Antiochos III, the New King’s Survival Part I

During the Hellenistic Period, Coele Syria (literally meaning ‘Hollow Syria’) referred to a large portion of the southern Levant. It thus consisted of the Bekaa Valley, Jordan Valley and the eastern Mediterranean coastline. The Ptolemies and Seleucids. hotly-contested over this land.

Antiochus III the Great / Antiochos / (Greek: Ἀντίoχoς Μέγας; c. 241 – 3 July 187 BC, ruled April/June 222 – 3 July 187 BC) was a Greek Hellenistic king and the 6th ruler of the Seleucid / Seleukid / Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Σελευκιδῶν, Basileía tōn Seleukidōn) Empire.

Within a little over four years (227–222 BC) the male members of the family of Antiochos III were reduced from four to one, and the last one, Antiochos himself, was only 20 years of age at his accession. In June 227 his uncle Antiochos Hierax, who had for nearly two decades ruled all or part of Asia Minor, either as governor or as a rebel king, was murdered in flight after escaping from imprisonment. A year later Hierax’s brother and Antiochos’ father, King Seleukos II, against whom Hierax had been in rebellion, died in a fall from his horse in the war against Hierax’s ally in Asia Minor. Then in late 223 or early 222, the next king, Antiochos’ brother Seleukos III, was assassinated, again in Asia Minor, by two of his mercenary officers.

This last event brought Antiochos to his brother’s throne, wholly unexpectedly and pitifully unprepared. So unprepared was he, indeed, that he was in ‘the interior’, probably Babylon or Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, when his brother died, two or three weeks of travel away from the real centre of the kingdom, which was in northern Syria. It was perhaps a reassurance that there were in post a group of capable men, as governors of provinces or as ministers of the former king, who proved to be fully capable of governing on the new king’s behalf. However, their capability was such that they rapidly developed ambitions of their own, and only one life, that of Antiochos himself, stood in their way.

The group which dominated Antiochos’ first years as king was headed by Hermeias, the first minister of Seleukos III, a native of Karia in southwest Asia Minor. We know little of his earlier life, but he had probably been an active official of the Seleukid dynasty for a considerable time. He it was who held the central government together in the immediate aftermath of the death of Seleukos III, and he may well have had the same role in the emergency of the sudden death of Seleukos II three years before. He certainly showed great ability, but, as with all men in such a position – he was quasi-regent – he faced even greater problems in internal affairs than he did in foreign.

The interpretation I give here is based on the notion that Hermeias, being the dead king’s minister, was already in control when the king died, and that the prominent men who will be noted in the following paragraphs, were originally part of the king’s royal council. This is an institution which is repeatedly mentioned in the reign of Antiochos III and may be presumed to be a permanent fixture of the governing system. In the absence of a ruling king it clearly became a fractious group, but the prominence of Hermeias was such that he was able to exert a large degree of control, though only by removing his most able opponents to distant tasks. This turned out to be as dangerous a measure as any other solution; he also tried violence, but mainly against the lesser council members. The other members, those who Polybios mentions, were too powerful to be killed, and were his competitors; the object they strove for was to replace Hermeias as regent.

One of his competitors was Akhaios, whose claim for access to power was his relationship to the young king. He was the grandson of the first Akhaios, a notable landowner in Asia Minor, who had been favoured by the founder of the dynasty, Seleukos I, with gifts of land once that area had been conquered. In fact it seems probable that he was the younger son of Seleukos, and so the brother of Antiochos I. He certainly married his family into royalty: his daughter was the first wife of Antiochos II, and another daughter married a member of the Attalid family of Pergamon and was the mother of King Attalos I. His granddaughter Laodike (daughter of his son Andromachos), married Seleukos II, and so she was the mother of Antiochos III. Akhaios the younger was therefore Antiochos’ maternal uncle and his nearest male relative. As such he was clearly entitled to be part of the king’s council.

Another senior member of the court was Epigenes. It is probable that Epigenes was the nearest to a professional soldier that the Seleukid empire could produce – he had been with Seleukos III on campaign in Asia Minor, and he brought back to Syria some of the soldiers after the king’s death. Such professionalism, implying a concentration on a single activity, was uncharacteristic of the age, except for mercenaries; the lower social orders might make a living as clerks or ordinary soldiers, but at the level of commanding generals, generality of action and experience was expected. Men of this rank, described often as philoi, royal Friends, were employed by the kings as judges or governors, military commanders or envoys, or on any other tasks which needed to be done. Indeed, the ability to command armies in battle or on campaign was an expected skill of all high officials – Hermeias commanded, for example. Epigenes seems to have specialized to the extent of founding his advice in the royal council on military considerations.

A fourth member of the council was Molon. His origin and the basis of his importance are unknown, but he was able to pose such a challenge to Hermeias because he had been appointed to the governorship of Media – the ‘Upper Satrapies’ – by Seleukos III at the same time as Hermeias was made first minister. Molon’s younger brother Alexander was also made governor of Persia. (Exactly what is meant by ‘Persia’ is unclear, but it was part of Iran, though not apparently the regions known as Persis or Elymais.) The presence of two brothers in command of neighbouring provinces was clearly a danger in this unstable time, and a third brother and their mother were also in the east, thus leaving no hostages on whom Hermeias could exert pressure; between them Molon’s family controlled more than a third of the empire.

