Iranian History/The Seleucids

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The Achaemenid Empire fell with the defeat of Darius III at Arbela and the conquest of the Empire. A pretender rose to the throne calling himself Artaxerxes V but he was captured by Alexander and killed. With this Achaemenid rule came to an end and the country was taken over by the Greeks. Two Greek dynasties ruled Persia one after the another for a period of hundred years. They were eventually displaced by the rising Parthian power which drove the Seleucids the last of the two dynasties west into Syria and established its own rule in Persepolis.

Alexander III or Alexander the Great 331 - 323 BC

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Alexander the Great or Alexander III of Macedon became overlord of all Persia on the defeat of Darius III Condomannus at the Battle of Arbela. Darius III fled the battlefield and was captured and killed by the eunuch Bessas who ascended the throne assuming the title Artaxerxes V. But soon afterwards, Alexander invaded Persepolis and burnt down the city. Artaxerxes V was captured and punished with death for having caused the dead of Darius III. Later, Alexander gave a royal funeral to Darius III and married one of his daughters.

Alexander did not spend enough time at Persepolis to consolidate his hold on the Empire. Immediately after proclaiming himself as the Shah of Persia, he left for the East on a conquering spree taking the eastern satraps of Gandhara, Bactria,the Swat Valley and the Punjab. In Punjab, he encountered the Indian ruler Porus and defeated him but did not proceed further into Indian territory and was obliged to return. He died in 323 BC at Babyon. The cause is not known, but food poisoning is suspected.

The administrative structure of the Achaemenids remained largely intact all through Alexander's rule. The Persian satraps governed the satrapies for their Greek overlords. And Alexander did not distinguish between Persians and Greeks in Government service. He tried to foster close friendly relations between the Persians and the Greeks and encouraged Greek soldiers to intermarry with native women.

However, orthodox Zoroastrians remembered Alexander's period of rule for the tyranny he unleashed on Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrians. Being a polytheist himself, it is believed that he despised monotheistic religions and ordered the Avesta to be destroyed in its entirety. Zoroastrian scriptures mention him as "the ally of the Evil One". His invasion is believed to be the first ever cataclysm which befell Zoroastrianism the second one being the invasion of the Arabs. The Shahnameh casts an aura of divinity about him by nurturing fantastical legends and unfounded rumors about Alexander actually being the son of Darius III and a daughter of Philip of Macedon who was smuggled to Macedon in his infancy and brought up in the custody of his grandfather in order to conceal the true identity of his parents. But there is no available historical evidence to substantiate this claim. Nevertheless, Alexander left behind a legacy of destruction and intolerance which Zoroastrians found difficult to forget or forgive for centuries to come.

Alexander IV 323 - 309 BC

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On the unexpectedly early death of Alexander in 323 BC, the Crown passed to his still yet unborn son who later ascended the throne as Alexander IV. Alexander IV was the last ruler of the united Macedonian Empire. The kingdom, however, was torn apart by anarchy and civil war. With an incompetent minor on the throne, the distant outlying provinces became the target of adventurers and claimants to the throne.

On the death of Alexander IV in 309 BC, the kingdom broke into three parts -- the European provinces of the Empire were under the hereditary royal line of Macedonian kings who maintained an uninterrupted succession from Alexander the Great; the Asian provinces which comprised over three-fourths of the Empire became independent under Seleucus I Nikator a general of Alexander the Great who established the Seleucid Dynasty while the African provinces of the Empire comprising mostly of Egypt became independent under the Greek Ptolemies.

The Seleucids

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When Alexander's kingdom disintegrated a few years after his death, Persia came under the rule of Seleucus I Nikator, a general of Alexander. Seleucus Nikator and his successors the Seleucids ruled Persia from 320 BC till 250 BC when most of Persia became independent under Parthian rule. The remainder was snatched away from Seleucids in stages from 250 BC to 171 BC. By the end of the 2nd century BC, the authority of the Seleucids over Persia had vanished. However, the Seleucids continued to rule over Syria till 65 BC when a Roman invasion of Syria wiped away the last remnants of Greek imperialism.

