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Universalistic Titulature in the Seleukid and post-Seleukid East

Rolf Strootman

At the end of the Third Century BCE, Antiochos III assumed the epitheton The Great
(Megas) and some years later became the first Seleukid emperor to use the Greek title
of basileus megas, Great King. Clearly, this titulature was somehow connected with
Antiochos many victories and his restoration of Seleukid hegemony in Iran and
Central Asia. Until his defeat by the Romans, Antiochos was able to collect tribute in
areas as far removed as Gandhara and Thrace. He truly was a great king.
A century and a half later, around 50 BCE,1 a descendant of Antiochos the
Great, Antiochos I of Kommagene, styled himself basileus megas, too.2 This Antiochos
by contrast was the ruler of a relatively insignificant Seleukid successor state located
in the border lands between Syria and Anatolia. Had he not left such grandiose
monuments celebrating his kingship on Mount Nemrut and elsewhere in his little
kingdom, we would probably have thought about Antiochos of Kommagene as just
one of those regional rulers who rose to power in the period between the collapse of
the Seleukid Empire and the integration of the Near East into the Roman Empire.
What made Antiochos of Kommagene so different from other post-Seleukid dynasts
like Tarkondimotos, a local big man from the Amanus Mountains whom the Romans
accepted as king in 39? Why was the one a Great King and the other just another
mountain king?3 The answer is readily available: Antiochos of Kommagene himself
claimed that his fortunate roots, his Seleukid and Achaemenid ancestry, made the
All dates are BCE unless otherwise specified.
In the opening lines of the cultic inscription at the back of the throne of the gods on the Eastern
Terrace at Nemrut Da (OGIS 383), Antiochos calls himself: The Great King Antiochos, the God, the
Just, the (God) Manifest, Friend of the Romans and Friend of the Greeks (lines 1-4); the sanctuary at
Mount Nemrut was constructed between c. 69 and 36, see B. Jacobs, Das Heiligtum auf dem Nemrud
Da. Zur Baupolitik des Antiochos I. von Kommagene und seines Sohnes Mithradates II., in: J. Wagner
ed., Gottknige am Euphrat. Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene (Mainz: Philipp von
Zabern, 2000) 2736; on Antiochos title of Great King see M.P. Schipperheijn, Gewoner dan gedacht.
De Hellenistische heersercultus van Antiochos I van Commagene (PhD dissertation, University of
Groningen, 2011) 99103, citing also the other inscriptions that present Antiochos as a basileus megas.
Antiochos is not called basileus megas on the few coins known from this king, see O.A. Tayrek, Die
Mnzprgung der Knige von Kommagene, AW 6 (1975) 4243.
3 On the Tarkondimotid Dynasty (c. 70 BCE17 CE) see N.L. Wright, Anazarbos and the Tarkondimotid
kings of Kilikia, Anatolian Studies 58 (2008) 115125, and N. Andrade, Local authority and civic
Hellenism: Tarcondimotus, Hierapolis-Castabala and the cult of Perasia, Anatolian Studies 61 (2011)

The subject of this article is universalistic ideology. It takes issue with the
modern presumption that Great King was mutatis mutandis an official title, used only
in specific circumstances: the idea that kings for whom the title has not been attested
therefore must have more modest aspirations. Perhaps they did. But in this line of
argument, the irregularity of attestations of imperial titulature in the preserved
(cuneiform and epigraphic) sources is equated to an irregularity of imperial
pretences by the Seleukid kings in actual practice. Not only is this an argumentum e
silentio, it moreover anachronistically ascribes to the Seleukid monarchy a quality of
formalized Staatsrecht. But like most premodern Eurasian empires (the Roman
Empire is a notable exception), the Seleukid Empire was essentially a tribute-taking,
military organization with a mobile core. A heterogeneous patchwork of polities
united by the charisma of a central king whose itinerant household travelled about
the empire incessantly. To be sure, the relative abundant evidence for Antiochos IIIs
use of the titles megas and basileus megas suggests that this king indeed employed
these titles in particular, and it is true also that Antiochos was the first Seleukid
emperor to use them in Greek. But as we will see in what follows, the universalistic
claims that were communicated through this titulature were more generic and
characterized the reigns of his predecessors as well.
I argue that at least until the reign of Antiochos VII (139129) the Seleukids
thought of themselves, and were thought of by others, as Great Kings. And that they
behaved accordingly, even when the imperial title was not explicitly employed. Some
of them are known to have actually used that title (Antiochos I in Babylon, Antiochos
III in the Greek cities), while others used the comparable title King of Asia (Seleukos
II, Antiochos IV) or the epitheton Great (Antiochos III and Antiochos VII). All these
title had basically the same universalistic meaning, officially defying any territorial
limits to their power.
This article furthermore takes issue with the perceived idea that Hellenistic
use of the title of Great King must have been a reference to the Achaemenids.4 There
is no evidence in support of this belief until the very late Hellenistic period, when
fictive Achaemenid genealogies were indeed put forward to reinforce existing claims
to the Seleukid heritage after the collapse of the Empire. But what we have here is a
Hellenistic invention of Achaemenid memory in the context of later Seleukid
developments, in particular the growing importance of Iranian vassal rulers under
Seleukid suzerainty. In fact, it rather seems that even the Seleukids themselves, for all
their cooperation with other Iranian houses, completely and totally shunned
associations with the Achaemenid family. For instance the fact that they did not reuse the palaces of Pasargadai and Persepolis in the former Achaemenid heartland as
royal residence can be contrasted to the fact that they had no problem with re-using
the non-Persid capital cities Sardis, Mopsuestia, Susa, Ekbatana, and Baktra. The
For instance J.G. Griffiths, : Remarks on the history of a title, Classical Philology
48 (1953) 145154; W. Hu, Der Knig der Knige und der Herr der Knige, ZDPV 93 (1977) 131
140; G. Hlbl, Zum Titel Herrscher der Herrscher des rmischen Kaisers, Gttinger Miszellen zur
gyptologischen Diskussion 127 (1992) 4952.

famous Antiochos Cylinder from Borsippa reaches back directly to the language and
policy of the Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar, as if Achaemenid rule over
Babylonia was no more than an unhappy interlude between two periods of
Babylonian greatness.
I argue instead that the use of the title Great King by late Hellenistic rulers such
as Mithradates I of Parthia, Mithradates VI of Pontos, Tigranes I of Armenia,
Artavasdes I of Atropatene, and Antiochos I of Kommagene was not the symptom of
an Achaemenid revival but that this referred first of all to the Seleukid Dynasty. In
fact, it was not until the rise of the Sasanians in the second century CE that the
Achaemenids perhaps became a point of reference for later imperial rulers in Iran.5
Recently, Rahim Shayegan argued against the established view that Parthian use of
the titles of Great King was part of an anti-Seleukid, Achaemenid program carried
out by the early Arsakids.6 Shayegan argued instead that if an Achaemenid revival
indeed took place among the early Parthians, this was a response to Roman
propaganda that equated the Parthians with the Persians who had invaded Greece in
the Fourth Century BCE.7
The aim of this paper, then, is to show that the title of Great King as it was used
by Antiochos the Great was a Seleukid title and not a reference to the Achaemenid
Empire. In other words, I hope to challenge the common assumption that everything
that the Seleukids borrowed from the Achaemenids or had in common with the
Achaemenids was therefore a reference to the Achaemenids. From the reign of
Seleukos Nikator, the Seleukids had taken on them the role of universal emperors just
as the Achaemenids had done before them, even if the dynasty may have rarely used
the title of Great King explicitly in its imperial propaganda. This means that the use of
Cf. M.P. Canepa, Technologies of memory in early Sasanian Iran: Achaemenid sites and Sasanian
identity, AJA 114 (2010) 563596. On Sasanian imperial titulature see P. Huyse, Die sasanidische
Knigtitulatur: eine Gegenberstellung der Quellen, in: P. Huyse and J. Wiesehfer eds., rn und
Anrn. Studien zu den Beziehungen zwischen dem Sasanidenreich und der Mittelmeerwelt. Oriens et
Occidens 13 (Stuttgart 2006) 181201, taking a critical stance towards all presumed Sasanian
titulature derived from Roman sources only.
6 So e.g. J. Wolski, Le titre de Rois des Rois dans lidologie monarchique des Arsacides, in: J.
Harmatta ed., From Alexander to Kl Tegin: Studies in Bactrian, Pahlavi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic,
Armenian, Chinese, Trk, Greek and Latin Sources for the history of Pre-Islamic Central Asia (Budapest
1990) 1118; J. Wiesehfer, Iranische Ansprche an Rom auf ehemals achmenidische Territorien,
Archologische Mitteilungen aus Iran 19 (1986) 177186; id., King of Kings and Philhelln:
Kingship in Arsacid Iran, in: P. Bilde et al. eds., Aspects of Hellenistic Kingship (Aarhus 1996) 5566; a
nuanced view is expressed by R. Fowler, Most fortunate roots: Tradition and legitimacy in Parthian
royal ideology, in: O. Hekster and R. Fowler eds, Imaginary Kings: Royal Images in the Ancient Near
East, Greece and Rome. Oriens et Occidens 11 (Stuttgart 2005) 125156.
7 M.R. Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia
(Cambridge and New York 2011), esp. 334349. The Achaemenid revival of the early Sasanians
according to Shayegan can in a comparable manner be connected with a revival of Alexander
symbolism under the Severan emperors of Rome: It was the identification of the emperors (Caracalla
and Severus Alexander) with Alexander that [] prompted the parity between Sasanians and
Achaemenids, [] yet the unexpected strength of the Sasanian war machine produced the opposite
effect (p. 369).

