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The Seleucid Empire ( ; 31263 BC) was a Hellenistic empire, i.e. a successor state of Alexander the Great's empire. The Seleucid Empire was centered in the near East and at the height of its power included central Anatoliamarker, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persiamarker, today's Turkmenistanmarker, Pamirmarker and parts of Pakistanmarker. It was a major centre of Hellenistic culture which maintained the preeminence of Greek customs and where a Greek-speaking Macedonian élite dominated, mostly in the urban areas.

Partition of Alexander's empire

Alexander had conquered the Achaemenid Empire 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

Coin of Seleucus I Nicator.
Alexander's generals (the Diadochi) jostled for supremacy over parts of his empire, and Ptolemy, one of his generals and satrap of Egyptmarker, was the first to challenge the new rule, leading to the demise of Perdiccas. His revolt led to a new partition of the empire with the Partition of Triparadisus 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 Babylonmarker in 312 BC, used as the foundation date of the Seleucid Empire. He ruled over not only Babylonia, but the entire enormous eastern part of Alexander's empire:

Seleucus went as far as Indiamarker, 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:

Westward expansion

Following his and Lysimachus' victory over Antigonus Monophthalmus at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Seleucus took control over eastern Anatoliamarker and northern Syriamarker. In the latter area he founded a new capital at Antioch on the Orontesmarker, a city he named after his father. An alternative capital was established at Seleucia on the Tigrismarker, north of Babylon. Seleucus' empire reached its greatest extent following his defeat of his erstwhile ally, Lysimachus, at Corupedion in 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 and even Macedonia itself, but was assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus 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 Egyptmarker, he proved unable to pick up where his father had left off in conquering the European portions of Alexander's empire.

An overextended domain


Other diadochi



Nevertheless, even before Seleucus' death, it was difficult to assert control over the vast eastern domains of the Seleucids. Seleucus invaded India (modern Punjab Pakistan) in 305 BC, confronting Chandragupta Maurya (Sandrokottos), 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, 22.4).

Mainstream scholarship asserts that Chandragupta received vast territory, sealed in a treaty, west of the Indus, including the Hindu Kushmarker, modern day Afghanistanmarker, and the Balochistan province of Pakistanmarker. Archaeologically, concrete indications of Mauryan rule, such as the inscriptions of the Edicts of Ashoka, are known as far as Kandhaharmarker in southern Afghanistan.

It is generally thought that Chandragupta married Seleucus's daughter, or a Greek Macedonianmarker princess, a gift from Seleucus to formalize an alliance. In a return gesture, Chandragupta sent 500 war-elephants, 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 Pataliputramarker (modern Patnamarker in Bihar statemarker). Later Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt and contemporary of Ashoka the Great, is also recorded by Pliny the Elder as having sent an ambassador named Dionysius to the Mauryan court..

Seleucus also sent an ambassador named Megasthenes to Chandragupta's court, who repeatedly visited Pataliputramarker (modern Patnamarker 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 Siculus. He also later sent Deimakos to the court of Chandragupta's son, Bindusara.

Other 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 Rivermarker.

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. Towards the end of Antiochus II's reign, various provinces simultaneously asserted their independence, such as Bactria under Diodotus, Parthia under Arsaces, and Cappadociamarker under Ariarathes III.

Diodotus, governor for the Bactrian territory, asserted independence in around 245 BC, although the exact date is far from certain, to form the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This 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 20.

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 Arsaces took over the Parthian territory around 238 BC to form the Arsacid Dynasty — the starting point of the powerful Parthian Empire.

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. In Asia 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 Cappadociamarker, 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 of Raphia (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 Macedon then made a pact to divide the Ptolemaic possessions outside of Egypt, and in the Fifth Syrian War, the Seleucids ousted Ptolemy V from control of Coele-Syria. The Battle of Panium (198 BC) definitively transferred these holdings from the Ptolemies to the Seleucids. Antiochus appeared, at the least, to have restored the Seleucid Kingdom to glory.

Renewed disintegration

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 Carthaginianmarker 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 Mountainsmarker to Pergamum, and set a large indemnity to be paid. 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 (187-175 BC) 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, now seized the throne. He attempted to restore Seleucid prestige with a successful war against Egypt; but despite driving the Egyptian army back to Alexandriamarker 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 Judeamarker—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 Epiphanes, the Seleucid Empire became increasingly unstable. Frequent civil wars made central authority tenuous at best. Epiphanes' young son, Antiochus V Eupator, was first overthrown by Seleucus IV's son, Demetrius I Soter in 161 BC. Demetrius I attempted to restore Seleucid power in Judeamarker 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 Nicator. Demetrius II proved unable to control the whole of the kingdom, however. While he ruled Babylonia and eastern Syriamarker from Damascusmarker, the remnants of Balas' supporters — first supporting Balas' son Antiochus VI, then the usurping general Diodotus Tryphon — held out in Antiochmarker.

Meanwhile, the decay of the Empire's territorial possessions continued apace. By 143 BC, the Jewsmarker in form of the Maccabees had fully established their independence. Parthian expansion 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)

By 100 BC, the once formidable Seleucid Empire encompassed little more than Antiochmarker 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 Egypt 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 VI of Pontus and Sulla 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 general Lucullus' defeat of both Mithridates and Tigranes in 69 BC, a rump Seleucid kingdom was restored under Antiochus XIII. Even now, civil wars could not be prevented, as another Seleucid, Philip II, 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 Pompey 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 Armeniamarker and Judeamarker 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 province.

Cultural exchanges

The Seleucid empire's geographic span, from the Aegean Seamarker to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistanmarker, created a melting pot of various peoples, such as Greeks, Armenians, Persians, Medes, Assyrians, Jews. 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 of the Seleucid empire was achieved by the establishment of Greek cities throughout the empire. Historically significant towns and cities, such as Antiochmarker, were created or renamed with more appropriate Greek names. The creation of new Greek 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.

Seleucid army

As with many of the Hellenistic states that formed after the death of Alexander the Great, the 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 Diadochi, 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 Cretemarker and particularly Galatia. With their wars against Rome, the Seleucids attempted to create units of troops that copied the Roman legions. By 63 BC, the Seleucid Empire along with its army had disbanded. Many cataphracts are rumored to have joined the Roman armies in Asia.

Seleucid rulers

Family tree


  1. Britannica, Seleucid kingdom, 2008, O.Ed.
  2. Vincent A. Smith (1998). Asoka. Asian Educational Services. ISBN 8120613031.
  3. Walter Eugene Clark (1919). "The Importance of Hellenism from the Point of View of Indic-Philology", Classical Philology 14 (4), p. 297-313.
  4. Ancient India, (Kachroo ,p.196)
  5. The Imperial Gazetteer of India‎, (Hunter,p.167)
  6. The evolution of man and society‎, (Darlington ,p.223)
  7. W. W. Tarn (1940). "Two Notes on Seleucid History: 1. Seleucus' 500 Elephants, 2. Tarmita", The Journal of Hellenic Studies 60, p. 84-94.
  8. Partha Sarathi Bose (2003). Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy. Gotham Books. ISBN 1592400531.
  9. Pliny the Elder, "The Natural History", Chap. 21
  10. History of Iran

See also


  • 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, Cambridge, 2004.
  • 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.

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