Today in Military History: June 22, 217 BC:Battle of Raphia: Egyptian Army Defeats Seleucid Invaders

Battle of Raphia: Egyptian Army Defeats Seleucid Invaders

Mediterranean nations, c. 217 BC
Seleucid Empire in yellow, Ptolemaic possessions in green
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)


It has been some time since I have written on ancient battles and warfare, so today I will remedy that shortcoming. This battle was one of the largest of the ancient world (with perhaps 150,000 soldiers and 175 elephants involved), and one of the last battles to feature war elephants on both sides.



After the Wars of the Diadochi (the successors of Alexander the Great, 319-275 BC), Alexander’s empire was divided into several fairly stable nation-states. Macedon, the homeland of Alexander and many of his generals and soldiers, became a stand-alone nation in northern Greece. The rest of Greece was either independent (Sparta) or one of several associations of cities (the Aetolian League, for example). Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies, and much of the former Macedonian Empire’s lands in Asia came under the control of the Seleucids.

Unfortunately, the Seleucid Empire was too large to be governed effectively, and began to fragment almost immediately. In the meantime, the Ptolemaic government continued its efforts to expand into the Levant. Although Egypt already controlled most of what is modern-day Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan, the Ptolemies claimed that Syria was originally allotted to them by the agreement which divided Alexander’s empire after his death. Between 275 and 168 BC, the Seleucids and Ptolemies fought six “Syrian Wars” over which of the two empires would control Syria.

In 223 BC, Antiochus III assumed the throne of the Seleucid Empire, and 2 years later Ptolemy IV was crowned pharaoh of Egypt. Antiochus was determined to reunite the various pieces of the former Macedonian Empire. Putting down a number of rebellions on the edges of his empire, Antiochus decided to confront Ptolemaic Egypt in 219. The Seleucid army captured the port of Seleucia Pieria (also called Seleucia by the Sea) near modern Antioch. The Ptolemaic governor of Syria treacherously flipped his allegiance to the Seleucids, saving Antiochus some time and manpower. A few cities held out, forcing Antiochus to waste time and resources besieging each town. Unknown to Antiochus, he was giving Egypt the breathing room it needed.

Gold octadrachma issued during reign of Ptolemy IV (221-204 BC); From the British Museum, London UK
Gold octadrachma issued during reign of Ptolemy IV (221-204 BC)
From the British Museum, London UK

Ptolemy IV was a weak and corrupt king, who allowed his courtiers to control his government, to the detriment of the Egyptian people. However, when news of the loss of most of Syria reached Egypt, Ptolemy and his ministers began to make hurried military preparations.

The core of all the armies of the Diadochi was the phalanx, the solid blocks of infantrymen armed with 18-foot long pikes. These men marched in close formations that delivered a punch that few armies could withstand. When Alexander’s empire fragmented, the Macedonian recruiting ground for the phalangists was lost to the Ptolemies. Consequently, with the looming threat of Seleucid invasion, Ptolemy’s recruiters took three major routes to improve the Egyptian army:

  1. Ptolemy sent recruiting officers throughout Egypt and the Middle East, recruiting Macedonian descendants who had been settled throughout Alexander’s former empire. Known as klerouchoi – or military settlers – these men had traded military service for land;
  2. Coming up short for new soldiers, Ptolemy’s recruiters took a huge risk. It was decided to enlist native Egyptians and train them in the intricacies of phalanx warfare; and,
  3. Mercenaries of various types – Cretan archers, Libyan peltasts, Thessalian and Libyan cavalry, even Greek hoplites – were hired to add experience and numbers to the Ptolemaic army. A lot of gold was spread around to recruit and train these men to meet the experienced Seleucid army on an equal footing.

Ptolemy was helped in his efforts late in 218. As the Seleucid army was reducing the Ptolemaic garrisons of Syrian cities, Ptolemy proposed a four month truce. Unexpectedly, Antiochus agreed to the temporary halt in hostilities, giving Egypt needed time to fill out its ranks. When Antiochus resumed his military operations in the spring of 217, the Egyptian army was in much better shape than six months previously.