the titles Great King and King of Kings by some other Hellenistic dynasties,
particularly in the time of Seleukid breakdown that began around 150 (the Ptolemies,
the Arsakids, the Mithradatids of Pontos, the dynasty of Tigranes, and the rulers of
Kommagene), can only be understood from a contemporaneous Seleukid perspective.
To substantiate this contention, I will discuss the significance of universalistic claims
for the Seleukids in the context of the increase in the number of vassal dynasties in
the Near East that took place in the Hellenistic Period, especially in the reign of
Antiochos the Great. But I will also argue that universality is a defining feature of
premodern imperial polities in general. Before doing so, I shall briefly review the
development of the ideal of universal empire and universalistic titulature in the
Ancient Near East prior to the era of the Seleukids. After discussing the Seleukids use
of the titles Great King and King of Asia, my final argument will be that the title Great
King is not a specific term but one of several expressions of the same universalistic
pretension that characterizes virtually all tributary land empires in the Middle East
and beyond. Great King and were generic titles, attested in several Near Eastern
languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, Elamite, Persian, Hittite, Greek), meaning emperor,
i.e. a single universal super-king who is placed above all other kings and who has the
right and the ability to appoint sub-kings. I will end with a brief discussion of the use
of universalistic titles by rulers who sought after acceptance as the successors of the
Seleukids. Here it will be argued that such rulers as Mithradates VI, Antiochos I of
Kommagene or Kleopatra VII legitimized their assumption of the imperial title by
their Seleukid ancestry. The Parthian title Great King was connected with the
Seleukids, too: the Parthians kings took this title to state that they had taken over this
status from the Seleukids by right of victory.
Universal empire in the pre-Hellenistic Near East
The idea that the whole wide worldor, more aptly, the entire civilized worldwas
somehow a unity was consistently conveyed in Middle Eastern royal propaganda
since the late third millennium. It was essentially a religious concept. Monarchical
representation propagated the image of a divinely ordained order in which at the
center of civilization there was a single world ruler: an intermediary between
humankind and the gods who safeguarded peace and prosperity for all. This was the
rulers own propaganda, of course, but so consistent and prominently was this idea
conveyedin fact up until the First World War put an end to the universalistic
pretensions of the Ottoman padishahthat it cannot but have been an effective
slogan that must somehow have appealed to a commonly-held, ontological belief of
how things ought to be; many people must have really believed that there should be a
strong and benevolent great king at the heart of civilization lest the world should fall
In what Mario Liverani has called the siege complex, Mesopotamian
cosmology divided the world into a civilized, peaceful core surrounded by barbaric,

chaotic outside regions.8 In this matrix of human culture versus barbaric disorder, the
civilized world is conceived of as a single empire protected from the surrounding
forces of Chaos by a world ruler who is himself protected by the gods.9 Hence the
reassuring use of well-known Mesopotamian titles such as King of the Fourth Corners,
or King from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea.10 Rulers used such titles even when in
reality they were not that powerful and had to acknowledge, in diplomatic
correspondence and peace treaties, the equality of other monarchs; this essential
inconsistency was characteristic of the concert of nations of the Late Bronze Age
Near East.11
An early example is the self-praise of the Sumerian king ulgi (c. 20291982),
the second ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who calls himself king of the four corners
of the Universe, herdsman, shepherd of the blackheads, the trustworthy, the god of all
the lands (WB 171). Tukulti-ninurta I (12441208 or 12331197) much later is
lauded as he who [rules] the extremities of the four winds; all kings without
exception live in dread of him.12 Many more examples abound. This ideology of
course compelled rulers to actually expand their realms to the extremities of the
world. In the First Millennium BCE, for the Neo-Assyrian kings going to war against
neighboring peoples was a divinely ordained commandment and had distinct ritual
and symbolic dimensions.13 The extent of a kings military reach could be demarcated
by means of steles, altars or statues, set up at what was qualitate qua the final
frontier.14 In an inscription of Shalmaneser III, the kings boasts to have set up a statue

M. Liverani, Kitru, kataru, Mesopotamia 17 (1981) 4366; cf. B. Pongratz-Leisten, The other and the
enemy in the Mesopotamian conception of the world, in: R.M. Whiting ed., Mythology and Mythologies:
Methodological Approaches to Intercultural Influences (Helsinki 2001) 195231.
9 M. Liverani, The ideology of the Assyrian Empire, in: M.T. Larsen ed., Power and Propaganda. A
Symposium on Ancient Empires (Copenhagen 1979) 297317.
10 For conceptions of the sea as the edge of world and empire see K. Yamada, From the Upper Sea to
the Lower Sea: The development of the names of seas in the Assyrian royal inscriptions, Orient 40
(2005) 3155; J. Haubold, The Achaemenid Empire and the sea, Mediterranean Historical Review 27.1
(2012) 524.
11 On this paradox see M. Liverani, Prestige and Interest. International Relations in the Near East ca.
16001100 (Padova 1990).
12 W.G. Lambert in Archiv fr Orientforschung 18 (1957/8) 4849, cited from A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near
East, c. 3000-330 BC (London and New York 1995) I 356.
13 H. Tadmor, World dominion: The expanding horizon of the Assyrian Empire, in: L. Milano et. al. eds.,
Landscapes: Territories, Frontiers and Horizons in the Ancient Near East (Padova 1999) I 5562,
showing from the examples of Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II, Esarhaddon, and Assurbanipal, how
ideology compelled Assyrian kings to actually expand the Assyrian Empire through conquest; cf. P.
Garelli, L'tat et la lgitimit royale sous l'empire assyrien, in: M.T. Larsen ed., Power and Propaganda.
A Symposium on Ancient Empires (Copenhagen 1979) 31928, esp. 319320.
14 A.T. Shafer, The Carving of an Empire: Neo-Assyrian Monuments on the Periphery (PhD dissertation
Harvard University, 1998); cf. Liverani 1979. K. Radner, The stele of Sargon II of Assyria at Kition: A
focus for an emerging Cypriot identity?, in: R. Rollinger et al., eds., Interkulturalitt in der Alten Welt.
Vorderasien, Hellas gypten und die vielfltigen Ebenen des Kontakts (Wiesbaden 2010) 429450, is an
interesting case study of a basalt stele of Sargon IIKing of the Universe, King of Assyria, Governor of

of himself at the source of the river Saluara, at the foot of the Amanus Mountains,
and to have made offerings at the Mediterranean coast, after having washed my
weapons in the Great Sea (ANET 277): in other words, Shalmaneser had reached the
edge of the world and established peace everywhere.15
In this context developed the title Great King and its twin brother, King of
Kings. Both titles are best known from the context of the Achaemenid Empire but they
had much older roots. Their meaning is generic rather than specific. Both titles have
been recorded in the official languages of various Near Eastern monarchies:
Sumerian (lugal gal and lugal lugal), Babylonian (arru rab and ar arrni),
Elamite (sunki-ir--ir-ra and sunki sunkipina), Old Persian (xyaiya vazraka and
xyaiya xyaiynm), Middle Persian (vazka ah and hn ah), and Greek
(basileus megas and basileus basiles).
In the Achaemenid Empire Great King (vazka ah) and King of Kings
(xyaiya xyaiynm) came to be the core of Achaemenid royal system of titles.
There seems not to have been any formal difference between the two titles, which
could be combined, and carried a similar connotation of limitless power: rule over all
lands and all peoples. In an inscription of Darius I, the king is lauded as The Great
King, King of Kings, King of Lands in Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian.16
It is unlikely that these titles were combined because they had diverse
meanings; rather, the theme of universality probably was so huge, that repetition was
employed to ingrain the message more strongly in the recipients minds. It was only
in the later Hellenistic Period that rulers perhaps deliberately preferred one title over
the other, as we will see in the last section of this paper.
From Alexander to the Seleukids

Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Corners (lines II.2-3)marking the western
periphery of what Liverani 1979 has called the officially existing world.
15 An additional means to convey universalistic ideology was what may be called the symbolic
attainment of the world [border], i.e. the accumulation of images, objects, flora, fauna and even human
beings in the imperial center, as well as the accumulation of knowledge, cf. Liverani 1979. This is what
happened also in Alexandria under the early Ptolemies; see R. Strootman, The Hellenistic Royal Courts:
Court Culture, Ceremonial and Ideology in Greece, Egypt and the Near East, 336-30 BCE (PhD
dissertation; University of Utrecht, 2007) 214 (for the library) and 314325 (on the Grand Procession
of Ptolemy Philadelphos), and id., Alexandri, een wereldstad, Lampas 44.4 (2011) 292310.
16 Wiesehfer 1996, 5566, suggesting respectively Urartean and Babylonian origins for the Persian
titles King of Kings and Great King, and explaining the simultaneous use of both titles from these
disparate origins; but they were also sometimes employed simultaneously in Babylonian texts, where
they could furthermore be combined with typically Mesopotamian titles such as Kings of Lands, King
of the Four Quarters, or King of Peoples. For the iconography of universalism at Persepolis and other
palaces see M. Cool Root, The King and Kingship in Achaemenid Art: Essays on the Creation of an
Iconography of Empire (Leiden 1979), cf. A. Kuhrt, The Achaemenid concept of kingship, Iran 22
(1984) 156160.

Between the Battle of Issos (333) and the Battle of Gaugamela (331), Darius III sent
an embassy to Alexander to negotiate peace.17 The Persian king offered Alexander all
the territory to the west of the Euphrates, an enormous amount of silver bullion, and
the hand of Darius eldest daughter. It clearly was not a proposal to partition the
Achaemenid Empire. If the peace proposal is indeed historical, as it probably was in
one form or other,18 Darius offered Alexander the status of vassal ruler, viceroy at
best, and the inferior status of son-in-law. However great the concessions may have
been, Darius would still have been the superior Great King. By declining the offer
Alexander made clear what his ultimate aim was. Just as the universe (kosmos) will
not hold together when there are two suns, he allegedly replied, the inhabited world
(oikoumen) cannot be ruled by two kings; and he bade the envoys to tell Darius that
battle would decide which of them would have sole and universal rule (Diod. 17.54.5;
cf. Just. 11.12.15).
To pacify and unite his newly conquered empire, Alexander adopted oriental
universalistic ideology and propaganda, together with the appropriate court
ceremonial. There was no other way. It was either that or being someone elses vassal.
Alexander had to position himself vis--vis various nations and polities and to
somehow relate himself to the former imperial elite that still to a substantial degree
controlled access to the military resources. For lack of contemporary Persian sources
we cannot say if Alexander styled himself (or was styled) Great King or King of Kings
by Iranians. It is hard to imagine, however, that in his dealings with the Iranian
nobility Alexander would have presented himself as a lesser king than Darius had
been. What we do know, is that in the Babylonian astronomical diaries Alexander is
King of the World and King of Countries (Sachs & Hunger I, nos. 330 and 329). 19 In his
dealings with the Greeks, Alexander adopted a newly invented Hellenic title, King of
Asia, as several of his biographers later claimed (Arr., Anab. 2.14.8-9; Curt. 4.1-14;
Plut., Alex. 34.1). This presumably was an adaptation of the Oriental title of Great King

The embassy is mentioned in all ancient Alexander biographies: Arr., Anab. 11.25; Diod. 17.54.15;
Plut., Alex. 29.78; Curt. 4.11.122; Just. 11.12.915. They embassy is usually dated to shortly before
the Battle of Gaugamela (Summer 331); only Arrian dates the embassy to the siege of Tyre in 332.
18 A.B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian's History of Alexander. Volume I: Commentary on
Books IIII (Oxford 1980) 228229.
19 A. Kuhrt, Alexander in Babylon, in: H.W.A.M. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and J.W. Drijvers eds.,
Achaemenid History 5: The Roots of the European Tradition. Proceedings of the 1987 Groningen
Achaemenid History Workshop (Leiden and Boston 1990) 121130. The hypothesis of A.B. Bosworth,
Philip III Arrhidaeus and the chronology of the Successors, Chiron 22 (1992) 5581, that while
Alexander was king of the empire in Babylonian documents (ar matt, King of Countries) his halfbrother Arrhidaios was made King of Babylon (ar Bbili, not actually attested in cuneiform sources)
in the last year of Alexanders reign (324/3), is rejected by T. Boiy, Royal titulature in Hellenistic
Babylonia, Zeitschrift fr Assyriologie 92 (2002) 241257, who points to the fact that the title King of
Babylon was abandoned by the Achaemenids in the fifth century only to reappear once in the Seleukid
Period (on the Antiochos Cylinder, see below); it is therefore unlikely that the title King of Babylon
was still in use in 324/3 (p. 248249).

