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In previous millenia, the area taken by Seleucus I Nicator after the demise of Alexander was called Mesopotamia, or "the land between rivers". This was a reference to the Tigris and the Euphrates which have their sources in the mountains of Asia Minor to the north-west.
Because of its location between Asia and Africa as well as its climate, Mesopotamia is known as the Cradle of Western Civilisation, because the Tigris and the Euphrates' banks allowed for agriculture, which led to urbanisation and the development of culture — as well as empires. The first well-known civilisations to arise here were those of the Assyrians in the north and the Sumerians, one city of which — Uruk — lent its name to the modern polity of Iraq which now dominates this region.
The Sumerians however were not united, and constant rivalry and salination of soil soon led to their domination by other powers, most notably the Akkadians, Kassites and Chaldeans who were based around the city of Babylon. Of these, the Chaldeans were the most significant, for under the rule of their king Nebuchadnezzar I, they managed to extend their power across the northern Middle East, from the Zagros mountains all the way to the Sinai Peninsula by the time of his demise in 562BCE. Chaldean power however would be eclipsed with the coming of the Persian shah Cyrus in 539BCE, who deposed the last Chaldean king, and assimilated Chaldean territory into his own empire.
Rise of the SeleucidsEdit
The Persians had the foresight to leave the Chaldeans alone albeit as sedentary taxpayers to the Achaemenid court at Parsa and by the time Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, it had begun to lose its strategic significance although it was still a major hub for trade and the priests of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, were still in office and teaching and studying their arts there.
It was probably because of its continued prestige and its location at one of the most important agricultural and commercial sites in the Western world that the Macedonian satrap Seleucus decided to establish a capital for his Middle Eastern empire just next door to Babylon, at a new city called Seleucia. Seleucus, however, soon decided to move his capital and chose a new site on the Mediterranean Sea called Antioch (near present-day Antakya in Turkey) in the wake of further war between the many Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East and eventually established himself as an independent ruler in Babylon and Syria by 305BCE, gaining for himself the epithet Nicator or "victorious".
Seleucus earned the epithet "Nicator" for several reasons. First and foremost was that he was an able politician, and did well in taking advantage of the turmoil between the many Macedonian satraps to consolidate his own position while weakening or neutralising his other Greek rivals. The second was that like Cyrus, he was a master diplomat who managed to subvert the priests of Babylon who still held great influence in the region to side with him while still retaining the loyalties of his Greek subjects. This made it easier for him to maintain control over all his multicultural subjects, and also helped him to increase his wealth and influence.
Although Seleucus did well in expanding his rule and ensuring the development of his state, his biggest problem was that he was unable to obtain some form of stability on his western frontiers with the Ptolemaikoi of Egypt and the Macedonians who were slowly inducting various Greek polities in Greece and abroad into their sphere of influence.
To secure the eastern half of his empire, Seleucus ceded some lands in the east to the Mauryan Indians while marrying off one of his daughters to them, leaving the crises in the west to his successors, amongst which included Egyptian incursions as well as a Celtic invasion of Greece and Asia Minor. These forced resources to be rerouted by the Seleucid kings and resulted in the breakaway of some of the Seleucid satrapies, most notably those of Armenia, Parthia and Bactria. Further fragmentation was exacerbated with the breakaway of the Attalid vassals who then formed the kingdom of Pergamon on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor and the loss of southern Syria to the Egyptians.
It would take a generation or two for the Seleucids to recover from the blows that they were receiving from all directions with the coronation of Antiochus III Megas, Seleucus I's own grandson. Antiochus III received the epithet of "Megas" or "The Great" for the vigour at which he re-established diplomatic relations with his former Macedonian allies, prosecuted police actions in the east to restore the breakaway eastern lands as Seleucid satrapies as well as an expedition into India which resulted in him receiving several war elephants, which were then used to expel the Egyptians from Antiochus III's southern borders in the Fifth Syrian War.
As in many of the Hellenistic states born after the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid armies were based on the Macedonian model and its troops were primarily of Graeco-Macedonian origin. Since the Seleucid realm covered much of the eastern portions of the former Persian Empire, its kings had to rely on Eastern peoples to man their armies. They relied on troops that used the Macedonian phalanx, archers from the Eastern peoples and cavalry. Also, the Seleucids had a supply of Indian war elephants which was used to cause fear amongst their enemies. Like the Ptolemies with their wealth, the Seleucid kings had managed to recruit all kinds of people as mercenaries from the Indians living on the Indus to the people of Crete and Galatia.
The Western Sun: Conflict with RomeEdit
Ultimately, Antiochus III's task was a Sisyphean project — in attempting to reassert Seleucid dominance in Asia, he and his successors were forced to rely on mercenary forces raised from Greece who were paid with the profits from the trade in oriental exotica. While in the short term this guaranteed that the Hellenic nature of Syria and Mesopotamia could be guaranteed, it also meant that it mortally weakened both friend and foe in Greece, leaving them denuded of manpower to defend themselves. At the same time, rebellions continued to blaze in border territories, eventually leaving the Seleucids at the mercy of the Armenians by the mid-1st century BCE.
Antiochus III's decision to align himself with the Macedonian cause in Greece had serious repercussions — it brought him in contact with a new group of barbarian upstarts from the Italian peninsula called the Romans. The Greek city-states and kingdoms, notably Athens, Sparta, Aetolia and Pergamon were frightened at the prospect of war with the Seleucids and had aligned themselves with Rome to counter the Seleucid threat. In response, Seleucid armies were dispatched to Greece to forestall a Roman expedition against the Macedonians, but were roundly defeated at Thermopylae and Magnesia between 191-190BCE, with the victorious Romans exacting a harsh indemnity from the losers. Problems were further compounded for the Seleucids when Judaea was convulsed by rebellion under Judah Maccabee ("the hammer") and the Parthians and Armenians began to re-assert themselves at the cost of their Seleucid overlords.
By the end of the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucid Empire was hardly an empire, for it had collapsed on various fronts. Fraught with civil war and political intrigue, the Seleucids were unable to check Roman expansion to the west, and facing rebellions on all its borders, the Seleucid polity was reduced to a rump state consisting of present-day Syria and a few outlying territories, and it eventually fell under the influence of the Orontid Armenians, who were asserting themselves successfully under their king Tigranes III. When the Armenians were laid low in 69BCE by Lucius Licinius Lucullus' expeditionary forces, the Romans attempted to resusticate the Seleucid Empire by placing a puppet ruler, Antiochus XIII, on the throne of Syria, but another Greek ruler, Phillip, started a rebellion which embroiled all of Syria once more in conflict. Frustrated, the Romans deposed both Antiochus and Phillip, bringing the Seleucid dynasty to an ignominous end in 64BCE through the induction of Syria as a province of the Roman Republic.
- Ancient Battles; Ancient armies of the Seleucid Empire