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The Seleucids in Babylon: royal euergetism and local elites

M.S. (Marijn) Visscher

The Greeks before Alexander regarded Babylon as an oriental city par excellence. They stressed its gigantic dimensions, revelled in its strange customs and told sensational stories about its glamorous queens (Henkelman et al. 2011, 449-450). Herodotus and Ctesias in particular paint the picture of an exotic super-polis (Kurke 1999, 232) which remains firmly outside the purview of Greek politics and culture.

Yet, matters changed with Alexander’s campaigns in the East: Alexander himself chose Babylon as his capital city (Strabo 15.3.9-10; Capdetrey 2007, 54), and after his death the satrapy of Babylonia became the powerbase of one of the more important Hellenistic dynasties, that of the Seleucids (Kuhrt & Sherwin-White 1993, 10-12). How did the Seleucids relate to Babylon? Modern scholars have sometimes argued that they took little interest in it, indeed that they marginalised the city by founding a new Mesopotamian capital, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris (cf. Boiy 2004, 137; against this: Sherwin-White 1987, 18-20). In this paper, I argue, by contrast, that interaction between Babylon and the Seleucids was close and fruitful. My argument is in two parts: after establishing that there were indeed close ties between Babylon and the Seleucid royal family I go on to show that those ties can be understood in terms of the Hellenistic Greek discourse of euergetism.

Cuneiform sources from the Hellenistic period suggest that Babylonian elites were more closely engaged with the Seleucids than with the Achaemenids and Parthians before and after (Clancier 2012). Conversely, the Seleucid kings visited the city more often, and more ostentatiously, than did their Iranian counterparts, often performing major rituals or engaging in building activities. The Seleucids, I argue, framed this activity in terms of the Hellenistic discourse of royal benefaction, a discourse which relied heavily on reciprocity and mutual understanding (Ma 1999): the king expressed his goodwill towards the city through gifts and privileges, and the city acknowledged the power of the king by honouring him as benefactor and saviour.

While the terms of Seleucid euergetism were broadly Greek in origin (Ma 1999), I argue that in Hellenistic Babylon they crossed linguistic and cultural boundaries, as attested in various Babylonian texts from the third century BC. I illustrate this claim by looking, first, at a passage from Berossos, the Babylonian priest who wrote for a Greek audience: I argue that Berossos portrayed the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as a champion of (proto-)Seleucid euergetism when describing his building activities in Babylon. I then go on to discuss the Borsippa Cylinder, a Babylonian building inscription commissioned by the Seleucid king Antiochus I: Antiochus, I argue, reinterpreted the traditional Babylonian form of the building inscription as an expression of Hellenistic patronage. Finally, I look at a selection of texts from the Astronomical Diaries and Babylonian Chronicles, which were written by and for the Babylonian temple elites. I contend that they too draw on Greek ideas of euergetism, albeit in a characteristically Babylonian inflection. I conclude by suggesting, more generally, that the idiom of euergetism provided a cultural common ground within which the Seleucid king and local Babylonian elites could negotiate a fruitful co-existence.

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Empires, Kingdoms, and Leagues in the Ancient Greek World

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