The Rise and Demise of the Seleucid Empire
The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic state that existed between the 4th and 1st centuries BC. It was established by Seleucus I Nicator (meaning ‘victor’ or ‘conqueror’), one of the diadochi, or successors, of Alexander the Great. Seleucus gained control of the eastern provinces, and his empire was the largest among the successor states of Alexander’s Macedonian Empire. At its greatest extent, the Seleucid Empire stretched from Thrace in the west to the border of India in the east.
Nevertheless, the size of the Seleucid Empire was both its strength and its weakness, as the resources of the Seleucids were overstretched, making it difficult for them to hold on to their territories. The Seleucids were constantly at war with the other successors of Alexander, most notably the Ptolemies. In the end, however, neither were able to overcome the other and it was the Romans who emerged victorious over both the Seleucids and the Ptolemies.
The Succession Crisis of the Macedonian Empire
On the 10th / 11th of June 323 BC, Alexander the Great died in Babylon. As the conqueror had died without leaving behind an adult heir, the Macedonian Empire faced a succession crisis.
A Babylonian astronomical diary recording the death of Alexander the Great. (Bucephala / Public Domain)
The two candidates most eligible to succeed Alexander were his elder half-brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, and his soon-to-be born son by Roxana, Alexander IV. In both cases, regents were needed, as Alexander IV was a minor, while Philip III was mentally deficient and epileptic.
At the time of Alexander’s death, one of the most powerful men in the empire was Perdiccas, a chiliarchos (meaning ‘commander of a thousand’), and commander of the Companion Cavalry. In addition, it was Perdiccas to whom Alexander had given his ring before he died, indicating that he was to be regent.
The majority of Alexander’s men accepted Perdiccas as regent, although he was challenged by Meleager, the leader of the infantry. Although reconciliation between the two men was achieved, Perdiccas soon eliminated Meleager.
Perdiccas’ position as regent, however, was not secure either as he had made powerful enemies of his fellow diadochi and revolts soon broke out. One of the rebels was Ptolemy I Soter, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt.
While marching against Ptolemy in 321 / 320 BC, his officers mutinied and Perdiccas was assassinated. One of these officers was Seleucus, who had been Perdiccas’ ‘commander-in-chief of the camp’ since 323 BC. As a result of Perdiccas’ death, the Macedonian Empire was partitioned once more.
Seleucus was given the satrapy (governorship) of Babylonia as a reward for the role he played in the assassination of Perdiccas. In 316 BC, Seleucus fled to the court of Ptolemy, in order to avoid being captured by Antigonus Monophthalmus, another of the diadochi. He remained in Ptolemy’s service until his release in 312 BC, following their victory at the Battle of Gaza.
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Depiction of the Battle of Gaza before the rise of the Seleucid Empire. (dallorto / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Beginning of the Seleucid Empire
In the same year, Seleucus reconquered Babylon with a small army, and this marks the beginning of the Seleucid Empire. Although Antigonus tried to expel Seleucus from Babylon, sending Nicanor, one of his generals, to attack from the east, and Demetrius, his son, to attack from the west, he was not successful.
In the years that followed, Seleucus consolidated his gains and in 305 BC adopted the title basileus (meaning ‘king’). Around the same time, the Seleucid Empire began to expand, conquering its eastern neighbors all the way to the border of India.
There, Seleucus’ advance was checked by Chandragupta Maurya, another formidable empire builder and the founder of the Mauryan dynasty. A peace treaty was concluded between the two rulers in which Seleucus made territorial concessions in exchange for 500 elephants. Additionally, the pact was strengthened through marital bonds as Seleucus was to send a daughter to marry either Chandragupta or one of his sons.
Chandragupta Maurya entertains his bride from Babylon, the marriage agreement between the Seleucid Empire and Mauryan dynasty. (Napoleon 100 / Public Domain)
Over in the western part of his empire Seleucus joined the coalition of Ptolemy, Cassander, and Lysimachus which had been formed against Antigonus and Demetrius. At the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, the Antigonids were decisively defeated by the combined armies of Seleucus, Cassander, and Lysimachus.
The victors divided the lands of their enemy among themselves and Seleucus gained control of Syria. In the meantime, the Ptolemies, who had not taken part in the battle had occupied Coele Syria, the southern part of Syria. Although Seleucus had not asserted his claim over this region, it would later be the source of conflict between the Seleucids and Ptolemies.
