336–166 BC


Within three years of his father’s murder in 336 BC, Alexander had twice defeated the Persian king Darius III, who decided to withdraw eastwards. Alexander did not pursue him at first, but instead marched along the coast towards Egypt, and ordered Jerusalem to contribute provisions for his army. The high priest initially refused. But not for long: when Tyre resisted him, Alexander besieged the city and when it fell, he crucified all its survivors.

Alexander ‘hurried to go up to Jerusalem’, wrote the Jewish historian Josephus much later, claiming that the conqueror was welcomed at the gates by the high priest in his purple and scarlet robes and all the Jerusalemites in white. They led him into the Temple where he sacrificed to the Jewish God. This story was probably wishful thinking: it is more likely that the high priest, along with the leaders of the semi-Jewish Samaritans, paid court to Alexander on the coast at Rosh Ha Ayim and that, emulating Cyrus, he recognized their right to live by their own laws.* He then pushed on to conquer Egypt, where he founded the city of Alexandria before heading east, never to return.

After finishing off the Persian empire and expanding his hegemony as far as Pakistan, Alexander began his great project, the fusing of the Persians and Macedonians into a single elite to rule his world. If he did not quite succeed, he changed the world more than any other conqueror in history by spreading his version of Hellenikon – Greek culture, language, poetry, religion, sport and Homeric kingship – from the deserts of Libya to the foothills of Afghanistan. The Greek way of life became as universal as the British during the nineteenth century or the American today. From now on, even the monotheistic Jewish enemies of this philosophical and polytheistic culture could not help but see the world through the lens of Hellenism.

On 13 June 323, eight years after conquering the known world, Alexander lay in Babylon dying either of fever or of poison, aged just thirty-three. His devoted soldiers filed past his bed with tears pouring down their faces. When they asked him to whom he had left his kingdom, he replied: ‘To the strongest.’25


The tournament to find the strongest was a twenty-year war between Alexander’s generals. Jerusalem was tossed between these Macedonian warlords who ‘multiplied the evils in the earth’. In the duel between the two leading contenders, Jerusalem changed hands six times. She was ruled for fifteen years by One-Eyed Antigonos, until in 301 he was killed in battle and the victor, Ptolemy, arrived outside the walls to claim Jerusalem.

Ptolemy was Alexander’s cousin, a veteran general who had fought his way from Greece to Pakistan, where he had commanded the Macedonian fleet on the Indus. Just after Alexander’s death, he was granted Egypt. When he heard that Alexander the Great’s cortège was on its way back to Greece, he rushed up through Palestine to seize it and carried it back to rest in his capital, Alexandria. The guardian of the ultimate Greek talisman, Alexander’s body, became the keeper of his flame. Ptolemy was not just a warlord: the soldier’s strong chin and blunt nose on his coins belied his subtlety and common sense.

Now Ptolemy told the Jerusalemites that he wished to enter the city on the Sabbath to sacrifice to the Jewish God. The resting Jews believed this ruse and Ptolemy seized the city, thus revealing the fanaticism of Jewish observance. But when the sun set on the Sabbath, the Jews fought back. Ptolemy’s troops then rampaged through Jerusalem – ‘the houses rifled, the women ravished; and half the city go forth into captivity’. Ptolemy probably posted Macedonian garrisons in the Baris Fortress, built by Nehemiah just north of the Temple, and he deported thousands of Jews to Egypt. These founded the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Ptolemy’s splendid capital Alexandria. In Egypt, Ptolemy and his successors became pharaohs; in Alexandria and the Mediterranean they were Greek kings. Ptolemy Soter – the ‘Saviour’ as he was known – adopted the local gods, Isis and Osiris, and Egyptian traditions of kingship, promoting his dynasty as both Egyptian god-kings and semi-divine Greek monarchs. He and his sons conquered Cyprus, Cyrenaica and then swathes of Anatolia and the Greek Islands. He understood that not just magnificence but also culture would give him legitimacy and greatness. So he made Alexandria the world’s paramount Greek city, opulent and sophisticated, founding its Museum and the Library, recruiting Greek scholars and commissioning the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Wonders of the World. His empire endured for three centuries down to the last of his family – Cleopatra.

