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History magazine - researches

Babylonia as the center of the Early Selkid Empire

Sivkina Nataliya Yurievna

Doctor of History

Professor, Department of Ancient and Medieval History, N. I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod

603000, Russia, Nizhegorodskaya oblast', g. Nizhnii Novgorod, ul. Ul'yanova, 2
Other publications by this author

Krivoshchekova Elizaveta Vladimirovna

Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod

603000, Russia, Nizhny Novgorod region, Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanova str., 2









Abstract: The interest in the Seleucid empire and the problems of organizing the political space in the Hellenistic East has recently been due to a methodological turn in the historiography of the Hellenistic era. These changes actualized the study of the role of Babylonia in the empire of the first Seleucids according to narrative and epigraphic sources. The satrapy appears in them as the region where the political career of Diadochus and the founder of the Seleucus dynasty began after the death of Alexander the Great. It was here that his power was most entrenched, apparently supported by local priestly elites. Although the question of the political center of the Seleucid state has been considered in historiography, however, it has not received systematic study. The scientific novelty lies in the study of the early Seleucid state and the peculiarities of the eastern policy of the first Seleucids in the imperial context. The methodological basis is the methods used to study imperial and multicultural spaces, as well as general scientific philosophical and historical methods. The study of the legendary information about Seleucus revealed frequent references to Babylonia in predictions of his future power, which should be perceived as a vaticinium ex eventu. This indicates the ideological and "mythological" significance of the image of Babylonia for the Seleucids, which can be explained both by the strategic and economic role of the region and its significance in Alexander's policy, which can be interpreted as a manifestation of "imitatio Alexandri".


Hellenism, Seleucids, Seleucus I, Antiochus I, Babylonia, diadochi, mythology, imperial practices, eastern politics, Alexander the Great

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

The interest in the study of the problems of imperial construction, cross-cultural studies on the example of the Seleucid state and the problems of the organization of political space in the Hellenistic East in recent times [1; 2] is due to the methodological turn in the historiography of the Hellenistic era, the emergence of the so-called "postcolonial" research direction or turn to the East. These changes actualized the problems of the imperial experience, the integration of the Middle East region into the political space of the empire and the relationship of space, power and ideology in the Seleucid state.

The Seleucid empire in its heyday, spread over the territory from Northern Syria to Northern Afghanistan, occupied most of the ecumene, encompassed diverse cultural, ethnic, economic characteristics of politics, set the tone in Mediterranean geopolitics. The political center of the Seleucid empire was already associated with Northern Syria by ancient authors, in the sources they are called the Syrian kings, and their kingdom is Syrian. However, for the first ruler of Seleucus Nicator, Mesopotamia became the foundation of state-building and the foundation of the dynasty, namely, the satrapy of Babylonia, whose metropolitan status is confirmed by information about the early Seleucid statehood.

It is necessary to make a reservation that we are not talking about the capital (metropolitan region) in the modern sense of the word, since nomadism was characteristic of the kings of the ancient Eurasian empires. However, it was here that the presence of the dynasty at the early stage of Seleucid statehood was most noticeable.

The source base of this study is represented by narrative and epigraphic sources. At the same time, narrative sources (Diodorus, Appian, Plutarch, Justin, Polyene, Strabo, etc.), being the most informative, contain only some information about Seleucid urban planning, Eastern politics and the satrapy of Babylonia. Of particular note is the "Babylonica" of the priest Berossus, created at the court of Antiochus I Soter and has come down to us in excerpts set forth in the works of other writers. The fragmentary nature of the source significantly limits the range of research possibilities, however, the history of its creation and even fragmentary ideas about its content may reveal a greater interest of the Seleucids in Mesopotamian culture than was commonly believed.

The epigraphy of the Seleucid era is represented by a few, but informative inscriptions – information on political, socio-economic history, ideology. Cuneiform sources of the early Hellenistic period, characteristic only of the Seleucid state, of Babylonian origin, mainly (astronomical diaries, chronicles), and provide information on the political history, administrative and socio-economic structure of individual satrapies, in particular Babylonia, as well as on the relations of the dynasty with local elites and their interactions: "Chronicle of the Diadochi" (BCHP 3) and "chronicle of the last years of Seleucus' life" (BCHP 9), as well as chronicles illustrating the guardianship of kings to Mesopotamian temples (BCHP 5, BCHP 6, BCHP 7, BCHP 8).

In historiography, the question of politics, urban planning, the peculiarities of interaction between the center and the periphery, the role of queens in the state has been raised repeatedly [3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9]. Although the problem of the political center of the Seleucid state was also considered, however, it did not receive a systematic study [10, pp. 256-261],[11].

