TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 October 2013
As the author acknowledges in his own words, this book "is designed as a narrative overview of the king (Antiochus III) and his times, aimed at the widest possible audience." In this, Michael Taylor has been hugely successful and has fully achieved his objective. With 160 pages of text, and 200 pages all told, preface, maps, bibliography and index included, this is a concise little book, written in a clear style, and very accessible. Moreover, it makes all the key points. It presents and discusses the whole career of the Seleucid king and the game-changing events in which he played a key role and still manages, despite its size, to provide the reader with a decent overview of the Seleucid Empire, its institutions, its history and its weak points.
The most remarkable feature of this book, and what makes it so successful in my view, is the author's ability to draw the main points from the main references on each subject and wield them together into a coherent narrative while never giving the impression of paraphrasing. This is also fully acknowledged by the author when stating that his endnotes are intended to guide those looking for further reading and to recognize that "the heavy lifting has been done by other scholars." The book's contents and structure certainly confirms this display of modesty and honesty.
Another remarkable feat is to show both the qualities and the limits of the Seleucid King and his achievements. He was a competent politician and general, rather than a genius. His main weakness seems to have been a rasher rash and reckless streak directly in line with Alexander the Great's heritage that stems from his "heroic leadership". Not only did he put himself at personal risk by leading from the front, as his Macedonian predecessor did so often, but he also sometimes "lost it" and got carried away, both in battle and politically. His cavalry charges were pressed too fat and for too long at Raphia against the Ptolemies, and at Magnesia, against the Romans. In both cases, what could have been a victory ended in disaster. Politically, the BC 192-191 invasion of Greece seems to have been somewhat improvised and ill-conceived, with the King landing with too few troops and having somehow stacked everything on the somewhat delusional impression that he would be welcomed as a liberator. His main quality, however, seems to have been his sheer determination and drive. As the author shows, the King could be quite ruthless (and he certainly needed to be so at times). He spent about thirty years of his long reign on campaigns and most of these, with the exception of the one mentioned above, seem to have been carefully planned and prepared.
A third interesting feature is the glimpses that the book gives on what it meant to run the huge and far-flung Seleucid Empire. One well-made point is to show the connections between Seleucid rule and the Persian Empire heritage. Another is to show the King, while an absolute monarch, had to rule through a mix of military power and financial support through gifts to his entourage at Court (his "friends") and to the Empire's cities, whose expansion was therefore favoured, with the display of both being key ingredients of his legitimacy. Yet another feature was the sheer size of the Empire, which in itself made it a huge challenge to govern the Empire. One recipe was to trust kinsmen and appoint them as quasi viceroys, but this did not always work. Another alternative, first experienced by Seleukos I, the founder of the dynasty, was to associate the heir to the throne to the government of the Empire early one. In addition to smoothing the succession, this would allow the younger monarch to "learn the ropes" from the "old pair of hands" while also in effect allowing one to concentrate on the eastern provinces while the other focused on the western ones.
Two more points which I found particularly interesting and well-made, although there are others as well, is the author's lucid, clear and concise analysis of the sources and his assessment (even if borrowed from other scholars) of Antiochus' Anabasis - his multi-year expedition to the east in which he restored Seleucid supremacy over the Empire's eastern territories. Partly under the influence of some of the ancient sources, many historians have deemed that the expedition had little to show for it, apart from "showing the flag" and some short-term gains. This is because Antiochus left the Kings of Armenia, Parthia (or rather what would become Parthia over the next few decades) and Bactria in place and did not bring their territories under direct Seleucid control. As the author shows very well, the latter may have been unrealistic and was not necessary, as long as the kings acknowledged their vassal status, contributed their contingents to the Seleucid army when called upon, and paid tribute. The point made here is that control of the peripheral provinces was best assured in the same ways as under the Persian Kings of Kings through semi-autonomous local "dynasts", even if, now and again, these had to be "brought back in line" and thought, somewhat violently, "how to behave".
One final strong point of this book, and one of the most important one, is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we nowadays tend to see the rise of Rome as inexorable and inevitable. The book shows that this was not so and that the Romans, for all their victories, were not necessarily assured to win against the King, contrary to what an author like Polybius may insinuate. The Romans were not over-confident either, and the help that they received from their allies - the Rhodians and the King of Pergamum in particular - was significant. As the book shows, the fact that the Romans concentrated a significant army that heavily outnumbered the meagre forces of Antiochus III in Greece is one illustration among others.
There are, however, a few minor glitches and quibbles as well, but only a few. One, quite frequent in Pen & Sword publications, is a number of avoidable typos (such as Cyrtian "singlers", instead of slingers. Another is perhaps a little weakness in the section narrating Antiochus' expedition to Greece and the reasons for fighting the battle of Thermopylae, despite being outnumbered. The Kings reasons for fighting the battle under somewhat unfavourable conditions are somewhat unclear and not explained. Finally, I had a little grip with the author, since I do not believe that the last stand that took place during the first battle of Thermopylae was "foolish gallantry". There were in fact a couple of rather sound military and political reasons for the Spartan battle King to make his last stand, quite apart from heroics and leaving aside all warrior ethos, although this goes beyond the scope of this book.
Given all this, this book is easily worth five stars for me and I wish that most (if not all) Pen and Sword books were as good as this one. For those wanting to learn more on the Seleucids, I can recommend the following, from which Michael Taylor has borrowed:
- The Seleucid Army, by Bar Kochva (1976) which is both essential and unrivalled on this topic. In particular, the book shows to what extent Antiochus almost won at Magnesia against the Romans
- The Seleucid Royal Economy (G. Aperghis, 2004), on the financial aspects of governing the Empire
- A range of John Grainger's books on both major events (the Syrian Wars, the Roman War of Antiochus the Great), on the Empire's cities (in particular his "Seleukid cities in Syria") and a biographer of the dynasty's founder and his times (Seleukos Nicator: Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom)
- John Ma's book on "Antiochus III and the cities of Western Asia Minor", which shows the complex relationships between the two.