Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.03.52

J.D. Grainger, The Roman War of Antiochos the Great. Mnemosyne Supplement 239.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. 386.  ISBN 90-04-12840-9.  €128.00.  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (
Word count: 2320 words

John D. Grainger's The Roman War of Antiochos the Great is the first comprehensive study of the titanic clash between the two greatest powers of the Hellenistic Mediterranean, the Roman Republic and the Seleukid Empire under Antiochos III, from 192 to 188 B.C.E. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Magnesia, one of the largest battles ever fought in the history of the ancient world. Roman victory in this battle led to the infamous Treaty of Apameia, which forced the Seleukid king to give up Asia Minor, pay a huge war indemnity, and destroy his war elephants and fleet.

The war between Rome and Antiochos was a crucial event in the history of the Hellenistic east. It was a major event in which several other Mediterranean states took part, notably the Attalid kingdom, the Aitolian League and Rhodes. Many other states, such as the Antigonid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, were indirectly involved in the war. The war resulted in a significant expansion of Roman hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean, notably in Asia Minor, from where the Seleukids withdrew completely. The Attalid kingdom in particular profited from the subsequent reorganization of the area. However, the outcome of the collision of these two states -- another Roman victory -- had been hardly predictable when the war began. In the preceding decade Rome had defeated Carthage and king Philip V of Macedon; Antiochos had returned victorious from his eastern Anabasis and had crushed the Ptolemaic army in Palestine. Both states were strong and self-confident.

The title of the book is somewhat provocative. The war is normally called the Syrian War of the Romans. It has been studied mainly from the viewpoint of the winning side. G.'s treatment of the war, however, is in the first place Seleukid history. In the Introduction, G., who has written several other books on Seleukid history, including a political biography of Seleukos Nikator and a prosopography,1 laments the modern preoccupation with the rise of the Roman Empire in the Hellenistic age and the subsequent lack of interest for the achievements of the other states of that period in their own right: 'The study of Carthage, for example, is scarcely a central issue in ancient studies, and even Hellenistic Greece has often been relegated to an appendix of its supposedly glorious "classical" period. Into this historical dustbin the Seleukid empire is also consigned' (p. 1). The statement is perhaps slightly overdrawn. Alexander the Great and Kleopatra VII have always managed to stay clear from the dustbin, and the past two decades have witnessed a revival of interest in Hellenistic history and culture. In particular many efforts have been made to place the empires of Alexander and the Seleukids more firmly in the context of Near Eastern history. G.'s rejection of the designation Syrian War concurs with this trend. The Roman use of 'Syria' as pars pro toto for the Seleukid kingdom has often distorted the modern image of that empire, the core of which was the entire Fertile Crescent of both Syria and Mesopotamia for nearly two centuries. The importance of Iran for the empire is now also recognized more often. Concentration on the Seleukid side allows G. to take a skeptical view of the two main sources for the war, the accounts in Polybios and Livy. Both are Rome-centered, the latter even overtly pro-Roman, as well as 'perfunctory, patchy and at times distorted'. G. admits that in reaction to the bias in the sources he has bent overmuch to the Seleukid viewpoint but points out in defense that the Roman viewpoint has been studied repeatedly, the Seleukid only rarely. G.'s main purpose is therefore to shed light on the motivation and logic behind the actions of Antiochos. Of course, this does not eliminate the problem of fragmentary and pro-Roman sources and the lack of evidence from the Seleukid side, and often G. has to read between the lines or employ his imagination to show how the events looked from the other side.

The book has been set up chronologically and is divided into seventeen chapters. Throughout the book, G. is concerned with political and, especially, diplomatic history rather than military history. Thus, detailed scrutiny of the negotiations that led to the war constitutes more than half of the book: due to some beautiful coincidence, the outbreak of the war itself takes place at page 192. Also in the part dealing with the actual war diplomacy is the predominant theme.

