Sunday, May 20, 2012


Kyle Erickson, Gillian Ramsey (ed.), Seleucid Dissolution: the Sinking of the Anchor. Philippika, 50. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011. Pp. 209. ISBN 9783447065887. €44.00.

Reviewed by Rebecca Dodd, University of Glasgow (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume consists of twelve articles derived from a 2008 conference of a similar title at the University of Exeter. I shall begin this review with a general discussion, and then consider each article on its own merits.

It must be mentioned that Seleucid-specific collections are something of a rarity; taken together, the articles in this volume and their accompanying bibliographies provide an excellent consolidation of modern scholarship on the Seleucids. The title of the collection is somewhat misleading; few articles cover the Seleucid era after Antiochus IV when one can truly speak of the imminent disintegration of the empire. While it is made clear in the introduction that events in the early Seleucid era contributed to the empire's eventual collapse, nevertheless a more generalised title may have been preferable. It is also recognised that the original intent of the conference may have been to cover the later Seleucid empire and that the actual content turned out differently; however, the title, at least potentially, implies that this is a study of the late Seleucids, which may create problems for students, researchers, and bibliographers alike.

The first article in this collection is David Engels' "Middle Eastern 'Feudalism' and Seleucid Dissolution." The article sets out to discuss the issue of the Seleucid adaptation of Achaemenid administrative structures. While the Seleucids are indeed the main focus of the article, Engels makes frequent references throughout the text to the use of Achaemenid structures as they pertained to the Achaemenids themselves, Alexander, the Seleucids, the Parthians and the Sassanians, effectively covering a period of more than 700 years. As a result it is difficult to provide commentary on the merits of his arguments because the topics covered are simply too broad. The article does contain an extensive, current bibliography and as such may serve as an introduction to the longevity of Achaemenid institutions, with particular reference to the Seleucids. While the author qualifies his use of the word "feudalism," he uses highly specific medieval terminology including serfs (p. 27) and vassals (p. 28) which he does not explain.

Gillian Ramsey's article presents an overview of the various Seleucid officials known to us in literary sources, which is admirable for its break from the tendency to cover only kings. The article consists of a detailed discussion of the successes and failures of the relationships between the imperial centre and the periphery. The only quibble I have with this article is the occasional tendency for the author to overstate the role of the Seleucid administrators in the collapse of the empire, for example, "…each of their successes and failures increased the measure of Seleucid power in its strength and gave it the weaknesses that brought about the end of the empire." (p. 38) Surely Seleucid dissolution is attributable to a variety of factors, with the administrative failures being one important aspect of this. Overall, this article is excellent in its handling of the sources and detailed in its treatment of what is an innovative subject.

Kyle Erickson's article opens with a well-argued discussion of the purposes for which Antiochus I used the image of Apollo on the reverses of his coins. As this article frequently cites coins, seals and statuary as evidence, it is occasionally difficult to follow due to the lack of illustrations. Erickson argues that Antiochus I utilised the image of Apollo on coins in terms of winning favour amongst his Babylonian subjects, due to the syncretisation of Apollo and the Babylonian god Nabu. The article is commendable for its frequent citation of both Greek and Babylonian sources on the wider issue of Seleucid/Babylonian relations and the specific issue of the equation of Apollo and Nabu. More problematically, the author does not explain why Antiochus I would have chosen an image that would appeal to the Babylonians, but not one of the many other groups within the kingdom.

G. G. Aperghis' paper covers one of the most well-studied subjects in both Seleucid and Judaic scholarship. Its central argument that Jewish sources may be at odds with actual events is not new; this issue has been covered in scholarship as least as early as Rostovtseff.1 What this article does provide is an introduction to the primary sources and an updated bibliography of modern scholarship.

Altay Co┼čkun's piece covers the poorly documented relationship between the Seleucids and the Galatians. Much of this article focuses on Antiochus I, the dynasty's second ruler, although later kings are covered as well as available written sources permit. Much of the article is dedicated to a detailed discussion of the extensive problems in ancient sources for the Galatians, with concluding remarks on the role that the Galatians played in the Seleucid loss of Asia Minor. The subject of this article is a difficult one; the author could have made his paper easier to follow by eliminating the occasional tendency towards periphrasis (e.g. Appian is referred to as the "historian of Alexandria" (p. 91))."