Ptolemy lived into his eighties, and wrote a history of Alexander.26 Ptolemy II Philadelphos favoured the Jews, freeing 120,000 Jewish slaves and sending gold to embellish the Temple. He understood the power of pageantry and spectacle. In 275 he held a parade for a small number of special guests in the name of Dionysus, god of wine and abundance, in which a vast wineskin made of leopard pelts held 200,000 gallons of wine and a phallos 180 feet long and 9 feet wide was paraded along with elephants and subjects from every corner of his empire. He was also an avid book collector. When the high priest sent the twenty or so books of the Jewish Tanakh* to Alexandria, the king ordered it to be translated into Greek. He respected the scholarship of his Alexandrian Jews and invited them to a dinner to discuss the translation: ‘everything’, promised the king, ‘will be served in compliance with your habits and for me also.’ It was said that in seventy days the seventy scholars each produced an identical translation. The Septuagint Bible changed the history of Jerusalem and later made possible the spread of Christianity. Thanks to Alexander, Greek was the international language; now, for the first time, the Bible could be read by virtually everyone.27


Jerusalem remained a semi-independent statelet within Ptolemy’s empire, and Judah issued its own coins, inscribed ‘Yehud’. She was not just a political entity but God’s own city ruled by the high priests. These scions of the Oniad family, claiming descent from the biblical priest Zadok, enjoyed the opportunity to amass fortunes and power, provided they paid tribute to the Ptolemies. In the 240s, High Priest Onias II tried to hold back the 20 silver talents he owed Ptolemy III Euergetes. This created an opportunity for a well-connected young Jew who decided to outbid the high priest not just for Jerusalem but for the entire land.

This adventurer was the high priest’s own nephew, Joseph,* who set off for Alexandria where the king was holding an auction: bidders promised the highest tribute in return for the power to rule and tax their territories. The Syrian grandees mocked young Joseph but he outplayed them with outrageous chutzpah. He managed to see the king first and charmed him. When Ptolemy III asked for offers, the bumptious Joseph outbid his rivals for all of Coele-Syria, Phoenicia, Judah and Samaria. The king asked Joseph for the usual hostages to guarantee his promised tribute. ‘I give you no other persons, O King,’ replied the cocky Jerusalemite, ‘than yourself and your wife.’ Joseph could have been executed for this impertinence but Ptolemy laughed and agreed.

Joseph returned to Jerusalem with 2,000 Egyptian infantry. He had much to prove. When Ashkelon refused to pay its taxes, he murdered its twenty leading citizens. Ashkelon paid.

Joseph, like his namesake in Genesis, had played at the highest level in Egypt and won. In Alexandria, where he hobnobbed with the king, he fell in love with an actress. When he set up the seduction, his brother replaced her with his own daughter. During the night, Joseph was too drunk to notice and when he was sober, he fell in love with his niece and their marriage strengthened the dynasty. However, their son Hyrcanus grew up to be as much of a rogue as Joseph himself. Living grandly, ruling severely and taxing exorbitantly, Joseph was nonetheless ‘a good man of great magnanimity’, according to Josephus, admired for his ‘gravity, wisdom and justice. He brought the Jews out of a state of poverty and meanness to one that was more splendid.’

Joseph the Tobiad was important to the kings of Egypt because they were now continuously fighting a rival Macedonian dynasty, the Seleucids, for control of the Middle East. In about 241, Ptolemy III showed his gratitude, after a victory over his enemies, by visiting Jerusalem and there sacrificing respectfully in the Temple, hosted no doubt by Joseph. When the king died, however, the Egyptians found themselves challenged by a teenaged Seleucid king of irrepressible ambition.


The challenger was the Macedonian king of Asia, Antiochus III. In 223, this peripatetic eighteen-year-old inherited a grandiose title and a disintegrating empire,* but he possessed the gifts to reverse this decay. Antiochus regarded himself as the heir to Alexander and, like all the Macedonian kings, he associated himself with Apollo, Hercules, Achilles and, above all, Zeus. In a dizzying succession of campaigns, Antiochus reconquered Alexander’s eastern empire as far as India, earning the soubriquet ‘the Great’. He repeatedly attacked Palestine but the Ptolemies repelled his invasions and the ageing Joseph the Tobiad continued to rule Jerusalem. But his son Hyrcanus betrayed him and attacked the city. Shortly before his death, Joseph defeated his son, who went on to carve out his own principality in today’s Jordan.

