How Rome and the Seleucid Empire Became Uneasy Neighbours | History Hit

How Rome and the Seleucid Empire Became Uneasy Neighbours

Roman soldiers in testudo formation.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

By 200 BC, Rome was in the process of becoming the dominant power in the Mediterranean. From small beginnings in Central Italy, over the past 200 years, the ‘City of Seven Hills’ had transformed into the epicentre of one of the most powerful nations in the West. The rewards duly followed.

The Illyrians, Insubres, Syracusans and Carthaginians – all once-great powers that by 200 BC, had fallen under the yoke of the Roman war machine. Rome’s supremacy in the Western Mediterranean was now undisputed. Yet this was only the beginning. Another conquest was soon to occur.

The 2nd Macedonian War: 200 BC – 197 BC

To the east across the Ionian Sea lay the Kingdom of Macedon – home of Alexander the Great and epicentre of the prominent Hellenistic World. By 200 BC Macedonia’s rulers were some of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, priding themselves as the rightful heirs to the famed Argeads. They had gathered a formidable reputation; Rome would now put it to the test.

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Seizing the chance to put their mark on the beating heart of the infamous Greek World and gain the gratitude of the libertarian Greek cities – who were desperate to be free from Macedonian rule – Rome rapidly prevailed over the Macedonians. Alexander’s Hellenistic descendants in Europe had finally met their match. Their dominance in Macedonia and Greece – two of the greatest pillars of past Greek power – was at an end.

Yet although their victory over the Macedonians marked a remarkable achievement, in reality the Romans had only scratched the surface of Greek military power. Alexander’s Successors did not reside purely in Macedon and Greece. Further east, one other Hellenistic Kingdom still outshone the Romans with both its size and strength.

The Seleucid Empire

At the time of Rome’s victory against the Macedonians, the Seleucid Empire was the most powerful Kingdom in ancient Asia. Yet this supremacy had not always been the case.

For much of the 3rd century BC, following the death of their founder Seleucus, this Kingdom had been in almost-constant decline. Inheriting a vastly over-extended empire, Seleucus’ successors had faced a nigh-impossible task, proving incapable of managing such a diverse population (Greeks, Persians, Indians, Bactrians etc). Its result was turmoil.

The remains on an ancient gate through a mountain pass to Aleppo, engraving by M. Picquenot after L.F. Cassas, 1798.

Image Credit: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain Mark

The Galatians, Ptolemies, Attalids and Greco-Bactrians – just a few hostile neighbouring powers that by 223 BC had made the most of this struggle, seizing land where they could. The Seleucid Kingdom’s complete demise looked only a matter of time. One man, however, had other ideas.

Rebuilding the empire

Ascending the throne in 223 BC, Antiochus aimed to reverse his Kingdom’s plight and restore Seleucid supremacy in the Near-East.  It would be no easy task. To achieve this goal, he would have to re-unite lands stretching from the borders of India in the East to Macedonia in the West under his rule. Yet Antiochus remained undeterred.

For the next 26 years, the Seleucid ruler would conduct numerous military campaigns. From fighting in Asia Minor (Anatolia), Egypt and Bactria (Afghanistan) to successful diplomacy with various neighbouring kings – including an Indian local ruler called Sophagasenus – gradually Antiochus’ persistence began to reap rewards.

Looking west

By 197 BC, Antiochus’ dedication had met with exceptional success. Having restored his Kingdom’s primacy in ancient Asia, he had achieved one of the greatest ‘Empire revivals’ in antiquity. Yet Antiochus had no intention of halting his Kingdom’s expansion just yet. One more conquest still had to be made; his ancestors’ former lands in Europe remained outside his control. They would be next.

Engraving, dated 1600-1699, depicting Leander swimming the Hellespont towards Hero’s light, with Eros guiding him.

Image Credit: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain Mark

Crossing over the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) into Europe, Antiochus quickly reaffirmed his Kingdom’s control on Thrace and the vital Chersonese – lands spear-won by Seleucus over 85 years before. Antiochus now had a solid foothold on European soil, heralding a simple message: he was here to stay.

Uneasy news

For the Romans, hearing of this new presence in Europe was most unwelcome. Only recently had they emerged victorious over the powerful Macedonians; now, to their horror, an even stronger Hellenistic Kingdom was attempting to cement its authority on the Greek World. Suspicious of the true extent of Antiochus’ European ambitions, Rome made its position known:

So long as both Macedonia and any remaining independent Greek cities remained unharmed, Rome – although uneasy at Antiochus’ presence in Europe and the fact that Hannibal, their greatest enemy, was residing in his court – would not pursue war with this powerful Greco-Asian king. All, however, was about to change.

Tristan Hughes