Seleucus I Nikator 320 - 281 BC

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Seleucus I or Seleucus Nikator a general of Alexander was made satrap of Babylon on the second division of the Empire in 320 BC. In the struggle between Antigonus and Eumenes for sovereignty he supported Antigonus against his rival. But strangely, this only invoked the jealousy of Antigonus instead of his gratitude and he schemed to do away with Seleucus. Hence, Seleucus was forced to flee and he fled to the court of Ptolemy of Egypt who offered him protection. Meanwhile,the conduct of Antigonus had made a lot of enemies and ultimately culminated in the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC) in which "the Allies" inflicted a crushing defeat upon him. Seleucus was one of the first to rebel and he was locked in a dreadful confrontation with Antigonus ever since the recovery of Babylon in 312 BC. He led the bulk of the troops in the Battle of Issus as a consequence of which he was recognized as the independent overlord of all the Greek conquests in Asia.

Soon after obtaining his independence, Seleucus seems to have organized an invasion of India. Seleucus wanted to annex the lands to the east of the Indus which Alexander had failed to conquer. But Seleucus faced a stout resistance from the emerging Mauryan power which successfully blocked his advance. Chandragupta Maurya (the Sandrocottus of the Greeks) , the Mauryan king pushed back the Greek troops to the other side of the Indus and conquered Afghanistan. The war came to an abrupt end and peace was concluded. As per the terms of the peace, Pakthoonistan, eastern Afghanistan, Bactria, Baluchistan and parts of Sistan were made over to Chandragupta Maurya in return for a princely gift of 500 war elephants. A marital alliance was sealed between the two with the marriage of Seleucus' daughter Helen with Chandragupta Maurya. Megasthenes was sent as the Greek ambassador to the Indian court and he has described the splendors of the Mauryan capital Pataliputra (Greek:Palimbothra) in his book Indica.

During the initial years of his reign, Babylon was the capital of the Empire. But in 301 BC, he constructed the city of Selucia-upon-the-Tigris and moved the capital to that city. After the Battle of Ipsus, he once again shifted his capital and moved the seat of his Government to the city of Antioch in Syria. Antioch was to remain the capital of Seleucus Nikator and his successors till the end of the Seleucid Empire.

Selecus I died in 281 BC and was succeeded by his son Antiochus I.

Antiochus I (Soter) 281 - 261 BC

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Antiochus I ruled from 281 BC to 261 BC. He was involved in constant warfare with the kings of the west. He invaded the kingdom of Bithynia in Turkey during the reigns of Zipcetas and Nicomedes I. Antiochus I found it difficult to subjugate Bithynia as Nicomedes was aided by the Gauls. Finally, the wars ended on an indecisive note. In 263 BC, he attacked Eumenes of Pergamus but was defeated at Sardis. He also launched a massive invasion of Egypt to support the rebelling Cyrenes against the Ptolemaic ruler but was once again unsuccessful. Both Antiochus I and II were preoccupied with their wars in the West that they paid little attention to the east. Ultimately the level of neglect reached such alarming proportions during the reign of Antiochus II that a full-scale revolution broke in Parthia which was not put down in time. This resulted in the formation of the Parthian Empire and started the process of dismemberment of Greek rule in Persia.

Antiochus II (Theus) 261 - 249 BC

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Antiochus I died in 261 BC and was succeeded by Antiochus II. Soon after his accession to the throne, he indulged in war with Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt. In 260 BC, he deposed Timachus, the tyrant of the country of Miletus thereby provoking Egypt into war. The bwar lasted over a decade until peace was concluded at the fag end of Antiochus Theus' reign. But by then, Antiochus had lost the satrapies of Parthia and Bactria which had broke off between 256 and 250 BC when Antiochus was occupied in an intense struggle with Egypt apart from indulging in hostilies with Atropatene. He made no attempt to recover then. He died soon after the war came to an end.

Decline of the Seleucids and the Rise of Parthia

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In 256 BC, when Antiochus II was busy in his wars, the Greek satrap of Bactria (the Persian Baktri or modern-day Balkh in Afghanistan) Diodotus declared his independence. Sometime between 256 and 250 BC, Arsaces(Arshaka) an inhabitant of Parthia revolted and established the Parthian kingdom. The Parthian kingdom gradually rose from strength to strength displacing the Seleucid Empire over a period of time. Antiochus II died soon after the war in Egypt came to an end.

