Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.06.40

Makis Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy. The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  Pp. 361.  ISBN 0-521-83707-3.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (
Word count: 2093 words

The Achaemenid and Parthian empires have attracted more interest from historians than the intermediate period, the period of Seleukid rule in the Near East. It would be incorrect to say that the history and culture of the east in the last centuries BCE has been neglected. But the Empire of the Seleukids has been given its due place as part of the history of the Ancient Near East (instead of being merely an appendix to Greek history) only in the last two decades or so, owing to the work of historians like Amélie Kuhrt, Susan Sherwin-White, Pierre Briant and Bert van der Spek, and the late Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg. Much more work still needs to be done. But the old distinction between an Achaemenid Empire and a Seleukid Kingdom, let alone the anachronistic designation of the Seleukids as kings of Syria, now belongs to the past.

Makis Aperghis' The Seleukid Royal Economy is a welcome addition to this development. The book, based on Aperghis' dissertation of 2000, is concerned with more than economic history alone. It is, as indeed the title promises, a study of the finances of the Seleukid Empire, and as such a study of imperialism and imperial administration in a much broader sense. The scope of the book is very broad. Aperghis discusses the resources, means of taxation, annual revenues and expenditures of the empire for a period of more than two hundred years, in an area stretching from western Asia Minor to Baktria and Sogdia.

Aperghis uses a variety of written and archeological sources, and ventures across a number of disciplines. Of key importance are coins (the distribution of mints and hoards), survey archaeology, excavation reports, cuneiform documents (especially the corpus of astronomical diaries in the British Museum, containing valuable information on production and commodity prices in Seleukid Babylonia), royal letters concerning land grants and taxation, and book 2 of Ps.-Aristotle's Oikonomika, which in Aperghis' view describes the economy of the Near East under the early Seleukids. Aperghis also makes use of evidence for the economy of the preceding Achaemenid Empire; he does so sensibly and cautiously, acquiring valuable additional data and pointing out changes and continuities as well. Although this reviewer will be the last to disagree with such an approach, it may not be to everyone's taste, and the conclusions that Aperghis draws are open to debate, as Aperghis himself readily admits.

In the ongoing debate on the nature of the ancient economy, Aperghis classifies himself as a modernist. Inspired by Claire Préaux's views about the Ptolemaic economy, Aperghis argues that the Seleukids took a keen interest in the economies of the various regions of the Near East and actively encouraged economic growth throughout their empire, notably with regard to cities. The economic policy of the Seleukid state is comparable to that of a modern state, Aperghis asserts. I will return to his standpoint in the primitivist-modernist debate at the end of this review. First we will look at the contents of the book.

The Seleukid Royal Economy is divided into three parts. Part I, 'Preliminaries', introduces the main problems, and explains the author's methodology and use of sources. Part II, 'The underlying economy', discusses aspects of economy and demography in various regions of the Seleukid Near East in general; this part is especially interesting because of the region-by-region estimates of population numbers. Part III, 'The royal economy', focuses on the revenue, expenditure, and financial administration of the monarchy. The text is illustrated with one, rather small, map of the Hellenistic East -- showing the mountain ranges that divide the East into regions, and the principal cities -- and various tables and figures.

In the Introduction, Aperghis defines his main questions as 'How did the Seleukid kings derive their revenue?' and 'What expenses were incurred by the Seleukids to run their empire?' Both questions are necessarily divided into several sub-questions, concerning e.g. the forms of taxation, the significance of city foundations, land ownership, and coinage. The relatively short Part I, 'Preliminaries', begins with a discussion of the evidence for the Seleukid economy, followed by a brief overview of political history, and concludes with a crucial four-page chapter entitled 'The posing of a problem'. This problem is an historical one: an economic imbalance that according to Aperghis existed at the beginning of Seleukid rule. In the Achaemenid imperial system that Seleukos Nikator had inherited most of the tribute and taxes were paid in kind; but for the Seleukid king's expenditures, notably the payments for the army, silver was needed. The stored bullion of the Achaemenid kings had been coined and spent by Alexander. Thus, Aperghis concludes, Seleukos' income and reserves were insufficient to compete with his Mediterranean rivals. Aperghis then hypothesizes six measures developed by the Seleukid monarchy in subsequent years in order to increase silver revenue and strike coins.

The three chapters of Part II, 'The underlying economy' (chs. 4-6), provide a broad overview of the economies of the various countries and peoples under the rule of the Seleukids. Dividing the empire at its greatest extent into regions -- Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia and the Upper Satrapies (including Iran) -- Aperghis first endeavors to give population estimates for all Seleukid provinces, as well as several cities, on the basis of written sources and (survey) archaeology, arriving at a total population of ca. 20 million for the empire in the third century BCE. The next chapter deals with natural resources, agricultural production, prices, and trade, followed by a last chapter discussing land ownership, viz. the practice of royal land grants to individuals, cities, and temples. Aperghis concludes that there was no private land, in the sense that it was completely alienable without interference from the king, apart from land held by cities and temples. The relevance of this chapter for Aperghis' overall thesis is the conclusion that there was a conscious royal policy of land allotment to cities with the aim of boosting civic economy and increasing silver revenue for the royal treasury.

