Asia under the Seleucids, a Hellenic Empire


As someone focused on documenting Hellenic history around the world, I am grateful that most Hellenic territories are of a manageable size. There is one that was huge, a puzzle to go through from one end to the other, which I realized, very slowly. Asia. Hellenic Asia was certainly one of the greatest in history and a tribute to Alexander’s vision. At its peak, Hellenic territory included Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkmenistan and the Indus Valley.

The Seleucid Empire born after Alexander, in the Middle East, cannot be underestimated. They sought to implement Alexander’s multicultural policy and encourage trade from India to Greece. Alexander always defended a fusion of his own Greek culture with that of the East.

Seleucus and his successors established Greek colonies in Asia with ancient Greek soldiers and traders, including Antioch. More colonies were established in the East than Alexander could ever have imagined, and the Greek language survived their rule for hundreds of years. Typical of the Greeks, the Seleucids fought many wars with their fellow Hellenes. In 60 BCE, a weakened empire was defeated by the Romans. There are places in former Seleucid territory where Greek speakers can still be found, such as the Levant and Afghanistan.

Seleucids in Mesopotamia. Photo: Hulki Okan Tabak/Unsplash

Greek traders were present in Syria, however, it was not until the time of Alexander the Great that Greek influence in Syria became prominent. The breakup of Alexander’s territory led to various Hellenistic kingdoms. The Seleucid Kingdom encompassed the eastern part of Alexander’s empire, including Syria, 312–63 BCE. The Seleucids ruled over an area stretching from Syria to Pakistan. The unifying element was Hellenistic culture and Greek administration.

The kingdom was a fusion of Greek and Eastern cultures. In Syria, Greek has gained prominence in major towns and villages. The name Syria is Greek and comes from the Greek word for Assyria – an ancient people who had inhabited parts of the East.

When the Roman, Pompey conquered Syria and ended the Seleucid Empire, the Greek language and culture was still dominant and remained so until the Romans were Christianized and transformed into the Eastern Catholic Holy Empire, commonly called the Byzantine Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The Byzantines ruled over what was called the Greek East, and gradually the Syrian people converted to Greek Orthodoxy.

Alexander had championed a mixture of Greek and Eastern cultures and customs. The Seleucids controlled the vast eastern province of the empire of Alexandria which was far from Greece with very few Greek settlements. It spread through the rise of Greek cities, Greek speakers and merchants.

Known in Syriac as Mar Saba, Λαύρα Σάββα τοῦ Ἡγιασμένου The Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking Wadi al-Jawz in the town of al-Ubeidiya east of Bethlehem in Palestine. Built between 478 and 484 AD, by the monk Saba with the participation of 5,000 monks, considered one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. The territory was previously inhabited by supporters of Alexander the Great. Photo: Nour Tayeh/Unsplash

Seleucid, in partnership with Lysimachus, claimed eastern Anatolia and Syria at the Battle of Issus in 301 BCE. With his base in Babylon, he created Seleucia on the nearby Tigris. Seleucus is said to have faced a battle against 600,000 Indians under Chandragupta who founded the Maurya Empire in Punjab. The battle is said to have taken place in 305 BCE, although it’s hard to believe that 600,000 showed up for a fight. Nonetheless, it demonstrated just how overwhelmed he was.

He ceded territories, including modern Afghanistan, to the man who then became his brother-in-law. So if you can’t beat them, marry into the family.

Seleucus proved to be a capable leader, but his thirst for more territory caused his ultimate collapse and he was killed in Thrace in 281 BCE by the Macedonians.

His son Antiochus who ruled for two decades proved disastrous. They say never hand over the business to your idiot son, advice Seleucus didn’t take. Constant warfare with its neighbors, the Ptolemies, ensured that they, and not the Seleucids, became the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Bactria and Parthia seeded themselves to form independent Hellenic entities, and Cappadocia is also said to have rebelled.

The Seleucids were finally defeated by the Ptolemies in another war in 246 BCE which precipitated a civil war in Asia.

The period from 223 to 191 BCE was like the empire strikes back under Antiochus the Great. Despite another defeat against the Ptolemies in 217 BCE, Antiochus bounced back and had some semblance of control in Parthia and Bactria, he even ventured into India to develop an alliance with the Indian Sophagasenus.

