Who Was Seleucus I? 11 Facts About The Seleucid Empire’s Founder

Selleucus I was the founder of the Seleucid Empire. He lead a life of war, love and betrayal fighting in every corner of the known world.

May 22, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
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Seleukos I Nikator, 100 BCE- 100 CE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale Naples; with Antiochus and Stratonike, Theodoor van Thulden, 1669, via Dorotheum

 

Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, a fierce war ensued in which Macedonian generals fought for dominance over the vast Empire. This period known as the War of the Diadochi, resulted in a series of Greco Macedonian Kingdoms. The largest of these was the Seleucid Empire, founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Arian, who recorded Alexander’s campaign in Persia, described Seleucus with the following words:

 

“Seleucus became the greatest king, was the most kingly in mind, and ruled over the greatest extent of land after Alexander himself”
Arian, Anabasis Of Alexander 7.22

 

But who was Seleucus, the victorious general and successor of Alexander? Who was this formidable general who fought in almost every corner of the known world from Greece to India?

 

1. Seleucus Claimed To Be The Son Of A God

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Tetradrachm of Seleucus I,

 

Seleucus was the son of Antiochus and Laodice, born in Europus of Macedonia sometime around 358  BCE. His father was a Macedonian general fighting alongside King Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father.

 

According to the Roman historian Justin (15.4), Seleucus’ mother claimed that she had gotten pregnant by the god Apollo. She also claimed that after getting pregnant, the god gave her a ring with an anchor engraved on it that she had to pass on to her child. Once Seleucus was born, Laodice noticed that the child also had a birthmark on his inner thigh in the shape of an anchor. When Seleucus was about to leave to follow Alexander in his Persian campaign, his mother presented him with the ring and revealed to Seleucus everything about his divine descending.

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Obviously, the anchor had to mean something important. By the end of his life, Seleucus would rule one of the largest empires in the whole world and its symbol would be an anchor. The Seleucids successors of Seleucus all claimed to have identical anchor birthmarks, proof of their dynasty’s divine origins.

 

Justin also said that when Seleucus founded Antioch on Orontes, he dedicated the plains around it to Apollo. As a result, the Macedonian had established a city dedicated to his mortal father, Antiochus, but also satisfied his immortal father, Apollo.

 

2. He Followed Alexander In His Persian Campaign

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Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, c. 100 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

 

Coming from a noble family, Seleucus was indeed educated and must have taken part in the expansive wars of Philip II. Unfortunately, these early years of Seleucus are shrouded in mystery.

 

What we do know with certainty is that he was one of the Macedonians who campaigned alongside Alexander in Asia. But Seleucus did not go to Persia as a regular soldier. He instead held the very prestigious position of one of the somatophylakes, i.e., Alexander’s personal bodyguards. With time, this body of elite soldiers received high administration ranks as Alexander looked for new loyal subjects to replace the old aristocracy that often opposed his will.

 

According to the Greek Historian Arrian, in 326, Seleucus undertook increased responsibilities when Alexander reached India. More specifically, he became captain of the royal hypaspists, an elite shield-bearing unit.

3. Seleucus Married A Bactrian Princess

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Alexander the Great and Roxana, Pietro Rotari, 1707-1762, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

 

One of the most notable moments and there were many, of Alexander’s Persian campaign took place when he reached the distant kingdom of Bactria. There the young Macedonian king took a historic decision. Alexander planned to create a mixed Greco-Persian class to rule over his Empire. In 324, he took action and married his generals with Persian princesses and noblewomen at Susa. He also married Roxana, who gave him a son, Alexander IV. Seleucus got married to Apama, the daughter of the Bactrian leader Spitamenes.

 

In the ensuing years, all of Alexander’s generals disregarded their Persian wives in favor of Greco-Macedonian ones. Only Seleucus remained loyal to Apama.

 

Alexander’s act had ulterior political motives. He was hoping to strengthen his ties with the local nobility and access its administrative knowledge. Seleucus probably saw that Alexander was right. If one wanted to maintain a kingdom in that part of the world, help from locals was needed. Truly, in the ensuing years, Seleucus’ marriage with Apama allowed him to forge valuable alliances and secure his place as one of Alexander’s successors.

 

4. He Played A Part In An Assassination

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Seleukos I Nikator, 100 BCE- 100 CE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale Naples, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In 323 BCE, Alexander left his final breath in Babylon at the age of 32. According to Arian (7.26), moments before his death, Alexander was asked to whom he left his kingdom and replied: “to the best.”

