The Seleucid Empire
( ; 312
– 63 BC
) was a Hellenistic empire
, i.e. a successor
state of Alexander the Great
empire. The Seleucid Empire was centered in the
near East and at the height of its power
included central Anatolia, the
Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, today's
Turkmenistan, Pamir and parts of
was a major centre of Hellenistic culture which maintained the
preeminence of Greek
customs and where a
élite dominated, mostly in
the urban areas.
Partition of Alexander's empire
had conquered the
within a short
time-frame and died young, leaving an expansive empire of partly
Hellenised culture without an adult heir. The empire was put under
the authority of a regent in the person of Perdiccas
in 323 BC, and the territories were
divided between Alexander's generals, who thereby became satraps
, at the Partition of Babylon
in 323 BC.
The rise of Seleucus
Alexander's generals (the Diadochi) jostled for supremacy over parts of his
empire, and Ptolemy, one of his
generals and satrap of Egypt, was the
first to challenge the new rule, leading to the demise of
Coin of Seleucus I Nicator.
His revolt led to a new partition of the empire
with the Partition of
in 320 BC. Seleucus
, who had been
"Commander-in-Chief of the camp" under Perdiccas since 323 BC but
helped to assassinate him later, received Babylonia
, and from that point continued to expand
his dominions ruthlessly. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312 BC,
used as the foundation date of the Seleucid Empire.
over not only Babylonia, but the entire enormous eastern part of
Seleucus went as far as India, where he
reached an agreement with Chandragupta Maurya, in which he
exchanged his eastern territories for a
considerable force of 500 war
elephants, which were to play a decisive role at Ipsus:
his and Lysimachus' victory over Antigonus Monophthalmus at the
Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Seleucus
took control over eastern Anatolia and northern
Syria. In the latter area he founded a new capital
at Antioch on the
Orontes, a city he named after his father.
alternative capital was established at Seleucia on
the Tigris, north of Babylon.
Seleucus' empire reached
its greatest extent following his defeat of his erstwhile ally,
Lysimachus, at Corupedion
281 BC, after which Seleucus expanded his control to encompass
western Anatolia. He hoped further to take control of Lysimachus'
lands in Europe - primarily Thrace
itself, but was assassinated by
on landing in
Europe. His son and successor, Antiochus I Soter, was left with an
enormous realm consisting of nearly all of the Asian portions of
the Empire, but faced with Antigonus II Gonatas in Macedonia and
Ptolemy II Philadelphus in
Egypt, he proved unable to pick up where his father had
left off in conquering the European portions of Alexander's
An overextended domain
Nevertheless, even before Seleucus' death, it was difficult to
assert control over the vast eastern domains of the Seleucids.
Seleucus invaded India
) in 305 BC, confronting
), founder of the Maurya empire
. It is said that Chandragupta
fielded an army of 600,000 men and 9,000 war elephants (Pliny,
Natural History VI
scholarship asserts that Chandragupta received vast territory,
sealed in a treaty, west of the Indus, including the Hindu Kush, modern day Afghanistan, and the Balochistan province of Pakistan.
Archaeologically, concrete indications of
Mauryan rule, such as the inscriptions of the Edicts of Ashoka, are known as far as
Kandhahar in southern Afghanistan.
generally thought that Chandragupta married Seleucus's daughter, or a Greek Macedonian princess, a gift from
Seleucus to formalize an alliance.
In a return gesture,
Chandragupta sent 500 war
, a military asset which would play a
decisive role at the Battle of Ipsus
in 302 BC. In addition to this treaty, Seleucus
dispatched an ambassador, Megasthenes,
to Chandragupta, and later Deimakos to his
son Bindusara, at the Mauryan court at
Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar state).
Later Ptolemy II Philadelphus
, the ruler
of Ptolemaic Egypt
of Ashoka the Great
, is also
recorded by Pliny the Elder
having sent an ambassador named Dionysius
to the Mauryan
also sent an ambassador named Megasthenes to Chandragupta's court, who
repeatedly visited Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar
state), capital of Chandragupta.
