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The career of Seleucus (1)

Seleucus I Nicator. Bust at the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Seleucus I Nicator (Louvre)


Seleucus had served under Alexander the Great and was vizier after his death. In 320, he was made satrap of Babylonia. Although he lost possession of his satrapy between 315 and 311, he grew out to be one of the most powerful monarchs after Alexander. The Greek historian Appian of Alexandria describes Seleucus' career in several chapters of his History of the Syrian War, which are here quoted in the translation of M.M. Austin.

After the Persians, Alexander the Great was king of the Syrians, as well as of all the people whom he saw. When he died leaving one very young son and another as yet unborn [1], the Macedonians, being deeply attached to the family of Philip, chose as their king Arridaeus, Alexander's half-brother, although he was believed to be dim-witted, and changed his name from Arridaeus to Philip.

While the children of Alexander were growing up (they even placed the pregnant mother under guard), his friends divided the peoples of the empire into satrapies, which Perdiccas [2] shared out among them in the name of king Philip Arridaeus.

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Coin of Seleucus I Nicator. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.Seleucus I Nicator (British Museum, London; **)

Not long after, when the kings were put to death, the satraps became kings [3]. The first satrap of the Syrians was Laomedon of Mytilene, appointed by Perdiccas, and then Antipater, who after Perdiccas was guardian of the kings. Ptolemy, the satrap of Egypt, sailed against Laomedon and sought to bribe him to hand over Syria, which protected Egypt's flank and was a good base to attack Cyprus. He failed and so arrested him, but Laomedon bribed his guards and escaped to Alcetas in Caria. For some time Ptolemy ruled Syria; he sailed back to Egypt after leaving garrisons in the cities [4]. 

Antigonus was satrap of Phrygia, Lycia and Pamphylia, and was appointed overseer of the whole of Asia by Antipater [5] when he returned to Europe. He besieged Eumenes, satrap of Cappadocia, whom the Macedonians had voted an enemy, but Eumenes escaped and seized control of Media. Eventually Antigonus captured Eumenes and put him to death, and on his return was received in great pomp by Seleucus the satrap in Babylonia [6].

One day Seleucus insulted an officer without consulting Antigonus, who was present, and Antigonus out of spite asked for accounts of his money and his possessions; Seleucus, being no match for Antigonus, withdrew to Ptolemy in Egypt. Immediately after his flight, Antigonus deposed Blitor, the governor of Mesopotamia, for letting Seleucus escape, and took over personal control of Babylonia, Mesopotamia and all the peoples from the Medes to the Hellespont (Antipater was dead by now).

With so much territory in his power he became at once an object of jealousy to the other satraps. And so an alliance was formed between Seleucus, the chief instigator of the coalition, Ptolemy, Lysimachus satrap of Thrace, and Cassander son of Antipater, who ruled the Macedonians in his father's name. They sent a joint embassy to Antigonus to demand that he share out between them and other Macedonians, who had been expelled from their satrapies, the territory he had acquired and his money. Antigonus treated them with scorn, and so they went to war jointly against him [7], while he made counter-preparations, expelling the remaining garrisons of Ptolemy in Syria and laying his hands on the parts of Phoenicia and Coele Syria, as it is called, that were still under Ptolemy.

Crossing the Cilician Gate, he left his son Demetrius, then about 22 years old, at Gaza with his army to meet the attacks of Ptolemy from Egypt. Ptolemy won a brilliant victory over him at Gaza and the young man took refuge with his father. Ptolemy immediately sent Seleucus to Babylon to recover his rule, giving him for the purpose 11,000 infantry and 300 cavalry. With such a small force Seleucus recovered Babylon, where the inhabitants received him enthusiastically, and within a short time he greatly extended his empire [8].

Antigonus defeated an attack by Ptolemy, winning a brilliant victory over him at sea off Cyprus; his son Demetrius was in command [9]. This splendid achievement caused the army to proclaim both Antigonus and Demetrius kings; the other kings were dead by this time, Arridaeus the son of Philip, Olympias and the sons of Alexander [10]. Ptolemy's own army also proclaimed him king, so that his defeat should not place him in a position of inferiority vis--vis the victors. And so for these men different circumstances led to similar results; the rest immediately followed their example and from satraps they all became kings.

And so it was that Seleucus became king of Babylonia, and also of Media, after he had killed in battle with his own hand Nicanor who had been left by Antigonus as satrap of Media [11]. He waged many wars against Macedonians and barbarians; the two most important were against Macedonians, the latter war against Lysimachus king of Thrace, the former at Ipsus in Phrygia against Antigonus, who was commanding his army and fighting in person although over 80 years old.

to part two

Note 1:
Alexander's official wife Roxane was pregnant; she became mother of a boy, Alexander IV. His mistress Barsine was mother of a son named Heracles.

Note 2:
Perdiccas was regent from 323 to 320.

Note 3:
Philip Arridaeus was executed in 316 by Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, who fought for the rights of her son's son Alexander IV (more). In the winter of 312/311, the satraps concluded a treaty and promised to give their powers to the boy king, when he was old enough. Instead, the boy was immediately killed. In 306, the first of the Diadochi, Antigonus Monophthalmus, accepted the royal title, soon followed by the other rulers.

Note 4:
In 319-318.

Note 5:
Successor of Perdiccas as regent.

Note 6:
In the spring of 315.

Note 7:
The ultimatum was delivered in the winter of 315/314; the Third Diadoch War started in the spring.

Note 8:
In the second half of May 311. As we will see in a moment, Seleucus immediately took Media from its pro-Antigonus satrap Nicanor, and added Elam in 310.

Note 9:
The naval battle off Salamis in 306.

Note 10:
See note 3 for the story of the legitimate kings, and go here for the story of the new kings., who received their titles in 306-305.

Note 11:
In the winter of 311/310, five years before Seleucus accepted the royal title. Appian's chronology is a bit confused. 

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