Overlooking the swelling power of the Roman Republic in the Mediterranean, the late Seleucid Empire of Antiochus III posed a strategic obstacle to Roman expansion into Greece as well as the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to lead the Roman Republic in peace it was absolutely necessary for a Roman aristocrat to lead in war, and the fanatically competitive nature of the Roman aristocracy meant that Hellenistic autocrats such as Antiochus became an endangered species during the era of Roman ascendancy.
In his biography of Antiochus III ‘the Great’ of the Seleucid Empire Michael Taylor chronicles the politics, wars, conquests, and defeats of the Megas Basileus (Great King) of the Seleucid Empire.
“…unprecedented warfare had reduced a divided international system to two powers. The two victors saw each other across a ‘contested periphery’, territory that both sides claimed as spheres of influence: Greece in the case of Rome and Antiochus, Central Europe in the case of the US and Stalin. In both instances diplomacy was terse and generally ineffective.
“Antiochus III knew that moving an army into Greece to ‘settle affairs between the Aetolians and Romans’ would lead to war with Rome. Antiochus had not sought such a war willingly, but he was no pacifist. With most of his royal career dominated by military operations, there was little reason for him to flinch from this new challenge.
“The facts that Hannibal relayed were likely encouraging: the Roman army was an amateur militia commanded by amateur aristocrats. It had no standing units, but rather each year fresh recruits were distributed into legions. Half of the army was composed of ‘allied’ wings; these soldiers lacked citizenship. As Hannibal had proved, the Roman army had suffered stunning defeats, due mostly to the combination of poorly trained levies and inexperienced or even incompetent generals. At best, a Roman consul had one or two years of provincial command as a praetor or pro-praetor; Antiochus III had commanded armies for thirty years. While the Seleucid army also contained citizen militiamen in the phalanx, it also had a splendid professional corps, the 10,000 Silver Shields, and the two regiments of royal cavalry. Thus, despite recent Roman successes against Carthage and Macedonia, Antiochus entered the war confident of victory.
“Almost all Hellenistic kings were obsessed with the physical image of Alexander, the ultimate role model and prototype for Hellenistic kingship. Before Alexander, a copious and virile beard was the sign of a mature Greek man. But Alexander had died before he reached the age where it was customary for Greek men to grow a beard, and his youthful clean-shaven state was copied by his successors even into old age. As a result, beards went out of fashion in the Mediterranean for the next 450 years.
“The Romanophile Antiochus IV met the Roman delegation as it disembarked at Pelusium and affably offered to shake hands. This was a gesture of tremendous respect and good will. In a spectacular and arrogant gesture of showmanship, Popilius Laenus remained silent. He took his staff, drew a circle in the sand around the King, and handed him a written copy of Roman demands. Finally speaking, he told the King not to step out of the circle until he had agreed to Roman demands, demands that included the complete evacuation of Egypt. Antiochus IV was humiliated. But a fellow Hellenistic monarch had just been deposed by Rome, making manifest the potential cost of defeat. He told Laenus of his decision to comply and swiftly withdrew his forces.
*All excerpts have been taken from Antiochus the Great, Pen and Sword.
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