Greek Rule -- The Ptolemies & Seleucids
(332 - 168 BC)

by Al Maxey

(Alexander) (The Diadochoi) (Ptolemy I) (Ptolemy II) (Ptolemy III) (Ptolemy IV) (Ptolemy V) (Antiochus III) (Seleucus IV) (Antiochus IV)


Alexander, the son of Philip of Macedon, was born in the year 356 BC. When he was just 20 years old (336 BC), his father was assassinated and he ascended to the throne of Macedonia. He immediately began to implement his father's plans for world conquest. He quickly subdued the nations around him and then turned his sights on the mighty Persian Empire.

Several famous battles ensued -- The Battle of the Granicus River, the Battle of Issus, the fall of the city of Tyre, the Battle of Gaugamela, just to name a few. It seemed that Alexander was unstoppable. In just four years he had conquered all the Greek states, all of Egypt, and the entire Persian Empire, including Syria and Palestine. The Egyptians were so thrilled to be rid of Persian domination that they declared Alexander to be the son of their god Ammon, and they dedicated a temple to him in his honor. The city of Alexandria, in northern Egypt, was also named after him.

Alexander next turned his attention to Russia & India, and conquered much of both countries. It should be noted that Alexander was a very sympathetic, understanding, and kind administrator. He was a benevolent ruler, and most of the conquered peoples regarded him very highly. He not only won their territory, he also won their hearts!

As a gesture of reconciliation with Bactria (a part of Russian Turkestan), Alexander married Roxana, a Bactrian princess. His only child, a son, was born to Roxana shortly after his death. In the year 323 BC Alexander planned a sea voyage to Arabia, but in June of that year he died of a fever before he could begin this new campaign. Alexander was only 33 years old at the time of his death.

Although Alexander was a great military leader and strategist, perhaps his largest and most lasting accomplishment, historically, was the bringing of Greek culture to the lands he conquered. Even though a Macedonian by birth, Alexander loved the Greek culture and promoted it with a missionary fervor wherever he went. He received a classic education, studying under Aristotle himself, and on all his campaigns he carried copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey which he read repeatedly. It is said that every night he slept with a copy of the Iliad and a dagger under his pillow. Knowledge and conquest were his life.

In every location which he conquered, he would order his troops to marry the local women so that a race of Greeks might soon be born. He also commanded that the Greek language be taught to all conquered peoples, and that Greek was to be the official language of the empire. Thus, Alexander became Hellenism's greatest apostle and missionary.

One of the ironies of history, however, is that even though Alexander succeeded in spreading Hellenism to the nations he conquered, yet he himself, toward the end of his life, became converted to the oriental culture. He began dressing like the Persian kings before him, he took on their customs, and he even began to act cruelly toward those who opposed him. In the city of Persepolis, for example, he killed all the men of the city and enslaved the women. Then, he and his soldiers fought with one another over possession of the plunder.

The year before his death, his own soldiers became so disgusted with his behavior (he was even ordering that he be worshipped as a god) that they revolted against his leadership. This revolt was quickly put down, but it was evidence that Alexander's abuse of his power was beginning to create turmoil. Alexander died in his palace in Babylon in 323 BC. The cause of death was said to be a fever, but rumors abounded that he may have been poisoned, or that he may even have taken his own life.


When Alexander died in 323 BC he left no heir to the throne. Thus, a period of intense struggle broke out among his many generals over who would control the vast empire. This was all complicated even more when Roxana, Alexander's wife, gave birth to a son, who was now the rightful heir to the throne. Cassander, one of the generals, quickly solved the problem by killing both Roxana and her baby.

This struggle among the generals continued until 315 BC, at which time it was decided to divide the kingdom four ways among the top four generals. This four way division of the empire was predicted long beforehand in Daniel 8:21-22. These four generals were known as the Diadochoi, which in Greek means "Successors." They were:

  1. Ptolemy Lagi --- who ruled over Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Peterea. He was assisted by a general named Seleucus, who had originally been given Babylon, but who was later forced out by Antigonus.

  2. Antigonus --- who controlled Syria, Babylonia, and central Asia.

  3. Cassander --- who ruled over Macedonia and Greece.

  4. Lysimachus --- who was the ruler of Thrace and Bythinia.

Even though the kingdom had been divided between them, these Diadochoi still continued to fight with one another. There were frequent outbursts of violence as they sought to gain each other's territory. Antigonus was probably the worst of the generals. The others finally allied themselves together and drove him out in 312 BC. Members of his family managed to flee to Macedonia where they set up a small kingdom, but it is of little significance to this study.