It seems possible that Hermeias was operating on the assumption that if a man was posted to a distant province with a dangerous frontier he became less of a problem than if he was present at court. The assumption was thus that all these men were primarily loyal to the concept of the kingdom and of the king, however inexperienced or incapable the king was. The actions of Akhaios had perhaps reinforced that perception. Akhaios had accompanied Seleukos III on the expedition into Asia Minor at the beginning of which he was assassinated. The murderers were caught and killed at once by Akhaios himself. He was then offered the kingship. Who made the offer is unclear, but it was part of the Macedonian tradition than kings could be acclaimed as such by the army, which would in this case probably mean the officers – perhaps including Epigenes.

Akhaios had, in fact, several options at that point. He could accept the offer and proclaim himself king. Or he could accept the offer and proclaim himself regent for the young king Antiochos III, on the recent pattern of Antigonos III Doson and the young Philip V in Macedonia. Or he could refuse, though this would leave him in a dangerous position, suspected of concealed ambition yet now unsure of the support of his army. There was also yet another possibility: he could ignore all three choices and stay where he was, in effective command of the royal army in Asia Minor, and continue the campaign begun by the dead king. This would simply put the offer of the kingship on hold; he could possibly take up the job later.

We do not know what messages, instructions, pleas, or intrigues passed between Akhaios and Hermeias. One officer with the army, Epigenes, certainly left and returned to Syria with part of the army, where he became a thorn in Hermeias’ side in the royal council. If Akhaios chose to accept the offer of the kingship he would probably have faced a civil war between his army – or that part of it which accepted him – and the rest of the royal army. Taking up the position of regent, with or without the royal title, might lessen the conflict, but to be regent for a king who was already twenty years old would invite derision and would set him on a route to conflict with Hermeias and the rest of the council. In the event, probably by arrangement with Hermeias and the others in the council, he took up the last possibility, taking official command of the expeditionary force to campaign in Asia Minor against Attalos I of Pergamon, his first cousin. Thus he supported, for the moment, another relative, Antiochos III.

These decisions – Akhaios to Asia Minor, Molon to stay in Media – were taken, one must presume, soon after the death of Seleukos III, while Antiochos himself was travelling to Syria from Babylonia, a journey which would have taken some weeks. As a result Hermeias was left in firm control of the central government, and Molon and Akhaios both could be presumed to have plenty to do in their provincial commands. Antiochos himself may or may not have been consulted on all this, but from his distant situation he could scarcely have much effect on the immediate decisions. When he arrived in Antioch in Syria all had been arranged.

It is necessary at this point to consider the source we have for this and subsequent events. Apart from brief comments and fragments of other historians, the essential source is Polybios, who provides an extended account for the first years of Antiochos’ reign. This is clearly based on another account which was biased strongly in favour of the king and made Hermeias the villain of the piece; by contrast, Molon and Akhaios, who directly challenged Antiochos, get off lightly. Polybios was probably relying on an account of events produced not long after the death of Hermeias, perhaps generated by the Seleukid government to excuse the actions of the king. The bias is generally clear and must be taken into account, which I shall try to do, without going too far the other way.

Another project which was necessarily undertaken as soon as Antiochos succeeded to the kingship was to find a bride for the new king. This task was allotted to Diognetos, whose later career included the command of the Seleukid navy. He was, in fact, probably one of the officials who could be used for any policy purpose; in this case he became a diplomat. A wife had suddenly become a political and diplomatic necessity. Antiochos was the last living male in the direct line of descent from Seleukos I; unless he was married swiftly, and produced a son as rapidly as possible, the dynasty might expire – or Akhaios could legitimately claim the kingship. Diognetos in fact found a suitable girl, Laodike, the daughter of King Mithradates II of Pontos, though it is not known if Diognetos had much of a choice. The number of eligible and nubile princesses was suddenly rather limited, and in fact Laodike may have been the only one available. She was in fact another cousin of the king, her mother being Laodike the daughter of Antiochos II (and so sister of Seleukos II) who had married Mithradates II a generation earlier.

Diognetos’ mission may have been urgent from the Seleukid dynastic point of view, but in Pontos the problem was probably seen in a different light. A royal marriage required careful and serious negotiations, and this one required that some sort of stability must exist in the Seleukid kingdom before Mithradates would allow his daughter – a precious political and personal resource – to be married there. Assuming that Diognetos’ mission began relatively quickly after Antiochos’ accession, he will have reached the Pontic court fairly early in 222, but would know by then that the kingdom he was representing was disrupted by a new civil war. The marriage negotiations were likely put on hold for the rest of the year.

In fact it may well have been news of Diognetos’ mission which was the stimulus for the civil war. If he succeeded in negotiating a marriage quickly, the dynasty was half way to safety; nine or ten months later it would probably be reinforced by the first of a new generation of the royal family. For an ambitious man who felt he could be a better king than an untried boy, the likelihood of a royal marriage was a starting gun for intrigue and rebellion. Akhaios had already made his choice; Hermeias as a Karian was hardly eligible for the kingship; but Molon was probably of Macedonian descent, with a large part of the Seleukid army under his command, and was governing nearly half the kingdom. He felt he had a good, and indeed a unique, opportunity in the next year.

