The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC by John D. Grainger
Book Review by Mark Ollard
What's the big deal about empires? Well, our tribal nature stems from primeval social instincts and as a result, our inner desire to be part of the winning team tends to induce a sense of fascination with imperial status. We admire their power, strength, or achievement. We resent their bullying and imperialism when it intrudes on our lives. Not for nothing is the concept of empire an essential backbone of science fiction literature, television, and film.
However the great paradox about mighty empires is their brittle internal politics and fragile nature. Few people born have ever had the necessary qualities to please everyone and secure total loyalty. With so much power and wealth possible within an empire, it's hardly surprising that the ambitious and greedy gravitate toward positions of influence and if need be become quite dangerous in their quest to grab it all.
There's plenty of evidence throughout the ages for this phenomenon. Even in the last century a struggle for ideological empire and individual rule gripped the world in two world wars and almost a third. The century before and Napoleon was marching armies across the face of Europe. And so we go back through the machinations of medieval kings and the murderous competition of the Roman Caesars until we reach an empire that is often overlooked in the modern west, the powerful Seleucids of Persia.
The Fall Of The Seleukids by John D Grainger deals with the third and final part of an epic tale detailing how one particular empire rose, thrived, wobbled, and eventually withered away. There's no illustration or photographs to be found other than a couple of maps at the beginning. It does seem ironic that while all too often a history book includes illustrations that seem like window dressing, this is a volume crying out for something more visual.
Although the book is not huge by any means, the reader is led into a rapid series of wars and regime changes. The introduction of a book is often merely a scene setter. In this case, it's a very important primer for those wading into Hellenistic skullduggery. Underpinning the storyline is the idea that the Persians had inherited much from the conquests of Alexander the Great, almost as if they had been taught how to create an empire from a master craftsman.
There is an interesting departure from convention in this book. Normally you expect a final chapter concluding the answer from the story and evidence presented, but not here. The cause if the Seleucid's empire demise emerges just after half way through the text and you'll miss it entirely if you blink. Clearly this book seeks to describe the events in the fading years of the Seleucid Empire rather than analyse them.
That thought leads right back to where we begin - that we already know what causes empires to collapse and what matters more in this case is when and where it happened. All the drama and tragedy of imperial decay do sound a little familiar, even though the Seleucids might not be so well known to the reader, and truth be told, there's an overwhelming inevitability to this story that the author follows to the bitter and somewhat subdued end.
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If this book has a fault, it's that it seems very difficult to get into it. Why is that? The author has done a fine job in breaking down events into a consistent and insightful flow of text and at little over two hundred pages, the length is hardly daunting. The issue is not the story, but the background. The Persians are not especially well known to the modern west and the author has not repeated any explanation of their culture from his previous books, leaving the reader to keep up with the pace of military campaigns and court intrigue without understanding how the Persians operated as a society.
To get the best from The Fall Of The Seleukids it would be worthwhile making sure you've absorbed the first two volumes. Nonetheless you can enjoy and learn from this book alone. Like the fall of any other empire or the folly of human behaviour - the story is compelling.