Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah

The historian got a bit carried away on this one.)


The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began on November 27. Until the 19th century Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, nowhere near as important as Passover and Purim, but this began to change rapidly with the growing emphasis on Christmas in the same century. The movement began in Germany, where Jews were more assimilated and secure than in Eastern Europe, when Jewish families began displaying Christmas trees, though usually not referring to them as such. The dates of Jewish religious holidays are determined by a lunisolar calendar, which means that Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev, may fall anywhere from late November to late December. This dating consequently helped facilitate the association with Christmas.


Further connecting the two celebrations is the tradition of gift-giving. In Christianity the practice probably derives from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which occurred around the winter solstice (probably why the feast of Christmas was placed at that time) and included a day of gift-giving. The tradition also has Biblical support in the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the three wise men. In Judaism the custom dates back to 17th century Poland, where children were given small amounts of money (Hanukkah gelt) to present to their yeshiva teachers. Hanukkah could thus serve as a kind of alternate Christmas, when Jewish children could receive gifts like their gentile friends.


Because of these factors, as Christmas became an ever more important holiday, supplanting Easter, the importance of Hanukkah also grew. In the 20th century Christmas was rapidly commercialized in the United States, as business realized the profit potential of the holiday, and American marketing ultimately turned it into the major retail occasion of the year, vital to the American economy. So lucrative has it become that countries with only tiny Christian populations are now celebrating it as a major holiday. With its far smaller consumer base Hanukkah has lagged in this development, but by the 21th century it is every bit as commercialized as Christmas.


The Hanukkah celebration lasts for eight days and nights, during which period a nine branched candelabrum, the Menorah, is used to mark the passage of the nights. The ninth candle is actually not part of the ritual apparatus but originally served as a simple source of light. The eight candles are at the core of the holiday, since they reflect the miracle that gave rise to the festival. And that miracle is way back.


Judea, the southern Jewish state, fell under Greek control with the dismantling of the Persian empire by Alexander, and after his death in 323 BC it ultimately became part of the Ptolemaic empire. It remained under Ptolemaic control until 200 BC, when the weakness of the Ptolemaic state allowed Antiochus III, ruler of the vast Seleucid empire to the north and east, to seize all of Palestine. This exchange of Greek masters probably had little effect on the Jews beyond elevating the pro-Seleucid faction in the aristocracy and priesthood over the pro-Ptolemaic. The tiny Jewish state was, however, of particular concern to its new ruler inasmuch as it was near the frontier between the two kingdoms and covered the main road between Syria and Egypt.

The Seleucid Empire

The Seleucid Empire

The Greek policy towards the Jews was one of tolerance, an important facet of their increasingly cosmopolitan culture. Greek polytheism, like virtually all religions outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), had no impulse to holy war and could easily accept new gods, which were frequently identified with their own. Greek philosophy, which had been steadily moving away from the old Olympic deities towards more abstract conceptions of god, could in fact see something positive in the invisible, non-mythic god of the Jews, though many of the traditional practices of the Temple were considered barbaric superstition. Many polytheists found the aggressive exclusiveness of the monotheists to be offensive, but the Greek rulers, like the Romans later, had no problem so long as order was kept and the taxes were paid.


There was, however, a potential problem lurking in the confrontation of Hellenic (Greek) and Hebrew culture. Not only was Hellenization an important tool in the attempt to unify the Greek empires, but many of the economic and political elites in the non-Greek cities were inclined to go Greek, whether to gain advantage or because Greek civilization was simply more sophisticated and attractive. This had an impact even upon the traditionally aloof monotheists, many of whom saw this as a natural development of their religion, that is, maintaining Yahweh but forgoing the ritual and cultic practices. Moreover, since the Greeks accepted the notion of divine inspiration the Torah and the Law would still have a place.


The Hellenizing Jews of course stirred a reaction from the traditionalists, who saw their ancestral religion being assaulted and certainly resented such outrages as Greek gymnasia and nude exercise in the holy city of Jerusalem. Further, a candidate for the office of High Priest required the approval of the Seleucid monarch, which inevitably led to political intrigue and corruption. These problems were exacerbated by the existence of the pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions and the constant squabbling of two powerful Jewish families, the Hellenizing Tobiads and conservative Oniads. These conflicts would lead to the emergence of an independent Judea.


The sequence of events that preceded the Maccabean revolt is a hotly debated topic, but the following account, while not absolutely certain, is one that makes excellent sense of the information presented in the ancient sources.


The 170s BC saw increasing strife over the position of High Priest, during which conflict the Seleucid government played no real role. Matters came to a head in 169 BC, when Antiochus IV invaded weakling Egypt. On the way back north he visited Jerusalem, and always in need of money, while there he looted some of the gold and silver in the Temple, outraging Jews more by his entry into the Holy of Holies than by the theft. This obviously increased the tensions and aided the anti-Hellenizers, but the affair might have passed were it not for developments in Egypt.


