Policeman of the Mediterranean: The Years 166-160 BCE

(PHGCOM/British Museum)


  • The consuls Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Gaius Sulpicius Gallus defeat the Alpine Celts and the Ligurians (166 BCE);
  • The Romans and Athenians turn the island of Delos into a free trade zone, crippling the economy of Rhodos (ca. 166 BCE);
  • Aiming to surpass the victory games held by Lucius Aemilius Paullus, King Antiochos IV of the Seleucid Empire organises a magnificent festival at Daphne, during which Roman-style soldiers and gladiators march in a military parade (166 BCE);
  • King Perseus, the last king of Macedonia, dies in captivity in Alba Fucens (ca. 165 BCE);
  • Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus and Quintus Marcius Philippus are elected censors (164 BCE);
  • King Ptolemaios VI Philometor of Egypt is ousted by his brother Ptolemaios VIII Physcon, but is subsequently restored by Rome; the Ptolemaic kingdom is divided between the two brothers, who continue to bicker over Cyprus (164-161 BCE);
  • While the Maccabean Revolt rages in Judea, the Seleucid king Antiochos IV dies of disease in Gabai in Persis; he is succeeded by his son Antiochos V Eupator, a mere boy; the regent Lysias rules in his stead (164 BCE);
  • The Roman envoy and former consul Gnaeus Octavius, sent to the court of the new Seleucid king as part of a diplomatic delegation, is murdered at Laodikeia (162 BCE);
  • Demetrios, son of King Seleukos IV and a hostage in Rome, escapes from Italy and sails to Tripolis; he proclaims himself king of the Seleucid Empire and has Antiochos V and Lysias murdered (162-161 BCE);
  • The Maccabees of Judea sign a treaty of friendship with the Romans, but the Romans do not intervene in the Maccabean Revolt (160 BCE);
  • Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the conqueror of Macedonia, passes away (160 BCE).

The Greek historian Polybius wrote that the Romans, after they had destroyed the Macedonian kingdom, firmly believed that they wielded unlimited power over the entire known world.[1] An eyewitness and a sharp observer, Polybius probably correctly assumed that there were no serious opponents left for the Romans to fight. Carthage was resurgent, but never a threat, and in any case held in check by the aging King Masinissa of Numidia, a staunch Roman ally. The Macedonian kingdom had been disbanded and replaced with four separate client states. Ptolemaic Egypt, once a force to be reckoned with and the senior partner in the relationship with Rome, was now basically a Roman client state as well. Two bickering brothers shared the throne and were often at each other’s throats. Egypt’s neighbour was the Seleucid Empire, which was also crumbling. A single Roman diplomat in bullish mood had forced the Seleucid King Antiochos IV and his army to withdraw from Egypt. Antiochos would soon be dead anyway, and a serious rebellion had already erupted in Judea.

The so-called Ludovisi Gaul, a Galatian committing suicide (Palazzo Altemps, Rome).

The Parthians were threatening the eastern regions of the Seleucid Empire, but they were too far away to be a threat to Rome. Pergamum and Rhodos, once Rome’s favourite allies, had been punished after the Third Macedonian War for showing too little support for the Roman cause. For the same reason 1.000 Achaean prisoners languished in Etrurian captivity since the Romans had decided to punish their mother cities. Pergamum often fought against the Galatians and frequently found itself at war with its neighbour, King Prusias of Bithynia. The Hellenistic kingdoms of Pontos and Cappodacia were of minor importance. Small wonder that the Romans considered themselves the new masters of the Mediterranean, who could solve conflicts by merely sending unarmed envoys. But at the same time, the great Cato the Censor frequently complained about the decadence that was slowly infiltrating Roman society and threatening traditional Roman values. According to Cato, pretty boy prostitutes now fetched a higher price than a piece of land, and a box of caviar from the Black Sea was more expensive than a slave to plough the fields.