General Seleucus seized upon this opportunity and took back the territory which had originally been given to him. This area, Syria and Babylonia, now became the Seleucid Dynasty. At the same time, Ptolemy Lagi extended his boundaries northward from Egypt to include the area occupied by the Jews. Thus, the Jews came under the rule of the Ptolemies, which rule they held until 198 BC.

After the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC), Seleucus succeeded in taking all the territory previously held by Antigonus; the kingdom of Lysimachus was also absorbed into the Seleucid Dynasty. Thus, with the exception of the small Macedonian kingdom, the entire empire was now controlled by the Seleucids in the North and the Ptolemies in the South. Caught right in the middle of these two struggling factions was Palestine, and it became the source and site of constant conflict between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. For the first 100 years or so the Ptolemies held the upper hand in the struggle over Palestine, the home of the people of Israel.


The first group to maintain any real consistent control of Palestine after the death of Alexander was the Ptolemies, who ruled from the land of Egypt. For the most part, they were very good to their Jewish subjects, although they did tax them quite heavily.

PTOLEMY I, SOTER (323 - 285 BC)

This ruler was also known as Ptolemy Lagi, and was one of the Diadochoi. Palestine came under the dominion of the Ptolemies during his reign. He also relocated many of the Palestinian Jews to the land of Egypt where Greek soon became their native language.


This ruler was the son of Ptolemy I. Under his rule the Jews, both in Egypt and Palestine, enjoyed a lengthy period of quiet, and also some degree of prosperity. These first several Ptolemies were more concerned with intellectual pursuits than with military matters. In Palestine, the High Priest, aided by a council of priests and elders, was allowed to rule as a political underlord of the Ptolemies. As long as they paid their annual tribute of 20 talents, they were left pretty much alone.

In Egypt, the Jews were allowed to build Synagogues to worship and study in, and Alexandria soon became an influential Jewish center. Under the rule of Ptolemy II, the Jewish Scriptures were translated into the Greek language. This translation is known as the Septuagint (LXX), a translation which would become the most popular version of the Scriptures among the Jews of the dispersion, and which would be used a great deal by the writers of the New Testament books.


At about the same time, both Ptolemy Philadelphus and Antiochus II died. The former was succeeded by Ptolemy III, also known as Euergetes I, and the latter was succeeded by his son SELEUCUS II (247 - 226 BC). Once again war broke out between the two parts of the empire. The cause was -- Laodice (the half-sister, and also the wife, of Antiochus II) wanted her son to one day take the Seleucid throne, rather than the son of Berenice. Therefore, Laodice killed Berenice and her infant son.

This outraged the Ptolemies of the southern kingdom, and thus the famous Laodicean War broke out. The Ptolemies were very successful and managed to capture a large part of the Seleucid Empire, including all of Syria, before local problems called Ptolemy III back to Egypt. With Ptolemy III no longer on the battlefield, Seleucus II managed to recapture much of his territory. He tried to capture Palestine, but was unable to do so. Peace finally was declared in 240 BC.

Seleucus II was succeeded in 226 BC by SELEUCUS III (226 - 223 BC) who reigned only 3 years before being poisoned. He was then succeeded by his younger brother who was known as ANTIOCHUS III, THE GREAT (223 - 187 BC) ..... more about this ruler later.


In the year 221 BC, Ptolemy III died and was succeeded by Ptolemy IV, Philopater, who was without a doubt the most cruel and vicious ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. He hated the Jews, and as a result persecuted them without mercy. He even attempted to force his way into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple and thus defile it. The Jews detested this madman, and celebrated with great rejoicing at his death in 203 BC.


Ptolemy V, also called Epiphanes ("the illustrious one"), was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers to hold control over Palestine and the people of Israel. He was not the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, however. The Ptolemaic Dynasty did not come to an end until 30 BC when the famous CLEOPATRA died.

In 198 BC the Seleucids, under Antiochus III, finally took control of Palestine, which control they held, more or less (mostly less), until the coming of the Romans in 63 BC.


We've already examined the rulers of the Seleucid Dynasty who were contemporaries of the Ptolemies during the latter's control of Palestine. Following are the Seleucid rulers who held control over Palestine and the people of Israel after it passed into their hands from the Ptolemies.


This ruler was only 18 years old when he ascended the throne of the Seleucid Empire in 223 BC. Even though young, he was nevertheless experienced in government as he had served as Governor of the province of Babylonia under his brother Seleucus III. Antiochus immediately began an effort to conquer the troublesome empire of the Ptolemies. Although he was unable to completely destroy them, yet at the Battle of Panion in the Jordan Valley (198 BC) he was able to gain complete control of Palestine.

