After the death of Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire in 164 BCE, his successor, Antiochus V, decided that one of the first goals of his reign would be to crush a rebellion in Jerusalem that was led by the theocratic Hasmonaean dynasty. The rebellion was reportedly raised by a man named Matthias (or Mathathias) in 167 BCE, and his son, Judas Maccabaeus (hence the Biblical Books of the Maccabees). Judas was the rebellion’s first great priest-general, beginning his heyday around 164 BCE, not long before Antiochus V came to power.
Around 162 BCE, Antiochus V launched his attack against Jerusalem, reportedly mobilizing tens of thousands of infantry, thousands of cavalry, and nearly one hundred elephants for the assault. Judas Maccabaeus led the Jewish forces out to intercept the Seleucids at Beth-Zechariah, but the battle did not go as planned. The rebel forces showed poor discipline during the encounter, and Judas Maccabaeus’ own brother, Eleazar, was said to have been greatly responsible for the Jewish army’s untimely breakdown in order and morale. According to the Books of the Maccabees and the Jewish historian, Josephus, Eleazar was tempted by the thought of glory into making a rash and foolish charge during the battle of Beth-Zechariah. As the story goes, he hoped to quickly assassinate Antiochus V in the heat of battle, and therefore he scoured the field of carnage for the tallest elephant, presuming that the Seleucid king would be riding atop the most formidable beast. When he spotted the tallest elephant, he vowed to take it down at all cost, and neither friend nor foe was able to stop him from reaching the animal. Josephus, relying on the Books of the Maccabees, recorded this scene in his own text, The Jewish War, and also added a moral to the story at the end of the odd tale:
“So he rushed out far ahead of his own lines and hacked his way through a mass of the enemy to reach the elephant. Unable to get near the supposed king because of his height from the ground, Eleazar struck at the underbelly of the beast, which brought it collapsing down on top of him. He was crushed to death. He had put hope of glory before life itself, but it came to nothing more than a heroic failure. In fact the man riding the elephant was a commoner” (The Jewish War, 1.43-44).
Ultimately, in his attempt to assassinate Antiochus V, Eleazar only managed to assassinate himself—for even the elephant’s commoner rider likely could have survived the fall. After the incident, the Seleucid army’s chain of command remained intact and unconfused, whereas Eleazar’s breaking from rank and subsequent death left the Jewish forces in a state of disarray and demoralization—after all, he was a member of the rebellion’s leading family, and he was likely one of Judas Maccabaeus’ military lieutenants. As the battle continued, the Jewish forces could not regain momentum or advantage and Antiochus V won the day. The Seleucids continued their march into Judea and Judas Maccabaeus was able to do little to stop Antiochus V from occupying Jerusalem before the end of 162 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Zama, by Cornelis Cort, 1567, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Josephus’ The Jewish War, translated by Martin Hammond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.