Wednesday, March 30, 2011


John D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars. Mnemosyne Supplements 320. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. xvii, 447. ISBN 9789004180505. $200.00.

Reviewed by Stanley M. Burstein, California State University, Los Angeles (

Version at BMCR home site

The Syrian Wars are one of the "bugbears" of Hellenistic historiography. The root cause of the wars was the occupation of Koile Syria by Ptolemy I in 301 BC; and for over a century, beginning in the 270s BC, the Ptolemies and Seleucids fought over this territory at least once a generation. Reconstructing the history of this series of wars—cumulatively almost forty years of campaigns and combat—is, however, difficult, to say the least. The chronology and the sequence of events of many of the wars are unclear, and in the case of the Second Syrian War even who can be said to have won is open to question. Historians even differ concerning how many Syrian Wars they recognize, with the number varying between six and the nine discussed in this study.

What is behind these difficulties, of course, is the wretched state of the sources, which are worse, indeed, than is the case for many other aspects of Hellenistic history. Narrative sources are episodic or non-existent. Indeed, only with the outbreak of the Fourth Syrian War in 221 BC is a comprehensive narrative of a Syrian War provided by Polybius. Although inscriptions, papyri, and cuneiform texts—especially the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries—fill some of the gaps in the literary evidence, they also all too often raise more questions than answers. In this situation it is understandable that the bulk of the scholarship on the Syrian Wars consists of articles instead of books, and that John D. Grainger's new book is the first monograph devoted to analyzing the whole series of wars from the origin of the conflict in the wars of Alexander's Successors to Kleopatra VII's unsuccessful attempt in the 30s BC to use Roman patronage to restore her dynasty's position in Syria-Palestine.

The Syrian Wars is a distinguished addition to Dr. Grainger's numerous works on the history of the Seleucids. In many ways The Syrian Wars is an old fashioned work. It is narrative history in the tradition of E. Bevan's classic The House of Seleucus (London 1902). The focus is on diplomatic and military history interpreted in the light of the geo-political constants of Syria-Palestine. The book, however, is intended to do more than merely reconstruct the history of a frustratingly obscure series of wars. Rather, the author offers a radical new interpretation of Hellenistic history based on the Syrian Wars being "the central diplomatic and political and military factor in international affairs in the Hellenistic world from 301 to 128, and…more important for the first century of that period than anything which happened in the Western Mediterranean….The Syrian Wars were a major cause of both the power of the two dynasties (sc. the Ptolemies and Seleucids), but also of their destruction (p. 419)."

The history of the Syrian Wars is a complicated story, and the author tells it well. The structure of his book is clear and lucid. After an introduction outlining Alexander's campaign in Syria and a prologue recounting the process by which Ptolemy I gained control of Koile Syria, the narrative proceeds chronologically through the nine wars recognized by the author. The treatment of each war is divided into two chapters: the first analyzes the results of the previous war and their significance for the next, and the second narrates the war itself. The history of the wars, as the author reconstructs it, falls into four periods. The first begins with Ptolemy I's occupation of Koile Syria and ends with Ptolemy III's victory in the Third Syrian War and the virtual disintegration of the Seleucid kingdom. The second, which covers the reign of Antiochus III, begins with his failure to conquer Koile Syria in the Fourth Syrian War and ends with his success in the Fifth Syrian War, a success that was facilitated by the internal collapse of Ptolemaic Egypt due to native revolts and the "sloth" of Ptolemy IV. The third, which extends from Antiochus III's defeat by the Romans to the "Day of Eleusis", is limited to the Sixth Syrian War and its background and ends with Roman recognition of Seleucid rule of Koile Syria and the independence of Egypt. The fourth and final period embraces the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Syrian Wars and is marked, on the one hand, by the chimerical project of uniting the two kingdoms, a goal that briefly seemed within reach during the reign of Ptolemy VI, and, on the other hand, by chronic and debilitating dynastic disputes that sapped the strength of both Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid state.

Reconstruction of this long and complex story is an impressive achievement. Various themes recur throughout it, but three stand out: (1) the resilience of the unitary Ptolemaic kingdom in contrast to the "ramshackle" character of the Seleucid state that rendered it vulnerable to disintegration; (2) the limitation of the wars to roughly one per generation because of the diplomatic "rule" that treaties remained in force during the lifetimes of the signatories; and (3) the effectiveness of the defensive system created by the Ptolemies in Koile Syria in frustrating Seleucid intervention in the area during the third century BC.

As was mentioned earlier, The Syrian Wars is old-fashioned narrative history, and it has the virtues and vices of the genre. On the one hand, the author has a big story to tell, and he tells it well. Particularly effective is his lucid exposition of the close connection between the kings' concentration on gaining or maintaining control of Koile Syria and such phenomena as Ptolemy II's fiscal reorganization of Egypt and the Seleucid loss of Iran, Bactria, and Asia Minor. Also, welcome is his revisionist treatment of the Maccabee revolt as primarily a local problem with limited impact on the Seleucid state as a whole. On the other hand, the author is not as critical of the sources as he might be. So, for example, he too readily accept Polybius' and Josephus' negative characterizations of Ptolemy IV and Alexander Balas, although in the latter case he does note that Balas' energetic actions are hard to reconcile with the sources' picture of him as dominated by luxury. Similarly, we are surely entitled to wonder if the "rule" that treaties were honored during the lifetime of their signatories is due more to the deficiencies of the sources than the honor of the Hellenistic kings. Nevertheless, while we may doubt if the Syrian Wars actually do provide the key to understanding the failure of the Hellenistic kingdoms, as the author claims, the fact remains that The Syrian Was is an important contribution to Hellenistic political and military history that should become the standard treatment of its subject for years to come.

Table of Contents




Prologue: Syria's Importance Revealed

1. Syria Divided

2. Cold War

3. The New Kings, and the First Syrian War

4. Competitive Developing

5. The Second Syrian War

6. Increasing Strains

7. The Third War, the 'War of Laodike'

8. The Seleukid Collapse

9. The Fourth War

10. The Reversal, the Ptolemaic Collapse

11. The Fifth War: the Triumph of Antiochos III

12. Changing Priorities

13. The Sixth War: and the 'Day of Eleusis'

14. Mutual Troubles and a New Agenda

15. The Seventh War, the Triumph of Ptolemy Philometor

16. The Legacy of Philometor

17. The Eighth War, the Last Chance for Union

18. The Ninth, and Last, War

Epilogue: the Ambition of Kleopatra VII




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