The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC – John D. Grainger

Synopsis:

In the final book of his three part series charting the rise and decline of the remarkable Seleucid Empire, John D. Grainger hammers out the pressing causes of the dissolution of the once great empire founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Among the many Hellenistic successor states established after the death of Alexander the Great the Seleucid Empire would most closely resemble the Empire of Alexander in geographical magnitude, and would maintain that integrity for most of its history.

Following the death of Antiochus III the empire slowly withered away amid uncontrolled internecine warfare. These wars were brought about by succession disputes that commenced after Antiochus IV usurped the throne. This event set forth a new succession norm – i.e. the only thing necessary to rule was a powerful army to back the claimant. These dynastic civil wars weakened the state enough to allow separatist movements on the edges of the empire to gradually snowball into legitimate states – e.g. Parthia, Bactria, and Armenia. Ultimately, the once great empire would shrink into a regional kingdom mostly encompassing Syria, and would remain this way until its conquest by the Romans.

Excerpts:

“Seleukid disintegration, it must be noted, was unique among the fates of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Only Macedon was broken up, by the Romans in 167, and this was reversed within twenty years, first by the rebellion of the Macedonians and then by Roman annexation of the whole and its conversion into a single Roman province. The Attalid kingdom’s main regions were taken over complete by Rome, with minor regions being awarded to allies, and Egypt fell as a complete unit to Rome in 30 BC.

“Rome, it seems clear, had no part in this disintegration. Occasional Roman visitors arrived for over a century and more, inspected the kingdom, and then went away. Occasional Seleukid claimants or enemies turned up in Rome, were heard, and received no help.

“Partly the disintegration which the Romans found was due to the sheer size of the original kingdom, so that breaking off fragments – Baktria, Parthia, Asia Minor – did not seriously damage the essential heartlands of Syria, Babylonia and Iran. And partly it was due to the inability of the Seleukid kings to maintain control over the more distant parts of a kingdom which was 2,000km long and more, and which could only be crossed at the speed of a marching soldier. Or to put it the other way around: it was due to the ambitions of governors installed by these Seleukid kings, who were able to develop a local interest network which enabled them to strike for independence and make themselves into kings at a time of central government weakness.

“Until 175 the royal succession had been reasonably clear: the king nominated his successor, who was always his eldest surviving son, a practice which, having been followed for a century, might be considered to be a rule. Antiochos IV’s ambition broke that sequence when he murdered his nephew and stepson; it then became clear that the kingship was available to whoever could seize it.

“…the kingdom was doomed from the start. By basing his power on a very narrow population base, Seleukos I had made it certain that the first succession dispute – and there was bound to be one – would begin the process of collapse. And yet unless he had based his power on the Greek and Macedonian settlers he would not have survived and there would have been no kingdom. Without the promise of land and cities to live in, the settlers would not have come; and without the settlers Seleukos and his successors would not have a kingdom to rule. The essential basis in the kingdom, the unifying element, was the king. When disputes about the occupation of the throne arose, disintegration happened. The kings made the kingdom, held it, and let it fall. In its origins was the kingdom’s ending.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC, Pen and Sword.

Antiochus the Great – Michael Taylor

Synopsis:

Overlooking the swelling power of the Roman Republic in the Mediterranean, the late Seleucid Empire of Antiochus III posed a strategic obstacle to Roman expansion into Greece as well as the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to lead the Roman Republic in peace it was absolutely necessary for a Roman aristocrat to lead in war, and the fanatically competitive nature of the Roman aristocracy meant that Hellenistic autocrats such as Antiochus became an endangered species during the era of Roman ascendancy.

In his biography of Antiochus III ‘the Great’ of the Seleucid Empire Michael Taylor chronicles the politics, wars, conquests, and defeats of the Megas Basileus (Great King) of the Seleucid Empire.

Excerpts:

“…unprecedented warfare had reduced a divided international system to two powers. The two victors saw each other across a ‘contested periphery’, territory that both sides claimed as spheres of influence: Greece in the case of Rome and Antiochus, Central Europe in the case of the US and Stalin. In both instances diplomacy was terse and generally ineffective.

“Antiochus III knew that moving an army into Greece to ‘settle affairs between the Aetolians and Romans’ would lead to war with Rome. Antiochus had not sought such a war willingly, but he was no pacifist. With most of his royal career dominated by military operations, there was little reason for him to flinch from this new challenge.

“The facts that Hannibal relayed were likely encouraging: the Roman army was an amateur militia commanded by amateur aristocrats. It had no standing units, but rather each year fresh recruits were distributed into legions. Half of the army was composed of ‘allied’ wings; these soldiers lacked citizenship. As Hannibal had proved, the Roman army had suffered stunning defeats, due mostly to the combination of poorly trained levies and inexperienced or even incompetent generals. At best, a Roman consul had one or two years of provincial command as a praetor or pro-praetor; Antiochus III had commanded armies for thirty years. While the Seleucid army also contained citizen militiamen in the phalanx, it also had a splendid professional corps, the 10,000 Silver Shields, and the two regiments of royal cavalry. Thus, despite recent Roman successes against Carthage and Macedonia, Antiochus entered the war confident of victory.

“Almost all Hellenistic kings were obsessed with the physical image of Alexander, the ultimate role model and prototype for Hellenistic kingship. Before Alexander, a copious and virile beard was the sign of a mature Greek man. But Alexander had died before he reached the age where it was customary for Greek men to grow a beard, and his youthful clean-shaven state was copied by his successors even into old age. As a result, beards went out of fashion in the Mediterranean for the next 450 years.

“The Romanophile Antiochus IV met the Roman delegation as it disembarked at Pelusium and affably offered to shake hands. This was a gesture of tremendous respect and good will. In a spectacular and arrogant gesture of showmanship, Popilius Laenus remained silent. He took his staff, drew a circle in the sand around the King, and handed him a written copy of Roman demands. Finally speaking, he told the King not to step out of the circle until he had agreed to Roman demands, demands that included the complete evacuation of Egypt. Antiochus IV was humiliated. But a fellow Hellenistic monarch had just been deposed by Rome, making manifest the potential cost of defeat. He told Laenus of his decision to comply and swiftly withdrew his forces.

*All excerpts have been taken from Antiochus the Great, Pen and Sword.