In 281 BC, the Battle of Corupedium was fought between the armies of Seleucus and Lysimachus. The latter was slain during the battle, and Lysimachus’ lands were absorbed by the Seleucid Empire.
Seleucus was now at the height of his power, as he was in control of almost all of the lands ruled by Alexander with the notable exception of Ptolemaic Egypt. Nevertheless, Seleucus was not destined to rule over a reunited Macedonian Empire, as he was assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus, Ptolemy’s eldest son, who had sought refuge at the court of Seleucus, shortly after his victory over Lysimachus.
The Successions and Wars of the Seleucid Empire
Seleucus was succeeded by his son, Antiochus I Soter, who reigned until 261 BC. It was during his reign that the first conflict between the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt over Coele Syria broke out. This was the first of six Syrian Wars, beginning in 274 BC, and ending with a Ptolemaic victory in 271 BC. Additionally, Antiochus was faced with a Celtic invasion in Anatolia (278 BC), which he dealt with successfully.
Antiochus and Seleucus, Antiochus, Secleucus’ son, succeeded as ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (Picryl / Public Domain)
The next three Seleucid rulers were Antiochus II Theos (261 – 246 BC), Seleucus II (246 – 225 BC), and Seleucus III (225 – 223 BC). During this period, two wars (the Second and Third Syrian Wars) were fought with the Ptolemies and the Seleucid Empire began to decline after the reign of Antiochus II.
Around 246 BC, the Seleucids lost much of their eastern territories. Two Seleucid satraps, Diodotus and Andragoras, asserted their independence around the same time. The former governed the satrapy of Bactria, and formed the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, while the latter was the satrap of Parthia.
The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom lasted until the 2nd century BC, while Parthia was conquered by Arsaces, a Parthian tribal chief, in 238 BC. This was the foundation of the Arsacid dynasty, which ruled over the Parthian Empire.
The problems faced by Seleucus II were not confined to the empire’s eastern provinces. In the west the Third Syrian War broke out in 246 BC. In addition, Seleucus’ ambitious younger brother, Antiochus Hierax, demanded Asia Minor and occupied with the war against the Ptolemies the king had no choice but to give in to his demands.
At the end of the Third Syrian War in 241 BC, however, Seleucus attempted to regain Asia Minor, and civil war broke out between the two brothers. Antiochus managed to hold on to his territories, after decisively defeating Seleucus at the Battle of Ancyra in around 239 BC. Around the same time, Seleucus had to leave Asia Minor to deal with problems in the east, thus leaving Antiochus in peace.
The fortunes of the Seleucid Empire saw a reversal with the ascension of Antiochus III the Great in 223/2 BC. He was a son of Seleucus II, and the brother of Seleucus III, whom he succeeded. At the beginning of his reign Antiochus had to deal with rebellious governors. In the east, for instance, the satrap of Media, Molon declared independence from the Seleucids and assumed the title king.
Hellenistic bust of Antiochus III ascended as ruler of the Seleucid Empire in 22 BC. (Marcus Cyron / Public Domain)
Antiochus marched his army against Molon and defeated him in 220 BC. During the campaign, Antiochus also conquered the northwestern part of Media, Atropatene. In Asia Minor another general, Achaeus, revolted after reclaiming the lands lost by the Seleucids to the Attalids of Pergamon.
Antiochus did not attack Achaeus immediately, however, as he was engaged in the Fourth Syrian War, which lasted from 219 to 217 BC. At the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC Antiochus was defeated by the Ptolemies and a peace treaty was concluded between the two sides. Having formed an alliance with Attalus I of Pergamon, Antiochus attacked Achaeus and regained Asia Minor in 213 BC.
In the years that followed Antiochus campaigned in the east reconquering the provinces lost during his father’s reign. Due to his successful eastern campaign, Antiochus was compared by the Greeks to Alexander the Great and was given the title ‘the Great’.
When Antiochus returned from his eastern campaign in 205 BC news of Ptolemy IV’s illness reached his ears and he plotted with Philip V of Macedon to attack Egypt. Ptolemy IV died in 204 BC and the Fifth Syrian War broke out in 202 BC. At the end of the war in 195 BC the Seleucids had gained control of southern Syria as well as the Ptolemaic possessions in Asia Minor.