and was introduced to mark the advent of a new imperial age.20 If it was indeed
Alexander who began to wear the diadem, this probably took place at the same time
and for the same reason Alexander began to wear a diadem. The old Macedonian
monarchy had no distinct regalia. As I have argued elsewhere, following Smith,
Alexander may have based the form of the diadem on a variety of modelsthe Greek
victory wreath, the Dionysian bind, and the fillet that Persian kings wore under their
royal tiaras andbut the result was an altogether new emblem, introduced to signal
the foundation of a new monarchy.21 For all his autocracy and magnificence,
Alexander was wary of being seen by the Greeks and the Macedonians as a Persian
despot and the diadem surely did not refer to the Achaemenids, whose principal
emblem of royalty had been a tiara.22
The title King of Asia must have been carefully created not to antagonize the
inhabitants of mainland Greece and Macedonia, who were formally excluded from its
pretensions. Asiaa Greek notioncould however include Egypt. The title
reappears when according to Diodoros (19.48.1) the Persians accepted Antigonos
Monophthalmos as King of Asia upon his arrival in the Persis in 316. Since Antigonos
received the honor from the Persians (he was not yet a Greek basileus), and Asia was
a Greek concept, this passage may mean that Antigonos had himself proclaimed vazka
ah in Iran.23 The Seleukid dynasty later adopted the title King of Asia, too, and we
will return to it shortly.
E.A. Fredricksmeyer, Alexander the Great and the Kingdom of Asia, in: A.B. Bosworth and E.J.
Baynham eds., Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction (Oxford 2000) 96135, establishes the Greek
nature of the title and claims that Alexander used it in order not to be seen as the successor of Darius
but as the creator of a new empire; cf. M. Brosius, Alexander and the Persians, in J. Roisman ed., Brills
Companion to Alexander the Great (Leiden 2003) 173176. The contrary view, that Alexander should
be seen as the last Achaemenid, was most influentially expressed by P. Briant, Alexandre le Grand
(Paris 1974); in 2010 a translation of this book by Amlie Kuhrt was published by Princeton University
Press as Alexander the Great and his Empire. I was not able to consult F. Muccioli, Il re dellAsia:
ideologia e propaganda da Alessandro Magno a Mitridate VI, in: L. Criscuolo, G. Geraci, C. Salvaterra
eds., Simblos. Scritta di storia antica 4 (Bologna 2004) 146151, and R. Sciandra, Il Re dei Re e il
Satrapo dei Satrapi: note sulla successione tra Mitradate II e Gotarze I a Babilonia (ca. 9480 a.e.v.),
in: B. Virgilio ed., Studi Ellenistici 20 (Pisa and Rome 2008) 471488.
21 Strootman 2007, 367373; R.R.R. Smith, Kings and philosophers, in: A. W. Bulloch et al. eds., Images
and Ideologies: Self-Definition in the Hellenistic World (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1993) 202211, cf. id.
Hellenistic Royal Portraits (Oxford 1988) 3536, for an overview of possible (Greek) antecedents.
22 Contra the influential hypothesis defended by H.W. Ritter, Diadem und Knigsherrschaft.
Untersuchungen zu Zeremonien und Rechtsgrundlagen des Herrschaftsantritt bei den Persern, bei
Alexander dem Groen und im Hellenismus (Munich and Berlin 1965), esp. 105-8; cf. id., 'Die Bedeutung
des Diadems', Historia 36.3 (1987) 290301. For a comprehensive overview of the (iconographical)
evidence for Perisan crowns see Henkelman, W.F.M., The royal Achaemenid crown, AMI 28 (1995/6)
175193, arguing against the influential thesis of H. von Gall, Die Kopfbedeckung des persischen
Ornats bei den Achmeniden, AMI 7 (1974) 145161, that Achaemenid kings wore individualized
23 A.B. Bosworth, The campaign in Iran: Turbulent satraps and frozen elephants, in: id., The Legacy of
Alexander: Politics, Warfare, and Propaganda under the Successors (Oxford 2002) 162 with n. 221; cf.
Brosius 2003, 174 n. 9.

Ancient historiography has preserved several more attestations of the

universalistic claims made by Antigonos and his son Demetrios, as well as by Ptolemy
I and II, whose aspirations were no less ambitious than those of their Antigonid
adversaries.24 Thus, Plutarch (Demetr. 25.4) says that Demetrios Poliorketes used to
scorn people who gave the title of basileus to anyone but his father and himself; his
friends thereupon drank toasts to Demetrios the King, Seleukos the elephantarch,
Ptolemy the admiral, Lysimachos the treasurer, and Agathokles the governor of Sicily
as if his royal rivals were no real monarchs but officials in the service of the
universal kings Antigonos and Demetrios. Hans Hauben argued in his classic article
on this royal toast that Antigonos basileia signified his ambition to become the sole
ruler of the entire empire: the other Diadochi would have to subject themselves to
him lest they be regarded as usurpers or rebels and run the risk of having their
territories taken by force of arms.25 It follows that when Ptolemy, Seleukos, and
Lysimachos in reaction to Antigonos assumption of the basileus-title took the diadem
too, their basileia must have had the same universalistic connotations lest they would
have openly accepted the status of vassals subordinate to Antigonos. Indeed, as Erich
Gruen showed with regard to the Year of the Kings, the title of basileus as it was used
by the Successors in 306/5 had no territorial or national restrictions.26 A crucial detail
is the fact that the assumption of basileia by the Diadochs in 306/5 was accompanied
by the assumption of the diadem. If the diadem was indeed introduced by Alexander
as an exclusive symbol of his status as King of Asia, the fillet that the Successors bound
around their skulls in 306/5 can only have signified a claim to rule over the whole of
Alexanders Kingdom of Asia. But the strongest claim to universal empire eventually
was made, not by Antigonos and Demetrios, but by Seleukos.

R. Strootman, Men to whose rapacity neither sea nor mountain sets a limit: The aims of the
Diadochs, in: H. Hauben and A. Meeus eds., The Age of the Successors and the Creation of the Hellenistic
Kingdoms (323276 B.C). Studia Hellenistica 53 (Leuven 2014) 307322.
25 H. Hauben, 'A royal toast in 302 B.C.' AncSoc 5 (1974) 105117, at 105; cf. O. Mller, Antigonos
Monophthalmos und 'Das Jahr des Knige'. Untersuchungen zur Begrndung der Hellenistischen
Monarchien, 306-304 v.Chr. (Bonn 1973) 88-93. R.A. Billows, Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation
of the Hellenistic State (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1990; 2nd edn. 1997), 158160, on the other
hand presumes that Antigonos assumption of kingship was first of all an attempt to institutionalize
his power in such a way as to provide for the succession of Demetrios to that power (158) and
therefore should not be understood as a claim specifically to supreme power over all of Alexanders
empire (159).
26 E.S. Gruen, 'The coronation of the Diadochoi', in: J.W. Eadie and J. Ober eds., The Craft of the Ancient
Historian. Essays in Honor of G.C. Starr (Lanham 1985) 253271. The first to note the unlimited
pretensions of the Diadochs basileia perhaps was G.H. Macurdy, Roxane and Alexander IV in Epirus,
JHS 52.2 (1932) 256261, at 258: The word basileia with almost no exception in Diodorus and
elsewhere means royal power, not the country ruled over; cf. id., Note on ,
JHS 52.2 (1932) 261, and A. Aymard, 'Le protocole royal Grec', in: id., Etudes d'histoire anciennes (Paris
1967) 7399.

The Seleukids and the title King of Asia

After his victory at Ipsos, Seleukos Nikator became the master of Asia from Phrygia
to India and the successor of Alexander as King of Asia (App., Syr. 55). Seleukos heirs,
too, were known in Greek and Roman historiography as the kings of Asia. Malalas
(Malalas 8.209) calls Antiochos III the King of Asia. According to Appian (Syr. 1 and
12), Antiochos III reclaimed possession of Ionia and Aiolis because these regions had
in the past belonged to the kings of Asia. OGIS 253, a Greek inscription of unknown
provenance and controversial substance, lauds Antiochos IV Epiphanes as the Savior
of Asia.27
The association of Asia with the Seleukids is indirectly apparent from the fact
that some sources differentiate between Asia and Syria.28 Andrea Primo has argued
that this tradition was derived from Ptolemaic propaganda and existed in Hellenistic
historiography alongside the rival notion, upheld by the Seleukid court and preserved
i.a. in Appian, that Syria belonged to Asia.29 After Ipsos, the Ptolemies occupied Koile
Syria but the ultimate goal of their imperial policy in the Third Century was to control
all harbors surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean basin and to deny the Seleukids
access to the sea. Polybios (5.67) sets against Antiochos IIIs claim that Koile Syria is
rightfully his because of Seleukos Nikators victory at Ipsos the assertion of the
Ptolemaic envoys that Asia belonged to Seleukos but that Phoenicia and Koile Syria
are not part of (the interior of) Asia and therefore do not belong to the Seleukids.30
An interesting passage in this context is found in the first book of Maccabees: when
Ptolemy VI invaded the Seleukid Empire in 145, he bound round his head two royal
diadems, one of Asia and one of Egypt (1 Macc. 11.13). With this act, Ptolemy not only
claimed rule over the Seleukid Empire by right of victory over Demetrios II, whom he
had deposed, and presumably also by right of inheritance: Ptolemy VI was the
grandson of Antiochos III through matrilineal descent. He also reaffirmed a specific
Ptolemaic notion that Egypt (perhaps including Syria) was excluded from the
pretensions of the kingship of Asia.

27 An

originally presumed Babylonian provenance of the inscription was rejected already by U. Khler,
Zwei Inschriften aus der Zeit Antiochos IV Epifanes, Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschafte
Berlin 51 (1900) 11001108, and again by S.M. Sherwin-White, A Greek ostrakon from Babylon of the
early third century B.C., ZPE 47 (1982) 5170; R.J. van der Spek, Grondbezit in het Seleucidische Rijk
(PhD diss. University of Leiden, 1986) 72, holds that a Babylonian origin cannot be excluded. For the
text consult M. Zambelli, Lascesa al trono di Antioco IV Epifane di Siria, Rivista di Filologia e di
Istruzione Classica 88 (1960) 378; a more free restoration was made by F. Piejko, Antiochus Epiphanes
Savior of Asia, Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 114 (1986) 425436. J.G. Bunge, Die Feiern
Antiochus IV. Epiphanes in Daphne 166 v.Chr., Chiron 6 (1976) 5371, esp. 63 n. 60, plausibly
associates the inscription with Antiochos eastern campaign, which began in 165/4.
28 Preserved for instance in Eusebius (Chron. P. 126 and 130 ed. Helm) who describes the Seleukid
Empire as Syriae et Asiae regnum, and Strabo (11.9.2), describing the Seleukids as the kings of Syria
and Media.
29 A. Primo, La battaglia di Ipso e la storiografia sui Seleucidi, Tyche 24 (2009) 99102.
30 Compare the diplomatic exchanges in Polyb. 28.20.68; cf. Primo 2009, 101, and Walbank, Polybius
I, p. 592-3 ad locum, and Polybius II, p. 356 ad locum.


