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Hellenistic Women I: Apama, the first Queen of the Seleucid Empire

During a critical moment in the conquests of Alexander the Great, he issued a surprising order: Alexander announced to his men that there would be a grand wedding between the highest-ranking officers of the Macedonian army and the captured Persian noble women at the capital city of Susa, in 324 BCE. His successors and their wives are named, and 80 or so officers of high rank were given noble Persian wives as well. All soldiers received monetary gifts to celebrate or settle debts [Arr. 4.4-6]. Most of these unions at of the mass wedding at Susa did not last very long, yet there was one exception: the marriage between Seleucos I Nikator (more about him here) and his wife Apama. In this first part of the series on Hellenistic Women, Zofia Guertin  – from the archaeoartist blog, art and website as well as the Two Friends Talk History Podcast – tells us more about the first queen of the Seleucid dynasty.

The mass wedding at Susa is a curious event and to understand why Alexander the Great was playing match-maker, it is worth considering what transpired leading up to this epic wedding party. Following Alexander’s conquest of the Punjab and Indus valley where his armies carried out brutal occupation tactics from 327-325 BCE, Alexander was met with the first real resistance from his men at the Hyphasis River in 326 BCE: the soldiers had had enough and would go no further Half of the army was sent to Susa with Nearchus by sea, the other half followed Alexander through the Gedrosian desert (south-west Pakistan), inland from the ocean. This 60-day march cost the lives of 12,000 soldiers as wells as livestock, camp followers – with wives and children among them – and many of the captured goods. Early the next year, Alexander sent 10,000 Macedonian veterans home with Craterus, to be replaced by new levies of men. Not only was there a need for new blood but some new ways of connection were necessary to this area which was shaping up as the new center of his power. Alexander’s soldiers had come a long way and their hopes to return home one day were not necessarily helpful. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, Alexander planned a great wedding to ensure some further incentives for his men to stay with him in the empire he was creating.

The lavish ceremony at Susa was a pragmatic approach to create bonds between the conquerors and their territories. One of his most trusted generals, Seleucus I, was married to the Bactrian-Sogdian noblewoman, Apama. Arrian tells us that Apama was one of the daughters of Spitamenes, who had originally opposed Alexander and his forces, and was killed by nomadic allies with his head being sent to Alexander as a peace offering. Alexander married daughters of Darius and Artaxerxes to solidify himself as the incontestable ruler of the Persian empire, though this did not last long. With his death the following year, the conquered territories were split between the most powerful of his Successors, Seleucus being one of them. He took control over all of the eastern part of Alexander’s empire, founding the Seleucid dynasty. Unlike all of his former colleagues,  he kept his Iranian wife, Apama.

Apama became a prominent feature of his building programmes. Their son, Antiochus, was educated in the Greek language and customs of his father and also the Iranian customs of his mother, bridging their cultures to effectively rule a culturally and ethnically diverse territory [Engels & Erickson, 2016]. It was common for Hellenistic kings to found cities named after their wives, parents or children, and Seleucus named three cities in Apama’s honour, the most well-known of which is Apama on the Orontes, in Syria. This city continued to be a significant beacon of Syro-Hellenic culture for centuries which we can see through the archaeological remains still visible today.

A picture of Apama drawn by ArchaeoArtist – Zofia Guertin!

It is very likely that it was through Apama’s cultural connections to the Persian elite, that Seleucus was able to govern so effectively and successfully found the Seleucid Empire and dynasty. For the same reasons that Alexander married Persian nobility to legitimise his claim to govern the former-Achaemenid Empire, Seleucus would need a similar legitimate claim to the throne. Her status as the daughter of the famous Spitamenes – a symbolically potent figure for resisting Alexander’s conquest – was not incongruous with her governing alongside a Macedonian and his forces. Apama would have been familiar with all of the necessary cultural customs of the Persian elite, perhaps even drawing loyalties formerly to her father to the benefit of her husband and herself.

It remains debated if Apama and Seleucus’ second wife, Stratonice, lived together as concurrent queens. Stratonice was a princess of the Antigonid dynasty of Macedonia, the daughter of King Demetrius, and granddaughter of Antipater, the general and advisor to Phillip II and Alexander the Great. It is generally agreed that, if the two queens were concurrent, Apama would have retained her status as the more powerful queen [Austin, 2005, 51]. It is unknown when Apama died, but it is believed to be after Seleucus’ marriage to Stratonice. Stratonice developed a close relationship with her stepson, Antiochus, who was her age. Though she had born a child to Seleucus, it became evident that his heir was enamoured of his young wife, Seleucus gave Stratonice to Antiochus in marriage in 294 BCE in a seemingly peaceful transition. Stratonice ruled alongside Antiochus for 33 years bearing him five children.

Though Apama’s voice in all of these events is silent, she was a remarkable woman who survived the initial conquests of the Macedonians, became a displaced person in war and forced into marriage to the very people who invaded her country, survived the wars of the Successors and went on to found the Seleucid Empire with her husband.

Further reading:

Austin, M. (2005). The Seleukids and Asia (pp. 121–133). Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Engels, D., & Erickson, K. (2016). ‘Apama and Stratonike. Marriage Policy and Legitimacy’. In A. Coskun, A. and McAuley (Ed.), Seleukid Royal Women.

Kuhrt, A. (2012). Apama. In The Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Zofia Guertin is currently working on her PhD at the University of St Andrews on the topig of Aegyptiaca Egypt-referencing material culture) in urban environments in the Roman period. She explores ancient history through art blogging, creating educational materials and podcasting. Are you curious about any of her projects: go to her website or follow her on social media: instagram, facebook or her redbubble shop!

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