Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.22

Laurent Capdetrey, Le pouvoir séleucide. Territoire, administration, finances d'un royaume hellénistique (312-129 avant J.C.). Collection "Histoire".   Rennes:  Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2007.  Pp. 536 .  ISBN 978-2-7535-0524-7.  €24.00.  

Reviewed by Federicomaria Muccioli, Università di Bologna (
Word count: 1847 words

On the whole, these are good times for Seleucid history. New inscriptions, new coins have been recently discovered or reinterpreted and, above all, new methodological approaches and new trends have stirred fervent discussions among scholars, especially in the last fifteen years, after the publication of the book From Samarkhand to Sardis. A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (London 1993) by S. Sherwin-White and A. Kuhrt, who stressed the importance of the Eastern part of the kingdom for the royal policy of the Seleucids. Besides this, new books have offered both updated portraits of pre-eminent personalities and a detailed outline of certain unclear periods of Seleucid history.1

Yet, in the existing bibliography on the Seleucid kingdom there has been no substantial and thorough study of institutions since Bickerman's foundational work (Institutions des Séleucides, Paris 1938). Now, such a book is no longer a desideratum. Capdetrey's book is a significant contribution to scholarship, a thorough well-structured discussion of Seleucid institutions indeed. The author has already showed in his previous studies a great interest in public institutions as well in the transmission and circulation of power in ancient states.2 In this book, since Capdetrey deals with the public institutions, he inevitably also engages in rewriting or reconsidering many moments of Seleucid history. In particular, he is interested in the economy, the system of administration, the social structures, the political system, the cultural changes and exchanges, along with the questions of ideology (of the Macedonian kings but also of the subjects of the kingdom).

The organization of these topics is lucid and easy to follow, since Capdetrey sets a clear chronological frame for his book. He describes the birth, the growth and finally the crisis of the Seleucid dynasty until the death of Antiochus VII. But he focuses above all on the period until the death of Antiochus IV, since our knowledge of the last period of Seleucid history -- one of great strife -- is very limited. Thus the bulk of the book is about the age of the first two rulers, following all the steps up to the founding of a polycentric empire (312-270 BC), which would form a good model for all successors thereafter (especially Antiochus III).

After a general introduction, the volume is divided into four parts:

1) 'Appropriation de l'espace royal et construction du pouvoir séleucide sous Séleucos Ier et Antiochos Ier';

2) 'Territoire royal et souveraineté séleucide: entre fractionnement et intégration';

3) 'Structure administrative et organisation du territoire royal séleucide';

4) 'Le roi, l'administration et l'organisation des pouvoirs'.

At the beginning of each part there is a useful introduction, where the layout of every sub-chapter is explained. In the final pages of the book the reader can find a short general conclusion (pp. 439-443), where the author sums up his main argument and remarks. The volume also contains five maps and one simplified genealogy of the Seleucid dynasty, a list of abbreviations and a list of Greek inscriptions (which are quoted in the main body of the book text in a straightforward way, so that they can be easily accessed by the reader), a bibliography, and a full index (including sources, proper names, technical and institutional terms, places, lands and peoples).

Capdetrey not only offers an impressive list of secondary literature in the most important modern languages (pp. 469-513), but he also uses it with great accuracy and success for his own purposes. Seleucid scholarship has indeed much to gain from the updated bibliography provided in this book; omissions are few and rarely important.

The book's editing was careful, leaving only a few misprints for the reader to discover (e.g., p. 26, n. 10: read Grayson, 1975a instead of Graysson, 1975a; p. 459, at the inscription no. 40: read OGIS 229 instead of OGIS 219). However, the quality of the book cover does not do credit to the publisher.

Generally, the volume is well written and the argument well sustained. Capdetrey's survey and discussion of all the advertised topics are detailed and clearly set out. His language is attractive and polished according to the recent trend in both French and English scholarship about the Seleucids (see, e.g., the studies by J.-M. Bertrand and J. Ma). In addition, the modern scholar who uses this book will appreciate the conciseness of the footnotes.

