The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic successor state of Alexander the Great’s empire, which at its height included central Anatolia and well beyond.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Seleucid Empire (312 – 60 B.C.E.) was a Hellenistic successor state of Alexander the Great’s dominion, which at its height included central Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkmenistan, Pamir, and the Indus valley. Seleucus I was a general under Alexander. The advance east was checked by the Indian emperor, Chandragupta Maurya. By 63 B.C.E. the empire had fallen to the Romans. Much of the territory governed by the Seleucids continued within the Byzantine Empire although with the rise of Islam, territory began to fall to the expanding Caliphate. The eighth ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes sparked the Hasmonean revolt in Judea when he placed an image of Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple.
Generally, however, the Seleucids presided over a cultural melting plot, inheriting Alexander’s ideas about racial unity. Antioch, one of the cities they founded, became an important center of primitive Christianity, the seat of an ancient bishopric. Greek learning introduced to such provinces as Syria under the Seleucids later encountered Muslim thought. In the Islamic academies of the eighth and ninth century Greek classics were translated into Arabic. Some of these texts later found their way to Europe seats of learning via Moorish Spain, for example, so much so that as various schools of thought developed and led to the Enlightenment, they drew on numerous cultures, including some whose identity has been obscured. In the maturation of humanity towards willingness to embrace what has value in any culture, to view all knowledge as the patrimony of the whole race, and to regard the welfare of all as a shared responsibility, empires that have helped to build cultural bridges, such as the Seleucid Empire, have played a pivotal role.
Partition of Alexander’s Empire
Alexander had conquered the Achaemenid Empire within a short time-frame and died young, leaving an expansive empire of partly Hellenized culture without an adult heir. The empire was put under the authority of a regent in the person of Perdiccas in 323 B.C.E., and the territories were divided between Alexander’s generals, who thereby became satraps, at the Partition of Babylon in 323 B.C.E.
The Rise of Seleucus
Alexander’s generals (the Diadochi) jostled for supremacy over parts of his empire, and Ptolemy I Soter, one of his generals and satrap of Egypt, was the first to challenge the new rule, leading to the demise of Perdiccas. His revolt led to a new partition of the empire in 320 B.C.E. Seleucus I Nicator, who had been “Commander-in-Chief of the camp” under Perdiccas since 323 B.C.E. but helped to assassinate the latter, received Babylonia, and from that point continued to expand his dominions ruthlessly. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312 B.C.E., used as the foundation date of the Seleucid Empire. He ruled over not only Babylonia, but the entire enormous eastern part of Alexander’s empire:
Always lying in wait for the neighboring nations, strong in arms and persuasive in council, he [Seleucus] acquired Mesopotamia, Armenia, “Seleucid” Cappadocia, Persis, Parthia, Bactria, Arabia, Tapouria, Sogdia, Arachosia, Hyrcania, and other adjacent peoples that had been subdued by Alexander, as far as the river Indus, so that the boundaries of his empire were the most extensive in Asia after that of Alexander. The whole region from Phrygia to the Indus was subject to Seleucus.
Seleucus went as far as India, where he reached an agreement with Chandragupta Maurya, in which he exchanged his eastern territories for a considerable force of 500 war elephants, which were to play a decisive role at Ipsus:
The Indians occupy [in part] some of the countries situated along the Indus, which formerly belonged to the Persians: Alexander deprived the Ariani of them, and established there settlements of his own. But Seleucus Nicator gave them to Sandrocottus in consequence of a marriage contract, and received in return five hundred elephants.
Following his and Lysimachus’ victory over Antigonus Monophthalmus at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 B.C.E., Seleucus took control over eastern Anatolia and northern Syria. In the latter area he founded a new capital at Antioch on the Orontes, a city he named after his father. An alternative capital was established at Seleucia on the Tigris, north of Babylon. Seleucus’ empire reached its greatest extent following his defeat of his erstwhile ally, Lysimachus, at Corupedion in 281 B.C.E. Seleucus expanded his control to encompass western Anatolia. He hoped further to take control of Lysimachus’ lands in Europe—primarily Thrace and even Macedonia itself, but was assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus on landing in Europe. His son and successor, Antiochus I Soter, was left with an enormous realm consisting of nearly all of the Asian portions of the Empire, but proved unable to pick up where his father had left off in conquering the European portions of Alexander’s empire. His competitors were Antigonus II Gonatas in Macedonia and Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Egypt.