The Ptolemies provide more indirect evidence for the interconnectedness of

the titles Great King and King of Asia. The Ptolemies bore the title twicethey were
actually the first to use a Greek rendering of Great King basileus megas even before
Antiochos the Great did soand in both cases they clearly associated the title with
the Seleukids and with Asia. Ptolemy III styled himself Great King on the Adulis
Inscription (OGIS 54 = Austin 221) in the context of his invasion of Asia during the
Third Syrian War (246-241), claiming that he had conquered the entire Seleukid
Empire as far as Baktria; and Ptolemy IV was lauded as Great King on the Raphia
Decree, a trilingual (Greek, Demotic, Hieroglyphic Egyptian) decree of a priestly
synod at Memphis of which three fragmentary stelae are still extant. The decree is
dated to 15 November 217 and celebrates Ptolemys return from war with Antiochos
III in Koile Syria and his victory in the Battle of Raphia (22 June 217).31
King of Asia may not be exactly the same as king of world, but it comes close.
Asia is not a country or region. It is a rather vague designation of the entire eastern
land mass comprising a variety of countries. Asia moreover was a specifically Greek
notion. As we have seen, Alexander had assumed the title as a variant of Great King
for his dealings with Greeks only. Unlike Great King, the title King of Asia does not
figure in the Babylonian cuneiform record of the Seleukid and Parthian periods, and
neither does it ever reappear in the Sasanian Empire in Middle Persian translation.
This too suggests that for the Seleukids King of Asia had the same supranational
connotation as Great King. The interconnectedness of the two titles is made clear in
the first book of Maccabees where Antiochos III is called the Great King of Asia (1
Macc. 8.6). That surely is no slip of the pen.32
Great King / The Great in the Seleukid Empire
It looks as if the first Seleukid kings were wary of identifying themselves as Great
Kings in Greek propaganda. Antiochos IIIs assumption of the title basileus megas after
205 is distinctively presented as an innovation in the epigraphical record (see below).
Like Alexander, the first Seleukids presumably styled themselves (or at least were
seen as) the Kings of Asiaan equivalent title but without overtly Persian
connotations. In the early Hellenistic Age, the title of basileus taken by the Diadochs
in 306/5 in itself carried universalistic claims, as we already saw above.
The sheer size of the multi-ethnic Seleukid Empire meanwhile meant that the
Seleukids had no other option than to present themselves as emperors. Seleukid
universalistic propaganda resonates in the account that Appian (Syr. 55) gives of the
of the conquests of Seleukos:

See G. Hlbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire (London and New York 2001) 162-4 with n. 23; cf. p.
81. The stele in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, shows Ptolemy in pharaonic regal attire but fighting like
a Macedonian king from horseback with a sarissa. An Egyptian equivalent of King of Kings (nswt nswjw)
existed as a title for Osiris; this title has only been attested for Ptolemaios XII in Philai (see Hlbl 2001,
p. 292, with further literature).
32 Cf. Liv. 35.17.4: Antiocho maximo Asiae regum.


He conquered Mesopotamia, Armenia, Anatolia, the Persians, the Parthians, the

Baktrians, the Arabs, the Tapyri, the Sogdians, the Arachosians, the Hyrkanians, and
all the other peoples that had before been conquered by Alexander, as far as the river

In the 280s a Seleukid general, Demodamas of Miletos campaigned across the river
Jaxartes (Syr Darya). Pliny (NH 6.18) states that when Demodamas returned he set
up altars (i.e. instituted cults) dedicated to the Seleukid tutelary deity Apollo along
the river, thus demarcating the border of human civilization at the very same place
where previously Herakles, Dionysos, Cyrus and Alexander constructed altars, too.
thus it was suggested that Seleukid hegemony extended as far as the eastern edge of
the (civilized) world. Pliny moreover specifies the deity as Apollo of Didyma, which
linked this (from a western point of view) peripheral region in Central Asia to one of
the principal shrines that were favored and patronized by the Seleukids at that time:
the Sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma, in the very heart of the Greek world.34 About the
same time, the admiral Patrokles, formerly the Seleukid governor of Babylonia,
explored the northern reaches of the Caspian Sea. When he returned, he duly reported
what everyone had already expected: that in accordance with earlier Greek world
views the Caspian Sea was a southerly inlet of Okeanos, the river that encompasses
the world so that it could now be legitimately claimed that the northern boundary of
the empire, like the southern, was the Ocean.35
In Babylonian documents, the early Seleukids are sometimes called Great
Kings. Antiochos I Soter and Antiochos II Theos both carry the title of lugal gal in the
Babylonian king list BM 35603 (Austin 138).36 But the best known example is the
opening formula of the Cylinder of Antiochos I Soter, a building inscription dated to

33 For the influence of Seleukid court historians

on Ancient historiography see A. Primo, La storiografia

sui Seleucidi: da Megastene a Eusebio di Cesarea. Studi ellenistici 10 (Pisa and Rome 2009) 1952.
34 For the concept of frontier sanctuaries linked to a central sanctuary as a means to define and claim
territory see F. de Polignac, La naissance de la cit grecque: cultes, espace et socit VIIIe-VIIe sicles
avant J.-C. (Paris 1984); an English translation appeared as City, Territory, and the Origin of the Greek
City-State (Chicago 1995). For the contemporaneous (208) conceptualization of Sogdia and Baktria as
militarized frontier zones between the Seleukid Empire and the nomadic hordes on the steppes of
Inner Asia see Polyb. 11.39.45.
35 Memn. ap. Phot. Bibl. 224, p. 227a. Compare Alexanders desire to reach the Indian Ocean an urge
that, like his celebrated pothos in general, can perhaps be better understood in terms of imperialist
ideology than as resulting from the singularity of Alexanders personal psychology, as I have argued in
Het verlangen van Alexander de Grote: pothos of propaganda?, Groniek 186 (2010) 515, and id.,
Koning van Azi: Alexander de Grote en het Oosterse koningschap, in: D. Burgersdijk, W. Henkelman,
W. Waal eds, Alexander en Darius: De Macedonir in de spiegel van het Nabije Oosten (Amsterdam 2012).
For Patrokles and Demodamas journeys of exploration as ritualized demarcations of Seleukid
territory see R. Strootman, Hellenistic imperialism and the idea of world unity, in: C. Rapp and H.
Drake eds., The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World: Changing Contexts of Power and Identity
(Cambridge and New York 2014) 3861.
36 A.J. Sachs and D.J. Wiseman, A Babylonian King List of the Hellenistic Period, Iraq 16 (1954) 202
212; G.F. Del Monte, Testi dalla Babilonia Ellenistica. Studi Ellenistica 9 (Pisa and Rome 1997) 208.


268 found in situ in the temple of Nab (who was identified with the Seleukid tutelary
deity Apollo) in Borsippa, near Babylon:
Antiochos the Great King, the Mighty King, King of the World, King of Babylon, King of
Countries, caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, first son of King Seleukos, the Macedonian,
King of Babylon, am I. (ANET 317; Austin 189).

Of course, this titulature is here being used in a local context, and Great King is
combined with local Babylonian titles. But new studies of the Antiochos Cylinder
suggest that the text may be much less traditional than has always been assumed in
mainstream historiography: the text can also be interpreted as the product of a twoway interaction between Babylonian priesthood and imperial court instead of it being
indicative of continuity, and a presumed wish on the part of the Seleukids to be seen
as the new Achaemenids.37 On the contrary: by referring back to the golden age of the
Neo-Babylonian Empire under the Chaldean Dynasty (625-539) in various ways, and
by cautiously identifying Marduk, his wife Era, and their son Nab with the early
Seleukid Reigning Triad of king/father, queen/mother, and heir/foremost son (viz.
co-basileus),38 the Cylinder rather seems to aim at erasing Achaemenid rule from
history. At best, the Borsippa Cylinder may refer to the Cyrus Cylinderbut Cyrus
was no Achaemenid and the positive Cyrus image also was a Greek tradition, best
known to Hellenistic rulers from Xenophons Cyropaedia. (Compare how Alexander
could simultaneously honor the tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadai and destroy Persepolis,
the symbolic heart of the Achaemenid dynasty.)
At the crux of this matter is the fact that the imperial court cannot but have
had a hand in the presentation of the king as Great King on de Borsippa Cylinder,
which must therefore reflect an imperial policy rather than this being merely the
outcome of a more passive adoption of local custom. Notwithstanding the probable
agency of the Babylonian priesthood in creating this text, the Antiochos Cylinder is
also Seleukid self-presentation.

For the innovative aspects of the text, viz., the manipulation of (invented) tradition to convey an
imperial rather than a local message, see now K. Erickson, Apollo-Nab: The Babylonian policy of
Antiochus I, in: K. Erickson and G. Ramsey eds., Seleucid Dissolution: The Sinking of the Anchor.
Philippika 50 (Wiesbaden 2011) 5166; R. Strootman, Babylonian, Macedonian, King of the World:
The Antiochos Cylinder from Borsippa and Seleukid imperial integration, in: E. Stavrianopoulou ed.,
Shifting Social Imaginaries in the Hellenistic Period: Narrations, Practices, and Images (Leiden and
Boston 2013) 6797; and P.-A. Beaulieu, Nab and Apollo: The two faces of Seleucid religious policy,
in: F. Hoffmann and K.S. Schmidt eds., Orient und Okzident in hellenistischer Zeit. Beitrge zur Tagung
Orient und Okzident Antagonismus oder Konstrukt? Machtstrukturen, Ideologien und Kulturtransfer
in hellenistischer Zeit (Wrzburg 10.13. April 2008) (Vaterstetten 2014) 1330.
38 The term Reigning Triad was coined by A.J.P. McAuley, The Genealogy of the Seleucids: Seleucid
Marriage, Succession, and Descent Revisited (MA thesis: University of Edinburgh, 2011) 1823.