Capdetrey uses various sources: literary, numismatic, epigraphical but also cuneiform texts and a few papyri. All these are combined in a holistic approach, however, with particular emphasis on the inscriptions, from which several conclusions are drawn. Yet the other sources also offer a wide range of perspectives to Capdetrey's analysis and so they form an important part of his methodology.

On the whole, Capdetrey's own contribution to the discussion is subtle and powerful, particularly when he criticises or argues against points made by other scholars (e.g., pp. 87 ff., on the main thesis of S. Sherwin-White and A. Kuhrt; pp. 229 ff., p. 442). But even if Capdetrey's argument is generally coherent and convincing, it is hard for this reader to agree with all his theses or observations. Due to limited space, it is impossible to go into great detail concerning every point. Yet I hope I will be able to give some representative examples of those arguments that I have found to be especially stimulating and/or debatable.

- The author rightly notices that Seleucus I wanted to be regarded as a Macedonian, even among the Babylonians (see pp. 15, n. 24; 25 ff.; 52 ff., 179 ff., with a detailed discussion of the Borsippa cylinder). His pages about the foundation of Seleucia-on-Tigris and about Babylonian land and temples during the Seleucid kingdom are rich in ideas. Capdetrey deals convincingly with problems of religious continuity and royal legitimisation (underlining both the Mesopotamian respect of ancient tradition concerning Babylonian kingship and the cautious policy of the Seleucid rulers). He fully adopts the view that Alexander did not want to be called King of Babylon, preferring to be regarded as a Great King and successor of Achaemenids. In this, Capdetrey follows U. Scharrer (in K. Brodersen, ed., Zwischen West und Ost, Hamburg 1999, pp. 119-123), but without explaining the reasons for his alignment (p. 179, n. 86). To this discussion there belongs also the problem of the so-called Dynastic Prophecy, which affected or may have affected the Seleucid attitude towards the Babylonians (and vice versa).3

- New trends in Hellenistic history have shown the importance of a systematic comparison of various dynasties (for a better understanding of institutions, but also of financial problems). At some instances Capdetrey includes the Ptolemies in his discussion (e.g., pp. 13, 26, 147, 157, 283, 379, 437). Yet, in some other cases a precise comparison between the Seleucids and the Lagids would have been useful or even necessary (on economy and administration but also, e.g., on the dynastic cult and on the image and functions of the king: pp. 323 ff., 428 ff. and passim).

- Capdetrey also focuses on the relationship between the Seleucids and the Achaemenid tradition and points out the similarities and the differences in the administration of power (for instance, pp. 112 ff., 142 ff., 254 ff., 377, 396, 426, 440). In any case, it is really hard to see the Seleucids (and above all Antiochus III) as the heirs of the Achaemenids, as some scholars have suggested.

- Capdetrey extends his analysis to the problem of the dynasts called Frataraka in ancient Fars, and offers interesting comments about their 'independence' from the Seleucids (pp. 102-103, 116, 132-133, 163, 252). The problem requires expertise in both history and archaeology. In the context of the disintegration -- or at least the decline -- of centralized government in the Seleucid kingdom, the author raises several issues, institutional, chronological, and even ideological and religious. Regarding the religious aspect, what the iconography of the Frataraka coins shows is that there might possibly have been a link with the Achaemenid past -- yet Capdetrey avoids discussing this much debated topic.4

- Capdetrey's discussion of the two different traditions concerning the sources of the birth of the Arsacid kingdom is insightful and convincing. His balanced argument rightly focuses on the historical role and on the effects of Andragoras' defeat before the invasion of the Parni (pp. 124 ff.). But the historical problem is connected with the historiographical problem of the two main traditions, and it would certainly be helpful if Capdetrey also examined the ideological and propagandistic background of the two different versions, making clear their importance even for later periods.