An Overextended Domain
Nevertheless, even before Seleucus’ death, the vast eastern domains of the Seleucids were proving difficult to assert control over. Seleucus invaded India (modern Punjab, Pakistan) in 305 B.C.E., confronting Chandragupta Maurya (Sandrokottos), founder of the Maurya Empire. It is said that Chandragupta fielded an army of 600,000 men and 9,000 war elephants. The two monarchs ultimately sealed a treaty, by which Seleucus ceded vast territories from the Indus to present-day Afghanistan. In exchange Chandragupta gave him no less than 500 elephants, an addition to his army that was to play a prominent part in his victory at Ipsus. The peace was complemented by a “marriage alliance” (Epigamia in ancient sources), implying either a dynastic alliance (in which a Seleucid princess may have been betrothed to the Maurya dynasty) or the recognition of marriage between Greeks and Indians.
Seleucus also sent an ambassador named Megasthenes to Chandragupta’s court, who repeatedly visited Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar state), capital of Chandragupta. Megasthenes wrote detailed descriptions of India and Chandragupta’s reign, which have been partly preserved to us through Diodorus Siculus. He also later sent Deimakos to the court of Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara.
Other territories lost before Seleucus’ death were Gedrosia in the south-east of the Iranian plateau, and, to the north of this, Arachosia on the west bank of the Indus River.
Antiochus I (reigned 281-261 B.C.E.) and his son and successor Antiochus II Theos (reigned 261-246 B.C.E.) were faced with challenges in the west, including repeated wars with Ptolemy II and a Celtic invasion of Asia Minor—distracting attention from holding the eastern portions of the Empire together. Towards the end of Antiochus II’s reign, various provinces simultaneously asserted their independence, such as Bactria under Diodotus, Parthia under Arsaces, and Cappadocia under Ariarathes III.
Diodotus, governor for the Bactrian territory, asserted independence in around 245 B.C.E., although the exact date is far from certain, to form the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This kingdom was characterized by a rich Hellenistic culture, and was to continue its domination of Bactria until around 125 B.C.E., when it was overrun by the invasion of northern nomads. One of the Greco-Bactrian kings, Demetrius I of Bactria, invaded India around 180 B.C.E. to form the Greco-Indian kingdom, lasting until around 20 C.E.
The Seleucid satrap of Parthia, named Andragoras, first claimed independence, in a parallel to the secession of his Bactrian neighbor. Soon after however, a Parthian tribal chief called Arsaces took over the Parthian territory around 238 B.C.E. to form the Arsacid Dynasty—the starting point of the powerful Parthian Empire.
By the time Antiochus II’s son Seleucus II Callinicus came to the throne around 246 B.C.E., the Seleucids seemed to be at a low ebb indeed. Seleucus II was soon dramatically defeated in the Third Syrian War against Ptolemy III of Egypt and then had to fight a civil war against his own brother Antiochus Hierax. Taking advantage of this distraction, Bactria and Parthia seceded from the empire. In Asia Minor too, the Seleucid dynasty seemed to be losing control — Gauls had fully established themselves in Galatia, semi-independent semi-Hellenized kingdoms had sprung up in Bithynia, Pontus, and Cappadocia, and the city of Pergamum in the west was asserting its independence under the Attalid Dynasty.
Revival, 223-191 BCE
A revival began when Seleucus II’s younger son, Antiochus III the Great, took the throne in 223 B.C.E. Although initially unsuccessful in the Fourth Syrian War against Egypt, which led to an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Raphia (217 B.C.E.), Antiochus would prove himself to be the greatest of the Seleucid rulers after Seleucus I himself. Following his defeat at Raphia, he spent the next ten years on his Anabasis through the eastern parts of his domain—restoring rebellious vassals like Parthia and Greco-Bactria to at least nominal obedience, and even emulating Alexander with an expedition into India where he met with king Sophagasenus.
When he returned to the west in 205 B.C.E., Antiochus found that with the death of Ptolemy IV, the situation now looked propitious for another western campaign.
