one origin of "a line in the sand" -- 3/12/19

Today's selection -- from The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of our Time by Keith Houston. One possible origin for the phrase "a line in the sand":

"In 173 BCE, Rome was growing apprehensive about a 'cloud in the east' -- the predatory Greek king Antiochus IV, head of the Seleucid dynasty, uncle of Egypt's Ptolemy VI Philometor, and ruler of a swath of the ancient world that stretched from the Aegean Sea in the west to the Gulf of Oman in the east. Worried that Antiochus planned to annex his nephew's kingdom, Rome sent a delegation to Philometor at Alexandria under cover of paying tribute to the young king. The envoys' real mission was to monitor the increasingly febrile atmosphere in the region.

"It was not long before the situation deteriorated. Philometor ... had fallen under the influence of ambitious advisers and in 170 BCE, still only a teenager, he was persuaded to invade a disputed part of the Seleucid Empire known as Coele-Syria.

"The invasion was a disaster.

"Forewarned, Antiochus defeated the invading Egyptian army and promptly counterattacked. Within a year he had occupied Egypt and coerced Ptolemy into declaring Antiochus as his 'protector,' reduc­ing the pharaoh to little more than a puppet king.  Only Alexandria eluded Antiochus's grasp: besieged and running out of food, its citizens nevertheless proclaimed Philometor's younger brother -- Ptolemy VIII Euergetes ... to be Egypt's rightful ruler. With control of Egypt's monarch snatched away, the frustrated Antiochus released Philometor and withdrew, calculating that an Egypt divided between two feuding kings would be easier to subdue. ...

Coele-Syria, site of the Syrian Wars.

"Philometor and Euergetes reconciled to face their uncle together. Exasperated, in 168 BCE Antiochus invaded a second time, sweeping aside the remnants of Egyptian opposition as he marched directly to Alexandria. He was drawn up short four miles from the city by a group of men led by a Roman senator: this was Gaius Popilius Laenas, a notoriously short-tempered troubleshooter dispatched by the Senate in response to the Ptolemies' pleas for help.  As the invading general approached the Roman deputation with his arm outstretched in greeting, Popilius pressed into Antiochus's hand a tablet bearing the Senate's ultimatum: leave Egypt or suffer the con­sequences. Before the stunned Antiochus could reply, Popilius drew a circle in the sand around him with his staff and, essentially, dared the conqueror to cross the line. 'Before you step out of that circle,' Popilius said, 'give me a reply to lay before the senate.' ...

"Antiochus eventually offered the meek reply, 'I will do what the senate thinks right.' Popilius accepted his hand in friendship. The Seleucid king withdrew his forces from Egypt, the Ptolemies were restored to power, and the crisis was averted.

"If Antiochus's invasion is mentioned at all outside of academic circles, it is usually because of Popilius's bra­zen treatment of the invader: according to the author William Safire, the circle that Popilius drew in the desert outside Alexandria has a decent claim to being the origin of the phrase 'a line in the sand.' (Its main competitor is the story of William B. Travis, lieutenant colonel at the Alamo, who drew a line in the sand with his sabre and said to his men, 'Those prepared to die for freedom's cause, come across to me.')"



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 by Keith Houston


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