The position of the Babylonian satrapy in the Early Seleucid Empire was special. Seleucus, the future founder of the dynasty, took part in the events that linked the fate of the Hellenes with the Middle East - the campaigns of Alexander the Great (App. Syr. 56), and at the dawn of Basileus' life became one of his closest generals, the head of the personal guard of the Hypaspist king (Arr. Anab. V. 13. 4). Independent political The career of the military commander began after the death of the king, when it was decided to give Babylonia to the diadochus in Triparadis (Diod. XVIII. 39. 6; Diod. XIX. 12. 2).

It is not entirely clear what caused the decision to make Seleucus a satrap of such a rich and important area, perhaps participation in the conspiracy against the imperial regent Perdiccas appointed by Alexander contributed to the formation of his trustworthy political reputation among the diadochi and the appointment of a satrap (Diod. XVIII. 36. 5; Diod. XVIII. 39.2). The further fate of diadochus will be connected with this area, and when a new round of power struggle between the epigones of Alexander begins, Seleucus will defend his right to rule this region by military force.

Being the satrap of Babylonia, Seleucus established himself as a prudent and fair manager, in contrast to the Antigonids who later held this region. He not only patronized the Babylonian temples, but probably also earned the recognition of ordinary Babylonians by his generosity. Other than the positive reputation of the first Seleucids, it is difficult to explain the support provided to Seleucus and his small army during his return to Babylon in 312 BC after the victory at Gaza. According to Diodorus Siculus, based on the tradition of the historiography of Hieronymus of Cardia, a contemporary of Seleucus and a supporter of his rivals the Antigonids, the Babylonians came out as a sign of greeting and support to meet Seleucus and joined his armed detachment (Diod. XIX. 91. 1-2.).

Almost nothing is known about the policy of Seleucus during his service as a satrap under Antigonus Monophthalmus, but it is likely that the activities of Diadochus and his associates in relation to the Babylonian population can be positively assessed by the episode of the evacuation of the Babylonians during the siege of the city by Demetrius Polyorketes (Diod. XIX. 91; Paus. I. XVI. 1; Arr. Anab. VII. 22). 

Unlike the Hellenic sanctuaries, temples in the Ancient East focused on themselves not only religious, but also administrative functions at the local level, therefore, for stable management of this region, it was necessary to maintain a balance in relations with them. This explains the favor of the kings of the temples, in which they begin to carry out construction work upon their accession, except in cases when the rulers sought to completely subjugate the Babylonian kingdom, reducing its political, economic and ideological resources to achieve possible sovereignty (for example, the Assyrian kings, when conquering certain countries, took away the idols of the main deities from them, Xerxes I did the same with the Babylonian Marduk after the Babylonian uprising, etc.) [12, p. 323]. Alexander the Great also sought the political and ideological "appropriation" of the space of Babylon and the surrounding area through construction actions, in particular the construction of the harbor, the restoration of the temple of Esagil and the famous ziggurat of Etemenanki, which was never rebuilt due to the death of the king (Strabo. XVI. 15.).

The Seleucids did not lag behind their predecessors. Epigraphic narratives confirm the political steps of Seleucus to establish relations with the traditional bearers of local authority in the region - temples and priests. The Chronicle of the Diadochi testifies to the connections of Diadochus with the temple of Emeslam in Kut, the temple in Borsippa and their support for him, while Seleucus' rivals, the Antigonids, experienced setbacks in Babylonia: the temples probably did not agree with them, so their attempts at submission were reduced to plundering, as was the case with the temples in Kut, Naboo in Bit-Hare and the ordinary population (BCHP 3).

It is known that at this time, the priests of the temple of Bela Marduk appealed to the Seleucus administration with a request for financial assistance to carry out cleaning work in the temple (BCHP 3). And although the outcome of the situation remains unknown to researchers, it can be said for sure that the hypothetical negative response of the ruler to the request goes against the general direction of Seleucus I's policy in the Middle East.

The Basileuses' patronage of temples, as well as their adaptation of the Babylonian concept of power, can be traced on a variety of epigraphic material. Most of the information about the restoration or cleaning works sanctioned by Basileus in temples is associated with the name of Antiochus I, co-ruler of Seleucus and his successor: it is known that at least in Esagil and Ezida repair work was carried out (BCHP 5, BCHP 6, BCHP 7, BCHP 8) [13, p. 56]. The texts of the Babylonian chronicles often mention construction debris, ruins and bricks prepared for repair, which indicate that extensive restoration work was carried out during the reign of the first Seleucids. Such a scale of construction work can be explained by the consequences of the war with the Antigonids or even the desolation of the Achaemenid period. 

