BMCR 1990.02.08

The Cities of Seleukid Syria

, The Cities of Seleukid Syria. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. xi, 253 pages. ISBN 0198146949. $52.00.

The last year has seen the publication of several excellent books on the Roman east, each devoting much attention to the Roman province of Syria. 1 An important theme of one of these is the strength of Hellenism in Syria in the Roman and Byzantine periods. 2 One might expect the role of the great Hellenistic city foundations to be crucial to this survival, and hence an understanding of these cities to be fundamental not only to our knowledge of Seleucid Syria, but also of the region from the Seleucid period right through to the Arab conquest. John Grainger’s new book is thus a valuable study which fills a significant gap in the scholarly literature on the Hellenistic world and on Syria in general.

There are two major themes in G.’s book. The first is the central role of Seleucus I Nicator in creating the main elements of the urban geography of Syria as it was to survive until the Arab conquest. The second theme is the power balance between monarch, cities and pre-Hellenistic population established as a result of these city foundations, an equation which was also to survive in slightly modified form into the Byzantine period.

The first part of the book deals with Seleucus I’s city foundations, and their historical and geographical context. G.’s examination of the diverse but sketchy evidence for Achaemenid period urbanisation in Syria seeks to demonstrate that such settlement was extremely limited, and that the area had been greatly depopulated since the earlier Iron Age. His marshalling of all the available archaeological evidence is particularly impressive, and his comprehensive catalogue with full bibliography of both excavation and survey projects in Appendix 3 is valuable in itself. However, it is possible that his interpretation of the archaeological evidence is a little misguided, as will be discussed below. G. also displays appropriate scepticism concerning the level of pre-Seleucid Hellenistic settlement in this area.

The reign of Seleucus Nicator marked a crucial turning point in the urban development of Syria. G.’s basic thesis is summarised thus: “Before that there were a small number of urban centres in Syria; after his reign several other sites developed into cities; but Seleukos’ work was crucial” (91). His actions were “effectively revolutionary” (47). This is surely correct, as both Henri Seyrig and Fergus Millar have already recognised. 3

The core of this new urbanisation was formed by the tetrapolis of Antioch, Seleucia Pieria, Apamea and Laodicaea, along with a fifth strategically important site at Seleucia Zeugma. G. suggests that these foundations constituted a carefully planned policy, Seleucus’ main motive being the establishment of political and military control over his kingdom. G. cites a range of evidence to support this assertion. He illustrates that military requirements in the siting of the cities sometimes took priority over other factors such as economic prosperity, and discusses the topography of the settlements, demonstrating the importance of the size and location of the garrisoned acropoleis, not only for defence, but also for the royal control of the cities themselves. Again, G.’s arguments are very convincing, and he does not cite overland trade routes as an important factor in the location of the cities, a realistic change from the traditional obsession with long distance trade in this area. Here, clearly, political and military factors were more important.

This emphasis on the political and military role of Seleucus’ foundations leads in to G.’s second theme, the balance of power between the king, the cities and the native population. He notes that the cities were not Greek poleis in the classical sense. They lacked autonomy because of the presence of royal epistates and royal garrisons located in dominating positions. Nor did the cities demonstrate any great ambition for autonomy, in contrast to the Phoenician foundation of Arados. G. draws an analogy between Seleucus’ foundations and frontier towns in Macedonia, where civic autonomy was less important than the security offered by submission to royal power.

G. suggests that the need for security on the part of the cities was also an important factor in Seleucid Syria, and that Macedonian political precedents were followed. He presents Seleucus’ foundations as Graeco-Macedonian islands, “quite possibly feeling threatened by the Aramaic-speaking villagers in their country district”(147). The separation between hellenised city dweller and Aramaic speaking country dweller remains a constant theme in the history of the region, and is illustrated much later in the speeches of Libanius. Also it is perhaps better to think of the Hellenistic city as a separating, exclusive institution, rather than a centre for promoting the fusion of Graeco-Macedonian culture with that of the native population. This model has already been explored by Pierre Briant in an important article which appeared in 1978. 4 Royal military power maintained the security of the cities. In return, the cities provided the king with a source of military manpower and a mechanism for the taxation of the countryside. For, as Millar writes, “The Seleucid state, like most ancient states, was primarily a system for extracting taxes and forming armies.”5

G. provides evidence of the importance of this relationship by illustrating the consequences of a weak monarchy in the later second and early first centuries BC. At these times semitic political entities grew up and achieved autonomy, often at the expense of the Graeco-Macedonian cities. These included Arados, Emesa, Palmyra and the Ituraean kingdom. The political picture of Syria presented by Pliny ( NH 5, 81-82) is of Syria at a time when the balance of royal and civic control over the indigenous population had broken down. The cities’ response to the demise of strong central power, according to G., was to seek alternative ruler-protectors from outside. Tigranes of Armenia was one such outsider, invited in by Antioch in 83 BC. G. characterises him as “the cities’ king, a true successor to the Seleucids” (187) in his use of the Seleucid cities as the basis of his attempt to gain power. The fact that the cities were prepared to choose an individual not of Graeco-Macedonian extraction to fulfil this role shows how important it was to them that he succeed.

