BMCR 1994.02.10

1994.02.10, Kuhrt and Sherwin-White, From Samarkhand to Sardis

, , , From Samarkhand to Sardis : a new approach to the Seleucid Empire. Hellenistic culture and society ; 13. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. ix, 261 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780520081833. $40.00 US.

From Samarkhand to Sardis is subtitled “A new approach to the Seleucid empire”. Predictably, given the interests and expertise of Amelie Kuhrt, this new approach emphasizes the Near Eastern and Achaimenid antecedents of the diverse kingdom inherited from Alexander by Seleukos I Nikator as well as the tenacity and pervasiveness of those cultures which the Greeks termed “barbarian”. The work, like Hellenism and the East (volume II in the same series, edited by Kuhrt and Sherwin-White), condemns the hellenocentrism of earlier scholarship (perhaps too vigorously, e.g., p. 84) and combines Sherwin-White’s expertise in hellenistica with Kuhrt’s knowledge of Mesopotamia and the Achaimenid period. As indicated in the “Preface” (ix), the preliminary work on seven of the book’s eight chapters was done by Sherwin-White and intended for Methuen’s “Classical Civilizations” series (edited by Fergus Millar). The fate of that series is another story, but the book under discussion bears visible signs of its conception: Kuhrt’s material appears, in many cases, to be merely superimposed upon Sherwin-White’s narrative rather than fully integrated into the text. Some parallels are noted, without a great deal of background or discussion, as if they had once been marginal entries pencilled onto a previous typescript.

From Samarkhand to Sardis—the title is curious: why the form “Samarkhand”, when Latinized spellings are used throughout? and why Sardis, when the west, the Fraternal War, Achaios, and the Attalids of Pergamon are given only superficial treatment (mainly pp. 171, 180-183; 188 f.)?—gives us the Seleukid empire in eight chapters of widely varying length. Chapter 1, “Building the Seleucid Empire” (pp. 7-39), discusses the contributions and problems facing its founder, Seleukos I, and his son, Antiochos I; Chapter 2, “The Seleucid Empire in the Third Century” (pp. 40-71), departs completely from historical narrative and treats aspects of organisation, administration and economy. Chapters 3 and 4 cover the eastern empire (pp. 72-90) and Bactria and India (pp. 91-113), while Chapter 5, “Kings and Kingship” (pp. 114-140), looks at the formulation of hellenistic kingship, using the Seleukid model, and such questions as legitimacy, ideology and patronage. The sixth chapter (“Colonialism and Imperialism”, pp. 141-187) tackles the thorny problem of hellenisation in East; Chapter 7 (“Antiochus III: imperialist and warrior”, pp. 188-216) returns to a more chronologically ordered narrative, though even here treatment is uneven and sporadic. The concluding chapter (8: “The Disintegration of the Seleucid Empire”, pp. 217-229) does not try to make order out of the chaotic events from Alexander Balas to the end of the Seleukid era but rather comments on the relative impact of Rome and Parthia on the fall of the empire; the role of Rome is minimized. A chronological table of Seleukid and Parthian kings (p. 230) reflects the “eastern” emphasis; the stemma opposite (p. 231) takes us only to Antiochos IV. “Abbreviations” (pp. 232-235), “Bibliography” (pp. 235-249), and an “Index” (pp. 250-261) complete the volume.