In Chapter 1, G. starts with an examination of possible earlier contacts between the Romans and the Seleukids. This part has a very tentative character. That diplomatic contacts took place seems self-evident, but there are no sources attesting to Seleukid-Roman relations before the second century. G. tries to make the best out of whatever (circumstantial) evidence there is. He reaches more solid ground around the year 200, when Antiochos crushed the Ptolemies at the Battle of Panion, and took control of Ptolemaic Phoenicia and Palestine. G. hypothesizes a high decree of anxiety on the side of the Romans as regards a possible Seleukid conquest of Egypt. Though this in itself is plausible enough, I believe G. overestimates Roman power in the East at this stage when he supposes that Antiochos refrained from invading Egypt under pressure of Roman envoys. Antiochos' decision to make his next step the subjugation of the Ptolemaic cities along the coast of Asia Minor makes perfect sense without postulating Roman interference. Though the capture of the stronghold Gaza in 198 may have opened up the road to Egypt for Antiochos, as G. claims, the opposite can also be maintained, that Antiochos captured Gaza in order to protect his back, which makes it far less surprising that Antiochos 'suddenly' halted and turned the other way. Throughout the book this paradox remains: G. wishes to write Seleukid history, but due to his choice of subject matter -- the Roman war of Antiochos the Great -- and the bias in the sources his description of the events cannot be fundamentally rooted in a broader Seleukid and Near Eastern context but always relates primarily to Antiochos' eventual collision with Rome.

Chapters 2 to 8 discuss the diplomatic sparring prior to the Roman declaration of war in 192. Here G. is not looking for the underlying origins of the conflict but examines the direct (diplomatic) dynamics that led directly to the outbreak of war between the two powers. In G.'s rendition of the events, negotiations came to naught despite attempts on both sides to avoid war. Between 198 and 196 Antiochos campaigned successfully along the coasts of southern and western Asia Minor and re-established his kingdom as the principal power there. In 196, the same year that Flamininus proclaimed the freedom of the Greeks at the Isthmian Games, Antiochos made peace with the Ptolemaic king, crossed the Hellespont and invaded Thrace. He claimed the country as his by ancestral right of conquest; it had come into the possession of his family when Seleukos Nikator defeated Lysimachos, nearly one hundred years earlier. Antiochos' activities in the Balkans aroused the suspicions of Rome. Conversely, Antiochos had good reason to mistrust Roman intentions as regards the Greek mainland. G.'s principal thesis in this part of the book is that both sides made well-meaning efforts to avoid and solve disputes, but the disagreements could not be resolved as both sides were hounded by the ambitions of their subsidiary clients. Pergamon, Rhodes and other states that were threatened by Antiochos appealed to Rome; states threatened by Rome appealed to Antiochos.

Chapters 9 to 16 are devoted to the war itself. In 192 the Aitolian League persuaded Antiochos to cross the Aegean and liberate Greece. Modern historians have often wondered about Antiochos' supposed mistake in taking only a relative small army with him to Greece, which proved to be no match for the expeditionary force later brought in by Rome. G. argues that Antiochos' must have known what he was doing and that the size of his army must have fitted his purposes at that moment. He also maintains that Antiochos' invaded Greece still believing that he could avoid a confrontation with Rome. But by then Rome had become too suspicious of Antiochos and reacted with a declaration of war. The Romans defeated Antiochos in yet another Battle of Thermopylai. Antiochos withdrew to Asia Minor. In the following years the war was continued at sea and later in western Asia Minor, until Antiochos' final defeat at Magnesia. G. argues that Antiochos could have continued the war after Magnesia but chose not to do so for fear of a Ptolemaic attack in Palestine. That is why Antiochos accepted the harsh terms for the Peace of Apameia. In support of this view, G. makes clear that not all the clauses of the treaty were really put into effect: only part of the Seleukid fleet was actually burnt and Antiochos' successors still had plenty of war elephants at their disposal, even though the treaty forbade them the possession of both warships and elephants.

The last chapter, 'Results', discusses the effects of the Roman victory at Magnesia and the subsequent Treaty of Apameia on the later development of the Seleukid Empire. G. concludes that the consequences of Magnesia and Apameia for the Seleukid Empire have been much overestimated. Antiochos still commanded the enormous resources of capital and manpower of his Asian empire east of the Tauros Mountains. This conclusion is at variance with traditional views but consistent with the current belief that the defeat was not a fatal disaster from which the Seleukid Empire could not recover, let alone the cause of the empire's ultimate collapse. It is now more often supposed that the main cause for Seleukid decline -- which started more than one generation after Antiochos the Great -- was internal dynastic strife (instead of the other way round), and that the loss of Iran to the Parthians, which was a direct result of internecine conflict within the Seleukid family, and the subsequent Parthian incursions into Babylonia were probably more lethal injuries than the Roman victory in the west.2 G.'s study of the war supports this view, which has in the recent past been defended most fervently by Amélie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White.3 G. adds the interesting observation that it was actually a benefit to get rid of Asia Minor with its innumerable intricate and awkward problems, its cities, its kingdoms, its petty disputes and restless populations -- although the Seleukids themselves would not have seen it in such a light (350-1).

