Seleucid Empire

Seleucid Empire
   The large Greek-controlled imperial realm that replaced the short-lived empire of Alexander the Great in Mesopotamia and other sectors of the Near East in the late fourth century b.c. Soon after Alexander's untimely passing (caused perhaps by alcohol poisoning) in Babylon in 323 B.c., his leading generals and governors, who became known as the Diadochoi, or "Successors," fought a series of devastating wars for control of the Near East. In addition to Antigonus Monophthalmos; his colorful, adventurous son, Demetrius Po-liorcetes, who became famous for besieging the island-state of Rhodes; and Antipater, who administered Greece for Alexander; these men included Ptolemy (TAW-luh-mee) and Seleucus. Ptolemy vigorously asserted himself in Egypt. There he instituted a new dynasty, the Ptolemaic, which was destined to rule that land for a dozen generations and produce the famous Cleopatra VII.
   Prosperity Under Seleucus Meanwhile, most of the remainder of the old Persian holdings in the Near East, including Mesopotamia, fell to seleucus. Modern scholars refer to the Ptolemaic and seleucid realms as Hellenistic, meaning "Greek-like," because their societies featured various Near Eastern languages, customs, and ideas overlaid by a flashy but ultimately thin coating of Greek ones. Numerous government administrators, army officers, merchants, and artisans migrated into the region from mainland Greece and other eastern Mediterranean areas. And these agents helped seleucus establish a number of new cities in Mesopotamia that emphasized and celebrated Greek culture. The most prominent of these, Seleucia (or Seleucia-on-the-Tigris), situated somewhat northeast of Babylon, became the imperial capital. in the years that followed, the new city steadily drew both population and business away from Babylon, which went into decline. Still, on the whole Mesopotamia at first retained a high level of prosperity, especially commercially speaking. Seleucus and his immediate successors promoted the building and maintenance of irrigation canals, which kept up crop production; they also encouraged industry and trade by keeping open valuable trade routes or, when need be, seizing control of such routes from the Ptolemies and other Greeks who vied with them for control of the Near East. Also, banking flourished under the Seleucids, with huge amounts of capital (money borrowed, invested, earned, and repaid) exchanging hands at any given moment.
   The principal downside of this initial prosperity was that only a privileged sector of society was able to fully reap its benefits. That fortunate sector was made up mostly of Greeks, and non-Greeks found it increasingly difficult to get ahead. indeed, a decidedly classist society emerged in which Greeks enjoyed higher social status and business opportunities, and Greek became the language of administration and business, particularly in the cities. Other languages, notably Aramaic and Akkadian, remained prominent in the countryside and/or regions where fewer Greeks settled.
   On the other hand, Seleucus and his successors wisely opted to maintain certain aspects of old Mesopotamian culture in order to make ruling this large and ancient land easier. in particular, the government spent large sums keeping up the temples and public worship of traditional Babylonian and other local gods, including Marduk, Nabu, Inanna, and others. To help promote royal authority, the Seleucids also created a ruler cult in which the reigning king was worshipped along with Marduk or other deities. In the major cities, the king took the title of theos (the Greek term for "god") and had his own high priest; the royal scribes were ordered to provide a divine genealogy that explained how the king was related to the traditional gods. Only later, in the second half of the empire's brief history, did this plan backfire. As the realm declined, the kings badly needed the huge revenues commanded by the temples; when they availed themselves of these funds, the priests and people strongly objected.
   Decline and Warfare The reason why the Seleucid Empire, which started off with such vigor and promise, declined and eventually fell apart was in part due to the overall low quality of most members of the dynasty. The founder, Seleucus I, and some of his immediate successors were fairly strong rulers. But as time went on, incompetency and corruption set in, as somewhat amusingly but accurately captured here by noted classical historian Peter Green:
   If the word "degeneration" has any meaning at all, then the later Seleucids . .. were selfish, greedy, murderous, weak, stupid, vicious, sensual, vengeful, and ... suffer[ed] from the effects of prolonged inbreeding. . . . We also find the cumulative effect of centuries of ruthless exploitation: a foreign ruling elite, with no long-term economic insight, aiming at little more than immediate profits and dynastic self-perpetuation. (Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, pp. 554-55)
   The second major reason for the Seleu-cid realm's rapid decline was war related.
   On the one hand, the Seleucid rulers frequently fought with the Ptolemies and other Hellenistic and Near Eastern rulers, draining valuable human and material resources. The most contested region in these wars was Syria-Palestine, which became a frequent battleground. On the other hand, the Seleucid kings found themselves increasingly beset by the onslaught of the Parthians, a seminomadic people who occupied large parts of northern Iran. In 238 b.c. a Parthian army commanded by Arsaces defeated the Seleucid governor of that region, and Arsaces proceeded to establish a dynasty of his own. The Arsacids/Parthians then began dismantling the Seleucid realm piece by piece. Aiding them in this endeavor was the growing weakness of the Seleucids themselves. For example, King Seleucus II (reigned ca. 246-225 b.c.) got involved in a power struggle with his brother and neglected the eastern provinces, to the decided benefit of the Parthians. His successor, Seleucus III (ca. 225-223 b.c.), was murdered by his own soldiers. And much larger setbacks occurred under the next Seleucid king, Antiochus III (ca. 223-187 b.c.). Although Antiochus managed to keep the Parthians more or less at bay in the east and defeated the Egyptians in 200 b.c., he suffered severe losses to the Romans, who had recently asserted themselves in mainland Greece. In a single battle against the Romans, Antiochus lost more than fifty thousand troops, forcing him to surrender immediately.
   If Antiochus had been succeeded by a few strong, competent kings, the Seleucid Empire's downward slide might have been slowed or even halted. However, the reality was that his successors were even worse leaders than he was. Seleucus IV (reigned ca. 187-175 b.c.) was assassinated in a palace plot. And Antiochus IV (ca. 175 - 164 b.c.) was humiliated by the Romans and forced to withdraw from Egypt. The biggest single loss yet to the empire occurred in 141 b.c., when Mesopotamia was stripped away by the strong Parthian king Mithridates I (reigned 171 - ca. 138 b.c.). From that time on, the Seleucids had no real chance to reconstitute their former holdings. The realm, which had at one time encompassed large portions of the great empires of the Achaemenid Persians and Alexander the Great, continued to shrink until it consisted only of parts of Syria. And the Seleucid Empire officially ceased to exist in about 64 to 63 B.c.The last, pathetic claimant to the once prestigious Seleucid throne was a youth named Antiochus XIII Asiaticus, who was inglori-ously murdered by an Arab sheik.
   See also: Alexander III ("the Great"); Antiochus; Greeks; Romans; Seleucus I

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