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An introduction to the Seleucids II: The (Re)birth of an Empire

This is the second part of the introduction into the seleucid empire, click here to read the first part. This time Guest blogger Nicolaas verhelst introduces us to the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, Seleucos I Nicator. Read on to learn more about the man, the myth and the legend as well the earliest and most complex part of the Hellenistic Age: the Successor Wars. 

The story of the Seleukids started somewhere in Makedonia, around the year 358 BCE, when a child was born to Antiochos and Laodike. Their son, Seleukos, grew up as a member of the aristocracy, learning the art of war, but also of music, theatre, writing, and dance, together with the other sons of noble descent and even the slightly younger Alexander himself. Seleukos’ role in the great campaigns of this Macedonian king was rather limited in comparison to Alexander’s other noble companions. Nonetheless he would rise to the position of commander of the Silvershields, an elite (though not very loyal) unit of the Makedonian phalanx, even marrying Apame, daughter of the Sogdian ruler Spitamenes, at the great marriage of Susa – and, unlike most of those married at Susa, keeping her by his side till her death.

The Great King’s death, however, was as sudden and unexpected as his rise to power. After Alexander III breathed his last breath in Babylon on the 11th of June 323 BCE, the empire was left to his mentally handicapped brother Philippos III Arrhidaios and his posthumous son by Roxane, Alexander IV. Real power lay therefore in the hands of Perdikkas, a former general, now regent of the empire. A shrewd man surrounded by potential rivals, he decided to start his rule by dividing up the different satrapies as if slices of a great cake between many of Alexander’s former commanders, afterwards named the Diadochoi. Even though Seleukos did not get a piece at the start, Perdikkas’ rise to power came with great benefits to him, since he was appointed leader of the feared Companion Cavalry and under-commander of the Makedonian forces, being second only to Perdikkas himself.

This good fortune did not last long however, for the ambitions of the Diadochoi brought them into conflict with one another. Perdikkas was quite quickly murdered by a number of his own officers, possibly – though unlikely – Seleukos was among them. His most powerful rivals and murderers gathered at Tripadeisos where they divided the imperial cake and marshalled their armies to fight those satraps still loyal to Perdikkas’ legacy. Antipater, an older general from Philippos’ time, became the new strongman and, important for this narrative, was shortly thereafter saved by Seleukos and Antigonos, another former commander and satrap of most of Asia Minor, from mutinous soldiers. For his participation and loyalty Seleukos was rewarded with the satrapy of Babylonia, rich in agricultural resources, cities, and temples, but poor in troops. Though practically still under the control of another man, Seleukos conquered it quickly. Thus, our future king came into the possession which would for a long time be the center of his power.

Yet once again fate proved to be a fickle mistress, as Antipater died after only two short years. A civil war broke out between his chosen successor, the older commander Polyperchon, and his son Cassander, further dividing Alexander’s already fracturing empire. Whilst this conflict was ravaging Macedon, to the east the vast army of Eumenes of Cardia, a Perdikkas-loyalist and the satrap of Cappadocia, marched towards Babylon and Seleukos. Realising that his own troops were insufficient to stop such a force, Seleukos decided to submit to Antigonos who had followed Eumenes with an army of his own, thus saving his own skin. Unfortunately for him though his relationship with Antigonos rapidly soured, forcing him to flee Babylonia and seek refuge at the court of Egypt’s satrap, Ptolemy.

Now that Antigonos had become the most powerful of the Diadochoi, the others turned against him. Cassander who had defeated his rival; Lysimachos who had managed to safely and rather quietly hold on to his satrapy of Thrace all this time; and Ptolemy joined together to destroy this new threat, whilst Seleukos was made the commander of Ptolemy’s fleet, an office which he successfully completed. Antigonos could not let this challenge pass him by and sent his son Demetrios with an army to vanquish Ptolemy, but his plan failed as Demetrios was defeated at Gaza, where with many others the newly appointed satrap of Babylonia fell. Using this opportunity and with the blessing and assistance of Ptolemy, Seleukos raised a small army and quickly reconquered his territory..

This time however, Seleukos would not allow himself to be used by others. After defeating an eastern force led by some of Antigonos’ allies, he managed to conquer most of the eastern satrapies with surprising speed, even if Demetrios threatened and possibly even briefly conquered Babylon. Seleukos returned in triumph, only to find himself faced with a reinvigorated Antigonos who had managed to make peace with the other diadochi and could now devote his full attentions to Babylonia. Having received new troops and provisions from his conquered territories, Seleukos nonetheless had a much better chance than before. He finally – even with the possibility of losing Babylon again – managed to drive the invader back, helped by the start of a new war between Ptolemy and Antigonos.

