The Seleucids

The Empire after Alexander’s Death

Alexander died in Babylon following a campaign in “India” (north-western part of the Indus Valley) in 328 BCE.  His young age and the hasty pace of conquests had left him little time for organising his empire. As a result, immediately after his death the empire became the scene of a power struggle among his generals.

The most senior and respected of these generals was Antipater who initially claimed the over-lordship of all others and the throne of Macedonia without much objection. Perdikkas, an important general, became the ruler of “Asia” (former Persian lands) and Ptolemy, another trusted general, got the rule of Egypt.

The destructive and authoritarian nature of Alexander’s rule and the conquests also resulted in the earlyrise of various rebellions around the empire.  Some of the earliest one of these was taken up by the Greek city-states who had lost their independence to the policies of Philip and Alexander.  Antipater, as the ruler of Macedonia, rushed to suppress this rebellion, but was defeated and humiliated.  Other rebellions also took place, particularly in Asia Minor, sowing the seeds of the creation of later minor kingdoms, such as that of Pontus, out of the old Achaemenid satrapies.

Eventually, Perdikkas, the ruler of Asia, decided to unite the empire of Alexander again and thus undertook a campaign against all other rulers and satraps.  His campaign was cut short when Seleukos, the leader of the famous “Silver Shields” murdered him (321 BCE).  The new council of the rulers, which took place on Triparadise in Syria, reconfirmed Antipater’s ruler over Macedonia, appointed Antigonos Monophthalmos (the One Eyed!) as the ruler of Asia, gave Piphonos the rule of Asia Minor, and appointed Seleukos as the lord of Babylonia.

Other satrapies such as Parthia, Zrangia, and Bactria were also divided, all of them nominally under the rule of Antigonos.  Among these was the satrapy of Media which was divided into three parts, including Media Minora.  This satrapy was ruled by Atropat, Perdikkas’ father-in-law, since the time of Darius III.  The satrapy was thus renamed Media Atropatene, a name which survives to this day in the guise of Azerbaijan.

Following this division, Antigonos became the most powerful ruler in the Empire and by defeating Eumenes, a loyal general of Perdikkas, in turn dreamt of restoring Alexander’s Empire under his own rule. In 315, Seleukos fled the onslaught of Antigonos and arrived at the court of his friend and comrade, Ptolemy I of Egypt, by now, the undisputed king of that country.  In 312 BCE, Seleukos, at the head of the Egyptian navy, defeated Antigonos and his son, Demetrios Poliorketes, in the Battle of Gaza and returned to his position as the ruler of Babylonia.

At the time, Lysimachos and Kassander also allied themselves with Ptolemy I and declared war on Antigonos, defeating him in the process and gaining Asia Minor for Lysimachos and Macedonia for Kassander. Antigonos tried in vain to defeat Seleukos, but the power of Seleukos was on the rise.

The empire of Alexander after his death

Seleukos I Nikator

In 305-304 BCE, Seleukos undertook a campaign in the east to consolidate his power and managed to subdue Zrangia, Bactria, and the rest of the east.  In the banks of the river Indus, Seleukos clashed with the overwhelming power of the founder of the Gupta Empire, Chandragupta Mauriya who stopped the advancements of Seleukos.  The peace treaty that resulted gave Gandhara and Gedrosia and the rest of Indus Provinces to Mauriya and brought 500 Elephants to Seleukos. The severity with which Seleukos was stopped from advancing into India might suggest that Alexanxder himself had really never managed to reach that country and the territory was truly unknown to the Macedonians.

In 301, Kassander, Lysimachos, Ptolemy, and Seleukos united themselves against Antigonos and defeated and killed him in the Battle of Ipsos.  The removal of Antigonos made Seleukos the most powerful man in Asia.  He declared himself king in 301, although for all practical purposes, we can date the foundation of the Seleucid power from 312 BCE. Seleukos established his western capital in Anthiochia-on-Oronthes (modern Atakya in Turkey) and his eastern capital in Seleukia-on-Tigirs (to the south of Baghdad).  The population of the ancient city of Babylon which was destroyed by Antigonos were moved to Seleukia and made it another successful commercial and cultural centre, to survive for many centuries as an autonomous city and later part of the Arsacid and Sasanian capital complex of Ctasiphon (A. Mahoza).

