Book Review by Philip Matyszak
The Rise of the Seleukid Empire ISBN-10: 1783030534 ISBN-13: 978-1783030538
The Seleukid Empire of Antiochus III ISBN-10: 178303050X ISBN-13: 978-1783030507
The Fall of the Seleukid Empire ISBN-10: 1783030305 ISBN-13: 978-1783030309
It is generally believed that the largest empire in antiquity was the Roman empire. However, this was actually smaller than the short-lived empire of Alexander the Great, which stretched from the shores of the Adriatic Sea to the foothills of the Himalayas. After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, his empire broke into several successor states, the largest of which was the Seleucid empire.
Author and historian John D. Grainger tells the story of the Seleucid empire, and as is only fitting for an empire of this size, he tells it in not one but three books – The Rise of the Seleukid Empire, the Seleukid Empire of Antiochus III, and The Fall of the Seleukid Empire. Each of these books is some 250 pages long, and each can be read as a separate volume in its own right, though of course, doing so causes one to miss the entire grand sweep of the author's project.
What the reader gets from the three books is a detailed knowledge of an empire all the more extraordinary for the fact that even some amateur historians do not know that it ever existed. Indeed, my own first experience of the Seleucid empire – and probably that of many non-historians – was in hearing strangely-named kings in bible readings from the Old Testament, for the Seleucid empire included Palestine and the rest of the Middle East. (Not an area which the average man in the street will think of as once having been ruled by Greeks.)
The first book in the series shows how Seleucus managed to leverage himself from one of Alexander's lesser generals to ruler of the largest remnant of Alexander's kingdom. The author walks his readers carefully through the political quagmire of alliances, double-crosses, wars, mutinies and revolutions which followed Alexander's death – and in the process shows us what an extraordinarily unprincipled and ruthless bunch Alexander's generals actually were. We see how Seleucus started with Babylonia as his power base, and once he had gained his empire, the series of careful political and military steps he took to establish the empire's heartland in north Syria. At the end of the book, Seleucus was in the process of expanding his empire to include Macedonia. His abrupt assassination comes as something of a shock to the reader; a shock which diminishes as one reads on through the series and discovers that very few Seleucid kings died naturally – and in most of those cases it was disease which forestalled the assassin's knife.
It is fitting that the second book is almost entirely dedicated to the career of Antiochus III, since the Seleucid empire started to unravel almost as soon as it founder died, and it was only the extraordinary energy and ability of Antiochus III that slowed this fragmentation. Only slowed it, because it was under Antiochus' watch that Asia Minor was lost to the empire - largely thanks to the power of Rome. Barely mentioned in the first book, Rome becomes ever more of a dominant force as the series goes by. The author makes a good argument that Rome was only briefly interested in the Seleucid empire, and that was in the years before the Magnesia campaign. In those years Antiochus was a threat to Rome's interests in Europe. Once Antiochus had been slapped back beyond the Taurus Mountains, Roman interest was at best peripheral, but such was Rome's power that it is nevertheless the defining political force in the third book.
The third book is the hardest to read, because although by then Bactria had gone its own way, Iran and Babylonia were in Parthian hands and Asia Minor was an unruly set of feuding kingdoms, the situation in the remnant of the empire was chaotic enough to make lucid explanation challenging.
'Laodike, queen of the Samenians was replaced by Azizos the Arab chief. .. An alignment of Stratos with the Arabs and Antiochus X against Demetrios III and Philip I seems logical …'. This quote on p.178 sums up the problem with this text – there are too many Demetrii and Antiochi charging around, usually marrying people called Laodike or Kleopatra, and often both, either serially or together. Because there is not enough information in the sources to give any of these people a recognizable personality, after a while the names tend to blur together well before we reach Antiochus XIV.
The author has made good use of his sources. Naturally for much of the time he is forced to rely on Appian, but his reading of this essential source is informed and critical and he does not hesitate to point out where other sources such as the Babylonian diaries, coin evidence (which he uses extremely well) or archaeology show that Appian was off the mark.
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Another reason why these books are much more than a mere re-telling of Appian (and this would still be a good series if that is all it was) is because the author gives an excellent analysis of the nature of the Seleucid kingdom and how it operated, why it was vulnerable, and how the very nature of the kingdom made it inevitable that the thing would fall apart in much the way that it did. If the book has a weakness it is that the author follows his ancient sources in focussing on the military campaigns (perhaps to be expected from a publisher called Pen & Sword). Nevertheless, the romance of a period rife with castles, elephants, dynastic feuds, royal incest and assassinations pirates and rebels of every sort is often lost in the dry minutiae of campaigns. The result is that a good read is sometimes lost to the demands of an excellent reference book.
For this much is certain, at present these is no better set of books available to the general reader for the story of the Seleucid kingdom from beginning to end. Given that the nearest rivals are written in dense academic language and priced well out of the reach of the average amateur historian, the author and his publisher done readers a great service in bringing out this accessible and informative set of books.
Book Review of The Rise and Fall of the Seleukid Empire - Related Topic: Roman Syria
Edited by Viggen