The Death of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Beginning of a Legend

Only Antiochus could concoct and carry out a plan so bold to return from the dead in his own flesh and amaze the world with his second coming. That’s the stuff of legends.

Antiochus the Fourth was a king legends are made about, but was not legendary. He really lived and ruled and conquered, and left opinion divided about his life and reign as king of the Greek Seleucids. Depending on the historical source, he was either a ruthless killer and crazy man who deserves comparison with the Antichrist, or he brilliantly rejuvenated a declining kingdom for one last shot at old world domination and fell short. In part because of a pesky native rebellion in a small province he tried to squash that turned into his undoing: Israel.

Rendering of the Antichrist

God’s wrath or simple fate: Something struck down Antiochus, his burial site unknown to the world, and to date, never found. Thus the beginning of a legend.

Antiochus lived the sort of life which makes legends. When he didn’t inherit the throne from his father, Antiochus the Great, he stole it from weaker relatives and killed them off. Before then he lived in Rome as a royal hostage, collateral to insure that his father obeyed a harsh peace treaty. His reign was marked by stunning conquests and equally stunning defeats. The origin of the phrase ‘draw a line in the sand’ hails from an incident when a Roman official thwarted Antiochus in Egypt by drawing a line in the sand and forbidding him from crossing it until acceding to Senate demands. Some say it was a crushing defeat, and he took out his anger on nearby Jerusalem by invading and sacking the city. But with Antiochus nothing is ever so clear.

The so-called defeat in Egypt, seen from another angle, might have been part of a plan to push Egypt into Rome’s arms and take out a potential threat on his southern border. Like a good chess player, Antiochus thought several moves ahead and knew the folly of taking actions that weren’t part of a larger plan. He’d pounded Egyptian forces and pillaged the coastline to that point, so Egypt becoming a vassal to Rome, where he had many contacts and friends, was to his advantage. That way, Egypt couldn’t take revenge while Antiochus campaigned to the east in Persia. He harbored a master ambition to rule an empire like Alexander the Great, and that ambition pushed him to take big, calculated risks.

If successful at making the Israelites follow Greek ways, Antiochus would have changed world history, aborting the births of Judaism’s two major offspring: Christianity and Islam. Starting around 170 BCE, the king thought he could put an end to Jewish rebellions if he wiped out their religion, a common practice of the time. Destroy everything which makes a people think of themselves as distinct and they’re more pliant to assimilation into a larger culture. More than enough Jews were eager to jump on the Hellenization bandwagon. The plan almost succeeded, if not for a Jewish family that became legends of their own.

The Hasmoneans rebelled against Antiochus, led by the youngest son of a zealous rabbi named Mattathias: Judas Maccabeus, the “Hammer of God,” a title given to the freedom fighters – the Maccabees – that defeated several of Antiochus’s armies and restored the Temple in Jerusalem. Their story has become part of written history, celebrated in the Hanukkah holiday. Faced by superior numbers and military equipment, Judas led a rag-tag bunch of Israeli guerrilla warriors to victory over the Syrian Greeks, culminating with the retaking of the Temple. With only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, the Hasmoneans restored the Temple anyway, and one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, until more oil could be consecrated. Thus the seven candles of a menorah.

Antiochus coin
The face of Antiochus preserved on a coin

For the previous three and a half years Antiochus stopped the daily sacrifices and forced Jews to worship Greek gods. To say the least, devout Jews were apocalyptic about the desecration of their holiest place – no sabbath, scripture, or circumcision; conversion under pain of death. Two books about the brutal slaughter – 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees – paint a heroic picture for themselves and a damning of picture of sacrilege for Antiochus. He died soon after. Jewish sources say it happened in Judea, but others say in eastern Iran, around 164 or 163 BCE. All sources agree that his tomb has never been found.

In my thriller Something Coming, Antiochus is entombed beneath Mt. Nemrut in Turkey, the plot spinning off speculation that a third king is secretly buried there. Two kings of the Seleucid line are all but certain to lie beneath the pyramid of rocks that crowns the mountaintop sanctuary: Antiochus I (who is actually the second Antiochus I) and Mithradates, his father. They ruled several generations after Antiochus the Fourth, leaving behind an eighth wonder of the world that preserves the founders’ vision of unity between East and West.

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In the story, Nemrut transforms from a tourist destination to a mecca for spiritual seekers. Antiochus’s spirit is alive beneath Mt. Nemrut in an ancient chamber made for ritual magic, and he wants to return to save the world. He also has his own agenda and has learned from his first encounter with zealous Jews.

To tell this part of the story I created two Jewish sisters, descendants of Judas Maccabeus, that investigate to find out who is really behind the peace movement and miracles at Mt. Nemrut. Only Antiochus could concoct and carry out a plan so bold to return from the dead in his own flesh and amaze the world with his second coming.

That’s the stuff of legends. In Something Coming (available on Kindle), a legend is (re)born.

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