The Seleucid Empire in 200 BC. (Talessman / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Having defeated the Ptolemies, Antiochus turned his attention to the west. Although the Seleucids crossed the Hellespont in 196 BC Thrace was only added to their empire two years later. The arrival of the Seleucids in Europe set alarm bells ringing in Rome.
The Romans tried to deal with the matter diplomatically by sending ambassadors to Antiochus’ court. The Romans demanded that the Seleucids stay out of Europe and set free all the autonomous communities in Asia Minor.
In other words, the Seleucid Empire was to give up all its western possessions which naturally was unacceptable to Antiochus. Tension between the two powers continued to increase and in 192 BC war broke out between the Seleucids and the Romans, who were allied with Macedon, Rhodes, Pergamon, and the Achaean League.
In 190 BC, Antiochus was decisively defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Magnesia, and he was forced to give up all his conquests in Europe and in Asia Minor west of the Taurus Mountains. Additionally, he had to pay an indemnity of 15,000 talents over a period of 12 years, surrender his war elephants and fleet, and send hostages, including his son, the future Antiochus IV, to Rome.
Three years after the Battle of Magnesia, Antiochus was in the east again. He lost his life during an attack against a temple of Baal in Susa where he was attempting to exact tribute.
Antiochus was succeeded by his son, Seleucus IV, who for much of his reign was concerned with raising enough money to pay the indemnity. After Seleucus’ assassination in 175 BC the throne was usurped by the assassin, Heliodorus, who in turn was ousted by Seleucus’ younger brother, Antiochus IV.
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Coin depicting Antiochus IV, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Greek inscription reads ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ / ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ which translates to “King Antiochus, image of God, bearer of victory”. (Ingsoc / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Ptolemies saw the turmoil as an opportunity to regain lost territory and laid claim to Coele Syria, Palestine, and Phoenicia, which had been conquered by Antiochus III. As a consequence, the Sixth Syrian War broke out in 170 BC.
Antiochus struck first by invading Egypt and in 169 BC the entire kingdom, with the exception of Alexandria, which was occupied by the Seleucids. This victory was not to last, however, as the Romans intervened the following year. According to the account provided by the Greek historian Polybius, the Romans had sent their ambassador, Gaius Popillius Laenas, to present their ultimatum to Antiochus in Eleusis, a suburb of Alexandria.
The Romans demanded Antiochus to withdraw from Egypt and Cyprus, to which the king requested some time to think about it. Instead, the envoy drew a circle in the ground around the king with his walking stick and told the king to make up his mind before stepping out of the circle. Aware that refusing Rome’s demands would mean another war, Antiochus was forced to comply.
Destruction of the Seleucid Empire From Within
Antiochus was also a zealous Hellenist and is remembered for his encouragement of Greek culture and institutions throughout his empire. Ultimately, Antiochus’ Hellenising policies brought him into conflict with his Jewish subjects.
The final straw for the Jews was the erection of an altar to Zeus Olympios in the Temple at Jerusalem and the order that sacrifices were to be offered to an idol of the king. In 167 BC, a group of Jews, known as the Hasideans, were led by Judas Maccabeus in a guerrilla war against the Seleucid Empire.
The construction of the of Statue of Zeus at Olympia, erected in the Temple of Jerusalem, contributed to the demise of the Seleucid Empire. (Nagualdesign / Public Domain)
Antiochus and his generals were not successful in dealing with the Jewish revolt and Judaean sovereignty was established in 160 BC. Not long after the outbreak of the Maccabean Revolt, Antiochus launched a campaign against the Parthians, who were threatening the empire’s eastern borders. It was during this campaign, in 164 BC, that Antiochus died of an illness in Tabae, Persis.
Antiochus IV was the last notable ruler of the Seleucid Empire and the empire experienced further decline in the decades that followed. While civil wars were destroying the empire from within, it was threatened from without by the Parthians. In 141 BC, Seleucia was captured by the Parthians, and by 139 BC, control of the Iranian Plateau had fallen into the hands of the Parthians.
The Seleucid Empire came to an end in 83 BC when Syria was conquered by the Armenians. In 69 BC, however, the Seleucid Empire was restored as a rump state by the Romans. Nevertheless, the Seleucids proved to be more troublesome than they were worth, and in 63 BC, Syria was turned into a Roman province by Pompey, thus ending the Seleucid Empire for good.
Top image: The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic state that fought in the Syrian Wars to retain their empire. Source: Kings and Generals / YouTube.
By Wu Mingren
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