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Political strategy of the Seleucid Empire in the region of Central Asia

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Column: Studies, by Gusakov Vladimir published in Online Articles, first submitted in May 10, 2010 | CiteULike | Google Scholar Entry | Related Entry | Items Citing this Article | Articles by Gusakov Vladimir | Bookmark and Share


The Seleucid period is an important (albeit short) stage in the history of the countries and peoples of Central Asia—part of the phenomenon of Central Asian Hellenism. Chronologically, it is directly adjacent to the conquest of Central Asian interfluves (Transoxiana) by the army of Alexander of Macedon, contributing its integration in the greatly expanded region of the antique commonwealth. Among the states that emerged from the ruins of the power of Alexander, the Seleucid Empire was undoubtedly the most powerful entity. On the vast occupied territory it can easily be equated to the largest empires of ancient times. Despite the peripheral position of Central Asian areas in the Seleucid Empire, the largest of them (Sogdiana, Bactria, Margiana, Fergana) became an integral part of a trans-regional system of international political, economic and cultural relations of antiquity.

The Seleucids’ Central Asian strategy made a certain evolution in its development. Since the end of the fourth century BC, after the accession of local satrapies to the possessions of Seleucus I Nicator, and until the middle of the next century they supremely reigned in Central Asian region. In the first half of the third century BC, Seleucids not only effectively protected the northern and north-eastern frontiers of Hellenistic Central Asia, but also significantly expanded the limits of the antique world ecumene, pushing back the volatile area of Saka tribes to the borders of Altai and Xinjiang.

After the deposition of the Hellenic communities of Parthia and Bactria from the empire, they created Greco-Bactrian and Parthian kingdoms which shared all the Central Asian heritage of their former Syrian overlords. However, the displacement of the Seleucid Empire in Central Asia does not mean the termination of their Central Asian political strategy. Since then, it goal was to attempt to ensure the return of the empire in the breakaway region. Being lacking of power to force the newly independent Central Asian nations to impose their will, rather often being divided from Central Asia by Iran’s rebellious regions, Seleucids at this stage often resorted to diplomatic intrigue. It was designed to weaken anti Seleucid forces in the region and vice versa to support those who stay for the reintegration with the Empire. Thus, the Seleucid Empire remained an influential factor in the Central Asian regional geopolitics until mid of II century BC. More detailed study of its Central Asian policy is essential for an objective reconstruction of the external position of antique Central Asia.

At the time of the death of Alexander of Macedon in Babylon (323 BC), Greek Philip was the satrap of Bactria and Sogdiana while Persian noble Phrataphernes was the satrap of Parthia. The report of the death of the great king, and expected crisis of his state, provoked two mutually independent processes in Central Asia. The first one was expressed in the great desire of the Hellenic population, resettled here by Alexander, to return home, while the second concerned the attempts to restore the province’s independence. Interestingly, such efforts were supported by some representatives of the new power in the region.

Even during the period when Alexander was waging war in India in 325 BC, rebellion broke out in Bactria. Greek soldiers killed several officials of the occupation administration and captured the citadel of the capital city of Bactres. The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus tells that their leader was called Athenodorus and their goal was getting back home to Greece (Quintus Curtius IX, 7, 1-11). This movement is likely to be stopped by the local authorities. However, as it turned out later, it was an unsuccessful uprising, prologue to a much larger share of disobedience. In 323 BC, immediately after the release of information about Alexander’s death, local Greeks revolted again. Fearing reprisals by Alexander in his lifetime, now after his death they no longer felt the need to obey the satraps. Diodorus says that this time the rebel troops numbered no more or less then 20,000 infantry and 3,000 thousand horsemen (Diodorus, XVIII, 7). Dedicated large military forces, led by former Alexander’s bodyguard Pithon, however, defeated this army and brutally crushed the uprising (Cloche 1959, 18-20).

Satrapies’ redistribution in 321 BC also affected Greco-Macedonian Central Asia. Philip was transferred from Bactria and Sogdiana to Parthia, and Stasanor was appointed to replace him there(formerly he had headed Aria and Drangiana)—a Greek from Cyprus, perhaps of royal lineage (Schubert 1914, 136).

Already at this stage the Central Asian region was involved in the bloody clashes of Alexander’s generals. For example, in 317-316 BC on demand of Eumenus who fought against Antigonus I in the west of empire, Stasanor sent Bactrian troops to help Eumenus in this fight. They were part of the contingent under the command of Stasanor—satrap of Aria. However, as a result of military action Eumenes and his supporters were defeated. Antigonus severely punished many of the participants of this coalition, but revenge bypassed Stasanor. I. Droysen noticed (relying on the direct instruction of Diodorus), that this demonstrates the strength of a satrap’s position in the country led by him, which Antigonus had take into account.

Diodorus presented information that explains some of Stasanor’s internal policy. It seems that he was well disposed to the local population, and had lot of supporters (Diodorus, XIX, 48, 1). Obviously, he has sought rapprochement with the local aristocracy and a solid domestic base for the further separation of the province. It is possible that Stasanor sought to attract to his side the satrap of the neighboring Aria—Stasanor (incidentally, also a Cypriot, and on some assumptions, even his son or nephew). Besides Stasanor could retain some influence in Aria from the time of his administration in this province. In his sphere of influence he was able to include Parthia (Bevan 1902, 267-268).


This is an Open Access article of the Online Articles.

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