Antiochus IV Epiphanes

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Another Antiochus IV Epiphanes was king in Commagene under Caligula and Claudius.
Coin of Antiochus IV. Reverse shows Apollo seated on an omphalos. The Greek inscription reads ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Antiochus, image of God, bearer of victory).

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Επιφανής, Greek: Manifest), originally named Mithradates, but renamed Antiochus either upon his ascension or after the death of his elder brother Antiochus (c. 215 B.C.E. – 163 B.C.E., reigned 175 B.C.E. – 163 B.C.E.), was one of the Seleucid emperors, son of Antiochus III the Great (224 – 187 B.C.E.) and brother of Seleucus IV Philopator (187 - 75 B.C.E.) The Seleucid's ruled the area known as Asia' (Babylon, Syria, Palestine, Upper Asia) from 312, when Alexander the Great's empire was divided among his generals. Antiochus IV's religious zeal for Zeus, of whom he believed himself to be a 'manifestation,' resulted in the desecration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and in what was a reign of terror for Jews who refused to comply with his policy of Hellenization. This resulted in revolt and eventually in territorial loss, and in the loss of political prestige, for his successors.

An example of religious bigotry and intolerance, Antiochus' legacy as a ruler serves as a warning to others who choose to impose religion, or culture or ideology from the top, and to disrespect others convictions. For those people who believe that all cultures should be valued and respected, the more tolerant policy of Antiochus' predecessors that aimed at cultural fusion, not domination, is the more attractive. For Jews, the victory against Antiochus IV's successor, Demetrius I (187-150 B.C.E.) in 164 B.C.E. and the restoration of the temple, marks a moment of restoration annually celebrated in the feast of Hanukkah. Antiochus IV name was later changed from 'Ephipanes' (meaning ‘a manifestation of God’) to Epimanes (the ‘maniac’).


Antiochus took power after the death of Seleucus Philopator. He had been hostage in Rome following the peace of Apamea in 188 B.C.E. but had recently been exchanged for the son and rightful heir of Seleucus IV, the later Demetrius I of Syria. Taking advantage of this situation, Antiochus was able to proclaim himself as co-regent with another of Seleucus' sons, the infant Antiochus, whose murder he orchestrated a few years later.

War with Egypt

Antiochus IV was ambitious and wanted to expand both his territory and influence. He was able to make some inroads into Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemies. In 168 B.C.E. he almost succeeded in conquering Egypt but was prevented from doing so as a result of Roman intervention. The Seluecids generally continued Alexander's policy of cultural integration but Antiochus IV was more interested in Hellenizing his subjects. He was especially eager to Hellenize the Jews, who resisted the process and he started to use force to pursue this policy. His father had exempted the Jews from the Hellenizing policy. This led to the beginning of the Jewish revolt of the Maccabees. His infant son, Antiochus V Eupator, succeeded him.

Because the guardians of Ptolemy VI of Egypt were demanding the return of Coele-Syria, in 170 B.C.E. Antiochus decided on a preemptive strike and invaded Egypt, conquering all but Alexandria. He then captured Ptolemy but agreed to let him continue as puppet king. This had the advantage of not alarming Rome. Alexandria thereupon chose Ptolemy's brother Ptolemy VIII (Ptolemy Euergetes) as King. In Antiochus' absence, the two brothers came to an agreement to rule jointly. Hence in 168 B.C.E. Antiochus again invaded and overran all Egypt but Alexandria while his fleet captured Cyprus. Near Alexandria a Roman envoy met him and told him that he must at once withdraw from Egypt and Cyprus. Antiochus said he would discuss it with his council, whereupon the envoy drew a line in the sand round him. Were he to step out of the circle, the envoy said, without having first undertaken to withdraw, he would be at war with Rome. Antiochus agreed to withdraw.

