Antiochus III the Great vs Ptolemy IV Philopator; the struggle for Coele-Syria – The battle of Raphia (217 B.C.)

When Ptolemy and his sister after their progress had reached the extremity of his left wing and Antiochus with his horse-guards had reached his extreme right, they gave the signal for battle and brought the elephants first into action.


A few only of Ptolemy’s elephants ventured to close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead. The way in which these animals fight is as follows. With their tusks firmly interlocked they shove with all their might, each trying to force the other to give ground, until the one who proves strongest pushes aside the other’s trunk, and then, when he has once made him turn and has him in the flank, he gores him with his tusks as a bull does with his horns. Most of Ptolemy’s elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them. This is what happened on the present occasion; and when Ptolemy’s elephants were thus thrown into confusion and driven back on their own lines, Ptolemy’s guard gave way under the pressure of the animals.

Meanwhile Antiochus and his cavalry riding past the flank of the elephants on the outside attacked Polycrates and the cavalry under his command, while at the same time on the other side of the elephants the Greek mercenaries next the phalanx fell upon Ptolemy’s peltasts and drove them back, their ranks having been already thrown into confusion by the elephants. Thus the whole of Ptolemy’s left wing was hard pressed and in retreat.

Echecrates who commanded the right wing at first waited for the result of the engagement between the other wings, but when he saw the cloud of dust being carried in his direction, and their own elephants not even daring to approach those of the enemy, he ordered Phoxidas with the mercenaries from Greece to attack the hostile force in his front, while he himself with his cavalry and the division immediately behind the elephants moving off the field and round the enemy’s flank, avoided the onset of the animals and speedily put to flight the cavalry of the enemy, charging them both in flank and rear. Phoxidas and his men met with the same success; for charging the Arabs and Medes they forced them to headlong flight. Antiochus’ right wing then was victorious, while his left wing was being worsted in the manner I have described. Meanwhile the phalanxes stripped of both their wings remained intact in the middle of the plain, swayed alternately by hope and fear.

Antiochus was still occupied in pursuing his advantage on the right wing, but Ptolemy having retired under shelter of the phalanx suddenly came forward and showing himself to his troops caused consternation among the enemy and inspired his own men with increased alacrity and spirit. Lowering their pikes, therefore, the phalanx under Andromachus and Sosibius advanced to the charge. For a short tune the picked Syrian troops resisted, but those under Nicarchus quickly turned and fled. Antiochus all this time, being still young and inexperienced and supposing from his own success that his army was victorious in other parts of the field too, was following up the fugitives. But at length on one of his elder officers calling his attention to the fact that the cloud of dust was moving from the phalanx towards his own camp he realized what had happened, and attempted to return to the battle-field with his horse-guards. But finding that his whole army had taken to flight, he retired to Raphia, in the confident belief that as far as it depended on himself he had won the battle, but had suffered this disaster owing to the base cowardice of the rest.


Ptolemy having thus obtained a decisive victory by his phalanx, and having killed many of the enemy in the pursuit by the hands of the cavalry and mercenaries of his right wing, retired and spent the night in his former camp. Next day, after picking up and burying his own dead and despoiling those of the enemy, he broke up his camp and advanced on Raphia. Antiochus after his flight had wished to take up at once a position outside the town collecting the scattered groups of fugitives; but as most of them had taken refuge in the city, he was compelled to enter it himself also. At daybreak he left for Gaza at the head of the surviving portion of his army, and encamping there sent a message asking for leave to collect his dead whom he buried under cover of this truce. His losses in killed alone had amounted to nearly ten thousand footmen and more than three hundred horsemen, while more than four thousand had been taken prisoners. Three of his elephants perished in the battle and two died of their wounds. Ptolemy had lost about fifteen hundred foot and seven hundred horse, killed; sixteen of his elephants were killed and most of them captured.

Such was the result of the battle of Raphia fought by the kings for the possession of Coele-Syria.

After paying the last honours to the dead Antiochus returned to his own kingdom with his army, and Ptolemy took without resistance Raphia and the other towns, each community endeavouring to anticipate its neighbours in going over to him and resuming its allegiance. Possibly all men at such times are more or less disposed to adapt themselves to the needs of the hour, and the natives of these parts are naturally more prone than others to bestow their affections at the bidding of circumstances. But at this juncture it was only to be expected that they should act so, as their affection for the Egyptian kings was of no recent growth; for the peoples of Coele-Syria have always been more attached to that house than to the Seleucidae. So now there was no extravagance of adulation to wrhich they did not proceed, honouring Ptolemy with crowns, sacrifices, altars dedicated to him and every distinction of the kind.

Antiochus, on reaching the town which bears his name, at once dispatched his nephew Antipater and Theodotus Hemiolius to treat with Ptolemy for peace, as he was seriously afraid of an invasion by the enemy. For he had no confidence in his own soldiers owing to his recent reverse, and he feared lest Achaeus should avail himself of the opportunity to attack him. Ptolemy took none of these matters into consideration, but delighted as he was at his recent unexpected success and generally at having surpassed his expectations by regaining possession of Coele-Syria, was not averse to peace, in fact rather too much inclined to it, being drawn towards it by his indolent and depraved habit of life. When, therefore, Antipater and his fellow ambassador arrived, after a little bluster and some show of expostulation with Antiochus for his conduct, he granted a truce for a year. Sending back Sosibius with the ambassadors to ratify the treaty, he remained himself for three months in Syria and Phoenicia establishing order in the towns, and then, leaving Andromachus behind as military governor of the whole district, he returned with his sister and his friends to Alexandria, having brought the war to an end in a manner that astonished his subjects in view of his character in general.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.IIΙ, Book V, Loeb Classical Library)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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