Cristian Ghita's article provides a lengthy analysis of an inscription dealing with the marriage of the Seleucid princess Nysa to the Pontic king Pharnaces. The article concludes with a brief overview of the dynastic and political context for this marriage, which presents some problematic conclusions. Ghita attempts to put this marriage within an Achaemenid context, making the confusing comment that the Seleucids were "replenishing their Iranian blood." (p. 113). A cursory glance at Grainger2 reveals that the Seleucids had a long tradition of marrying into the Pontic royal family, rendering any Achaemenid connections tenuous. Moreover, it is difficult to see how or why Seleucid rulers of Antioch would send their daughters to marry Pontic princes to ensure their own ethnic purity, given that any children born from these unions would have necessarily formed part of the Pontic royal family, not the Seleucid.

The next two articles, by Nicholas Wright and Heather Jackson respectively, concern archaeological evidence for the Seleucid abandonment of Jebel Khalid. It is worth mentioning that this abandonment dates to around 75 BCE, firmly in the late Seleucid era, which makes both studies invaluable for scholars of this time period. Both articles are illustrated with photographs, maps and charts, which makes them easy to follow for the non-archaeologist despite their occasionally technical vocabulary. Wright provides an overview of the city's archaeology, and concludes with a brief discussion of the political history of the late Seleucids in the region. Jackson's study gives a highly specialised account of a housing insula, complementing Wright's more generalised study.

Daniel Ogden's paper places myths surrounding the foundations of cities within the broader context of Seleucid and Alexandrine birth foundation myths. While he does provide contemporary coins as evidence to corroborate the content of the texts, he does not address the issue that many available literary sources covering Seleucid mythology were written long after the founding of the empire, and indeed after its dissolution. The article ends with a series of bullet points rather than a proper conclusion, which makes it read like a transcript; this should surely have been handled during the course of editing.

Johannes Engels' article on Posidonius and Strabo is commendable for its treatment of the last days of the Seleucid empire, and will be a valuable resource for any historian of the era. Engels provides extensive commentary on both authors, their sources, possible biases and any gaps in their accounts, while concluding with a discussion of what light these two authors can shed on this poorly documented time period.

Paola Ceccarelli's article concerns the information on the Seleucids that may be gleaned from Athenaeus. This article gives a detailed commentary on Athenaeus' cited sources, with a concise and convenient catalogue of these at the end. Ceccarelli also discusses the problems with Athenaeus as a source, an eternal issue in the field of Seleucid studies.

The final "article" in this volume by Zohreh Baseri consists of an illustrated descriptive catalogue of a dozen coins from the collection of the National Museum of Iran. It is little more than a list, with no attempt to contextualise it, whether on its own terms, or in terms of how it fits within this volume. A basic introduction to this catalogue would have been beneficial; for example, one would like a sense of what percentage of the museum's Seleucid coin collection is represented here, and a sense of why this collection is unique. Since the volume's general introduction states that these coins have never been published (p. 18), some insight into this would also have been greatly appreciated.

Overall, this volume has some useful contributions to make to our knowledge of the Seleucids, especially when the later Seleucid period is given the attention that the introduction promises. However, a few of the articles would have benefited from more rigorous editing. Some of the more generalist articles may be useful to undergraduates, particularly with regard to their extensive modern bibliographies; however, much of this volume is strictly geared towards the Seleucid specialist.

Table of Contents

1. Gillian Ramsey and Kyle Erickson. Introduction: the Sinking of the Anchor.
2. David Engels. Middle Eastern "Feudalism" and Seleucid Dissolution.
3. Gillain Ramsey. Seleucid Administration: Effectiveness and Disfunction Among Officials.
4. Kyle Erickson. Apollo-Nabu: the Babylonian Policy of Antiochus I.
5. G. G. Aperghis. Antiochus IV and his Jewish Subjects: Political, Cultural and Religious Interaction.
6. Altay Coskun. Galatians and Seleucids: A Century of Conflict and Cooperation.
7. Cristian E. Ghita. Nysa-A Seleucid Princess in an Anatolian Context.
8. Nicholas L. Wright. The Last Days of a Seleucid City: Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates and its Temple.
9. Heather Jackson. A Late Seleucid Housing Insula at Jebel Khalid in North Syria: Archaeological Evidence for Chronology and Lifestyle.
10. Daniel Ogden. Seleucid Dynastic Foundation Myths: Antioch and Seleucia-in-Pieria.
11. Paola Ceccarelli. Kings, Philosphers and Drunkards: Athenaeus' Information on the Seleucids.
12. Johannes Engels. Posidonius of Apamea and Strabo of Amasia on the Decline of the Seleucid Kingdom.
13. Zohreh Baseri. Seleucid Coins from the National Museum of Iran.


1.   Rostovtseff, M.I. A Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (Oxford, 1941).
2.   Grainger, J. A Seleukid Prosopography and Gazeteer (Leiden, 1997).

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