Macedonian/Successors phalanx in battle formation, 4th-2nd century BC (Note the 18' long pikes)
Macedonian/Successors phalanx in battle formation, 4th-2nd century BC
(Note the 18′ long pikes)

Prelude to the Battle

In early June of 217, Antiochus was still stamping out the last remnant of Ptolemaic resistance in Syria. He received the unexpected news that Ptolemy was marching out of Egypt with a large army to confront his Seleucid army. Calling together every last man he could muster, Antiochus assembled his own forces and marched south to meet the Egyptian threat. On about June 16 or 17, the scouts of both armies reported sighting the enemy army near the town of Raphia, which is located on the main north-south road from Egypt which follows the Mediterranean coast, south of the city of Gaza.

The two armies – apparently neither was immediately willing to start a battle – set up camp about 5.5 miles from each other. Both sides constantly sent scouts, foraging parties, and raiding parties out in the neighborhood. Finally, hoping to goad the Egyptians into a fight, Antiochus moved his Seleucid army to within a half-mile of the Ptolemaic camp. Scouting and raiding parties continued their harassment. Finally, on the morning of June 22, Antiochus received a report from his scouts that major activity was seen outside the Egyptian encampment. Wanting to see this sight for himself, the Seleucid ruler confirmed the scouting report, and passed the word to his commanders to prepare for battle. The two armies began deploying on a large, flat plain near the Mediterranean Sea, with sand dunes along the water, and a range of hills to the east.

Egyptian (Ptolemaic) Army

At the core of the Ptolemaic army were two large blocks of phalangists. The left-hand block consisted of 25,000 Macedonian and Greek military settlers, with the right-hand unit comprising 20,000 Egyptian soldiers, hastily recruited and trained. Pharaoh Ptolemy was unsure how the native Egyptians would perform on the battlefield. To the right of these new soldiers was a unit of 8000 Greek mercenary hoplites, followed by a 6000-man infantry unit of Thracians and Gauls. On the extreme right wing of the Ptolemaic army was a very well-trained 2000 strong unit of Greek and mercenary cavalry.

On the Egyptian left wing, to the left of the Macedonian-Greek phalanx was a unit of about 3000 Libyans trained as phalangists, and next to them were 2000 (possibly Libyan) peltasts. To their left, Ptolemy placed a unit of 3000 soldiers referred to as the “Royal Guard,” who were possibly Macedonian military settlers or mercenaries. On the extreme left flank was a 3000-man mixed Egyptian, Libyan, and royal guard cavalry unit. Ptolemy placed himself in this unit.

Screening the left flank was a contingent of 40 African elephants and a unit of 2000 Cretan archers. On the right flank Ptolemy placed his remaining 33 elephants and a unit of 1000 Neocretan bowmen.

[This battle is the only known example in classical military history in which Indian and African elephants opposed each other. Research commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the Ptolemaic pachyderms were an isolated, possibly inbred group of African savanna elephants from Eritrea. In the widely-used account of this battle by Polybius, he described the African elephants as smaller than the Seleucid Indian elephants. Modern research as determined this to be false, but the ancient account was repeated and taken as gospel until modern research methods were used.]

Initial deployment, Seleucid army (in green) and Ptolemaic army (in red); Mediterranean Sea in upper left corner of diagram, north is the top; Image courtesy of
Initial deployment, Seleucid army (in green) and Ptolemaic army (in red)
Mediterranean Sea in upper left corner of diagram, north is the top
Image courtesy of

Seleucid Army

Like the Ptolemaic army, the Seleucid army was built around the phalangists. At the center he placed his most reliable soldiers, a 10,000 strong unit of veteran Macedonian pikemen known as the “Silver Shields; to their left he placed a block of 20,000 Macedonian military settler phalangists. To the right of the Silver Shields, Antiochus placed two units of Greek and European mercenaries. He then placed two units of cavalry totaling 4000 men on the far right flank. Antiochus joined one of these units.

After seeing the length of the Ptolemaic battle line, Antiochus began placing many of his light infantry and missile troops in his left flank. To the left of his Macedonian phalangists Antiochus placed 10,000 Arab light infantry, with two units totaling some 5000 or more light-armed troops – Persian and Agrianian missile troops, as well as Cardacian and Lydian javelineers – placed to the left of the Arabs. Guarding the far left Seleucid flank was a force of 2000 cavalry, likely Greek, Macedonian settlers and mercenaries.