In the period discussed here, there were no large foreign wars, only the usual border wars. The most important of these took place in 166 BCE, when the consuls Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Gaius Sulpicius Gallus fought against the Celts that lived close to the Alps and the Ligurians. The former was the son of the consul of 196 BCE and a grandson of the great Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who had died fighting Hannibal in 208 BCE. The latter had reportedly predicted the lunar eclipse the night before the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. Although no details of their campaigns have survived, both consuls were highly successful. According to the Fasti Triumphales, both were awarded a triumph. Marcellus celebrated his triumph for his victories over the Contrubii – a Celtic tribe -, the Ligurians and the Eleates in December of 166 BCE, Gallus celebrated his for victories over the Ligurians in January of 165 BCE (all dates according to our calendar).

View of the Forum Romanum.

The victor of Macedonia, Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, was elected censor in 164 BCE, together with Quintus Marcius Philippus, the consul of 169 BCE. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was again nominated princeps senatus, just three undistinguished senators were struck from the roll and a grand total of 337.022 citizens were registered.[2] The censor Philippus was credited with setting up a sundial. Four years later, in 160 BCE, Lucius Aemilius Paullus passed away while in his late sixties. Paullus had never been a particularly rich man. His two young sons had predeceased him, and his adult sons from his first marriage, Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus and Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, had already been adopted into other patrician families. After the death of their father, they were required to pay back the dowry that Paullus had received upon marrying his second wife. There was not enough cash, so the two men had to auction off Paullus’ possessions. After the dowry had been repaid, very little was left of Paullus’ fortune for the two brothers to share. According to a tradition mentioned by Plutarchus, Scipio realised that his family was considerably wealthier than that of Fabius and graciously made over his inheritance to his brother.

After being humiliated in Paullus’ triumph, King Perseus had been sent to the town of Alba Fucens in what is now the Abruzzo region. There he died in about 165 BCE, apparently after having starved himself to death. His son Philippos also died here, as did his daughter, whose name is not known. His son Alexander, however, prospered, learned Latin and became an expert on metalworking.

In 160 BCE, the consul Marcus Cornelius Cethegus tried to drain the Pontine Marshes in Latium. Although it seems unlikely that he really managed to drain the entire area, the consul did win some arable land. His colleague as consul was Lucius Anicius Gallus, the man who had defeated King Genthios of the Illyrians in 168 BCE.

Greece and Asia Minor

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

During the years discussed here, the Achaeans frequently sent diplomatic delegations to Rome to plead for the 1.000 prisoners that were held in Italy. The envoys pushed the Senate to either allow the prisoners to defend themselves or to set them free. The Senate was deaf to these demands, and Roman-Achaean relations became increasingly sour. More importantly, the uncompromising Roman attitude caused widespread hatred in Achaea against politicians who sympathised with Rome.

In the summer of 166 BCE, a Rhodian delegation once again tried to bring about a formal alliance between Rome and Rhodos. And once again, the Senate refused. In the meantime, the Rhodian economy suffered from the loss of the island’s possessions on the mainland in Lycia and Caria, regions which had been given autonomy by the Romans. More importantly, the economy began to feel the consequences of the Roman and Athenian decision to turn the island of Delos into a free trade zone. In 164 BCE, a new delegation sent to Rome complained to the Senate that the annual income from harbour taxes had fallen from a million drachmas to just 150.000 drachmas, a drop of 85%. It is hard to deny that Roman foreign policy had caused an economic crisis on Rhodos. It must have been a small comfort to the Rhodians that the Senate now finally agreed to an alliance. Rhodos had in effect become a Roman client state. Nevertheless, the Rhodians seem to have been genuinely grateful, as they erected a statue of Roma – the personification of the Roman people – in the temple of Athena.

Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

In 166 BCE, King Eumenes of Pergamum finally managed to win a decisive victory over the Galatians. But the Romans, still fed up with their former ally, did not allow Eumenes to annex any of their territory. The Galatians were granted autonomy again and the King of Pergamum ended up empty-handed. He was soon embroiled in a conflict with his neighbour King Prusias of Bithynia, who told the Romans that Eumenes had entered into secret negotiations with King Antiochos IV of the Seleucid Empire. Eumenes had to send his brothers Attalos and Athenaios to Rome to defend against these accusations.