The rise of vassal kingdoms and Antiochos IIIs title of Great King
From c. 250 the Seleukid Empire gradually developed into a hegemonial power
loosely uniting multiple autonomous vassal monarchies and small princedoms
around a more or less directly controlled imperial core that comprised Media,
Babylonia, Mesopotamia and Syria. Antiochos IIIs title of basileus megas is directly
connected with this process of vassalizationor feudalization, as David Engels
called it in a recent article in which he suggested a strong undercurrent of political
fragmentation running through the longue dure history of the Middle East from the
Achaemenids through the Seleukids to the Arsakids. 39 Because Antiochos III
appointed more kings than any other ruler before him, he also had more need to
articulate his own superior status.
The growing number of local kings in the Hellenistic east has of course often
been noticed. It has however always been understood as the attainment of full
autonomy by rulers breaking away from the empire, and thus as a symptom of
Seleukid decline.40 This zero-sum, and anachronistic, logic is no longer feasible. In
accordance with the current tendency in the study of empire in general to think about
imperial histories not in teleological terms of rise-and-fall but in terms of change,41
the vassalization of the Hellenistic Near East will probably be better understood when
seen as a sign of Seleukid resilience rather than as a symptom of Seleukid decline.
Scholars of Middle East history have only recently begun to appreciate
Seleukid agency in this transformation and its formative importance for both the
Parthian world of kings and the system of client kingdoms that made up the Roman
Near East. The first to understand the vassalization of the Hellenistic Middle east as
an essentially Seleukid phenomenon was to my best knowledge Maria Brosius in her
Engels 2011, op. cit. below. I use vassalization rather than feudalization not because I do not
endorse the main thrust of Engels argument (I do) but because of the latter terms Medieval
connotation, viz. its association with the granting of estates rather than the creation of kingdoms. The
term client kingdoms, preferred by Roman historians, looks at the Near East from a Roman instead of
a Near Easter perspective, suggesting a Roman origin where there is none; from a post-Seleukid Near
Eastern perspective, the relations between vassal states and the Roman Empire will have been
structured by philia rather than amicitia.
40 See for this view e.g. M. Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome (Cambridge and London 2005) 530; cf.
7074 for a strikingly contrasting view of Roman acceptance of indigenous princes, a process that is
described as a deliberately created network of client states [which] allowed Rome to rule at less cost
(p. 70 and 73).
41 Cf. T.N. DAltroy, Empires in a wider world, in S.E. Alcock et al. eds., Empires: Perspectives From
Archaeology and History (Cambridge 2001) 125127, esp. p. 125: The outstanding feature of
preindustrial empires was the continually metamorphosing nature of relations between the central
powers and the societies drawn under the imperial aegis. Particularly the hyper-teleological view that
after the Classical Age (c. 14001600) the Ottoman Empire went into a 300-year period of steady
decline has been reinterpreted in this light, see e.g. K. Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in
Comparative Perspective (Cambridge 2008), and K Barkey and R. Batzell, Comparisons across empires:
The critical social structures of the Ottomans, Russians and Habsburgs during the Seventeenth
Century, in: P. Fibiger Bang and C. Bayly eds., Tributary Empires in Global History (Cambridge and New
York 2011) 227261. On the emergence of a new Ottoman history see V.H. Aksan, Theoretical
Ottomans, History and Theory 47 (2008) 114.


short book The Persians, in which she hypothesized that the urge to become king was
caused by the lack of prestige that the office of satrap experienced under Seleukid
There had already been instances of rulers who were simultaneously kings
and satraps in the Achaemenid Period, and satrapal office had in some cases become
an hereditary prerogative.43 The Hekatomnid kings of Karia are the best known
examples of satrap-kings.44 It seems however that most of the lesser dynasties of the
Hellenistic Near East came into being in the Hellenistic Period: during the upheavals
of the wars of Alexander and the Diadochs (e.g. Bithynia, Pontos, Atropatene), in the
context of Seleukid imperialism (e.g. Kappadokia, Sophene, Adiabene, Baktria,
Parthia, Persis, Judea, Kommagene), or in the wake of Seleukid collapse in the 140s
and 130s (Elymais, Osrhoene, Charakene, Emesa, etc.).45
Already Seleukos I and Antiochos I needed to find ways to deal with the
growing independence of local dynasties, particularly in Anatolia and Greater
Armenia. Thus the Bithynian kings were vassals of the Seleukids until Nikomedes I
(280-250) broke loose from Seleukid suzerainty after having defeated a Seleukid
army and killed its general, Hermogenes, in 279although this certainly did not
entail any official Seleukid acceptance of the Bithynian kings equal status: as the
kings of Bithynia (and not Great Kings) they remained nominally subordinated to the
Seleukids. The kings of Pontos by contrast never renounced their bonds with the
imperial center and remained connected with the Seleukid family through dynastic

M. Brosius, The Persians: An Introduction. Peoples of the Ancient World 5 (London and New York
2006) 114117. See further R. Strootman, Queen of Kings: Cleopatra VII and the Donations of
Alexandria, in: M. Facella and T. Kaizer eds., Kingdoms and Principalities in the Roman Near East.
Occidens et Oriens 19 (Stuttgart 2010) 139158; id., Hellenistic court society: The Seleukid imperial
court under Antiochos the Great, 223187 BCE, in: J. Duindam, M. Kunt, T. Artan eds., Royal Courts in
Dynastic States and Empires: A Global Perspective. Rulers and Elites 1 (Leiden and Boston 2011) 63
89; D. Engels, Middle Eastern Feudalism and Seleukid dissolution, in: K. Erickson and G. Ramsey
eds., Seleucid Dissolution: The Sinking of the Anchor (Wiesbaden 2011) 1936. Also see L. Capdetrey, Le
pouvoir sleucide. Territoire, administration, finances d'un royaume hellnistique (312129 avant J.C.)
(Rennes 2007) 112133, providing the fullest overview of the kingdoms and principalities within the
Seleukid sphere of influence, distinguishing different forms of dependence in a perhaps too formalized
view of the empire.
43 As an alternative to the perhaps too strict view of B. Jacobs, Die Satrapienverwaltung im Perserreich
zur Zeit Darius' III (Wiesbaden 1994) that the Achaemenid system of satrapies was a formalized and
hierarchical system of administration see H. Klinkott, Der Satrap. Ein achaimenidischer Amtstrger und
seine Handlungsspielrume (Berlin 2005), arguing for a more open and irregular complex. But see now
also M. Waters, Applied royal directive: Pissouthnes and Samos, in: B. Jacobs and R. Rollinger eds., Der
Achmenidenhof. Akten des 2. Internationalen Kolloquiums zum Thema "Vorderasien im Spannungsfeld
klassischer und altorientalischer berlieferungen", Landgut Castelen bei Basel, 23.25. Mai 2007.
Classica et orientalia 2 (Wiesbaden 2010) 817828, making a case for direct influence of the imperial
center on the policies of local rulers.
44 S. Hornblower, Mausolus (Oxford 1982); S. Ruzicka, Politics of a Persian Dynasty: The Hecatomnids in
the Fourth Century B.C. (Norman 1992).
45 See for an overview Capdetrey 2007, 112133.


marriage and bonds of loyalty.46 The Attalid rulers of Pergamon (kings since 263),
too, were Seleukid vassals until Attalos I took the diadem on the battlefield in 238/7
in defiance of Seleukid overlordship.47 The kingdom of Kappadokia (since 255) too
was connected by kinship with the Seleukid House (App., Syr. 5).
Antiochos III as kingmaker
The most prolific king-maker among the Seleukids was Antiochos III the Great. At the
beginning of his reign he was confronted with growing regional autonomy,
particularly along the edges of the empire (Anatolia, Armenia, Khorasan, Baktria,
Sogdia), and with a severe military crisis in the center: the revolt of the eastern
satraps under Molon and their invasion of Babylonia. Antiochos thereafter spend
much of his reign subduing unruly local dynasts and then making them kings by his
own grace: the Armenian rulers Artabazanes (c. 220; Polyb. 5.55.10), Orontes IV (212;
), and Xerxes (212; Polyb. 8.23.15); Arsakes II of Parthia (209; Polyb. 10.31);
Euthydemos I of Baktria and Sogdia (206 BCE; Polyb. 11.39.9); the Indian king
Sophagasenos (206; Polyb. 11.39.12);48 and others.49
Polybios (8.23.5) epitomizes the procedure with regard to the Armenian
prince Xerxes, who ruled independently from the Seleukids after his father had earlier
stopped paying regular tribute (phoros); Antiochos III arrived with his army, laid
siege Xerxes royal city Arsamosata, and forced him to surrender:
Remitting the greater part of the sum which his father still owed him as tribute [and]
receiving from him a present payment of three hundred talents, a thousand horses,
and a thousand mules with their trappings, [Antiochos] restored all his dominions to
him and by giving his daughter Antiochis in marriage conciliated and attached to

Even after the Treaty of Apameia, Pharnakes I of Pontos (185-159) used the Seleukid Era on his
coinage, cf. B.C. McGing, The kings of Pontus: Some problems of identity and date, RhM 129 (1986)
248259. Mithradates VI Eupator as an empire-builder exploited his connection to the Seleukid House,
too, as we will see below.
47 Polyb. 18.41.78; Strabo 13.4.12; Paus. 1.8.2; Cf. R.E. Allen, The Attalid Kingdom. A Constitutional
History (Oxford 1983) 31 and Appendix II at pp. 195199; R. Strootman, Kings against Celts:
Deliverance from barbarians as a theme in Hellenistic royal propaganda, in: K.A.E. Enenkel and I.L.
Pfeijffer eds., The Manipulative Mode: Political Propaganda in Antiquity (Leiden 2005) 101141. From
216 to 213 however Attalos fought Achaios in alliance with Antiochos III.
48 His Indian name may have been Subhagasena, cf. R. Thapar, A History of India (Harmondsworth
1966) I 94; according to W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1938) 130,
Sophagasenos was not a local ruler but a king of the Mauryan Dynasty.
49 For a detailed discussion of the king-making activities of Antiochos III see D. Engels, Antiochos III.
der Groe und sein Reich. berlegungen zur Feudalisierung der seleukidischen Peripherie, in: F.
Hoffmann and K.S. Schmidt eds., Orient und Okzident in hellenistischer Zeit. Beitrge zur Tagung Orient
und Okzident Antagonismus oder Konstrukt? Machtstrukturen, Ideologien und Kulturtransfer in
hellenistischer Zeit, Wrzburg 10.13. April 2008 (Vaterstetten 2014) 3176. Antiochos may also have
been personally responsible for the assumption of the title of basileus by the fratarak ruler Ardaxhr
(Artaxerxes) when he visited Persis in 205.


himself all the inhabitants of the district, who considered that he had acted in a truly
royal and magnanimous manner.50

