sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3

Altay Coşkun / Richard Wenghofer (eds.): Seleukid Ideology

This volume is the first in the Seleukid Perspectives series and the result of the Seleukid Study Days (2011-2019) and the Seleukid Lectures (2021-2022), which investigated Seleucid history from different perspectives. In general, it bears witness to the flowering of studies of Hellenistic history and of the Seleucids in particular in the last two decades. [1] The first chapter consists of a joint introduction by the two editors Altay Coşkun and Richard Wenghofer that states the purpose of analysing the creation, reception and response to Seleucid authority.

The book is divided into five sections and fifteen chapters. In the first section, 'Formation of Dynastic Ideology', Kyle Erickson discusses the construction of the royal identity by Seleucus I. Through a comparison with Alexander, the Ptolemies, the Antigonids and Lysimachus, he attempts to highlight the elements of Seleucid propaganda. Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides focuses instead on the importance of the anchor symbol in Seleucid propaganda in relation to the Mesopotamian context. The importance of maritime symbolism and the naval campaigns of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings is emphasised in order to underline the Seleucid focus on Mesopotamian communities from the time of Seleucus I. Altay Coşkun highlights the fundamental role of the sanctuary of Didyma and the city of Miletus for the Seleucid monarchy. The author considers the well-known honorary decrees of Didyma (I.Didyma 479-480) in honour of Seleucus I, Apama and their son Antiochus to emphasise the particular significance assumed by Didymean Apollo for the Seleucid dynasty after Ipsos and to demonstrate the independent functioning of Milesian institutions. However, it is improbable that in the aftermath of Ipsos a polis with military and religious significance such as Miletus was not influenced in its institutional practice by personalities such as Demodamas at the instigation of Seleucus I, since the decrees are the tangible outcomes of a background political process difficult to reconstruct in its entirety.

The second section, 'Enacting Seleukid Kingship', sees Babett Edelmann-Singer's analysis of Antiochus IV's famous pompe to Daphne in 166 as a representation of power through a political and religious rituality that helps define the very identity of Seleucid power. The focus is on the materiality and significance of the non-military elements of the parade to capture the role of objects (agency) in the construction of the identity of Seleucid kingship. Edelmann-Singer hypothesises, perhaps too rashly, that Polybius defines theoi as the Mediterranean deities with whom he was most familiar; daimones as the non-Greek deities of the "Mesopotamian-influenced" parts of the Seleucid kingdom and divine entities such as the xwarrah of the Achaemenid kings [2]; and, finally, heroes would represent the founding heroes of cities, especially the Seleucid ones and thus Alexander and the Seleucid kings deified up to Antiochus IV. Perhaps, more attention could have been paid to the cultic differences within the Mesopotamian, Elamic and Iranian satrapies that are alluded to in the expression "Mesopotamian-influenced parts of the Seleukid empire" (124) in order to understand how and whether the Seleucids ever attached themselves to deities of local pantheons, especially in the Iranian context.

Stephen Harrison, on the other hand, compares the Daphne procession in 166 and Xerxes' procession in 480 at Sardis. The author intelligently proposes a cautious, non-generalist approach by attempting to contextualise the two processions as best he can and makes explicit that although the intentions of the Achaemenids and Seleucids were similar, underlying them were two different conceptions of their own power. Harrison reflects on an important aspect, as too often in recent years there has been a tendency towards generalist and simplistic interpretations seeing the Seleucids as the direct heirs of the Achaemenids in terms of the practices and conceptions of the empire they ruled over. [3]

In chapter seven, Rolf Strootman considers the two famous episodes of the executions on the grounds of treason of Molon in 220 and of Achaios in 214 to analyse the ideological construction of mutilation at the Seleucid court. Strootman highlights that as ritual, mutilation aimed to deconstruct a traitor's identity and to give legitimacy to the victor by depriving the usurper of it through mutilation. However, at a closer look, the two episodes struggle to define an alleged precise "Seleucid ideology" behind it and it seems to be a common treatment inflicted upon usurpers, rebels who challenge royal authority in general and especially in Assyrian and Achaemenid context.

Benjamin E. Scolnic examines the account of the battle of Panion in 200 and Polybius' criticism of Zeno of Rhodes as possible evidence of Antiochus IV's propaganda. He speculates on the existence of two distinct narratives, one more reliable and accurate and one distinctly ideological, made under Antiochus IV and passed on by Zeno to emphasise his role in the battle even though he certainly had not fought at Panion.

The third section of the book is entitled 'Resisting Seleukid Royal Authority'. Deirdre Klokow focuses on an aspect very dear to part of the existing scholarship: the use, modification and conceptualisation of rural space through the agency of the Seleucid monarchy and the response of local communities to this process. This occurs through the physical transformation of places, with the destruction and displacement of infrastructures representing previous imperial domains. Gillian Ramsey questions the opposition of the poleis to Seleucid power. Considering the Greek polis as a model for the civic communities of the Seleucid kingdom, the author also identifies traditional autonomist and independence claims as fundamental in the relations with the Seleucid monarchy.

In the fourth section, 'Reframing Seleukid Ideology', Germain Payen considers the kingdom of Armenia and the significant political weight of the Artaxiad dynasty between their independence from the Seleucids and their defeat against the Romans. He shows thus how Armenia's ideological and geopolitical choices influenced the Mediterranean balance of power, with a significant reversal of roles between the Seleucids and the Artaxiads. The concept of Seleucid imperialism is used extensively by the author, but, perhaps, one could define it better or adopt an interpretative category more suited to the context.

