It is the year 281 B.C. and Seleucus had been assassinated. Now, his son, Antiochus I, is given the formidable task of keeping the empire intact. Cappadocia and Armenia declare independence while Ptolemy II attacks the Seleucid Empire and a Galatian invasion is eminent. The fate of the Empire resides on the legacy that Seleucus had left behind.
Archaeological evidences show that Syria had been barely populated during the Archaemenid Empire. When Seleucus received this region after the Battle of Ipsus, he immediately saw the potential of the region and founded the four cities: Antioch, Seleucia, Apamea, and Laodicea. This region has access to ports, fertile lands, and a major trade route. The great planning of Seleucus in developing these cities is evident in the rapid growth of these cities that by 240 B.C., Antioch had become the capital of the Empire. Syria had indeed become a rich power base for the Seleucids and the Romans later on. The city of Antioch alone reached 500,000; rivaling that of Alexandria and Rome.
The most important question concerns the strength of the Seleucid Military. Indeed, the main source and the core of the Seleucid Army come from the military settlements. It is likely that most of the military settlements were Macedonian. The Phalanxes were given no descriptive adjective by the same sources who mentions the native Egyptian and Libyan phalanx divisions and Greek mercenaries’ phalanx at Raphia. It is assumed that these Phalanxes were Macedonian in origin. This leads to the conclusions that the military settlements were indeed were Maceondian.
The military settlements in total provided around 44,000 heavy infantry and 8,000-8,500 cavalry. The mercenaries range from 10,000 to 16,000. Polybius states that Molon levied 14,000 heavy infantry, 3,000 semi-heavy and 5,000 cavalry from the Eastern provinces. That bring the Seleucid military at around 71,000-77,000 infantry and 13,000-13,500 cavalry. In addition, the Seleucid army had auxiliaries and allies to add to this number. For example, the Jews alone contributed 10,000 to Antiochus Sidetes’ army. The Seleucid Army was, contrary to many beliefs, superior to the Ptolemaic Army. This was evident in Raphia, where Antiochus III was able to match the huge recruit army of the Ptolemaics in strength even though he had to divert a considerable amount of his forces to revolts in the Asia Minor and Cyrrhestica. The Ptolemaic army relied too much on mercenaries and natives. The mercenaries and allies totaled 28,000 and the natives totaled 20,000. This brings only 27,000 Ptolemaic regulars. The victory for the Ptolemaics was anything, but a celebration, as arming the native Egyptians allowed to gain the confidence to revolt and establish a 20 year dynasty.
Organization: The core of the army was the phalanx. The sarissas they used were longer than that of Alexander’s and the shields were smaller. The phalangites of the Seleucids were also armored to a degree. The Phalanx itself consisted of three tiers: chrysapides, chalkadpides, and argyraspides. The army also had hypaspists and peltasts. The argyraspides was the Seleucid infantry Guard. They were chosen from the best military settlers all over the empire. The argyraspides were constantly replaced with young men in their primes. They were 10,000 in strength. Antiochus IV made 5,000 of the argyraspides in Romanized infantry.
The cavalry consisted of hetairoi, ile basilike, agema, philoi and epilekloi, numbering 1,000 each. The Agema was elite cavalry from Media. After Antiochus III’s anabasis, the regular cavalry were transformed into cataphracts, fully armored horsemen. The Seleucids also had a fluctuating number of Elephants.