Mirroring the Ptolemaic disposition, Antiochus placed 60 of his Indian elephants to cover his right flank, along with 2500 Cretan archers, with the remaining 42 elephants screened his left flank. [It is likely that there were archers – either Neocretans or Persians – and/or peltasts or javelinemen supporting the 42 Indian elephants on the Seleucid left flank.]

Battle of Raphia: Opening Phase

Initial attack of Seleucid right flank, Battle of Raphia; Image courtesy of
Initial attack of Seleucid right flank, Battle of Raphia
Image courtesy of

Apparently it took both rulers most of the morning to arrange their battle lines to their liking. As the early afternoon passed, the soldiers of both armies relaxed in the hot June afternoon, waiting for the order to attack. Finally, after seeming ages of waiting, a Seleucid trumpet sounded, signaling the first move in the battle.

Antiochus decided on an all-or-nothing attack to break the Egyptian army. He ordered his screening right flank elephants and their archers/javelinmen to charge the Ptolemaic elephants. As a huge cloud of dust advanced on the Egyptian left wing, Ptolemy hesitated as to the best response. After tense moments, he ordered a counter-charge by his own African elephants and their supporting missilemen.

Using the dust as a cover, Antiochus made two more moves. First he ordered the Greek and European mercenaries of his left-side right wing to charge the Egyptian left wing. Then, Antiochus took command of his right flank cavalry units (which were under the command of his son Antipater), leading them in a wide flanking maneuver, seeking to take the Ptolemaic left wing cavalry in the flank.

The battle between the two armies’ elephants became even more chaotic, as the Seleucid animals dominated the fighting. Before long, the Ptolemaic beasts were pushed back, and they panicked and began to retreat, in most cases through their own cavalry, archers, and infantrymen, indiscriminately trampling men and beasts alike.

As Egyptian ruler Ptolemy began issuing a flood of orders for the other units in his army, one of his aides sighted the Seleucid cavalry charging the Egyptian horsemen’s flank. Within moments, the Seleucid heavy cavalry slammed into the Ptolemaic horsemen. Such was the impetus that the fight between the two mounted arms of the armies was short and bloody. Before long, the entire left wing of the Egyptian army was routing from the field, with their pharaoh in tow.

Second Phase

Retreat of Ptolemaic Left Wing, and Attack of Ptolemaic Right Wing; Image courtesy of
Retreat of Ptolemaic Left Wing, and Attack of Ptolemaic Right Wing
Image courtesy of

As the situation on the Egyptian left began to deteriorate, the commander of the right wing, Echecrates the Thessalian, was contemplating his choices. He had received orders from Ptolemy, but had received no updates on the outcome of the fighting on the far left. In the meantime, he noticed some preliminary maneuvering in the Seleucid elephant force to his front. Echecrates began issuing orders of his own. Then, he saw two things that made up his mind very quickly. First, he saw a huge cloud of dust and sand falling back from the Egyptian left wing, heralding the rout of one third of the army. At about the same time, the Seleucid elephants to his front began to move forward.

Seleucid Indian elephants (left) vs. Ptolemaic African elephants; Artist unknown; image courtesy of
Seleucid Indian elephants (left) vs. Ptolemaic African elephants
Artist unknown; image courtesy of

Echecrates made his decisions rapidly. He ordered his own African elephants with their archer support units to intercept their Indian counterparts. However, after only a short advance, many of the Ptolemaic beasts refused to move to contact with the Seleucid elephants. Echecrates ordered them to hold up the advance of the enemy pachyderms to the best of their ability. He then ordered the Greek mercenaries and Thracian and Gallic infantry to move forward, skirt the left side of the ongoingelephant skirmish, and charge the Persian and Agrianian missile troops and Cardacian and Lydian light infantry guarding the left flank of the Arab light infantry.

