Ars Bellica

Battle of Raphia

22 June 217 BC

In what will be known as the "battle of elephants", Ptolemy IV defeats Antiochus III King of Syria ensuring, for a short time, the control of the Palestinian area to Egypt.



Antiochus III (223 - 187 BC)

Antiochus III

Antiochus III, as known as the great for his campaigns to the Indus Valley, (242-187 BC), King of Syria (223-187 BC), son of Seleucus II and brother of Seleucus III, whom he succeeded. It was the most important King of the Seleucid dynasty. This ruler, ascended to power in 221, had from the beginning of his reign planned a war against the Egyptians, but he faced this task only when he had strengthened his power in Asia minor with a series of successful enterprises that gave him back a situation of superiority and control, of course according to the usual situation of his monarchy that only with the arms could completely ensure the sovereign power over the territories that composed his domains.

In this series of campaings, Antiochus III came to India, imposed his superiority over the Arabs and took control over all the caravan routes that brought Eastern goods in his country, congregating in Syria the wealth and well being. Defeated at the battle of Rafah (also known as the battle of Raphia) from Ptolemy the fourth, shortly after, Antiochus III could benefit from a egyptian dynastic crisis for the death of winner of Raphia and the advent to the throne, in childhood, of Ptolemy V, with an anticipated weakening of the monarchy. However, in those days, a new power, Rome, was widespread in the Eastern Mediterranean and was becoming a predominant factor certainly not for the benefit of the Seleucids. The Egypt, which was the first of the Hellenistic States asking the Roman intervention and benefit from it, was able to start a long stasis period, thanks to the Roman protection, to survive with what came from the vitality of its organizations and with the richness of its economy.

Ptolemy IV (244 BC - 204 BC), Hellenistic King of Egypt (221 - 204 BC)

Ptolemy IV

Son of Ptolemy III and Berenice II he married, according to the custom of the Ptolemies, the sister Arsinoe III in 217 BC; later, he fell into disgrace and died in unclear circumstances. During his reign he blocked the attempt of Antiochus III of Syria to take over the part of Palestine and Syria where the Ptolemies had taken advantage of the youth of Antiochus; the Syriac King was defeated at Raphia (217 BC) during what is known as the fourth war of Syria. Starting from 210 BC Ptolemy IV had associated his infant son Ptolemy V to the throne whom, upon his death, took the leadership of the Kingdom in a climate of serious unrest.

It must be underlined that at Raphia, Ptolemy IV, earned a victory significantly because, for the first time, a Ptolemy fought at the head of local Egyptian troops instead of mercenary soldiers. This policy of adventures, despite military successes at the end of the century III had weakened the Egyptian monarchy, who always had an increasing necessity of his indigenous subjects and so had to follow the trends of the egyptian high classes, which supported the conservative and traditionalist policies and therefore not in agreement to a strategy that would introduce Egypt within the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean, away from his thousand-year political based on economic and cultural isolation.


The Genesis

After the death of Alexander the great in 323 BC, the great empire that the young Macedonian King had conquered broke for the infighting between the same generals of the King. Antipater, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Perdiccas and the other young officers of the Macedonian army, selected by Alexander for their military capabilities but also for their personality and their ambition, triggered almost immediately a series of civil wars over the succession of the great leader passed away, involving also the eastern and the persian part of the Empire.
After forty years of wars, passed into history as the wars of the Diadochi, emerged, at the end, some powerful state-entities that form, for the next century, the political backbone of the Hellenistic world, throughout the Middle East, before the rising of Rome. Among these, the most powerful, under the military and political profile were the Kingdom of Syria founded by Seleucus in the central part of those which were the conquests of Alexander, and the Kingdom that Ptolemy had clipped, protecting from claims of colleagues, in Egypt.

A marble copy of the shield of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon.