The Second Temple?

The Second Temple?

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

In 169 BC Antiochus had left Egypt paralyzed by leaving behind two rival claimants to the Ptolemaic throne, one in Memphis and one in Alexandria. But during the winter the rivals reconciled and agreed to rule jointly, causing Antiochus to return in the spring of 168 BC. While he was there, a rumor of his death led the anti-Hellenizers to see Egypt as their savior, and a group led by the deposed High Priest Jason attempted to seize control of Jerusalem. They failed to take the citadel, where the current High Priest, Menelaus, had taken refuge with the Seleucid garrison, but they controlled the rest of the city, and the affair had ignited a virtual civil war among the Jews.


Meanwhile, in Egypt Antiochus had been thwarted from ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and compelled to leave Egypt by the Romans (see Stuff from Way Back #10: A Circle in the Sand), making Jerusalem all that more important to his defenses. With Jerusalem in open revolt Antiochus had little choice but to capture the city, free Menelaus and punish the rebels. When he left, the rebels reappeared and captured the city once again, and the king sent his minister Apollonius to crush the revolt and settle veterans in the city, enhancing its character as a gentile and Greek city. The “Macedonian” veterans were Syrians, who promptly established their own shrines and cultic practices on the Temple hill, and Jews felt that their traditional religion was threatened with extinction. Most fled the city and spread the fire of revolt across Judea. Playing an instrumental role in the rebellion were the Hasidim, the scribes and interpreters of the Law, whose livelihood was threatened along with their religion.


The revolt was perceived by Antiochus as essentially a political act, compromising the security of his kingdom, but it certainly had a religious content, especially with the leadership of the Hasidim. Antiochus consequently targeted the religion, not because he objected to the faith per se and wanted a holy war – such was a virtual impossibility for a Greek monarch – but because the religion was an integral part of a movement that threatened the state. The result in late 167 BC was the prohibition of traditional practices, such as circumcision (always despised by the Greeks as an assault on the body) and honoring the stipulations of the Law, and the notorious “abomination of desolation,” the establishment of a cult of Zeus Olympios in the Temple. Destroy the religion, the barbara superstitio, and thus destroy the rebellion.


But the religion was not destroyed. Rather, Seleucid rule in Judea was. In 166/5 BC scattered opposition to the decrees coalesced into an organized revolt under the leadership of the five brothers of the Hasmonean house, particularly Judas, called Maccabeus. Fortunately for the rebels, the Seleucid empire was in decline and with troubles elsewhere could not spare adequate forces for Judea, and in 164 BC peace was bought by rescinding the offensive decrees. Judas ordered the cleansing of the Temple, and in the process it was discovered that there was only enough purified oil to burn in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights, which was long enough for more purified oil to be produced. And thus the festival of Hanukkah was born.


Potatohead Maccabeus

Potatohead Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

The truce did not last, and more warfare resulted, ending with the defeat and death of Judas in 160 BC. Seleucid rule in Judea was seemingly restored, but in 150 BC a civil war erupted in the empire, allowing the Hasmoneans to reassert their independence and ultimately extend their power north into the former state of Israel and south to the Egyptian frontier. The Jewish kingdom lasted almost a century. In 64 BC Pompey the Great ended the Seleucid empire, which by then was limited to the city of Antioch, and when in the following year the king of Judea reneged on a deal with Rome, he captured Jerusalem. Judea became a Roman dependency and ultimately a province.


One might wonder what might have developed had there been no troubles with Antiochus and thus no desecration and Jewish revolt. The success of the Hasmoneans marked the resurgence of the traditional form of Judaism, and without it the Hellenization of the Jews might well have ultimately resulted in the disappearance of the old religion. And the world would have been spared Christianity and Islam.

Stuff from Way Back #10: A Circle in the Sand

On the eve of the Second Punic War in 218 BC the Roman Republic was essentially an Italian power, controlling the peninsula south of the Po valley and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.  In just thirty years Rome then defeated the only other powers in the Mediterranean world that could possible challenge her: Carthage (Second Punic War 218-201), Antigonid Macedon (Second Macedonian War 200-196) and the vast Seleucid Empire (War with Antiochus 192-188).  While Rome still directly controlled very little territory outside Italy and the islands as provinces – the Senate preferred an hegemonic approach – the empire was completely established by 188 in the sense that there was no one left who could even remotely threaten Rome.  Turning clients into provinces would occupy the next couple of centuries.  Just how powerful Rome was by 188 is illustrated by a single incident, one that did not in fact involve any show of force.

