Tuesday, August 21, 2018


David Engels, Benefactors, Kings, Rulers: Studies on the Seleukid Empire between East and West. Studia Hellenistica, 57. Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2017. Pp. xiii, 603. ISBN 9789042933279. €110,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Reinhard Pirngruber, Austrian Academy of Sciences (reinhard.pirngruber@univie.ac.at)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The volume under review collects fourteen essays, nine of which have previously been published (partly in German) between 2010 and 2017 in different journals and conference volumes. 1 Engels' ambitious aim is to locate the "morphological place" (p. 9) occupied by the Seleucid Empire in the longue durée of the history of the Ancient Near East, as successor to the Achaemenids and precursor of the Parthian Empire; his focus is on the "Seleukid Empire as a historical phenomenon per se" (p.11). The book is divided into four sections containing three chapters each, which are framed by a brief introduction (Chapter One) outlining the scope of the book and providing summaries of all essays, and as an epilogue (Chapter Fourteen) an attempt at comparison between the construction of the Seleucid Empire and 19th-century CE colonialism organized around quotes from R. Kipling's story The Man who would be King.

The first section, "The Seleukids and the Longue Durée", starts with a chapter on the decline of the Seleucid Empire. Engels provides a bird's-eye view of the history of the region encompassing the whole of the second half of the first millennium BCE. Main focus is on 'feudalisation', that is, the delegation of power from the centre to regional stakeholders as political strategy replacing direct rule with simple acknowledgments of suzerainty and payment of tribute. Chapter Three takes up the thread of royal titles touched upon in the previous chapter and is dedicated to an in-depth investigation of the use of the titles 'Great King' and 'King of Kings' both by the large empires of the Achaemenids, Seleucids and Parthians as well as by the rulers of the smaller kingdoms in their periphery. For Engels, the use of the former in particular is less dictated by ideological considerations but rather indicative of an attempt to propagate stability in troubled times. Chapter Four attempts a comparison of the Achaemenid and Seleucid royal courts, discussing both the court as an institution, and especially the role of the king's philoi, as well as the court as a physical space. One point that is repeatedly emphasised here is the difference (in the outlook) of the sources at our disposal which tends to create an often-misleading impression of substantial discontinuities.

The second part ("Founding the Seleukid Empire: Seleukos I and Antiochos I") contains three original efforts dedicated to the construction of the empire; its focus is on the regions east of the Tigris river. Chapter Five tackles the question of the geographical extension of the Upper Satrapies, over which Antiochos I was installed as governor during his co-rulership, and which for Engels did not include Babylonia. In the second part of this essay, he provides a prosopography of highest officials of the easternmost satrapies of the Empire stressing continuities with the pre-Hellenistic period. Chapter Six discusses the early Seleucids' establishment of cities and colonies; in addition to providing a rather comprehensive enumeration of their foundations, Engels pays due attention to the emerging townscapes characterized by a fusion of elements drawn from all over the Empire. Iranian religions are dealt with in Chapter Seven. In addition to describing the largely negative depiction of Alexander the Great in Zoroastrian literature, this contribution discusses in detail the potential presence of Iranian motives in three literary passages, offering for example a useful analysis of the story of the court eunuch Kombabos found in Lucian's De Dea Syria).

Section Three, "Centre and Periphery", starts with a detailed assessment of the so-called Frataraka coins and their elusive chronology. Engels suggests an uninterrupted sequence stretching from the early third (reign of Antiochus I) into the second century, thus combining elements of the high and low chronology into a unified model. Importantly, Engels dispenses with the conflictual model prevailing in current scholarship and interprets the Frataraka dynasty as Persian vassals of the Seleucids. The following chapter (Chapter Nine) gives an overview of the stations of Antiochos III's anabasis during in the last years of the third century BCE. The conclusion of this chapter discusses the king's activities under the keyword of feudalisation already encountered in Chapter Two. He attributes to Antiochus' reforms "a central importance in the political development of the Hellenistic Near East" (p. 346) as they planted the seed for several smaller (and short-lived) dynasties encountered throughout the Near East in the later 2nd and early 1st centuries BCE. Chapter Ten addresses the question of the Hellenization of local elites by means of a case study dedicated to conflicts surrounding the building of a gymnasium in Jerusalem as reported in the books of the Maccabees.

The fourth and final part bears the title "Continuity and Reception". It starts with an essay on the Sicilian slave revolt from the mid-second century BC when a slave of Syrian origins, Eunous, crowned himself king, accepting the throne name Antiochus. Engels identifies the Seleucid Empire both as concrete model for nascent royal institutions of Eunous's state as well as a convenient anti-Roman template the insurgents could refer to. Chapter Twelve reviews the evidence bearing on civic elites and their relationship both to one another and to imperial superstructures in the Syrian tetrapolis from the Seleucid period until the after the Roman conquest. Finally, Chapter Thirteen discusses the birth stories of Seleucus and Augustus, both marked by curiously similar ominous events. Engels hypothesizes an ideological construct opposing the 'Egyptian' Marc Antony with a 'Seleucid' Octavian geared primarily at winning the support of the Syrian cities in the context of the ongoing civil war.