Having first established himself in Babylonia, leaving his administration here, relying on his very shaky possession of these territories, which remained the subject of military clashes with Antigonus the One-Eyed, Seleucus from there extended his power to other territories. But if sources give fragmentary information about other territories subject to Seleucus, then his rule in Babylonia is reflected much more systematically. It is known that Seleucus Nicator took the royal title only in 304, and this was a political response to the proclamation of the Antigonids as kings. However, even before this official accession, the Babylonians had already proclaimed him king before this demarche of kings began, immediately after his return from Egypt and the conquest of Babylonia (Plut. Dem. 18). Seleucus himself thereby accepted and supported the Babylonians' usual ideas of royal power and court rituals.

The Seleucid dynasties, starting with Seleucus, continue the succession of reigns of local rulers in local chronicles: "the list of kings of Uruk" under the name "m Si-lu-ku" (IM65066. Rev.6) and the "Babylonian List of Kings" (CM 4. Obv. 6.).

In the Babylonian chronicle of the end of the life of Seleucus I (281 BC), describing the transfer of resources from Bactria and the way of the king and his army from Babylonia through Sardis to Macedonia, the homeland of the dynasty, the purpose of the last years of the Basileus' life, demonstrates, emphasizes the territorial scope of the Seleucid scepter (BCHP 9). Here we see a wide geographical scope and interconnected journeys of the king, satraps, armies and the transfer of elephants and resources between Sardis, Babylon and Bactria. All this creates a sense of connected imperial space. In the same document there is a reference to the "processional road" and the temple of Esagila – the cult center of Babylonia, often mentioned in royal inscriptions of the New Babylonian period, which certainly speaks in favor of Seleucus' participation in sacred ceremonies in Babylon (BCHP 9. Obv.2.) [14],[15],[16].

The mythical history of the dynasty, the main hero of which, of course, was the founder of the royal family, is also imbued with the leitmotif of the possession of Babylon. Legends and oracles predicting Seleucus' future kingdom and justifying the legitimacy and predestination of his power often contain references to the landscapes of Mesopotamia. Thus, Appian of Alexandria in his "Roman History" retold the dream of Seleucus' mother Laodicea: she heard a prediction of the royal power to her son, who was to drop the ring with the image of an anchor, presented by her, where he was destined to reign (App. Syr. 56). The next day she found this ring, gave it to her son, and he dropped it during Alexander's campaign on the Euphrates, and later, as legend has it, found it in Babylonia.

At the same time, several ancient writers with minor discrepancies for us also convey another prediction of power related to Mesopotamia to Seleucus, who allegedly, sailing with Alexander along the Euphrates, saved the royal diadem, which moved with the wind from the head of the basileus to the grave of a certain ancient king (App.Syr.57.; Arr. Anab. VII. 22). Criticizing this legend from the point of view of probability, it can be assumed that the act of throwing himself into the water was hardly the status of a Macedonian aristocrat, the military commander of Tsar Seleucus [17, p. 259]. Based on this, these narratives should be considered as a vaticinium ex eventu, legends created by the Seleucids in order to justify the fate of their accession. On the one hand, the myth connects Seleucus with Alexander, an almost mythical hero whose role in mythology is to give stability to life, to create reality instead of a chaotic state [18, p. 84]. Naturally, the personalities who came into contact with him and also fell within the scope of the myth of the famous conqueror were endowed with mythological features [19]. Due to this circumstance, it can be assumed that such legends had a political context and were very far from the actual events that took place. But, on the other hand, the plot of these predictions often plays out "Mesopotamian motives", which is connected with the fundamental importance of Babylonia for the formation and appearance of the Seleucid state, the creation of a dynasty and its prosperity.  

There are other reasons to explain such an emphatically emphasized mention of Babylonia and the region's connection with Seleucid power ambitions. Babylonia is the heart of Alexander's empire, he died here, that is, the events that took place there led to a change of epochs. Babylon became the center of power for Seleucus, the center of his power, it was from this land that his power spread both to the East and to the West. We cannot say for sure how planned such large-scale conquests of Seleucus and the creation of a world power like Alexandrova were, no less. However, for geographical reasons (especially after Alexander extended shipping traffic along the Euphrates to Babylon, ordering the construction of a huge harbor here), economic, cultural and political considerations, Babylonia became a serious help for the assertion of Seleucus' power, his transition from the status of diadochus, the grandee of the Macedonian Argead dynasty to the status of Basileus.