A good portion of the rule of Seleukos and his son, Antiochos I was spent in organising their empire.  Most of the Achaemenid bureaucracy was left undisturbed, with minor exceptions such as making the provincial tax agents only responsible to the Imperial Treasurer, rendering him independent of the satraps. The polis system was also introduced, bringing about the semi-autonomy of cities and their rulers from the satraps, making them answerable only to the emperor, although this could be a simple revival of the long-standing institution of Mesopotamian city-states.  Some cities even minted coins and called themselves “Allies of the Emperors,” which indeed is a direct continuation of the Achaemenid tradition of “coins of the satraps”.  In this way, satraps were assigned to extract the revenues from the rural agricultural lands, possibly contributing to the foundation of Arsacid feudalism.  Cities were entrusted to their noble rulers and merchants and their agricultural hinterland was left at the control of this ruling class.  Although the polis system was not entirely alien to the Achaemenid lands, Babylon and Susa presenting examples of pre-Achaemenid city-state system, nevertheless, the creation of various poleis around the empire helped them to become centres of art, education, and trade.

Coin of Seleucus I

From 294-286 BCE, much of Seleukos’ time was spent in fighting with Demetrios, son of Antigonos who had escaped the battle at Ipsos.  Demetrios was defeated, but was held at the Seleucid court honourably where he eventually drank himself to death! In 281 BCE, the subjects of Lysimachos in Asia Minor invited Seleukos to free them of the rule of the tyrannous king.  Seleukos embarked on a campaign against Lysimachos and defeated him in 281 at the Battle of Koroupedion. He next turned his attention to Macedonia and Antigonos II, son of Demetrios, who had recently established his rule in those regions.  For a time, Seleukos seemed to be successful in consolidating the empire of Alexander.  However, this was cut short by Ptolemy Keraunos, son of the late Ptolemy I of Egypt, who assassinated Seleukos I on the shores of Thrace. The Macedonian generals had unknowingly developed a system to stop each other from becoming too powerful.

Antiochos I Soter

Antiochos I Soter was the eldest son of Seleukos I and Apame, daughter of a Sogdian nobleman. At the time of his father’s death, Antiochos was the ruler of the east, centred in Bactria.  The assassination of Seleukos came as a complete shock to the young prince who had to spend much time establishing his rule over the east.

The first challenge for Antiochos was the continuation of his father’s campaign against Antigonos II.  Presently, however, Mithridates of Pontus, a local Persian satrap who had declared independence and established the royal house of Pontus, started a rebellion against Antiochos with the support of Ptolemy II Philadelphous of Egypt.  The young king concluded a treaty with Antigonos II that was to guarantee peace between Seleucids and the Macedonian rulers for almost a century. The rebellion of the satraps of Asia Minor was heightened when they invited two Celtic tribes to Asia Minor.  These tribes pillaged and destroyed lands under the rule of Antiochos for two years until they were defeated and settled in Galatia, part of modern day Turkey (275 BCE).

Coin of Antiochus I Soter, the prototype for many later Iranian coins

Between the years 274 and 271 BCE, a series of wars took place between Antiochos I and Ptolemy II of Egypt, often called the First Syrian War.  It was over the lands that Ptolemy I had taken from Seleukos who had not objected out of gratitude for Ptolemy’s earlier assistance.  However, when Ptolemy II started to expand his rule in Syria, Antiochos had to face him.  Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in this campaign and in 271, a peace was reached, leaving western Syria and south-western Asia Minor in the hands of Ptolemy.

At the end of Antiochos’ reign, his eldest son, Seleukos who was the heir to the throne and the ruler of Bactria, rose in rebellion against his father.  Antiochos met and defeated his son and was forced to execute him in 267 BCE.  He himself died in 261 BCE and left the throne to his second son, Antiochos II Theos.

