BMCR 2021.09.42

Nicator Seleucus I and his empire

, Nicator Seleucus I and his empire. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2020. Pp. 181. ISBN 9788772191737 249,95 Kr.

Since Andreas Mehl’s similarly titled biography (1986), quickly followed by John Grainger’s (1990), other historical figures from around the time of Alexander the Great might have been considered more desirable than another biography of Seleucus I Nicator (ca. 358-281). Craterus or Antipater, Polyperchon or Perdiccas, even the late Argeads come immediately to mind. Not to mention a long-overdue modern biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus. Yet, even after Paul Kosmin’s Seleucid diptych (2014, 2018), and the musings of Daniel Ogden on the subject (2017), we get another biography about Seleucus. To her credit, Lise Hannestad (Aarhus University) addresses the issue head on. She emphasizes her expertise in archaeology and material culture, but also admits to a fascination with Seleucus himself. In addition to a brief introduction and a short conclusion, the book is dived into nine chapters of unequal length, plus a list of abbreviations, a bibliography, an index, and photo credits of the figures.

The author dives straight into the crossing of the Hydaspes during the Macedonian campaign (Spring 326), when Seleucus was already in his early thirties. This is the first event in which his name appears in the literary tradition. The author swiftly moves from India back to Persia. Chapter two picks up the events after Alexander’s death (323), and the subsequent struggles until the Settlement of Triparadisus (320/19). Both Perdiccas and Craterus lost their lives in this period, and Antipater would die soon after. The next chapter quickly covers the time from Seleucus’ appointment as satrap of Babylonia until his forced flight to Egypt (320/19-316/5). Next to nothing is known of his actions in those years, apart from his conflict with Eumenes. The lengthy fourth chapter brings the narrative to the Battle of Ipsus (301), in which Antigonus lost his life. The dense narrative thus comprises Seleucus’ service under Ptolemy (314-311), the Babylonian War (311-309), Seleucus’ Anabasis to the Upper Satrapies and India (which Hannestad dates to 308/7-305/4), and the conclusion of the war against Antigonus (308-301). The relatively short, following chapter wraps up the last two decades of Seleucus’ life up to his death (281). Here the focus is mostly on Seleucus’ contentious relation with Demetrius and the final conflict with Lysimachus.

Following these five biographical chapters, chapter six surveys the economy and administration of Seleucus’ satrapy and later his kingdom – although the author admits that evidence specific to his time is scarce. Hannestad reviews coinage, finances, resources, crops and market prices, revenue, as well as court “friends.” She only briefly mentions that much of the pre-existing Achaemenid systems were kept in place, though significant changes were implemented since the conquest of Alexander. In the next chapter, she surveys Seleucid propaganda and ideology by means of the iconography on coinage and a few relevant surviving inscriptions dating to the generation after the death of Alexander. The author seems hesitant whether the coin portrait that graces the book’s cover can be attributed to Seleucus, assimilated to Alexander as well as a Greek and perhaps a Near Eastern deity (e.g., Heracles and Marduk). She grapples with the recurring depictions of horned horses and elephants. She does not clearly differentiate the propaganda directed toward the eastern and native populations from that directed toward the western, predominantly Graeco-Macedonian audience. Some of the important early-Seleucid archaeological sites are briefly described in the eighth chapter. These include Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, the Syrian Tetrapolis, Dura-Europus, and Ai-Khanum, as well as other settlements within Seleucus’ realm. In the long final chapter, the author turns to early-Seleucid material culture – architecture, ceramics, terracottas, and seal impressions – reviewing some of the same sites as discussed before.

Starting a biography in medias res at the Hydaspes, leaves basic biographic facts about Seleucus unmentioned. Simple information, such as that he was born in Europus, northern Macedon, ca. 358; that his parents were Antiochus and Laodice, could have helped situate the subject. Lack of basic biographical data at times leads to confusing or confused statements. No historical background is provided for Alexander’s campaign against the Persian Empire, either. A few paragraphs could have sufficed to set the scene for Seleucus’ subsequent career.

