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.

The Life of Pyrrhus – Plutarch

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Synopsis and Commentary:

Plutarch wrote the life of Pyrrhus as part of his Parallel Lives in which he pairs a famous Greek and Roman with independent biographies of each. Pyrrhus is paired with Gaius Marius the famous Roman general that defeated Jugurtha as well as a major Germanic invasion of Italy and later helped to undermine the Roman Republic in his quest for power. Pyrrhus and Marius have very little in common, and conceivably were only paired to sustain the motif of the book.

Among the countless generals in the history of Western warfare perhaps none has won more battles in concert with ultimate defeat in wars than Pyrrhus of Epirus. Even though he failed in nearly all of his endeavors he was able to gain a lasting reputation for military genius which has endured and will endure in Western culture. His most towering opponent – republican Rome – possessed that crucial additive in warfare which Pyrrhus lacked: the resolve to never accept defeat. Such resolve was manifest in the belief that every war was a life-and-death struggle for republican Rome. Despite the ability of Pyrrhus to achieve awe-inspiring battlefield victories the war itself was more of a passing enthusiasm than a life-and-death struggle for him, and so he met failure after failure in the eventual aims of the wars he fought.

Pyrrhus remains an enigma in Western culture. His battlefield successes, his spectacular military genius, and his Alexander like charisma ought to have produced an unstoppable military juggernaut, but rather than climbing the heights that Alexander once did he met ultimate failure in war after war.

Excerpts:

“…Pyrrhus only by arms and in action, represented Alexander. Of his knowledge of military tactics and the art of a general, and his great ability that way, we have the best information from the commentaries he left behind him. Antigonus, also, we are told, being asked who was the greatest soldier, said, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old’…

“…Hannibal of all great commanders esteemed Pyrrhus for skill and conduct the first, Scipio the second, and himself the third, as is related in the life of Scipio.

“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

“…What he got by great actions he lost again by vain hopes, and by new desires of what he had not, kept nothing of what he had. So that Antigonus used to compare him to a player with dice, who had excellent throws, but knew not how to use them.

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.