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The Syrian Wars were a series of six wars between the Seleucid Empire and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor states to Alexander the Great's empire, during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC over the region then called Coele-Syria, one of the few avenues into Egypt. These conflicts drained the material and manpower of both parties and led to their eventual destruction and conquest by Rome and Parthia.
In the Wars of the Diadochi following Alexander's death, Coele-Syria initially came under the rule of Antigonus I Monophthalmus. In 301 BC Ptolemy I Soter, who four years earlier had crowned himself King of Egypt, exploited events surrounding the Battle of Ipsus to take control of the region. The victors at Ipsus, however, had allocated Coele-Syria to Ptolemy's former ally Seleucus I Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Empire. Seleucus, who had been aided by Ptolemy during his ascent to power, did not take any military action to reclaim the region. Once both were dead, however, their successors became embroiled in war.
First Syrian War (274 – 271 BC)
A decade into his rule, Ptolemy II faced Antiochus I, the Seleucid king who was trying to expand his empire's holdings in Syria and Anatolia. Ptolemy proved to be a forceful ruler and skilled general. In addition, his recent marriage to his court-wise sister Arsinoe II of Egypt had stabilized the volatile Egyptian court, allowing Ptolemy to successfully carry out the campaign.
The First Syrian War was a major victory for the Ptolemies. Antiochus took the Ptolemaic controlled areas in coastal Syria and southern Anatolia in his initial rush. Ptolemy reconquered these territories by 271 BC, extending Ptolemaic rule as far as Caria and into most of Cilicia. With Ptolemy's eye focused eastward, his half-brother Magas declared his province of Cyrenaica to be independent. It would remain independent until 250 BC, when it was reabsorbed into the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
Second Syrian War (260 – 253 BC)
Antiochus II succeeded his father in 261 BC, and thus began a new war for Syria. He reached an agreement with the current Antigonid king in Macedon, Antigonus II Gonatas, who was also interested in pushing Ptolemy II out of the Aegean. With Macedon's support, Antiochus II launched an attack on Ptolemaic outposts in Asia.
Most of the information about the Second Syrian War has been lost. It is clear that Antigonus' fleet defeated Ptolemy's at the Battle of Cos in 261, diminishing Ptolemaic naval power. Ptolemy appears to have lost ground in Cilicia, Pamphylia, and Ionia, while Antiochus regained Miletus and Ephesus. Macedon's involvement in the war ceased when Antigonus became preoccupied by the rebellion of Corinth and Chalcis in 253 BC, possibly instigated by Ptolemy, as well as an increase in enemy activity along Macedon's northern frontier.
The war was concluded around 253 BC with the marriage of Antiochus to Ptolemy's daughter, Berenice Syra. Antiochus repudiated his previous wife, Laodice, and turned over substantial domain to her. He died in Ephesus in 246 BC, poisoned by Laodice according to some sources. Ptolemy II died in the same year.
Third Syrian War (246 – 241 BC)
Also known as the Laodicean War, the Third Syrian War began with one of the many succession crises that plagued the Hellenistic states. Antiochus II left two ambitious mothers, his repudiated wife Laodice and Ptolemy II's daughter Berenice Syra, in a competition to put their respective sons on the throne. Laodice claimed that Antiochus had named her son heir while on his deathbed, but Berenice argued that her newly born son was the legitimate heir. Berenice asked her brother Ptolemy III, the new Ptolemaic king, to come to Antioch and help place her son on the throne. When Ptolemy arrived, Berenice and her child had been assassinated.
Ptolemy declared war on Laodice's newly crowned son, Seleucus II, in 246 BC, and campaigned with great success (his forces possibly being commanded by Xanthippus of Sparta, aka Xanthippus of Carthage, the mercenary general responsible for defeating a Roman army at Tunis/Bagrades in 255). He won major victories over Seleucus in Syria and Anatolia, briefly occupied Antioch and, as a recent cuneiform discovery proves, even reached Babylon. These victories were marred by the loss of the Cyclades to Antigonus Gonatas in the Battle of Andros. Seleucus had his own difficulties. His domineering mother asked him to grant co-regency to his younger brother, Antiochus Hierax, as well as rule over Seleucid territories in Anatolia. Antiochus promptly declared independence, undermining Seleucus' efforts to defend against Ptolemy.
In exchange for a peace in 241 BC, Ptolemy was awarded new territories on the northern coast of Syria, including Seleucia Pieria, the port of Antioch. The Ptolemaic kingdom was at the height of its power.
Fourth Syrian War (219 – 217 BC)
Upon taking the Seleucid throne in 223 BC, Antiochus III the Great (241–187 BC) set himself the task of restoring the lost imperial possessions of Seleucus I Nicator, which extended from Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in the east, the Hellespont in the north, and Syria in the south. By 221 BC, he had re-established Seleucid control over Media and Persia, which had been in rebellion. The ambitious king turned his eyes toward Syria and Egypt.
Egypt had been significantly weakened by court intrigue and public unrest. The rule of the newly inaugurated Ptolemy IV Philopator (reigned 221-204 BC) began with the murder of queen-mother Berenice II. The young king quickly fell under the absolute influence of imperial courtiers. His ministers used their absolute power in their own self-interest, to the people's great chagrin.
