When Asia was ruled by the Greeks: Seleucid Empire

When we in Australia think of Asia, we tend to think of the oriental end of the continent. In Britain, when the term Asia is used, it generally refers to the Sub – Continent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or wherever cricket is played), yet to the ancient Hellenes, Asia was once that area from the coast of Asia Minor extending to the unknown quantity of China. When modern historians talk about great empires of Asia, they tend to overlook the Hellenic control over parts of Asia, save for Alexander, tending to focus on such luminaries as Genghis, Timar, Persian/Sassanids, Ottomans, British, Japan, China, the USSR; for example. All covered vast terrain and history across the continent.

However, before all of these, there is one that at its peak was just plain big, making it a headache to even think about going from one end to another. An empire that was certainly one of the most impressive in history, and it is a tribute to what Alexander had hoped to achieve in Asia, yet it wasn’t his empire. It belonged to a chap named Seleucid who existed in the Hellenistic Age (post Alexander), a virtually anonymous name to the many young people who sport molon labe tattoos (says the guy who sports a meandro on the bicep) or regularly reference some of the great mainland Greek empires. Except we tend to neglect other accomplishments, for Seleucid, a former general trusted by Alexander, created a vast kingdom. At its peak the kingdom included Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and the Indus Valley, to name a few areas.

The contribution of Seleucid, born in the town of Europos, and his successors to history cannot be underestimated for they truly implemented Alexander’s multicultural policy and encouraged trade from as far afield as India through to Greece, establishing a number of Greek settlements with former Greek soldiers and traders; including Antioch. In fact, more settlements were established in the East than Alexander could ever have imagined and like the other Hellenistic Era kingdoms, the Greek language was dominant, outlasting the empire by hundreds of years. As to be expected by typical Greeks, the Seleucids were involved in many  wars with fellow Hellenes and by 60BC a weakened empire was finally defeated by the Romans….

In ancient times, Greek traders had a presence in the east especially in Syria. However, it was not until Alexander that the Greek influence became prominent. Alexander had always championed a fusion of his own Greek (Macedon) culture with that of the East.

The breakup of his empire led to the establishment of various Hellenistic kingdoms. The Seleucid entity which encompassed the eastern part of the empire, ruled over the area from Syria though to parts of Pakistan. The unifying element being Hellenic culture and the Greek administration that ruled over this vast region. The empire was a fusion of influences from Greece and the East. In Syria, the Greek language gained prominence, particularly in the larger cities and towns. In fact, the name Syria is Greek, emanating from the Greek word for Assyria (an ancient people who had inhabited parts of the East).

How did this empire actually come about I hear you ask? Seleucus Niacator (The Victor), gained control over the vast eastern province of the Alexandrian empire by 312 BC. With Ptolemy firmly in control of Egypt and a number of the Diadochi (generals of Alexander) spread across Greek lands, Seleucus based himself in Babylon, a long way from Pella with very few Greek speakers in the region. Subsequently, the empire of Alexander and the reign of Seleucus witnessed an expansion of Greek cities, Greek speakers and merchants.

It is said that Seleucus faced a battle against 600,000 Indians under Chandragupta who founded the Maurya Empire in the Punjab. The battle occurred in 305 though it is difficult to ascertain how 600,000 warriors could show up for a fight. As I was not there, I cannot verify exact numbers. Nonetheless, it demonstrated how overextended he was. He soon ceded territory, including Afghanistan, to the man who became his brother in law. If you cannot beat them, marry within the family.

In partnership with another Diadochi, Lysimachus, Seleucus underlined his territorial aspirations and claimed eastern Anatolia and Syria at the Battle of Issus, in 301. With his base at Babylon, he created Seleucia on the Tigris nearby.

Seleucus proved to be a worthy and able leader, you couldn’t expect less from someone trusted by Alexander. Despite this assessment, it was his thirst for more territory which brought him down for he was killed in Thrace in 281.

His son Antiochus reigned for two decades which proved to be disastrous. Constant warfare with his neighbours, the Ptolemies, ensured that they, and not the Seleucids, remained the dominant power of the Mediterranean. Bactria and Parthia would secede to form independent Hellenic entities, and Cappadocia would also rebel.

To compound the misery of the Seleucids, the Ptolemies defeated them in another war in 246. This precipitated a civil war in Asia.

