The Seleukids in the Upper Satrapies

Disclaimer: This post is based on some of my undergraduate work, so might be considered a bit basic (in that I wrote it in under 24hrs while sleep deprived), I just really enjoy this period and the complexities of studying this region, consider this an introduction to later posts about the period and region.

The Seleukid kingdom was the largest of the successor states, but this meant that governing it was very difficult, given the vast territory and the diversity of its peoples and their different styles of rule. The independence given to the upper-satrapies (the eastern most regions) allowed them easily slip away when the Seleukid monarchs were under threat, this happened many times, Seleukos and heir-apparent Antiochos had to invade them and bring them back under control from 311-302.

573px-Plan_AI_Khanoum-fr PUBLIC DOMAIN
Figure 1 Plan of Ai-Khanoum, note the variety of architectural styles: a Greek theatre and gymnasium, a mud-brick temple in the local style.

Antiochos was declared ruler of the upper satrapries and expanded Greek influence in the area by setting up colonies such as Ai-Khanoum in Bactria, though this was more than a colony and was an essential part of Seleukid dominance in the region (Martinez-Sève 2014. pp.273). How space was used was important to the Seleukids, and since they were cut off from their homeland of Greece and Macedonia this often showed itself their colonies. Looking at a plan of Ai-Khanoum (figure 1.), the features named are predominantly Greek in style, places such as the palaestra and the theatre. As well as being Greek in style, they were colossal in size: the palaestra was comparable to the one at Olympia and the theatre could seat more than five-thousand, much more than the estimated population of the city; this size was a way of culturally dominating the local population (Ibid. pp.276). Of course, as the materials for the theatre and the main temple were mud-brick, and the houses had flat roofs, showing that the city’s builders were willing to compromise Greek style, for local practicalities (ibid. pp.278; 280).

JPFM dissertation illustration
Figure 2: A dedication to Oxus “Εὐχὴν | ἀνέθηκεν | Ἀτροσωκης | Ὄξωι” (Atrosoces lays down a prayer for Oxus, authors own translation) SEG 31-1381. The figure depicted is the satyr Marsyas, and Oxus refers to the local river. (Image by Daisy Minto)

Space and religion were also used by the Seleukids to maintain a grip on the upper-satrapies. At Takti-Sangin, a sanctuary not far from Ai-Khanoum, an offering was made by a local called Atrosoces. This dedication helps to show the cultural blending that happened due to this mixing of populations, since the dedication has a bronze figure of the satyr and river god Marsyas (originally from Phygria in Asia Minor), the inscription is Greek and the god dedicated to is the Oxus, the spirit of the river that runs by the city of Ai-Khanoun, as Kosmin said, it brought ideas of Greek religion to the plains of central-Asia (Kosmin 2014. pp.64).

The Seleukid strategy of Hellenisation and syncretism was effective and the populations of the areas that were under it did change their day to day habits and the façade of the society looked Greek, the problem was that Seleukid resources could were stretched thin, allowing the upper-satrapies to break away, whilst ironically maintaining elements of Hellenic culture that they came into contact with. Under Seleukos II, the people of Asia-Minor revolted, and the upper-satrapies used this distraction to their advantage; “Bactria and all the territory near it was the first to be made independent … the nomad tribes of the Dahae, who are called the Parni and live along the Oxus, invaded Parthia and established control over it” (Strabo 11.9.2 = Austin 1981 no.145). Bactria grew into the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, where Ai-Khanoum continued to thrive. Parthia eventually superseded the Seleukid empire and absorbed it’s possessions, though for many years they survived, competed and imitated each-other (Momigliano 1975. pp.139).

Coin_of_Arsaces_I_(2),_Nisa_mint
Figure 3 Head of Arsaces I | Reverse: Seated Archer in Persian Dress, “Araces, Autocrator.” The symbolism here is a blend of Persian and Greek, the archer king was a staple of the Achaemeninid Kings, whilst the title is Greek.

Parthian coins are clear evidence for this, since they imitate the format of Hellenistic Coins, just with Iranian features. The use of Greek script on the coins is significant as they use it as a tool of legitimacy, even though they have broken away from a Greek state. This rivalry between Parthia and the Seleukids is fairly one sided, while Parthia was using Greek as the international language and allowing Greeks high in the administration of state, the Seleukids – and other Hellenistic Kingdoms – ignored a neo-Persian Empire rising out of the ruins of the old one, much to their own detriment and loss (Momigliano 1975. pp.138-139).