In 163 BCE, King Ariarathes V Eusebes Philopator of Cappadocia succeeded his father King Ariarathes IV, who had died after 57 years on the throne. Although he had first foolishly fought against the Romans, the fourth Ariarathes had in 188 BCE become a ‘friend of the Roman people’ for 300 talents. His son now sent envoys to the Senate to renew the alliance. He would need it in the years to come.


The brothers Ptolemaios VI Philometor and Ptolemaios VIII Physcon had jointly ruled Egypt since 169 BCE, but there was little brotherly love between the two. In October of 164 BCE, the younger of the two ousted the other and took the throne for himself. In early 163 BCE, the expelled Ptolemaios VI arrived in Rome to seek support for his restoration. The Senate did not agree with Physcon’s actions and decided to intervene. Military action turned out to be unnecessary, as Physcon proved to be unpopular in Alexandria anyway.

Map of Egypt and Syria (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

After some intense Roman pressure, the two brothers agreed to carve up the Ptolemaic kingdom into two parts. Ptolemaios Philometor was given Egypt and Cyprus, while Physcon was allowed to rule Cyrenaica in what is now Libya. This agreement did not last for long, and already the next year Physcon travelled to Rome to have the treaty with his brother annulled. The younger brother had set his sights on the strategically important island of Cyprus and claimed it for himself. The Senate’s policy in these years was generally to support the weaker party in a conflict, and so it decided to uphold Physcon’s claim. Cyprus was assigned to the younger brother, and a diplomatic delegation was sent to the island to make sure that it would be transferred to him peacefully.

Cretan archer (source: Europa Barbarorum).

In the summer of 162 BCE, Physcon began raising an army of mercenaries to occupy Cyprus by force if necessary. For this he was rebuked by the Roman envoys, who reminded him that there had to be a peaceful transfer of the island. The envoys now sailed to Alexandria, where Ptolemaios VI proved to be unwilling to cede Cyprus to his brother. By making promises and then withdrawing them again, the older brother tried to buy time. In the meantime, the important city of Kyrene – which had given its name to the region of Cyrenaica – had rebelled against Physcon. Physcon, who had just a small army of Cretan mercenaries at his disposal, at first suffered a defeat against the rebels, but later managed to win back the city after all. Since Cyprus still had not been transferred to Physcon, both parties sent delegations to Rome and again the Senate, in early 161 BCE, sided with the younger brother. However, Cyprus would remain part of the older Ptolemaios’ kingdom.

The Seleucid Empire

During the so-called Fifth Syrian War (202–195 BCE), the Seleucid king Antiochos III had annexed the region known as Koile Syria. The region had a large Jewish population, most of whom lived in Judea. The Jews had their religious centre at Jerusalem, where the Second Temple stood on the Temple Mount. Although the Jews of Judea were monotheists, they had been influenced by Greek culture ever since Alexander the Great had occupied the region in the fourth century BCE. Macedonian hegemony and Greek settlement had kick-started a process of Hellenisation which was endorsed by some Jews and opposed by others. By the time Antiochos III annexed Judea, this process had been under way for more than a century. Although the king graciously allowed the Jews to continue to live under the Torah, there can be no doubt that many of them had already become Hellenised. Liberal Jews visited the gymnasium, held discussions about Greek philosophy and ate food that was not kosher. Some may have ceased circumcising their sons and a few – especially those working for the Ptolemaic and later the Seleucid authorities – may even have participated in pagan ceremonies, burning incense and sacrificing animals for the Greek gods. It should not come as a surprise that the process of Hellenisation was widely resented by orthodox Jews.

