The battle of Raphia was the deciding battle of the Fourth Syrian War and was one of the largest battles of the Hellenistic period, involving between 120,000 and 150,000 men. For two years Antiochus III the Great had been campaigning in Coele-Syria, concentrating on capturing the numerous Egyptian strongholds in the area. While he was doing that, Ptolemy IV’s advisors Sosibius concentrated on creating an army capable of opposing the Seleucid forces.
The size and composition of this army is subject to some debate. Polybius gives Ptolemy 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry and 73 elephants. This figure is now generally accepted, although it is also possible to interpret Polybius’s detailed figures as giving Ptolemy only 50,000 infantry. Much of this army was a traditional Hellenistic mix of mercenaries, Greek settlers, light troops, Gauls and Thracians. However, to boost the size of his army Sosibius recruited 20,000 native Egyptians, and trained them to fight as heavy troops, probably in the phalanx. Polybius clearly felt that this was a mistake and linked the success of a revolt in Upper Egypt to the recruitment and training of Egyptian troops for Raphia. Antiochus is reported as having had 62,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 102 Indian elephants.
In the spring of 219 BC, Ptolemy was ready to make his move, and moved his army from Alexandria east into Coele-Syria. Antiochus responded by gathering his army and moving south towards Gaza. The two armies came together south of Raphia, and set up camp at a safe distance from each other.
After five days in camp, Ptolemy led his army out of their camp and formed up for battle. The two sides formed up in very similar formations, with the phalanx in the centre flanked by the lighter troops and cavalry. Ptolemy took up position on his left flank, Antiochus opposite him on the Seleucid right.
The battle began on the wings. Antiochus led his cavalry in a successful charge that forced Ptolemy’s left wing off the battlefield. On the other wing the Egyptians had the best of the early fighting. Here Ptolemy proved himself to be the better general. Like many young cavalry commanders, Antiochus was carried away by the success of his cavalry charge, and engaged in a lengthy pursuit. In contrast, Ptolemy extracted himself from the wreck of his left wing, and made his way to the phalanx in the centre.
The phalanx battle had not yet begun. Now, with their king at their head the Egyptian phalanx advanced into combat. Whatever size Ptolemy’s army was, his phalanx outnumbered the Seleucid force, and it would appear to have been better trained. After a sharp engagement the Seleucid phalanx broke, and fled back towards Raphia. Antiochus was still with his cavalry, and only realised the battle was lost when the dust of the battle began to move towards his camp.
According to Polybius, Antiochus lost 10,000 infantry and 300 cavalry killed and 4,000 men captured, while Ptolemy lost only 1,500 infantry but 700 cavalry, reflecting his victory in the centre but defeat on the flanks. These figures are not unrealistic – the majority of losses during a phalanx battle occurred after one side had broken and was fleeing the field.
In the aftermath of the battle Antiochus returned to Antioch with his remaining troops. Once there he opened negotiations for a year long truce, to which Ptolemy agreed. The eventual peace acknowledged Seleucid control of the port of Antioch, Seleuceia in Pieria, while Ptolemy regained all of Coele-Syria. After spending four months restoring order in that area, Ptolemy returned to Egypt, while Antiochus turned his attention to dealing with a rebellion in Asia Minor.