This satrapy was the key to controlling Alexander's empire, a strategically important region for the transfer of goods, labor, resources, and the "grain barn" of the entire empire. Babylon was for both Alexander and Seleucus, the first huge city of world importance, a model for building other cities. No Persian residence has ever borne such a burden of the historical past [20, p. 451]. It was Babylon that was worthy to be considered the most revered of the capitals of the East, the cradle of the idea of world domination, "blessed by the great Marduk himself", bestowing world hegemony. Babylon corresponded to Alexander's predilection for everything grandiose, and Alexander's attachment to this city met the requirements of Seleucus. It was still a majestic capital, somewhat tarnished, but still making a strong impression.

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In the era of Perestroika, in the wake of democratization and glasnost, there was an increased interest in the social and humanitarian sciences, and the researchers themselves – professional historians, by the way, in the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s turned to previously hushed-up topics: These are the White Movement, the issues of repression in the Stalinist period, and the issues of imperialism. The latter topic is quite extensive: after all, although the empires of continental Europe did not survive the First World War, during the second half of the twentieth century there was a tendency to understand imperialism as "inequality of people and territorial relations, usually in the form of empire, based on ideas of superiority and the practice of domination, and the use of expanded powers and control of one state or elites over the other one." In this case, empires by individual authors will be understood as formally republican USA and USSR. But in order to understand imperial construction, it seems important to turn to the origins. These circumstances determine the relevance of the article submitted for review, the subject of which is the imperial experience of the Hellenistic Seleucid state. The author sets out to analyze the available source base, to consider the position of the satrapy of Babylonia in the Early Seleucid Empire, and also to determine the role of Babylonia in the formation of Seleucus' power. The work is based on the principles of analysis and synthesis, reliability, objectivity, the methodological basis of the research is a systematic approach, which is based on the consideration of the object as an integral complex of interrelated elements. The scientific novelty of the article lies in the very formulation of the topic: the author seeks to characterize Babylonia as the center of the Early Seleucid empire, which contributed to the formation of the largest Hellenistic state in the territory. Considering the bibliographic list of the article, its scale and versatility should be noted as a positive point: in total, the list of references includes up to 20 different sources and studies. The undoubted advantage of the reviewed article is the attraction of foreign English-language literature. The source base of the article is represented, as the author of the reviewed article notes, by "narrative and epigraphic sources", while "the Babylonica of the priest Berossus, created at the court of Antiochus I Soter and which has come down to us in excerpts set forth in the works of other writers, deserves special attention." Among the studies attracted by the author, we note the works of S.V. Smirnov, N.V. Zhuravleva, K. Eriksson and others, whose focus is on the early stage of the formation of the Seleucid Empire. Note that the bibliography is important both from a scientific and educational point of view: after reading the text of the article, readers can turn to other materials on its topic. In general, in our opinion, the integrated use of various sources and research contributed to the solution of the tasks facing the author. The style of writing the article can be attributed to scientific, at the same time understandable not only to specialists, but also to a wide readership, to anyone interested in both empire building in general and early empires in particular. The appeal to the opponents is presented at the level of the collected information received by the author during the work on the topic of the article. The structure of the work is characterized by a certain logic and consistency, it can be distinguished by an introduction, the main part, and conclusion. At the beginning, the author defines the relevance of the topic, shows that "for the first ruler Seleucus Nicator, Mesopotamia became the foundation of state-building and the foundation of the dynasty, namely, the satrapy of Babylonia, whose metropolitan status is confirmed by information about the early Seleucid statehood." The work shows that "having previously gained a foothold in Babylonia, leaving his administration here, relying on his very shaky possession of these territories, which remained the subject of military clashes with Antigonus One-Eyed, Seleucus from there extended his power to other territories." It is noteworthy that "if sources give fragmentary information about other territories subject to Seleucus, then his rule in Babylonia is reflected much more systematically." In this regard, the author points out that "from geographical (especially after Alexander extended shipping traffic along the Euphrates to Babylon, ordering the construction of a huge harbor here), economic, cultural and political considerations, Babylonia became a serious help for the assertion of Seleucus' power, his transition from the status of diadochus, the grandee of the Macedonian Argead dynasty to the status of Basileus". The main conclusion of the article is that the satrapy of Babylonia "was the key to control over Alexander's empire, a strategically important region for the transfer of goods, labor, resources, and the "grain barn" of the entire empire," which was the reason for its high status in the Early Bashkid period. The article submitted for review is devoted to an urgent topic, will arouse readers' interest, and its materials can be used both in lecture courses on the history of the ancient world and in various special courses. In general, in our opinion, the article can be recommended for publication in the journal "Historical Journal: Scientific research".