Statue of Zeus (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

Two High Priests in succession – Jason and Menelaus – had basically bribed their way into office. They had paid the Seleucid king Antiochos IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE) handsome sums to be confirmed in the priesthood. Both High Priests supported Hellenisation. Jason was said to have constructed a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount and to have forced young men to become epheboi. In 171 BCE, Jason was ‘out-bribed’ by Menelaus, who became the new High Priest with a royal mandate. He proved to be greedy and unpopular, and this led to riots in the city. While King Antiochos was campaigning against Ptolemaic Egypt, Jason tried to win back his office, staged a surprise attack on Jerusalem and forced Menelaus to seek refuge in the Tower of David, the Jerusalem Citadel. The attack was ultimately unsuccessful and Jason was forced to flee, but when King Antiochos heard about what had happened in Jerusalem, he decided to punish the city. This was probably in 168 BCE, just after the king had been forced to withdraw from Egypt by the Roman envoy Gaius Popilius Laenas.

The king took Jerusalem by storm and desecrated the Second Temple by looting the building. In 167 BCE, he issued an edict intended to speed up the Hellenisation of the Jews. Circumcision was banned and the Sabbath was abolished. More importantly, the Second Temple was converted into a sanctuary for Zeus Olympios, a statue of the god was set up there and sacrifices that violated Mosaic Law were held. Jews were required to actively participate in non-Jewish religious practices. It should be noted that the king’s edict was supported by many Jews, including High Priest Menelaus, although it is impossible to say how many. Nevertheless, it was widely resented by others, for obvious reasons. A priest from the village of Modi’im named Mattathias (Matityahu) refused to sacrifice to the Greek gods and, according to 1 Maccabees, slew a Hellenised Jew who was willing to obey the king’s demands. Mattathias then fled into the mountains with his five sons, vowed to fight even on the Sabbath and started a guerrilla war that became known as the Maccabean Revolt.

This rebellion is named after Judas (or Yehuda) Maccabeus, who continued the revolt after his father Mattathias had died in 166 BCE. The name ‘Maccabeus’ means ‘war hammer’, and Judas soon proved to be a brilliant and utterly ruthless commander. He led his forces in a campaign that not only targeted the Seleucid authorities, but also liberal and Hellenised Jews who were seen as traitors, blasphemers and idolaters. In other words, the Maccabean Revolt was first and foremost a Jewish civil war, with atrocities committed by both sides.[3] Perhaps Antiochos at first underestimated the seriousness of the conflict. In the summer of 166 BCE, the king held a magnificent festival with splendid games at Daphne, a suburb of the Seleucid capital of Antiocheia. His aim was to surpass the victory games held by Lucius Aemilius Paullus the previous year. The Daphne festival is famous because Polybius left us a description of the procession of the army that took place that day.[4] It is worth quoting this passage in full:

“It was headed by five thousand men in the prime of life armed after the Roman fashion and wearing breastplates of chain-armour. Next came five thousand Mysians, and immediately behind them three thousand Cilicians armed in the manner of light infantry, wearing gold crowns. Next came three thousand Thracians and five thousand Gauls. They were followed by twenty thousand Macedonians of whom ten thousand bore golden shields, five thousand brazen shields and the rest silver shields. Next marched two hundred and fifty pairs of gladiators, and behind them a thousand horsemen from Nisa and three thousand from Antioch itself, most of whom had crowns and trappings of gold and the rest trappings of silver. Next to these came the so‑called “companion cavalry” [hetairoi], numbering about a thousand, all with gold trappings, and next the regiment of “royal friends” of equal number and similarly accoutred; next a thousand picked horse followed by the so‑called “agema”, supposed to be the crack cavalry corps, numbering about a thousand. Last of all marched the “cataphract” or mailed horse, the horses and men being armed in complete mail, as the name indicated. All the above wore purple surcoats in many cases embroidered with gold and heraldic designs. Next came a hundred chariots drawn by six horses and forty drawn by four horses, and then a chariot drawn by four elephants and another drawn by a pair, and finally thirty-six elephants in single file with their housings.”

Mosaic of gladiators in combat.