The fact that the new arrangement of the empire evidently was a reaction to growing
regional independence does not in itself mean that the empire was weakened. The
revolts of Molon and Achaios had demonstrated how arduous it could be to replace
governors once appointed and in control of a provinces resources and armed forces.
Affirmation of the autonomy of local monarchies was a means to bring rebellious
provinces back into the empire. Local rulers gained legitimacy through imperial
recognition of their royal status in return for their acceptance of Seleukid suzerainty
and incidental military support. For instance Ariarathes IV of Kappadokia came to the
aid of Antiochos III against the Romans and Attalids during the war in Asia Minor of
190-189 (Liv. 37.31.4). The relation between empire and vassal kingdom was
moreover often cemented by dynastic marriage. Marriage created stronger bonds of
loyalty and obligation than the philia and xenia ties by which Seleukid kings had
previously sought to bring powerful men into their orbit.51 Indeed, the claim to be
related to the Seleukid Dynasty by blood increasingly became a legitimization of
kingship, particularly in Asia Minor.52
Creating (marriage) alliances with local, often indigenous (Iranian) dynasties
in the periphery of the Fertile Crescent moreover was an attempt to by-pass the
imperial elite of Macedonian nobles and Greek philoi, who by the late Third Century
BCE had developed into a landed aristocracy defending its own prerogatives and
privileges.53 The promotion of these non-Greek dynasts in other words may have
been an attempt of the monarchy to find new allies beyond the established court
It all seems to have worked out rather well for the Seleukids, at least initially.
Antiochos III returned from his anabasis strong enough to utterly destroy the
Compare Diod. 31.17a, where an Armenian vassal ruler called Artaxes (presumably to be identified
with Artaxias I, who was king from 190 to 159) broke away from Antiochos IV in c. 165: Antiochos
[] marched against him, was victorious, and reduced him to submission. On Armenian vassal kings
in the Seleukid Empire see A. Kuhrt and S.M Sherwin-White, From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New
Approach to the Seleucid Empire (London 1993) 190197; cf. 8990 for the satrapal tiaras worn by the
Parthian rulers (not all of whom had the title of basileus) until Mithradates the Great on their coins.
51 For the instrumentality of philia and especially xenia for the recruitment of courtiers and for their
attachment to the royal house see G. Herman, Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City (Cambridge
1987) 208.
52 O.G. Gabelko, The dynastic history of the Hellenistic monarchies of Asia Minor according to the
Chronology of George Synkellos, in: J.M. Hjte ed., Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea
Studies 9 (Aarhus 2009). On these kings in the Seleukid period see further J. Kobes, Kleine Knige.
Untersuchungen zu der Lokaldynasten im hellenistischen Kleinasien (323188) (Saint Katharinen 1996).
53 R. Strootman, Hellenistic court society: The Seleukid imperial court under Antiochos the Great, 223
187 BCE, in: J. Duindam, M. Kunt, T. Artan eds., Royal Courts in Dynastic States and Empires: A Global
Perspective (Leiden and Boston 2011) 6389; id., Eunuchs, renegades and concubines: The paradox
of power and the promotion of favorites in the Hellenistic empires, in: A. Erskine, L. Llewellyn-Jones,
S. Wallace eds., The Hellenistic Royal Court (Swansea and Oxford) in press.


Ptolemaic Empire in the Mediterranean between 202 and 198, effectively reducing
the Ptolemies to the status of local kings of Egypt. The loss of prestige suffered by
Antiochos due to his defeat in the Battle of Magnesia in 189 may have nullified much
of the rearrangements. Still, as late as 140/39, Demetrios II could successfully call
upon the local rulers of Persis, Elam and even Baktria for military support during his
campaign against the Parthians (Just. 38.10.5; cf. Jos., AJ 13.185). According to Justin
(38.10.5), Antiochos VII, too, summoned troops from multi orientales reges when he
marched against the Parthians in 131/0.54
Antiochos the Great (King)
Antiochos III presumably took the Greek title of the Great when in 205 he returned
from his eastern anabasis (App., Syr. 11.3.15; cf. Polyb. 4.2.7),55 a campaign that was
as much a military and political affair as it was a ritualized tour of his eastern empire
by which he symbolically demarcated Seleukid territory. He later became the first
Seleukid emperor to also be called Great King in Greek inscriptions found in various
places.56 The inscriptions calling the king Basileus Antiochos Megas or Basileus Megas
come from so diverse sourcesincluding Delos, Teos, Iasos, Amyzon, Xanthos,
Seleukeia in Pieria, and Skythopolisthat a centrally ordained use of these titles is
very likely, whereby the epigraphical evidence shows that the title of megas came
some years before basileus megas.57 It is of course no coincidence that Antiochos III
was the first to use the epitheton Megas and be called basileus megas. Both titles
clearly were connected.58 Interestingly, the passage in 1 Maccabees, discussed above,
in which Antiochos III is called Antiochos the Great King of Asia, can also be read as
Antiochos the Great, King of Asia.59
It is tempting to think that the epitheton referred not to Antiochos status as
Great King but to his great deeds, or even to the deeds of Alexander the Great. But
applying the principle of Ockhams Razor to what we really knownamely that
Antiochos called himself Antiochos Megasleads to two more prosaic observations.
For an even greater extent of Seleukid prestige in this period see now D. Engels, Ein syrisches
Sizilien? Seleukidische Aspekte des ersten sizilischen Sklavenkriegs und der Herrschaft des EunusAntiochos, Polifemo 11 (2011) 233251.
55 Spranger, P.P., Der Groe. Untersuchungen zur Entstehung des historischen Beinamens in der
Antike, Saeculum 9 (1958) 2258, esp. 3031; H.H. Schmitt, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Antiochos
des Groen und seiner Zeit. Historia Einzelschriften 6 (Stuttgart 1964).
56 For an list and discussion of the epigraphical evidence for both megas and basileus mega see J. Ma,
and , in: id., Antiochos III and the Cities of Western Asia Minor (Oxford 2000)
271276, suggesting distinct periods for the use of first megas (from c. 205) and basileus megas (after
the Battle of Panion in 200).
57 Ma 2000, 276.
58 The first to suggest that The Great was an expression of Antiochos status as Great King was W.W.
Tarn, Antiochus III and his title Great King, JHS 22 (1902) 241244. The fact that Megas predated
basileus megas does not exclude a connection with the status of Great King as these are both Greek
renderings of an Oriental concept.
59 Some nomad rulers in First Century BCE Baktria, Maues and Azes I, styled themselves basileus
basiles megas, King of Kings, the Great or Great King of Kings, cf. below.


First, that the name (King) Antiochos Megas referred to no one but Antiochos
himself. Second, that not the deeds of the king are Great but that the king himself is
Great. Appian (Syr. 11.3.15) links the epitheton to both the exploits of the king and
the extent of his empire:
So great was the dominion of Antiochos, who was ruler of many powerful nations of
Upper Asia and of all but a few on the sea-coast and who now invaded Europe; so
formidable was his reputation and so considerable his resources, so many and so
famous his exploits against other peoples, from which he had earned the title The

There is nothing to suggest that Antiochos use of megas was a reference to Alexander
or, for that matter, that Antiochos eastern anabasis was an attempt to imitate
Alexander. The first attested reference to Alexander as 'Great' (magnum) is in a Latin
text from the age of the Scipiones, Plautus Mostellaria 775, written somewhere
between 205 and 184.60 As there is no evidence for Alexanders title of honor
predating Plautus, the earliest comparandum is Antiochos IIIs epitheton, which he
assumed around 205. A Seleukid origin, unrelated to Alexander, is therefore more
likely. If Alexanders epithet was indeed given to him in retrospect by the Romans,
this would be consistent with the Roman practice of reaching back to Alexander
directly, by-passing the Hellenistic monarchies as if they were an irrelevant interlude
in the process of translatio imperii from Alexander to the Rome. By giving the epithet
of Great to Alexander, Antiochos III, an enemy of Rome and a contemporary of
Plautus, was no longer the Great King. In other words: it may well be that Alexander
first became Alexander the Great as an anti-Seleukid, Roman propagandistic response
to Antiochos IIIs assumption of that title for a western audienceit was after all the
title he bore when he moved his armies against the Ptolemies and towards Asia Minor
and Greece.
The second Seleukid ruler known to have assumed the epitheton Megas was
Antiochos VII Sidetes. This later Antiochos the Great took his title in the context of an
eastern campaign, too, but he did not do so afterwards but already in the Spring of
131 after his first successes in Babylonia: Victorious in three battles, Antiochos
captured Babylon and began to be called The Great (Just. 38.10.6). Antiochos Sidetes
issued golden victory coins with the legend Megas EuergetesAntiochos the Great,
the Benefactor rather than Antiochos, the Great Benefactorand an image of Nike
standing in a horse-drawn chariot (SC II, Nr. 2134). Arthur Houghton has interpreted
this coin (a unique gold stater struck in Antioch) as a celebration of Antiochos

Because the passage in Plautus may suggest that the audience was by then familiar with the
epitheton. I. Worthington, 'How Great was Alexander?', The Ancient History Bulletin 31.2 (1999) 39
59, has suggested that Ptolemy I Soter invented Alexanders epitheton when he kidnapped the kings
dead body and brought it to Egypt in the Autumn of 320.


reconquest of Babylonia and Media in 131/130.61 Kay Ehling however has suggested
an association of this coinage with the defeat of the usurper Tryphon in 134, following
doubts later expressed by Houghton himself.62 Be that as it may, Sidetes title of Megas
can at any rate not have been a celebration of his restoration of the empire which was
not quite finished when he died in 129. This means that Antiochos Sidetes
presumably expected the title to induce the eastern vassal kings to rally around his
standard and to win the support of the Babylonian cities. There can be little doubt
that he called himself the Great to emphasize that he was the only legitimate Great
King in reaction to the Arsakid claim to have taken over that status from the Seleukids
some time earlier. Indeed, Justin (38.10.6) states that after some initial victories and
the reconquest of Babylon, but well before Seleukid forces reached Iran, all the
peoples went over to him and the Parthians were left with nothing but their ancestral
land (sc. Parthyene and/or Hyrkania).
Antiochos VII Sidetes was the last able Seleukid king. His death on the
battlefield in 129, and the subsequent destruction of his field army by the Parthians,
effectively terminated the existence of the Seleukid monarchy as a great power.
Before concluding this paper with a brief overview of the uses of the title of Great King
by the Seleukid successor states, we will first place what we have seen in a broader
context of the practice of empire in general. What exactly was it that made
universalistic titulature so very important for imperial rulers?
Universalistic titulature and the practice of empire
One of the most enduring legacies of the Seleukids was their further development and
transmission of the already centuries-old understanding of the world as one unified
empire under a single rulera notion that in the Christian and Islamic empires of
Late Antiquity would eventually culminate in an understanding of the world as a unity
under a single god represented by a single emperor or caliph.
After the reign of Antiochos III, the Seleukids failed to continue their
domination of the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia, despite attempts at repeating
that kings grand tour of the Upper Satrapies by Antiochos IV, Demetrios II, and
Antiochos VII. This failure however had other causes than the increase in the number
of autonomous sub-kings. Indeed the conceptualization of the empire as a complex
network of provinces, vassal kingdoms, petty princedoms, and autonomous city
states unified by the charisma of an imperial ruler persisted in both the Parthian and

A. Houghton, A victory coin and the Parthian Wars of Antiochus VII, in: Proceedings of the 10th
International Congress of Numismatics (London 1986) 65; cf. SEG 19 904, an inscription from AkkoPtolemais recording a dedication by a Seleukid official (archigrammateus of the army) and one of the
prti philoi for the benefit of Antiochos VII, basileus megalos, his wife Kleopatra Thea, and their
children, cf. J. Whitehorne, Cleopatras (London and New York 1994) 149-163.
62 K. Ehling, Probleme der seleukidische Chronologie und Geschichte der Jahre zwischen 139 und 131
v. Chr, in: U. Peter ed., Stephanos Nomismatikos. Edith Schanert Geiss zum 65 Geburtstag (Berlin 1998),
esp. 238; cf. A. Houghton, C.C. Lorber, O.D. Hoover, Seleucid Coins: A Comprehensive Catalogue. Part 2:
Seleucus IV through Antiochus XIII (New York and Lancaster 2008) 396.