- Capdetrey follows the communis opinio on the problem of Seleucis and of defining its geographical limits, taking a position against that of D. Musti, who suggested that the name Seleucis was initially used for nearly the whole kingdom, not only for North Syria (p. 246; but cf. p. 22). But in this case I think that the geographical aspect is to be viewed alongside the ideology which the name carries. The word may well be an aspect of propaganda in the construction of the Seleucid empire.

- About the dynastic cult Capdetrey stands in agreement with the scholarship which tends to place its start some time during the reign of Antiochus III. On the basis of epigraphical criteria we may accept this view, but on the other hand we must take into account the problem of the dating of the Nicatoreion built in Seleucia-in-Pieria. Capdetrey mentions it briefly, quoting an important article by E. Marinoni (in RIL, 106, 1972, pp. 579-631), but he avoids discussing the problem of its date and its importance for the ruler cult (pp. 359-361; by the way, Capdetrey offers and excellent and detailed discussion of the 'capital cities' in his book). It would also have been useful if Capdetrey specified the milieu of some quoted inscriptions, such as the ones from Teos and Seleucia-in-Pieria, no. 54 and no. 148 in the book (p. 323, n. 342). The latter is quoted wrongly in the final index (p. 521). I also suggest adding SEG XXXV, 1521, to the list of the editions of this text.

- About the role and function of the philoi, Capdetrey has much to say, often following the views expressed recently by other scholars, i.e. by I. Savalli-Lestrade but also by G. Weber and, partly, by C. Carsana. Capdetrey underlines the importance of the Greek-Macedonian side in the formation of the royal elite, whereas the role of local elites is not to be overvalued (pp. 383 ff.). However, I think that there is more to say here, especially in the period of the second century onwards, concerning the titles of the court, their changes and development, along with the development of the careers of Seleucid high officials. New epigraphical findings (and their interpretations) can allow us to say more about this issue.5

To sum up, it will be very difficult in the future to write or discuss Seleucid institutions and history without referring to or taking into account Capdetrey's informative book. This volume will certainly be welcomed by scholars, students, and all readers with an interest in Hellenistic or even in Middle Eastern history.


1.   See P.F. Mittag, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie, Berlin 2006; K. Ehling, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der späten Seleukiden (164-63 v. Chr.). Vom Tode des Antiochos IV. bis zur Einrichtung der Provinz Syria unter Pompeius, Historia Einzelschr., 196, Stuttgart 2007; see also the publication of the comprehensive catalogue of Seleucid coins: A. Houghton - C. Lorber, Seleucid Coins. A Comprehensive Catalogue, Part I, Seleucus I through Antiochus III, With Metrological Tables by B. Kritt, I-II, New York - Lancaster - London 2002, and G. G. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy. The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire, Cambridge 2004.
2.   See in particular L. Capdetrey - J. Nelis-Clément (eds.), La circulation de l'information dans les états antiques, Paris 2006 (see BMCR 2007.10.54).
3.   See now F. Landucci Gattinoni, in T. Gnoli - F. Muccioli (eds.), Incontri tra culture nell'Oriente ellenistico e romano, Milano 2007, pp. 29-54.
4.   See, among others, A. Panaino, in C. G. Cereti, M. Maggi and E. Provasi (eds.), Religious Themes and Texts of pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia, Wiesbaden 2003, pp. 265-288, and, more recently, some interesting articles published in the last issues of Iranica Antiqua, 42-43 (2007 and 2008), and P. Callieri, "L'archéologie du Fars à l'époque hellénistique", Persika 11, Paris 2007; J. Wiesehöfer, in V. Sarkhosh Curtis - S. Stewart (eds.), The Age of the Parthians, London - New York 2007, pp. 37-49.
5.   See H.M. Cotton - M. Wörrle, "Seleukos IV to Heliodoros. A New Dossier of Royal Correspondence from Israel", ZPE, 159 (2007), pp. 191-205 (= no. 151bis in Capdetrey's book; this epigraphical dossier is often cited in the footnotes).

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