Engel's comprehensive approach is a welcome complement to the dominating trend in current scholarship of studies focusing on single aspects in the history of a geographically delimited constituent area of the vast Hellenistic (or Roman, for that matter) Empires. The volume benefits from a coherent perception of key facets of the empire. For example, Engels repeatedly emphasizes the Iranian family ties of the Seleucids, even designating them as an "half-Iranian dynasty" (p. 269).2 Also the concept of 'feudalisation' of the empire surfaces at several points in the volume, both as political means of stabilisation under Antiochus III and as central factor both in the empire's decline under his successors and in the genesis of the small kingdoms characterizing large parts of western Asia prior to the Roman conquest.

Yet the book does not entirely fulfil the expectations it raises. Some of the chapters, especially Five, Six, Nine and Twelve, collect a large amount of sources pertaining to the topic, but beyond that offer only a brief synthesis of the material by way of the conclusion. Even 'feudalisation', a crucial research concept in the context of Engels' book, for which a rich research tradition going back at least to Max Weber exists, is only given a broad, ad hoc definition. It is consequently difficult to see the specificities of Seleucid 'feudalism', also with respect to other manifestations of the phenomenon in the ancient world and beyond.

The book's major weakness, however, lies in its author's imperfect reception of the oeuvre of Ancient Near Eastern historians dealing with the period in question, leading both to oversimplified accounts and, more gravely, misrepresentations of central aspects of the empire(s) described. To give a few examples, in one of the chapters Engels characterizes the Achaemenid economy as "based on thesaurisation and the (un)equal exchange of gifts" (p. 503), a description that has been proven untenable by not-so-recent scholarship.3 Elsewhere, his claim that during the Achaemenid and Seleucid periods taxes were "calculated on a collective base and concerned the whole village" (p. 33) is left unsubstantiated but is demonstrably wrong for Babylonia.4 Also, the alleged fundamental difference between Greek poleis and Oriental cities (p. 352) has been repeatedly challenged by R. ban der Spek.5 The adoption of Greek names in Hellenistic Uruk is mentioned as an example of a "desire for self-Hellenisation" (p. 373), but the more nuanced assessments in L. Doty's seminal article of 1988 or J. Monerie's recent monograph on the issue are not considered.6 A particularly curious erratum (p. 282) describes the Hebrew article ha- as a relative particle expressing genitive relationship in analogy to the Aramaic zy.

However, the volume equally contains valuable contributions to the scholarly debate. In particular, Engels' assessments of the Frataraka coinage and the reception of aspects of Seleucid kingship in Roman times (which is Engels' home turf) enrich current research on the Seleucid Empire and deserve our attention.


1.   See the Copyright Statement on p. 581 for the original publications; note that chapters 11 and 12 appear in reverse order here.
2.   A similar, less pronounced statement is found e.g. on p. 509 where he states "the Seleukid dynasty ceased in some way to be a colonial power and merged with the empire's most important ethnic group, the Iranians".
3.   A recent example is M. Jursa, 'Taxation and service obligations in Babylonia from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius and the evidence for Darius' tax reform', in R. Rollinger, B.Truschnegg and J. Wiesehöfer (eds.), Herodot und das Persische Weltreich. Akten des 3. Internationalen Kolloquiums zum Thema "Vorderasien im Spannungsfeld klassischer und altorientalischer Überlieferungen", Innsbruck, 24.– 28. November 2008. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2011), pp. 431-448 (e.g. p. 438: "the Babylonian evidence does not confirm, and in part clearly contradicts, the thesis that there was a general shift to money taxes under Darius accompanied by largescale thesauration of this money."). But see already the cautious remarks of P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire. (Winona Lake, ID: Eisenbrauns 2002), p. 800-804 and the literature quoted ibid. p. 1038.
4.   See the preceding footnote for a concise survey of Achaemenid tax system based on cuneiform sources; and G. van Driel, Elusive Silver. In Search for a Market in an Agrarian Environment. Aspects of Mesopotamia's Society, PIHANS 95. (Istanbul: NINO).
5.   See references given in R. Pirngruber, The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 67 and footnote 57.
6.   L. T. Doty, 'Nikarchos and Kephalon', in E. Leichty, M. DeJong Ellis and P. Gerardi (eds.), A scientific humanist. Studies in memory of Abraham Sachs. Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund 9. (Philadelphia: University Museum 1988), pp. 95-118, and J. Monerie, D'Alexandre à Zoilos. Dictionnaire prosopographique des porteurs de nom grec dans les sources cunéiformes. Orients et Occidens 23. (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2014).

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