Antiochus and Philip V of Macedon then made a compact to divide the Ptolemaic possessions outside of Egypt, and in the Fifth Syrian War, the Seleucids ousted Ptolemy V from control of Coele-Syria. The Battle of Panium (198 B.C.E.) definitively transferred these holdings from the Ptolemies to the Seleucids. Antiochus appeared, at the least, to have restored the Seleucid Kingdom to glory.
But Antiochus’ glory was not to last for long. Following his erstwhile ally Philip’s defeat at the hands of Rome in 197 B.C.E., Antiochus now saw the opportunity for expansion into Greece. Encouraged by the exiled Carthaginian general Hannibal, and making an alliance with the disgruntled Aetolian League, Antiochus invaded Greece. Unfortunately, this decision led to his downfall: he was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Thermopylae and Magnesia (190 B.C.E.), and was forced to make peace with the Romans by the embarrassing Treaty of Apamea (188 B.C.E.)—which forced him to abandon all European territories, ceded all of Asia Minor north of the Taurus Mountains to Pergamum, and set a large indemnity to be paid. Antiochus died in 187 B.C.E. on another expedition to the east, where he sought to extract money to pay the indemnity.
The reign of his son and successor Seleucus IV Philopator (187-175 B.C.E.) was largely spent in attempts to pay the large indemnity, and Seleucus was ultimately assassinated by his minister |Heliodorus]]. Seleucus’ younger brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, now seized the throne. He attempted to restore Seleucid prestige with a successful war against Egypt; but despite driving the Egyptian army back to Alexandria itself, he was forced to withdraw by the Roman envoy Gaius Popillius Laenas, who famously drew a circle in the sand around the king and told him he had to decide whether or not to withdraw from Egypt before leaving the circle. Antiochus chose to withdraw.
The latter part of his reign saw the further disintegration of the Empire. The Eastern areas remained nearly uncontrollable, as Parthians began to take over the Persian lands; and Antiochus’ aggressive Hellenizing (or de-Judaizing) activities led to armed rebellion in Judea—the Maccabee revolt in 167 B.C.E. which led to an independent Jewish state. Efforts to deal with both the Parthians and the Jews proved fruitless, and Antiochus himself died during an expedition against the Parthians in 164 B.C.E.
Civil War and Further Decay
After the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid Empire became increasingly unstable. Frequent civil wars made central authority tenuous at best. Epiphanes’ young son, Antiochus V Eupator, was first overthrown by Seleucus IV’s son, Demetrius I Soter in 161 B.C.E. Demetrius I attempted to restore Seleucid power in Judea particularly, but was overthrown in 150 B.C.E. by Alexander Balas—an impostor who (with Egyptian backing) claimed to be the son of Epiphanes. Alexander Balas reigned until 145 B.C.E., when he was overthrown by Demetrius I’s son, Demetrius II Nicator. Demetrius II proved unable to control the whole of the kingdom, however. While he ruled Babylonia and eastern Syria from Damascus, the remnants of Balas’ supporters—first supporting Balas’ son Antiochus VI, then the usurping general Diodotus Tryphon—held out in Antioch.
Meanwhile, the decay of the Empire’s territorial possessions continued apace. By 143 B.C.E., the Jews in form of the Maccabees had fully established their independence. Parthian expansion continued as well. In 139 B.C.E., Demetrius II was defeated in battle by the Parthians and was captured. By this time, the entire Iranian Plateau had been lost to Parthian control. Demetrius Nicator’s brother, Antiochus VII, was ultimately able to restore a fleeting unity and vigor to the Seleucid domains, but he too proved unequal to the Parthian threat: He was killed in battle with the Parthians in 129 B.C.E., leading to the final collapse of the Seleucid hold on Babylonia. After the death of Antiochus VII, all effective Seleucid rule collapsed, as multiple claimants contested control of what was left of the Seleucid realm in almost unending civil war.
Collapse, 100-63 BCE
By 100 B.C.E., the once formidable Seleucid Empire encompassed little more than Antioch and some Syrian cities. Despite the clear collapse of their power, and the decline of their kingdom around them, nobles continued to play kingmakers on a regular basis, with occasional intervention from Ptolemaic Egypt and other outside powers. The Seleucids existed solely because no other nation wished to absorb them—seeing as they constituted a useful buffer between their other neighbors. In the wars in Anatolia between Mithridates VI of Pontus and Sulla of Rome, the Seleucids were largely left alone by both major combatants.