In all this Antiochos did not necessarily have any say. Hermeias was based at Antioch in Syria, though his family lived at Apameia. He had been left in charge of the central government by Seleukos III when the latter set off on his expedition into Asia Minor. Antiochos had been sent into ‘the interior’, as Polybios rather vaguely puts it. This may be understood to be Babylonia, where a royal presence was a regular and necessary occurrence. The rituals of the Babylonian religion benefited particularly if a king or a prince participated, and with the king on campaign, the favour of the gods would be a useful blessing.

Seleukos III himself had been a turbulent character, so much so he was nicknamed Keraunos, ‘Thunderer’. Such a man would be dangerous to be close to, a factor which raises a number of awkward questions concerning his assassination. For one thing it is to be assumed that there was a wider plot involved; it is unlikely that the assassination was a purely personal matter for the two murderers. The fact that Akhaios had the murderers themselves instantly murdered rather suggests a wish to avoid the one really central issue as to who also was involved in the plot. Akhaios himself must be a candidate, and the way he elected not to be made king may imply that he was being very careful to avoid the suspicion that he had contrived the king’s death in order to replace him. Nor had he, as it turned out, forsworn such an ambition. Perhaps the one constructive decision the Thunderer had made was to ensure that his younger brother was safely separated from him when his death was organized. Killing both brothers when they were together would have been a very great temptation to the plotters.

The whole issue of the king’s death was carefully avoided, or evaded, in the aftermath, which raises much suspicion. That none of the royal council apparently wanted to investigate it is likely to be significant. Of course, the killers had been killed, the army was on campaign, there was a great deal to do in the emergency, and the new king was a long way off and unable to insist on an investigation; these are all good sound reasons why there was no investigation. When the king arrived at Antioch, the senior men had been scattered to their new jobs. Given all this, however, some sort of investigation was surely to be expected. Yet it did not happen. One must wonder how many of the men around the new king were involved in the assassination plot, however distantly.

The kingdom which Antiochos had inherited so abruptly was the largest state in the world. The only competitors were the Mauryan Empire in India, which had begun to split up after the death of the Emperor Asoka in about 230, or China, where the Qin dynasty’s ‘First Emperor’ had just succeeded in crushing the last of the independent dynastic states which were its competitors, but had yet to expand significantly beyond the Yellow River Valley and the central and lower Yangzi. But the Seleukid kingdom was also, like the Mauryan Empire, undergoing fission. Two states, Baktria and Parthia, had been formed out of its eastern extremity, and Asia Minor had recently been seized by Attalos of Pergamon after being effectively independent under Antiochos Hierax since the 240s. It was these losses which should have preoccupied Molon and Akhaios. Akhaios did set about reconquering Asia Minor with some success during 222; Molon, however, whose Parthian frontier was quiescent, had other intentions.

Hermeias had been left in control of the central government, and, when he arrived, that included the king. Within the council, Hermeias was at particular enmity with Epigenes. According to Polybios Hermeias had already crushed other dissenters, by execution or other means, but no names are mentioned.16 Clearly, however, he was unable to do this to Epigenes, who evidently had support among the soldiers. He had brought back to Syria those men Akhaios did not need for his campaign (or perhaps he rid himself of those he did not trust).

Molon rebelled not long after Antiochos reached Syria, and so some time in 222. His quarrel was with Hermeias, whom he presumably wished to replace as the king’s minister, but Hermeias successfully evaded the issue. At a meeting of the royal council, with the king present, Epigenes recommended that the king take command of the army and march east to confront the rebel. Presumably such an expedition would have had Epigenes in effective command of the army, with the king in a more or less titular role. Hermeias would not allow this, in part because he must have feared that Epigenes might be able to make common cause with Molon against him, or be able to use the army to remove him, or might turn the king against him. He agreed that an army should be sent to confront Molon, but not that the king should be involved. Given that Molon’s quarrel was with Hermeias, and that he had done nothing yet to threaten any violence, it is likely that Hermeias was right; a massive response might have been counter-productive. Two generals, Xenon and Theodotos Hemiolios, were to command, though they were not given a large force; indeed they may well have been expected to rely mainly on the forces already in the east.

Hermeias now began to emphasize that the opportunity existed for an attack on the Ptolemaic kingdom. This opportunity had in fact existed for several years, since the death of Seleukos II, at which point the peace treaty he had agreed with Ptolemy III in 241 had expired. Seleukos III had obviously taken the view that it was more important to suppress internal dissent – the rebellion in Asia Minor – than to launch a new war on Ptolemy. It was also the case that Ptolemy III was in full control of his kingdom during Seleukos III’s lifetime, and he was a capable king and possessed a large military and naval power. But Ptolemy died late in 222, and the situation in the Ptolemaic court soon became disharmonious. It is at this point that Hermeias began recommending an invasion of the Ptolemaic territories.