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Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls What is This? Explores the history, relevance, and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


The house of Seleucus (Gk., Seleukos) was one of the dynasties that inherited the world empire of Alexander the Great. After the period of the Diadochoi (323–301 bce), Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals, established an empire of his own, which encompassed the greatest area among the four empires that came into existence toward the end of the fourth century BCE. (Their founders were Ptolemy I, Lysimachus, Cassander, and Seleucus.)

At its peak the Seleucid empire covered approximately the area of the Persian (Achemenid) Empire, with the exception of Egypt. Its nucleus was northern Syria (called Seleucis) with its four cities: Antioch-on-the-Orontes, the capital of the empire; Seleuceia-in-Pieria; Laodicea-on-the-Sea; and Apamea. There was the bastion of the empire, its military base, and the recruiting area, in which military settlers of Greek origin were settled.

A major element in the history of the land of Israel in the Hellenistic period was the struggle between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt, for control of the country. For a century (c.300–200 bce) Israel was a bone of contention between the two powers, both of whom had strong claims to rule it (Diodorus of Sicily, 21.1.5). As a result, five “Syrian Wars” broke out in the third century BCE. These, as well as other events, are alluded to in Daniel 11, which refers to them in enigmatic style.

The breaking apart of Alexander's empire, along with the foundation of the Seleucid empire (“the king of the north”) and of the Ptolemaic one (“the king of the south”), are referred to in Daniel 11.4–5, as is the political marriage between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids (Dn. 11.6, i.e., between Berenice, daughter of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and Antiochus II, which lead to “the war of Laodice” [= the third Syrian war, 246–241 bce]), which shook both empires, but did not deeply change their positions (Dn. 11.7–8). The author also refers to the fourth Syrian war, 219–217 bce (Dn. 11.9–11), in which Antiochus III initially conquered Israel, but was finally defeated in the battle of Raphia (217 bce) and was forced to retreat.

Nevertheless, Antiochus III did not give up his plan to annex Israel to his empire and in 202 bce he invaded it again, this time successfully. After a century of Ptolemaic rule Israel became part of the Seleucid empire (Dn. 11.12–16). The first encounter between the Jews and Antiochus III was friendly, and after he expelled the Ptolemaic garrison from Jerusalem with Jewish help, he confirmed the right of the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws and gave them various exemptions (Antiquities 12.138–144).

A decisive defeat and turning point in Seleucid history, which turned the Seleucid state into a second rate power, was its defeat by the Romans in the battle of Magnesia (December 190 bce). The Romans brought Antiochus III to his knees, his empire was limited, and he was obliged to pay huge indemnities to Rome (Dn. 11.17–19). From then on the yoke of Rome hung heavily on the Seleucid kingdom. Gradually it also lost its eastern provinces and was torn apart by internal strife, and came to an end after 130 years, in approximately 65 bce.

Seleucus IV (187–175 bce) began to interfere in Judean affairs, although his interference was triggered by internal quarrels. He sent Heliodorus, his prime minister, to confiscate monies kept in the Temple of Jerusalem (2 Mc. 3 and Dn. 11.20). His successor, his brother Antiochus IV, supported the Hellenizers in Judea, visited Jerusalem, and persecuted the Jews. Many were killed and the Temple was desecrated (Dn. 11.21–39).

At this point the author of Daniel 11 terminates his “prediction” of the past and with it his review of Seleucid history. But this description of Seleucid history shows knowledge and awareness of it in apocalyptic circles (cf. the maskilim in Dn. 11.33, 35), which were either similar to the Qumran sect, or may have been historically their forerunners.

An awareness of Seleucid history can also be seen in the fragments of Pesher Nahum (4Q169), at least as far as it was connected to Israel. This text mentions both Antiochus IV (175–164 bce; 4Q169 3–4.i.1–3) and Demetrius III (95–88 bce; 4Q169 3–4.i.1–2).

Indeed Judea was deeply involved in Seleucid history for some generations after Antiochus's persecution (167–164 bce). Antiochus IV died in 164 bce, and under his successor Antiochus V (a boy under the tutelage of Lysias) the war of independence in Judea continued. Antiochus V was soon replaced by Demetrius I (162 bce), who made a considerable effort to consolidate his kingdom, despite Roman enmity. He put down rebellions, among them the one led by Judah Maccabee, who died in 160 bce.

