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Seleucid Empire

By the fourth century BC, nearly all of Babylon opposed the Achaemenids. Thus, when the Iranian forces stationed in Babylon surrendered to Alexander the Great of Macedon in 331 BC all of Babylonia hailed him as a liberator. Alexander quickly won Babylonian favor when, unlike the Achaemenids, he displayed respect for such Babylonian traditions as the worship of their chief god, Marduk. Alexander also proposed ambitious schemes for Babylon. He planned to establish one of the two seats of his empire there and to make the Euphrates navigable all the way to the Persian Gulf, where he planned to build a great port. Alexander's grandiose plans, however, never came to fruition. Returning from an expedition to the Indus River, he died in Babylon -- most probably from malaria contracted there in 323 BC at the age of thirty-two.

Had Alexander lived, he intended to establish a world empire with the great Babylon as its capital. However, upon his premature death there in 323 BC at the age of thirty-two, his empire was left to be divided among his generals. In the politically chaotic period after Alexander's death, his generals fought for and divided up his empire. Many of the battles among the Greek generals were fought on Babylonian soil.

By around 316 BC Antigonus, by his conquest of Eumenes, became master of all Asia, while Lysiraachus ruled in Thrace, and Ptolemy in Egypt. Antigonus' dominion in the most eastern satrapies was merely nominal, or did not exist at all; but, in regard to Babylonia, Persia, and other interior provinces, the case was different, for there he really ruled as master. But none of the princes had yet assumed the kingly title. In the feuds which henceforth arose among the rulers, a younger generation of men already appeared on the stage, and they can in no way be compared with the older men who had gone forth from the school of Philip.

Seleucus was one of these younger men; he had not yet distinguished himself, but may have become acquainted with war as early as the time of Philip. He was of about the same age as Alexander, and in every sense an enfant de la fortune, who rose only through his extraordinary good fortune. Babylonia and Assyria fell to Seleucis, who ruled from 301-281 BC.

Among the successors of Alexander the ablest administrator was Seleucus Nicator. Following the policy of his master, he planted as many as seventy-five colonies in his realm. Among these was Seleucia on the Tigris, said to have contained six hundred thousand inhabitants and to have rivalled Babylon in splendor. The new towns were all built on a large and comfortable model: they were well paved: they had ample arrangements for lighting by night and for a good water supply; they had police arrangements, and good thorough-fares secured to them by land and water. These were in themselves privileges enough to tempt all the surrounding peasants, all the people who lived in old-fashioned incommodious villages, to settle in a fresh home. This is what the Greeks under the patronage of Seleucus were doing for Asia.

As a capital for his kingdom he founded Antioch in Syria not far from the sea, a city which was to become notable in early Christian history. They gave special attention to the region around the northeast corner of the Mediterranean reaching to the Euphrates, and here the Seleucids endeavored to develop another Macedonia. Their empire is often called Syria, after this region. Here on the lower Orontes, Seleucus founded the great city which he called Antioch (after his father, Antiochus). It finally enjoyed great prosperity and became the commercial rival of Alexandria and the greatest seat of commerce in the northern Mediterranean.

Colonists from every part of Greece brought their industry and enterprise to every part of the Seleucid empire; they furnished the intelligence and the skill by which the whole commercial business as well as the civil service of the empire was conducted. The new towns were Hellenic in language, in civilization, and in their free local institutions. Through them Seleucus and his descendants, the Seleucidae, continued Alexander's work of Hellenizing the East, making the people in the great country over which they ruled one in language, in culture, and in sympathy.

As the promoters of civilization, the Seleucidae were the most worthy among the successors of Alexander. Under the Seleucid Dynasty, Hellenistic influences were increasingly introduced to the population. In the latter half of the Greek period, Greek military campaigns were focused on conquering Phoenician ports and Babylonia was thus removed from the sphere of action. The city of Babylon lost its preeminence as the center of the civilized world when political and economic activity shifted to the Mediterranean, where it was destined to remain for many centuries.

Although Alexander's major plans for Mesopotamia were unfulfilled, and his generals did little that was positive for Mesopotamia, the effects of the Greek occupation were noteworthy. Alexander and his successors built scores of cities in the Near East that were modeled on the Greek city-states. One of the most important was Seleucia on the Tigris. The Hellenization of the area included the introduction of Western deities, Western art forms, and Western thought. Business revived in Mesopotamia because one of the Greek trade routes ran through the new cities. Mesopotamia exported barley, wheat, dates, wool, and bitumen; the city of Seleucia exported spices, gold, precious stones, and ivory. Cultural interchange between Greek and Mesopotamian scholars was responsible for the saving of many Mesopotamian scientific, especially astronomical, texts.

Although they were not as powerful as the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, as we call Seleucus and his descendants, were the chief heirs of Alexander, for they held the larger part of his empire, extending from the ^Aegean to the frontiers of India. Its boundaries were not fixed, and its enormous extent made it very difficult to govern and maintain. The fleet of the Ptolemies hampered the commercial development and prosperity of the Seleucids, who therefore found it difficult to reach Greece for trade, troops, or colonists.

In government the Seleucids adopted a very different plan from that of the Ptolemies. Seleucus was in hearty sympathy with Alexander's plan of transplanting Greeks to Asia and thus of mingling Greeks and Asiatics. He and his son Antiochus I founded scores of new Greek cities through Asia Minor, Syria, down the Two Rivers, in Persia, and far over on the borders of India. These cities were given self-government on the old Greek plan; that is, each city formed a little republic, with its local affairs controlled by its own citizens. The great Seleucid Empire was thickly dotted with these little free communities.

To be sure, they were under the king, and each such free city paid him tribute or taxes. The form which the royal authority took was the one, so ancient in the Orient, which Alexander had already adopted. The ruler was regarded as a god to whom each community owed divine reverence and hence obedience. This homage they paid without offense to their feelings as free citizens. Greek life, with all the noble and beautiful things we have learned it possessed, took root throughout Western Asia and was carried far into the heart of the great continent.

The Romans waged war upon the Seleucid empire and compelled it to give up a large part of Asia Minor in 190 BC. Instead of taking possession of this territory, Rome divided it between Pergamum and Rhodes, both of which in consequence became important states.

After a series of struggles between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, in which the former took and garrisoned the place and the Jews helped drive out the garrison, the Seleucids obtained Palestine by treaty in 197. When Antiochus Epiphanes undertook to Hellenize Palestine in 169, he took the city, destroyed the walls, plundered the temple, and erected an altar to Zeus in place of that to Yahweh. Judas Macabasus rebuilt the temple and the walls. Under the lead of the able family of Maccabees they finally gained practical independence.

The Hellenistic influences continued under the succeeding Arsacids (or Parthians) whose rule lasted from 250 BC until 224 AD. Parthia wrested from the Seleucidae all their possessions east of the Euphrates, and their great empire dwindled to the petty kingdom of Syria. During this time the Parthians built as their capital the city of Ctesiphon, not far from the future site of Baghdad. It is noted for a fabulous arch which still stands among its ruins still the largest single span brick-built arch in the world. During the last two centuries of their reign, the Parthians were constantly besieged by Rome. Emperor Trajan Optimus invaded and by 110 AD briefly held all of present day Iraq. However, the Roman sovereignty lasted but a decade. The final demise of the Parthians came at the hands of the Sassanids, and for the next four centuries the area was under constant cruel religious and political upheaval.

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