Roman empires. Rome, even when represented in the East by strong and successful
generals like Pompey or Marc Antony, preferred to slightly reorganize the eastern
vassal king system rather than to replace it by direct rulealthough that option was
available to them, as the creation of the Roman provinces of Syria and Kilikia show.
In the section on the vassalization of the Seleukid Empire we saw that
Antiochos IIIs explicit use of basileus megas, as well as his self-presentation as Megas,
may have been a pronunciation of his being such a prolific kingmaker, emphasizing
his own elevated position above the lesser kings. In this paper I have argued that the
fact that only Antiochos III is known to have done so unequivocally does not mean
that the other kings of his dynasty were not considered emperors of an empire
stretching from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush, with even bigger, universalistic claims
made in their propaganda. Universalistic claims had been at the core of Near Eastern
imperial ideologies from the Third Millennium BCE and they would continue to do so
until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.63 The Seleukids were no exception.
Many historians have in the past thought about universalistic pretensions as a
defining aspect of virtually all premodern land empires, from China to the Americas.64
In a recent article, Peter Fibiger Bang made a case for understanding universalistic
ideology as a practical instrument of powera means to unite the multiple polities
and heterogeneous cultures of which empires are by definition composed, arguing
that because premodern agrarian empires claimed unity but were never in a position
to really homogenize their realms, they accentuated the paradox, emphasizing
universality to make sense of diversity: The claim to universal hegemony enabled

For a complete overview of Middle East imperialism from Late Antiquity to the Modern Age see E.
Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven and London 2007); in trying to show that Islam has
retained its imperialist ambition to this day (p. 7), Karsh wrongly thinks of the ideal of universal
conquest as a typically Islamic.
64 For the similarities and differences between preindustrial empires consult C.M Sinopoli, The
Archaeology of Empires, Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994); K.D. Morrison, Sources,
Approaches, Definitions, in: S. Alcock, et al., eds., Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History
(Cambridge 2001) 19; H. Mnkler, Imperien. Die Logik der Weltherrschaft: vom Alten Rom bis zu den
Vereinigten Staaten (Bonn 2005); I. Morris and W. Scheidel eds., The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State
Power from Assyria to Byzantium (Oxford 2009). For the universalism of the theme of universal empire
see F. Bosbach, Monarchia Universalis. Ein politischer Leitbegriff der frhen Neuzeit (Munich 1985), A.
Pagden, Lords of all the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c.1500c.1800 (New
Haven 1995), and P.F. Bang, Lords of all the world: The state, heterogeneous power and hegemony in
the Roman and Mughal empires, in: P.F. Bang and C.A. Bayley eds., Tributary Empires in Global History
(New York 2011) 171192; I disagree with G.A. Lehmann, Expansionspolitik im Zeitalter des
Hochhellenismus: Die Anfangphase des Laodike-Krieges 246/5 v.Chr., in: T. Hantos and G.A.
Lehmann eds., Festschrift Jochen Bleicken (Stuttgart 1998) 81101, who understands universalistic
tendencies in the Hellenistic world as imitatio Alexandri. J.H. Marks, Visions of One World: Legacy of
Alexander (Guildford 1985), too, sees neither Near Eastern antecedents nor a generic feature of empire,
but claims instead that the ideal of world union began with Alexanders dream of universal dominion,
and maintains that Alexanders ecumenical ideal (p. 69) was lost in the Hellenistic kingdoms but
survived in Stoic philosophy in the Greek poleis to be finally transmitted to Christianity.


expansionist imperial powers to comprise and manage very diverse territories and,
in terms of political organization, composite and heterogeneous realms.65
Indeed, it seems as if the Middle East suddenly was teeming with claimants to
the status of Great King after the collapse of the Seleukid Empire, which effectively
took place with Antiochos VIIs death in Media in 129. What is striking about these
claims, is that they all seem to be some way or other connected with the Seleukid
Postscript: Great Kings after the Seleukids
The first Arsakid monarch to take the title of Great King was Mithradates (Mihrdd)
I, who was largely responsible for the creation of the Parthian Empire in Iran and
Mesopotamia. His reign is traditionally dated to c. 171138/7, but recently Farhad
Assar proposed a revised chronology of 165/4-132.66 Mithradates apparently took
the Greek imperial title (as basileus megalos),67 in the context of his conquest of
Babylonia in 141/0 and his victory over his Seleukid adversary Demetrios II Soter
about one year later.68 Before the military triumphs of Mithradates, the rulers of the
Bang 2011, 173; cf. Strootman 2010, on Kleopatra VIIs title Queen of Kings as a means to give
coherence to the complex of vassal states that came under her rule during Donations of Alexandria
ritual, and to rally support for Antonys campaigns among the subjects of the Arsakid kings (see below).
See now also the case studies collected in P.F. Bang and D. Koodziejczyk eds., Universal Empire: A
Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History (Cambridge and New
York 2012). For the composite nature of empires compare e.g. the general definitions in Sinopoli 1994,
159 (politically expansive polities, composed of a diversity of localized communities and ethnic
groups), S. Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2002) 15 (Diversity [] is their essence),
and Barkey 2008, 9 (large composite and differentiated polities linked to a central power by a variety
of direct and indirect relations); cf. the claim in P. Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall
of Empires (London 2007) 3, that given the difficulties of communication in pre-industrial times, large
states had to come up with a variety of ad hoc ways to bind far-flung territories to the center. One of
the typical expedients was to incorporate smaller neighbors as self-contained units [] leaving their
internal functioning alone. In popular accounts of empires this diversity is sometimes
anachronistically interpreted as tolerance, see e.g. A. Chua, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to
Global Dominance And Why They Fall (New York 2009).
66 G.R.F. Assar, Genealogy and coinage of the early Parthian rulers I, Parthica 6 (2004) 6993, and 7
(2005) 29-63; id. A revised Parthian chronology of the period 165-91 BC, Electrum 11 (2006) 87158.
67 D.G. Sellwood, An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (London 1971; 2nd edn 1980) type 10. For
sources and secondary literature for Arsakid royal titulature see also Table II in Shayegan 2011, 228
240; Mithradates successors, Phraates II (Frahd, c. 138/7128) and Artabanos I (Ardawn, c. 128/7
124/3), too, styled themselves basileus megalos (Shayegan 2011, 230231 and 231232).
68 That it was Mithradates II who captured Demetrios is suggested by both Appian (Syr. 67) and Justin
(38.9.3), and is confirmed by an astronomical diary dated to 174 SE (= 138 BCE): H. Hunger and A.J.
Sachs, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia III. Diaries from 164 B.C. to 61 B.C.
sterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse 247 (Vienna 1996)
No. 137 A rev. lines 811; cf. M.R. Shayegan, On Demetrius II Nicator's Arsacid captivity and second
rule, Bulletin of the Asia Institute 17 (2007) 83103, and id. 2011, 6877. In anticipation of his own
victory and status as restitutor orbis, Demetrios had in 139 taken the titles Theos and Nikator, cf. K.
Ehling, Wer war der lteste Sohn des Demetrios I.?, Historia 50.3 (2001) 374378, esp. p. 375 with n.
13; the numismatic evidence probably is from Nisibis, located along the road from Syria to


Arsakid Dynasty had been compelled to accept the status of sub-kings.69 Now the
Parthian king had not only conquered one of the core regions of the Seleukid Empire
and defeated its king in battle, he had also captured the Seleukid emperor alive.
Demetrios II was given a daughter of Mithradates the Great in marriage, and in 129
was released by Mithradates successor Phraates II to reclaim his throne in the west,
where he struck coins depicting himself with a Parthian-style beard.70 This amounted
to a complete reversal of the relation between Seleukid king and the Arsakid king, as
the first had now become the vassal of the latter, perhaps also symbolized by his
becoming Phraates son-in-law. Demetrios successor, Antiochos Sidetes, disagreed.
He propagated his own assumption of the title of Megas and set out for the east to
reverse the situation, but was killed in 129.71
Military success had allowed Mithradates I to take over the status of imperial
overlord from the Seleukids by right of victory, precisely as Alexander had done two
centuries before when he defeated Darius and thereby inaugurated the era of
Macedonian dominance.72 Another indication that the Arsakids newfound status was
connected with the Seleukids, and not the result of some Achaemenid revival, was the
fact that Mithradates used the Seleukid title of basileus megas, only slightly moderated
to become megalosbut that, too, is Greek.73 Some decades after the death of
Mesopotamia, and is collected by W. Moore, The divine couple of Demetrius II, Nicator, and his coinage
at Nisibis, MNANS 31 (1986) 125128. On Demetrios campaign in general see E. Dbrowa,
Lexpdition de Dmtrios II Nicator contre les Parthes (139138 avanat J.-C.), in: id., Studia GraecoParthica: Political and Cultural Relations Between Greeks and Parthians (Wiesbaden 2011) 4958, and
especially Shayegan 2011, 6872 and 7477, with full discussion of both Greek and Babylonian
69 For the initial status of the Parthian kingdom as a Seleukid satellite see R. Strootman, The coming of
the Parthians: Crisis and resilience in Seleukid Iran in the reign of Seleukos II, in: K. Erickson ed., War
Within the Family: The First Century of Seleucid Rule. Proceedings of a Panel at the Celtic Conference of
Classics (Bordeaux Sept. 2012) (Swansea and Oxford, forthcoming).
70 Justin 39.1.3 rebukes Demetrios for his barbaric Parthian habits, cf. P.F. Mittag, Beim Barte des
Demetrios. berlegungen zur partischen Gefangenschaft Demetrios II, Klio 84.2 (2002) 37399.
Admittedly, Demetrios beard of course may also have been a reference to Zeus, cf. most recently L.-M,.
Gnther, Herrscher als Gtter Gtter als Herrscher? Zur Ambivalenz hellenistischer Mnzbilder, in:
L.-M. Gnther and S. Plischke eds., Studien zum vorhellenistischen und hellenistischen Herrscherkult:
Verdichtung und Erweiterung von Traditionsgeflechten (Berlin 2011) 89113. Cf. E. Dbrowa, Knige
Syriens in der Gefangenschaft der Parther: zwei Episoden aus der Geschichte der Beziehungen der
Seleukiden zu den Arsakiden, Tyche 7 (1992) 4554, explaining the release of Demetrios as an attempt
to control Syria in a legitimate manner, i.e. without military force.
71 For this campaign consult K. Ehling, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der spten Seleukiden (16463 v.
Chr.). Vom Tode des Antiochos IV. bis zur Einrichtung der Provinz Syria unter Pompeius. Historia
Einzelschriften 196 (Stuttgart 2008) 200205.
72 Tacitus (Ann. 6.31) claims that in 35 CE the Parthian king Artabanus (II or III) sent an embassy to
Rome to announce that he would recapture all the lands that Cyrus and Alexander once ruled and
restore the frontiers of the Persian and Macedonian empires; cf. Fowler 2005, 125127, who rightly
notes that equating Parthia with Persia is commonplace in Roman literature (p. 126) but that the
Parthian claim to the territory of the former Macedonian (viz. Seleukid) Empire probably is genuine.
73 W.W. Tarn, Queen Ptolemais and Apama, CQ 23.3/4 (1929) 138141, postulated that the Arsakids
later traced their descent to the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II because they were stepping into the