In a spirit of revenge he organized an expedition against Jerusalem, which he subdued, putting vast multitudes of its inhabitants to death in a most cruel manner. From this time the Jews began the war of independence under their Maccabean leaders with marked success, defeating the armies of Antiochus that were sent against them. Enraged at this, Antiochus is said to have marched against them in person, threatening utterly to exterminate the nation; but on the way he was suddenly arrested by the hand of death (164 B.C.E.). The exact causes of the Jewish revolt, and of Antiochus' response to it, are uncertain; the Jewish accounts are in the Books of Maccabees, and the successful revolt is commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah. His last years were spent on a campaign against the rising Parthian empire on his eastern border, which seems to have been initially successful but which terminated upon his death.

The reign of Antiochus was a last period of strength for the empire, but in some ways it was fatal. Because he was a usurper and left no successor except a little boy, devastating dynastic wars followed his death.

Antiochus and the Jews

Antiochus regarded himself as Zeus (hence his title, epiphanes, meaning ‘manifestation of’), the Greek God. He gave lavishly to Greek temples, including the Temple of Zeus in Athens. His self-view as the supreme God meant that he saw himself as having power over all the religions in his realm. He thus tried to systematically change the traditions of the Jews, based on the laws of Moses, to make them conform to Greek beliefs. He built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, where instead of learning their ancient law, the priests engaged in wrestling contests in the Greek fashion, which meant they were naked. Those who were circumcised endeavored to hide this. Antiochus' programs of Hellenization may even have involved altering the scriptures by, for example, introducing Greek cosmology into the Hebrew Scriptures. Texts say that people caught reading the Torah were punished, even killed; Sabbath observation was abolished and circumcision banned on pain of death. Josephus' account describes this as follows:

Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine's flesh upon the altar; against which they all opposed themselves, and the most approved among them were put to death. Bacchides also, who was sent to keep the fortresses, having these wicked commands, joined to his own natural barbarity, indulged all sorts of the extremist wickedness, and tormented the worthiest of the inhabitants, man by man, and threatened their city every day with open destruction, till at length he provoked the poor sufferers by the extremity of his wicked doings to avenge themselves (War, 1: 2; Whiston, V3: 11).

The 2nd Book of Maccabees records that the compliant priests diverted Temple funds to pay for the polis activities, such as “international games and dramatic competitions” and “ceased to show any interest” in Temple affairs (see Johnson, 102). Maccabees Antiouchus' influence was strengthened because of rivalry among contenders for the High Priesthood in Jerusalem. A contest for power between Onias III and Jason (brothers) resulted in the former setting up a rival Temple at Heliopolis in Egypt and the latter becoming High Priest. By cooperating with Antiochus, Jason (which was the Greek name he adopted) was able to remain in office from 175 B.C.E. until 172 B.C.E.. However, while Antiochus was campaigning in Egypt, a faction of the Jewish leadership succeeded in deposing Jason, sending him into exile. Other sources say that Antiochus engineered the change of High Priest because his successor, Menelaus (a non-practicing Jew) promised more tribute and to speed the Hellenization process. Antiochus was demanding more and more cash to pay for his wars. Many Jews already saw the High Priesthood as too compromised to maintain their respect. Jason allied himself with anti-Hellenic Jews and, with their support, was able to re-take the office in 168 B.C.E., also expelling Antiochus' troops. This was actually a rebellion against Antiochus, who responded swiftly.

In 168 B.C.E. or 169 B.C.E. Antiochus marched to Jerusalem, slew Jason (last of the Zadokite High Priests) and dedicated the Temple to Zeus, erecting an image of Zeus in his own likeness on the altar, and, according to some sources, sacrificed a pig in the Temple. This is known to Jews as the 'great desecration' or 'abomination of desecration' (from Daniel 11: 31 & 12: 11). The Temple's sacred treasures, including “the golden candlesticks, and the golden altar” were robbed (V2: 87). Copies of the Torah were destroyed, as were buildings. He re-built the old city of David as a Seleucid fortress, dominating the rest of the city. Sources are confused about exactly when the desecration took place. Menelaus was restored to the High Priesthood (see discussion at [1]. Most have Antiochus visiting Jerusalem twice, perhaps as early as 166 B.C.E. for the first and as late as 169 B.C.E. for the second. Josephus describes him as robbing on both occasions (Whiston, V2: 87)[2].