After the death of Alexander III (the Great) in 323 his empire collapsed as his lieutenants fought over the spoils for the next for the next half century.  This was the Age of the Successors, and the virtually endless war of the period produced the three major powers of the Hellenistic world, all of them Greco-Macedonian monarchies defended by almost exclusively Greco-Macedonian armies.  The descendants of Antigonus the One-Eyed managed to capture the Macedonian homeland, replacing the now defunct Temenid dynasty of Alexander with the Antigonid dynasty.  Another young officer, Ptolemy son of Lagos, seized Egypt and established the Ptolemaic or Lagid dynasty, the last member of which was the famous Cleopatra VII.  The Asian territory, stretching from the Mediterranean to India, fell to Seleucus, after whom the Seleucid dynasty would be named.

For most of the third century these three states existed in a precarious balance of power, two periodically joining against the third when it seemed to be growing too strong.  Consequently, while there was constant scheming and wars of expansion, the three monarchies continued to exist into the second century.  By the end of the third century, however, Egypt had become a weakling under a series of poor kings and was the priority target of the Seleucids.  Actually, Egypt had always been a target of the Seleucids, and in the course of the third century the two powers had fought five wars over control of Syria-Palestine, a critical strategic area for both states.

The day of reckoning was delayed by Roman involvement in the east, which led to the defeat of Antiochus III (the Great) in 188 and the loss Asia Minor, his most valuable territory.  He died in 187 and was succeeded by his son Seleucus IV Philopator, who was assassinated in 178 and followed by his brother Antiochus IV Epiphanes of biblical fame.  In 170 Eulaeus and Lenaeus, ministers of the underage Ptolemy VI Philometor, prepared for an invasion of Palestine, now under Seleucid control, but were thwarted by Antiochus, who in 169 captured Memphis and Ptolemy himself and had himself proclaimed king of Egypt.  But the population of Alexandria named Ptolemy’s brother king as Ptolemy VII and fortified the city so well that Antiochus retired from Egypt, leaving Ptolemy VI to duke it out with his sibling.  The hoped for fratricidal war of attrition did not occur, however, and the brothers reconciled, leading Antiochus to invade once again in 168.  He easily reached Alexandria and began preparing a siege, when a Roman embassy showed up.

Antiochus was well aware of Roman strength and had followed his father and brother in going out of his way to maintain friendly relations with the Republic.  He knew the Romans were disinclined to see the Seleucid empire expand, but at this time Rome was involved in the Third Macedonian War (171-168) against Perseus, destined to be the last king of Macedon.  There was no doubt of the outcome, but Antiochus presumably believed that Egypt was outside the Roman strategic horizon and that his excellent relations with the Republic would lead them to accept a fait accompli.

The Roman embassy, led by the former consul C. Popillius Laenas, met Antiochus at his headquarters outside Alexandria.  Popillius handed the king a letter from the Senate, a note that said something to the effect that the Senate and the Roman People felt it was in the best interests of everyone for Antiochus to return to Asia and leave the Ptolemaic monarchy intact.  The king asked for time to consider the “request.”  Popillius responded by using his walking stick to draw in the sand a circle around Antiochus and asked him to give his response before he left the circle.  Antiochus, ruler of more territory than Rome, at the head of a victorious army and about to achieve what his family had dreamed of for a century, gathered his forces and marched back to Syria.  So powerful had Rome become.

Stuff from Way Back #5: Hannibal: The Sunset Years

"Die, Roman scum!"

Most everyone has heard of Hannibal Barca and his
exploits against the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).  Undefeated in Italy, he fought his last engagement in 202 at Zama in
North Africa, where P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus gained the distinction
of being the only man to defeat him in battle.
Not quite.  There was also Eudamus
the Rhodian.

By the terms of the peace treaty that was signed in 201 Carthage was stripped of her possessions and reduced to being a
Roman client, her independence and political importance at an end.  Her commercial activities certainly did not
cease and she was able to pay her annual war
indemnity to Rome, but a corrupt and oppressive oligarchic government
began to exploit the people, who at last turned to Hannibal.  In 196 he was
chosen suffete, one of the two annually elected chief magistrates of the
Carthaginian republic.  Under his
leadership the popular assembly broke the back of oligarchic power, and Hannibal attended to the finances of the state, so improving matters
that in 191 Carthage offered to pay off the remaining forty years of
reparation payments in one lump sum.

Loved by the people, Hannibal nevertheless had in the dispossessed oligarchs a block
of powerful enemies, who in turn had influential friends in Rome.  Prominent among
these friends was M. Porcius Cato, a rival of Scipio and a man soon to be consumed
with an almost hysterical fear and loathing of Carthage.  Acting on
behalf of the anti-Barcid oligarchs, Cato claimed that Hannibal was conspiring with the Seleucid king Antiochus  III, with whom Rome was gradually sliding towards war.  In 195 a commission was sent to Carthage to complain, and Hannibal, suspecting what the outcome would be, fled east to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage.  He then moved on
to Antioch, the Seleucid capital, and thence to Ephesus, where he found the king.  A frightened Carthaginian government
meanwhile formally exiled him.

