History of Iran

Seleucid Empire (306 - c.150 BCE)
By: Jens Jakobsson, 2004

The Hellenistic period is one of the most controversial in the history of Iran. The Greek or Macedonian dynasties were never fully accepted as more than occupants, and in hindsight their reign has been neglected. In the West, where the Hellenistic kings were defeated by Rome, most historians tend to look down on them as degenerated tyrants. The criticism is not wholly unfounded, but in many aspects the kingdoms of the age were vital and dynamic states with an eclectic and progressive view of the different cultures they embraced. The Seleucid Empire was by far the largest of them and its ambition was no less than to maintain the great empire of Alexander in the east.
The chaos after Alexander
The "Alexander mosaic" at the Battle of Issus,
Discovered in Pompeii, to be seen in Napoli (Museo Archeologico Nazionale)
The death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) saw the Macedonian army in a great confusion. The centralised Persian Empire was easy to govern once it was conquered, and the Macedonian military hegemony was by and large unthreatened, but the king had died without appointing a successor. Even a powerful heir would have found it hard to maintain Alexander's unifying authority, but as things were the kingship was divided between his feeble half-brother Philip III and his posthumous son Alexander IV. None of them were more than puppets in the hands of the Macedonian generals, the Diadochs, who soon sliced up the empire between them.

Their wars started soon after Ptolemy I seceded from the empire in the province of Egypt, but the complicated details of the fighting could not be accounted for here. Suffice to say that Persia proper was divided between various Macedonian satraps, who tried as best as they could to gain local support but relied mostly on their Greek mercenaries. In the outskirts of the empire, Persian satraps managed to claim independence during the wars; small kingdoms were established in Cappadocia and in the so-called Media Atropatene (today's Azerbaijan).

The satrap of Babylonia, the focal point between east and west, was called Seleucus and was a formidable administrator who soon formed a solid network of local supporters. After several wars with the leading Diadoch Antigonos the One-eyed, Seleucus crowned himself king in Babylonia in the year 306 BCE. A few years after, all the satrapies to the east of Babylonia had yielded to him. In 301 BCE, Antigonos was defeated by a coalition of other generals, and Seleucus became master of Syria as well, and in 281 BCE he took Asia Minor and the wars of the Diadochs ended. At the age of eighty Seleukos was murdered by a fugitive Egyptian prince, but the throne passed on to Antiochus I (281-261 BCE), his son by Persian noblewoman Apamea, and after that to his son Antiochus II (261-246 BCE), who ruled as Great Kings from Samarkhand to the Aegean Sea.

The Seleucid administration
Seleucus I, the Victorious, 312-280 BCE
The Seleucids built hundreds of cities and maintained or reformed the infrastructure of the Persian kings. The cities were based on the Greek polis-model with gymnasiums, amphitheatres and squares. Members of the indigenous upper classes often became hellenised, but the demotic languages were used in administration as well. The Greek influence was strictly limited to the cities and did not affect the countryside at all.

Though the army was based on Greek soldiers, a wide array of troops from Persia and Babylonia were incorporated, among them the cataphracts, the heavy cavalry of the Achaemenids. There were several nationalistic outbursts in Persis, but they were all suppressed, and the Seleucids strived for acceptance by acting as protectors for Persian and Babylonian cults. Ethnically the dynasty became partly Persian by marriages into the Persian kings of Cappadocia, who claimed ancestry from one of the seven followers of Darius I the Great.

Greek settlements in the empire were largely centered in Syria, the capital Antiochia being the most important, and to some extent Babylonia where the city Seleucia on Tigris succeeded Babylon as eastern city of residence. Paradoxically, many Greeks also lived in the outmost province of Bactria (Afghanistan/eastern Iran) many of them ethnic Greeks as opposed to ethnic Macedonians. Alexander had left his Greek infantry there, since he did not trust them, but historians also suggest that the Achaemenids used to deport rebellious Greek subjects there.

Unlike Alexandria in Egypt, the Seleucid Empire was no center of Hellenistic culture and science, but some of the Stoic philosophers came from Syria, and the world-leading physician Erasistratos lived at the court of Seleucus I. The Babylonian chronicles are the main source to the ancient Middle East history and was written by native Babylonian Berossos. The empire was the center of several important trade routes which gave the kings large revenues. Seleucid coins were a well renowned currency along the Silk route. Friendly relations were kept with the Mauryan kings of northern India, to whom Seleucus I had ceded eastern Pakistan in exchange for war elephants to use against his opponents in the west.

The first crisis and brief restoration
The mid-3rd century BCE saw great turmoil in the Seleucid state after one of its many wars with Ptolemaic Egypt had gone terribly wrong. King Seleucus II, a son of Antiochus II, faced a civil war and during his reign the easternmost provinces broke free. These were the vast Bactria and Parthia, where nomads led by the Arsacid dynasty (from 247 BCE) formed a small but warlike state on the verges of northern Iran.

Antiochus I, Soter, 280 to 261 BCE
He joint reign with his father -Seleucus I- from 293 to 280 BCE and had victory
over Gallic invaders of Asia Minor. Given name "soter" which means savior.
By and large though, most of Iran seems to have remained in the Seleucid fold even if the empire was continuously shaken by wars in all directions. Sadly the sources on the Seleucid empire focus on its western parts since most of the authors lived west of Syria. In the last years of the 3rd century BC the king Antiochus III, who was the last to claim the Persian title of Great King and therefore is called "the Great", brought the Seleucid army to the borders of India in a legendary campaign called the anabasis, during which the Parthian were defeated and Seleucid hegemony restored throughout the eastern dominions. He then defeated Egypt soundly and then invaded Greece to reclaim almost the entire part of Alexander's empire.

