The Seleucid Empire was one of the major Hellenistic states formed after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. The Seleucids ruled over a vast empire spanning from the Aegean all the way to Bactria. The mighty Empire remained a dominant force for almost three centuries until they were eventually absorbed by the new superpower, Rome.
1. The Seleucid Empire Formed After Alexander’s Death
Alexander III, also known as Alexander the Great, died in 323 BCE at 32 years old. At the time of his death, he left behind a vast empire, the largest the world had ever seen. It entailed lands from Greece all the way to the Indus river. The moment of Alexander’s death signaled a passage. Nothing would be the same as the Hellenistic world had just been born.
A series of wars broke out almost instantly, the so-called Wars of the Diadochi (Successors). By the end of these incredibly bloody and ruthless battles for survival, three grand new kingdoms had emerged, each with its own ruling dynasty. These were the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Antigonids in Macedonia, and the Seleucids in Asia.
The Seleucid Empire, ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, was nothing else than a vast and diverse kingdom ruled by a Macedonian elite claiming to be Alexander the Great’s successors.
2. Seleucus I Nicator Founded The Empire
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The father of the Seleucid Dynasty was Seleucus I. Seleucus had served next to Alexander during his campaign against the Achaemenid Empire. After Alexander’s death, Seleucus was given Babylon, a historic and prestigious part of the empire with a nevertheless insignificant military force.
Seleucus left Babylon in 316 BCE, when Antigonus, the most powerful of the Diadochi, attacked the city. Seleucus then became an admiral under Ptolemy in the ensuing war against Antigonus and his son Demetrius in the Aegean. After a few major military victories, Seleucus managed to retake Babylon for himself in 312 BCE. This is widely considered to be the date when the Seleucid Empire was born.
After returning to Babylon, Seleucus clashed with the army of Antigonus for three bloody years from 311 to 309 BCE. The end of this war was a win for Seleucus, who maintained his lands in Mesopotamia and the potential to expand to the east; and so he did. Seleucus consolidated his rule over the Eastern half of the empire all the way to India. There he fought with the Mauryan Empire securing his eastern border near the Indus river and receiving 500 war elephants as part of a peace treaty with the Indian King Chandragupta.
After Antigonus’ death in Ipsos (301 BCE), the Seleucid Kingdom was now reaching Syria. In 281 BCE, Seleucus I Nicator (the Victorious) was around 77 years old as he was getting ready to invade Macedon and return home after a long life of war. Just as he had entered Thrace, a breath away from Macedonia, he was assassinated by a son of Ptolemy, named Ptolemy Keraunos.
3. The Seleucid Empire Reached Its Peak When It Was Founded
The Seleucid Empire was by far the largest of all the other Hellenistic kingdoms. With the technology and resources of the time, such an empire was almost impossible to hold onto. The disintegration was slow but started almost immediately.
The first hit came from the east. Bactria became independent at around the half of the 2nd century while the Parthians gained ground reclaiming the Persian lands. From that point on, the Seleucids would forget the idea of reclaiming any land that was further than Iran.
Another great hit came when Seleucus II (246-226 BCE) fought a civil war against his brother Antiochus Ierax, commander of Sardis. The latter asked for help from the Gauls, who invaded Asia Minor and caused havoc. Attalus I, who was in charge of Pergamon, took advantage of the situation and extracted a part of Asia Minor from the Seleucid Empire. Since then, the Attalids began expanding their influence, backed by the newly emergent power of Rome, until the Seleucids were no more.
As a result, it is fair to say that the Seleucids reached the peak of their might during the reign of their founding father, Seleucus I.
4. A Greco-Macedonian Minority Ruled The Diverse Empire
The Seleucids ruled over Jews, Persians, Assyrians, Armenians, and a plethora of other native people from Asia Minor to Bactria. However, the king and his royal court were almost exclusively comprised of Greeks and Macedonians, as was the army. The administrative centers of the empire were also occupied by people speaking the Greek language. In fact, the natives of the empire were excluded from positions of power unless they were involved in local responsibilities. One interesting fact is that Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, was among the few exceptions to this rule. Hannibal served as an advisor of Antiochus III during a war against Rome while he was exiled from his country.
Consequently, we can speak of an empire of two worlds; the world of the elite Greco-Macedonian ruling class and the world of the locals who were being ruled.
The elitism of the ruling class was also expressed in its choice to avoid mixed marriages. Alexander the Great believed in creating a Macedonian-Persian ruling class that would be created through mixed marriages of Macedonians with Persians. With the exception of Seleucus I, who had married a Bactrian woman under Alexander’s commands, no other member of the dynasty married someone that was not speaking their own language.
5. The Seleucids Found New Cities
The capital of the empire was Antioch at Orontes in Northern Syria. However, the Seleucids depended on Seleucia on the Tigris and Sardis, which were complementary military and administrative centers of the imperial power. So, in reality, the Seleucid Empire was a state of many complimentary capitals.
Seleucus I, the empire’s founder, had founded a series of cities following Alexander’s example. Some of these were also the new capitals of Antioch at Orontes and Seleucia on the Tigris. These new cities attracted settlers from Greece and Macedon and functioned as the centers that exported the Hellenic culture throughout the empire.
The choice to found a new capital and ignore Babylon was not a random one. As we already saw, the Seleucid Empire was an empire of strong cultural contradictions where a Greco-Macedonian exclusive elite ruled over a large, diverse populace.