He replenished his troops with a contingent of war elephants, which Pyrrhus once used against Rome. In 198 BCE, he ousted the Ptolemies from territory outside Africa. His confidence led to an encounter with Rome at the Battle of Thermopylae and then Magnesia.

Rome was too strong and well trained. In the treaty of 188 BCE, the Seleucids agreed to pay a large indemnity and withdraw from Anatolia. Rome was not yet strong enough to face the Seleucids in Asia. The monarch and successor Seleucus Philopater struggled to pay the great tribute and was assassinated by his own Greek minister.

The murdered king’s brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes immediately set out to fight his Hellenes and his neighbors the Ptolemies, defeating the Ptolemies to oblivion, Rome again intervened in Egyptian affairs.

Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Joe Planas

When he met the Roman consul in Egypt, the consul drew a circle around the new king and warned him that if he came out, he had better leave Egypt. The threat worked. Antiochus lasted until 164 BC, where a war with the Jews began which led to the revolt of the Maccabees, known as Hanukah, while trying to hold off the Parthians in the southeast of the empire . The aggressive Hellenizing activities of Antiochus provoked a full-scale armed rebellion in Judea. Efforts to deal with both Parthians and Jews as well as retain control of the provinces at the same time proved beyond the power of the weakened empire. Antiochus died during a military expedition against the Parthians.

His reign saw a disintegration of the territory despite his best efforts. Weakened economically, militarily and by loss of prestige, the Seleucids became vulnerable to rebels in the eastern regions. Simultaneously, the Parthians moved into the power vacuum to retake the ancient Persian lands.

Over the next twenty-five years the empire was a mess with a series of rulers, civil war, new Jewish independence and the end of the former Persian territories to the east. This was temporarily verified by Antiochus VII Sidetes who regained control of these territories in 133 BCE only to be ambushed and killed by the Parthians in 129.

The Kingdom at this point was essentially that of Syria and a number of surrounding lands. The Seleucids were kept in existence as a balance of power between the declining Ptolemies, Parthians, Armenians, Maccabees and Commagene.

The last days of the empire became a drain on the Hellenic monarchy. Rather than a unified, strategic plan to secure themselves, they fought internally.

It helped that Pontus and Rome were involved in a series of wars that would keep them occupied and away from Syria, otherwise the empire would have ended sooner.

King Tigranes of Armenia, son-in-law of King Du Pont, extended his kingdom to Syria around 83 BCE.

Persepolis. Photo: Hasan Almasi/Unsplash

The Hellenic control came to attend and corruption was rampant. The framework for Tigrane to make a play for Syria was ready. He decided to step into what he saw as weak territory ready to be absorbed. This miscalculation triggered Roman intervention. For two decades Armenia controlled Syria until it and the Pontians were defeated by Rome. Antiochus XIII restored Greek rule over Syria only to deal with civil unrest. Pompey formally annexed Syria in 63 BCE, ending the Hellenic Kingdom. Internal Greek rivalry and strife and poor foreign policy led to the conclusion of Greek rule in Syria.

At its height, the empire created dozens of Hellenic cities. The cities based on the Greek polis had a gymnasium, a theater, a square and schools. Greek was the language of administration but the Seleucids guaranteed local languages, customs and beliefs.

There were thirty-one names recorded as king, usually Antiochus, Seleucus, Demetrius or Phillip.

Alexander the Great had permanently established his veteran Greek infantry in Afghanistan and it is said that rebellious Greek subjects were also exiled there. Today, there remains a small Greek-speaking colony in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir.

Unlike Alexandria, the Seleucids were not known as benefactors in arts and science, even though Syria produced philosophers such as, Erasistratos the Physician and later Saint Frumentius a Greek from Tire brought Christianity to Ethiopia , making them the second nation to adopt the religion in 341 CE.

Asia today is not necessarily synonymous with Hellenism, however, if you scratch the surface you will find the history, cities, culture and impact of the Seleucids.

*Billy Cotsis has traveled to a number of territories that were once part of the Seleucid Empire and is the author of The Aegean Seven Take Back The Marbles

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