home   :    index    :    Greece    :    Rome    :    Appian of Alexandria's Roman History   :    Seleucids

Appian's History of Rome: The Syrian Wars (§§56-60)


Legionary standard (of XXX Ulpia Traiana reenactment group). Photo Jona Lendering.
Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) is the author of a Roman History and one of the most underestimated of all Greek historians. Although only his books on the Roman Civil Wars survive in their entirety, large parts of Appian's book on the Syrian War, or Syriaca, have also come down to us. It deals with the war that the Romans and the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great fought in 192-188, but also discusses, as an appendix, the history of the Seleucid Empire. Therefore, the Syriaca is a valuable source for the history of the ancient Near East between the reign of Alexander the Great and the Roman conquest.

The translation was made by Horace White; notes and additions in green by Jona Lendering.



[§56] It is said that while he was still serving under Alexander [the Great] and following him in the war against the Persians he consulted the Didymaean oracle to inquire about his return to Macedonia and that he received for answer:
Do not hurry back to Europe;
Asia will be much better for you.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Seleucus I Nicator. Bust at the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Seleucus I Nicator (Louvre)
It was said also that in Macedonia a great fire burst forth on his ancestral hearth without anybody lighting it; also that his mother saw in a dream that whatever ring she found she should give him to carry, and that he should be king at the place where he should lose the ring. She did find an iron ring with an anchor engraved on it, and he lost it near the Euphrates.

It is said that at a later period, when he was returning to recover Babylon, he stumbled against a stone and that when he caused this stone to be dug up an anchor was found under it. When the soothsayers were alarmed at this prodigy, thinking that it portended delay, Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, who accompanied the expedition, said that an anchor was a sign of safety, not of delay. For this reason Seleucus, when he became king, used an engraved anchor for his signet-ring.

Some say that while Alexander was still alive and looking on, another omen of the future power of Seleucus was made manifest in this wise. After Alexander had returned from India to Babylon and while he was sailing around the Babylonian lagoons with a view to the irrigation of the Assyrian fields from the Euphrates, a wind struck him and carried away his diadem and hung it on a bunch of reeds growing on the tomb of an ancient king. This of itself signified the early death of Alexander. They say that a sailor swam after it, put it on his own head, and, without wetting it, brought it to Alexander, who gave him at once a silver talent as a reward for his kind service. The soothsayers advised putting the man to death. Some say that Alexander followed their advice. Others say the contrary. Other narrators skip that part of the story and say that it was no sailor at all, but Seleucus who swam after the king's diadem, and that he put it on his own head to avoid wetting it. The signs turned out true as to both of them in the end, for Alexander departed from life in Babylon and Seleucus became the ruler of a larger part of his dominions than any other of Alexander's successors.




[§57] Such are the prophecies I have heard of concerning Seleucus. Directly after the death of Alexander he became the leader of the Companion cavalry [1], which Hephaestion, and afterwards Perdiccas, commanded during the life of Alexander. After commanding the horse he became satrap of Babylon, and after satrap, king. As he was very successful in war he acquired the surname of Nicator ['victorious']. At least that seems more probable than that he received it from the killing of Nicanor.

He was of such a large and powerful frame that once when a wild bull was brought for sacrifice to Alexander and broke loose from his ropes, Seleucus held him alone, with nothing but his hands, for which reason his statues are ornamented with horns.

He built cities throughout the entire length of his dominions and named sixteen of them Antioch after his father, five Laodicea after his mother, nine after himself, and four after his wives, that is, three Apamea and one Stratonicea. Of these the two most renowned at the present time are the two Seleucias, one on the sea and the other on the river Tigris, Laodicea in Phoenicia, Antioch under Mount Lebanon, and Apamea in Syria. To others he gave names from Greece or Macedonia, or from his own exploits, or in honor of Alexander; whence it comes to pass that in Syria and among the barbarous regions of upper Asia many of the towns bear Greek and Macedonian names, such as Berroea, Edessa, Perinthus, Maronea, Callipolis, Achaea, Pella, Orophus, Amphipolis, Arethusa, Astacus, Tegea, Chalcis, Larissa, Heraea, and Apollonia; in Parthia also Sotera, Calliope, Charis, Hecatompylos, Achaea; in India Alexandropolis; among the Scythians an Alexandria Eschatê. From the victories of Seleucus come the names of Nicephorium in Mesopotamia and of Nicopolis in Armenia very near Cappadocia.




[§58] They say that when he was about to build the two Seleucias a portent of thunder preceded the foundation of the one by the sea, for which reason he consecrated thunder as a divinity of the place. Accordingly the inhabitants worship thunder and sing its praises to this day.