Antiochos II Theos and the Beginnings of Eastern Independence

Antiochos II became the ruler of a vast and stable Seleucid Empire in 261 BCE.  His reign is generally considered one of the less important and illustrious of Seleucid reigns, and he himself is portrayed as a flamboyant and hard drinking monarch.  However, his effort in stabilizing the Empire and also extending its influence cannot be ignored.

Antiochos II followed the unsuccessful struggle of his father against the growing Egyptian presence in Syria and Asia Minor and initiated the Second Syrian War in 259 BCE.  His early campaigns saw the removal of Timarchos, the Egyptian supported Tyrant of Miletus from the throne of that city (258 BCE), an act that brought the title of Theos (god) to him.  The freedom of Miletus initiated the local rebellions in other parts of Asia Minor against the Egyptian rule, and soon enough other cities such as Ephesos were freed from the rule of Ptolemey II.

In Europe, Antiochos brought the Seleucid rule to Thrace, a feat not even achieved by Seleukos I himself.  In 253, Ptolemy II Philadelphous was forced to sign a peace agreement that recognised the lordship of Antiochos II over Syria and Asia Minor and ended the Second Syrian War.  In order to strengthen the ties with Egypt, Antiochos II married Berenike, daughter of Ptolemy II.  However, since Antiochos was already married to Laodike and had two sons (the future Seleukos II and Antiochos Hierax) from her, the marriage to Berenike created a friction inside the royal house.  This was further strengthened when Antiochos unwisely decided to go back to Laodike.   The struggle that took place between the factions of royal household both during the life and after the death of Antiochos II in 247 BCE, threatened the very survival of Seleucid House and its power.

However, the largest threat to the Seleucid rule was to come from the forsaken states of the east.  In the eastern satrapy of Bactria – once the seat of the Seleucid heirs to the throne – a new ruler named Diodotos took power.  Soon after that, he managed to consolidate his power in the east and with the support of the Macedonian and Greek colonies, declared himself the independent ruler of Bactria.  Diodotos’ founding of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom made this area the bastion of Hellenic culture in the east for many centuries to come.  The Greco-Bactrian kingdom was to influence many succeeding dynasties.

Further to the west, around 249-47 BCE, another Macedonian-Iranian satrap named Andragoras declared the independence of his satrapy of Parthia from the Seleucid rule. Not much is known about the actual career of Andragoras apart from his coins, but we soon encounter a leader of the Parni tribe of the Dahae confederation as the ruler of Parthia. This man, named Arsaces (Parth. Arshak) was the leader of the Parni in their migration from the area west of Sogdiana south to the Achaemenid/Seleucid satrapy of Parthia.  The dynasty he founded, named Arsacids after him, was to become a strong force in the Near East and the longest ruling dynasties of Iran.  However, at the time, the internal struggles of the Seleucid court prevented it from noticing the newly created Arsacid rule, an oversight that was to cost the Seleucids heavily.

General Bibliography and Reading Suggestions

Bouché-Leclercq, A. Histoire des Séleucides, 2 vols. Paris: Culture et Civiliation, 1913-1914

Briant, P. “The Seleucid Kingdom, the Achaemenid Empire and the History of the Near East in the First Millennium BC,” in P. Bilde, ed., Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990

Cohen, G. M. The Seleucid Colonies, Historia Einzelschriften 30. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1978

Fischer, T., “Seleukiden,” Chiron 15, 1985

Goralski, W. J. “Arrian’s Events After Alexander: Summary of Photius and Selected Fragments,” Ancient World 19, 1989

Grainger, J. D. Seleukos Nikator. London: Routledge, 1990

Le Rider, G. “Séleucos I entre Séleucie de Piérie et Antioche,” Revue belge de Numismatique 145, 1999

Mehl, A. Seleukos Nikator und sein Reich I. Teil: Seleukos’ Leben und die Entwicklung sein Machtposition, Studia Hellenistica 28, Louvain, 1986

van der Spek, R.J. “..en hun machthebbers worden weldoeners genoemd.” Religieuze en economische politiek in het Seleucidische Rijk. Amsterdam: Boekhandel/Uitgeverij, 1994

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