 

Even if Alexander never said these words, one thing is sure, his death was the end of his reign but the beginning of one of the craziest free-for-alls the Greek world had ever witnessed. For the next half of a century, Alexander’s generals fought one another in a desperate fight for survival full of intrigue, backstabbing, and blood. From this ruthless period, a new world would emerge, the Hellenistic.

 

However, this terrible period of strife and war did not begin right away. Even if everyone could feel the tension, no one was ready to move right away. Furthermore, it was not yet clear that the Empire was meant to crumble.

 

In a first settlement in Babylon, the generals decided to maintain the Empire’s unity under Perdicca’s regency. Seleucus supported the new regent and was promoted to the companion cavalry commander and received the title of chiliarch, one of the Empire’s most prestigious titles. Seleucus was now one of the most powerful men in the game of succession.

 

But that was not enough. In 320, Seleucus took part in a conspiracy to assassinate Perdikkas, who never saw it coming. Seleucus’s betrayal was brutal as he was one of the men responsible for keeping the regent safe. Nevertheless, for this act, he received yet another reward.

5. He Became The Satrap Of Babylon

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Dragon from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, 604-562 BCE,  Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

 

The new regent, Antipater offered Seleucus the ancient, wealthy and prestigious satrapy of Babylon. And Seleucus did not hesitate. Cassander, Antipatrus’s son, became the new chiliarch which meant that Seleucus lost a significant part of his authority, but that did not matter a lot since now Seleucus could now gain connections in one of the Empire’s key satrapies.

 

Seleucus played the game smartly, showing generosity to gain the favor of the locals. The way he treated the Babylonians was not forgotten:

 

“…he had shown himself generous to all, winning the goodwill of the common people and long in advance securing men who would assist him if an opportunity should ever be given to him to make  p81 a bid for supreme power.” Diodorus Siculus, Library 91

 

6. Seleucus Founded The Seleucid Dynasty

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Bust of Seleucus, 1st-2nd BCE century, Louvre, Paris, via flickr

 

Seleucus remained in place at the satrapy of Babylon for four years. In 315, Antigonus, who was rapidly becoming the strongest player in the game, arrived in the city. Through a series of events, Seleucus was forced to abandon his seat and seek refuge at Ptolemy’s court in Egypt.

 

In the ensuing war between Ptolemy and Antigonus, Seleucus became an admiral for Ptolemy. After seeing an opportunity to return to Babylon, he gathered a small force and made way for the ancient city while constantly recruit new soldiers on the way. In 312, he entered the city and established himself as its legitimate magistrate. Seleucus’ return to Babylon is widely commemorated as the creation event of the Seleucid Dynasty which is named after him.

 

7. He Fought In India And Returned With 500 War Elephants

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Seleucus in a chariot drawn by four elephants, from Seleucia ad Tigrim, British Museum, London

 

Between 311 and 309, Seleucus was involved in a war against Antigonus, called the Babylonian War. In the end, Seleucus held his ground, securing his borders and establishing a kingdom that for the time being could not be threatened from the west, as Antigonus, who controlled the rest of Asia west of Babylon, would be engaged in a series of wars against the other diadochi.

 

This bought Seleucus the time he needed to unify and expand his realm. After bringing the northern Persian lands under his control and securing a line of alliances, he began moving east, retaking the lands that once belonged in Alexander’s grand Empire. In 306, Seleucus had covered the distance from Babylon to India and was now ready to fight against a formidable foe, the Mauryan Empire, which king Chandragupta had just founded.

 

Seleucus fought for two years against Chandragupta. However, in the end, the Mauryan king was in a dominant position and able to leave the negotiating table with a good chunk of Seleucus’ eastern lands. However, Seleucus did not leave empty-handed as Chandragupta agreed to provide him with 500 war elephants which made Seleucus’ army unstoppable. Another part of the treaty was a marriage between Chandragupta and Seleucus’ daughter.

 

The elephants proved especially useful at the determining battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE. There the combined forces of Seleucus, Cassander, Ptolemy, and Lysimachus annihilated Antigonus’ army, who died on the battlefield. Antigonus’ son, Demetrius, escaped securing the Antigonid dynasty’s survival, which eventually reigned in Macedonia.