Defeat and civil wars
This over ambitious scheme did however bring him to a war with the rising Romans, and after the disastrous battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE, the Seleucid main army was annihilated and the empire had to accept a paralysing war indemnity, give up Asia Minor and send hostages to Rome.

Antiochus the Great now plundered temple treasures, but this policy got him killed in Luristan in western Persia and seriously damaged loyalty to the dynasty. The weak empire could do little to prevent central Iran to break loose, led by the Parthians who expanded in all directions. In Bactria, the kings were Greek and long independent. These kings now invaded Pakistan and northern India to form a legendary but almost forgotten empire, the farthest outreach of Hellenistic culture.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE), notorious in history for his conflict with the Jews (the Maccabean insurrection) carried out an initially successful campaign in Persia but died along the way. After his death, the Seleucids collapsed into devastating civil wars which were encouraged by the Romans and the Ptolemies.

The Parthian conquest of Persia
Bagadates' coin, circa BCE 222(?)
Persis, the heartland of the Persian kings, had begun its route back to independence in the late 3rd century when the first indigenous Seleucid satraps were appointed. The earliest is supposed to be Bagadates, whose coin is shown here. The reverse depicts a king standing before a Zoroastrian sacred edifice or a fire-alter. With the weakening of the Seleucid Empire, the satraps became kings, some of which used names like Darius and Artaxerxes as tokens of their nationalistic spirit. Several other small kingdoms emerged as mushrooms in the temporary power vacuum.

It was however Parthia under its king Mithradates I that now rose as the main power in Persia, after having defeated the Medians and the Greeks of Bactria in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. The latter disappeared soon afterwards, crushed by civil wars and the pressure of nomadic tribes who probably were allies of the Parthians. The other kingdoms of Iran were now turned into Parthian vassals.

The final war
In 140 BCE, the Seleucid king Demetrios II deciced that enough was enough and summoned whatever resources he had to check the Parthian advance. He was initially victorious and several vassals seceded from Mithradates II. The Parthians were however well-known for their defensive strength in their own country, and soon managed to ambush the Seleucid army and take Demetrious II captive. Babylonia now became a Parthian province.

The last round of the war came after the able Antiochus VII, the brother of Demetrios II, finally managed to win the civil wars in the remaining Seleucid dominions. He summoned a huge army of mercenaries and attacked the Parthians with great vigor. After three victories he had liberated Babylonia and western Iran and was already compared with Antiochus the Great.

The inhabitants had been happy to shake off the severe Parthian rule, but when the giant Seleucid army was divided put into winter quarters this turned out to be just as bad for the hosting cities. Parthian spies were able to stir up rebellions against the Seleucids, and when Antiochus VII tried to assemble his troops he was routed and killed by the Parthian king Phraates II in a battle outside Ecbatana. The rest of the leaderless army was shattered or put into the Parthian ranks. This was the definite end of the Hellenistic period in Iran.

The Greeks disappear
Antiochus III the Great, 223-187 BCE
The last remaining Seleucid kings only controlled ever-decreasing parts of Syria. Their last half-century was plagued by unending civil wars, until the Romans made Syria a Roman province in 64 BC. The Greek influence in the east survived its rulers for a while, even though few of the Hellenistic cities were found east of Babylonia. The Parthian rulers continued throughout their reign to strike coins in Greek, and several of them gave themselves the epithet Philhellenos (friend of the Greeks). This was probably to ensure support from the Greek societies, which were still important (and heavily fortified) centers of commerce. But eventually Greek impact faded. The Roman campaigns in Parthia in the 2nd century CE seems to have swept away the last of the Greek colonists.

It is as mentioned odd to note that Bactria, the hinterland on the eastern Iranian plateau, despite its distance to Greece boasted a numerous and prospering Greek colony. The Greeks here also seemed to have been better integrated and even managed to expand beyond the former Achaemenid frontiers beyond Punjab and Kashmir, as well as becoming masters of today's Pakistan in the early 2nd century BCE. Even though the empire soon collapsed, the Greeks left a pronounced cultural heritage, the so-called Gandhara culture.

The dream of reuniting Alexander's empire was long alive among the Hellenistic kings, and the references to him were legion in Hellenistic kingship. At the donations of Alexandria in 34 BCE, queen Cleopatra and the Roman general Marcus Antonius even went so far as to crown their son Alexander Helios (the Sun) to Great King of Parthia and Media. This was however but an arrogant empty gesture, since these countries were by that time far beyond the grasp of Greeks as well as Romans.

Seleucid Kings:
  • Seleucus I the Victorious 306-281 BCE (Satrap from 312)
  • Antiochus I Stoter (the Saviour) 281-261 BCE
  • Antiochus II the God 261-246 BCE
  • Ptolemy III the Benefactor 246 BCE (Briefly crowned in Babylonia)
  • Seleucus II the Bearded 246-226 BCE
  • Seleucus III the Thunderbolt 226-223 BCE
  • Antiochus III the Great 223-187 BCE (the last one to assume the title of Great King)
  • Seleucus IV the Fatherloving 187-175 BCE
  • Seleucus IV the Fatherloving 187-175 BCE
  • Antiochus IV the God Manifest 175-164 BCE
  • Antiochus V of Good Father 164-162 BCE
  • Demetrios I the Saviour 162-150 BCE
  • Alexander I the Master 150-145 BCE
  • Demetrios II the Victorious 145-140 BCE (Antiochus VI and Diodotos Tryphon rulers of Syria 145-137)
  • Antiochus VII the Benefactor (138-129 BCE), ruled in Babylonia/Media 130-129 BCE