The arrival of Rome’s worst nightmare at the Seleucid court only worsened
the deteriorating situation in the east, and in 192 the Aetolians captured the
key port of Demetrias and convinced Antiochus to strike now by sending an
army to the Balkan peninsula.  Hannibal is said to have urged the king to give him ten thousand
infantry and one thousand cavalry, with which he would stir up Carthage and then invade Italy.  But it is difficult
to believe that Hannibal could possibly imagine assaulting Italy with such a meager force, and more likely he suggested
simply that an attempt be made to arouse Carthage, a plan that would fit better with Antiochus’ apparent more
limited goal of asserting his equality as a Mediterranean power by rebuffing Rome in the Balkans.
These limited war aims, potential jealousy and discontent among the his
generals and the reluctance of Greek troops to serve under a “barbarian”
probably explain why Antiochus made such little use of the great captain.  In fact, Hannibal’s sole command in the war was a naval squadron.

When Antiochus was booted out of Greece in 191, the naval war heated up, and later in the year
the king sent Hannibal to Phoenicia to collect reinforcements for the main Seleucid fleet
at Ephesus.  It is hard to
avoid the impression that Hannibal
was sent simply to give him something to do, and the king probably did not
expect that Hannibal would actually be fighting a naval engagement on his
own.  But in the summer of the following
year as he was bringing his ships north, he ran into a Rhodian squadron sent to
block him off Side on the Anatolian shore.
Hannibal formed a line perpendicular to the shore and awaited the
Rhodian attack.

The Rhodian force was inferior in numbers, but the skill
of Rhodian sailors was legendary, while the Phoenician crews were unused to the
heavier warships Antiochus had ordered built after his taste of Roman boarding
tactics the previous year.  Actually, as
the battle opened, the Rhodian admiral, Eudamus, hardly displayed great
skill.   Because of a poor deployment and resulting
confusion, he found  himself engaging the
enemy left, commanded by Hannibal,
with only five ships.  But the Rhodians
quickly sorted themselves out, and superior seamanship began to tell as Rhodian
ramming tactics punched hole after hole in the Seleucid line.  Hannibal’s right and center were soon in serious trouble, and
ships from the victorious Rhodian left were able to speed to the rescue of
Eudamus.  With the battle now clearly
lost, Hannibal began to retire and was followed by the rest of his
fleet, more than half his ships having
been disabled.

Hannibal had been defeated in a serious engagement for only the
second time in his life. The battle of Side was a relatively small-scale affair,
but it did prevent the linkup of the two Seleucid fleets, and control of the
sea was decisively lost a month later at the battle of Myonnesus.  The war ended in early 189 with
Antiochus’  defeat at Magnesia in Asia Minor, at which battle Hannibal
does not seem to have been present, probably for the reasons mentioned earlier
and perhaps because Antiochus was overconfident.  The peace settlement included a demand for
the surrender of the Carthaginian, but the Romans, probably influenced by
Scipio Africanus, who was with the Roman delegation, took no real action.  Hannibal escaped first to Gortyn on Crete
and then on to King Artaxias I of Armenia.

The last stage of Hannibal’s military career took place under King Prusias I of Bithynia on the Black
Sea coast.  Sometime around 186 Prusias began a war with
his major Anatolian rival and loyal client of Rome, Eumenes II of Pergamum, but all that survives of this war is a naval
anecdote.  Pressed by a numerically
superior Pergamene fleet, Hannibal
defeated them by hurling aboard the enemy ships pots filled with poisonous
snakes, causing panic among the crews. The war became a stalemate, and both
kings appealed to Rome, which in 183 sent T. Quinctius Flamininus to settle
the war.

Whether on instructions from the Senate or his own
initiative, Flamininus demanded from Prusias the surrender of Hannibal.  Seeking to
avoid violating at least the letter of the law of hospitality, Prusias left it
to the Romans to capture the Carthaginian themselves, and they surrounded his
house with troops.  Discovering that
every exit was guarded, Hannibal
committed suicide by taking poison.  At
the end, according to Livy and Plutarch, he proclaimed “Let us relieve the
Roman people of their long anxiety, since they find it tedious to wait for the
death of an old man.”

One of the greatest captains in history was dead,
needlessly, at the age of sixty-three. Ironically, his old rival Scipio
Africanus died in the same year, himself an exile from his mother city.  And thirty-seven years later Carthage would follow its most famous son into extinction, also
at the hands of Rome.