Megasthenes wrote detailed
descriptions of India and Chandragupta's reign, which have been
partly preserved to us through Diodorus
. He also later sent Deimakos
the court of Chandragupta's son, Bindusara
territories lost before Seleucus' death were Gedrosia in the south-east of the Iranian plateau,
and, to the north of this, Arachosia on
the west bank of the Indus
Antiochus I (reigned 281–261 BC) and his son and successor Antiochus II Theos
(reigned 261–246 BC)
were faced with challenges in the west, including repeated wars
with Ptolemy II
and a Celtic
invasion of Asia Minor — distracting attention
from holding the eastern portions of the Empire together.
the end of Antiochus II's reign, various provinces simultaneously
asserted their independence, such as Bactria
under Diodotus, Parthia under Arsaces, and
Cappadocia under Ariarathes III.
, governor for the
territory, asserted independence in
around 245 BC, although the exact date is far from certain, to form
kingdom was characterized by a rich Hellenistic
culture, and was to continue its
domination of Bactria until around 125 BC, when it was overrun by
the invasion of northern nomads. One of the Greco-Bactrian kings,
Demetrius I of Bactria
invaded India around 180 BC to form the Greco-Indian
kingdom, lasting until around AD
The Seleucid satrap of Parthia, named Andragoras
, first claimed
independence, in a parallel to the secession of his Bactrian
neighbour. Soon after however, a Parthian tribal chief called
took over the Parthian
territory around 238 BC to form the
— the starting point
of the powerful Parthian
By the time Antiochus II's son Seleucus II Callinicus
came to the
throne around 246 BC, the Seleucids seemed to be at a low ebb
indeed. Seleucus II was soon dramatically defeated in the Third Syrian War
against Ptolemy III of Egypt
and then had to
fight a civil war against his own brother Antiochus Hierax
. Taking advantage of this
distraction, Bactria and Parthia seceded from the empire.
Minor too, the Seleucid dynasty seemed to be losing control — Gauls
had fully established themselves in Galatia,
semi-independent semi-Hellenized kingdoms had sprung up in Bithynia, Pontus, and
Cappadocia, and the city of Pergamum
in the west was asserting its independence under the Attalid Dynasty.
Revival (223–191 BC)
The Seleucid Empire in 200 BC, (before
Antiochus was defeated by the Romans).
But a revival would begin when Seleucus II's younger son, Antiochus III the Great
, took the
throne in 223 BC. Although initially unsuccessful in the Fourth Syrian War
against Egypt, which led
to an embarrassing defeat at the Battle
(217 BC), Antiochus would prove himself to be the
greatest of the Seleucid rulers after Seleucus I himself. Following
his defeat at Raphia, he spent the next ten years on his Anabasis
through the eastern parts of his
domain — restoring rebellious vassals like Parthia and Greco-Bactria
to at least nominal obedience,
and even emulating Alexander with an expedition into India where he
met with king Sophagasenus
When he returned to the west in 205 BC, Antiochus found that with
the death of Ptolemy IV
, the situation
now looked propitious for another western campaign.
Antiochus and Philip V of
then made a pact to divide the Ptolemaic possessions
outside of Egypt, and in the Fifth
, the Seleucids ousted Ptolemy
from control of Coele-Syria
Battle of Panium
definitively transferred these holdings from the Ptolemies to the
Seleucids. Antiochus appeared, at the least, to have restored the
Seleucid Kingdom to glory.
But Antiochus' glory was not to last for long. Following his
erstwhile ally Philip's defeat at the hands of Rome in 197 BC,
Antiochus now saw the opportunity for expansion into Greece.
Encouraged by the exiled Carthaginian general Hannibal, and
making an alliance with the disgruntled Aetolian League, Antiochus invaded
Greece. Unfortunately, this decision led to his
downfall: he was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Thermopylae and
Magnesia (190 BC), and was forced
to make peace with the Romans by the embarrassing Treaty of Apamea (188 BC) — which forced
him to abandon all European territories, ceded all of Asia Minor
north of the Taurus
Mountains to Pergamum, and set a large indemnity to be
Antiochus died in 187 BC on another expedition to the
east, where he sought to extract money to pay the indemnity.
The reign of his son and successor Seleucus IV Philopator
was largely spent in attempts to pay the large indemnity, and
Seleucus was ultimately assassinated by his minister Heliodorus
. Seleucus' younger brother,
Antiochus IV Epiphanes
seized the throne. He attempted to restore Seleucid prestige
with a successful war against Egypt; but despite driving the
Egyptian army back to Alexandria itself, he was forced to withdraw by the Roman
envoy Gaius Popillius Laenas,
who famously drew a circle in the sand around the king and told him
he had to decide whether or not to withdraw from Egypt before
leaving the circle.