The outcome of the war, and the book, is ambivalent. On the one hand, G. stresses the fact that Antiochos still ruled a vast empire, stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, and that Seleukid military power remained impressive. On the other hand, G. also endorses the traditional view that the Seleukid kingdom 'was reduced from one of two great powers in the Mediterranean to one of half a dozen secondary powers, though no doubt the predominant one amongst them' (351). However, the only indication for the Seleukid empire's second rating relative to Rome shortly after Magnesia is the puzzling Day of Eleusis in 167, when Antiochos Epiphanes apparently obeyed a Roman command to evacuate his army from Egypt. But the same Antiochos Epiphanes was also able to parade a campaigning army of 50,000 men near Antioch in 166, and as late as 130 Antiochos Sidetes led an even larger army against the Parthians -- an army that routinely defeated the opponents with whom the Romans would later have so much trouble.

One other aspect of this otherwise important and interesting study may be criticized, the consistent presentation of Antiochos' actions as rational and balanced. Honor, andreia, heroic ethos, the king's role as liberator and savior of cities, the symbolic function of conquest -- no such things are considered compelling motives for the king's behavior. The main reason for this seems to be the 'Roman' bias in the sources, i.e. the fact that Polybios presents and explains Antiochos' actions as rational, instead of his being ruled by the public image of his kingship. G. pictures his protagonist as a pragmatic diplomat rather than a deified Great King. But Antiochos was both. For instance, G. argues that one of the reasons why negotiations went wrong was the misguided Roman fear that Antiochos, in imitation of Alexander, aimed at universal conquest. Yet claims to unlimited power were central to Seleukid ideology, and conquest was a principal duty of the king. In the Seleukid kingdom, as in earlier monarchies of the Near East, universalistic pretensions existed alongside the recognition, in inter-state diplomacy, of the existence of other powers.4 Antiochos' policy, too, will have been ruled by both his being obliged to live up to the expectations inherent to Seleukid royal ideology and political pragmatism, as his eastern Anabasis demonstrates. Yet again and again disapproving judgments of Antiochos' actions in the sources are discarded because G. considers them instances of anti-Seleukid prejudice. The Romans themselves are judged likewise. They too act predominantly rationally; they too wish to avoid war. Indications in Polybios that certain Romans, perhaps willingly, provoked the war are dismissed as nonsensical and ascribed to Seleukid propaganda (90-5). However, Polybios' admiration for the Republic never withheld him from openly criticizing Roman actions he disapproved of. It may also be doubted whether a historian like Polybios would rely on Seleukid propaganda and reject the version that he heard in Rome.

Notwithstanding such criticisms, The Roman War of Antiochos the Great is an important book about an important historical event. There remains only one last quibble: the publisher has left many typing errors intact throughout the book, as well as some inconsistencies in the spelling of ancient names (e.g. Achaimenid alongside Akhaimenid). Also, several footnotes are left in a state of work in progress (i.e. titles of books without page numbers, references to ancient authors without the passage that is cited).


1.   Seleukos Nikator. Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom (London 1992); A Seleukid Prosopography and Gazetteer (Leiden 1997). Also: The Cities of Seleukid Syria (Oxford 1990), and Hellenistic Phoenicia (Oxford 1992).
2.   See C. Habicht in CAH 8 (1989) 324-87, esp. p. 369ff.; J.D. Lerner, The Impact of Seleucid Decline on the Eastern Iranian Plateau (Stuttgart 1999), argues that the Parthians wrested Iran from the Seleukids earlier than is usually assumed; the ultimate loss of Babylonia to the Parthians, however, did not take place before 128/7 B.C.E.
3.   A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White, From Samarkhand to Sardis. A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (London 1993) 215-6; cf. pp. 217-29 for a brief discussion of the causes of Seleukid decline. See now also the fascinating study of Hellenistic royal infighting by Daniel Ogden, Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties (Oxford 1999), who argues that conflicts over the succession were the single most important reason for the demise of all the Hellenistic kingdoms.
4.   On this concept: M. Liverani, Prestige and Interest. International Relations in the Near East (Padova 1990).

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