Mithridates’ ambitious son-in-law, Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia, however, saw opportunity for expansion in the constant civil strife to the south. In 83 B.C.E., at the invitation of one of the factions in the interminable civil wars, he invaded Syria, and soon established himself as ruler of Syria, putting Seleucid rule virtually at an end.
Seleucid rule was not entirely over, however. Following the Roman general Lucullus’ defeat of both Mithridates and Tigranes in 69 B.C.E., a rump Seleucid kingdom was restored under Antiochus XIII. Even now, civil wars could not be prevented, as another Seleucid, Philip II, contested rule with Antiochus. After the Roman conquest of Pontus, the Romans became increasingly alarmed at the constant source of instability in Syria under the Seleucids. Once Mithridates was defeated by Pompey in 63 B.C.E., Pompey set about the task of remaking the Hellenistic East, by creating new client kingdoms and establishing provinces. While client nations like Armenia and Judea were allowed to continue some degree of autonomy under local kings, Pompey saw the Seleucids as too troublesome to continue; and doing away with both rival Seleucid princes, he made Syria into a Roman province.
Advancing quickly the Armenian troops took the city of Acre [Ptolemais] in Phoenicia. Tigran’s Army then successfully besieged Seleucia-on-Tigris. Queen Alexandra presented the King with gifts, called him the “king of kings” and pledged him her allegiance.
The Seleucid empire’s geographic span, from the Aegean Sea to Afghanistan, created a melting pot of various peoples, such as Greeks, Armenians, Persians, Medes, Jews. The immense size of the empire, followed by its encompassing nature, made the Seleucid rulers have a governing interest in implementing a policy of racial unity initiated by Alexander. The Hellenization of the Seleucid empire was achieved by the establishment of Greek cities throughout the empire. Historically significant towns and cities, such as Antioch, were created or renamed with more appropriate Greek names. The creation of new Greek cities and towns was aided by the fact that the Greek mainland was overpopulated and therefore made the vast Seleucid empire ripe for colonization. Colonization was used to further Greek interest while facilitating the assimilation of many native groups. Socially, this led to the adoption of Greek practices and customs by the educated native classes in order to further themselves in public life and the ruling Macedonian class gradually adopted some of the local traditions. By 313 B.C.E., Hellenic ideas had begun their almost 250-year expansion into the Near East, Middle East, and Central Asian cultures. It was the empire’s governmental framework to rule by establishing hundreds of cities for trade and occupational purposes.
Many of the existing cities began — or were compelled by force—to adopt Hellenized philosophic thought, religious sentiments, and politics. Synthesizing Hellenic and indigenous cultural, religious, and philosophical ideas met with varying degrees of success—resulting in times of simultaneous peace and rebellion in various parts of the empire. Such was the case with the Jewish population of the Seleucid empire because the Jews posed a significant problem which eventually led to war. Contrary to the accepting nature of the Ptolemaic empire towards native religions and customs, the Seleucids gradually tried to force Hellenization upon the Jewish people in their territory by outlawing Judaism. This eventually led to the revolt of the Jews under Seleucid control, which would later lead to the Jews achieving independence.
However, the Seleucids also adapted aspects of the surrounding culture. They used the Babylonian calendar, for example. They may also have taken part in Babylonian religious festivals (such as the Akitu Festival, the New Year) and, just as the Ptolemies adopted the Egyptian ideology of kingship, so they may have borrowed from Persian concepts. The Persians, like the Egyptians, saw the King as “divine.” There is some evidence that a cult developed around the Seleucid rulers. Green says, “The Seleucids, like the Ptolemies, also instituted a royal cult.” The Seleucids “showed piety towards indigenous Gods.” Cultural exchange was a two-way process; the conquered populations were expected to embrace aspects of Greek culture but the colonizers also embraced aspects of the culture of the colonized.