Between the Ptolemies of Egypt and Seleucid of Syria fights were on the agenda, especially to establish the boundary line in the Palestinian area, traditional point of friction for Nilotic peoples and kingdoms of Middle-East since the bronze age. A boundary line, or rather an unsteady line which divided their areas of influence, passed around the end of the 2nd century BC, in the area situated roughly between the Sinai Peninsula and the middle course of the Jordan. It was here that in previous years the Seleucids and Ptolemies had clashed, without being able to define once and for all who should control the region. When in 223 the King of Syria Seleucus III was killed by two officers, his brother Antiochus III had only 17 years and succeeded his uncle King, Antiochus II. The complicated dynastic situation provoked an intervention in Palestine by the United Egypt: Ptolemy IV, in fact, had noted very carefully the convulsions that plagued the powerful Syrian Kingdom, hoping to regain the positions lost by his father, Ptolemy III.
With a careful policy of alliances and after defeating the menace of the Attalids of Pergamum, Antiochus, who later for his Indian conquests will be known as the great, was able to settle with security on the throne and in 217 BC, moved the army to Palestine, already occupied by the Egyptians, with the intention to regain it.


The Ptolemaic monarchy and the Seleucids of Syria

The Seleucids monarchy, in comparison to the Ptolemaic had problems far more complex, especially in foreign relations. Shortly after the death of Seleucus I, the Seleucids had to face the Celtic invasion of Asia minor, which deeply damaged the seleucids empire, blocking it to seize control over the straits. The Seleucids were unable to prohibit to the Celts to seize strategic locations that were passages between the towns of Syria and the Bosporus. The seleucids monarchy had not only inherited all the reasons for weakness and disorder that made difficult the life of the Persian Empire in Asia minor, but also had the disadvantage, compared to the Persians, to not had a strong ethnic group to count on, as the Achaemenids dynasty, while the Egyptians hereditated an administrative structure that was very ancient and traditional roots that were inseparable from the economic life of the country.

The seleucids monarchy was forced to hold on to power through force much more than the Egyptian one, and this was a source of weakness, even more serious because the most hellenized elements of Asia Minor withdrew from the Syrian monarchy when was established the Kingdom of Pergamon. This kingdom begun as a vassal Principality of the Seleucid Empire under the control of Eumenes, invested of sovereignty by syrians in 262, but became soon a strong piece of Egyptian policy in rivalry against the same Syria. Thanks to this competition the King of Pergamon was able to take possession of Mysia, Lydia, Phrygia, Aeolis, conquering all Greek centers and penetrating even inland. The Kings of Pergamon were even more strengthened with the second King, Attalus I, winner of the Galatians Celts, and now rival the Syrians as a stronger and more active representative of Hellenism in Asia minor.

The creation of the monarchy of Pergamon, removing the greatest Greek group by the Syriac monarchy, represented a significant cause of weakening, and Syria was forced to permanent war efforts, against Egypt and against the Gauls. This latter succeeded, after many years of war, to take possession of the Valley of the Halys and all its territories including, i.e. regions that in the distant past were the centre and base for the power of the Hittites.
While the Seleucids were trying to survive in Asia minor and were continuously to deal with wars against the Egypt and on the eastern borders, especially to the revolts of the Bactrian satrapies and Parthia, the Ptolemies of Egypt had the chance to face wars only when they were actually in a position to do it.


Ptolemaic wars

Egyptian expansion attempts in Greece and in the Aegean Sea would have also meant considerable advantages and would give to the Ptolemies the way to bring their population new development possibilities, escpecially in economics: in addiction, the Greeks were accustomed to make huge profits by selling to the Egyptians their artifacts and being paid in wheat. The goal of Ptolemaic monarchy was, instead, export the Egyptian wheat and import goods that they represented the value of the grain itself, including cash when the need for imports decreased. However, some of these aspirations were dictated mainly by the needs of dynastic politics of the first and second of the Ptolemies of Egypt.

In fact, already with Ptolemy II, the Egyptian policy increased its interest in the traditional problems of Pharaonic, and foreign policy, without abandoning the League of Aegean Islands created by his father, and indeed strengthened it with the new accession of Samos. Ptolemy II directed his interest to the countries of Upper Nile, Cyrenaica and especially to Syria by engaging, for the possession of this country, in long wars against the Seleucid State and to secure a large domination which included part of Syria, a part of Cilicia and some strategic control positions in Pamphylia, Lycia, Caria, and even in Crete.
The war for Syria occupied a large part of the reign of Ptolemy II, from 275 to 253, and ended with a full Egyptian failure and the loss of almost all the positions gained in Asia minor, excluding those in Caria. The later Ptolemies, Ptolemy III Euergetes and Ptolemy IV Philopator, continued attempts to expand at the expense of the seleucids monarchy. The first of this two, in particular, engaged all its forces in an expedition that crossed the entire seleucids reign and to remake the march of Alexander the great, up to the borders of India, while the second will be the final winner of the battle of Raphia.


