11 Facts About The Rise And Fall Of The Seleucids



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Alexander the Great conquered a vast empire but did not live long enough to contend with the immense struggle to actually run and keep hold of it. That enormous undertaking fell to the men who succeeded him. Although purportedly Alexander’s last request was that “the strongest” inherit his great empire, none were quite able to reunite his lands under one banner - though many tried. The wars of the Diadochi (“successors”) raged for generations after Alexander’s demise.

This collection looks at the rise and fall of perhaps the most successful of the successor kingdoms, the vast empire founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Though he was nowhere near the strongest when the conflicts began, his knack for underhanded tactics helped him even the odds, and his city-building and tolerant rule laid the foundations for a great empire.

  • Alexander The Great's Demise Created A Power Vacuum
    Photo: Walter Crane / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alexander perished in Babylon at the young age of 32 without a named heir. His widow Roxana (sometimes called Roxanne) was pregnant, but without knowing if the unborn child would be a son, the arguments over succession began before Alexander's body was even cold (he might not even have been truly dead yet). Some favored his impaired half-brother Arrhidaeus on the basis that he was fully Macedonian, while those most loyal to Alexander wanted to pin their hopes on his unborn child. In either case, a regent would have to rule in the interim. After the immediate furor following Alexander's passing quietened, one of his bodyguards, Perdiccas, was given the monumental task of sorting out the succession question.

    At the time, Seleucus wasn't anywhere near the top of the pecking order. He was given the satrapy of Babylon in the partition of Alexander's empire but had limited military resources at his disposal to hold onto it. When Ptolemy stole Alexander's body, Seleucus was part of the expedition led by Perdiccas to retrieve it. When things seemed to be going south for the unfortunate Perdiccas, Seleucus and the other officers stabbed him in the back. This act of treachery would prove valuable later down the line - when another successor, Antigonus the one-eyed, began to take out the other satraps, Ptolemy gave asylum to Seleucus when he was forced to abandon Babylon. 

    Seleucus helped to form a coalition against Antigonus and kept in touch with officials in Babylon to plot his return. Seleucus and Ptolemy defeated Antigonus's son Demetrios in battle, and Seleucus used the opportunity to reclaim Babylon in the winter of 312 BCE. He defeated a much larger army sent against him the following year by deceiving them and attacking at night. Although the raid didn't do much damage to the force as a whole, Seleucus took out the opposition leaders and recruited the leaderless opposing army into his own. 

  • Seleucus Was The Only Macedonian At Susa To Keep His Persian Wife
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Seleucus Was The Only Macedonian At Susa To Keep His Persian Wife

    One of Alexander’s great struggles in the latter part of his conquests was integrating his Hellenic and Persian subjects. To this aim, he arranged a mass wedding in Susa (located in modern-day Iran) in 324 BCE to match Macedonian nobles with Persian wives. Around 80 of Alexander’s companions married Persian noblewomen; Alexander naturally took the most high-profile wives: his slain foe Darius’s eldest daughter Statira (also called Barsine) and the daughter of the former Persian ruler Artaxerxes III. Alexander’s closest companion, Hephaestion, married Darius’s other daughter, Drypetis, in the hopes of combining their families as one.

    Seleucus was quite a bit further down the pecking order, but was evidently pleased enough with his new bride, a noblewoman named Apama, for he was the only one not to divorce his wife in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s demise the following year. Whether it was through genuine fondness or more strategic reasons, the match served him well in the years that followed. His Persian wife helped bridge the cultural divides of a multi-ethnic empire, and their children would have greater legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. 

    He would marry again much later, possibly after Apama’s passing, or alongside her. The union with the much younger Stratonice wasn’t nearly as stable. Amid rumors (probably manufactured to save face) of his son Antiochus’s passion for his stepmother, Seleucus divorced Stratonice and sent her to the other end of the empire with Antiochus.

  • One of the oddities of an ancient and vast empire was that conquered lands didn’t necessarily stay conquered. The distant eastern provinces taken at the tail end of Alexander’s campaigns had been largely ignored in the years following his passing. Seleucus led an expedition to Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan) and the eastern frontiers to bring the lands back into the fold. At some point, Seleucus clashed with the great Mauryan ruler Chandragupta Maurya. The details aren’t well documented, but given Alexander’s own troubles in India, it’s certainly likely Seleucus had a difficult time.

    If there was ever a skirmish between the two, no surviving record of it remains. The mutually beneficial treaty worked out, and good relations between the two kingdoms suggest an inconclusive conflict perhaps edged by the Mauryans. Seleucus traded the eastern provinces for trade rights and the delivery of 500 war elephants, which would greatly aid his future campaigns. 

    The settlement of the eastern borders proved helpful to Seleucus and Chandragupta alike. The security of the arrangement guarded each ruler’s rear and allowed them to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. Both would go on to found huge empires.

  • Seleucus Was The Last Man Standing - But Not For Long
    Photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    To found a dynasty, you need an heir. A spare is usually a good idea, but too many sons can be as damaging as too few, come succession. Seleucus had four children and two sons at most, and his anointed heir Antiochus had been his co-ruler for years. Sensibly, the old king dispatched his eldest son to rule at the other end of his domain to keep order and avoid the temptation of trying to hasten his succession. His surviving rivals Ptolemy and Lysimachus were a good deal more fecund, and the surplus of sons meant trouble ahead.

    Lysimachus had a pretty capable heir in place, Agathocles, but an intrigue by one of his younger sons and one of his wives led to suspicions of treason and the execution of his eldest son and heir. 

    Not a popular ruler, Lysimachus became increasingly autocratic and brutal, and the resulting unrest offered a chance for Seleucus. After Ptolemy's demise in 282 BCE, only the two old rivals remained from the first generation of Diadochi. It was Ptolemy's eldest son, Ptolemy Ceraunus (or Keraunos), who instigated the intrigue against Agathocles and prompted Seleucus's expedition. 

    Seleucus defeated his old foe remarkably quickly, though the documented details of their last skirmish are sparse. Old Lysimachus perished in the struggle. Legend has it his corpse was guarded by his faithful dog until it was recovered. Seleucus was himself pushing 80 when he crossed the Hellespont to claim Thrace and Macedonia and move one step closer to reuniting Alexander's empire. At the very height of his power, Ptolemy Ceraunus suggested they visit a temple together, and when they were alone, Ptolemy Ceraunus thanked his patron by stabbing him in the back - an ignoble but fitting end for a career marked by treachery and underhanded tactics.

    Ptolemy Ceraunus didn't live long to enjoy the fruits of his labors. A Celtic incursion in Greece caught him off guard and, rather than wait for help, he underestimated his foes and was promptly slain by the Celtic king Bolgios.