Post 58: Rome, Parthia and India (part 1)

In many ways this book is mis-titled, but I haven’t quite decided what the replacement could be: The Decline and Fall of the Seleucid Empire fits well but the scope of the book is wider than that; the Fall of the Hellenistic World would bring in Macedonia and Bactria, but be both too grand and too narrow for this tale. The best summary is perhaps the book’s subtitle The Violent Emergence of A New World Order 150-140 B.C.

It’s another of the new releases by Pen & Sword that have flooded onto bookshelves in the last few years, mostly by new authors. John D. Grainger, however, is not a new author – he has written over two dozen books. These do cover a variety of topics, but return again and again to the late Hellenistic period – the decline of Macedonia, the wars of the Maccabees, the Aetolian League and multiple books on the Seleucids. This book attempts to put some of these apparently disparate pieces together into a single narrative, telling how the world flipped from the post-Alexander situation of domination by various Greek successor states to the era of Roman (and Parthian) domination.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and, other than Carthage, the era isn’t all that well known – so I’ve decided to split this review into two parts; the first will lay the background for the story and the second will bring these to a conclusion and discuss Grainger’s attempts to put this all together.

The world in 150 B.C

In the early second century, the story was already beginning to fall into place. Rome had already won the first two Punic Wars against Carthage and come into conflict with Macedonia a number of times – it was already on its way to become a super power. We should therefore rewind back a little (as Grainger does): after the conquests of Alexander The Great and his lack of a strong heir, the Empire was split up by various generals (known as the diadochi or successors – I’d recommend Robin Waterfield‘s Dividing The Spoils for further reading on this). In the end there were just a few left standing – Ptolemy and his descendents (conveniently also mostly called Ptolemy) in Egypt, Selucus in Syria and the East, and a Macedonian state left to dominate Greece itself.

MapThe Seleucid Empire in particular was never on particular firm footing and, though it remained a force to be reckoned with, quickly lost provinces to the east. Most notably among these were Bactria, a Greek kingdom located around modern day Afghanistan, and Parthia, which declared independence but soon became ruled by nearby tribesmen. The empire also lost control of Asia Minor, leaving a variety of little states – Pontus, Bithynia, Cappadoccia, and a bunch of Gauls who had ended up in Galatia. From here it was stabilised and even expanded by Antiochus The Great, but these independent kingdoms continued.

Crisis in Syria

Left to itself this may have continued on a slow process of break up and decline or it may have rebounded further, but a dramatic and far reaching chain of events were set in motion by a couple of usurpers. In 152 B.C Alexander Balas arrived in Syria claiming to be the bastard son of Antiochus IV. This claim was dangerous as the king Demetrios I had seized the throne from the legitimate son of Antiochus (imaginatively named Antiochus V). Though this in turn was revenge for Ant. IV taking the throne from Demetrios’ father Seleukos IV. Understandably, Demetrios’ first act as king had then been to send his own sons to a safe place out of the country – clearly it was an interesting time to be in the royal family. Anyway, with all this intrigue and backstabbing, a pretender like Alexander was a big threat – no matter how dubious his claim was. With the arrival of Alexander, the feuding would get out of hand and lead to the involvement of the Ptolemies and the jewish nationalist Maccabees – parties who were happy to see a weakened Syria and looking to grab as much as they could from the chaos.

Meanwhile in Greece things weren’t much better, Perseus (the illegitimate son of Philip V – loser in the Roman wars) would take the throne in 179 and set himself on a similar collision course with Rome as his father. Rome wanted a peaceful situation in Greece – one with lots of little states that didn’t pose a threat – but Macedonia had a strong military tradition that Perseus intended to uphold and he ignored the restrictive demands of the Romans. After a tough, long campaign he was defeated in 168 at the battle of Pydna. And that was that, for a while. In 149 B.C a man called Andriskos appeared. He claimed to be the son of Perseus and renamed himself as Philip. His aim was to retake Macedonia from the Romans.

Hellenistic India

The kingdom of Bactria also had its problems. They’re not something that I previously knew much about and, even here, a lot of the details come across as obscure and confused. Essentially, the Greek ruled over a mixed population of Greeks and natives, with Seleucids and Parthians to the West, large Indian kingdoms to the East and a selection of tribes around the rest. They had made fairly successful campaigns into India, most notably raiding the local capital of Pataliputra. The wheels started to come off when King Demetrios I died and the throne was seized by a general named Eucratides. Eucratides I was successful enough as a ruler, but the eastern part of the kingdom split and ended up under Menander I. As we have seen so far, this is standard enough for the Hellenistic world, but the problem was that the infighting and some unfortunate battles against the Parthians ended up leaving them in a weakened state when angry nomads came riding in.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed

Finally, in Carthage the city had begun to bounce back. It was paying off its debts to Rome and starting to look like a growing power. This worried the insecure Romans, although the Carthaginians were still far from being a major threat they were still the old enemy and something had to be done. The Romans made a series of even greater demands – could the city hand over its weapons, could they give hostages and, finally, could they demolish their city and move it inland? The last demand was too much and the Romans got the war they wanted. After a prolonged siege they defeated and destroyed the city in 146.

The Punic Wars have been covered better and in more detail elsewhere. With the Hellenistic theme of much of the rest of the book it does feel slightly tacked on, but it is used to provide an idea of the political and military changes and the colonial policy that were beginning to take hold in Rome. The dynastic intrigue and military goings on of Egypt (who pop into the story more than a few times), Syria and Macedonia are covered relatively well, but the general details of the state and culture less so. It feels like a lot of that knowledge is assumed, particularly as the chapters on Bactria and the Maccabees actually give quite a pretty good introduction to those parts of the world.

Each of these would be better treated as a full length book of their own (and I think Grainger has actually done that elsewhere) but it’s really on how they come together that they should be judged – more on that next time!

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