Macedonians "of Egypt"

The Macedonian military class, which was the base of the sovereign power, had changed his position, since almost all of them had taken the route of conquest, taking on new functions, extremely varied according to the circumstances and capacities with a condition similar to Spanish emigration to the Americas in sec. XVI, though in much higher proportions. Starting with the great characters that had risen to new thrones, a part of Macedonian officials had begun, since the time of Alexander, to take high responsibility mostly becoming administrators of regions or military commanders as governors. Even in these cases it is still in the exceptions for highest personalities. However, it was also frequently the case that Macedonians veterans who were settle as colonists in the conquered towns, with lots of land, transformed themselves into landowners.

Hellenistic armies were another opportunity to accomodate, with permanent positions, elements from the various ethnic groups in Macedonia. In the Ptolemaic army that fought at Raphia in 217, there were substantial numbers of local Egyptian recruitment departments, but beside them there was a department of Macedonian soldiers and some mercenary units. The Macedonians embedded in the army were also professional soldiers, but had the necessary function, for the Hellenistic doctrine of war, to establish departments with a high degree of specialized training, framed in a corp directly under the command. Part of these Macedonians, who lent their military service in the privileged position that made them the decisive element of the battles, came from Macedonian families settled into Egyptian territory, and constituted a reason for distinction and a reason for granting a superior position for the Macedonians compared to other subjects. Other members of the Macedonians departements were probably voluntary elements imported from other regions, as they could not be enlisted in their Macedonian homeland that was under the control of another dynasty.

Bronze Corinthian helmet - although it was very lightweight equipment is not to be excluded that such helmets were still in use.

In this way the Macedonians were still considered, at least from the military profile, members of an elite that was in a prevalent and dominant position even when compared to the Greeks, but the egyptian monarchy couldn't bring much beyond these distinctions. The language used was normally the Greek; the school was based on Hellenic pedagogical principles and culture in it was uniformly Hellenic, and then the Macedonians conditions had become that of natives from Greek country. Even in the seleucids monarchy, the Macedonian element differed only in the army now, in which there were even more special forces recruited only among Macedonians, as in Egypt.

There was a department, called phalanx, which had strictly traditional Macedonian systems and armaments, mostly composed of men of the Macedonian community settled in the selucid territory, but there was not a strict criterion of ethnic exclusivism. The army of the Kingdom of Macedonia retained as could local traditions, but did not have great possibilities of local recruitment, because Macedonia was impoverished in its population from large voluntary or forced migrations, and even Macedonian army should essentially be based on mercenaries armed and instructed in the local military tradition. The army was, on the other hand, the only environment in which, in homage to the traditions and ancient military prestige, perpetuated a distinction between Greeks and Macedonians. In any other case, it no longer had any meaning, and few countries had a complete hellenization as that achieved by Macedonians. Their Greek origin could not be questioned, although they were at a level of civilization far more backward of classical Greece.
This two populations could no longer be easily compared to the subjects peoples, and the differences between each other, excluding the military field, were perceptible only to experts in administrative matters.


The Hellenistic military system

In order to developing the evolutionary concepts introduced by the thebans Epaminondas and Pelopidas, that succesfully contrast the Hoplitic Phalanx , Philip II of Macedonia had deeply renewed the tactical approach of the Greek armies in the battlefield. Through the creation, in accordance with Macedonians traditions, a strong component of heavy cavalry, the king had broken the classical battle scheme characterized by linear impact between Hoplites. In those days the battle tactics were definitely more advanced than simple frontal clash among the masses that had characterized the way of fighting of the Greek poleis. In Macedonia, especially during Alexander's campaigns, the Phalanx was no longer the only decisive weapon available to the Commander, but rather one of its elements.
The heavy cavalry was operating so to "break through" one of the enemy flanks and then move like a hammer on the anvil of the enemy formation (the center), formed by infantry units in close order. This scheme was applied effectively against the Persian armies at Granicus and at Issus so to achieve a tactical perfection in decisive victory as was Arbela.