Antiochus II was succeeded by his son Seleucus II during whose reign Ptolemy Euergetes the ruler of Egypt invaded the kingdom and occupied Antioch. Seleucus II ruled as a feudatory of Ptolemy who penetrated the kingdom upto its Eastern frontiers and threatened to revive the mighty empire of Alexander the Great. But a rebellion in Egypt cut short his enterprise thereby sparing both Seleucus II and the emerging Parthian kingdom from destruction.

In 237 BC, Seleucus II allied with his brother Antiochus Hierax and invaded Parthia to recover lost territory. But the alliance soon broke off and Tiridates the Parthian monarch administered a crushing defeat on Seleucus II in the battle that ensued. For the next twenty years, Seleucus II concentrated his energies on quelling the rebellion of his brother Antiochus Hierax that he allowed Tiridates to go scott free.

In 214 BC, another jolt was administered to the crumbling Seleucid Empire when taking advantage of a civil war between Antiochus III the son of Seleucus II and Emperor of Syria and Achseus a rebel satrap the Parthian king Artabanus invaded the tract of Media and annexed it to his empire. No sooner had he quelled the rebellion by Achseus that Antiochus III turned his attention to Parthia and invaded the kingdom. The capital of the Parthian Empire Hecatompylos was occupied and Artabanus the Parthian monarch was forced to flee. At length, Artabanus submitted and was permitted to rule as a satrap of Syria. Soon after the successful war against Parthia, Antiochus III proceeded further eastward and subdued Bactria.

Syria had a minor revival during the reign of Antiochus III also called Antiochus the Great but the decline commenced once again after his death. During the reign of Seleucus IV (Philopater) who ruled from 181 to 174 BC, the Parthian monarch Phraates occupied Media and Rhagai. As a result ,the Seleucid kingdom was cut off from its eastern territories. Seleucus IV was succeeded by his brother Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 174 BC. Epiphanes earned the detestable reputation of being a religious fanatic who tried to force Hellenistic polytheism upon monotheistic Jews of Palestine. During his reign, Egypt claimed Palestine and a battle was fought with Egypt from 171 to 168 BC. It was brought to an end only by the inference of Rome which asked Syria to cede all occupied territories to Egypt. Epiphanes made a successful conquest of Armenia in 165 BC but troubles began to brew in the home-front due to his policy of religious intolerance and destruction of Zoroastrian temples. Epiphanes died in 164 BC and was succeeded by a lad of nine. The boy Antiochus Eupator was deposed a few years later by a rival contender Demetrius who ascended the throne. A few years later Media was conquered by the Parthian monarch Mithridates. In 140 BC, the Seleucid monarch Demetrius II invaded Parthia with the hope of recovering lost provinces but was caught off-guard and captured by Mithridates who took him prisoner.

Antiochus Sidetus was crowned Emperor in 140 BC in the absence of Demetrius II. He fought the pretender Tryphon and punished him with death in the year 137 BC. He then turned his attention to Palestine and subdued the province by 133 BC. By 129 BC he was well-prepared for an invasion of Parthia. Collecting over 120,000 soldiers Sidetus crossed the frontier and invaded the Parthian Empire. The border provinces of Parthia fed-up with an oppressive administration openly welcomed the invader. However, winter impeded the progress of the army and following his instinct, Sidetus split up his army into several units and settled the towns of Mesapotamia. Phraates the Parthian Emperor saw his chance and sent Demetrius with a large Parthian army to reclaim the throne. The inhabitants were displeased with the haughty nature of the Greek soldiers and conspired a plot to cut down Sidetus' army in league with Phraates. Accordingly, on an appointed day, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia rose against the Seleucid soldiers camped inn their province and massacred all of them. The Parthian army pursued the remainder of the Seleucid army back into Syria. Sidetus was killed on the way and was succeeded by Demetrius. This was the last time that a Seleucid ruler dared to invade the Parthian Empire. The Seleucid Empire did survive till 65 BC but its power was greatly reduced and its influence felt only in Syria. In 65 BC, a Roman invasion of Syria put an end to the struggling Seleucid kingdom.


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