Mithradates I, perhaps first in 111/0,74 the Arsakids began to prefer the title of King
of Kings rather that Great King. The new title apparently was used for the first time
consistently by Mithradates II (123-87), who styled himself basileus basiles megalos
on his coins,75 but it was not before the early 50s that the title became
institutionalized as standard royal style;76 Since the Seleukids never used King of
Kings, and were not even so named in Babylonian texts, the Parthian title King of
Kings may have been introduced by Mithradates II in opposition to his predecessors
or the Seleukids to accentuate the beginning of a new imperial era.77
Tigranes of Armenia may have had similar pretensions when he called himself
the Great and King of Kings after his conquest of Syria. By this conquest he put an
end to the existence of the Seleukid kingdom (temporarily, as it would turn out).
Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontos, too, styled himself the Great to create coherence
in his heterogeneous Black Sea empire, but he could do so legitimately, being able to
trace his ancestry to Seleukos Nikator.78 Mithradates son Pharnakes II, King of the
Bosporus only (from 63 to 47), called himself King of Kings (CIRB 28 and 29).79
Kleopatra VII in the so-called Donations of Alexandria in 34 claimed the titles of
Queen of Kings and King of Kings for herself and her son Ptolemy XV (Caesarion). The
Donations were a public ceremony that celebrated the creation of a new empire and
a new imperial era: an amalgamation of the former Ptolemaic and Seleukid empires
under the aegis of Rome, viz. Marc Antony.80
shoes of the Seleucids, who really were descended from Artaxerxes II (p. 140); but Tarns hypothesis
that the Seleukids descended from Artaxerxes II through Apama, daughter of Spitamenes, lacks
supporting evidence (though a late Hellenistic belief that they did may be historical).
74 Fowler 2005, 142. There is some evidence that already Mithradates I sporadically used King of Kings:
on a Parthian relief at Hung-I Nauruzi near Susa, which has an Aramaic inscription presumably reading
mtrdt MLKYN MLK = Mithradates King of Kings (Fowler 2005, 146 with n. 64).
75 Sellwood 1971, type 27; Shayegan 2011, 4145 with the table at 232233. On Babylonian
documents, Mithradates II is given the Akkadian title ar arrni: Sachs & Hunger 1996, No. 110, rev. l.
1 (111/0), and No. 108, upper edge l. 1 (109/8), cf. Fowler 2005, 142; one of the main theses of
Shayegans study, is that the Parthian title basileus basiles was an Achaemenid title that had been
preserved by Babylonian scribes and was consciously re-introduced in the reign of Mithradates II to
mark the emergence of a new Iranian dynasty in accordance with the predictions in the so-called
Dynastic Prophecy, cf. esp. pp. 4559; Shayegan does not discuss the use of the titles basilissa basiles
and basileus basiles by Kleopatra VII and Ptolemy XV.
76 Fowler 2005, 142 with n. 53.
77 Mithradates II also introduced a new type of tiara (Sellwood 1990, type 28), cf. Fowler 2005, 146 n.
66, noting that it is doubtless significant that, at the old Seleucid capital of Seleucia Tigris, the Seleucidstyle diadem is retained. On the nature of the Parthian Empire as a system of vassal states see R.
Fowler, King, bigger king, king of kings: Structuring power in the Parthian world, in: M. Facella and T.
Kaizer eds., Kingdoms and Principalities in the Roman Near East. Occidens et Oriens 19 (Stuttgart 2010)
78 For the title of King of Kings as used by Tigranes I and Mithradates VI see R.D. Sullivan, Near Eastern
Royalty and Rome, 100-30 BC (Toronto, Buffalo, London 1990) 44 and 61.
79 On Pharnakes title see Sullivan 1990, 156.
80 Strootman 2007, 286-8, cf. id. 2010; T. Schrapel, Das Reich der Kleopatra. Quellenkritische
Untersuchungen zu den "Landschenkungen" Mark Antons (Trier 1996),


At the beginning of this article reference was made to Antiochos I of

Kommagene and this not so very powerful dynasts peculiar assumption of the title of
Great King.81 We will now return to him to see that this claim was not that eccentric
at all. Antiochos took the title of Great King on the basis of ancestry. As a direct
matrilineal descendant of the disappeared imperial house (his mother was a
Seleukid), Antiochos of Kommagene and his successors could assert to have
legitimate claims to the imperial title. He did so presumably in the context of the fall
of the King of Kings, Tigranes the Great of Armenia. For all we know, Antiochos of
Kommagene may have hoped to revive the old empire by winning the support of cities
and other kings through his claim to be the new emperor. His inherited legitimacy is
emphasized at the great sanctuary on Nemrut Da, where the two platforms with
statues of the deified Antiochos and the gods are on both terraces flanked by
genealogical portrait galleries representing respectively Antiochos Seleukid and
Achaemenid ancestors; an accompanying cultic inscription calls him Antiochos the
Great King.82 Antiochos described his dual Macedonian-Persian descent as the
fortunate roots of my ancestry in the great inscription of Mount Nemrut (IGLS I No.
1, lines 2425; OGIS 383). The last king of Kommagene, Antiochos IV Epiphanes,
whose territory was extended to include Kappadokia and Kilikia by Caligula, still
styled himself basileus megas on his coins.
Why it was so important for later Hellenistic dynasties like those of Pontos and
Kommagene to claim Achaemenid descent in addition to their more firmly
established Seleukid ancestry must at present remain an open question; it may have
been the result of the fact that the latter could only be claimed through matrilineal
descent while the Achaemenid ancestry could be attached to the patriline.83 The equal
importance of the Seleukid and Achaemenid ancestor galleries at Mount Nemrut
attest to the significance of the Seleukid line, as does the example of Kleopatra VII,
who never claimed Achaemenid ancestry but styled herself Queen of Kings

For the Hellenistic history see M. Facella, La dinastia degli Orontidi nella Commagene ellenisticoromana. Studi ellenistici 16 (Pisa and Rome 2006) esp. 137198.
82 See above, n. 2.
83 No descendants of the Seleukid house in the patriline seem to have survived after c. 50. A priestess
of Artemis at Laodikeia by the Sea claimed descent from Seleukos I in the Second Century CE (CIG
4471), but there is no way to know via which branch of the family (O.D. Hoover at the Seleukids
discussion group at www.yahoogroups.com). Interestingly, the inscriptions on the bases of the
Ahnengalerie call Alexander Megas (but not the other Seleukids), as well as Antiochos father
Mithradates I Kallinikos (who had married a Seleukid princess and for whom Achaemenid ancestry
was claimed), and the Achaemenid kings, cf. Schipperheijn 2011, 102. On the importance of Seleukid
ancestry for Antiochos claim to universal kingship see my article The heroic company of my forebears:
The Seleukid and Achaemenid ancestor galleries of Antiochos I of Kommagene at Nemrut Da and the
role of royal women in the transmission of Hellenistic kingship, forthcoming in: A. Cokun and A.
McAuley eds., Seleucid Royal Women: Roles and Representation (Swansea and Oxford: The Classical
Press of Wales).


To be sure, new great kings not only sprung up in the Seleukid successor states
in the west. Eukratides, who created an empire in Baktria and India from ca. 170
to145, also took the title. The exact date and circumstances are unknown but it clearly
took place in the context of the disappearance of the Seleukids from Central Asia
following the death of Antiochos III.84 Later Greco-Baktrian rulers like the rather
insignificant ruler Thrason (c. 9680), and some Indo-Greek kings like Apollodotos II
and Hippostrates claimed the title of basileus megas as well; they perhaps did so in
response to newcomers in the Baktrian-Indian power struggles of the late Hellenistic
Age: the nomad kings Maues and Azes I, who had assumed the extravagant title of
basileus basilen megas.85 From the Kushan Empire in Baktria come a large number
of coins of a ruler who calls himself str megas, The Great Savior or The Savior, the
Great, who probably can be identified with Vima Taktu, the grandfather of the wellknown Kushan emperor Kanishka.86
Great King was more than just a traditional title that somehow survived through the
ages. It was the formal expression of a real instrument of power: universalistic
ideology. Universalism served the very practical purpose of giving coherence to
politically and culturally heterogeneous empires. Although connected with the
Middle East, the 4,000 years endurance of the titles Great King and King of Kings in
various languages shows that Great King and King of Kings were culturally a-specific
titles. These were labels designating a certain status, comparable to Huangdi, Khagan,
Augustus, Kaiser. Since the kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire had ingrained in the
Eastern cultures the notion that there could be only one universal king, who was also
obliged to actually try and conquer the world, the status of Great King in the Middle
East was transmitted by right of inheritance or usurped by right of victory. The
Seleukids used the title of basileus in much the same way that most Byzantine
dynasties did: as what we would now call emperor.
Sporadic employment of the titles Great King and Megas by the Seleukids, by
their descendants in the Iranian-speaking north-western stretches of the former
empire, and by the Parthians, ought not to be understood as primarily claims to be
the heirs of the Achaemenids. It rather was the other way round: claims to an
Achaemenid ancestryas were made by i.a. the late Hellenistic rulers of Pontos and
Kommagenewere used to reinforce already existing claims to universal rulership.

If Justin (38.10.5) is correct in saying that the Baktrians answered the call of Demetrios II to send
him troops for his campaign against the Parthians in Iran, Demetrios defeat and capture in 139 by the
Parthians provides a terminus post quem for Eukratides assumption of the imperial title, which may
then have been a reaction to the Parthian kings assumption of the title of Great King.
85 R. Bracey, Alexanders lost kingdom: From Diodotus to Strato III, in: D.T. Potts and H.P. Ray eds.,
Memory as History: The Legacy of Alexander in India (New Delhi 2007) 142156, esp. 149; cf. O.
Bopearachichi, Monnaies grco-bactriennes et indo-grecques et indo-grecques (Paris 1991).
86 R.N. Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia: From Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion (Princeton 1996)


The cases of Pontos and Kommagene show that this was done in addition to a more
legitimate claim to a Seleukid ancestry. In the case of Kleopatra VII there was no
reference to the Achaemenids at all: in her case a Seleukid ancestry sufficed to claim
the imperial title.