But the stability of Demetrius's rule did not last long. His enemies, with Rome's blessing, put up against him Alexander Balas, who claimed to be Antiochus IV's son. Demetrius was defeated (152 bce) and a weak ruler, subject to Ptolemaic interference, took over.

Under Balas, Jonathan, Judas's brother and successor, became ruler of Judea and a Seleucid representative in Israel. Alexander Balas appointed him high priest and thus made him part of the Seleucid administration. Jonathan's rise to power reflects both the disintegration of Seleucid rule and the influence of the Ptolemaic king, Ptolemy VII, on Syrian affairs.

Balas's rule did not last long (150–145 bce). Ptolemy XII transferred his patronage from Balas to Demetrius II, whose rule was quite troublesome because of a prolonged war against Tryphon. Tryphon first acted as regent for Antiochus VI (145–142 bce), Balas's son, and then as a pretender to the Seleucid throne (142–138 bce), although he was not a member of the royal family.

During this period Jonathan's power was growing. He fought for the cause of his Seleucid patron, and at the same time became more and more influential in all the region of Coele Syria (i.e., approximately from Damascus to the Egyptian border). He became governor of the inner part of the country, and his brother Simon a governor of its coast. The influence of the Hasmonean brothers spread over all Israel.

Jonathan's career ended when Tryphon trapped and killed him. He was replaced by his brother Simon, who continued to stabilize his rule and to become an independent ruler. Tryphon's career was terminated when Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 bce), a brother of Demetrius II (who had fallen into Parthian captivity), appeared on the scene.

A reverse in Hasmonean politics occurred under Antiochus VII, whose rule was the swan song of the Seleucid dynasty. He planned a forceful expedition against Parthia to regain the former eastern provinces and the Hellenistic cities there. But before that he reasserted Seleucid authority within the realm. Judea was one of his targets, and it is even possible that he had a hand in Simon's assassination (134 bce). A short while afterward he invaded Judea with a huge army, besieged Jerusalem, and forced John Hyrcanus I to surrender (132 bce).

Two years later Antiochus VII invaded Mesopotamia (130 bce) and drove away the Parthians. But in the winter of the following year (129 bce), a Parthian counterattack brought disaster on the Seleucid armies, and Antiochus himself fell in battle.

From then on the Seleucid state was no longer a world power. Its disintegration proceeded swiftly and the normal situation in Syria became one of constant civil war.

Nevertheless, and although Josephus says that John Hyrcanus “showed contempt” to both Antiochus VIII and Antiochus IX, step-brothers and sons of Antiochus VII, who fought against one another (Jewish Antiquities 13.274), some Seleucid rulers inflicted setbacks on the Hasmoneans. It seems that Antiochus IX Cyzicenus succeeded in 113/112 bce in controlling Ashkelon, and recovering Joppa and the adjacent region from the Hasmoneans. But in a short time his position in Syria deteriorated, and John Hyrcanus regained control over Joppa. Maresha and Samaria were also conquered by Hyrcanus in this period, despite Cyzicenus's efforts to save Samaria, and Beth-Shean/Scythopolis followed suit.

Another Seleucid king who interfered in Judean affairs was Demetrius III, who in 89 bce took part in the civil war in Judea, and supported Alexander Jannaeus's enemies. He is the Demetrius mentioned in Pesher Nahum.

The last Seleucid who was active in Israel was Antiochus XII, who invaded the country in about 85 bce, forced his way through a line of fortifications constructed by Jannaeus along the Yarkon River, and continued toward Nabatea, where he lost his life. Shortly afterward Tigranes, the king of Armenia, conquered Syria (83 bce) and liquidated what remained of the Seleucid empire. In 64 bce Pompey, the Roman general, turned Syria into a Roman province.

[See also Judea, article on History.]


  • Bar-Kochva, Bezalel. The Seleucid Army. Cambridge, 1976.
  • Broshi, M., and E. Eshel. “The Greek King is Antiochus IV (4QHistorical Text-4Q248).” Journal of Jewish Studies 48 (1997), 120–129.
  • The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 7, part 1, esp. ch. 3, 6, 11. Cambridge, 1984.
  • The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 8, esp. ch. 10. Cambridge, 1989.
  • The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 2, The Hellenistic Age. Cambridge, 1989.
  • Dimant, D. “4Q386 ii–iii: A Prophecy on Hellenistic Kingdoms?” Revue de Qumrân 18 (1998), 511–529.
  • Mørkholm, Otto. Antiochus IV of Syria. Copenhagen, 1966.

Uriel Rappaport

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