Identity of the Little Horn

SYNOPSIS:  The “Little Horn” described in Daniel 7:7-8 fits perfectly with the known history of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV.

Parthenon - Athens

In the eighth chapter of the Book of Daniel the image of a “little horn” represents a malevolent king from one of the kingdoms that evolved from the Macedonian empire founded by Alexander the Great. The historical allusions in the chapter make the identity of this king clear and, by association, the identity of the fourth kingdom from the seventh chapter, the fourth “beast from the sea” (Daniel 7:7-88:9-2611:1-4).

The identification of this figure also sheds light on an event of great significance to the several visions of the Book of Daniel, namely, the “abomination that desolates” with the cessation of the daily burnt offering:

(Daniel 8:13) – “Then I heard a holy one speaking; and another holy one said unto that certain one who spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the continual burnt-offering, and the transgression that maketh desolate, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot?

(Daniel 9:27) – “And he shall make a firm covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one that maketh desolate; and even unto the full end, and that determined, shall wrath be poured out upon the desolate.”

(Daniel 11:31) – “And forces shall stand on his part, and they shall profane the sanctuary, even the fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt-offering, and they shall set up the abomination that maketh desolate.

(Daniel 12:11) – “And from the time that the continual burnt-offering shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand and two hundred and ninety days.”

In the vision of Chapter 8, the figures of the “ram” and the “goat” represent, respectively, the kingdoms of the “Medes and the Persians” and Greece. The identifications are explicit in the interpretation of the vision (Daniel 8:21-26).

Photo by Ray Aucott on Unsplash
By Ray Aucott on Unsplash

The empire of the “Medes and Persians” was defeated by a Macedonian force in 331 B.C. led by Alexander the Great, who ruled his new domain for only a few years, dying at a young age in 323 B.C. Afterward, his generals fought for the succession until a settlement was reached. The empire was divided among four generals into smaller states (Ptolemy, Seleucus, Cassander, Antigonus). By 275 B.C., only three of the original four remained; the kingdoms of Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus in Syria and Babylon, and Antigonus in Greece and Macedonia.

King Ptolemy I founded the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt in 305 B.C., a dynasty that endured until 30 B.C. The small Jewish state of Judea was part of his realm, although it was allowed it to govern its internal affairs.

The Seleucid dynasty, founded in 312 B.C., endured until 63 B.C. Intermittent wars occurred between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic regimes, usually, over disputed territories, and Judea lay dead center in the frontier between the two regional powers. After several Seleucid victories, Judea became part of its empire in 198 B.C. and remained under Seleucid sovereignty for decades.

The Seleucid rulers were tolerant of the Jewish nation and its faith. No attempt was made to repress its religious practices. However, this changed after the Seleucid throne was seized by Antiochus IV (175 B.C.), also known as Antiochus Epiphanés (“manifest god”).

Antiochus was not the direct heir to the throne. He was the younger brother of the legitimate king, Seleucus IV, who was assassinated by his chancellor (Heliodorus) in 175 B.C., an attempt to seize the throne (2 Maccabees 3:21-28). The legitimate heirs were the two underage sons of Seleucus IV.

Antiochus acted quickly to remove the rebellious chancellor and installed himself as regent over the kingdom, although he was king in all but name and intended to remain the absolute ruler. After his youngest nephew died, he ruled openly as the king.

The rise of Antiochus in 331 B.C. was unexpected and made possible by unforeseen circumstances. His seizure of the throne is portrayed in the vision of a fourth beast from the sea with ten horns, three of which were removed to make way for “another, a little horn” (Daniel 7:1-14).

The ten horns represented, “ten kings who will arise.” The “little horn” rose later and was “diverse” from the others. It cast down three “horns” or kings. In the Seleucid line, Antiochus IV was the eighth descendant to rule since Seleucus I. The royal line until the reign of Antiochus IV was as follows:

    1. Seleucus I [Nicantor] – (312-281 B.C.)
    2. Antiochus I [Sotér] – (281-261 B.C.)
    3. Antiochus II [Theos] – (261-246 B.C.)
    4. Seleucus II [Kallinikos] – (246-226 B.C.)
    5. Seleucus III [Keraunos] – (226-223 B.C.)
    6. Antiochus III [the Great] – (223-187 B.C.)
    7. Seleucus IV [Philopator] – (187-175 B.C.)
    8. Antiochus IV [Epiphanés] (175-163 B.C.)