The general disinterest in prosopography leads to some missed opportunities. Although indicating that Seleucus’ birthdate is unclear (on p. 67!), Hannestad offers only two of the three possible years and thus ignores the possibly propagandistic claim that he was an agemate of Alexander. Addressing his age and parentage could have supported the repeated insistence that Seleucus never belonged to Alexander’s inner circle – or have undermined her understanding. That Seleucus did not belong to the corps of Alexander’s bodyguards, is her only argument supporting this hypothesis. Antiochus was a nobleman originally from Orestis, in Greek-speaking Molossia. Yet, Antiochus rose to prominence as a general of Philip II. Seleucus thus likely served as a page at the Macedonian court in his youth. The unanswerable question then remains whether Seleucus also studied under Aristotle together with Alexander, Ptolemy and Lysimachus.

Mentioning the mass wedding ceremony at Susa, Hannestad neglects to name Seleucus’ bride Apama, and reiterates the misguided notion that most other high-ranking Macedonian commanders divorced their Persian wives after Alexander’s death[1]. Later, the author neglects to address the role Apama may have played when her husband received his first administrative position as satrap of Babylonia. Apama’s subsequent importance is briefly stated elsewhere. In a similar vein, Hannestad does not explicitly distinguish Philip Arrhidaeus from the homonymous Arrhidaeus who returned Alexander’s body from Babylon. She fails to name Eurydice’s parents Amyntas and Cynane – or make clear that her husband Philip Arrhidaeus was both her uncle and first cousin once removed. Details a general reader might find noteworthy.

Hannestad acknowledges the political significance of Seleucus’ marriage to Demetrius’s daughter Stratonice but does not address the broader consequences of Antiochus’ marriage to his stepmother. She believes that Antiochus genuinely fell in love with Stratonice. All dynastic marriages at the time of Seleucus’ generation served diplomatic and political motives. It is particularly within the context of the Successors’ attempts to lay claim to kingship that this marital shift must be understood. By separating from Stratonice, Seleucus increased the importance of his first wife Apama, depreciated his diplomatic relation with Demetrius, and by marrying her to his son he proclaimed Antiochus as his heir. Incidentally, nowhere does Hannestad clarify that Antiochus’ role as crown prince, second-in-command and viceroy in the Upper Satrapies, followed Achaemenid monarchic precedent.

For the period until the Battle of Ipsus, Hannestad remains so close to Diodorus that her first chapters read like a summary of his surviving narrative. Doubtless due in large part to this dependency, Hannestad appears to delight in military matters – without elucidating their historical importance. She offers a lengthy excursion about the elite corps of the “shield bearers” – through which ranks she assumes Seleucus advanced. She goes into much detail about the campaigns of Perdiccas, Eumenes, Pithon and Antigonus, when historical information about Seleucus is wanting. Lengthy combat descriptions of the battles of Gaza, Ipsus, and Corupedium can only be of interest to the military historian.

While such descriptions offer some military-political context, their broader historical significance is left unexplained. Aims and motives, causes and consequences are barely addressed at all. The assumption is that events as they unfolded prove that all power players intended to increase their rule. Hannestad leaves unmentioned that Craterus was appointed by Alexander the Great to replace Antipater as regent of Macedon. And figures in the western theater, such as Antipater, Cassander, Polyperchon, and Craterus generally get short shrift. Hannestad seems to hesitate whether Ptolemy interred Alexander’s body first in Memphis, before moving him to Alexandria.

While she quotes separate individual lines from the historically invaluable Babylonian Chronicle of the Successors, the author does not provide the full text, so that its importance gets lost. Hannestad ignores the question why the chronicle repeatedly calls Seleucus “general” during the period he was appointed satrap of Babylonia.

Though of modern coinage, the four “Wars of the Successors” remain unmentioned except in footnotes. Nevertheless, her chapter divisions generally follow the same chronological caesurae, with the third and fourth wars grouped together in chapter four (which could have easily been divided into two). Hannestad focusses so much on Seleucus’ conflict with Eumenes and its chronology, for instance, that she neglects to mention the wider military-political context. She also fails to elucidate the historical importance of the difference between the high and low chronology for these events, beyond basic time-reckoning, yet continually seems to argue against other scholar’s interpretations (cf. Boiy 2007).