The Jews were at first happy by this state of affairs. The constant warring between the two dynasties seemed finally to be at an end, and they welcomed Antiochus with open arms. Little did they realize, however, that the Seleucids would prove to be even harsher masters than the Ptolemies.

At about this same time, Hannibal, who had been defeated by the Romans at Zama, fled to the court of Antiochus for protection. Still interested in stirring up trouble for Rome, however, he convinced Antiochus to invade Greece, whereupon Rome promptly declared war on Antiochus. The Romans defeated Antiochus in 190 BC, and made him pay dearly for his alliance with Hannibal. He was forced to pay enormous amounts of money, and to surrender his navy and his war elephants. To insure that Antiochus continued making his payments, the Romans took his youngest son to Rome where they kept him hostage for twelve years. This young boy was later to return to the Seleucid Empire and assume the throne under the name Antiochus Epiphanes.

SELEUCUS IV (187 - 175 BC)

Three years after his defeat by the Romans, Antiochus the Great died and was succeeded by Seleucus IV, who ruled for the next twelve years. His situation was a most precarious one -- somehow he had to come up with fantastic amounts of money to send to the Romans. To raise this money he heavily taxed the people of the land, including the Jews of Palestine.

This created a moral dilemma for the Jews. Some felt it was morally allowable to give money to the government, whereas others felt it was sinful. Thus, two opposing factions formed among the Jews over this issue. The Oniads, under the leadership of the High Priest Onias, were opposed to helping the Seleucids in any way. The other group, led by a man named Jason, felt the opposite, and set about making many false, slanderous reports to the king concerning Onias, in the hopes of undermining him.

Jason, who was the brother of Onias, was only interested in one thing -- becoming the High Priest in his brother's place. He hoped to accomplish this by offering the Seleucids large amounts of money (see -- II Maccabees 3-4 and Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, Chapters 4-5). King Seleucus IV ignored the Jewish squabble, for the most part, and refused to get that deeply involved.


In the year 175 BC, Antiochus IV, also known as Epiphanes, murdered Seleucus IV and took the throne. He immediately took advantage of Jason's offer of money, and removed Onias from the office of High Priest, installing Jason in his place. Three years later, a man named Menelaus offered Antiochus even more money, so the king removed Jason and made Menelaus the High Priest.

Those Jews who were still trying to be faithful to their God were infuriated by this state of affairs, and their hearts were pained that the position of High Priest could be bought by the highest bidder. Those who were outspoken concerning these abuses were known as the Hasidim ("the pious ones"). It is from this group that the Hasidic Jews of today trace their roots. They renamed Antiochus -- "Epimanes" ("the madman").

In the year 169 BC Antiochus invaded Egypt in an attempt to destroy once and for all the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Soon it was reported back in Palestine that the king had been killed in battle. When this news reached Jason, he returned from exile and threw Menelaus out of the city and once again assumed the office of High Priest. The news of Antiochus' death was false, however, and when he returned to Jerusalem he utilized his army to forcibly remove Jason from office and reinstall Menelaus. At this time Antiochus also entered the Temple and stole a great deal of valuable treasure, an act which the pious Jews looked upon as an abomination before God.

The following year (168 BC) Antiochus renewed his campaign against the Egyptians, but he was stopped by the Roman representative Popilius Laenus, and was ordered to leave Egypt and never come back. This so infuriated Antiochus that he came back and took out his frustration on the city of Jerusalem. He tore down the city walls, slaughtered a great many of the Jews, ordered the Jewish Scriptures to be destroyed, and he and his soldiers brought prostitutes into the Temple and there had sex with them in order to defile the Temple. He also issued orders that everyone was to worship the Greek gods, and he established the death penalty for anyone who practiced circumcision, or who observed the Sabbath or any of the Jewish religious feasts and sacrifices.

The cruelty of Antiochus in enforcing these new laws against the Jews became legendary. An aged scribe by the name of Eleazar was flogged to death because he refused to eat the flesh of a swine. In another incident, a mother and her seven young children were each butchered, in the presence of the Governor, for refusing to worship an idol. In yet another incident, two mothers, who had circumcised their newborn sons, were driven through the city and then thrown to their deaths from the top of a large building.

The final outrage for the pious Jews of the land came when Antiochus sacked the Temple and erected an altar there to the pagan god Zeus. Then, on December 25, 168 BC, Antiochus offered a pig to Zeus on the altar of God. This was the last straw! The Jews had taken all they were going to take from these oppressors. The stage was set for a large-scale rebellion of the Jews against the Seleucids. This famous rebellion is known in history as the Maccabean Revolt.

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