The period 223 until 191 became somewhat of an empire strikes back under Antiochus the Great (no relation to Alexander the Great). Despite yet another loss to the Ptolemies in 217, he bounced back with gaining a semblance of control in Parthia and Bactria and even ventured into India where he gained an alliance from Sophagasenus.

This led to replenishing his troops and a contingent of war elephants. In 198 he ousted the Ptolemies from the territory outside of Africa. His confidence led to a meeting with Rome at the Battle of Thermopylae (well after the molon labe era) and then at Magnesia. Rome proved too strong. By treaty in 188, the Seleucids agreed to pay a large indemnity and withdrew from Anatolia.

Monarch and successor Seleucus Philopater struggled to pay the indemnity and was assassinated by his own Greek minister!

When your empire is heading toward a decline, what should a new ruler do? In this case, the brother of the assassinated King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power and immediately set about fighting his fellow Hellenes and neighbours, the Ptolemies…. of course! Defeating and bringing the Ptolemies to a point of oblivion, Rome once again intervened in Egyptian affairs.

Upon meeting the Roman Consul in Egypt, he was backed into a corner or shall we say an actual circle. The consul famously drew a line around the King and informed him that by the time he steps out of it, he better departs from Egypt. The humiliating threat worked.

This Antiochus lasted until 164. The latter part of his reign saw a further 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 areas. The Parthians moved into the power vacuum to take over the old Persian lands. Antiochus’ aggressive Hellenising (or de-Judaizing) activities provoked a full-scale rebellion in Judea. Efforts to deal with both the Parthians and the Jews as well as retain control of the provinces at the same time proved beyond the weakened empire’s power. Antiochus died during a military expedition against the Parthians.

Over the next twenty-five years, the empire was a mess with a series of rulers, civil war, Maccabean Revolt t and independence of the Jews, and an end to old Persian territories in the east. This was temporarily checked by Antiochus VII Sidetes who brilliantly regained control of these territories in 133 only to be ambushed and killed by the Parthians in 129.

The Kingdom by this stage 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, Parthia, the Armenians, the Maccabees and Commagene, a hybrid Hellenic/Persian kingdom.

Like many Greek entities, the declining days of the empire was draining to the Hellenic monarchy. Rather than yield a unified and strategic plan to secure itself and aim for growth, they simply fought internally, that typical Greek trait throughout history.

It helped that Pontus and Rome had been 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 to the King of Pontus, expanded his kingdom into Syria around 83. Hellenic control was coming to attend, as corruption was rife and control minimal. The setting for Tigranes to make a play for Syria was ready. He decided to intervene in what he felt was a weak territory ready for absorption. This act or rather miscalculation meant that Rome would be waiting to intervene in turn. For almost two decades, Armenia controlled Syria until they, and the Pontians, were defeated by Rome. Antiochus XIII re-established Greek rule over Syria only to face civil strife by a rival to the throne. Typical Hellenes! Pompey swiftly dealt with the situation and formally annexed Syria in 63 BC, bringing an end to the Hellenic empire.

Once again, rivalry and internal strife coupled with poor foreign policy brought about the conclusion to a Greek entity.

At its height, the empire created dozens of Hellenic cities and towns. The cities were based on the Greek polis with a gymnasium, theatre, piazza and schools. While Greek was the language of administration and the upper elite, the Seleucids served as guarantors of local languages, customs and cults.

Officially, there were 31 names recorded as King. They were usually Antiochus, Seleucus, Demetrius or Phillip.

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

As opposed to the Greek Ptolemies of Egypt, the Seleucids were not necessarily known as benefactors for the arts and science communities, though Syria produced its share of philosophers and Erasistratos the physician is from there. Many years later, Saint Frumentius a Greek from Tyre would introduce Christianity to Ethiopia, making them the second nation to adopt the religion in 341 AD.

When Pompey of Rome conquered Syria and put an end to the Seleucid Empire, the Greek language and culture was still dominant and remained relevant until the Roman Empire was superseded by the Byzantine Empire in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD. The Byzantine Empire ruled over what was known as the Greek East, and gradually the people of Syria were converted to the Greek Orthodox religion. Greek speaking Byzantine rule remained for a few more centuries.

Next time you think large empires in Asia, please consider the Hellenistic Era empire of the Seleucids. They may not sport tattoos or be as cool as Alexander, but they did have a significant impact on the history of the continent.

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