The Battle of Raphia: The Biggest Battle in Hellenistic History | History Hit

The Battle of Raphia: The Biggest Battle in Hellenistic History

Gold octadrachm issued by Ptolemy IV (r. 221–204 BC).
Image Credit: Public Domain

Between the years 274 and 168 BC, two ancient superpowers battled for the control of the southern Levant. Known as Coele-Syria (‘Hollow Syria’) in ancient times, this region included the Bekaa Valley, Jordan Valley and the eastern Mediterranean coastline. Both superpowers had emerged from the chaotic aftermath of Alexander the Great‘s death: the Ptolemaic Kingdom, based in Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire, centred in the Near East.

In 218 BC, Coele Syria was controlled by the Ptolemies and ruled by King Ptolemy IV. But that year, the ambitious Seleucid King Antiochus III attempted to conquer this contested region, culminating in one of the biggest battles of ancient history: the Battle of Raphia.

Antiochus makes his move

In the spring of 218 BC Antiochus’ army invaded Coele-Syria. Supporting him was a very powerful ally. His name was Theodotus and he was the governor of Ptolemaic Syria, one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom. Yet his poor relations with his Ptolemaic overlords in Alexandria were well-known. Upon learning of Antiochus’ plan to invade Theodotus needed little convincing to defect. The most powerful man in Ptolemaic Syria was now in Antiochus’ pocket.

With Theodotus’ aid the Seleucid monarch bulldozed his way into Coele-Syria, seizing many important cities within the first month of his invasion – strongholds such as the island fortress of Tyre and the Phoenician provincial capital Ptolemais. How would Ptolemy react? With Ptolemy in his permanent festive disposition Sosibius, the king’s most influential courtier, took over the preparations for war.

Coele-Syria, the site where much of the Syrian Wars took place

Image Credit: Public Domain

He ordered the Ptolemaic mercenaries serving in their territories across the Mediterranean to set sail for Alexandria and assemble in the new army while he also dispatched recruiting officers far and wide to recruit even more mercenaries. At the same time Sosibus sent representatives to engage in embassies with Antiochus. Yet everyone knew these talks were all-but destined to fail. Sosibus was simply buying time to raise and train an army.

Raising the army

Among the ranks of the new Ptolemaic army Sosibus had enlisted 20,000 native Egyptians. These men made up the largest single culture present in this huge force –  the first time the Ptolemies had relied so heavily on the native population in their armies in almost 100 years. Cretans, Libyans, Galatians, Thessalians, Thracians and other Greeks were also present.

To train this hastily-gathered army, the Ptolemaic court recruited four notable veterans. Their names were Echecrates, Phoxidias, Andromachus and Polycrates – all highly-respected men. These men not only had well established family lines, but they also had the charisma to instil in their soldiers the courage and skill required for any effective army. A vigorous training regime followed as Ptolemy’s veterans drilled the hastily-gathered army both in discipline and in weapon training.

Regardless of their nationality and no matter their traditional weapons, these veterans retrained most of the Ptolemaic infantry force in the Macedonian manner – equipping them with the deadly sarissa pike and a small pelta shield. Among those who were retrained this way were the 20,000 native Egyptians. For Ptolemaic armies this was unheard of; never before had Egyptians been included in a Ptolemaic phalanx.

As for the Thracian and Galatian infantry in the Ptolemaic ranks, they proved the exception. Their ferocious fighting ability with sword, spear, javelin and shield were well known and feared throughout the Mediterranean. In addition to this rigorous training regime the veteran generals held regular meetings with the troops, where they gave speeches to motivate, creating an atmosphere of brotherhood and shared determination – an esprit de corps. These reforms created a dangerous and capable soldiery.

Diplomacy fails

In the meantime, Seleucid and Ptolemaic representatives engaged in a series of diplomatic encounters. Yet both knew that the situation over control of Coele-Syria could not be resolved with words. Antiochus, already in control a significant part of the area, was even less inclined to come to a peaceful solution as he had gained serious momentum with his own army.

Sosibus ensured Antiochus’ envoys avoided discovering the new Ptolemaic army. He entertained them at Memphis, far away from the training grounds around Alexandria. Antiochus continued his successes, marching further south and taking the towns of Berytu, Botrys and all cities in-between. Finally realising the threat of the invaders, Ptolemy IV himself was roused into action. Although Polybius gives him little credit for this, his actions undoubtedly aided the Egyptian side.

Ptolemy sent full provisions to Gaza, expecting Antiochus to besiege the city, while he also dispatched a force under Nicolaus, his trusted general, to guard the mountain passes to the north, and made his own preparations for battle. Nevertheless, the defences of the mountain passes were not enough and Antiochus steamrolled through them. At Porphyrion, once again, the young king displayed an ingenuity on the field of battle to completely rout the Ptolemaic forces under Nicolaus.

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Not only had his army killed 2,000 of Nicolaus’ men, but after the success, two further Ptolemaic generals – Ceraes and Hippolocus – followed in Theodotus’ footsteps and joined the Seleucid side, along with 400 cavalry. Further successes followed for Antiochus in the Jordan Valley, where he captured numerous cities such as Pella and Philadelphus, lighting his road to Gaza and then to Egypt.

The threat of Antiochus was now too great. Ptolemy realised he would have to win a decisive victory in battle to save his throne, his kingdom and his dynasty. With a formidable army, Ptolemy marched his army out of Alexandria towards Gaza.