The description is important for a number of reasons. The Seleucids were prohibited from having elephants under the treaty of Apameia of 188 BCE, but they seem to have ignored this provision. The presence of soldiers armed and equipped in the Roman fashion is worthy of note, and so is the appearance of gladiators in the procession. Antiochos was well acquainted with Roman culture, having spent some thirteen years in Rome as a hostage (see 176-175 BCE). The king spoke Latin very well and knew everything about the Roman political system. The festival at Daphne must have been hideously expensive, but since the Sixth Syrian War had been a partial Seleucid success and the king had looted temples in Egypt and the Second Temple in Jerusalem[5], the king had plenty of cash to spend. When the games had just finished, Antiochos entertained the former censor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Gracchus had arrived in Syria at the head of a delegation to check whether the king kept the peace with regard to Egypt.

In 165 BCE, Antiochos left his capital and marched east with his army, leaving the war in Judea to his generals. The king wanted to visit the eastern parts of his empire and collect taxes there to fill the Seleucid treasury. He also wanted to bring Armenia, ruled by its own king Artaxias I, back under Seleucid control and protect the borders against Parthian incursions. In Judea, Judas Maccabeus soon proved to be more than a match for the king’s generals, winning an impressive string of victories over armies that were probably much larger than his own. In late 164 BCE, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem and occupied the Temple. On the 25th of the month of kislev (in this case, December) they purified the building and consecrated a new altar, the previous one having been desecrated by pagan sacrifices. The purification of the Temple is the origin of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. The Maccabees subsequently fortified the Temple with strong walls and towers. It should be noted that a Seleucid garrison still clung on to the citadel and that therefore these defensive measures were necessary.

Antiochos IV Epiphanes (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

Around this time, in November or December of 164 BCE, King Antiochos had died in Gabai in Persis (close to modern Isfahan). According to Polybius, the king had tried to loot the sanctuary of Artemis – actually Nanea or Nanaia – in Elymais, but had been stopped by the locals. After his attempt to enrich himself had failed, the king fell ill and died. This was a disaster for the Seleucid Empire. Antiochos was succeeded by his son Antiochos V Eupator, who was a mere child. Lysias, the governor of Koile Syria and Phoenicia, acted as a regent for the new king. Lysias was busy fighting the Maccabees when it was reported to him that a general named Philippos had returned from the eastern satrapies and was marching towards Antiocheia to claim the throne. Philippos was defeated, but soon another and more dangerous pretender emerged. His name was Demetrios and he was the son of the late Seleukos IV, the older brother of Antiochos IV.

Demetrios was about 23 years old. He had been sent to Rome as a hostage in 176 BCE, in exchange for his uncle Antiochos. His uncle subsequently became king, and basically owed his crown to his nephew. That must have been one of the reasons why, upon the death of Antiochos, Demetrios now claimed the crown for himself. In early 163 BCE, as news of the death of Epiphanes reached Italy, he asked the Senate for permission to leave Rome. The Senate refused to grant it because it preferred a weak king for the Seleucid Empire and therefore supported Antiochos V. The Senate did decide to send a diplomatic delegation to the new king to instruct him to adhere to the provisions of the treaty of Apameia of 188 BCE. The king was told to burn most of his warships and have all of his elephants hamstrung. The Roman delegation was led by Gnaeus Octavius, the man who had commanded the Roman fleet against Perseus in 168 BCE and had been consul three years later.[6] It is possible that the Romans had been alarmed by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who had visited Daphne in 166 BCE and must have seen the elephants there.

Remains of the Imperial Rostra. The Republican Rostra is no longer extant.