To make way for Antiochus, three rivals were removed – The rebel chancellor and the two legitimate heirs of Seleucus IV. Thus, three of the ten horns were “uprooted” so another could rule. The two labels, “little horn” and “diverse,” distinguish him his predecessors.  Unlike them, he was not a direct heir and did not transition to power through legitimate means.

Once in power, Antiochus waxed exceeding great “toward the south, and toward the east, and toward the beauty.” This description alludes to his conflicts with Egypt (south), Persia, and other eastern territories (1 Maccabees 3:29-37), and against Judea, the “beautiful land” (Daniel 8:8-13).

Initially, Antiochus was not hostile to the Jewish people. Circumstances created by his wars with Egypt and internal conflicts among the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem set the stage for his later aggression against the Jews.

When Antiochus assumed the throne, the high priest in Jerusalem was Onias III, the last legitimate high priest from the line of Zadok. His brother, Jason, a proponent of Hellenism, bribed the king to appoint him high priest instead of his brother. In need of money, Antiochus accepted the bribe and appointed him high priest (1 Kings 2:27-351 Chronicles 29:222 Maccabees 4:7-17).

Jason was of the priestly line, but his appointment was irregular. He used his new position to promote Hellenism among the Jewish population.  In 171 B.C., he sent an aid named Menelaus to pay his annual tribute to Antiochus. However, upon arrival in the capital, Menelaus offered the king an even larger bribe to make him the high priest instead of Jason. Antiochus welcomed the bribe and replaced Jason with Menelaus (2 Maccabees 4:23-30).

Menelaus was an apostate Jew and not a member of a priestly family. His appointment was beyond the pale and caused great resentment among devout Jews. He became an ally of Antiochus in Jerusalem, and, like Jason, promoted Hellenism among the Jewish population. In 171 B.C., Menelaus robbed some of the vessels from the Temple treasury to pay his bribe to Antiochus.

Onias III, the rightful high priest, was staying in the city of Antioch where he denounced Menelaus in 171 B.C., the same year the king departed to deal with disorder elsewhere in the empire. He left a minister named Andronicus in charge. Unfortunately, Menelaus bribed him to execute Onias III while the king was absent, an act that outraged pious Jews.

Up to this point, Antiochus was not hostile to the Jewish nation. The last thing he needed was unrest close to home, so, to avoid further offense against the religious sensibilities of Jews, he had Andronicus executed on the very spot where Onias III was killed. Regardless, in the minds of devout Jews, the execution of Onias III marked the start of the Seleucid outrages against Judea.

In the summer of 169 B.C., Antiochus launched a military attack against Egypt, which necessitated new sources of revenue. The temples of the various religions throughout his domain functioned as depositories for great wealth, so the king began to raid them. This included the Temple in Jerusalem, a further outrage.

Upon his return from his campaign in Egypt, Antiochus stopped in Jerusalem where Menelaus, the apostate and illegitimate high priest escorted him into the Sanctuary of the Temple, a place reserved only for the priests of Yahweh. This defilement, along with the looting of the Temple treasury, deepened the resentment of a great many Jews.

Antiochus launched another expedition against Egypt in the spring of 168 B.C. This time things did not go well. Rome intervened to stop his subjugation of Egypt. The Roman Senate demanded that Antiochus cease his aggression against Egypt, otherwise, he risked war with Rome. He had no choice and complied.

Rumors of Rome’s rebuff reached Jerusalem even as Antiochus began his return trip from Egypt. This caused a revolt among the Jewish population. In reaction, the king sent soldiers to quell the rebellion and punish the city. This force killed a significant number of Jews, then sold many others into slavery. Thereafter, martial law was imposed, and Jerusalem lost its status as a self-governing temple-state. The military governor of Samaria and Judea, Apollonius, was dispatched to ensure Jerusalem would cause no more trouble and turn it into a Greek city-state. He demolished the city’s walls and erected a new fortress alongside the Temple (2 Maccabees 5:24-27).

The last half of 168 B.C. marked a new phase in the repression of the Jewish nation. The king realized the exclusivist religious faith of the Jewish people was largely responsible for the resistance to his policies by devout Jews, therefore, steps were necessary to eradicate their ancestral faith – The Temple rituals were stopped, including the daily sacrifices. He outlawed the observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, the Levitical dietary restrictions, and the like. The sacred writings of the Jewish nation were banned and burned. These outrages may well be intended in the references in the Book of Daniel to “Truth being cast down to the ground,” and the attempt by the “little horn” to “change times and the law” (Daniel 7:258:12).