In a second article, Benjamin E. Scolnic focuses on the Book of Daniel 10-12 and its anti-Seleucid narrative. The Sixth Syrian War is presented by the Jewish author as a conflict between heavenly powers of which earthly events are a reflection. In this way, by adopting a pro-Ptolemaic and anti-Seleucid perspective, the author attempts to solve the theological problem of the lack of an autonomous Jewish power during the Seleucid era. Eran Almagor examines the Book of Esther as a not entirely negative Hellenistic-era response to the ideology conveyed by the Seleucid monarchy. According to the author, the reaction to certain elements of Seleucid kingship and propaganda which would have caused the opposition of certain Jewish circles is analysed. Almagor argues that the text's reference to the Achaemenids should actually be read as a reference to the Seleucids, who styled themselves as the successors of the Persians to the government of a politically and religiously heterogenous empire.

In the fifth and final section, 'Re-assessing Seleukid Ideology', Richard Wenghofer considers some inscriptions (OGIS 222, 223, 229) as a fearful response of the poleis to the Seleucids' military might in the first half of the 3rd century BC. One should therefore interpret these documents from an opposite perspective to the one adopted so far, namely as an attempt to oppose the Seleucid kings' meddling in the institutional life of the polis. In the final chapter, Coşkun examines the effectiveness of Seleucid ideology in involving local elites. Different contexts (Babylonia and Asia Minor) show how loyalty to the Seleucids was widely spread, as one could benefit from the relationship with the king and therefore supporting their ideological claims was advantageous.

At the end of the volume, the indexes of the names and of the sources are presented. Finally, it must be remarked that the term 'empire' is hardly applicable to the Seleucid kingdom when compared to the Achaemenid or other empires, as it was a very fluid political entity with precise characteristics that differed from what came before, as some have recently pointed out. [4] As a red thread throughout the volume, the concept of imperialism also emerges, which is hardly applicable to the Hellenistic age and ancient history in general, though that has become of wide use. [5] Moreover, reconstructing the pervasiveness of the Seleucid presence and the dissemination of universal messages from the known documentation, even by comparison with similar contexts (see Achaemenids and Mesopotamia), is a risky operation due to the paucity of sources on the subject. With the exception of a few cases, the relationship between Achaemenid and Seleucid kingship is approached in this volume with a too immediate and often misleading association. For instance, this is found in the references to the relationship with the Iranian religious tradition and Achaemenid kingship, such as the importance of the fire cult or the image of the bull in Seleucus I's coinage, or the alleged focus on deities such as Mithra, Anāhitā and Ahura Mazdā through an interpretatio that is not always automatic. On the contrary, it is evident from analyses of Iranian and even classical sources how little the Macedonians respected and followed the Achaemenid royal and religious tradition. [6] With regard to the Iranian context, a more cautious approach, as Harrison suggests in this volume, and greater attention to the work of Iranian studies would have been useful.

In conclusion, according to the extant sources, it is difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the Seleucids ever strove to construct a specific ideology or rather exploited previous legacies and innovations of their own in the management of a complex kingdom of which we possess only a very fragmentary image.


[1] See the French-German studies Études nancéennes d'histoire grecque I-IV (2014-2021) or the works of John Ma, G.G. Aperghis, Peter F. Mittag, Laurent Capdetrey, and Kay Ehling.

[2] Gherardo Gnoli: Xerxès, Priame et Zoroastre, in: Bulletin of the Asia Institute 12 (1998), 59-67; Id., s.v. Farr(ah), Xvarǝnah, in: Encyclopædia Iranica, IX/ 3 (1999), 312-319.

[3] See Peter Panitschek: Die Seleukiden als Erben des Achämenidenreiches, Stuttgart 2016, where this hypothesis is widely analysed and fundamentally rejected.

[4] Laurent Capdetrey: Le royaume séleucide: un empire impossible?, in: Les Empires. Antiquité et Moyen Âge. Analyse comparée, éd. par Fr éd éric Hurlet, Rennes 2008, 57-80; Federicomaria Muccioli: Elementi per una riconsiderazione delle etnie minoritarie nel regno dei seleucidi, in: Ricerche Storico Bibliche 27 (2015), 71-89.

[5] Rolf Strootman: Hellenistic Imperialism and the Ideal of World Unity, in: The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World: Changing Contexts of Power and Identity, edited by Claudia Rapp / Harold A. Drake, New York 2014, 38-61.

[6] For the Iranian evidence see Philippe Gignoux: La démonisation d'Alexandre le Grand d'après la littérature pehlevie, in: Iranian Languages and Texts from Iran and Turan. Ronald E. Emmerick Memorial Volume, edited by Maria Macuch / Mauro Maggi / Werner Sundermann, Wiesbaden 2007, 87-97. See outrages of the Macedonians to Anāhitā in Polyb. X 27, 9-13. Cf. Plut. Artax. 3 on the coronation of Artaxerxes II in the presence of Anāhitā at Pasargadae.

Rezension über:

Altay Coşkun / Richard Wenghofer (eds.): Seleukid Ideology. Creation, Reception and Response (= Seleukid Perspectives; Vol. 1), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2023, 390 S., 11 Farb-, 3 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-515-13478-1, EUR 72,00

Rezension von:
Lorenzo Paoletti
Universität zu Köln
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