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The Inception of the Seleukid Empire

Paul Vadan

My paper will explore the imposition of Seleukos’ authority over Babylon in the years after the death of Alexander the Great. Continuity is central to understanding the nature of the transition of power from Alexander to Seleukos. We are immediately presented, however, with an obstacle regarding our evidence for the post-Alexander period at Babylon. On the one hand, literary sources (Appian, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, among others) are at pains to present Seleukos as Alexander’s divinely-favored successor in order to promote an image of a seemingly smooth rise to power. But fragmentary Akkadian cuneiform material from fourth century BCE Babylon offers a glimpse into a less impressive reality of Seleukos’ advent, marred by political chaos and almost-seasonal destruction of the Babylonian lands. For instance, the so-called Diadochoi Chronicle mentions “weeping and mourning in the land” during the invasion of Mesopotamia by the Antigonids, who “plundered city and countryside” (BCHP 3 Rev. Col. 4.37-38). I will explain this discrepancy in our evidence by looking at the relationship and negotiation of power between prominent Macedonians and Baylonian temple elites. As reflections of this complex relationship, I argue (contra Capdetrey, 2007) that Seleukid myths do in fact carry historical value once we understand the context within which they were composed.

 By focusing on a very particular moment in Babylonian history, my presentation confronts the presumed limits of our knowledge on the subject (as pointed out by Sherwin-White and Kuhrt, 1993), while challenging the general historiographical trend of glossing over decades of complicated local events in favor of a more manageable and cohesive model of the Seleukid Empire (as envisioned by Tarn, 1952 and Walbank, 1992). To do this, I will analyze the central role that cuneiform temple texts play in constructing continuity as a defining aspect of the new relationship between Seleukos and Babylon.  Key cuneiform documents (commented on by Robartus van der Speck’s work in progress) will be examined for the first time alongside Classical texts to gain an invaluable local perspective on events in Babylon.  For example, the Gaugamela Astronomical Diary recording Alexander’s entrance into Babylon mentions that “Esagil [will be restored.../ and the Babylonians [will give their tithes] to the treasury of Esagil,” with the further assurance that “into your houses I shall not enter” (Sachs-Hunger -330 Rev. 7). Coupled with the accounts of the event in Arrian (Anab. 3.16.3) and Appian (Syr. 9.54) we get a glimpse into the protocol and negotiations over the clauses of surrendering the city that stands behind the ceremonial enthusiasm expressed by the population at the arrival of the new lord. With the aid of the latest work on early Seleukid chronology (Boiy, 2007), the character of the local material will in turn reveal important information about the complex socio-political circumstances in the decade after Alexander. The focus on select Akkadian documents will fit the presentation within the allotted time of fifteen to twenty minutes.

The paper will contribute to the debate over the nature of imperial continuity. It will show how military opportunism coupled with successful cooperation between Seleukos and the local Babylonian priestly elites allowed for the creation and propagation of a standard version of events that promoted a smooth and legitimate transition of Macedonian authority (Charpin, 2010). As such, the divine element that brought the promise of a “good” reign under the divinely-favoured authority of Seleukos will appear as the result of this negotiation of power and privileges in the midst of great anxiety and uncertainty.

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Ancient Kingship

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