The various conflicts, first between the diadochi and after between the Hellenistic kingdoms, show us more and more refined tactical evolutions. All elements shown in the past decades are still present, but in the Hellenistic armies formed of large masses of combatants from different military cultures and combat habits, offers, to the commanders of that time, a variegated set of choices. The Phalanx loses its ancient importance, reduced, as it was, at the role to block on the field the enemy forces, meanwhile, the role of the troops that fighted in a more open order, get a tactical importance increasing, considering them the key for surrounding the enemy, at Raphia as in the other major battles of the period. The schematism and the reproduction of movement on the field is easy, but another significant innovation was represented by the use of war elephants, as at Raphia.


A battle of Elephants

Among the many military and weapons techniques used on ancient battlefields, war elephants certainly affect the modern reader's imagination.
These pachyderms, specifically trained for combat, heavy armored, mounted by soldiers armed with pike or bow, often encased in a small wooden fortification attached on the back of the animal, were for about two centuries, an important element of the armies of the Hellenistic world, first, and then finally to the Carthaginian army.

It was after the conquests of Alexander that the Western world became aware of the use of war elephants; the young Macedonian King was, in fact, very impressed when faced them at the battle of the Hydaspes River (326 BC) framed in the Indian army of King Porus.
Since then Western armies made extensive use of elephants in war, usually, the difficulty in controlling the pachyderms during the uproar of a battle had created more problems than benefits. The Hellenistic world, namely the kingdoms founded by Alexander's successors after his death, made a great use of this resource. The seleucids monarchy, for example, was able to form regular corps of troops practices in handling war elephants, while other Hellenistic States gained them in Arabia and Africa. The war elephant had two tactical purposes: protecting infantry from enemy and heavy attack action against the fortifications and opposing troops deployed.

Poculum with elephant decked out to war from Capena, III century BC

The elephant races used as weapon of war in those days were mainly two: the Indian species, more robust and more docile and another species, now extinct, native from Atlas mountains in North Africa, smaller but also more aggressive and difficult to control. The first breed served mainly eastern powers, such as the Seleucid Kingdom of Syria or Macedonia; the second, instead, resorted by the Western powers, such as the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Carthaginians.

The battle of Raphia, fought by the Seleucid army of Antiochus III the great against the King of Ptolemaic Egypt Ptolemy IV was one of the battles which saw the largest number of pachyderms forced, probably against their will and their nature, to fight on behalf of their human masters.
On the field of Raphia, a village near the present-day city of Gaza, Syrians and Egyptians deployed 176 war elephants of the two species, giving birth to one of the more cruel battles in the war that for decades had divided the two kingdoms.
In addition to elephants, at Raphia were in action all other typical components of a Hellenistic Army: the phalanges of pikemen, light and heavy chivalries, mercenary infantry of various ethnicities and backgrounds. Anyway we can affirm that the battle of Raphia, with its mass of elephants and the armies that represented almost all the populations of the known world, was a representation of cosmopolitanism and of gigantism that distinguished, throughout its history, the Hellenistic world.


The opposing forces

At Raphia the Egyptian army, under the command of King Ptolemy IV, had about 65,000 men, including 6,000 cavalry and 25,000 phalanx infantrymen, and 73 war elephants of African race.
Antiochus III, commanding the army of Seleucids, had at his disposal 6,000 horsemen among Macedonians and Asians, 30,000 phalanx infantrymen, 103 War Elephants from India and other 30,000 men of all the origins including a contingent of Celtic mercenaries.


The battle

Both armies deployed according to the Hellenistic consolidated operational model; the Phalanx in the center of the battle filed with the flanks protected by light troops and mercenary units and, on the two wings, the cavalries. Ptolemy had deployed its best departments, the Royal Guard on the left side, fronted by Antiochus who had deployed with the guard on the right flank of the army. Both rulers had placed their elephants in front, on the two wings, in fornt its own cavalry.