Part III, 'The royal economy' (chs. 7-13), is concerned with the revenues and expenditures of the Seleukid state. It consists of seven chapters. Chapter 7 is a crucial preliminary for the arguments in Part III: here it is meticulously argued that the second book of Ps.-Aristotle's Oikonomika, 'a manual for would-be administrators', describes the financial administration of the Seleukid Empire under Antiochos I and may therefore serve as 'a useful guide' for reconstructing satrapal taxation and administration. Chapter 8 scrutinizes diverse forms of revenue available to the Seleukids: revenue from land and natural resources, royal mines, tolls, taxes on transport and trade, regular taxation of cities, exploitation of royal lands, et cetera. Relatively little attention is paid to what Aperghis from his declared modernist viewpoint calls 'extraordinary revenue': indemnities imposed on defeated enemies, fines imposed on rebellious cities, plunder, 'gifts' required from cities and temples -- in short, the direct benefits of warfare and military coercion; the, debatable, conclusion here is that the latter forms of income 'constituted overall and in the long run a negligible proportion of the income of Seleukid kings.' Aperghis estimates the total annual revenue of the empire as ca. 10,000-15,000 talents in the third century, reaching a peak of ca. 20,000 talents annually under successful kings such as Seleukos I and Antiochos III. Chapter 9 discusses the handling of commodity surpluses by satrapal officials, who were responsible for disposing of revenue in kind that could not be traded for silver. Chapter 10 deals with the expenditures of the empire: military expenses (the payment of the standing army and garrison troops, and the upkeep of the navy), the costs of provincial administration, and expenditures connected with the court. Here again there is a residue category of 'extraordinary expenditure' comprising indemnities, tax exemptions, city- and colony-building, productivity improvements (e.g. the upkeep or expansion of irrigation networks), and benefactions. Although particularly the latter two may well have been more regular forms of expenditure than Aperghis is willing to admit, being obligatory duties of the legitimate king and thus necessary 'investments' to gain acceptance and secure loyalty, Aperghis is certainly right in emphasizing the costs of the army as the Seleukid's principal debit entry. He estimates the total annual cost for the armed forces at 7,000-10,000 talents, against 2,000-3,000 talents a year for both the satrapal administration and the court. However, owing to lack of evidence, the costs of the administration must be 'purely based on educated speculation', whereas the court is mentioned only in passing, given the lack of secondary literature on this topic. Chapter 11 deals with the production and distribution of coins. In particular the first Seleukid kings minted silver tetradrachms on a large scale 'to monetize the economy of the empire to the greatest extent and as rapidly as possible, so as to ensure an adequate supply of silver ... for their expenses, principally military' (p. 245). Part of the silver was hoarded, in coin and bullion, as reserves for major military campaigns. The concluding chapter of Part III is titled 'A model of the Seleukid economy', in which the main conclusions of both Part II and Part III are discussed. Chapter 13 comes as a kind of appendix, discussing the formal aspects of the financial administration of the empire. There are also two useful regular appendices: the first listing all Seleukid coin hoards with their respective dates and contents, the second containing the key documents discussed in the book, reproduced in Greek with English translation.

Makis Aperghis' The Seleukid Royal Economy is a useful and longed-for addition to our understanding of the Seleukid Empire. Not that the Seleukid economy has suffered from lack of interest, but there still is a relative lack of comprehensive monographs about the Seleukid Near East. Still, some criticism is in order. The author asks for it. In the first sentence of the preface he proudly states that 'this book is likely to be controversial' (p. xi). Indeed, many of Aperghis' conclusions may be disputed.

The Seleukid Royal Economy has two weaknesses. First, there is the uneven availability of sources. The way in which Aperghis makes the best of what little there is will seem bold to some, unacceptable to others. For instance the conclusion that Mesopotamia yielded an estimated annual revenue of 5,000-6,000 talents is in turn based on an estimated population of four to five million inhabitants. Similarly, the 2,000-3,000 talents that according to Aperghis were spent annually on the upkeep of the court is an extremely cautious speculation based on the educated guess that the Achaemenid kings spent ca. 5,000 talents; but the Seleukids may well have spent the same amount of money, or twice as much. Moreover, if one does not agree with Aperghis' identification of the Oikonomika as a source for the early Seleukid financial administration, and furthermore does not accept his use of sources for the Achaemenid economy, criticizing this book becomes simplicity itself. It should be added, however, that this reviewer found Aperghis use of sources wholly acceptable.

The second flaw is deliberate: Aperghis' provocative modernist stance. His ideas regarding the Seleukids' far-reaching concern for the economy, their active involvement in economic processes even, and their efforts to introduce a monetary economy in the Near East -- all of this is always well argued, although perhaps not always to everyone's liking. The other side of the coin, however, is the fact that evident 'primitive' aspects of the Seleukid royal economy are depreciated or go unmentioned. For instance in the discussion of expenditures, the presumably enormous costs of gift-distribution among royal philoi and other courtiers are hardly taken into account, let alone the probability that the Seleukids ran the risk of over-consumption because of obligatory status expenditures. Aperghis similarly minimizes the significance of royal euergesia -- a point earlier brought against Aperghis' model by Klaus Bringmann1 -- and, on the credit side, the fact that cities and vassals could also pay their 'protection money' in the form of public acknowledgment of the ruler as Great King, cultic honors, troops, or provisions for the army during campaigns. Most of all, Aperghis too easily dismisses warfare as a major source of income of Seleukid kings.

Thus, the book succeeds in raising fundamental questions about the economy in imperial states. Aperghis' study is therefore relevant for more than economic history alone. Offering valuable insights into, and raising fundamental questions about, the finances of the Seleukid Empire, it is also of interest for political historians working on Greco-Macedonian imperialism in the East, perhaps even for those interested in the functioning of empires in general.


1.   K. Bringmann, 'Königliche Ökonomie im Spiegel des Euergetismus der Seleukiden', Klio 87 (2005) 102-15, a response to M. Aperghis, 'Population, production, taxation, coinage: A model for the Seleukid economy', in: Z.H. Archibald et al. eds., Hellenistic Economies (London and New York 2001) 69-102. Bringmann also stresses that in his view cities paid tribute partly in kind; Aperghis addresses this problem in chapter 9.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:05, Friday, 03 April 2009