded to the throne ("Rahmenbedingungen"), considering the kingdom's geography, administration, fiscal policy, and court. The description of the core regions directly administered by Seleukid officials or dependent dynasts -- roughly the Fertile Crescent, the urbanized parts of the land mass between the Zagros Mountains and the Mediterranean -- is an informed one. I was not convinced, however, by the image of the empire as a national state avant la lettre within well-defined "defensible borders" (pp. 56-7). It is difficult to see how Antiochos could have given up claims to the more western and eastern parts of his forebears' realm, and abolished the expansionist ideology characteristic of his dynasty, indeed of any imperial state. Antiochos' campaigns in Egypt and his planned anabasis through the Upper Satrapies, as well as his diplomacy and benefactions in Asia Minor and Greece, suggest that he was no less an imperialist as his father Antiochos the Great had been. Admittedly, Mittag does have a keen eye for the more eastern parts of the Seleukid state system, including in his outline of the empire brief sketches of the situation in Fars, Karmania, Media, and Hyrkania.

From here on, the book deals with the history of Antiochos' reign in chronological order. The king's history is divided into a period of stabilization (175-170 BCE; chapters 5-6), the Sixth Syrian War against the Ptolemies and its aftermath (170-168 BCE, chapters 7-10), and the last years of Antiochos' reign, when he prepared and began a campaign in the east (168-164 BCE, chapters 11-14).

Chapters 5 ("Stabilisierung der Herrschaft: 175-ca. 172 v.Chr.") and 6 ("Die Jahre 173/2-170 v.Chr.: Herrschaftsstabilisierende Reisen und Mord im Königshaus") describe Antiochos' efforts to become, and remain, king in stead of his nephew, Antiochos the Child, who was assassinated in the summer of 170 (Antiochos executed his favorite Andronikos for this murder). There are detailed discussions of the king's diplomatic activities, his euergesia in western Asia Minor and mainland Greece, his reforms of the imperial monetary system and building activities (Antiochos favored in particular Antioch on the Orontes).3 Much attention is paid to Antiochos' propaganda and royal cult. The standard use, after 173/2 BCE, on coins of the epitheton "(Theos) Epiphanes" -- on tetradrachms and drachms often combined with astral emblems,4 on bronze coinage with a radiant diadem -- according to Mittag was taken over from the Ptolemies and should be understood in the context of the imminent Sixth Syrian War. With regard to the old question, going back to an hypothesis of Edwyn Bevan,5 whether Antiochos identified or associated himself with Zeus, or used the cult of Zeus Olympios as a means to create unity in the empire through a centralized religion, as Rostovtzeff claimed,6 Mittag argues that there is not even evidence that Antiochos favored the cult of Zeus in particular.

The following chapters are concerned with the years of Antiochos' war against Egypt (the Sixth Syrian War, 170-168 BCE; chapters 7-10). The first campaign in 169 was an almost complete victory, with the conquest of Pelousion, Memphis and even Thebes, as well as Cyprus; only Alexandria was not taken. The success was celebrated by issuing of victory coins, and legitimized a strengthening of royal control of local sanctuaries (attested particularly for Jerusalem and Babylon). The second campaign in 168, however, ended inconclusively with the so-called Day of Eleusis, when during Antiochos' siege of Alexandria the Roman envoy Popilius Laenas handed over a senatorial decree demanding the immediate withdrawal of Seleukid forces from Ptolemaic territory, with which demand Antiochos complied. The explanation of the "humiliation" at Eleusis remains troublesome and Mittag devotes an entire chapter to this problem. Although "Eleusis" counts as a landmark event in the history of Roman expansion, historians no longer accept that already in 169 Rome exercised so much influence in the East that a mere order of the senate sufficed to sent the Great King of Asia running. Mittag explains Antiochos' reaction by postulating that the king did not aim at annexing Egypt from the beginning, let alone wish to destroy the Ptolemaic basileia altogether: he merely aimed at securing his back so that he could safely begin a campaign of re-conquest in the Upper Satrapies. This objective, then, was achieved: since the Romans apparently wished to maintain the status quo, and the Seleukids and Ptolemies were equally amici of Rome, Antiochos could expect Rome to likewise thwart any Ptolemaic attempt at recapturing Koile Syria and Phoenicia.7 The enormous war booty taken from Egypt and Cyprus, as well as the glory of victory, compensated for the loss of prestige suffered at Eleusis. Moreover, Mittag argues, Antiochos' mild-mannered submission to Roman demands at Eleusis made it possible for him to continue disregarding the military terms of the Treaty of Apameia, maintaining a Mediterranean war fleet, war elephants, and troops from Asia Minor (p. 224). As regards another controversy -- the question whether or not Antiochos was crowned pharaoh in Memphis -- Mittag concludes (rightly, I think) that this was "very likely" (p. 173), and that the event perhaps took place during the first campaign, when Seleukid troops had advanced as far as Thebes.