 

8. He Was Crowned A King In 305 BCE

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Coin with the legend King Seleucus on the obverse, c. 305-295 BC, via NumisBids

“I charge you that none of the customs of the Persians and other nations is more worthy of observance than this one law, which is common to all of them, ‘That what the king ordains is always right’.Seleucus quoted by Appian, The Syrian Wars 13

 

In 305 BCE Seleucus I followed the example of Antigonus, who had crowned himself a king (basileus) in 306. The other remaining diadochi also crowned themselves, delivering the final blow on any illusions remaining regarding the possibility of Alexander’s Empire reuniting. From now on, these men were not the generals of Alexander fighting a civil war within an Empire but independent kings waging wars against each other to further their domain. Seleucus would be fighting for his own Seleucid Empire and the longevity of his line of succession.

 

9. Seleucus Founded Many Cities

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Antioch, Jean Claude Golvin, via jeanclaudegolvin.com

 

Seleucus followed Alexander’s example and founded a series of new cities. According to Appian, he founded at least 16 Antiocheias, 5 Laodikeias, 3 Apameias, one Stratonikeia, and 9 Seleukeias, respectively named after his father, mother, first and second wives, and himself.

 

The most important of these cities was by far Antiocheia on the Orontes, which replaced Babylon as the most important center of his Empire.

 

These new cities were populated by Greek and Macedonia settlers. It is difficult to overstate the migration fever of the time, as Greek-speaking people moved to these new centers, simultaneously spreading their way of life in all of the Seleucid Empire from Asia Minor to Bactria.

 

10. He Gave His Wife To His Son

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Antiochus and Stratonike, Theodoor van Thulden, 1669, via Dorotheum

 

This is one of the weirdest and most scandalous stories in the history of the Seleucid family even though the ancient sources presented it as a sign of virtue.

 

The story as found in Appian goes that Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, was in love with Stratonice, who was his stepmother. His passion was so intense that he fell ill and unable to move out of his bed.

 

A doctor named Erasistratus examined the young prince of the Seleucid Empire and realized that Antiochus was suffering from no disease of the body. Furthermore, Antiochus confided his love for Stratonice to the doctor but asked him to keep this confidential.

 

When Seleucus asked Erasistratus what his diagnosis was, the latter said:

 

“His disease is love, love for a woman, but a hopeless love.”

“Who is this woman,” said Seleucus.

“My wife,” lied Erasistratus.

 

Seleucus then pressured Erasistratus to offer his wife to his son to save his life, but Erasistratus feeling that his lie was getting the wrong result, said: “You would not give Antiochus your wife if he were in love with her, although you are his father.”

 

Seleucus swore that to save his son from depression and eventual death, he would give him his wife if he had to. Then Erasistratus revealed the truth, and to everyone’s surprise, Seleucus meant what he said. He assembled his army and announced to everyone that he was offering his son, the Seleucid prince, his wife, and half of the Empire because he was getting old.

 

11. Seleucus Was Betrayed And Assassinated

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The Seleucid Empire in 281 BC on the eve of Seleucus’ murder, via Wikimedia Commons

By the winter of 282/1, Seleucus I was known as Nicator (the victorious). He had created a vast empire containing lands from Asia Minor to India. He had survived a series of brutal wars and spent most of his life in the field of battle, making a name for himself and founding the Seleucid Empire that would affect the lives of millions of people. Seleucus was then 73 years old and could feel that he was not getting younger. At this age, he was missing his home in Macedonia and decided to return to the place that has always been his ultimate goal, his own country.

 

At the battle of Corupedium, Seleucus crushed Lysimachus, the current master of Thrace and Macedonia, who also lost his life on the battlefield. Everything seemed perfect for Seleucus’ return. However, after crossing into the European continent and approaching Lysimacheia, Seleucus was betrayed and assassinated by a certain Ptolemy Keraunos. Who was Keraunos? According to Appian:

 

“This Keraunos was the son of Ptolemy Soter and Eurydice, the daughter of Antipater. He had left Egypt from fear because his father had decided to leave the kingdom to his youngest son. Seleucus had received him as the unfortunate son of his friend, and thus he supported, and took around with himself everywhere, his own murderer.”
Appian, The Syrian Wars 13

 

According to a legend, an oracle had presented Seleucus with the following prophecy:

 

“Do not hurry back to Europe; Asia will be much better for you.”

 

Indeed Seleucus died once he had crossed into Europe. He never managed to return hope, but he did manage to reign for 42 years and left a long-lasting legacy in the form of a great dynasty, the Seleucids. After his death, his son Antiochus honored his father’s memory by proclaiming him a god and founding his cult.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.