Alexander the Great ancient greece Ancient History Archaeology hellenistic Hellenistic kingdoms seleucids

An Introduction to the Seleukid Empire I: An Ode to the Elephant Kings

The Seleukids. What does one generally know about them? Not nearly enough. In this two part series Guest author Nicolaas Verhelst introduces us to the history of the Seleucid dynasty. In this first part he starts with an ode to the Seleucid kings and their vast and complex empire. He explains some of the reasons why some of us may not know as much as we would like to about one of the three Hellenistic kingdoms and makes a compelling case as to why we should find out more! 

Imagine if you will the Hellenistic world and all that you know about it: Alexander the Great Conqueror, Athens in its political heyday, its glory not yet lost or forgotten, proud and independent Epirus before Pyrrhos’ unlucky campaigns, Makedon always trying but never succeeding to recapture the glory of the Argeads, and of course Egypt, home of the Ptolemies and marvel of its time where the Makedonian conqueror witnessed the ancient civilisation of the Pharaohs and the wonder of Alexandria was born. Ah, Alexandria with its schools and libraries, its port and Pharos, city of scholars and kings. Now forget all that and turn your gaze to the East, to an empire, less famous and more mysterious.

The Diadochoi Kingdoms ca. 270 BCE

Look to Pergamon and its powerful Attalid rulers on the coasts of Asia Minor. See Galatia, land of Gallic tribes who journeyed thousands of miles and fought countless battles to settle in this land of opportunity, bordered by fortified cities, stalwart protectors against the Galatian threat. Discover Phoenicia, land of navigators and explorers who once mapped all the known seas, mother to the mighty empire of Carthage, its kings now reduced or gone, its cities prostrating themselves before a new dynasty. Discover Syria and Cilicia and their new and re-founded cities, guardians of the inland and the roads between Asia Minor and the imperial capitals.

Leave the Mediterranean and travel to the ancient land of Sumer and Akkad, to Babylonia where Greek astronomers admitted their ignorance and men who had not blinked at the sight of the amassed Persian armies gazed in wonder at sky-reaching temples, the living core of a great kingdom. Behold still further, the satrapies of Media and Persia where once the great-grandson of Teispes had dreamt of Empire, and Bactria where Zoroastrianism, Hellenic religion, and local beliefs intermixed and flourished, their cities and peoples constantly under threat by horsemen from the northern plains.

Turn your eyes finally to the edges of the Hellenistic world, to Alexandria Eschata, Alexandria Ultima, where the Han-empire was fought in the War of the Heavenly Horses, and to India where Aśoka the Great reigned over most of the subcontinent, including some former satrapies of Alexander’s empire. Where he wrote down his laws in Prakrit, Aramaic, and Greek, and where later Greco-Indian kings would convert to Buddhism and influence its art and philosophy, their kingdoms surviving decades past the fall of the last Ptolemies. All these regions, all their populations, cultures, languages, and religions were once ruled or at the very least claimed by the descendants of divine Apollo, the Seleukids, mighty kings before the decline of their empire.

Greek writing on a clay-tablet (presumably a school-exercise, HSM)

Their coins, their sculptures, their inscriptions and clay tablets, their institutions, their renewed languages, their mixed religions, and their stories would long survive the fall of the Seleukid kingdom and inspire countless others in their dreams of rule and domination. Their glory and their importance lay, at least to my mind however, far more in their openness to meetings and exchanges of cultures, languages, and religions. Exchanges in which a man of Indian descent could write a funerary inscription in Homeric Greek worthy of the scholars of Alexandria, a king of Commagene could claim descendance both of Persian king Dareios I as well as Hellenistic kings Seleukos I and Ptolemaios I or a person could travel from the Bosporos to the edge of the Fergana Valley, only ever needing mastery of ancient Greek.

The Sophytosinscription from Kandahar (a personal favourite) and a wall-relief depicting Antiochos of Commagene and Herakles

To our great misfortune, most of the history of this once great empire remains hidden to us, both due to the vastness of its territories and languages, and due to the lack and the complexity of the source material, with only the regions of Asia Minor and Babylonia offering large quantities of textual sources: either Greek inscriptions or cuneiform tablets. Yet this deficiency is also due to the woes of modern scholarship and public interest. Racism long held sway both in the public opinion and the academic world, having yet to fully disappear from either (having often been rebranded and become cultural racism). Thus, the Hellenistic kingdoms were often presented as unworthy successors of Alexander’s empire, in territory, but mainly in culture, never equaling the “purity” of the ancient Greek world, which was considered to have degraded thanks to the wiles of the East.

Even if this view has long been discarded to the scrapheap of history – still receiving the occasional angry kick from historians, archaeologists, linguists, and many more besides – its effects on our view of Ancient History have been profound. Still the glory of Ancient Athens and Sparta, and of the empire of the senate and the people of Rome are lauded in classrooms across the world, whilst the Hellenistic kingdoms are mostly ignored or forgotten, even if they do receive some attention in strategy games. Egypt has somewhat escaped this curse due to its meteoric rise in popularity in the past century and so the Ptolemies have been somewhat luckier than their counterparts in this regard. Although Cleopatra VII is often still depicted as an oriental beauty and temptress instead of a, if not beautiful, strikingly intelligent person who used her mind and body for the sake of her kingdom, her children, and her people. But I for one feel proud to make a case, besides many others, for the Seleukids, not least of all because they actually varied their royal names between Seleukos and Antiochos, which makes them twice as good as the Ptolemies in my book.

Further reading

  1. Capdetrey, Le pouvoir séleucide: Territoire, administration, finances d’un royaume hellénistique (312-129 av. J.-C.), Rennes, 2007.

P.J. Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, Cambridge, 2014.

  1. Visscher, Beyond Alexandria: literature and empire in the Seleucid world, New York and Oxford, 2020.

Nicolaas Verhelst studied Ancient History at the KULeuven (Belgium) and is currently studying Assyriology at the University of Vienna (Austria). His research revolves around the Seleukid Empire, with a special interest for the early Seleukids.

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