The lengthy Chapter 11, "Der Konflikt in Judaia", is devoted to the Makkabean Revolt in Judea. With its detailed and up-to-date discussion of questions and controversies, this chapter is required preliminary reading for any study of the Revolt. There are, however, no new insights here, and Mittag remains rather undecided as regards the background of Antiochos' so-called religious policy in Judea and the causes of the revolt.

The book ends with Antiochos' plans to re-impose Seleukid authority in the east: the demonstration of Seleukid military power and territorial claims in the procession at the festival at Daphne in 166 BCE (Chapter 12), the renewed subjugation of Armenia in 165 and the king's activities in the Persian Gulf, Elam and Persis (Chapter 13), and his death and succession (Chapter 14). Mittag doubts whether Antiochos really was planning a war against the Parthians, for lack of evidence: the king died unexpectedly and the location of his death is disputed. The problematic accusation that Antiochos "plundered" a temple in his own province of Elam (as he was also accused of having done in Hierapolis in Syria and Jerusalem) receives a somewhat more determined answer: apart from this being a mere "tyrant topos" (p. 149) this may be understood from the king's point of view as a requisition of overdue tribute-payment.

The concluding chapter (15: "Gesamtbewertung") affirms the by now prevalent notion that Antiochos IV Epiphanes "in general acted shrewdly and in accordance with circumstances [and that] emotions, let alone insanity, cannot be discerned in his actions" (p. 335). It emphasizes further the diplomatic skills of the king, who managed to maintain friendly relations with Rome throughout his reign and thereby obtained a free hand in dealing with the internal affairs of the empire.

This meticulously researched, detailed discussion is an invaluable addition to our knowledge of the enigmatic Antiochos IV Theos Epiphanes, the "Savior of Asia".8 There are, however, two critical comments I would like to make about, not the details, but the overall approach of the subject.

First, there is the absence of a clear-cut comprehension of the character of the Seleukid state system. Particularly the chapter on the Makkabean Revolt suffers from lack of definition of what an empire is, how it works and what it wants. As I already noted, the author seems to perceive the empire of Antiochos as a kind of national state, assuming complete, direct power on the part of the imperial ruler vis-à-vis the members of his court, aristocracies and civic elites.9 The constant insistence on Antiochos' sanity, rationality even, results in an image of the king as being always in control of everything and everyone, except when challenged by outright rebellion. It would have been interesting to have learned more about the ways in which Antiochos actually endeavored to attach local and regional elites to his person, how he attained (or failed to attain) control of the social composition of his court, how the army was recruited and resources collected, and what compromises were made behind the smoke screen of absolutist propaganda -- in short, how Antiochos, both practically and ideologically, held together the heterogeneous variety of polities (provinces, vassal states, rural aristocracies, tribes, autonomous cities, temples) and peoples gathered under the conceptual umbrella of Seleukid suzerainty.

A second, related, point is the fact that Mittag has a somewhat modernist view of ancient politics, always presenting Antiochos' decisions as being primarily motivated by sensible raison d'état. There is but little room for what the author perhaps regards as irrational or intangible factors: royal ideology, family honor, personal prestige, warrior ethos, philia, the gift exchange complex, conspicuous consumption, religion, tradition, culture. But ideology in honor-based societies is never intangible: it produces real obligations governing the public behavior of kings at least as much as rational political considerations. For instance, Antiochos' aims in the war against the Ptolemies are considered only in the light of a strictly rational "Realpolitik" -- not in the light of the age-old enmity between the two royal houses or the king's charisma as a victorious warrior.10 This is not to say that Mittag's conclusions are wrong, but the image of Antiochos Epiphanes might have become more complete if such cultural aspects, as well as the Seleukid Empire's cultural heterogeneity, had been taken into consideration as well. If the past is a different country, then the Ancient Near East in all probability is no exception to the rule.


