Asia under the Seleucids, a Hellenic Empire

As someone focused on documenting Hellenic history across the world, am grateful that most Hellenic territories are of a manageable size. There is one that was huge, a headache to to cover from one end to another, which I achieved, slowly. Asia. Hellenic Asia was certainly one of the greatest in history, and a tribute to Alexander’s vision. At its peak, the 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 through to Greece. Alexander had always championed a fusion of his own Greek culture with that of the East.

Seleucus and his successors established Greek settlements in Asia with former Greek soldiers and traders, including Antioch. More settlements were established in the East than Alexander could ever have imagined and the Greek language outlasted their rule by hundreds of years. Typical of Greeks, the Seleucids participated in many wars with fellow Hellenes. By 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.

Seleucides in Mesopotamia. Photo: Hulki Okan Tabak/Unsplash

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

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

When the Roman, Pompey conquered Syria and put an end to the Seleucid Empire, Greek language and culture was still dominant and remained so until the Romans were Christianised and morphed into the Holy Eastern Catholic Empire, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. The Byzantines ruled over what was known as the Greek East, and gradually the people of Syria converted to the Greek Orthodoxy.

Alexander had championed a meld of Greek and Eastern cultures and customs. The Seleucids controlled the vast eastern province of the Alexandrian empire which was a long way from Greece with very few Greek settlements. It was expanded 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 ad – 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 followers 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 at Babylon, he created Seleucia on the Tigris nearby. It is said that Seleucus faced a battle against 600,000 Indians under Chandragupta who founded the Maurya Empire in the Punjab. The battle is said to have occurred in 305 BCE though it is difficult to believe that 600,000 showed up for a fight. Nonetheless, it demonstrated how overextended he was.

He ceded territory, including modern Afghanistan, to the man who then became his brother-in-law. So if you cannot beat them, marry in the family.

Seleucus proved to be an able leader but his thirst for more territory brought his ultimate collapse and he was killed in Thrace in 281BCE by the Macedonians.

His son Antiochus who reigned for two decades was proved to be disastrous. They do say never give over the business to you idiot son, advice Seleucus did not take. Constant warfare with his neighbours, the Ptolemies, ensured that they, not the Seleucids, became the dominant power of the Mediterranean. Bactria and Parthia seeded to form independent Hellenic entities, and Cappadocia would also rebelled.

The Seleucids, were finally defeated by the Ptolemies them in one more war in 246BCE which precipitated a civil war in Asia.

The period of 223–191 BCE was like empire strikes back under Antiochus the Great. Despite another loss to 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, something that Pyrrhus once used against Rome. In 198 BCE he ousted the Ptolemies from the territory outside of Africa. His confidence led to a meeting with Rome at the Battle of Thermopylae and then Magnesia.

Rome was too strong and well trained. In the treaty of188 BCE, the Seleucids agreed to pay a large indemnity and withdraw from Anatolia. Rome was not strong enough, yet, to take on the Seleucids in Asia. Monarch and successor Seleucus Philopater struggled to pay the large tribute and was assassinated by his own Greek minister.

The brother of assassinated King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes immediately set about fighting his Hellenes and neighbours the Ptolemies, defeating the Ptolemies to a point of oblivion, Rome once 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 steps out of it, he better be departing from Egypt. The threat worked. Antiochus lasted until 164 BC whereby began a war with the Jews which led to the Maccabean Revolt, known as the Hanukah, while trying to hold off the Parthians in the southeast of the empire. Antiochus ‘aggressive Hellenising activities provoked a full-scale armed rebellion in Judea. Efforts to deal with both the Parthians and 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.

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 areas. Simultaneously, the Parthians moved into the power vacuum to take over the old Persian lands.

Over the next twenty-five years the empire was a mess with a series of rulers, civil war, the new independence of the Jews, and an end to old Persian territories in the east. This was temporarily checked by Antiochus VII Sidetes who regained control of these territories in 133BCE 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, Armenians, the Maccabees and Commagene.

The dying days of the empire became a drain to the Hellenic monarchy. Rather than a unified and strategic plan to secure itself , they fought internally.

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 kingdom into Syria around 83BCE.

Persepolis. Photo: Hasan Almasi/Unsplash

Hellenic control was coming to attend and corruption was rife. 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 miscalculation sparked Roman intervention. For 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. Pompey formally annexed Syria in 63 BCE, bringing an end to the Hellenic kingdom. Greek rivalry and internal strife and poor foreign policy brought about the conclusion to Greek rule in Syria.

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

There were thirty-one names recorded as king, 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.

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

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

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