Antiochus the Great Incompetence of the Crown
Antiochus had made three great failures that would have otherwise resulted in the Seleucid Empire becoming a superpower. At the battle of Raphia, Antiochus easily crushed the Ptolemy left flank, but instead of hammering the rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx, he chased his routed enemies. This cost him the battle. Although not a major defeat, Antiochus was forced to withdraw from Egypt. This was his first failure. Had he defeated the Egyptian army, Egypt would be left defenseless as the Egyptian army at Raphia was nearly everything that Egypt could produce. The second failure was his negligence of the Asian Minor. Antigonus had managed to raise an army of 80,000 from his possessions in the Asia Minor. Had the Seleucids focused on Anatolia instead of the East, they could have been very powerful. Antiochus III chose to go on an anabasis to the east with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry. This was the strongest Seleucid Army ever assembled and this was made possible as Antiochus III had no enemies in any parts of the Empire. Egypt was too weak while the Anatolia states recognized the supremacy of the Seleucids and there were no major revolts. This was the perfect chance to take Anatolia. Instead, Antiochus went on a useless anabasis to the East. He couldn’t permanently subdue either Parthia or Bactria. In fact, the whole East was a hopeless region for the Seleucids. The land was so distant that any garrison left in the East would be easily defeated while any army left in the East would declare independence. Clearly, Antiochus did not think of this. The last great failure was that he did not take Egypt after destroying the Egyptian army at Panion. Rome threatened Antiochus not to take Egypt, but they could not have done anything about it. Had Antiochus took Egypt, the Seleucid empire would have become the sole superpower in the Mediterranean. The Seleucid Empire would have had control over the Eastern Mediterranean as well as a huge military force. The combined forces at Raphia totaled 150,000, which was nearly three times the strength of Rome’s forces at Cannae (which according to Livy was 48,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry). It is obvious that the Seleucids would not be able to field such an army in an invasion, but Egypt offers a huge increase in the Royal Treasury and well as more military settlements. The Seleucids could have taken advantage of this to increase their standing army from 54,000 to maybe 80,000.
The common misconception is that the Seleucid Army provided inferior to the Roman Army and that lead to the decline of the empire. This is far from reality. The first battle with the Romans was at Thermopylae. Antiochus left to Greece with only 18,000 troops. His plan was to get support from the Greeks. However, this shows that his statesmanship was poor as he gained few allies. The Roman surprised him when barely half of his army crossed to Greece. Antiochus set up defense at Thermopylae and easily held the Romans. However, when a small force of Romans took the Persian rout and flanked Antiochus, his troops routed. His troops were probably inexperienced as trained phalanxes get away from the battle in squares. Many of the troops were afraid that their baggage would be captured by the small Roman force. Experienced troops would understand that their position was more important than baggage. Antiochus was also to blame. He failed keep organization of the army when they were flanked. Bar-Kochva suggests that the Seleucids could have easily dealt with this by forming a double phalanx.
Magnesia is battle that has always been referenced when people think that the Roman army was superior to the Macedonians. Livy has the Roman forces at 30,000 and the Seleucids at 70,000. This is obviously a huge bias. No army would ever be willing to face another army over twice its size in open battle. The Roman only had 22,000 troops while the rest consisted of the many allies of Rome. Rome had been seen as a liberator of Anatolia from the Seleucids and as a result, gained many allies. Grainger suggests that both the forces were 50,000. This seems reasonable. Antiochus performed horrible during the battle itself. First, he put phalanxes in squares and had elephants in between and had chariots in the left flank. Antiochus broke through the Roman left flank and instead of flanking the rest of the Roman forces; he chased his routed enemies like what he did in Raphia. Meanwhile chariots disrupted the Seleucid left flank and the Pergamum Cavalry took advantage and routed the left. Antiochus had put the phalanx in a strange formation. Perhaps, it was due to Philip’s defeat at Cynoscephalae that caused Antiochus to think of such a strange strategy. He should have listened to his courtier’s advice of deploying the standard Macedonian phalanx as Magnesia, unlike Cynoscephalae was flat plains and suited for the Phalanx. Whatever the case, it was Antiochus’s poor command that lost the battle. While the battle wasn’t a huge defeat, its main effect was that Anatolia had become fully independent of the Seleucid Empire. Yet, this is not the end of the empire as many people believe. The Romans could not touch Seleucid Territory as their allies was interested their independence and a force of 22,000 would not be enough.