1.   F. Hoffmann, Antiochos Epiphanes, König von Syrien (Leipzig 1873), was the first to present a more positive image. F. Reuter, Beiträge zur Beurteilung des Königs Antiochos Epiphanes (Münster 1938), disregarding all "unreliable" (i.e., Jewish) sources, hypothesized that Antiochos wished to Romanize his Empire; P. van 't Hof, Bijdrage tot de kennis van Antiochus IV Epiphanes, koning van Syrië (Amsterdam 1955), too, supposed that Antiochos' admiration for Rome, the result of his father's defeat in the Roman-Seleukid War and the influence of his own ten-year stay as a hostage in Rome (but inspired by the example of Polybios), directed his actions. The claims made by Reuter and Van 't Hof grossly overstated Rome's power and influence in the east at that time. More recently, N. Sekunda, in Hellenistic Infantry Reform in the 160's BC (Lódz 2001), argued that Antiochos re-organized and re-equipped his army according to the Roman fashion. In my own dissertation, The Hellenistic Royal Court (Utrecht 2007), I have argued that Antiochos' propaganda, army reforms and foreign policy demonstrate defiance of Rome rather than admiration and submission, perhaps even revealing the ambition to make the empire ready for a renewed military confrontation with Rome after the reassertion of Seleukid authority in the eastern provinces. Another oft-heard interpretation of the objective of Antiochos' reforms, particularly in the context of the Makkabean Revolt, is the hypothesis that he tried to achieve unification through Hellenization and / or the introduction of a centralized imperial cult.
2.   A royal letter from Herakleia published in 1987 (SEG 37, 859) lists three sons of Antiochos III: Antiochos (the co-regent who died in 193), Seleukos (IV; died 175) and Mithridates; Livy 33.19.9, too, mentions a Mithridates, together with yet another son, Ardys; if the identification of Antiochos Epiphanes with this "Mithridates" is correct, the interesting (but also unsurprising) point is of course the fact that Antiochos the Great gave Iranian names to his sons by his principal queen, Laodike, a princess of the Macedonian-Iranian vassal kingdom of Pontos. A point not made by Mittag which may strengthen his hypothesis, is the fact that in the Seleukid dynasty it was customary to name the first-born son after his paternal grandfather and the second after his father; according to custom, the third son -- and it is safe to assume that Antiochos IV was Antiochos III's third son by Laodike -- would then be given the name of his maternal grandfather, in the case of Antiochos IV: Mithradates II of Pontos.
3.   Or so it seems: for lack of evidence concerning, especially, Seleukeia on the Tigris, it is impossible to say whether Antiochos really singled out Syrian Antioch among the various capital cities of his realm.
4.   Earlier Seleukid stars or suns, similar in appearance to the so-called Star of Vergina, may be seen on shields depicted on the friezes of the Athena precinct in Pergamon, as these presumably represent armor taken by Attalos I from the infantry of Antiochos Hierax. Following R. Fleischer, Studien zur seleukidischen Kunst. Band I: Herrscherbildnisse (Mainz 1991) p. 46, Mittag states that the sun-like symbols on Antiochos' coins are stars, referring merely to the king's "divine nature" in a very general sense. But despite the detailed discussion, it remains unclear exactly why the "star" appearing on tetradrachms from Seleukeia in Pieria, Ake-Ptolemaïs, Susa and Antiocheia-Charax above the head of the king and sometimes on the reverse above the image of the sun-god Apollo, Antiochos' ancestor (pp. 130-1), cannot be the sun also, especially since Mittag claims that radiant crown and "star" carried the same connotation and therefore never appear together (p. 135-6)?
5.   E. Bevan, 'A note on Antiochus Epiphanes', JHS 20 (1900) 26-30.
6.   M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World. Volume II (Oxford 1941) 703-5.
7.   I found this explanation not entirely satisfactory. For Antiochos Epiphanes' father Antiochos the Great it had sufficed to occupy Gaza to forestall attacks by the Ptolemies in Koile Syria while he campaigned against them in Asia Minor; so Epiphanes could have been more than content with the occupation of Pelousion, having no reason to occupy Egypt, be crowned pharaoh, and lay siege to Alexandria to boot. Furthermore, Roman "friendship" was in practice a not very solid assurance, as Antiochos must have known from Rome's recent actions against Perseus of Macedon. Perhaps Antiochos was not yet ready for war with Rome, wishing to re-impose Seleukid authority in the Upper Satrapies before openly confronting the military might of the Romans, who had just triumphed in the Third Macedonian War.
8.   OGIS 253.
9.   Historians of early modern Europe no longer believe that the absolutism of, say, Louis XIV was really absolute in actual practice; see e.g. N. Henshall, The Myth of Absolutism. Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (London and New York 1992). Instead, it is now better understood how precarious and often ambivalent power relations at early modern courts were: cf. J. Duindam, Myths of Power. Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court (Amsterdam 1995), and id., Vienna and Versailles. The Courts of Europe's Dynastic Rivals (Cambridge 2003). Why do ancient historians continue to believe in the reality of the absolutist claims of Hellenistic monarchical ideology, or, for that matter, in the presumption that the Argead monarchy was absolute and autocratic simply because the Macedonian army assembly had no official "constitutional" rights?
10.   Likewise, much of the "crazy" behavior ridiculed by Polybios -- in particular instances of role-reversal, e.g. the king's surprise visits to the public baths, to common workshops and to private houses, and his seemingly indiscriminate distribution of gifts -- is explained as being motivated by ascribing to Antiochos a consistent policy of self-presentation as a man of the people. Antiochos' unsound behavior at the Daphne Festival -- like Dionysos he rode erratically on an inferior horse along the line of the procession, ordering this section to halt and that to proceed, and later humbly showed his guests their seats at the banquet (and finally danced naked in front of them) -- is rationalized as merely the king's personal commitment to the organization of the event. But since all this took place in the context of a religious festival, the possibility of a ritualistic meaning should at least have been taken into consideration, as well as the possibility that behind the two gods worshipped at Daphne -- Apollo and Artemis -- indigenous Syrian deities lie hidden. Antiochos' inconsistent distribution of gifts and favors -- "he used to ignore his friends but smiled most amiably to unimportant people" (Liv. 41.20.3), and "he gave to the one a large amount of gold coins but to the other worthless things such as figs" (Diod. 29.32.1; cf. Ath. 194a.) -- on the other hand, can also be explained in terms of court dynamics, see now Strootman (above, n. 1) 329.

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