As with many of the Hellenistic states that formed after the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid armies were based on the Macedonian model and its troops were primarily of Greco-Macedonian origin. Since the Seleucid realm covered much of the eastern portions of the former Persian Empire, its kings had to rely on Eastern people to man its army. They relied on troops that used the Macedonian phalanx, archers from the Eastern peoples and cavalry. Also, the Seleucids had a supply of Indian war elephants which was used to cause fear amongst their enemies. Like the Ptolemies with their wealth, the Seleucid kings had managed to recruit all kinds of people as mercenaries from the Indians living on the Indus to the people of Crete and Galatia. With their wars against Rome, the Seleucids attempted to create units of troops that copied the Roman legions. By 63 B.C.E., the Seleucid Empire along with its army had disbanded. Many of the heavy cavalry was rumored to join the Roman armies in Asia.
Court records from the Seleucids did not survive, so what has been written about the legacy of their Empire was penned by others. Roman historians did not pay much attention to the Seleucid kings, apparently because they thought they had not “stood up” against Rome. More was written about Antiochus IV because of his attempts to impose paganism on the Jews, so Jewish sources contain a great deal of information on this period. The Seleucids are, however, credited with extending the Greek world into the East through the mechanism of city foundations. Antioch especially “continued to flourish” after the end of the Seleucid period. It became a leading center of Christianity; the Patriarchate of Antioch claims to been founded by Saint Peter. There, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The Byzantine Empire governed Antioch until 1085. It fell to the Crusaders in 1084. They in turn lost the city to Saladin in 1268.
After World War II, a revival of interest in the Seleucids tended to stress their eastern, rather than western “center of gravity;” “the Seleucids were presented as continuators of the Persian empire whose center of gravity lay in Babylonia, rather than in the west.”Seleucid patronage of learning may have influenced the Muslim scholars who, following the conquest of Syria, began to translate Greek (or commissioned translations) of Greek texts into Arabic. Recognizing as did Aquinas, who cited Muslim sources, that there are two sources of knowledge, scripture and “reason” Muslims synthesized Greek and Islamic ideas. Later, some Muslim philosophers were even accused of substituting “the infallibility of the Quran with that of Plato.” Others claim that what emerged from this meeting of traditions was a “synthesis between Greek philosophy and Islam” which has been described as a major intellectual “achievement.”Antioch, where Christian scholarship continued to flourish well into the Islamic period, where rhetoric and law were especially popular, may have impacted Islamic thinking, since “These two disciplines were also later to become fruitful areas of Muslim scholarship.” In this way, the world has been enriched by scholars from many traditions who have transmitted, corrected and added to “to a tradition that stretches back to Aristotle and beyond, each bound to his predecessor by a shared devotion to truth” irrespective of race, creed or ethnicity. It was this type of cultural synthesis that led to the Enlightenment. Were the Muslims also influenced by the tradition of Alexander and of the Seleucids that did not usually try to displace existing customs but to create a synthesis? Alexander himself is credited with creating “Hellenism,” which was “synthesis of Greek culture” with “the civilization of the ancient near east.”
- Appian, Appian, History of Rome, The Syrian Wars 55. Retrieved October 24, 2008.
- Strabo, Strabo 15.2.1(9) (London: George Bell & Sons). Retrieved October 24, 2008.
- Jens Jakobsson, History of Iran: Seleucid Empire (306-c.150 B.C.E.), Iran Chamber Society. Retrieved October 24, 2008.
- Wilson (2006), 652.
- Green (1990), 195.
- Wilson (2006), 480.
- Acts 11:26.
- Clinton Bennett, Muslims and Modernity: An Introduction to the Issues and Debates (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005 116.
- Paul Lunde, Science: The Islamic Legacy, Saudi Aramco World 33:3. Retrieved October 24, 2008.
- Neil Davidson, Islam and the Enlightenment, Socialist Review. Retrieved October 24, 2008.
- Steven Bayme, Understanding Jewish History: Texts and Commentaries (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 1997, 50.
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- Bilde, Per. 1990. Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom. Aarhus, DK: Aarhus University Press.
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- Green, Peter. 1990. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Sherwin-White, Susan M., and Amélie Kuhrt. 1993. From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire.Hellenistic culture and society, 13. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Wilson, Nigel Guy. 2006. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Routledge.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 08.27.2015, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.