The Seleucid Empire had actually made a quick recovery. The reparation was paid off by the reign of Antiochus IV and most of the provisions of the Peace of Apamea were generally ignored. Antiochus Epiphanes had showed in the parade at Daphne that the Seleucid Army did not decline and was reformed. Antiochus Sidetes in 129 B.C., was reported by multiple sources have lead an army of 80,000 to fight the Parthias. While it might seem exaggerated at first, even though most of the East lands fell to Parthia, the majority of the military settlers in Mesopotamia joined Antiochus as well as the fact that Syria allowed provided many troops. In addition, Sidetes had an intensive recruitment drive and several groups were forced to share the burden. The Jews alone provided 10,000 troops. Even after the death of Sidetes, the real cause of a Parthian Victory was that the crown was contested again back in Syria.
In conclusion, we see that the Seleucid Army was always matched in strength to the opposing army and most of the time, stronger. The defeats were not due to the quality of the army, but rather due to the incompetency of the commander or dynastic disputes that prevent the Seleucids from even field a strong army. In every battle, the main Seleucid Army defeated the Parthians. Antiochus Megas, Epiphanes, and Sidetes all defeated the Parthians. However, every time the Seleucid Emperor dies in an unfortunate way, there is chaos in which the next Emperor is. This is actually partly due to the Seleucid Emperors themselves. First, only Seleucus designated an heir and that worked out rather well. Most of the Seleucid Emperors did not designate an heir before their death. This caused many secession problems. Another problem was that the Seleucid Emperor always fought on the front line in the Macedonian Tradition and this made it easier for them to die in combat. However, this had a work around. The old Achaemenid way of succession was that the King chooses an heir before going on any dangerous campaign.
Antiochus managed to repel the Ptolemaic Invasion and even make the Galatians his vassals. However, he had to give up Macedon and temporarily leave Anatolia alone. On the bright side, Antiochus proved that the Seleucid Empire, formed by his father, was built on a great foundation and that it would not easily to shaken. Nevertheless, one thing did manage to eventually break the foundation and that was succession.
Sources and also great read on the Seleucids:
The Seleucid Army: Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns by B. Bar-Kochva
The House of Seleucus by Edwyn Robert Bevan
The Roman War of Antiochus the Great by John D. Grainger
Seleukos Nikator- Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom by John D. Grainger
The Seleucid Royal Economy- The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire by G.G. Aperghis
A common misconception is that Earlier Seleucid Emperor were incompetent and Antiochus III was great ruler.
The thing we must realize is that Antiochus III had the best opportunities that his ancestors never enjoyed and Antiochus III not only ruined those chances, but he also inflicted more damage to the Empire than any of the earlier rulers.
The earlier rulers from Antiochus I to Seleucid II had to deal with rebellions and foreign attacks and they also had to develop the Empire. By the time of Antiochus III, the Empire was incredibly developed and all the rebellions were crushed and Egypt was declining. Antiochus III was lucky enough to an inherit any empire in such great conditions.
Antiochus I is credited to being unable to succeed his father’s works. However, we must realize that most of the lands in Anatolia and the East were only under nominal Seleucid control. The Anatolians were subjugated by Antigonus and Lymachus and when Seleucus defeated Lysimachus, he didn’t not really take control of the Asian Minor. When Antiochus ascended the throne, the Anatolians simply took the chance to revolt after decades of rule by Antigonus and Lysimachus. In addition, Egypt attack the Seleucid Empire and a Galatian migration occurred.
Seleucus II is another harshly criticized Emperor. His father was poisoned by his mother and his mother divided the Empire between him and his brother. This division would obviously prove fatal for the legacy of an Empire. Seleucus II did the right thing and tried to control all the empire. At the same time, Ptolemy II attacked the Seleucids. Seleucus II did the best he could and repulsed the invasion.
It seemed as if the Seleucid Empire was on a downhill by the time of Antiochus III, but such great conditions arrived:
-No succession crisis
-Rebellions were easily crushed
-The Empire was developed, giving him great resources
-Egypt was in political turmoil