In 201, Antiochus the Great, now in his forties, returned from his triumphs in the east. Jerusalem was ‘tossed like a ship in a storm between both sides’. Finally, Antiochus routed the Egyptians, and Jerusalem welcomed a new master. ‘The Jews, when we came into their city,’ declared Antiochus, ‘gave us a splendid reception and met us with their senate, and also helped us expel the Egyptian garrison.’ A Seleucid king and army were an impressive sight. Antiochus would have worn a diadem of royalty, laced boots of crimson embroidered with gold, a broad-brimmed hat and a dark-blue cloak spangled with gold stars, brooched at the throat in crimson. The Jerusalemites provisioned his multinational army that included Macedonian phalanxes bearing their sarissa lances, Cretan mountain fighters, Cilician light infantry, Thracian slingers, Mysian bowmen, Lydian javelineers, Persian bowmen, Kurdish infantry, Iranian heavy-armoured cataphracts on war horses and, most prestigious of all, elephants – probably a first for Jerusalem.

Antiochus promised to repair the Temple and the walls, repopulate the city and confirmed the Jews’ right to rule themselves ‘in accordance with the laws of their fathers’. He even banned foreigners from entering the Temple or bringing ‘into the city the flesh of horses or mules or wild or tame asses or leopards, foxes or hares’. Simon, the high priest, had certainly backed the right side: never had Jerusalem enjoyed such an indulgent conqueror. Jerusalemites looked back at this time as a golden age ruled by the ideal high priest who, they said, resembled ‘the morning star in the midst of a cloud’.28


When Simon* emerged from the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest ‘was clothed in the perfection of glory, when he went up to the holy altar’. He was the paragon of the high priests who ruled Judah as anointed princes, a combination of monarch, pope and ayatollah: he wore gilded robes, a gleaming breastplate and a crown-like turban on which he sported the nezer, a golden flower, the symbol of life and salvation, a relic of the headdress of the kings of Judah. Jesus Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus and the first writer to capture the sacred drama of the flourishing city, described Simon as ‘a cypress tree which groweth up to the clouds’.

Jerusalem had become a theocracy – the very word was invented by the historian Josephus to describe this statelet with its ‘entire sovereignty and all authority in the hands of God’. Harsh rules regulated every detail of life, for there was no distinction between politics and religion. In Jerusalem there were no statues nor graven images. The observance of the Sabbath was an obsession. All crimes against religion were punished with death. There were four forms of execution – stoning, burning, beheading and strangling. Adulterers were stoned, a punishment inflicted by the whole community (though the condemned were first thrown down a cliff so that they were usually unconscious by the time of the stoning). A son who struck his father was garrotted. A man who fornicated with both a mother and her daughter was burned.

The Temple was the centre of Jewish life: the high priest and his council, the Sanhedrin, met there. Every morning, the trumpets announced the first prayer, like the muezzin of Islam. Four times a day, the blaring of the seven silver trumpets called the worshippers to prostrate themselves in the Temple. The two daily sacrifices of a male sheep, cow or dove without blemish at the Temple altar, morning and evening, always accompanied by an offering of incense on the altar of perfumes, were the chief rituals of Jewish worship. The word ‘holocaust’, derived from the Hebrew olah meaning to ‘go up’, refers to the burning of the whole animal whose smoke ‘goes up’ to God. The city must have smelt of the Temple altar, the censers with their delicious cinnamon and cassia mixing with the reek of burning flesh. Small wonder the people wore much myrrh, nard and balm as perfumes.

Pilgrims poured into Jerusalem for the festivals. At the Sheep Gate to the north of the Temple, sheep and cattle were herded and wrangled, ready for sacrifice. At Passover, 200,000 lambs were slaughtered. But Tabernacles was the holiest and most exuberant week of the Jerusalem year, when men and girls in white costumes danced in the Temple courtyards, singing, waving lighted torches and feasting. They gathered palms and branches to build huts on the rooftops of their houses or in the Temple courts.*

Yet even under the pure Simon, there were many worldly Jews who probably looked like rich Greeks, living in their new Grecian palaces on the western hillside known as the Upper City. What the fanatical Jewish conservatives regarded as heathen pollution, these cosmopolitans saw as civilization. This was the start of a new pattern in Jerusalem: the more sacred she became, the more divided. Two ways of life existed in the closest proximity with the intimate loathing of a family feud. Now the city – and the very existence of the Jews – was threatened by the most infamous monster since Nebuchadnezzar.29


Jerusalem’s benefactor, Antiochus the Great, could not rest: he now turned to the conquest of Asia Minor and Greece. But the over-confident King of Asia underestimated the rising power of the Republic of Rome, which had just defeated Hannibal and Carthage to dominate the western Mediterranean. Rome repelled Antiochus’ bid for Greece, forcing the Great King to surrender his fleet and elephant corps and send his son to Rome as a hostage. Antiochus headed east to replenish his treasury but, while looting a Persian temple, he was assassinated.