Thanks to an uneasy peace with Antigonos, Seleukos was able to fortify his borders with new cities and he could turn his attention to ruling. He founded his new capital Seleukia-on-the-Tigris at the northern tip of Babylonia where the courses of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers lie closer together. New conflicts still loomed on the horizon. By this time both Philippos III and Alexander IV had been murdered, so Antigonos declared himself king in 306 BCE, quickly followed by the rest of the surviving Diadochoi. Their new claims of kingship were of course direct challenges of the other’s power.  Before dealing with Antigonos, Seleukos was forced to turn east one last time to face the threat of the Mauryan king Chandragupta who wanted to conquer the most eastern satrapies, and eventually making a peace treaty with him exchanging his claims on the satrapies of the Indian subcontinent and the Hindu Kush for 500 elephants, an alliance through the marriage of Chandragupta with Seleukos’ daughter Berenike.

Map of the Diadochoi-kingdoms around 303 BCE

With peace restored at his eastern borders Seleukos turned west again and, together with Cassander and Lysimachos, defeated Antigonos in the battle of Ipsos resulting in the death of the latter. Though Seleukos had been formally granted the whole of Syria after the victory, Ptolemy quickly captured the territories from the Sinaï to Phoenica, leading to tense, but still peaceful, relations between the two kings. Now that Antigonos was dead and Demetrios defeated and because of the direct threat posed by Ptolemy and Lysimachos who had managed to capture Asia Minor, Seleukos married Demetrios’ daughter Stratonike after the death of his wife Apame. Though he would later divorce Stratonike and marry her off to his eldest son, successor, and – from 292 BCE on – co-ruler Antiochos I. Of course, their alliance did not last long and Seleukos attacked Demetrios, who by this time had invaded Macedonia and defeated Cassander, having successfully convinced many of his (at that time still) unpaid troops to switch sides and even imprisoning his opponent, though Demetrios’ son Antigonos (another great example of the uninventiveness of Macedonian naming practices) still held Macedonia.

At this point Seleukos seemed to be becoming the most powerful Diadoch, therefore Lysimachos and Ptolemy started mistrusting him. After Lysimachos executed his own son on the charges of treachery – resulting in a widespread revolt – Seleukos invaded Asia Minor and defeated and killed Lysimachos at the battle of Kourupedion in 281 BCE. Since Ptolemy died from old age in 283 BCE, Seleukos was now the last surviving Diadoch and his conquest of all of Alexander’s former empire, except for Egypt and the satrapies he had given up in the east, seemed a given: Asia Minor was mostly his, Thrace was leaderless after the death of Lysimachos, and Macedonia was so ravaged by civil war that all he had to do was effectively march into Pella with his army. Seleukos was at the height of his power and though by this time an old man of around 77, his dominion seemed secure.

It was, however, not meant to be. For almost in the fashion of a Greek tragedy in which the gods punish men for their hybris, he was murdered by Ptolemy Ceraunus, the exiled half-brother of Ptolemy II who had taken refuge at his court. This new political player took control of his armies and conquered Macedonia (although he would not hold it for long). No other Diadoch or Seleukid king, not even Antiochos III ‘the Great’, would come as close to unifying Alexander’s empire as Seleukos, and his son Antiochos I would face many great enemies before some semblance of peace would return to the empire.

The Seleukid Empire was not only forged in steel and blood however, for in his conquests Seleukos had had to negotiate with many local leaders and elites. His descendants would continue this process, though not always with success, helping to bring the many cultures of their empire closer together and forging traditions which would last for hundreds of years after its fall. The history of the Seleukid Empire is thus not a part of Western or for that matter Eastern history – both terms denying the connectivity of the world both in ancient and modern times – nor an example of a clash of civilisations. It is rather a prime example of how cultural exchange took place during antiquity and of the beauty that is the tapestry of human civilisation.

Though I do not possess the gifts or allure of one such as Irving Finkel (I’m fairly certain it’s the beard, also the practically unequalled knowledge of cuneiform, but mainly the beard), I hope to have at least somewhat inspired you to read and learn more about this most wonderful of periods, and this most intriguing of empires. Though for now my studies mainly focus on child of the gods (θεόπαις) Babylon, I hope one day we will meet in minds if not in person within the borders of the Seleukid Empire.

Further reading:

D. Ogden, The Legend of Seleucus Kingship, Narrative and Mythmaking in the Ancient World, Cambridge, 2017.

P. Briant, From Cyrus to Seleukos Studies in Achaemenid and Hellenistic History (Ancient Iran Series, 5), Leiden and Boston, 2018

L. Hannestad, Nicator – Seleucus I and his empire, Aarhus, 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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