While acknowledging throughout that sources for Seleucus are scarce, Hannestad presents her interpretations with surprising certainty. The point is not so much that this reviewer disagrees with her interpretations, but that historians ought to differentiate established facts from their own understanding – if only for the sake of the general reader.

In the discussion about royal ideology, Hannestad merely mentions in passing facets such as the Seleucid devotion to Apollo, the symbol of the anchor, the recurring motifs of the horse and the elephant, and the legend of Seleucus’ birth as aspects of royal propaganda. She makes no effort to elucidate their significance beyond referring to deification. There is no engagement with the interpretation of these topics by either Kosmin or Ogden. Nor does the author respond to Kosmin’s contentious interpretation of the establishment of the Seleucid Era.

Hannestad cites Appian’s attribution of over 50 city foundations to Seleucus, which the scholarly consensus holds as an exaggeration. She admits in the same paragraph that many of these settlements cannot be securely dated. The historical significance of early Seleucid foundations is once more not elucidated. Think of the implications of dotting the landscape with cities named after members of the dynasty, the settlements of Graeco-Macedonian colonists, the resettlements of indigenous populations, and the intermarriage of native and foreign inhabitants. The topic of Seleucus’ role in the Hellenization of the Seleucid kingdom and the cultural entanglements between Graeco-Macedonian and the various West and Central Asian traditions is barely addressed. Hannestad seems to downplay the importance of the spread of “Hellenism” (the diffusion of Greek, the international coin-based monetization, the Greek architectural and civic institutions). She uses binary terms such as “Greek” and “Oriental” – yet acknowledges mutual cultural influence (“hybrid”) as well as the immense heterogeneity of indigenous cultures in the Seleucid empire.

When discussing the stepped temple of Ai-Khanum, Hannestad calls it “completely non-Greek” in style, yet employs terms such as krēpis, pronaos, cella and acrolithic that are all derived from Classical art and architecture. She discusses the medallion associated with that temple, identifies the goddesses in the lion-drawn chariot as Cybele and Nike, notes the “Oriental” style of the depicted sanctuary and of the figure standing on its steps. She ignores the solar and lunar deities and makes no attempt to relate the medallion to local Graeco-Bactrian religion or the possible deities worshipped in the temple. The interesting case of the island of Failaka in the Persian Gulf, could have further allowed her to analyze the interaction of international – Greek, Macedonian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Arabian and Nabatean– styles in greater depth.

Hannestad prioritizes politics, including military and administrative affairs, economy, archaeology and material culture. She pays little attention to social issues, art and culture, or religion. Slavery is mentioned only in passing in the conclusion; the role of (royal) women is mostly passed over – including aspects of intermarriage and therefore the bicultural upbringing of the generations in the early Hellenistic colonies. Her lack of interest in religion results in glossing over the identification of Artemis-Nanaia, Aphrodite-Anahita, Heracles-Marduk.

The biography is generally well written, barring some infelicities – of which the awkward placement of Seleucus’ epithet “Nicator” in the book’s title is the most glaring. Spelling of names and terms shifts inconsistently between Greek and Latinized or Anglicized spelling. For the general reader the wider historical significance will remain unclear. A specialist may feel frustrated that Hannestad stops short of expounding her further thoughts. While she has clearly read widely, the references are sparse. In the biographical narrative there is barely any engagement with modern scholarship. In the last chapters, the author seems content to present a survey of recent scholarship – without analysis of historical cause and effect. Hannestad essentially follows experts without offering new interpretations. In the end, the readers are left to wonder what Seleucus’ historical significance is – and that is a missed opportunity for a new biography on the subject.


Boiy, Thomas. 2007. Between High and Low: A Chronology of the Early Hellenistic Period. Frankfort: Verlag Antike.

Grainger, John D. 1990. Seleukos Nikator: Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom. London & New York: Routledge.

Kosmin. Paul J. 2014. The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kosmin, Paul J. 2018. Time and its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mehl, Andreas. 1986. Seleukos Nikator und sein Reich (StudHell 28). Louvain: Peeters

Ogden, Daniel. 2017. The Legend of Seleucus: Kingship, Narrative and Mythmaking in the Ancient World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] For which, see: Branko van Oppen, “The Susa Marriages: A Historiographical Note,” AncSoc 44 (2014): 25-41.