Antiochus chose to withdraw.
The latter part of his reign saw the further disintegration of the
Empire. The Eastern areas remained nearly
uncontrollable, as Parthians began to take over the Persian lands;
and Antiochus' aggressive Hellenizing (or de-Judaizing) activities
led to armed rebellion in Judea—the Maccabean Revolt (see the story of Chanukah, Shabbat 21b, Babylonian Talmud).
Efforts to deal with both the Parthians and the Jews proved
fruitless, and Antiochus himself died during an expedition against
the Parthians in 164 BC.
Civil war and further decay
After the death of Antiochus IV
, the Seleucid Empire became increasingly unstable.
Frequent civil wars made central authority tenuous at best.
Epiphanes' young son, Antiochus V
, was first overthrown by Seleucus IV's son, Demetrius I Soter
in 161 BC. Demetrius I attempted
to restore Seleucid power in Judea
particularly, but was overthrown in 150 BC by Alexander Balas — an impostor who (with
Egyptian backing) claimed to be the son of Epiphanes.
Alexander Balas reigned until 145 BC, when he was overthrown by
Demetrius I's son, Demetrius II
. Demetrius II proved unable to control the whole of the
kingdom, however. While he ruled Babylonia and eastern Syria from
Damascus, the remnants of Balas' supporters — first
supporting Balas' son Antiochus VI,
then the usurping general Diodotus
Tryphon — held out in Antioch.
Meanwhile, the decay of the Empire's territorial possessions
continued apace. By 143 BC, the Jews in form of
the Maccabees had fully established their
continued as well. In 139 BC, Demetrius II was defeated in battle
by the Parthians and was captured. By this time, the entire Iranian
Plateau had been lost to Parthian control. Demetrius Nicator's
brother, Antiochus VII
, was ultimately
able to restore a fleeting unity and vigour to the Seleucid
domains, but he too proved unequal to the Parthian threat: he was
killed in battle with the Parthians in 129 BC, leading to the final
collapse of the Seleucid hold on Babylonia. After the death of
Antiochus VII, all effective Seleucid rule collapsed, as multiple
claimants contested control of what was left of the Seleucid realm
in almost unending civil war.
Collapse (100–63 BC)
BC, the once formidable Seleucid Empire encompassed little more
than Antioch and some Syrian cities.
Despite the clear
collapse of their power, and the decline of their kingdom around
them, nobles continued to play kingmakers on a regular basis, with
occasional intervention from Ptolemaic
and other outside powers. The Seleucids existed solely
because no other nation wished to absorb them — seeing as they
constituted a useful buffer between their other neighbours. In the
wars in Anatolia between Mithridates
of Rome, the Seleucids were largely left alone
by both major combatants.
Mithridates' ambitious son-in-law, Tigranes the Great
, king of Armenia
, however, saw opportunity for
expansion in the constant civil strife to the south. In 83 BC, at
the invitation of one of the factions in the interminable civil
wars, he invaded Syria, and soon established himself as ruler of
Syria, putting the Seleucid Empire virtually at an end.
