The Spectacular Success of Seleucus, the Great Opportunist

Culture, History

Spiridon Raikos

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his empire, which covered land all the way from what is now Albania to the edge of the Indian subcontinent, was split among his generals. These generals, known as the Diadochi, were to wage wars over Alexander’s territories that would characterise the next fifty years, and mark the beginning of what was known as the ‘Hellenistic period’ – the time when Greek influence over the Mediterranean and West/Central Asian world was at its peak. One of those generals in particular, and his rise to power, is worth our attention, if only because it demonstrates the enormous role of opportunism throughout history.

Seleucus I Nicator arguably had the most illustrious career of the Diadochi. In 315 BCE, initially having lost his satrapy and military to Antigonus Monophthalmus (a rival king and Diadochi), he would through the years of war come to regain his seat in Babylon and then rise to be one of the most powerful rulers in the ancient world. At its peak, the Seleucid Empire spanned territory from the western coast of Asia Minor to the Indus River, and was a testament to the monumental victories Seleucus had achieved. Given his unexpected ascent to power and prominence in the history of the Wars of the Diadochoi, the degree of Seleucus’ agency and fortune is a topic of great debate. Yet, his career clearly indicates a tendency toward opportunism.

Seleucus was an opportunist, not a long-term schemer, drawing upon key milestones in his rise to prominence such as his role in the murder of the Diadochi Perdiccas and subsequent promotion to satrap of Babylonia at Triparadeisus, his conflict with Antigonus (another Diadochi), and his flight from Babylon. Seleucus had seized opportunities out of both fortunes and misfortunes, and never had any sort of long-term plan.

The impressive rise of Seleucus I Nicator is made ever more so when considering his rather less prominent occupation during the campaign of Alexander in Asia. He is first mentioned in antiquity regarding his actions in the Indian campaign of Alexander’s conquests, as commander of the Hyspaspists, an elite infantry unit. Unlike the other successors, Seleucus was not one of Alexander’s primary generals. His rise to prominence occurred only after Alexander’s death, and over the course of years in the emerging power struggle among the successors. His first major position was as Perdiccas’ chiliarch, second-in-command to the appointed regent – up until his role in Perdiccas’ murder on an ill-fated Egyptian campaign. He was appointed satrap of Babylon as a result by the treaty of Triparadeisus, having made gains from his assassination of Perdiccas. In 316 BCE however, he lost his position due to a dispute with Antigonus, forcing Seleucus to flee for his life to Egypt under the protection of Ptolemy, another one of Alexander’s successors. While Seleucus’ power was limited during this period, his influence could be felt in his use as a propaganda tool by the other successors opposed to Antigonus. Seleucus, over the course of the struggle against Antigonus would regain his seat in Babylon and from there ascend to be one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful kings of Alexander’s successor kingdoms – his new ‘Seleucid Empire’ stretching at its height from the western coast of Asia Minor to the north-west of India. This spectacular rise from complete nobody to indomitable leader begs the question – was Seleucus’ ascension part of a long running scheme, or did he simply grab any opportunity he could reach, and get lucky?

The key events of Seleucus’ adult life involve the murder of his general Perdiccas and the resulting treaty of Triparadeisus, which gave him his position as satrap of Babylonia. It would be easy to claim his prominent role in Perdiccas’ murder proves that Seleucus had a constant plan from the beginning: but the general’s death was the result of a mutiny by dissatisfied troops, and Seleucus had joined on a pre-existing conspiracy against the regent’s life along with two other officers, Peithon and Antigenes. The apparent motivation for the assassination of Perdiccas (according to extant, if incomplete, historical evidence) was the regent’s ill-fated campaign in Egypt against Ptolemy, who had challenged Perdiccas’ authority, which subsequently lead to war. Ptolemy’s dissent against Perdiccas’ regency was not exactly a unique position, however, as the latter sought absolute control; his claims as guardian of Alexander’s interests conflicted with the fact that Alexander’s widow, Roxana, was pregnant and could potentially give birth to a male heir,

In historian David Braund’s analysis of these events, Perdiccas also rejected the claims of another possible heir, Herakles, son of Barsine and said to be Alexander’s son (though illegitimate) so Perdiccas’ denial of this claim is reasonable given the importance of Alexander’s blood. Ptolemy also suggested the empire be ruled by the successor generals as a joint council, which would undermine Perdiccas’ authority as regent. Perdiccas had thusly made enemies, and in 320 BCE he would face his downfall when the campaign against Ptolemy resulted in disaster. According to Diodorus Siculus, more than two thousand of his men, including some prominent commanders, were killed, prompting dissatisfaction that lead to mutiny. The resulting mutiny led to his assassination, the details of which are not fully known; Peithons’ involvement is recorded by Diodorus Siculus, with the implication that Antigenes led the coup, and Seleucus is mentioned in passing.

