Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.07

Daniel Ogden, The Legend of Seleucus: Kingship, Narrative and Mythmaking in the Ancient World.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 386.  ISBN 9781107164789.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Marijn Visscher (


In this excellent book, Daniel Ogden tackles head-on a tricky, but fruitful topic in Hellenistic studies: the many stories, legends and myths surrounding the figure of Seleucus Nicator. The book consists of six thematic chapters that roughly follow the course of Seleucus’ life. The seventh, and final, chapter is a more in-depth discussion of methodology and sources. The book aims to unite and combine different narratives about Seleucus into a coherent whole, while systematically disentangling various layers of the legend. One of its strong points is the exhaustive collection and thorough discussion of the sources. Ogden not only discusses different source passages in depth, he integrates his discussion with possible typological comparanda. The most important of these is the Alexander Romance, but Ogden also looks at folk-tale motifs and other legends, from Greek and Near Eastern mythology. In addition to his careful analysis of passages, Ogden often raises more speculative questions about the material, which subsequently remain unanswered. This happens consistently throughout all chapters and seems to be a conscious choice. Many of the questions raised are tantalising, but not particularly well suited where they appear in the text, as throw-away remarks that disturb the flow of the main argument.

The introduction motivates the book and offers a summary biography of Seleucus. It also provides a very brief methodological discussion as well as a short presentation of the sources. The brevity of the methodological discussion is unproblematic, as it is picked up at the end of the book in much more detail. Part of the introduction, outlining the questions that will be discussed throughout the book, is written as a bullet-point list rather than as running text. While concise, this seems a little abrupt, as it fails to provide any context to the reader detailing why the questions listed are of particular importance.

The first chapter discusses the oracles, omens and prophecies at the beginning of Seleucus’ life. These revolve around the anchor motif and tokens of royal power, like the diadem and the signet rings. The chapter also discusses the legend of Seleucus’ parentage by the god Apollo, who appeared to Laodice in her sleep. Ogden connects the dreams of Laodice with the Alexander Romance, especially the tradition on Nectanebo and Ammon. Moreover, a comparison is made with the tradition of signet rings left as a sign of a supernatural visitor and, interestingly, with Mesopotamian dream oracle texts concerning rings. In addition, the chapter discusses the omens relating to Seleucus’ rule of Asia, in contrast ruling Europe. Finally, the different episodes in which the greatness of Seleucus is suggested by direct connection to Alexander. Ogden concludes that, as Seleucus did not seem to have played a significant role in the original campaign of Alexander, his importance had to be retroactively embedded in the tradition.

In the second chapter Ogden focusses on historical narratives about the events that lead to Seleucus’ accession to kingship. Ogden singles out the pivotal moment when Seleucus flees from and reconquers Babylon. He argues that the story of the flight from Babylon strongly relies on a prevalent trope in Macedonian and Persian literature, namely that of the fleeing hero. Stories of this kind follow a common structure: the protagonist flees from a royal court with the symbols of kingship, the king pursues him, but the protagonist is saved after crossing a body of water and subsequently becomes king himself. Ogden discusses various manifestations of this story-type: Herodotus’ history of Perdiccas I, founder of the Argead dynasty; Ctesias’ rendering of Cyrus’ accession to power; the Alexander Romance; and the story of Ardeshir. Although Ogden makes some interesting points in this comparison, he does not discuss the most important: the return of Nebuchadnezzar II to Babylon to retrieve the kingship.1

In the third chapter, Ogden opens a rich fount of interconnected stories, this time concerning Seleucus I as city founder. At the heart of this chapter is the polis foundation list in Appian. In the first part of the chapter, Ogden discusses the shared motifs between the different Tetrapolis foundations, such as the eagle omens and the marking of the city-walls, and compares them to the Alexander Romance. Furthermore, Ogden finds as many as nine different narratives revolving around Mt. Kasius and the myths of thunder-wielding gods slaying primordial dragons, ranging from Hittite myths to Greek legends. In the second half of the chapter, he touches on the foundation myth of a proto-Antioch, featuring settlers searching for Io and the different tribes of Greeks who came to Antioch-on-the-Orontes. Here, Ogden does not engage with Kosmin’s interpretation of this narrative, which highlights how the royal foundation by Seleucus is blended with a foundation myth that ties Antioch to the Greek polis world, as in Libanius’ version.2 Regarding the foundation of Seleucia on the Tigris, Ogden highlights some interesting points about the king and his relationship with the Chaldeans of Babylon. However, the analysis of the foundation of Seleucia is not as extensive as some other parts of the book.

The fourth and fifth chapters of the book deal with Queen Stratonice’s love life and could easily have been merged into one. The fourth chapter deals with the legend of Stratonice and Combabus while the fifth analyses the relationship between Stratonice and Antiochus. The order of the chapters feels counter-intuitive, as the Antiochus narrative not only has older sources, but is also better grounded in history, but Ogden does set up his argument about the Stratonice legends convincingly over the two chapters, and he is neither repetitive nor unclear.