Jews, from Babylon to Alexandria, now paid an annual tithe to the Temple, and Jerusalem was so rich that her treasures intensified power struggles among the Jewish leaders and started to attract the cash-strapped Macedonian kings. The new king of Asia, named Antiochus like his father, rushed to the capital at Antioch and seized the throne, killing any other family claimants. Brought up in Rome and Athens, Antiochus IV inherited the irrepressible, glittering talents of his father but his cackling menace and manic flamboyance more resembled the demented exhibitionism of Caligula or Nero.

As the son of a Great King laid low, he had too much to prove. As beautiful as he was unhinged, Antiochus relished the pageantry of court ritual yet was bored by its constraints, priding himself on his absolute right to surprise. In Antioch, the young king got drunk in the main square and bathed and was massaged in public with expensive unguents, befriending grooms and porters in the baths. When a spectator complained about his extravagant use of myrrh, Antiochus ordered the pot smashed over the man’s head, causing a riot as the mob tried to salvage this priceless lotion while the king just laughed hysterically. He enjoyed dressing up, appearing in the streets in a crown of roses with a golden cloak, but when his subjects stared he threw stones at them. At night, he plunged in disguise into the stews of Antioch’s backstreets. Spontaneously friendly to strangers, his caresses were panther-like for he could suddenly turn nasty, as pitiless as he was genial.

The potentates of the Hellenic age usually claimed descent from Hercules and other gods, but Antiochus took it a step further. He called himself Epiphanes – the God-manifest – though his subjects nicknamed him Epumanes – the Madman. But there was method in his madness for he hoped to bind his empire together around the worship of one king, one religion. He fully expected his subjects to worship their local gods and merge them into the Greek pantheon and his own cult. But it was different for the Jews, who had a love–hate relationship with Greek culture. They craved its civilization but resented its dominance. Josephus says they regarded Greeks as feckless, promiscuous, modernizing lightweights, yet many Jerusalemites were already living the fashionable lifestyle, using Greek and Jewish names to show they could be both. Jewish conservatives disagreed; for them, the Greeks were simply idolators, whose nude athletics disgusted them.

The first instinct of the Jewish grandees was to race each other to Antioch to bid for power in Jerusalem. The crisis started with a family feud about money and influence. When High Priest Onias III made his bid to the king, his brother Jason offered an extra eighty talents and returned as high priest with a programme to rebrand Jerusalem as a Greek polis: he renamed her Antioch-Hierosolyma (Antioch-in-Jerusalem) in honour of the king, downgraded the Torah and built a Greek gymnasium probably on the western hill facing the Temple. Jason’s reforms were quite popular. Young Jews were painfully keen to appear fashionable at the gymnasium, where they exercised naked except for a Greek hat. Somehow they managed to reverse their circumcisions, the mark of the covenant with God, giving the appearance of restoring their foreskins, surely a triumph of fashion over comfort. But Jason himself was outbid for Jerusalem: he sent his henchman Menelaos to Antioch to deliver his tribute. But instead the thuggish Menelaos stole the Temple funds, outbid Jason and bought the high priesthood, even though he lacked the required Zadokite lineage. Menelaos seized Jerusalem. When the Jerusalemites sent delegates to the king to protest, he executed them, and he even allowed Menelaos to arrange the murder of the ex-High Priest Onias.

Antiochus was most concerned to raise funds to reconquer his empire – and he was about to pull off an astonishing coup: the uniting of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. In 170 BC Antiochus conquered Egypt, but the Jerusalemites undermined his triumph, rebelling under the deposed Jason. The Madman marched back across Sinai, and stormed Jerusalem deporting 10,000 Jews.* Accompanied by his henchman Menelaos, he entered the Holy of Holies, an unforgivable sacrilege, and stole its priceless artefacts – the golden altar, the candlestick of light and the shewbread table. Worse, Antiochus ordered the Jews to sacrifice to him as God-manifest, testing the loyalty of the many Jews who were probably attracted to Greek culture – and then, his coffers filled with Temple gold, he rushed back to Egypt to crush any resistance.