Seeing that Seleucus is given less attention in this event and is not the leader, it is hard to imagine this being somehow part of a grand power play. Perdiccas’ actions both in regards to the other Diadochoi and his failure in leading his troops to victory were unpredictable, and thus it would be safer to assume Seleucus was acting on opportunity. The following regent, Antipater, nearly met the same fate as Perdiccas at Triparadeisus, and would have succumbed had Seleucus not had joined with Antigonus to quell the mutiny. It would be strange to think that Seleucus’ plot involved an alliance with someone so unsuccessful, whose views actively contradicted those of the other Diadochoi (especially Ptolemy). It also makes little sense to believe that Seleucus was merely continuing his role in service of Alexander’s military – with Perdiccas at first, then acting as the representative of Alexander’s will until the appearance of a suitable heir. Seleucus’ role in the assassination seems more driven by dissatisfaction with Perdiccas’ leadership than by adherence to some grand plan for ascendancy.

The other key event precipitating Seleucus’ rise was his loss of the satrapy of Babylon in 315 BCE, leading to his reconquest of the same satrapy and the subsequent establishment of the Seleucid Dynasty. Seleucus’ first period as satrap began from 321 BCE, but due to conflict with Antigonus, he was forced to abandon his posting in 315 BCE. The roots of Seleucus’ conflict with Antigonus are found in Antigonus’ own rise to power, particularly in Antigonus’ symbolic acts, and his possession of the royal army (a significant military force) enabling him to take on rival satrap Eumenes, with Seleucus’ aid. Contemporary historians believe the principle source of conflict between the two satraps was the power vacuum left in Alexander’s wake – the account most supported by ancient evidence. According to Appian, conflict between Antigonus and Seleucus began when Seleucus insulted one of the latter’s officers in his presence, without consulting Antigonus first, a great public offense. Antigonus responded by demanding to see Seleucus’ accounts. Appian makes no mention of exactly how Seleucus responded here, but describes Seleucus fleeing Babylon, knowing that he could not openly fight Antigonus.

Diodorus Siculus, our other primary source, describes Seleucus’ response in more detail: Seleucus chided Antigonus, stating that the satrap had no authority to investigate Seleucus’ administration, and his position was his by right, a reward from Macedonia for his loyalty to Alexander. Seleucus subsequently travelled to Egypt and allied himself with Ptolemy. His new role as a propaganda tool, while it lacked actual agency, led to a coalition of the remaining Diadochoi against Antigonus, consisting of Ptolemy, Cassander, and Lysimachus.

Assuming Seleucus had planned his ascension, it would be difficult to comprehend his rise as a careful plot, by him or any other actor in this time, when Ptolemy had allegedly only given him ‘eight hundred foot-soldiers and about two hundred horses’, according to Diodorus, though Appian cites only a thousand foot soldiers and three hundred cavalry. Details of his extant military forces greatly enhance Seleucus’ characterization as an opportunist. No matter which primary source is consulted, Seleucus lacked the requisite forces for a recapture of Babylon. It may also be the case that Ptolemy rewarded him only in passing, clearly keeping larger forces for his own aims and giving a little to spare once Seleucus was no longer of any use to him.

Standing up against Antigonus in 315 BCE on account of personal pride and issues with Antigonus’ authority and being forced to run to Ptolemy, only to be given practically nothing in the way of military might as a token reward after years assisting Ptolemy is not the best plan one could conceive of if one were making long-term plans to become the next king of Alexander’s empire.

To say the least.

With this puny military might, however, Seleucus did manage to retake Babylon from Antigonid control in 311 BCE. Diodorus explains that Seleucus hoped for local Babylonian support, given their warm reception to him in his time as satrap: yet, as a result of his initially small force, Seleucus was required to raise their morale first. He allegedly accomplished this by appealing to Alexander’s success as the results of experience and skill: both attributes also associated with Seleucus due to his extensive military experience. Seleucus as an opportunist here appears to be the best way to explain his actions – he appears to understand his strength in military experience is the most expedient tool, and it was more expedient to convince the locals of that fact that than carefully planning and raising an army somewhere else.

Seleucus saw victory after victory (other than a single defeat against Indian king Chandragupta Maurya), and his empire wasestablished in 312 BCE, not to fall until the Roman conquest in 63 BCE. This impressive rise to power is a testament to his skill as a commander, and his ability to take advantage of misfortunes which occurred to him, and perhaps of his personal fortune as well – but it is not evidence of his skill at long-term planning. His role in Perdiccas’ assassination was not as leader – he merely latched onto something that existed long before him, and came out on top. He was given Babylon, but had never planned for it, and so his undiplomatic refusal to acquiesce to Antigonus’ demands to investigate his administration escalated to the point of outright hostility. His service under Ptolemy gave him nearly nothing in return, but Seleucus was able to make use of his few resources anyway. His is an empire that began with the grasping of opportunity, with chance, like so many others.