5 Fast Facts about Antiochus IV, the Villain of Hanukkah

Bad Boy of the Festival of Lights

The story of Hanukkah casts a particularly vile villain in the history of the Jews - King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proponent of all things Hellenistic at the expense of the valiant Maccabees. But was there more to Antiochus than just the ruler who lost Israel to the Hasmoneans?

For one, when did he even rule (the answer is 175-c. 164 B.C.)? Where did he rule (the Seleucid kingdom)? And why did he even give two figs about the Jews?

01
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His Campaign Against Jerusalem Wasn't Really About the Jews

Kingdoms of the Diadochi, immediate successors of Alexander the Great
Kingdoms of the Diadochi. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd

Antiochus was hardly all sugar, spice, and everything nice; he still committed plenty of atrocities. But understanding historical context is important. His issues over Israel were, in fact, part of a much larger regional historic dispute between the members of his dynasty - the Seleucids - and the Ptolemies of Egypt as to which family of Alexander the Great's successors really controlled the Levant. Israel was just one of the areas of contention. There was a long history of Seleucid vs. Ptolemy problems in this area, as Polybius recounts at length. The Jerusalem edition was called the Sixth Syrian War

Josephus opens Book I of the Wars of the Jews by saying Antiochus "had a quarrel with the sixth Ptolemy about his right to the whole country of Syria." Two different factions of power in Jerusalem allied themselves with one of the two kings. Antiochus and Ptolemy VI probably didn't care about each group's ideological considerations in and of themselves, but paid more attention as to how that group's ideals dovetailed with their individual political goals.

In the initial conflict over power in Jerusalem, Ptolemy supported Onias to be High Priest, while Antiochus backed the sons of Tobias. It was on the pretext of helping the Tobiads that Antiochus first conquered Jerusalem and suppressed the Jews, more so as a token of one-upping Ptolemy VI than because he actually hated the Jews themselves.

Antiochus didn't handle these issues with aplomb. Josephus notes that, in particular, "he slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy." At that point, the Temple was a locus of political contention between the two kings. In fact, Ptolemy's priestly candidate, Onias, fled to Egypt and built a mini-Jerusalem there.

02
of 05

People Called Him Crazy, But...

Antiochus might have bathed in a gymnasium complex like this one. Karelj/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Punning on Antiochus's nickname of Epiphanes (more on that later), Polybius dubs him "Epimenes," or "madman," in the Histories. But Antiochus's antics aren't actually all that insane by modern standards, but definitely quirky by ancient ones.

He liked to associate with commoners, strangers, and foreigners, bring a pipe - the fife, not the other kind! - to parties with his friends, and stroll around the marketplace. Interested in smithing, Antiochus ditched his retainers and was "chiefly found at the silversmiths' and goldsmiths' workshops, holding forth at length and discussing technical matters"

Antiochus was also a fan of his Roman counterparts to the West - which makes sense, given he was a hostage in Rome for ten years. Antiochus dressed up as a candidate and "assuming a white toga, [would] go round the marketplace like a candidate, and, taking some by the hand and embracing others, would beg them to give him their vote." Not that he needed it. But Antiochus enjoyed ruling like a Roman, sitting on a curule chair and listening to lawsuits.

Finally - and perhaps the only odd act of it all, by modern measures - Antiochus enjoyed soaking in public baths and playing pranks at the same time. When a pal remarked on his awesome collection of soaps and oils, Antiochus dumped a jar of stactea costly unguent, on his friend's head. Everyone in the baths then rolled around in this precious substance like an ancient Slip 'n' Slide.

03
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Antiochus Helped Create the Phrase "Line in the Sand"

A recreation of Antiochus and Popullius meeting in the desert. The Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

In 168 B.C., Antiochus decided to invade Ptolemy VI's home territory of Egypt and its capital of Alexandria. But the Romans got involved, as they tended to do, sending a diplomat named Popillius to tell Antiochus to back. off. 

The king wasn't having it, so he stalled. But Popillius drew a line in the sand and told Antiochus he had to figure out what he was going to do before he crossed that line, as Cicero recounts in his Orations. Not surprisingly, Antiochus withdrew from Alexandria. On his way home, he robbed a temple, says Appian, perhaps in frustration.

04
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Antiochus Was Into Hellenization All Over the World

Doesn't Antiochus look nice and Greek here?. Ernst Wallis, et al./Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

In an effort to unite the far-flung lands of his realm, Antiochus emphasized Hellenism as the way of life of choice in each area he ruled, including Israel. The Book of Maccabees tells us, "Antiochus now issued a decree that all nations in his empire should abandon their own customs and become one people" (1 Maccabees 41-43). Some did it willingly; the Sidonians of Schechem, who didn't identify as Jews, even offered to call their temple on Mount Gerizim after Zeus Hellenios. Interestingly, their cult didn't change, but just received a Greek name.

But Antiochus didn't stop with just Israel. At Athens, recounts Granius Licinianus in his History of Rome, "he built the Olympion with marble walls, and he surrounded it with numerous columns. The famous temple of Olympian Zeus at Athens had long remained unfinished…"  In addition, he constructed a marble theater in Tegea and was a benefactor to the cities of Miletus, Megalopolis, Rhodes, and more, establishing himself firmly as a true patron of all things Greek in the Mediterranean and beyond.

Someone - probably prompted by Antiochus - propagated the image of the king as supreme Hellene by putting up a statue of Antiochus at Delos, Apollo's center of worship. Why? "On account of his virtue and his goodwill towards the people of Athens," attests the inscription on the statue. He was so nice to Athens he was honored at Delos. Also, in the city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, Antiochus built a new quarter of the city called Epiphania - named for himself, of course - and a new agora. He probably helped install all things Greek in his reconquered territory of Armenia. 

05
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This Seleucid Apple Didn't Fall Far From the Tree

Antiochus IV's dad, Antiochus III ("the Great"). Auguste Giraudon/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Antiochus wasn't that different from his predecessors and successors in a number of ways. For one, he married his sister, Laodice; the practice of sibling marriage went back about 150 to 200 years and was a common one in the royal families of the Hellenistic East. 

He also gave himself a royal epithet, which was super-common for Hellenistic monarchs. Antiochus dubbed himself Epiphanes, or "the god manifest," which, although a boastful moniker, wasn't an uncommon one for the time - see his Ptolemaic relative, Ptolemy V Epiphanes. For example, his dad, Antiochus III, got the glorious name of Megas, or "the Great."