The Combabus chapter focusses on Lucan’s De Dea Syria, and Ogden does not merely read it in the usual context of Stratonice as the Oriental goddess. Instead he fleshes out the comparison with the typology of the king and the trusted eunuch found in a variety of different stories, which supports the point that Lucian’s Stratonice story is partly modelled on folk-tales and partly on an image of Stratonice as a romantic figure. Ogden reads the story of Antiochus and Stratonice primarily in the context of the medical tradition of love-symptoms, and compares it to the story of Perdiccas I of Macedonia, who allegedly also married his stepmother/father’s concubine. These stories are analysed as narratives of future kings gaining legitimacy by marrying the queen, a form of levirate. Although Ogden provides an innovative and insightful way of analysing the material in relation to medical texts, I think the literary version of these stories is more indebted to the ‘Potifar’s wife/Hippolytus’ story-type than Ogden acknowledges.

In Chapter 6, the book discusses the death of Seleucus and omens regarding the end of his life. This chapter circles back to chapter one, as it revisits the omens that juxtaposed Asia and Europe. The former was foreshadowed to be a place of kingship, the latter a place of death, an unattainable home. Indeed, it is during his attempted conquest of his old homeland that Seleucus I is betrayed and killed in Thrace by Ptolemy Ceraunus, the son-in-exile of King Ptolemy. Especially interesting is Ogden’s discussion of the alternate tradition that Seleucus died peacefully in bed, in Seleucia on the Tigris. 3 Ogden also considers a tradition that connects the deaths of Lysimachus and Seleucus, linking their fate to hubris at the end of their lives. As an example of Seleucus’ hubris, Ogden very briefly discusses his alleged plan to dig a canal from the Black to the Caspian Sea. Yet, Seleucus’ last plans fit with a well-known Seleucid interest in exploration of the Caspian Sea, aiming to map the political geography of the empire. As such, referencing the plan to dig a canal is not a only marker of hubris, but a reference to imperial power, based on politically powerful, yet inaccurate, geographical information.

The seventh chapter aims to address the big questions concerning the legends of Seleucus: where did the legends come from; when were they written; to what extent were they royal propaganda; were they developed at a central point or did they grow organically from many different sources? This is the most important chapter of the book and one could argue that it would work well as the first chapter. It provides a good introduction to methodological issues concerning Fraser’s proposed ‘Seleucus Romance’.4 This term, coined by Fraser, has been mentioned various times in Seleucid scholarship, but Ogden's book is the first to tackle it head on.5 The advantage of placing it at the end is that the reader is now well acquainted with the different parts of the legend. Most sources have appeared at least once already, so the reader is familiar enough with them to focus on the methodological points.

One of the ongoing questions in Seleucid studies is whether the narratives about Seleucus from the Second Sophistic already existed in Seleucus’ own time or shortly thereafter. In the last chapter, Ogden argues that trying to determine the precise authorship of the stories in writers like Diodorus is futile and ultimately a red herring when addressing the Seleucus legend. He concludes that many of the writers that could potentially have written ‘mature’ versions of the legend are concentrated at the court of Antiochus III. This fits very well with the conclusion of other Seleucid scholars.6 Also of interest is Ogden’s observation that the Seleucus and Alexander Romances most likely developed in tandem and influenced each other; we should not assume that the stories of Alexander always came first. In his methodological discussion, Ogden not only provides a comprehensive discussion of the literary sources, he also discusses coin imagery. First, he addresses the chicken-and-egg question regarding the imagery on coins; he argues convincingly that coin symbols were most likely rooted in their own context, serving as raw material that predated later legends. In Ogden’s view, it is unlikely that coin imagery reflected pre-existing versions of the legends that have now been lost.

As Ogden points out, it is unlikely that we will ever get to the bottom of precisely when, how and why the Seleucus legend was brought to life. However, this insightful and detailed book provides some important pointers to the ways it might have developed and is a valuable addition to Seleucid scholarship.7


1.   Found in Berossus, Brill’s New Jacoby 680 F8a. This comparison is extensively discussed by Dillery and it would have been interesting to Ogden’s perspective on this narrative. Dillery, J. (2013), “Berossos’ Narrative of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar from Josephus”, in The World of Berossos, Harrazowitz Verlag, 82-90; cf. Visscher, M.S. Beyond Alexandria: Literature and Empire in the Seleucid World, (Unpublished PhD, University of Durham, UK); Kuhrt, A. (1987) “Berossus’ Babiloniaca and Seleucid rule in Babylonia”, in Hellenism in the East, University of California Press, 56.
2.   Kosmin, P. (2014) Land of the Elephants Kings, Harvard University Press, 232-233.
3.   This version can be found in Lucian, De Dea Syria, 18 and is alluded to in Ptolemy Chennus, Strange History 5, apud Photius Bibliotheca, cf. Ogden, D. (2017) The Legend of Seleucus: Kingship, Narrative and Mythmaking in the Ancient World, Cambridge University Press, 252-259.
4.   Appian, On the Syrian Wars, 57.295-298; Fraser, P. (1996) The Cities of Alexander the Great, Oxford University Press, 35-39.
5.   See especially: Kosmin, P. (2014) Land of the Elephants Kings, Harvard University Press; Erickson, K.G., The early Seleucids, their gods and their coins, (Unpublished PhD, University of Exeter, UK).
6.   Kosmin, P. (2014) Land of the Elephants Kings, Harvard University Press, 94-100; Primo, A. (2009) La Storiografia sui Seleucidi , Fabrizio Serra.
7.   See e.g. Coskun, A. and A. McAuley (ed.) (2016) Seleukid Royal Women, Franz Steiner Verlag; Kosmin, P. (2014) Land of the Elephants Kings, Harvard University Press; Grainger, J. (2014) The Rise of the Seleukid Empire, Pen & Sword History.

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