Macedonian Beginnings

Antioch: end of China's Silk Road


After the death of Alexander the Great in the afternoon of 11 June 323 BCE, his empire was divided amongst his generals. One of them was Alexander's friend Seleucus I Nicator, who became king of the eastern provinces of: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; together with parts of Turkey, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Seleucus' kingdom had two capitals, which he founded in c300 BC: Antioch in Syria, and Seleucia in Mesopotamia.[1] His ruling family is known as the Seleucid Dynasty. However he was killed in 281 BC by Ptolemy Keraunos before he could conquer Greece and Macedonia. The Seleucid Empire was basically the continuation of the earlier Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid empires.[2]

In 301 BC, Seleucus took control over eastern Anatolia and northern Syria and founded his capital at Antioch on the Orontes River. An alternative capital was established at Seleucia on the Tigris, north of Babylon. Seleucus' empire reached its greatest extent in 281 BC. Seleucus expanded his control to encompass western Anatolia. He hoped further to take control Greek lands in Europe - primarily Thrace and even Macedonia itself, but was assassinated. His son and successor, Antiochus I Soter, was left with an enormous realm consisting of nearly all of the Asian portions of Alexander's Empire, but proved unable to pick up where his father had left off in conquering the European portions of Alexander's empire.

The Seleucids

Nevertheless, even before Seleucus' death, the vast eastern domains were difficult to control. Seleucus invaded Punjabi Pakistan in 305 BC, and confronted Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Indian Maurya empire. Chandragupta reportedly fielded a 600,000 man-army with 9,000 war elephants, and Seleucus wisely decided on a treaty.

Seleucus then still faced Alexander's other successor generals and he ceded Pakistan and India from the Indus to Afghanistan. Chandragupta gave Seleucus a key army and 500 elephants. Seleucus used this army to gain his victory over Alexander's other successor generals in the 301 BC Battle of Ipsus.

Seleucus was succeeded by his descendants, who continued to govern for more than two centuries; however, their rule was not peaceful. Antiochus I Soter (reigned 281-261 BC) and his son Antiochus II Theos (reigned 261-246 BC) were often at war with Ptolemy II Philadelphus, while the Celts invaded Anatolia. This turmoil distracted attention from holding the eastern Empire together. Towards the end of Antiochus II's reign Bactria, Parthia, and Cappadocia declared their independence. In c246 BC, Seleucus II Callinicus was defeated by Ptolemy III in the Third Syrian War, while his brother  Antiochus Hierax rebelled in a civil war. Meanwhile, Bactria and Parthia seceded, and the Gauls established themselves in Galatia. To make matters more difficult, new kingdoms sprang up in Bithynia, Pontus, Cappadocia, and the city-state of Pergamum.

In c240 BC, the Seleucids lost territory in the east, where Parni nomads seized Parthia in northeastern Iran. Moreover, Bactria (northern Afghanistan) declared independence. Antiochus III the Great, took the throne in 223 BC, and was promptly defeated by the Egyptians in the Fourth Syrian War at the 217 BC Battle of Raphia. Antiochus spent his next ten years restoring Parthia to imperial control, and led an expedition into India. Antiochus III recovered both Parthia and Bactria in 209- 204 BC. In the southwest, the Seleucid kings fought several wars with the Egyptians to recover southern Syria. When he returned to the west in 205 BC, Antiochus found that with the death of Ptolemy IV Philopator, the situation now looked propitious for another western campaign. In 200, Egypt was forced to cede Palestine to Antiochus III and Seleucid power had reached its zenith.

Seleucid Empire: c198 BC


Antiochus III and Philip V of Macedon agreed to attack Egypt, and in 198 BC the Antiochus regained Syria after defeating Ptolemy V at the Battle of Panium. In 197 BC, encouraged by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, Antiochus invaded Greece. In 196, Antiochus crossed the Hellespont and conquered Thrace in 194. Seleucid influence in nearby Greece, however, threatened the Romans and led to war in 192 BC. Despite the help Antiochus had from many Greek towns and the Carthaginians Antiochus was defeated. The Romans evidently saw Seleucid expansion as a threat and defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Thermopylae in 191 BC and also at Magnesia in 190 BC. As punishment the Romans forced Antiochus to abandon all his European territories, cede much of Asia Minor to Rome, and pay a large indemnity. Antiochus died in 187 BC on another expedition to the east, where he had sought to extract money to pay the indemnity.

Seleucus IV Philopator led the Empire in 187-175 BC but was absorbed in paying off the Romans. In 175 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes took the throne. Antiochus defeated an Egyptian army but was forced to withdraw by the threat of a powerful Roman army. Macedonian and Seleucid power had been clearly eclipsed by Rome and there was further Seleucid disintegration. The Parni carved the Parthian empire out of the eastern Persian provinces. Antiochus' attempt to Hellenise Judea led to the Maccabean Revolt and Antiochus himself died during an expedition against the Parthians in 164 BC.

The Empire then became increasingly unstable, and effective central authority was destroyed in a Greek farce of frequent civil wars. Epiphanes' young son, Antiochus V Eupator, was overthrown by his cousin Demetrius I Soter in 161 BC. Demetrius attempted to control Judea, but was overthrown in 150 BC coup by Alexander Balas. Balas was overthrown in 145 BC by Demetrius II Nicator. Demetrius II proved unable to control the more than Babylonia and eastern Syria. The Empire then split between different supporters in Damascus and Antioch. Imperial problems accelerated and by 143 BC, the Maccabean Jews had declared their independence, and Parthian expansion continued. The towns of Seleucia and Babylon were lost in 141 BC, and in 139 BC, Demetrius II Nicator was defeated by the Parthians who seized the Iranian Plateau. Demetrius' step-brother, Antiochus VII tried to regain control, but he was killed in battle with the Parthians in 129 BC. The Parthian distractions inevitably led to the Seleucid loss of Babylonia and after Antiochus died, the Seleucid Empire dissolved into civil war. Seleucid family civil wars led to spiralling defections, and finally the Roman generals Lucullus and Pompey ended to the Seleucid kingdom. The last Seleucid king was dethroned in 64.

Historical Impact

The Seleucid empire's geographic span, from the Aegean Sea to Afghanistan, created a melting pot of Greeks, Armenians, Persians, Medes, Assyrians, and Jews. The immense size of the empire motivated Seleucid rulers to continue Alexander's policy of racial unity and to establish Greek colonies throughout the empire with Greeks from the overpopulated mainland. Historically significant towns and cities, such as Antioch, were given Greek names. Colonization spread Greek customs and practices, which helped to assimilate native groups as their leaders adopted Greek customs to gain Macedonian favour. Seleucid policy was to rule by establishing hundreds of cities for trade and occupational purposes; and the cities began to adopt Hellenised philosophic thought, religion, and politics. Colonisation did not always prove easy and led to rebellion and war with the Jews as the Seleucids tried to force Hellenisation and outlaw Judaism. The Jewish rebellions had a major impact on history.


1          Adapted from, Livius, Jona Lendering, The Seleucid Empire (Syria) at,; Seleucid Empire at,;Maps from, the University of Oregon Historical Atlas Resource.

2          Pennsylvania State University, at,

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