BMCR 2024.04.32

Culture and ideology under the Seleukids: unframing a dynasty

, , Culture and ideology under the Seleukids: unframing a dynasty. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. xxii, 360. ISBN 9783110755626.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


The book under review aims to put forth “a multi-angled (re-)appraisal of the cultural dynamics under the Seleukid regime from its establishment to its eventual submission to the Romans” (p. 1). The overarching goal is to treat the cultural and ideological lines of development in the Seleucid empire by embracing “the plurality of ancient evidence and examining the ideologies appended to it” to unframe issues “still palpable in the scholarship and offer a platform for debating them” (preface). The project originates from a conference at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2019, at which the editors assembled a variety of scholars with different fields of expertise in history, philology, epigraphy, numismatic, and archaeology. The result is a rewarding journey of studies with different approaches and subject choices that bring us closer to a more thorough understanding of arguably the most culturally diverse of the Diadochi kingdoms.

The volume contains 16 papers divided into four sections addressing 1) representation and perception, 2) conflict and opposition, 3) local ideology in Babylon, and 4) cultural interactions with neighboring regions and Rome.

The first section focuses on the consolidation of power and the perception of Seleucid self-representation. In the first paper, McAuley applies the concept of the “reigning triad” (i.e., the three figures of king/husband, queen/wife, and heir/son) to argue that this understanding of rule originated with the first dynasty in the 290s and lasted at least until Antiochus III. This framework provided “an elegantly straightforward image of dynastic harmony” (p. 38) that several client dynasties would later imitate. Next, Dumke discusses the importance of the myth of Alexander the Great in the early Seleucid conceptualization and argues that the Macedonian king played a minor role in the dynasty compared to that of the Ptolemies. Trundle and De Lisle then focus on the spread of early Seleucid coinage and finds that the new dynasty cleverly balanced uniformity and regionality because they “managed to create a system in which [uniformity and regionality] actually reinforced one another instead” (p. 59). In the fourth paper, Ogden examines Heracles as a foundational figure in the new dynasty and shows that several “typologies” from as early as the reign of Antiochus III aimed to align the achievements of Seleucus I and Heracles. Finally, Olszewski studies Roman mosaics from the fourth century CE to determine how the memory of the Seleucids as founders and supporters of Greek cities persisted in the Roman period. The papers in combination propose the interesting observation that the new rulers of the Seleucid Empire were forced to abandon Alexander as a figure in their propaganda because their rival dynasty in Egypt had a more legitimate claim due to their possession of Alexander’s corpse. The Seleucids instead based their new empire on dynastic harmony within the family and on Heracles as the founder of the Empire. Using him as a foundational icon connected the historical underpinnings of the empire with a more general trend in the fourth, third and second centuries in which Heracles was used as universal figure in the establishment of (local) identities throughout the Hellenistic world.

The second section treats the resistance that the Seleucids faced in creating a new monarchy. McKechnie begins with a paper on the dynasty in the third century BCE as a dynamic colonizing system and proposes that “political struggles among members of the royal family acted in some cases through a process of vassalization to preserve the organization as a whole” (p. 131). Coşkun then examines the Jewish view on the Seleucids in the second century BCE and finds that some loss of independence was accepted if this was based on mutual agreements and benefits. Finally, Wenghofer studies local resistance in more general terms and puts forth the thesis that “the Seleukid dynasty was often regarded locally as a problem to be managed and that when suitable opportunities for achieving local autonomy presented themselves, open defiance of Seleukid power typically occurred” (p. 167). Both Coşkun and Wenghofer underline that decentralization strengthened the new dynasty if the relation was beneficial and accepted by both sides, and the three papers combined show that both violent and non-violent resistance in various regions across the empire were a fundamental issue to be dealt with throughout the centuries. Faced with this dilemma, the Seleucids applied a consolidation strategy by balancing the acceptance of local demands and provincial centres of power while at the same time oppressing dangerous resistance, they deemed could challenge the wider stability of the empire.

The third section tackles issues related to Babylon and provides an interesting case study of how the dynasty dealt with a non-Greek area. Mehl starts by examining the use of the title “great king” and finds that “the Seleukids accepted the use of cuneiform royal attributes like “great king” by the Babylonians but did not actively bear them as titles” (p. 199). Michel & Widmer in the second paper investigate the symbolic power of the Persian royal robe and point out that the Greeks saw the garment as luxury rather than an object possessing divine power. Then, Anagnostou-Laoutides discusses the influence of Babylonian mythology on the Seleucids and argues that the adoption of Babylonian gods “offered the early Seleukids the mythical pretext to weave themselves into Babylonian and local history in a context meaningful to both their Greek and non-Greek subjects” (p. 245). Ending the section, Beaulieu reads the so-called Šulgi Chronicle from 251 BCE to argue that this important piece of Babylonian writing is pivotal in understanding the rule and death of Antiochus IV. What stands out from this section is the conclusion that Babylonian gods and mythology blended fundamentally with those Hellenistic concepts and ideas that the Seleucids brought with them. The papers together show that local traditions and Greek customs influenced each other in various ways and that strong cultural interactions are detectable in how titles were used, how royal clothing was incorporated, and how the historiographical tradition was written.