Antiochus sought to take advantage of this chaotic situation. After an invasion in 221 BC failed to launch, he finally began the Fourth Syrian War in 219 BC. He recaptured Seleucia Pieria as well as cities in Phoenicia, amongst them Tyre. Rather than promptly invading Egypt, Antiochus waited in Phoenicia for over a year, consolidating his new territories and listening to diplomatic proposals from the Ptolemaic kingdom.
Meanwhile, Ptolemy's minister Sosibius began recruiting and training an army. He recruited not only from the local Greek population, as Hellenistic armies generally were, but also from the native Egyptians, enrolling at least thirty thousand natives as phalangites. This innovation paid off, but it would eventually have dire consequences for Ptolemaic stability. In the summer of 217 BC, Ptolemy engaged and defeated the long-delayed Antiochus in the Battle of Raphia, the largest battle since the Battle of Ipsus over eighty years earlier.
Ptolemy's victory preserved his control over Coele-Syria, and the weak king declined to advance further into Antiochus' empire, even to retake Seleucia Pieria. The Ptolemaic kingdom would continue to weaken over the following years, suffering from economic problems and rebellion. Nationalist sentiment had developed among the native Egyptians who had fought at Raphia. Confident and well-trained, they broke from Ptolemy in what is known as the Egyptian Revolt, establishing their own kingdom in Upper Egypt which the Ptolemies finally reconquered around 185 BC.
Fifth Syrian War (202 – 195 BC)
The death of Ptolemy IV in 204 BC was followed by a bloody conflict over the regency as his heir, Ptolemy V, was just a child. The conflict began with the murder of the dead king's wife and sister Arsinoë by the ministers Agothocles and Sosibius. The fate of Sosibius is unclear, but Agothocles seems to have held the regency for some time until he was lynched by the volatile Alexandrian mob. The regency was passed from one adviser to another, and the kingdom was in a state of near anarchy.
Seeking to take advantage of this turmoil, Antiochus III staged a second invasion of Coele-Syria. He made an agreement with Philip V of Macedon to conquer and share the Ptolemies' non-Egyptian territories, although this alliance did not last long. Antiochus quickly swept through the region. After a brief setback at Gaza, he delivered a crushing blow to the Ptolemies at the Battle of Panium near the head of the River Jordan which earned him the important port of Sidon.
In 200 BC, Roman emissaries came to Philip and Antiochus demanding that they refrain from invading Egypt. The Romans would suffer no disruption of the import of grain from Egypt, key to supporting the massive population in Italy. As neither monarch had planned to invade Egypt itself, they willingly complied to Rome's demands. Antiochus completed the subjugation of Coele-Syria in 198 BC and went on to raid Ptolemy's remaining coastal strongholds in Caria and Cilicia.
Problems at home led Ptolemy to seek a quick and disadvantageous conclusion. The nativist movement, which began before the war with the Egyptian Revolt and expanded with the support of Egyptian priests, created turmoil and sedition throughout the kingdom. Economic troubles led the Ptolemaic government to increase taxation, which in turn fed the nationalist fire. In order to focus on the home front, Ptolemy signed a conciliatory treaty with Antiochus in 195 BC, leaving the Seleucid king in possession of Coele-Syria and agreeing to marry Antiochus' daughter Cleopatra I.
Sixth Syrian War (170 – 168 BC)
The causes of this conflict are obscure. In 170, Eulaeus and Lenaeus, the two regents of the young king of Egypt Ptolemy VI Philometor, declared war on the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In the same year, Ptolemy's younger siblings Ptolemy VIII Physcon and Cleopatra II were declared co-rulers in order to bolster the unity of Egypt. Military operations did not begin until 169 when Antiochus quickly gained the upper hand, seizing the important strategic town of Pelusium. The Egyptians realised their folly in starting the war, Eulaeus and Lenaeus were overthrown and replaced by two new regents, Comanus and Cineas, and envoys were sent to negotiate a peace treaty with Antiochus. Antiochus took Ptolemy VI (who was his nephew) under his guardianship, giving him effective control of Egypt. However, this was unacceptable to the people of Alexandria who responded by proclaiming Ptolemy Physcon as sole king. Antiochus besieged Alexandria but he was unable to cut communications to the city and he also needed to deal with a revolt of Maccabees in Judaea so, at the end of 169, he withdrew his army. In his absence, Ptolemy VI and his brother were reconciled. Antiochus, angered at his loss of control over the king, invaded again. The Egyptians sent to Rome asking for help and the Senate despatched Gaius Popilius Laenas to Alexandria. Meanwhile, Antiochus had seized Cyprus and Memphis and was marching on Alexandria. At Eleusis, on the outskirts of the capital, he met Popilius Laenas, with whom he had been friends during his stay in Rome. But instead of a friendly welcome, Popilius offered the king an ultimatum from the Senate: he must evacuate Egypt and Cyprus immediately. Antiochus begged to have time to consider but Popilius drew a circle round him in the sand with his cane and told him to decide before he stepped outside it. Antiochus chose to obey the Roman ultimatum. The "Day of Eleusis" ended the Sixth Syrian War and Antiochus' hopes of conquering Egyptian territory.
- See the Ptolemy III chronicle
- Edouard Will, L'histoire politique du monde hellénistique (Editions du Seuil, 2003 ed.) Tome II, pp.311-323
- Hellenistic civilization
- Seleucid Empire
- Ptolemaic Egypt
- Antiochus III
- List of conflicts in the Near East
Sources and further reading
- Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. ISBN 0-500-01485-X