G. further suggests that Pompey the Great fulfilled a similar role as protector of the cities in the absence of a strong Seleucid monarch. The idea that elements within the region may have seen Rome as a means to fill a vacuum in their own political environment is one which it is interesting to compare with some of Erich Gruen’s notions regarding the development of Roman imperialism. 6 Ultimately, G. suggests, the mechanism of Roman provincial government, principally the legate and his legions, replaced the Seleucid kings and their armies, and by favouring the cities as a means of political control, restored the balance of power which had existed under Seleucus Nicator. By the end of the first century AD, the independent semitic kingdoms of southern Syria had been incorporated into the Roman province, which was administered for the most part through the cities. The Roman army provided the internal security which had previously been one of the functions of the Seleucid army. 7

Hence, G. shows, the political order established by Seleucus Nicator along with his city foundations not only lasted until the collapse of the Seleucid monarchy, but also formed the basis of Roman Syria from the later first century AD to the Arab conquest. This was an achievement every bit as impressive as his city foundations themselves.

There are a few methodological problems in G.’s work, which do not, however, detract significantly from its value. The first is the theoretical basis of Chapter 5, “The Evolution of the Urban Hierarchy,” in which G. introduces some concepts from geography, including central place theory, and rapidly dismisses them again. “Thus, apparently, the theory fails in the face of reality” (121). In fact, the failure is largely one of expectation. A common failing of superficial attempts to make use of theoretical models is the use of the model as an abstraction of reality rather than as an intellectual tool to aid in analysis. The observation that the urban hierarchy of Hellenistic Syria did not correspond to what Christaller’s central place theory might predict should not lead one to suppose that the theory “doesn’t work” in some sense, but provoke one to consider why it fails to correspond. For example, Christaller’s basic model makes certain assumptions about the nature of the economy within which his sites function, assumes homogeneity of resources, and relates cost and ease of transport to distance in a direct and simple relationship. All of these assumptions could be examined to show why the model derived from central place theory doesn’t fit Hellenistic Syria. One is provoked to question the existence of a simple market economy, examine the unequal distribution of resources and study the relationship between cities and transportation routes overland and by water. G.’s superficial and dismissive application of “theory” smacks of an half-hearted attempt to “modernise” his basically traditional (and sound) approach.

Another methodological failing is his treatment of the archaeological evidence for Achaemenid period settlement in Syria. As was noted above, G. thoroughly examined a large archaeological bibliography, and concluded that there is little evidence of Achaemenid urban settlement in Syria, and only limited evidence for rural settlement in that period. It may well be the case that such settlement was limited, and certainly there is little positive evidence. However, in this case it is very risky to use the absence of archaeological evidence as proof of an absence of settlement. For Achaemenid period pottery in Syria and in general is so badly known that it is likely that much evidence for that period remains unrecognised, both in excavations and especially in surveys, particularly the extensive and generally old projects which have been undertaken in that region. Such “survey gaps” are quite common in areas and periods such as early medieval Italy where the pottery of the region and period was not well known. Subsequent research has revealed settlement where none had previously been detected once the pottery is better known, and more intensive survey techniques are employed. G.’s general point about the absence of Achaemenid settlement in Syria may well be correct, but it would be incorrect to draw this conclusion purely on the basis of the inadequate archaeological evidence.

These reservations are, however, insignificant in the context of G.’s book as a whole. For he has skillfully analysed the origins of the urban structure and political order which existed in Syria for many centuries in an accessible and readable fashion. This is a book which will be of tremendous value to scholars with a wide chronological span of interests in the region.

1. G.W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor 1990); B.Isaac, The Limits of Empire. The Roman Army in the East (Oxford 1990) [both titles reviewed in BMCR 1.1]; D. Kennedy and D. Riley, Rome’s Desert Frontier from the Air (London 1990).

2. Bowersock, Hellenism, 29-40.

3. H. Seyrig, “Seleucus I et la fondation de la monarchie,”Syria 47 (1970), 290-309; F. Millar, “The Problem of Hellenistic Syria,” in A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White (eds.), Hellenism in the East (Berkeley 1987), 133.

4. P. Briant, “Colonization hellenistique et populations indigenes,”Klio 60 (1978), 57-62.

5. F. Millar, “The Problem of Hellenistic Syria,” 129.

6. E. Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Berkeley 1984).

7. One might, however, cite Libanius Or. 47 passim, where the Roman army provides patronage for peasants against the interests of the civil authorities and landlords of Antioch.