Antiochus liked to play the Roman, sporting a toga and holding mock elections in Antioch, while he secretly rebuilt his banned fleet and elephant corps. But Rome, determined to dominate the eastern Mediterranean, would not tolerate Antiochus’ new empire. When the Roman envoy Popillius Laenas met the king in Alexandria, he brashly drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus, demanding he agree to withdraw from Egypt before stepping out of it – the origin of the phrase ‘draw a line in the sand’. Antiochus, ‘groaning and in bitterness of heart’, bowed before Roman power.

Meanwhile the Jews refused to sacrifice to Antiochus the God. To ensure that Jerusalem would not rebel a third time, the Madman decided to eradicate the Jewish religion itself.


In 167, Antiochus captured Jerusalem by a ruse on the Sabbath, slaughtered thousands, destroyed her walls and built a new citadel, the Acra. He handed the city over to a Greek governor and the collaborator Menelaos.

Then Antiochus forbade any sacrifices or services in the Temple, banned the Sabbath, the Law and circumcision on pain of death, and ordered the Temple to be soiled with pigs’ flesh. On 6 December, the Temple was consecrated as a shrine to the state god, Olympian Zeus – the very abomination of desolation. A sacrifice was made to Antiochus the God-King, probably in his presence, at the altar outside the Holy of Holies. ‘The Temple was filled with riot and revelling by Gentiles who dallied with harlots,’ fornicating ‘in the holy places’. Menelaos acquiesced in this, people processed through the Temple wearing ivy crowns, and, after prayers, even many of the priests descended to watch the naked games at the gymnasium.

Those practising the Sabbath were burned alive or suffered a gruesome Greek import: crucifixion. An old man perished rather than eat pork; women who circumcised their children were thrown with their babies off the walls of Jerusalem. The Torah was torn to shreds and burned publicly: everyone found with a copy was put to death. Yet the Torah, like the Temple, was worth more than life. These deaths created a new cult of martyrdom and stimulated expectation of the Apocalypse. ‘Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake and come to everlasting life’ in Jerusalem, evil would fail, and goodness triumph with the arrival of a Messiah – and a Son of Man, invested with eternal glory.*

Antiochus progressed back to Antioch, where he celebrated his flawed victories with a festival. Gold-armoured Scythian horsemen, Indian elephants, gladiators and Nisaean horses with gold bridles paraded through the capital, followed by young athletes with gilded crowns, a thousand oxen for sacrifice, floats bearing statues, and women spraying perfume on to the crowds. Gladiators fought in the circuses and fountains ran red with wine while the king entertained a thousand guests at his palace. The Madman supervised everything, riding up and down the procession, ushering in guests, joking with his comedians. At the end of the banquet, the comedians carried in a figure swaddled in cloth. They laid it on the ground where, at the first notes of a symphonia, it suddenly threw off its coverings and out burst the king naked and dancing.

Far to the south of this delirious debauch, Antiochus’ generals were enforcing his persecutions. In the village of Modin, near Jerusalem, an old priest called Mattathias, father of five sons, was ordered to make the sacrifice to Antiochus to prove he was no longer a Jew, but he replied: ‘If all the nations of the King’s dominion hearken unto him yet will I and my sons walk in the Covenant of our fathers.’ When another Jew stepped forward to make the sacrifice, Mattathias’ ‘zeal was kindled, his veins trembled’, and, drawing his sword, he killed first the traitor, then Antiochus’ general, and pulled down the altar. ‘Whoever maintaineth the Covenant,’ he said, ‘let him come forth after me.’ The old man and his five sons fled into the mountains, joined by extremely pious Jews known as the Righteous – Hasidim. Initially they were so pious that they observed the Sabbath even (disastrously) in battle: the Greeks presumably tried to fight all their battles on Saturdays.

Mattathias died soon afterwards, but his third son Judah, assuming command in the hills around Jerusalem, defeated three Syrian armies in a row. Antiochus initially did not take the Jewish revolt seriously for he marched east to conquer Iraq and Persia, ordering his viceroy Lysias to crush the rebels. But Judah defeated him too.

Even Antiochus, campaigning in faraway Persia, realized that Judah’s victories threatened his empire, and cancelled the terror. The Jews, he wrote to the pro-Greek members of the Sanhedrin, could ‘use their own proper meats and observe their own laws’. But he was too late, and soon afterwards Antiochus Epiphanes suffered an epileptic fit and fell dead from his chariot.30 Judah had already earned the heroic moniker that would give its name to a dynasty: the Hammer.

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