The Jewish Revolt

The revolt began in the year 165 B.C.E. when Mattathias, a priest, first killed a fellow priest who a Greek official had ordered to perform a pagan sacrifice in the Temple. Mattathias fled Jerusalem with his five sons (known as the Maccabees) where, joined by many pious Jews hasidim, or am-ha-arez, he started a guerrilla war against the Seleucids. The war continued against Demetrius I, until 164 B.C.E. when Jerusalem was taken, the Temple restored and quasi-independence under Roman protection was achieved.

At first, Demetrius did not take the rebellion seriously and sent a small force against the Maccabees. Then, when that force was defeated, he sent a much larger one. This one was be defeated. The feast of Hanukkah marks the re-dedication and restoration of the Temple and the victory of the Maccabees, led by Mattathias's son, Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc 7-8). Demetrius was at the same time fighting a rebellion by Alexander Balas (150 – 146 B.C.E.), who claimed to be Antiochus IV's son and was supported by the Maccabees, the Egyptians and Pergamu. Demetrius succeeded Antiochus as ruler of what remained of the empire. Described as lazy and addicted to alcohol, Demetrius was killed while fighting Balas ((1 Macc 10:1-53). By 142 B.C.E. the Jews' independence under the priest-kings of the house of Hasmonean (or the Maccabees) was recognized, although technically they were a client-state (See Josephus' account at [3]


For Jews, Antiochus is the 'little horn' of Daniel 7. Rabbinical sources style him 'the wicked.' Yet his atrocious acts sparked a successful revolt against the Seleucid Empire that allowed the Jews to achieve virtual independence. The long struggle for independence left an deep mark on Judaism. The intensity of the attack upon the law and religious institutions led to a zealous defence and subsequent narrowing of vision. The notion of reform was compeletely discredited and the Hasmoneans who came to power were very reactionary. It was difficult now to acheive in Jerusalem and Palestine the kind of rich synthesis between Hebraism and Hellenism which would have universalised Judaism.

A Jewish Diaspora spread over the Greek and Roman worlds, where synagogues attracted many Gentile god-fearers. The Greek historian, Strabo (64 B.C.E. - 24 C.E.) said that it is hard to find a city where Jews had not settled. This reality became the ground on which Christianity would later flourish, of which Paul and Luke and other early Christians were products. Unlike Jews living in Jersualem, Jews living in Diaspora were often happy to accept a creed that enabled them to abandon circumcision, and many of the Mosaic laws while retaining the essence of their faith. Under Roman rule, the Jews enjoyed the exemption, as a national religion, from compliance with the state religion. Greek was widely used as a language in Palestine and Diaspora during the Herodian period (Goodman, 43).

Historians speculate why Antiochus IV departed from his father's policy of exempting the Jews. He is often said to have been a zealot for Alexander the Great's policy but that was more a policy of cultural fusion than of cultural imperialism. Perhaps it was his religious ideas and his belief that he was Zeus's manifestation that compelled him to pursue his policy, or perhaps he was annoyed by the Jews' own resistance to Hellenization and saw them, as did others, as haters of humanity. Perhaps the value of his legacy lies in the warning that excessive zeal and a sense of almost unlimited self-importance more often than not leads to defeat. The immediate result of Antiochus' tyranny was persecution; destruction of property and death but the longer-term result was the loss for his Empire of substantial territory and of prestige. Pride, perhaps, does come before a fall. He is said to have angered easily, to have loved extravagant dress and to display his wealth and power. He was led, says Josephus, “by his covetous inclination” (V2: 87). His own successors changed his title to Epimanes, the maniac.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goodman, Martin (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0199280320
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews, New York: Harper, 1988. ISBN 0060915331
  • Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Flavius Josephus (3 Volumes), trans. William Whiston. New York: A. L. Burt, 1907 (original 1737). online Retrieved November 21, 2016.

Preceded by:
Seleucus IV Philopator
Seleucid King
175–163 B.C.E.
Succeeded by:
Antiochus V Eupator


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