They say, also, that when the Magians were ordered to indicate the propitious day and hour for beginning the foundations of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris they falsified as to the hour because they did not want to have such a stronghold built against themselves. While the king was waiting in his tent for the appointed hour, and the army, in readiness to begin the work, stood quietly till Seleucus should give the signal, suddenly, at the true hour of destiny, they seemed to hear a voice ordering them on. So they sprang to their work with such alacrity that the heralds who tried to stop them were not able to do so.

When the work was brought to an end Seleucus, being troubled in his mind, again made inquiry of the Magians concerning his city, and they, having first secured a promise of impunity, replied, "That which is fated, o king, whether it be for better or worse, neither man nor city can change, for there is a fate for cities as well as for men. It pleases the gods that this city shall endure for ages, because it was begun on the hour on which it was begun. We feared lest it should be a stronghold against ourselves, and falsified the appointed time. Destiny is stronger than crafty Magians or an unsuspecting king. For that reason the deity announced the more propitious hour to the army. It is permitted you to know these things so surely that you need not suspect us of deception still, for you were presiding over the army yourself, as king, and you had yourself ordered them to wait; but the army, ever obedient to you in facing danger and toil, could not now be restrained, even when you gave them the order to stop, but sprang to their work, not a part of them merely, but all together, and their officers with them, thinking that the order had been given. In fact it had been given. That was the reason why not even you could hold them back. What can be stronger in human affairs than a king, unless it be a god, who overcame your intention and supplanted us in giving you directions about the city; for the god is in hostility to us and to all the people round about? What can our resources avail hereafter with a more powerful race settled along side of us? This city of yours has had a fortunate beginning, it will be great and enduring. We beg that you will confirm your pardon of our fault which we committed from fear of the loss of our own prosperity."

The king was pleased with what the Magians said and pardoned them. This is what I have heard about Seleucia.


Antiochus I Soter as crown prince. Coin from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Coin of Antiochus I Soter (Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

[§59] Seleucus, while still living, appointed his son, Antiochus, king of upper Asia in place of himself [2]. If this seems noble and kingly on his part, even nobler and wiser was his behavior in reference to his son's falling in love, and his self-restraint in suffering; for Antiochus was in love with Stratonice, the wife of Seleucus, his own stepmother, who had already borne a child to Seleucus.

Recognizing the wickedness of this passion, Antiochus did nothing wrong, nor did he show his feelings, but he fell sick, took to his bed, and longed for death. Nor could the celebrated physician, Erasistratus, who was serving Seleucus at a very high salary, form any diagnosis of his malady. At length, observing that his body was free from all the symptoms of disease, he conjectured that this was some condition of the mind, through which the body is often strengthened or weakened by sympathy. 

Grief, anger, and other passions disclose themselves; love only is concealed by the modest. As Antiochus would confess nothing when the physician asked him in confidence, he took a seat by his side and watched the changes of his body to see how he was affected by each person who entered his room. He found that when others came the patient was all the time weakening and wasting away at a uniform pace, but when Stratonice came to visit him his mind was greatly agitated by the struggles of modesty and conscience, and he remained silent.

But his body in spite of himself became more vigorous and lively, and when she went away he became weaker again. So the physician told Seleucus that his son had an incurable disease. The king was overwhelmed with grief and cried aloud. Then the physician added, "His disease is love, love for a woman, but a hopeless love."




[§60] Seleucus was astonished that there could be any woman whom he, king of Asia, could not prevail upon to marry such a son as his, by entreaties, by gold, by gifts, by the whole of this great kingdom, the eventual inheritance of the sick prince, which the father would give to him even now, if he wished it, in order to save him. Desiring to learn only one thing more, he asked, "Who is this woman?"

Erasistratus replied, "He is in love with my wife."

"Well then, my good fellow," rejoined Seleucus, "since you are so bound to us by friendship and favors, and are a model of goodness and wisdom in matters of small moment, will you not save this princely young man for me, the son of your friend and king, unfortunate in love but virtuous, who has concealed his sinful passion and prefers to die rather than confess it? Do you so despise Antiochus? Do you despise his father also?"

Then Erasistratus changed his tactics, and, as though he were giving him a knock-down argument, said, "You would not give Antiochus your wife if he were in love with her, although you are his father."

Seleucus swore by all the gods of his royal house that he would willingly and cheerfully give her, and make himself an illustrious example of a kind and good father to a chaste son who controlled his passion and did not deserve such suffering. Much more he added of the same sort, and, finally, began to lament that he could not himself be the physician to his unhappy boy, but must needs depend on Erasistratus in this matter also.






Appian   :   Roman History   :   Syrian wars   :   part thirteen





Note 1:
In fact, Seleucus was chiliarchos, 'vizier'.

Note 2:
He was to be sole ruler from 281 to 261.





 home   :    index    :    Greece    :    Rome    :    Appian of Alexandria's Roman History   :    Seleucids