The Battle of Raphia

The town of Raphia is located close to Gaza. The field comprised a large plain – ideal for phalanx warfare and a place where there were little to no positional advantages afforded by geography. On the fifth day of marching from Alexandria, Ptolemy reached the location where the future of his realm would be decided. Polybius recalls how close the camps of Antiochus and Ptolemy were the evening before the battle:

Antiochus pushed forward his camp so much nearer Ptolemy, that the palisades of the two camps were not more than five stades from each other; and while in this position, there were frequent struggles at the watering-places and on forays, as well as infantry and cavalry skirmishes in the space between the camps.

Polybius 5. 80

That same night, the governor Theodotus, who had betrayed Ptolemy, attempted to assassinate his former master and send his army into disarray. Unfortunately, the attempt failed after he could not find the royal tent.


Ptolemy’s centre was formed of his phalanx – the nucleus of his army and some 50, 000 in number, among which were his newly-trained 20,000 Egyptians. On the right were the famed Thessalian cavalry wearing their iconic purple cloaks, along with his Galatian, Thracian and Greek mercenaries. Ptolemy placed himself and the rest of his cavalry on the left.

As for the 73 African elephants at his disposal – equipped with two man crews – he divided them between the two flanks, 40 on the left and 33 on the right and presumably his light Cretan skirmishers would have been deployed in a screen in front of them. In total Ptolemy presented an army of 70,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry- an awe-inspiring sight.

Antiochus also had his centre composed of his phalanx among which was a 10,000 strong elite unit called the Silver Shields – named after the notorious veterans of Alexander the Great.

He placed the majority of his elephants on the right, 70 out of 102. Behind the elephants he placed 4000 cavalry. From there toward the centre were the Cretans and Greek mercenaries. On his left he had 2000 cavalry and from them to the centre he stationed his javelin men, then the Cissians, Medes, and Carmanians (all from Antiochus’ eastern provinces) as well as the Arabian light infantry. In total Antiochus fielded an army of 62,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry along with his 102 elephants.

On the field of battle

Imagine standing in the centre of the phalanx as hundreds of sarissa pikes advance seemingly towards your chest, while the man to your left and right hold their ground against the adversary. Or on the flanks, as hundreds of warriors all yelling different languages, charge into the fray. The spraying of blood, the terrible shrieking of hulking elephants boring in to the maelstrom with their tusks, the thunderous charge of horses, the harsh cacophony of clashing metal.

Perhaps the most frightful sight of this terrifying battle was the elephant combat. Polybius describes the beast fights in detail:

The way in which elephants fight is this: they get their tusks entangled and jammed, and then push against one another with all their might, trying to make each other yield ground until one of them proving superior in strength has pushed aside the other’s trunk; and when once he can get a side blow at his enemy, he pierces him with his tusks as a bull would with his horns.

Polybius 5. 84

The Battle of Raphia, 217 BC

Upon the initial charge Ptolemy’s left wing was defeated. Antiochus pressed hard with his own cavalry and, using a similar flanking manoeuvre to the tactic he used to crush Molon, with both horses and elephants he scattered the forces of his rival. The African elephants of Ptolemy were terrified of the larger, more formidable Indian beasts of Antiochus. Such was their fright that on the left the Egyptian elephants not only fled but careered into their own side, decimating that flank.

Heartened by his success, Antiochus continued his pressure and concentrated purely on this part of the battle, ignoring the rest of his men and assuming their struggle would be met with similar success. It was a serious error.

The Mediterranean in 218 BC

Image Credit: User Goran tek-en on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

On Ptolemy’s right a very different story was emerging; it was his Greek mercenaries who prevailed. The heavy hoplites pinned down the outclassed Arabian light infantry while the commander Echecrates wheeled around their position with his elite Thessalian cavalry, and delivered a devastating attack. A Seleucid rout soon followed. Thus, while on his left Ptolemy was defeated on his right he was triumphant.

The decisive blow

While Antiochus pushed the Egyptian left the phalanxes in the centre were held in stalemate. This continued until Ptolemy, showing his awareness that this was where the battle would be decided, rode straight into the middle of his line shouting encouragement to his men and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.

Sosibius simultaneously ordered all his phalangists – including the Egyptians – to lower their pikes and advance. The Seleucids, without their leader – for Antiochus was pushing further and further away on their own right flank – were thrown into disarray and fled. This triggered a mass rout throughout Antiochus’ army. The battle was over. Although Antiochus was no doubt pleased with his own achievement in breaking the Ptolemaic units opposing him, he was devastated to see his own troops give way. Outraged, yet aware he was defeated, Antiochus was forced to flee. The battle of Raphia had been won by Ptolemy and his Egyptians.

The aftermath

Antiochus lost some 10,000 infantry, 300 cavalry, 3 elephants with 4000 troops taken prisoner. Ptolemy only lost 1500 infantry but his cavalry losses numbered 700 and he lost the majority of his elephants who could not stand up to their Indian counterparts. Nevertheless, it was a crushing victory for the Ptolemaic dynasty and ensured their rule in Egypt continued for nearly two further centuries.

Ptolemy took back the lost towns of Coele-Syria but did not press into Seleucid territory. Polybius attributes this to the weakness of his character but it was not entirely unreasonable for Ptolemy to seek peace. Two years after the battle the native portion of the army, empowered by the feeling of victory and their significant contribution to it, rebelled and founded the kingdom of Upper Egypt, an independent state that lasted twenty years. The threat of this new enemy prevented Ptolemy from embarking on campaigns away from home.

Antiochus on the other hand, learned from his defeat and went on to have a distinguished military career with campaigns in Bactria, India, Persia and further expeditions in Coele-Syria. As a general we remember Antiochus today with a more positive legacy. While the battle of Raphia may not resulted in a great change of the Hellenistic world, it was undeniably a clash of epic proportions.

Tristan Hughes