The Latest on Seleucid Empire Building in the East.

Author:Van der Spek, R.J.
Position:Critical essay

The Hellenistic Near East has long been studied from the perspective of Classical scholars interested in anything Greek in the Near East and who have consequently focused on Asia Minor and Greek cities. In the last few decades, however, interest in non-Greek perspectives has grown. In large part this has been due to the efforts of scholars working on the growing corpus of cuneiform texts from Babylonia, whose findings are now gradually entering the publications of Classical historians and archaeologists. Nowadays, therefore, Babylonia plays its due role in scholarship on the Hellenistic Near East.

The regions further east are still understudied, despite the publications of, among others, Briant, Holt, Kuhrt, Potts, and Sherwin-White. One of the reasons for this is that for Iran there is no corpus of texts comparable to that which we have from Babylonia. For that vast region we are still dependent on the Classical literary sources, a few Greek inscriptions, coins, and archaeology. Recently, however, a new corpus of Aramaic texts has been published (Naveh and Shaked 2012). It is thus a good thing that Sonja Plischke has dedicated a volume to the Seleucids and Iran.

Plischke's focus is on the political structures of the Seleucid empire in the east and the question of whether they were the result of a long-term Seleucid conception of rule over a multicultural state (p. 5). As she is well aware of the lacunose state of the evidence, she includes adjacent Mesopotamia in her research (p. 6); indeed, she dedicates several chapters to Babylonia, but this is only intended as a comparandum and is not the focus of the book (p. 6). Her research is based on evidence from and referring to Iran, with parallels from Asia Minor and Babylonia adduced only when this evidence is inconclusive (p. 35).

One of her first conclusions is, however, that regional conditions differ greatly, so that it is difficult to draw general conclusions about a Seleucid conception of rule (Herrschaftskonzeption). "Vielmehr fuhrt die Suche nach einer einheitlichen, systematischen Herrschaft als Grundlage der seleukidischen Ostpolitik zu keinem Ergebnis; stattdessen bestechen die heterogenen, vielseitigen und grundsatzlich eigentumliche Strukturen in den ostlichen Satrapien" (p. 315). Babylonia and the Eastern satrapies were fundamentally different from each other and developed separately: "Vielmehr waren Babylonien und die 'Oberen Satrapien' unterschiedlichen Einflussen ausgesetzt und beschritten eine in Teilen voneinander getrennte Entwicklung" (p. 325). This, of course, diminishes the value of a comparative approach, although--as must be admitted--a negative result is still a result. Moreover, amid all the differences, some general rules may be determined, such as: profound changes in the satrapal system under Antiochus III (p. 316) (which may. however, be doubted; cf. remarks below on p. 280); a considerate attitude towards local customs and religion (which, however, is not a specifically Seleucid policy, but a policy generally adopted by imperial rulers in the ancient world [cf. Van der Spek 2014c]), connected with an empire-wide state cult for the king and his wife under Antiochus III (pp. 316-18, 323-24); the legitimation of rule as "spear-won territory" and hence the legitimation of profits taken from that territory (pp. 318-20); a general monetary policy, with local adaptations (p. 320); the policy of founding new cities (p. 321); and the general wish to connect the different parts of the empire, supported by a personal conception of Seleucid kingship (p. 322).

In this respect it is worthwhile to adduce the new book by Paul Kosmin on space, territory, and ideology in the Seleucid Empire (Kosmin 2014a). Plischke stresses the fact that the Seleucid empire did not have a definite core and consequently hardly had a periphery. Rather, it was based on the executive organs of king, administration, army, and cities (p. 322). With no geographical core, the empire required different centers. If one were nonetheless to look for a center, the core areas of Syria, Mesopotamia, and western Iran might be considered as such (p. 322). I fear, however, that the focus of the Seleucid kings, despite the anabasis of Antiochus III, gradually shifted to the west, as is nicely demonstrated by Kosmin (2014a: 145-46, maps 5 and 6). This is one of the reasons, I would argue, that the Seleucids were ultimately unable to keep control over the east and were driven back by the Parthians.

Plischke's book is a valuable attempt to do justice to the importance of Iran for the Seleucid empire, taking into account the fact that this empire was the major heir to that of the Achaemenids. In my view, the reason that the Achaemenids were more successful in maintaining control of the east is that they had their core there (Persis) and divided their energy more equally over its territories.

The conclusions of Plischke's book, however, are not very spectacular, and unfortunately I noticed many errors, especially in the sections regarding Babylonia. It is clear that Plischke is no expert in this field, as she herself admits. This is especially evident in the discussion of the sources and their editions, where she has missed a large number of publications which have appeared since around 2000. In some cases she does not know to what kind of document she is referring, and she quotes them in some places by their museum number and in others by a published edition.

For example, the Babylonian chronicles from the Hellenistic period are sometimes quoted from Grayson's edition (ABC), although improved editions by Irving Finkel and myself are available online (BCHP = Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period (Finkel-Van der Spek in preparation), which appears in the list of abbreviations [p. xi], but not in the list of epigraphic sources [p. 341], nor in the bibliography [pp. 244-383]). The Astronomical diary concerning the year 274-273 BC (-273) is referred to (p. 27 n. 45 and p. 199 n. 183) by the museum number of one of its pieces (BM 92689), although the document has been published by Hermann Hunger as AD 1 -273B, museum numbers BM 36710+92688+92689, which is mentioned by Plischke on pp. 43, 81, and 202. She also refers elsewhere to the same passage (p. 38 n. 123, p. 77 n. 443, and p. 230 n. 396), where she erroneously cites it as AD 1 -273A (also in index p. 397). On p. 131 she refers to the number 273 only. For a somewhat improved translation of this diary, consult Van der Spek 1993a: 97 and 1993b: 67-68.

Some important cuneiform sources are misidentified or overlooked. BCHP 16 ([mis]quoted on p. 82 n. 473, p. 132 n. 919, p. 222 n. 355) is not the edition of the Lehmann text in New York (although it is related to this document), but a chronographic document in the British Museum. Important chronicles, such as BCHP 11 concerning Ptolemy Ill's invasion of Babylon and BCHP 13 and 14 concerning the Greek community in Babylon are not mentioned at all.

I hope it will be useful to present the list of errors I came across, and to add some new publications.

Passim: For an overview of the cuneiform sources on the Seleucids, see Van der Spek 2010.

  1. 15: Bessos was not executed in Ecbatana, but in Bactra (Arrian, Anabasis, III 30.5).

  2. 18: Perdiccas was probably not the last champion of the unity of the empire. Universal rule remained an issue for the successors (Strootman 2014; Meeus 2014).

    Pp. 19, 21: The Babylonian Kinglist (BM 35603) does not date to Antigonus as "Strategos and Satrap," but only as strategos (of Asia, not Babylonia). Plischke's error is based on the erroneous reading by Erhard Grzybek (1992: 192). She is apparently unaware of the reading by A. K. Grayson (1980). The BKL states that "for [n] years there was no king in the land. Antigonus, the general, ruled the country (KUR u-ma-'-ir)" (BKL 3-4). Alexander IV is given six years, apparently the first six years of the Seleucid era (BKL 5). My revised edition of the BKL is available at http://www.livius.0rg/k/kinglist/babyl0nian_hellenistic.html. See also Boiy 2007: 74-89; Van der Spek 2014a.

  3. 20: "Babylonischen Keilschrifttexten" refers to the so-called Chronicle of the Diadochi. Plischke cites Grayson's edition (ABC 10), but a completely new edition with commentary is available as BCHP 3, at

  4. 30: Although Antiochus had an Iranian mother, we have no...

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