Two Major Native Rebellions Against Hellenistic Kings

Here are two stories of Greco-Macedonian rulers of the Hellenistic period coming to blows with the native population of their empires.

Dec 5, 2023By Benjamin Davies, MA Ancient History, BA Ancient History

rebellions hellenistic kings


The Hellenistic period saw Macedonian rulers on the thrones of both Asian and African empires from 323 BCE until 31 BCE. Although there was certainly a division between the Greek culture of the rulers and the native cultures of the ruled, Hellenistic kings were far more invested in cooperating and displaying themselves as the rightful rulers of their native subjects. However, there were still tensions between the rulers and the ruled. Native rebellions did sometimes erupt and two of these rebellions will be the subject of this article: the Maccabean revolt and the Great Rebellion.


1. The Great Rebellion (207-184 BCE): The Ptolemies vs. The Egyptians

Entrance to the Edfu Temple, which was sacked during the Great Rebellion, via Wikimedia Commons


The Great Rebellion began in the year 205 BCE with the sack of the Edfu Temple and the crowning of the rebel Pharaoh, Hugronaphor, in the ancient city of Thebes. This rebellion, which Polybius downplayed as a war without true battles or sieges, started in the aftermath of the Fourth Syrian War and the socio-economic tensions that were born out of this war. During the Fourth Syrian War, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires fought over control of the Levant (known at this time as Coele-Syria). Ptolemy IV levied twenty thousand native Egyptians to fight in the war. Even though this allowed him to win the war, it became one of the underlying causes of the rebellion.


As a result of Seleucid military activity in Coele-Syria, taxation could not be effectively levied from this area throughout the Fourth Syrian War. Furthermore, once the war was over, Ptolemy IV had to pay over one thousand talents to his new Egyptian levies to safely ensure the disarmament of his temporary native contingent. This led to a process of debasement in the Ptolemaic economy: the king did not have enough money to pay for his troops, so to counteract this, more coins were minted with less expensive material. As a result, the weight of bronze in Ptolemaic coinage dropped from seventy-two to forty-five grams, meaning that money was worth less, causing inflation. In its turn, this inflation caused violence. The violence was visible in the lands surrounding Thebes; papyri detailed the assault of royal farmers, and tax was not collected from the Thebeiad for two years after the rebellion, perhaps as a result of similar harassment.


Coin depicting Ptolemy IV Philopator, British Museum


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This economic failure also reflected poorly on the cultural identity of Ptolemy IV. The success of the Pharaoh was tied intrinsically to the success of Egypt. A text from the priest Ptahotep detailed the responsibilities of the Pharaoh:


“the lesser folk … emulate the great, the last become as the first. He who was lacking possessions is (now) the possessor of riches. He who had only a little land is now the possessor of tenants.”
The Maxims of Ptahotep


Although this text would have been incredibly old by the reign of Ptolemy IV, the concepts of kingly virtue (or maat) would have persisted in the collective consciousness of Egyptians. A Pharaoh with no virtue would bring disaster to the whole country. Ptolemy IV’s lack of virtue in the years following the Fourth Syrian War is backed up by the author Polybius who claimed that the ruler completely abandoned the path of justice.


However, the greatest evidence that Ptolemy IV had failed in convincing his subjects that his rule was just was the fact that not only was a native such as Hugronophror named as a rival pharaoh but also that his son, Ankhwennefer, was named as his successor after his death.


What If? 

A coin hoard, believed to be dated to the Great Rebellion, potentially signifying the collapsing economy, by Silverstein and Littman, 2022, via Journal of Field Archaeology


The naming of these native Egyptians as Pharaohs and the naming of their capital as Thebes was a true threat to the rule of the Ptolemies. During the Persian occupation of Egypt, a text known as The Demotic Chronicle was written which stated that an Egyptian ruler would overthrow foreign oppression. If the rebellion had been allowed to intensify further than it already had, perhaps many more unsatisfied Egyptians, some of whom would have had experience from the Fourth Syrian War, would have flocked to the banner of this prophesied Pharaoh to remove the shackles of foreign rule.


Another way in which this native uprising threatened the Ptolemaic rule of Egypt was through the actual violence that it unleashed. Although Polybius downplays the actual violence, claiming that it was simply lawlessness, the fact remains that the rebels were able to sack the temple of Edfu and then besiege and capture Thebes. The capture of this culturally significant city shows that there must have been a concentrated effort led by an effective commander. This is further backed up when one considers the size and defensibility of Egyptian temple complexes, which would have been guarded by soldiers (especially one that was commissioned by the Ptolemaic dynasty). The ability to assault, capture, and hold these locations suggests a greater deal of leadership and actual military activity than simply an angry mob.


The Effects of the Great Rebellion

The Rosetta Stone displays a decree written in the aftermath of the Great Rebellion on the orders of Ptolemy V, 196 BCE, via British Museum


Although ultimately defeated by Ptolemy V, the rebellion was undoubtedly significant in the Ptolemaic era. In the end, however, Ankhwennefer was pardoned by Ptolemy, likely due to the intervention of the Egyptian priestly class. Also, the Rosetta Stone, a document written after the rebellion, granted rights and privileges to the Egyptian priests, considerably growing their influence. Evidently, Ptolemy V was threatened enough by the rebellion that one of his top priorities was increasing his maat.


2. Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE): The Seleucids & The Suppression of Judaism

Eleazar sacrifices himself to bring down the elephant on which the king rides (Maccabean Revolt), Jan de Broen, via Pitts Theology Library, Emory University


The Maccabean Revolt began in 167 BCE and although the traditional end date is counted as 160 BCE, scholars argue that the rebellion continued until the independence of Judea from Seleucid rule in 141 BCE. Although the initial stages of the rebellion ended with the Seleucid control over Judea, the eventual separation of the Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom as a result of the rebellion is a clear indicator that this rebellion was indeed more serious than that faced in Egypt decades beforehand.


The key moment that sparked the rebellion was the decision by Seleucid king Antiochus IV to seize direct control over Jerusalem, ban Jewish practices, and dedicate the Second Temple of Jerusalem to Zeus. The build-up to this event can be seen in the failure of the Sixth Syrian War. Antiochus was on the cusp of victory and was marching to capture the city of Alexandria. It was there that a Roman delegation stopped the king and ordered him to turn back or risk a war with Rome. The king obeyed the Roman order.


On the march out of Egypt, he was invited to Jerusalem by the chief priest Menelaus, who had gained his position as chief priest by paying a large sum of money to the Seleucid Monarch. After Antiochus left the city to continue campaigning in Egypt, with a great deal of the temple’s money, the ex-high-priest, Jason (who also gained his position through bribing Antiochus), heard a rumor that the king had died and led a force into Jerusalem to regain his title by force. This dispute between the two men led to the harsh suppression of Judaism by Antiochus, which in turn led to the Maccabean Rebellion.


The Causes of the Revolt

Coin depicting Antiochus IV Epiphanes, British Museum


This dispute between the chief priests reveals the deeper reasoning behind the rebellion. As previously mentioned, both Menelaus and Jason had become chief priests as a result of their relationship with Antiochus. This relationship between the traditional elite and their Hellenistic overlords was part of a process known as Hellenization, wherein the elite of a non-Greek area would begin to act in a more Greek manner, such as partaking in Greek activities such as going to the gymnasium, to better interact with the Greek higher-ups and thereby gain more influence and power. As displayed by the struggle between Menelaus and Jason, this process was also taking place among the Jewish urban elite.


The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1634-6, via Nantes Museum of Arts


This Hellenized lifestyle within the urban priesthood led to a greater deal of tension between both the urban lower class and the rural society surrounding Jerusalem. They potentially would have seen the close alignment between their urban priests and the Seleucid king and they associated Hellenization as a threat to their way of life, something that Antiochus’ looting of the temple and banning of Jewish practices would have undoubtedly confirmed. In fact, in the aftermath of Antiochus’ ban, it was within these rural communities that the rebellion started off through the murder of a Jewish man who wished to sacrifice at a shrine to one of the Greek gods as well as a Seleucid soldier by Jewish priest Mattathias.


The Second Jewish Temple, model in the Israel Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The threat posed by the Maccabean revolt cannot be understated. The main campaign against the Seleucids was waged for seven years between 167 BCE and 160 BCE, with the final defeat of the rebels at the Battle of Elasa. A great deal of the rebels’ success in this time can be marked down to their effective use of guerrilla warfare, although they were able to defeat the Seleucid army in several battles, such as Beth Horon and Emmaus. The army of Judas Maccabee was able to re-enter the city of Jerusalem and “repurify” the temple, which they believed to be corrupted by the Seleucids; this recapture of the city is what led to the Jewish celebration of Hannukah. The success of the Maccabean revolt against several much larger Seleucid armies shows the threat that was caused by this revolt because it shows the resolve as well as the tactical acumen of Judas Maccabee, who was willing to fight and die for an independent Judea.


The Effects of the Maccabean Revolt

Fictitious depiction of Judas Maccabee, Guillaume Rouillé, via Wikimedia Commons


The rebels were defeated in several battles, such as Beth Zachariah and Elasa, which would bring an end to the main conflict of the Maccabean revolt. Internal divides between the traditional and Hellenized Jews would continue, resulting in a period where the more politically influential Hellenized Jews would persecute the anti-Greek Jews. As civil war brewed in the Seleucid Empire, however, the Maccabees were given an opportunity to play both sides of the war to gain more authority.


As Seleucid troops withdrew from Judaea to assist with the fighting in Syria, Johnathan Apphus, the brother of Judas Maccabee, betrayed the Seleucid king Demetrius and sided with Alexander Balas, the pretender who wished to seize the throne, who offered Johnathan the title of Chief Priest and “Strategos” of the city. This betrayal would pay off for Johnathan as Alexander Balas would win the Dynastic War in 150 BCE with the death of Demetrius. As a reward for his service to Balas, Johnathan was able to rule as a Seleucid vassal of a pseudo-independent Judea. This would eventually lead to the exemption of Judea from Seleucid taxation in 142 BCE and the official recognition of the Hasmonean Kingdom by the Roman Republic in 139 BCE.


This indicates the threat caused by the Maccabean revolt because of the simple fact that, unlike the Great Rebellion, through almost fifty years of constant struggle, despite being defeated by the Seleucids, an independent Jewish state was able to be formed in Coele-Syria.

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By Benjamin DaviesMA Ancient History, BA Ancient HistoryBenjamin holds a Master’s degree from King’s College London and an undergraduate degree from Cardiff and hopes to do a PhD soon. He studies the Seleucid Empire and how the multitude of cultures present there impacted their military.