Seleucid Empire

Seleucid Empire (312–64 B.C.E.)

The division of Alexander’s erstwhile empire was harder on Babylonia (and Syria) than the conquest had been. Historian Amélie Kuhrt has observed that “the worst consequence for Babylonia of the Macedonian conquest was undoubtedly the long-drawn-out and disastrous wars between the Diadochi in which Babylonia . . . was frequently the central arena” (Kuhrt in Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987, 51).

The warfare that followed was strictly between the Macedonian satraps; the Babylonians themselves accepted a Macedonian overlord. As historian Susan Sherwin-White notes, Babylonian Chronicle Number 10 “does not question the validity of, or regard as illegal Seleucus’s position as satrap, which is simply accepted by the author” (Sherwin-White in Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987, 15).

By 316 B.C.E., Seleucus was at war with Antigonus, the satrap of Phrygia. Antigonus briefl y gained the upper hand, forcing Seleucus to fl ee to Egypt, where Ptolemy was fi rmly lodged. (Ptolemy, in fact, chose Egypt as his share of the division because of its remoteness, thus, in the years just after Alexander’s death at least, making it less susceptible to the constant warfare that plagued the other satrapies of the empire.)

In 312 B.C.E., Seleucus regained Babylonia and once again ruled from Babylon. The Seleucid dynasty is measured from this date. In time, the empire that Seleucus (r. 312–281 B.C.E.) and his successors forged became the largest of the successor states to Alexander’s empire. During the next decade, Seleucus managed to place himself on equal footing with Ptolemy by expanding his empire.

A détente with Antigonus, who, himself was looking westward to Athens, combined with earlier victories over Demetrios and other satraps under Antigonus, allowed Seleucus to turn his army east, whereupon he conquered what had been the Iranian satrapies. By 305 B.C.E., he, like the other Macedonian satraps, declared himself king and ruled not from Babylon but from Seleucia, a city he founded on the Tigris River south of Babylon. Seleucia was not a capital in the classical sense; as historian John D. Grainger points out, “the kings were peripatetic in the fi rst century or so of the [Seleucid] kingdom’s life” (Grainger 1990, 122).

Seleucus had forsaken Babylon (he would later forsake Seleucia) as an administrative center, and this required that many Babylonians relocate to the new city. Despite the fact that Chaldean astrologers remained, the legendary city began its slow decline. Still, in Seleucid times, Babylon was a somewhat autonomous city locally ruled by, to quote historian R. J. van der Spek, “the atammu (the chief administrator of the temple [Esagila]) and the board called ‘the Babylonians, (of) the council of Esaghila’ ” (van der Spek in Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987, 61).

As had Cyrus and Alexander before him, the “peripatetic” Seleucus campaigned in India, but to less success. First, he came up against the Mauryan Empire, whose king, Chandragupta, had taken over Alexander’s Indian possessions. Then, Seleucus was forced to return to Mesopotamia to join the alliance against Antigonus and Demetrios in the Fourth Diadochi War. Seleucus’s entering the fray tipped the scales against Antigonus. Seleucus defeated and killed him in the Battle of Ipsus in 301 B.C.E. and took Syria as his prize.

By then, his title was Seleucus I Nikator (Conqueror). Seleucus eventually moved his capital from Seleucia to Antioch on the Orontes River in Syria, and it was clear that Seleucus hoped to reunite Alexander’s empire with himself as king. Intrigues and interdynastic marriages, as well as city foundings and the organizing and administrating of his empire, occupied him for most of the rest of his life, but in 281 B.C.E., he invaded the territory of his former ally,

Lysistratus, northwest of Syria. Having defeated Lysistratus, who died in the battle, Seleucus entered Europe, with plans to march to Macedonia, but he was assassinated (in 281 B.C.E.) before achieving his goal.In many ways, it appears that the Babylonians were content to remain a satrapy under the Seleucids, even as to forsaking the capital of the empire to Syria.

The Seleucids, even in the later stages of the empire, ruled Babylonia in the spirit of Alexander. While Babylon’s decline can be traced to the transfer of the imperial capital and the widespread diffusion of Hellenic culture throughout the territories of the former Persian Empire, some historians contend that Babylon, itself, did not decline under the Seleucids. However, one of the later kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, hoped to populate the city with Europeans.

That aside, Sherwin-White has noted that the formal administrative functions of the satrapy were conducted not just in Greek but also in Aramaic and Akkadian (Sherwin-White in Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987, 23–24). This is corroborated through various documents of the period, including taxation documents as required by the reorganization of the imperial taxation system under Antiochus I, Seleucus’s successor.

In this and other cultural aspects (such as temple building), as Sherwin-White contends, the Seleucid kings acclimated their rule to Babylonia.This acclimation and Babylonian acceptance of the Seleucids was made easier by tradition: By the time of Alexander’s arrival in Mesopotamia, the Babylonians opposed Persian suzerainty, and thus, the Macedonian conquest of Babylonia was spared a protracted war.

After Alexander’s defeat of Darius, Babylon, as some historians believe, exercised an old right to sue for its own peace, which saved the city from destruction (Kuhrt in Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987, 49). Apparently, a similar procedure had been followed 200 years earlier, when Cyrus defeated the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. By the time Seleucus established his rule in Babylonia, the Macedonians had already been fi rmly in place for eight years.

The empire had achieved its greatest territorial gains under Seleucus. Over the next 220 years, in fi ts and starts, it would lose territory and face pressure from both the east and the west. In the east, the fi rst satrapy to revolt against Seleucid rule was Bactria in the 240s B.C.E. Nearly simultaneous to this was the settlement of the Parni in Parthia, who would eventually spell the end of the Seleucids.

Some of the lost territory was regained by Antiochus III the Great (r. 222–187 B.C.E.), especially in the fi nal decade of the third century B.C.E., when Antiochus engaged in a series of wars that have come to be known as the Syrian Wars. Essentially, these were the Diadochi Wars fought all over again with the essential difference that the Seleucid Empire and Egypt were now antagonists.

In 200 B.C.E., Antiochus wrested Palestine from Egypt. However, when he attempted to push westward into Europe, he came up against Rome, which soundly defeated the Seleucids in 192–188 B.C.E., despite their assistance from Carthage. Rome further weakened the Seleucid Empire by encouraging the Maccabean Revolt in Palestine (165–152 B.C.E.). But it was the Parthians, not the Romans, who would cause the Seleucid decline.