From Samarkhand to Sardis promises “a new approach”, and in many ways it delivers on that promise. What we get is a fresh approach, and some new interpretations—the resulting view of Seleukid Asia is corrective rather than revolutionary. Inscriptions (most fragmentary), the evidence of archaeology, and comparison with Near Eastern political structures do indeed offer new insights, but the fact remains that they must nevertheless be placed within the historical context provided by the Greek and Latin sources. Nor is it time to consign Bevan and Bouche-Leclercq (or even Will’s Histoire politique du monde hellénistique, for that matter) to the trash bin: this is not a political or military history of the Seleukid era. What we get, in fact, is a revisionist view of the empire in the third century: not a tottering colossus destined to collapse, but a vibrant and cohesive unit in which Greek and non-Greek cultures and systems are juxtaposed. For this view of Seleukid strength in the third century B.C., Chapter 3 is critical. The Graeco-Roman tradition suggests that the strength of the empire, especially in Central Asia, was seriously eroded by the time of the Fraternal War; the testimony of Strabo and Justin is unequivocal, and, in fact, the anabasis at the century’s end of Antiochos III (the authors do not deny the aptness of Cary’s sobriquet restitutor orbis; 191; cf. 218) appears to support their contention. Nevertheless, Sherwin-White and Kuhrt reject it as “one of the best examples of uncritical fantasy in modern hellenistic historiography” (p. 84). A survey of important satrapies suggests that Seleukid interests were well looked after in Drangiana, Karmania, and even Hyrkania (before the Parthian incursions); but the evidence for Aria and Margiana (Merv) is less compelling. More troublesome is the authors’ attempt, unsupported by any evidence, as far as I can see, to restrict the Parthians to the modern border region of northern Iran/southern Turkmenistan, “specifically the area including the two ranges of mountains, the Kopet Dagh range in the north … and the south Khorasan (or Binalud) range” (p. 84). Now this puts them within striking distance of the Silk Road but north of the main artery that led from the Caspian Gates along the northern edge of the Salt Desert towards Meshed and Herat. The ancients certainly gave them a much wider range, and, even if they made their home in southern Turkmenistan, it is absurd to think that they were content to stay there for long.

The book is, in some ways, a lengthy and polished “discussion paper”, a springboard for someone else who may be willing to attempt a new history of the Seleukid empire. In places, it reads like a register of recent scholarship rather than an attempt to introduce the reader to specific problems and discuss their resolution. For example, Berossos’ attitude towards early Seleukid rule is treated in a single sentence (p. 137): “Berossus, too, has been taken to convey covert criticism (Drews 1975), but his work can be interpreted as expressing a view positive to Seleucid rule (Kuhrt 1987a, 54-6; for discussion of the evidence for Fars, cf. pp. 76-7; Bactria, cf. pp. 108-10).” The reader learns that Drews and Kuhrt take different views of Berossos’ writing without ever being told just what Berossos said or why this can be interpreted as “covert criticism” or “a view positive to Seleucid rule”. Similarly, the discussion of the so-called “First Syrian War” and its chronology (pp. 35-36) introduces the evidence of Babylonian astronomical diaries and the “Pithom” stele, but leaves the reader no wiser about the chronology (was it 276-1 or 274-1?). Curiously, the text of the Babylonian astronomical diary (years 32-38 SE = 280/79-274/3) is given in the course of discussion of satrapal organisation, instead of on pp. 35-36, where it would be particularly useful. But, although the document employs the terms “satrap” and “general”, there is no accompanying comment on terminology, except the frustrating note “cf. for discussions of some problematic terms, van der Speck 1986, 214-15” (p. 47).

Some Achaimenid parallels could be developed further: was there a similarity between the position of Antiochos I as Seleukos’ co-ruler and Kambyses’ position in Babylon? On these matters, one learns more from Kuhrt’s article in Rituals of Royalty: power and cermonial in tradional societies, edited by D. Cannadine and S. Price (Cambridge, 1987), 20-55. What about rules of primogeniture? (Hdt. vii 2-3 comes to mind.) Elsewhere (on coinage policy, p. 64; Seleukid policy regarding the Aegean littoral, p. 36) parallel Achaimenid practices are noted (but not explained).

It is all too easy for the reviewer to concentrate on what a book is not. In this case, I have expressed disappointment that this is not a history of the Seleukid empire, at least not in the traditional sense. Students, encountering the Hellenistic Age for the first time, will feel more comfortable with another book in this series, Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, now available in paperback. For senior undergraduates and graduate students From Samarkhand to Sardis will become necessary reading, even if its conclusions cannot be endorsed whole-heartedly. The book has a great deal of merit. If “hellenocentrism” still influences the study and teaching of hellenistic history—and I am not sure that it does to any great extent—then Kuhrt and Sherwin-White have done a useful service in helping to eliminate it (both through this volume and their earlier work). But the “near-easternism” of the authors, like so many new approaches (especially, those which can be labelled “-isms”), is perhaps a little too aggressive. One approach should not replace the other entirely. The “hellenic” contribution, both ancient and modern, to our knowledge of Seleukid history must continue to exist, juxtaposed and yet in harmony with Near Eastern evidence and the interpretations of Near Eastern scholars, just as in the past hellenism found an accommodation with non-Greek culture. “New approaches” are fine, indeed desirable, but they are at the same time little more than new ways of asking the old questions: for the most part, the answers continue to elude us.