The Seleucids founded a great number of new cities and Greek, and Macedonian settlers were invited there. One could compare the great influx of immigrants with the migration of Europeans to the Americas. The new cities became islands of Greek citizens within foreign lands, reaching all the way to India. It was also very often for the Seleucids to change the name of an already existing city and proclaim it a new one under a Greek name (for example, Jerusalem was named Antioch).
6. The Seleucid Empire Spread The Hellenistic Culture
The period that followed Alexander’s death until the rise of Rome is known as the Hellenistic Era. This was a period of incredible cultural changes. During this time, the so-called Hellenistic culture spread and transformed the whole known world.
At that time, a specific Greek dialect was popularized to the point that it became a lingua franca. Trade, education, and diplomacy were all carried out primarily in this Greek dialect that came to be known as the Koine.
Hellenic customs and institutions also became widespread. This export of the Greek culture was facilitated by the new cities founded throughout the Seleucid Empire and by old cities that were completely Hellenized. Antioch became a center openly competing with Alexandria for the patronage of the arts and letters while Seleucia replaced the influence of Babylon and led to the latter’s depopulation.
Gymnasia, theatres, and Greek-style architecture spread widely as well as Greek art in all its forms. New syncretized gods emerged as the Greco-Macedonian settlers tried to make sense of the local cults and the ideas of the Greek philosophers were now accessible throughout the whole of Asia. The Bactrian kingdom that abandoned the Seleucid Empire functioned as a lighthouse of spreading Hellenistic ideas and art to India, influencing the time’s Buddhist art.
Nevertheless, we should not think that the natives of the empire were Hellenized completely. Most locals went on their lives as before. The only change was that now they were ruled by a Hellenic minority. Nevertheless, the spread of the Hellenistic culture to the depths of the empire had significant consequences that lasted for centuries.
7. Antiochus The Great Almost Revived The Empire
Few people have had the privilege of being called ‘the Great’ in history. One of them was Antiochus III (242-187 BCE). As we saw previously, the Seleucid Empire reached was at its largest during the reign of its founder, Seleucus I. After that point, the disintegration began as the Parthians began reclaiming what was previously the Persian Empire, Bactria became independent, and the Attalids began expanding against their previous Seleucid overlords.
Still, the empire was not constantly declining. There were times when the Seleucid reign was strengthened for some time and one time when it almost seemed as there was a chance that the empire could prove itself worthy of its founding father. That was during the military campaigns of Antiochus III.
When Antiochus ascended to the throne, he immediately reorganized his army and tried to improve the administration of the state. After successfully facing some rebellions in the West, he managed to reintegrate Asia Minor into his realm and campaigned against the Parthians. The war limited the influence of the Parthians, and the empire regained a great part of its lost territory. After signing a treaty with king Arsaces III that forced Parthia into an alliance with him, Antiochus set his eyes to the far-east. He moved against the Bactrian Kingdom and defeated King Euthydemus. However, he allowed him to maintain his title and rule over Bactria. Further east, Antiochus reaffirmed his friendship with the Indian King Sophagasenus, from whom he received war elephants.
8. Antiochus The Great Was Defeated By The Romans
The eastern campaign was a success. Antiochus had established a series of vassal states, consolidated his border, and reached 150 war elephants in total. Now he was ready to return to the west. His western campaign saw Antiochus taking southern Syria from the Ptolemies and conquering part of the Pergamon Kingdom and Thrace. The Romans furiously asked for his withdrawal from his newly conquered lands. Still, Antiochus went a step further by accepting the exile of Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca as his military advisor.
At that point, the Aetolian League requested Antiochus’ aid to kick Rome out of Greece. Antiochus gladly accepted to help, but this war would be the end of his winning streak. After a costly war, Antiochus was forced to retreat and abandon almost all of the empire’s western part as Rome, Pergamon, and Rhodes fought him at land and sea, pushing him to retreat further deep in the east.
In 188 BCE, Antiochus signed the treaty of Apamea. His lands now included only Syria, Mesopotamia, and the western part of Iran. Europe and Asia Minor would never be reconquered. Rome was now firmly the dominant power in the area, and the Seleucid Empire would never return to where it was. The decline had officially begun. Antiochus was now both the one who had restored the Empire to its former glory and the one who had doomed it to extinction and isolation.
9. Pompey conquered the Seleucid Empire
After the treaty of Apamea, there were some considerable attempts at expansion by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE). Antiochus attacked the Ptolemies and had some success, but as he was getting ready to invade Egypt, the Romans asked him to retreat. Understanding that a war with Rome would be more than he had bargained, Antiochus retreated.
On the way back, Antiochus entered Jerusalem and intensified its ongoing Hellenization. The cult of Yahweh was banned. Soon, the local population rose up in revolt in 166 BCE leading to the creation of an independent Jewish state that lasted for a whole century, thus further weakening the Seleucids.
From that point on, the history of the Empire is a sad tale of internal strife and civil war. Claimants constantly fought each other over the thone as the Seleucids became a minor kingdom confined in Syria. The once-mighty Empire was now a kingdom so insignificant that its neighbors were not even willing to go to war against it. The Seleucids were now a buffer state among greater powers.
In 83 BCE, the Armenian King Tigranes the Great invaded the Seleucid Kingdom. However, in 69 BCE, the Romans defeated the Armenians, and the Seleucid king Antiochus XIII was allowed to reign over a part of Syria. The sickness of civil war stroke again as a pretender named Philip II fought for the throne. Six years later, in 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey absolved the Seleucid Empire once and for all. The Seleucid Dynasty was now ancient history.