The Rise of Antiochus III the Great | History Hit

The Rise of Antiochus III the Great

Later bust thought to bear a resemblance to Antiochus III's profile as seen on coins.
Image Credit: Public Domain / History Hit

The three most powerful factions which emerged following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ensuing chaos were the Seleucids, the Ptolemies and the Antigonids. By 223 BC, the Seleucid Empire dominated much of the Near East, and in that year one of its greatest monarchs rose to power: Antiochus III.

Antiochus would go on to challenge various enemies over his likely 35-year reign, from Bactrians in Afghanistan to the Romans at Thermopylae. But early in his rule, Antiochus had to deal with a threat much closer to home: a revolt led by a Seleucid governor called Molon.

Antiochus III and the revolt of Molon

In 223 BC, the 18-year-old Antiochus III ascended to the Seleucid throne. Despite his youth, Antiochus soon proved his shrewdness as ruler. But at times he misplaced his trust, no more so than with Molon. Almost immediately upon taking the royal diadem, Antiochus appointed three governors to the largest and most important regions in the Seleucid empire. He appointed his cousin Achaeus as the commander of Asia Minor, Molon to the satrap of Medea and Molon’s brother Alexander to the satrap of Persia.

He did not choose wisely. According to Polybius:

These two brothers (Molon and Alexander) despising the king for his youth, and hoping that Achaeus would join in their treason, but most of all because they dreaded the cruel character and malign influence of Hermeias, who was at that time the chief minister of the entire kingdom, formed the design of revolting themselves and causing the upper Satrapies to revolt also.

Polybius 5. 40

Hermeias and Epigenes

Hermeias, as Polybius notes, was a spiteful and vicious politician. His arch rival in court was a former general called Epigenes, a man well-loved by the army and known for his charisma and oratory. Epigenes encouraged the king to act swiftly against Molon, who could prove dangerous if left to gain support.

Digitised image from The Student’s Rome (London: John Murray, 1882)

Image Credit: British Library / Public Domain

Hermeias, however, overruled the rest of the court and insisted that the best course of action was a direct attack on Antiochus’ southern neighbour, King Ptolemy IV of Egypt. He highlighted Ptolemy’s growing reputation as a drunk and a fool, claiming that there had never been a better time for a war with Egypt. Hermeias moved that the king should first attack Ptolemaic-controlled Syria (a province called Coele-Syria), to pave the way for a further invasion of Egypt. As for Molon, Antiochus should send two generals, Xenon and Theodotus Hemiolus, to deal with him.

Despite being despised by colleagues and even disliked by the king, the young Antiochus followed his every word. Hermeias had a more covert reason for his keenness in attacking Ptolemy. Polybius reports: “thinking that it was only by involving the young king in war on every side that he could escape punishment for his past misdeeds and avoid being deprived of his position of authority; for the king would have need of his services when he found himself surrounded by struggles and dangers.”

Success for Molon

But Hermeias’ hope that Molon could be easily defeated was misplaced. Molon’s forces overwhelmed Xenon and Theodotus’ armies and his power grew. Antiochus quickly sent another general east. His name was Xenoetas. Although initially successful, Xenoetas soon suffered a similar fate to his predecessors: near Seleukeia, Molon landed a decisive victory.

The result had devastating consequences. Not only had Xenoetas perished in the fighting, but with this victory Molon gained control of Seleukeia, the empire’s old capital. Moreover, Molon now accepted the title of king, minting coins in his own name. It was a ‘crossing the Rubicon‘ moment for Molon. Now, there would be no chance of compromise with Antiochus.

A change of plans

In 221 BC Antiochus was already prepared to launch into Coele-Syria. But upon hearing of the defeat of Xenoetes, he changed his plans. He was determined to decisively end this rebellion. Antiochus rewarded Epigenes, who had been proved right, by making him a close advisor. This was not what Hermeias wanted to hear.

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Overcome with rage, Hermeias had Epigenes assassinated and attempted to frame him as a traitor and informer of Ptolemy. No one was convinced, but the court remained terrified of Hermeias and Antiochus ultimately decided that he must bring down Molon before dealing with his minister.

Marching east with speed, Anitochus caught Molon off-guard near the town of Apollonia. Antiochus deployed his formation on the higher ground of a plain while Molon’s men were still encamped, exhausted from days of forced marching.

Battle of Apollonia, 220 BC

At the Battle of Apollonia in 220 BC Antiochus proved himself to be a capable commander. He employed a sound strategy and showed an aptitude for leadership, as well as an awareness of his troops and their capabilities. On the right wing he placed his heavy lancers. To their left stood Antiochus’ Gallic mercenaries from Thrace (modern day Bulgaria) and Cretan infantry. Next to these men were Antiochus’ Greek mercenaries.

Alongside his centre, which was composed of the traditional Macedonian phalanx, the famed companion cavalry made up the left wing. In front of his centre Antiochus placed his elephants, the tanks of ancient warfare. Antiochus held combined reserves of infantry and cavalry on each wing, positioned to encircle the enemy as soon as battle commenced. The king himself assumed position on the right flank while Hermeias and the commander Zeuxis were on the left.

Polybius does not give the exact number of men for this engagement, but due to the variety of units on the field one can estimate the troop count would have been in the high thousands. Molon had to scramble his position together quickly. He divided his cavalry between his two wings and filled the gap between them with an assortment of heavy infantry; Scutati, Galatians and Greeks all rushed together.

Bronze statuette of Hercules from Seleucia located in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Molon deployed his skilled Iranian light infantry – equipped with bows, javelins and slings – alongside his cavalry on either flank. Finally, the self-proclaimed king placed scythed chariots in front of his centre and stationed himself on the right wing.

Winning the battle

The battle did not last long. As soon as the two sides had clashed, Molon’s left flank surrendered, for reasons unclear. Molon’s centre was severely disheartened; still they fought on while Antiochus encouraged his Seleucid soldiers to press the assault. Yet when the reserves of Antiochus encircled the rest of the enemy, Molon knew defeat was upon him. He took his own life, rather than be executed as a traitor. His army immediately surrendered.

Antiochus had Molon’s body strung up at the highest point possible in Medea, the pass of Mount Zagras. This was a clear warning to future satraps. Antiochus proceeded to treat the governors who had joined Molon with clemency, though exacting a fine of 150 golden talents upon those who had assisted Molon.

The death of Hermeias

With Molon’s death, Antiochus was now free to exact justice on the hated Hermeias. His physician Apollophanes appealed that now was the time that Hermeias must die. Antiochus agreed. The king invited Hermeias to ride in the countryside alongside him and some trusted bodyguards. Upon reaching a viewpoint of the surrounding land, the king requested they give him some time alone. The guards departed from view with Hermeias. Out of sight of the king, they stabbed Hermeias to death.

Without the hated statesman, the king achieved greater popularity. But this was just the beginning. Though he had been one of the most hated men in the empire, Hermeias had been right about one thing: under Ptolemy IV’s kingship, Egypt was seriously weak. Now was Antiochus’ opportunity to invade Egypt. It would not be easy. Many had tried to overthrow the Ptolemies – all had failed.

Tristan Hughes