The battle of Raphia - The deployment

The early stages of the battle were in favour of the Seleucids: Antiochus, in fact, attacked by launching his elephants on his right flank. The indians Indians, stronger than those available to African Ptolemy, although outnumbered, managed to put en route the egyptians elephants, with units of auxiliary archers that accompanied them. The route of the egyptians pachyderms swept and also made flee Ptolemy's guard and cavalry, forcing the King himself to get in safe precipitously.

attack of Antiochus
The battle of Raphia - The attack of Antiochus III

On the other side things get better for the Egyptians: Although Ptolemy's elephants from that side, perhaps frightened by the noises of battle, stubbornly refused to move against the enemy, derailing every attempt of the conductors to make them move; a Greek and Celtic mercenary infantry attack began fleeing Syrian units, that on that side were composed mostly by Arab troops.
Even Egyptian Cavalry on the right side moved and, having managed to avoid their elephants (blocked in the middle of the battlefield), attacked, with a turning movement, on the side of the Syrian Cavalry, routing it.
Each of the opposing armies right wings had defeated the enemies who stood in front, putting them en route and pursuing soon after.

attack of Ptolemy
The battle of Raphia - The attack of Ptolemy

At that point, it was evident that the battle would be decided in the Center.
Deprived of the protection of auxiliary units on the flanks, both phalanxes marched against each other, toward the center of the battlefield.

advance of phalanges
The battle of Raphia - The advance of phalanges

The clash of Phalanxes was long and bloody, but the Ptolemaic phalanx, slightly numerically stronger and supported by the presence of Ptolemy that from the left wing had found refuge in the shelter of its tightened phalangitic ranks, began to slowly take over.

clash of Phalanxes
The battle of Raphia - The clash of Phalanxes

The Syrians, without the support of their leader (Antiochus had, in fact, followed his cavalry in pursuit the enemy cavalry without coming back among its ranks in time for the crucial clash), first wobbled, then began to lose ground and finally fled. For Antiochus was the defeat, for Ptolemy the triumph.

Phalanxes of Antiochus routed
The battle of Raphia - Phalanxes of Antiochus routed

In the battle, in addition to the Palestinian control, according to an ancient sources Antiochus III lost 10,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and 5 elephants 5; Ptolemy's army losses were 1,500 infantry, 700 cavalry and 16 elephants.


The consequences

The most immediate consequence of the battle of Raphia was the maintenance and the consolidation of the Ptolemaic occupation in Palestine. For Antiochus, however, the problems were quite different. Just spread the rumor of the defeat suffered by the King at Raphia, his cousin, Achaeus, rose up in turn, proclaiming himself King of Syria. Antiochus reacted promptly: gathered what was left of the army, struck an alliance with former foe Attalus, who considered Achaeus as the most dangerous, invaded Asia minor and sieged Achaeus at Sardis, capturing and killing him while was trying to escape from the city blocked by the army.
Restored his power in Syria, Antiochus III launched a series of campaigns in the East, where, in seven years, was recognized as King by the subordinate Kings of Bactria and the Arsacid Dynasty of Parthia, while, with King Sofagaseno in India, he managed to get an alliance and a contract to perpetual supply for war elephants.

Back in Syria with the name of Antiochus III the great, the Seleucid King took advantage of the minority of Ptolemy V, ascended to the throne of Egypt after the death of his father in 205 BC.
Back in Palestine, Antiochus took the fortress of Gaza and in 201 definitively defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Panion, in Northern Palestine. In 199 Ptolemy surrendered the Seleucids, ceding all of Palestine and Lebanon's coastline and agreeing to marry Antiochus's daughter, Cleopatra. The marriage was celebrated in 197, with the majority of Ptolemy, making the Egypt, de facto, a Seleucid protectorate. Antiochus seemed to be very close to the dream of uniting all of what had been the Empire of Alexander, but shortly afterwards another force was to make its debut on the stage of the ancient Middle- East: Rome would, in few years, reduce its power throughout the Hellenistic world, putting the foundations for the construction of its own Empire.