This attempt to weaken their military was widely resented by the Seleucids and led to strong anti-Roman sentiments. Octavius and the other envoys first visited King Ariarathes of Cappadocia, who offered them an armed escort for their trip to neighbouring Syria. Octavius refused the offer and proceeded to Laodikeia (modern Latakia), relying of his sacrosanctity as an envoy and his status as a Roman citizen. Probably in 162 BCE, when the ships had been burned and the elephants mutilated in accordance with the treaty, a Seleucid agitator named Leptines stabbed Octavius to death. Leptines was very proud of his deed and exclaimed that the murder had been just and had been committed with the consent of the immortal gods. This murder of a sacrosanct diplomat sent shockwaves through the Roman world. Whether or not the boy-king Antiochos and his guardian Lysias were in any way involved is up for debate, but the Romans now certainly felt little sympathy for the king, who had failed to properly protect their envoys. The slain diplomat and former consul was honoured with a statue on the Rostra.

In the summer of 162 BCE, Demetrios again asked the Senate for permission to leave Rome and travel to Syria. Again his request was denied. Demetrios now took matters into his own hands. Aided by the future historian Polybius and almost certainly by members of the gens Cornelia, the young man left Rome in the middle of the night, travelled to Ostia and boarded a Carthaginian ship that was bound for Phoenicia. The pretender was dropped off at Tripolis (now Tripoli in Lebanon) and proclaimed himself king there. In early 161 BCE, Demetrios reached Antiocheia, deposed Antiochos V and Lysias and had them both killed. The Romans were obviously angry that the prince had left Rome without permission, but they did not shed a tear after learning of Antiochos’ demise. In 160 BCE, the new king – who styled himself Demetrios Soter – managed to win favour with a Roman delegation led by Tiberius Gracchus, who ultimately recognised him as the rightful king of the Seleucid Empire. To please the Romans even further, Demetrios had Leptines arrested and sent him and one of his fiercest supporters to Rome in chains.

The “Holy Maccabean Martyrs”, the teacher Eleazar and the woman Solomonia and her seven sons. On the right Saint Barbara. Fresco from the Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.

By this time, the High Priest Menelaus had already been murdered by order of Antiochos, probably in 163 BCE.[7] A year later, a certain Alkimos (Elyaqum) convinced Demetrios to support him as a successor. In the meantime, Judas Maccabeus continued to resist his enemies, both Seleucid armies and liberal Jews. By now he had basically carved out in independent Jewish state in Judea and he had also successfully campaigned against other enemies such as the Ammonites and the Idumeans (the latter would later convert to Judaism; the Herodian dynasty was of Idumean descent). Attempts by Demetrios to set up Alkimos as High Priest in the Temple failed. More importantly, the Maccabees had opened diplomatic negotiations with the Roman Republic. Judas presumably realised that the Romans were traditional enemies of the Seleucids, and that they were generally inclined to support the underdog in any conflict. It was probably in April of 160 BCE that envoys from Judea, who had travelled all the way to Rome, signed a treaty of friendship with the Romans. Now for the first time in their history, the Romans became involved in Jewish affairs.

The treaty did not help Judas Maccabeus much. By the time it had been made, Demetrios had already sent another large expeditionary force to Judea in another attempt to set up Alkimos as High Priest. The Seleucids outnumbered the Maccabees by a large margin and now finally, in April or May[8] of 160 BCE, Judas was defeated and killed. His death did not end the fighting: his brother Jonatan (Yonatan), nicknamed Apphus (‘the diplomat’) replaced him as supreme commander and continued the war in his stead.


Primary sources

Secondary sources


[1] Polybius 31.25.

[2] According to Livius (Periochae of Book 46). Plutarchus, The Life of Aemilius, gives the number as 337.452 citizens.

[3] 1 and 2 Maccebees, deuterocanonical books of the Bible, are important sources for the conflict. Both are blatant pieces of propaganda and should certainly not always be taken literally.

[4] Polybius 30.25.

[5] According to 2 Maccabees 5:21, the king had taken 1.800 talents from the Temple.

[6] He was a ‘new man’ or homo novus, the first of his family to reach the consulship.

[7] His death, which was rather horrible, is mentioned in 2 Maccabees 13:3-8.

[8] In the first month of the Jewish calendar, the month of nisan. See 1 Maccabees 9:3.


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