The worst offense came in December 168 B.C. with the placement of an altar to the pagan deity Zeus Olympias on top of the Jewish altar of burnt offerings. On it, ritually unclean animals were sacrificed to the Syrian deity. The book of First Maccabees identifies this profanation as the “abomination of desolation” (1 Maccabees 4:5410:1-5).

The Aramaic name for Zeus Olympias was Ba’al Shamen, meaning, “lord of heaven.” In Hebrew, “abomination of desolation” is a wordplay on Ba’al Shamen. Among the devout Jews, the pagan name Ba’al was an “abomination” or shíqqûç, and the Hebrew word for “desolation” or shômem sounded only slightly different from the Aramaic shamen. Thus, shíqqûç shômem or “abomination of desolation” was a sarcastic retort to the sacrileges of Antiochus IV.

Altars to Zeus Olympias were set up in the towns and villages of Judea. Jews were required to offer sacrifices to this pagan god or suffer severe punishments. This repression stirred up armed resistance, which became known to History as the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.).  After several initial victories, the armies of the Seleucid kingdom were driven from Palestine by Jewish rebel forces.

Jerusalem was recaptured by a Jewish force in 165 B.C., and the Temple “cleansed” and rededicated (1 Maccabees 4:51-59). This occurred a little over three years after the “abomination of desolation” was first installed. The daily sacrifices were restored and, from that day forward, they continued in the Temple without interruption until it was destroyed by a Roman army in A.D. 70.

Antiochus IV died of an unknown disease in 164 B.C., only a few months after the Temple was restored. At the time, he was campaigning in the eastern regions of his kingdom.  Thus, he was “broken in pieces without hand” (Daniel 8:25).


The first three of the four beasts from the sea are identified in the Book of Daniel as Babylon, the “kingdom of the Medes and Persians,” and the Greco-Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great (Daniel 7:1-88:15-2611:1-4). The latter realm was divided into four lesser domains after the death of its first great king, Alexander.

The details provided about the “little horn” are too close to actual events to be coincidental. Antiochus IV ruled over one of the four kingdoms derived from the conquests of Alexander. He gained the throne through the removal of three rivals and political subterfuge.

Adding the seven previous kings of the Seleucid Empire to the three rivals removed by Antiochus results in a total of ten “kings,” just as in the vision of a “little horn” where three of the ten “horns” were removed. This means the fourth beast of Daniel was the Seleucid kingdom. Antiochus claimed divine status by assuming the title Epiphanés, or “manifest god.” On his coinage, he portrayed himself as Zeus Olympias manifested in the flesh. Thus, he was the boastful king “speaking great words.”

The persecution of the Jews by Antiochus matches the details of the vision from Chapter 8, and its interpretation. He removed the daily sacrifice, desecrated the sanctuary, and oppressed the people of the saints. This time of indignation continued until Jerusalem was free of Seleucid control and the Temple cleansed, a little over three years.

In Daniel 7:25, “times and law” were given into the hand of the “little horn” for “a time, times and the dividing of time.” The persecution of the Jewish faith was initiated in the summer of 168 B.C. and continued until December 165 B.C. The political conflict that descended into persecution began in 171 B.C. with the removal of the high priest from office (Onias III) and his subsequent murder, or a period of almost seven years.

The Book of Daniel defines the time of the “indignation,” variously, as the “dividing of time,” “two thousand and three hundred evening-mornings,” that is, one thousand one hundred and fifty days (1,150), and the “middle of the week,” that is, the last half of the final “week” of the “Seventy Weeks” (Daniel 7:258:149:27).

Thus, the predicted events and timeframes of the visions of Daniel concerning the “little horn” fit the actual history of the conflicts between Judea and Antiochus IV quite well.

The descriptions of the “little horn” are symbolic and enigmatic in Chapter 7 of Daniel, making its identity uncertain. However, the historical allusions are clear in Chapter 8; the “little horn” is identified as the ruler of one of the four kingdoms that developed after the death of the first great king of Greece, Alexander the Great. Note well – the “little horn” is central to both visions of chapters 7 and 8 of the Book of Daniel.

Some commentators identify the fourth beast with the Roman Empire and, therefore, conclude the “little horn” was one of Rome’s emperors. However, no known succession of Roman emperors fits this scenario of ten kings with three removed to make way for an eleventh. In contrast, the Seleucid succession fits perfectly.

Be that as it may, the historical references to the Medo-Persian Empire, its overthrow by Greece, and the four lesser kingdoms that followed are clear. The “little horn” can only be Antiochus IV Epiphanés, the king of the Seleucid Empire.

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