In the final section, the authors deal with the dynasty’s interactions with its neighbors and to what extent other kings became influenced by Seleucid ideology. First, Hunter examines “how Seleukid royal ideology was replicated and often reinterpreted by the Bithynian and Pontic kings for their own localities” (p. 272) and reflects on reasons for these monarchies to attach themselves in their self-presentation to the Seleucid ideology. In the next paper, Mairs studies the regions of Bactria and Central Asia and argues that these places also incorporated Western ruler cult in their self-conceptualization. Pfeiffer then studies the use of the title “basileus megas” and argues that Ptolemy III and Antiochus I applied it to present themselves as superior to other rulers, but that Hellenistic monarchies as well as Rome rarely used the term in accordance with the original Persian definition. In the final paper of the volume, Bruggeman investigates the ancient name of the empire and finds that the subjects saw themselves following a king rather than an empire and that the empire in some cases could be designated as a “Macedonian empire” because of the ruling elite’s origin. Common for papers in this final section is the focus on the interdependence of local and global frameworks in the empire. Whether it was the minting of coins in Bithynia or Asia Minor, the royal cult in Bactria or different titulature approaches, the papers together underline a strong aim to imitate the new rulers and that the Seleucids saw value in emphasizing the ethnic diversity of the regions. By using a variety of archaeological, epigraphical, and numismatic record, the concluding section makes a case for viewing the empire as being founded on a strong connection between center and periphery.

Volumes of this type often come with as many topic choices as authors and thus have no synergy in the sections. However, the editors have done a great job securing unity across the papers. In many studies, the same kings and persons are treated (e.g., Seleucus I, Antiochus I-III, and Heracles), and the same themes and topics are discussed (e.g., Seleucid-Ptolemaic relations, iconography, the influence of Seleucid ideology on neighboring regions, and the concept of royal power). An especially enriching theme treated throughout is that of local identities. This follows a trend in recent years where studies from, for example, Katherine Clarke and Rosalind Thomas have underlined the importance of including local perspectives.1 The volume provides us with new valuable insights into how communities portrayed and understood themselves as a response to immediate circumstances (for example, in how regions adopted the Seleucid ideology in iconography and royal self-representation and how local monarchies tried to oppose Seleucid domination). The strong attention to local communities’ considerations of their own identity and placement in the wider ambient world attaches the volume to even broader issues, such as the connection between local and global frameworks and the relation between Greeks and non-Greeks.

The volume’s fundamental focus on the formation and dissemination of Seleucid ideology is one that will broaden our understanding of the nature and development of the empire. By treating all these interacting “spaces” in the framework of cultural hybridity, the volume effectively shows that it took several generations to create a fusional ideology in which the relationship between rulers and subjects progressed in a constant dynamic process. Despite resistance and opposition from the subjects, the empire persisted for almost three centuries and ended up meaning very different things from Thrace in Europe to the borders of India. The volume’s great strengths are its interdisciplinary nature and broad cultural approach, and both editors and authors have succeeded in “unframing” the dynasty anew and creating new promising vantage points for further research.


Table of Contents

Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides and Stefan Pfeiffer: Introduction: Un-Framing Seleukid Ideology 1


I Representations and Perceptions: Ideology and the Beginnings of a Monarchy 

Alex McAuley: The Seleukid Royal Family as a Reigning Triad

Gunnar R. Dumke: Alexander vs. Soter vs. Nikator. Die Rolle Alexanders, Ptolemaios’ I. und Seleukos’ I. in der politischen Legitimation ihrer Nachfolger

Matthew Trundle and Christopher de Lisle: Coinage and the Creation of the Seleukid Kingdom

Daniel Ogden: Seleucus and the Typology of Heracles

Marek T. Olszewski: Memory and Ideology of the First Successors of Alexander the Great as inscribed on Roman Mosaics from Apameia of Syria


II Political Culture: A Contested Monarchy 

Paul McKechnie: Wars of the Brothers: the Contested Coalescence of Seleukid Statehood in mid- Third-Century Asia Minor

Altay Coşkun: The Reception of Seleukid Ideology in Second-Century BCE Judaea

Richard Wenghofer: Popular Resistance to Seleukid Claims of Hegemony


III Local Ideology: The Babylonian Tradition and Greek Culture 

Andreas Mehl: How to understand Seleukids as Babylonian “Great Kings”

Patrick M. Michel and Marie Widmer: Au sujet de la puissance symbolique des vêtements du souverain en Babylonie et dans l’Orient grec hellénistiques

Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides: Flexing Mythologies in Babylon and Antioch-on-the-Orontes: Divine Champions and their Aquatic Enemies under the Early Seleukids

Paul-Alain Beaulieu: The Death of Antiochos IV in the Context of Babylonian Hellenistic Historiography


IV Cultural Interdependencies: Empires and Ideologies in Dialogue 

Daniel Hunter: The Influence of Seleukid Coinage upon the Bithynian and Pontic Monarchies to the Reign of Mithridates VI

Rachel Mairs: Kingship and Ruler Cult in Hellenistic Bactria: Beyond the Numismatic Sources

Stefan Pfeiffer: Great King Ptolemy III and Great King Antiochos III: Remarks on the Significance of a “Persian” Title in their Representation

Thomas Brüggemann: Mehr als Schall und Rauch? Das Seleukidenreich und seine antiken Namen