The Seleukid Empire was the largest of the successor states to the Empire of Alexander the Great, but by the time under examination in this third part of a three-part history of the Empire, it was in terminal decline. The Empire was surrounded by hostile powers, including Parthia in the east and Egypt in the south, a range of kingdoms in Anatolia, and the distant threat of Rome. Within the Empire were a series of minor kingdoms and cities longing for independence, amongst them Judea and the Phoenician cities on the coast. Only the Greco-Macedonian cities founded by Alexander or the Seleucids could be counted on, and even they began to fall away before the end.
For large parts of this period there are very limited sources. Events in Judea are covered by the not terribly reliable work of Josephus and the books of Maccabees. The prolonged civil war that followed from the disastrous defeat in the east in 131-129 is terribly poorly documents, and much of its course can only be followed using coin evidence. Grainger does a good job of producing a convincing narrative using the limited sources, although even he has to admit that there are limits to his knowledge.
The key question here is what caused the fall of the Empire. The obvious answer is a combination of military defeat and repeated civil wars, but the Ptolomies managed even more complex family feuds (not helped by the impressively determined in-breeding, which sometimes takes some unravelling - one Ptolemy was married to Cleopatra II and her daughter Cleopatra III at the same time, and about the only combination they didn't manage was to be their own parent), and still managed to survive for another century.
Luck also clearly played part. On several occasions capable emperors had restored order, only to die unexpectedly. The death of Antiochos VII, caught by the Parthians while in winter quarters in 129 ended the last significant Seleucid fight back, and helped trigger decades of civil wars. The final collapse was fairly rapid - in 129 the Seleucid domain included all of Syria down to the Egyptian border, but by 88 the family only held part of northern Syria.
This emerges as a rather different type of Imperial collapse to most. To a large extent the Empire escaped from under the Seleucids, with cities and various small states gaining grants of autonomy or increasing levels of independence while the Emperors were distracted elsewhere. The other Hellenic kingdoms were conquered largely intact by the Romans (Macedonia, the Attalid kingdom and Egypt), but here the Empire simply dissolved, leaving behind a patchwork of small city states and kingdoms.
This could have been a rather confusing story, as the Seleucid family tended to concentrate on a limited number of throne names, with the longest civil war involving two men called Antiochos, so the author's decision to use the ruler's nicknames is a great help (transforming the war between Antiochos VIII and Antiochos IX into one between Grypos and Kyzikenos).
1 - The Beginning of the End (187-170 BC)
2 - The Wars of Antiochus Epiphanes (170-164 BC)
3 - The Advent of Demetrios I (164-159 BC)
4 - The Problems of Demetrios I (160-150 BC)
5 - The Destruction of Alexander Balas (150-145 BC)
6 - The Travails of Demetrios II (145-138 BC)
7 - The New Seleukid Kingdom (139-131 BC)
8 - Defeat (131-129 BC)
9 - Dynastic Conflict (129-121 BC)
10 - The Kingdom Failing (121-108 BC)
11 - Destruction in the South (108-96 BC)
12 - Survival in the North (103-88 BC)
13 - The End of the Seleukids (88-75 BC)
Author: John D. Grainger
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military