Seleukos was the first to realise that the Indian Satrapies weren’t viable and that peace with the Mauryan Empire was more important (Kosmin 2014, pp.33); “Seleucus Nicator gave them to Sandrocottus [Chandragupta, founder of Mauryan India] in consequence of a marriage contract, and received in return five hundred elephants” (Strabo, Geography, 15.2.9) Seleukos I secured his borders and gained elephants that would prove to be the deciding factor in the battle of Ipsos in 301, while Chandragupta gained the benefits of the access to silk roads and stabilisation of his northern borders (Kosmin 2014, pp.33) The fact that Seleukos was realistic in his view of creating a border rather than continuing with endless conquest is a radical departure from Persian and Alexandrian ideals (Ibid. pp.34). The principle of spear-won territory still stood, but it became more important to maintain what they had, this is why his son Antiochos I was so concerned with creating colonies in the upper-satrapies, since it established Seleukid power in regions, while attempting to stabilise problem regions and maintaining realistic expectations of how far the concept of spear won land could go.

After all this effort to ensure that these provinces were stabilised, it was incredibly frustrating once they were lost in the mid-third century, which explains the vast effort and expense was made to recover them. This was different than the universalist conquest that motivated Alexander and the Persians, it was an attempt to regain their new homeland. The campaigns of Antiochos III in the upper-satrapies were a prime example of this. In Bactria he put himself at immense risk and fought due to the personal nature of the campaign. Polybius describes the Battle of Arius in 209 BCE, fought against the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus; “The king’s cavalry retired, after large numbers and taking a great many prisoners and bivouacked by the side of the river. In this action the king had a horse killed under him and lost some of his front teeth by a blow to the mouth” (Polybius, Histories, 10.49.13-14). Antiochos III saw the importance of morale in his men and acted as a role-men, his strategy was to make the war too costly for the Bactrians to continue, and after the siege of Bactra, an alliance was made and Antiochos turned his attention west. To Antiochus this alliance was evidence of the Bactrians submission, and was a common tactic in this period in order to create stability, meaning that rebellious areas were temporarily pacified, allowing the king to focus on other issues without losing status.

That concludes this brief examination of Seleukid involvement in the upper-satrapies. The main takeaways are that the the Seleukids were adaptable to regional differences and of over expanding themselves, but that they we rigid in what they saw as rightfully theirs, and it was this rigidity that allowed the upper-satrapies to breakaway and form states of there own.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, a bit of house keeping now. This is likely the last post for a while, as my dissertation and other deadlines bite, but it won’t be the last you hear from the Seleukids this year, as I plan to expand on some the themes raised in here, I want to look more at Antiochos I and the campaigns of Antiochos III in Bactria.

Hope everyone is keeping well and staying safe,
– J

Bibliography

  • Polybius, Histories, E.S. Shuckburgh. (London: Macmillan 1889) from Perseus Digital Library.

*

  • Austin, M.M (1981) The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Martinez-Sève, L. (2014) “The spatial organisation of Ai Khanoum, a Greek city in Afghanistan” American Journal of Archaeology 118: 267-83.
  • Momigliano, A. (1975) Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenisation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Kosmin, P.J. (2014) The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univeristy Press).

Images

Figure 1: Plan of Ai-Khanoum, note the variety of architectural styles: a Greek theatre and gymnasium, a mud-brick temple in the local style. (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Figure 2: A dedication to Oxus “Εὐχὴν | ἀνέθηκεν | Ἀτροσωκης | Ὄξωι” (Atrosoces lays down a prayer for Oxus, authors own translation) SEG 31-1381. The figure depicted is the satyr Marsyas, and Oxus refers to the local river. (Image by Daisy Minto)

Figure 3 Obverse: Head of Arsaces I | Reverse: Seated Archer in Persian Dress, “Araces, Autocrator.” The symbolism here is a blend of Persian and Greek, the archer king was a staple of the Achaemeninid Kings, whilst the title is Greek. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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