As his infantrymen charged the Seleucid left wing, Echecrates led his highly experience, well-trained Greek and mercenary cavalry forward, making a wide arc around the extreme flank of the Seleucid cavalry. The Ptolemaic horsemen then made a quick left turn, and smashed into the flank and rear of the enemy cavalry. At the same time, the Thracian and Gallic infantry, wearing next to no armor, charged briskly forward, sustaining some damage from the Seleucid missile troops. […which brings to mind the 1974 movie “Blazing Saddles,” when Sheriff Bart is preparing to confront Mongo, and is warned by his deputy, “Oh no, don’t do that… If you shoot him, you’ll just make him mad.”] The Thracians and Gauls voiced a barbaric roar as they charged the Seleucid light infantry, and an intense, bloody but brief hand-to-hand battle took place, with the lightly-armed and -armored Seleucid missilemen coming out second-best.

Far from absorbing the double blows from the Ptolemaic right wing, the Seleucid left was completely blown up, and hundred of light infantryman and their mounted companions began a disordered retreat. The men commanded by Echecrates had their blood up, and began to pursue their fleeing opponents. Seeing their companions in full retreat, thinking the battle was lost, the Seleucid elephants and their archer support panicked, and fell back to join the rout.

Final Phase

Retreat of Seleucid Left Wing, and Attack of the Ptolemaic Phalangists; Image courtesy of
Retreat of Seleucid Left Wing, and Attack of the Ptolemaic Phalangists
Image courtesy of

During the chaotic fighting on the wings of each army, the central phalanxes stood stationary, mere spectators to the carnage around them. Having received no orders from either commander, the phalangists nervously looked about, wondering what to do next. Then, as if in answer to their prayers, the Ptolemaic phalangists were shocked to see their pharaoh, accompanied by a small bodyguard of horsemen, appear in front of them.

Ptolemy had managed to extricate himself from the rout of his left wing. He quickly rode to his motionless center, and gave them a rousing pep-talk. In moments, both of the Ptolemaic pike-blocks began to move forward, then in minutes they impacted the Seleucid phalangists. After a long, grinding, bloody battle, the Seleucid center began to buckle. [The biggest surprise – to Ptolemy, at least – was the superb performance of his Eygptian phalangist, who gave as good as they got from the veteran Seleucid infantry.]

Retreat and Pursuit of the Seleucid Center; Image courtesy of
Retreat and Pursuit of the Seleucid Center
Image courtesy of

The Seleucid Silver Shields, had held their own against the Ptolemaic Macedonian phalangists. However, when their Arab flank guard retreat, the Seleucid officers realized they were alone on the battlefield. In addition, some of the Thracian and Gallic infantry from the Egyptian right wing had broken off their pursuit and were drawing a bead on the flank of the Seleucid flank. The Silver Shields’ morale plummeted, and they began to retreat back to their camp.

Ptolemaic phalangists (on left) fighting Seleucid Silver Shields pikemen; Painting by Igor Dzis, image courtesy of
Ptolemaic phalangists (on left) fighting Seleucid Silver Shields pikemen
Painting by Igor Dzis, image courtesy of

Meanwhile, Antiochus had managed to separate himself from his rampaging right wing, still pursuing the routed Egyptian left wing. However, he observed large clouds of dust and sand converging on his camp, and made the quick assessment that his army was in full rout mode. With this realization, he decided to join the retreat, thus bringing the battle of Raphia to a close.


Considering the number of men and beasts involved in this battle, the casualty figures given by Polybius are rather light. The Seleucids sustained 10,000 dead infantry, and 300 cavalry killed, with 4000 men taken prisoner. Five Seleucid elephants were killed or died of wounds, while the remainder were taken captive by the Ptolemaic forces. The Egyptian army suffered 1500 infantrymen dead, 700 cavalrymen killed, and 16 elephants lost in action.

Footnote #1: As a result of his loss at Raphia, Antiochus abandoned Syria, Judaea, and Phoencia, returning them to the Ptolemaic orbit. These lands would continue to be fought over by the two empires, until 63 BC when Roman general Pompey the Great would lead an army and bring Syria and Judaea under Roman jurisdiction.

Footnote #2: Antiochus fought additional wars with the Ptolemies, and later with the expanding Roman Republic, as well as attempted to quell a number of revolts in his far-flung empire. He ruled the Seleucid Empire until 187 BC, after losing a war with the Romans. He died in Luristan (in modern-day Iran) after putting down another revolt, but was killed while looting a temple to a local god.

Footnote #3: I must give a great deal of credit for most of the information in this post to the book, “Great Battles of the Hellenistic World” by Joseph Pietrykowski (Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2012).

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