Seleucid rule was not entirely over, however. Following the Roman
' defeat of both
Mithridates and Tigranes in 69 BC, a rump Seleucid kingdom was
restored under Antiochus XIII
now, civil wars could not be prevented, as another Seleucid,
, contested rule
with Antiochus. After the Roman conquest of Pontus, the Romans
became increasingly alarmed at the constant source of instability
in Syria under the Seleucids. Once Mithridates was defeated by
in 63 BC, Pompey set about the task of
remaking the Hellenistic East, by creating new client kingdoms and
establishing provinces. While client nations like Armenia and Judea were allowed
to continue with some degree of autonomy under local kings, Pompey
saw the Seleucids as too troublesome to continue; and doing away
with both rival Seleucid princes, he made Syria into a Roman
Seleucid empire's geographic span, from the Aegean Sea to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, created a melting pot of various peoples, such as
The immense size of the empire, followed by
its encompassing nature, made the Seleucid rulers have a governing
interest in implementing a policy of racial unity initiated by
Alexander. The Hellenization
Seleucid empire was achieved by the establishment of Greek cities
throughout the empire. Historically significant towns and cities,
such as Antioch, were created or renamed with more appropriate
The creation of
cities and towns was aided by the
fact that the Greek mainland was overpopulated and therefore made
the vast Seleucid empire ripe for colonization. Colonization was
used to further Greek interest while facilitating the assimilation
of many native groups. Socially, this led to the adoption of Greek
practices and customs by the educated native classes in order to
further themselves in public life and the ruling Macedonian
class gradually adopted some
of the local traditions. By 313 BC, Hellenic ideas had begun their
almost 250-year expansion into the Near East, Middle East, and
Central Asian cultures. It was the empire's governmental framework
to rule by establishing hundreds of cities for trade and
occupational purposes. Many of the existing cities began — or were
compelled by force — to adopt Hellenized philosophic thought,
religious sentiments, and politics. Synthesizing Hellenic and
indigenous cultural, religious, and philosophical ideas met with
varying degrees of success — resulting in times of simultaneous
peace and rebellion in various parts of the empire. Such was the
case with the Jewish population of the Seleucid empire because the
Jews posed a significant problem which eventually led to war.
Contrary to the accepting nature of the Ptolemaic
empire towards native religions and
customs, the Seleucids gradually tried to force Hellenization upon
the Jewish people in their territory by outlawing Judaism. This
eventually led to the revolt of the Jews under Seleucid control,
which would later lead to the Jews achieving independence.
As with many of the Hellenistic states that formed after the death
of Alexander the Great
Seleucid armies were professional, based on the Macedonian model.
Its troops were primarily of Greek origin, supplemented by Eastern
people, since the Seleucid realm covered much of the eastern
portions of the former Persian Empire. When they fought other
, complete victories or the
annihilation of opposing armies were generally avoided; it was
easier to defeat and recruit enemy soldiers than to train more,
especially because of recruitment cost. The aim of a battle was to
convince the opponent that there was nothing more to gain by
fighting on, and many battles were ended by negotiation. Very small
factors, such as the amount paid to ransom prisoners, clearly
demonstrated to the Seleucids, and other successor states of
Alexander, who was winning.
They relied on troops that used the Macedonian phalanx
, archers from the
Eastern peoples and cavalry, especially the heavy cataphracts
("covered" horsemen) and the famous
Macedonian companion cavalry as the general's bodyguard and elite
shock troops. Also, the Seleucids had a supply of Indian war
elephants which was used to cause fear amongst their enemies and,
like chariots, to disrupt cohesion. Like the Ptolemies with their wealth, the
Seleucid kings had managed to recruit all kinds of people as
mercenaries, from the Indians living on the Indus to the people of
Crete and particularly Galatia.
With their wars against Rome, the
Seleucids attempted to create units of troops that copied the
. By 63 BC, the Seleucid
Empire along with its army had disbanded. Many cataphracts are
rumored to have joined the Roman armies in Asia.
- Britannica, Seleucid kingdom, 2008,
- Vincent A. Smith (1998).
Asoka. Asian Educational Services. ISBN 8120613031.
- Walter Eugene Clark (1919). "The Importance of Hellenism from
the Point of View of Indic-Philology", Classical Philology
14 (4), p. 297-313.
- Ancient India, (Kachroo ,p.196)
- The Imperial Gazetteer of India, (Hunter,p.167)
- The evolution of man and society, (Darlington ,p.223)
- W. W. Tarn (1940). "Two Notes on Seleucid History: 1. Seleucus'
500 Elephants, 2. Tarmita", The Journal of Hellenic
Studies 60, p. 84-94.
- Partha Sarathi Bose (2003). Alexander the Great's Art of
Strategy. Gotham Books. ISBN 1592400531.
- Pliny the Elder, "The Natural History", Chap.
- History of Iran
- A. Houghton, C. Lorber, Seleucid Coins. A
Comprehensive Catalogue, Part I, Seleucus I through Antiochus III,
With Metrological Tables by B. Kritt, I-II, New York
- Lancaster - London, 2002.
- G. G. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy. The
Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire,
- Laurent Capdetrey, Le pouvoir séleucide.
Territoire, administration, finances d'un royaume hellénistique
(312-129 avant J.C.). (Collection "Histoire"). Rennes: Presses
Universitaires de Rennes, 2007.