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This Week In History

The Battle of Raphia. June 22, 217 BC.

The Battle of Raphia, also known as the Battle of Gaza, was a battle fought on 22 June 217 BC near modern Rafah between the forces of Ptolemy IV Philopator, king and pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Antiochus III the Great of the Seleucid Empire during the Syrian Wars. It was one of the largest battles of the Hellenistic kingdoms and was one of the largest battles of the ancient world. The battle was waged to determine the sovereignty of Coele Syria.

This is the only known battle in which African and Asian elephants were used against each other. Due to Polybius‘ descriptions of Antiochus’ Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), brought from India, as being larger and stronger than Ptolemy’s African elephants, it had once been theorized that Ptolemy’s elephants were in fact the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). However recent DNA research has revealed that most likely, Ptolemy’s elephants were in fact Loxodonta africana, albeit culled from a population of more diminutive African bush elephants still found in Eritrea today. Much smaller than their Indian cousins, members of this subspecies were typically around 8 foot high at the shoulder. Regardless of origin, according to Polybius, Ptolemy’s African elephants could not bear the smell, sound, and sight of their Indian counterparts. The Indian’s greater size and strength easily routed the Africans.

After five days of skirmishing, the two kings decided to array their troops for battle. Both placed their Phalangites in the center. Next to them they fielded the lightly armed and the mercenaries in front of which they placed their elephants and even further in the wings their cavalry. They spoke to their soldiers, took their places in the lines — Ptolemy in his left and Antiochus in his right wing — and the battle commenced.

In the beginning of the battle, the elephant contingents on the wings of both armies moved to charge. Ptolemy’s diminutive African elephants retreated in panic before the impact with the larger Indians and ran through the lines of friendly infantry arrayed behind them, causing disorder in their ranks. At the same time, Antiochus had led his cavalry to the right, rode past the left wing of the Ptolemaic elephants charging the enemy horse. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid phalanxes then engaged. However, while Antiochus had the Argyraspides, Ptolemy’s Macedonians were bolstered by the Egyptian phalanx. At the same time, the right wing of Ptolemy was retreating and wheeling to protect itself from the panicked elephants. Ptolemy rode to the center encouraging his phalanx to attack, Polybius tells us “with alacrity and spirit”. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid phalanxes engaged in a stiff and chaotic fight. On the Ptolemaic far right, Ptolemy’s cavalry was routing their opponents.

Antiochus routed the Ptolemaic horse posed against him and pursued the fleeing enemy en masse, believing to have won the day, but the Ptolemaic phalanxes eventually drove the Seleucid phalanxes back and soon Antiochus realized that his judgment was wrong. Antiochus tried to ride back, but by the time he rode back, his troops were routed and could no longer be regrouped. The battle had ended.

After the battle, Antiochus wanted to regroup and make camp outside the city of Raphia but most of his men had already found refuge inside and he was thus forced to enter it himself. Then he marched to Gaza and asked Ptolemy for the customary truce to bury the dead, which he was granted.

According to Polybius, the Seleucids suffered a little under 10,000 infantry dead, about 300 horse, and 5 elephants, and 4,000 men were taken prisoner. The Ptolemaic losses were 1,500 infantry, 700 horse, and 16 elephants. Most of the Seleucids’ elephants were taken by the Ptolemies.

Ptolemy’s victory secured the province of Coele-Syria for Egypt, but it was only a respite; at the Battle of Panium in 200 BC Antiochus defeated the army of Ptolemy’s young son, Ptolemy V Epiphanes and recaptured Coele Syria and Judea.

Ptolemy owed his victory in part to having a properly equipped and trained native Egyptian phalanx, which for the first time formed a large proportion of his phalangites, thus ending his manpower problems. The self-confidence the Egyptians gained was credited by Polybius as one of the causes of the secession in 207–186 of Upper Egypt under pharaohs Hugronaphor and Ankhmakis, who created a separate kingdom that lasted nearly twenty years.

The battle of Raphia marked a turning-point in Ptolemaic history. The native Egyptian element in 2nd-century Ptolemaic administration and culture grew in influence, driven in part by Egyptians having played a major role in the battle and in part by the financial pressures on the state aggravated by the cost of the war itself. The stele that recorded the convocation of priests at Memphis in November 217, to give thanks for the victory (called the Raphia decree, discovered in 1902) was inscribed in Greek and hieroglyphic and demotic Egyptian: in it, for the first time, Ptolemy is given full pharaonic honours in the Greek as well as the Egyptian texts; subsequently this became the norm.

Some biblical commentators see this battle as being the one referred to in Daniel 11:11, where it says, “Then the king of the South will march out in a rage and fight against the king of the North, who will raise a large army, but it will be defeated.”

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