Some minor quibbles (most pertaining, predictably I suppose, to Alexander and the Diadochoi): the interpretation of Diod. xix 92. 5 is adversely affected by the translation of ἀνάστημα as “status”; “stature” is better: Seleukos “already had royal stature [though he was not yet king]” (although Plut. Demetr. 18. 3 claims that Seleukos was already styling himself “king” in his relations with barbarians). On p. 12, discussing Seleukos’ 500 elephants, the authors assert that “No Indian or Macedonian king ever deployed elephant forces on this scale, the largest being those of Porus (two hundred ) and of Antiochus III (a hundred and twenty)”. But Plut. Demetr. 28. 6 gives the number of elephants deployed by Seleukos and his allies at Ipsos as “400” (τετρακοσίους and before Seleukos” acquisition of these elephants we have Eudamos’ 120 elephants in 316 (Diod. xix 14. 8), against which were arranged another 65 elephants under Antigonos’ command. The view that Megasthenes’ reports of India “gave Seleucus I solid grounds for justifying a non-conquest policy” (p. 13) strikes me as naive, considering that Seleukos had accompanied Alexander to India and knew, first-hand, the strength of the Indians and the impossibility of a lasting conquest by outsiders. Further more, it is not certain from FGrH 715 T2a = Arr. v 6. 2 that Megasthenes often visited Chandra Gupta (pp. 13, 95): the Greek can be taken to mean “Megasthenes often says that he visited Sandrakottos, the king of the Indians” (see P. A. Brunt, Arrian [Loeb ], vol. ii 19, 448; McCrindle 88 thinks of one visit but frequent meetings with Chandra Gupta). On p. 27: “the invention of dynastic tradition and mythology anchoring [my italics] Antiochus’ kingship in a continuum of legitimate monarchy” is a bad pun, intentional or otherwise. Antiochos may have been the first to employ the propaganda about Laodike and Apollo, though certainly the story that Seleukos’ sons and grandsons bore the anchor as a birthmark is late; but the bull appears on Seleukos’ own coinage and the story of Seleukos’ prodigious strength in subduing the bull is probably to be connected with the story generated in Lysimachos’ camp about the overpowering of the lion. On p. 32: the use of Celts as mercenaries by Alexander finds no support in Arr. i 4. 6 or Ptolemy ap. Strabo vii 3. 8. The contention (p. 72) that Alexander returned from Hyrkania “via Hecatompylus” is surely wrong (wherever one locates Hekatompylos; though Shahr-i Qumis is most probable, thus Hansman): Alexander moved from Hekatompylos into Hyrkania to Zadrakarta (Sari or Gorgan/Asterabad) and then proceeded eastwards through Shahrud to Sousia (Tus; cf. J. Seibert, Die Eroberung des Perserreiches durch Alexander den Grossen [Wiesbaden, 1985], 115-118; cf. D. W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army [Berkeley, 1978], 83-85). Pp. 73-76 argue that “It is striking that the one place in the Achaemenid empire where Alexander seems to have failed to establish, ultimately, a successful working relationship with the local population was Persis itself—a fact which proably accounts for his brutal destruction of Persepolis…”. This leaves very little time for Alexander to establish “successful working relationship”; more realistic is Balcer’s contention that, by destroying Persepolis, Alexander laid the foundations for Persian resistance to hellenism for the next millenium ( Iranica Antiqua 13 [1978], 132). On pp. 120-122 the authors cannot decide on the date of Triparadeisos: 320 seems to be accepted—it is, after all the “Babylonian” date; but the confirmation of Oxyartes as satrap of “Parapomisadae” [sic] is dated to 321 (cf. Phrataphernes and Philip in Parthia). In the same section, it may be correct to point out that Habicht’s (1958) statistics are incomplete (“about 250 names spanning three centuries”, p. 121) and questionable, but the fact remains that in the elite circles of power, Greeks and Makedonians were dominant, and until sufficient new evidence modifies his figures significantly his argument must carry some weight. The Greek settlers in Sittacene are described as “Boeotians” (p. 148): this is indeed what Diodoros xvii 110. 4 calls them, but they are almost certainly the “Gortuae” of Curt. iv 12. 11 (Strabo xvi 1. 25 C747 puts them in Gordyene) and thus Eretrians, transplanted by Dareios I in 490 (cf. Hdt. vi 101, 119).