TOP 100 REVIEWERon 5 November 2013
This book from John Grainger is both original, at least in its presentation, and remarkable because of the topic that it covers.
Presented as the rise of a new order over a period of slightly more than a decade (150-140 BC) it goes beyond that. Rather than concentrating on a single area, it analyses events that were happening almost simultaneously within this period (and before) across the whole of the Mediterranean and the East, up to the limits of Alexander's and the Old Persian Empire. The purpose is to show how these events were interconnected, had knock-on effects, and resulted in the decline and fall of the Seleucid Empire and the emergence of Rome and Parthia.
While the approach is somewhat original, it also has risks which the author may not have entirely avoided. Rather than a continuous narrative, I had at times the impression of reading a collection of fascinating vignettes, sometimes loosely connected and where the connection appeared sometimes to be established as a bit of an afterthought. Some connections are much looser than others, with the most flimsy being perhaps the sack of Pataliputra, the capital of the ex-Mauryan Empire, by forces led by a Bactrian-Greek king named Menander who had moved to northern India and happened to be a Buddhist. This is almost all we know about this event in particular. We do not know much more about the Bactrian Greek Kingdoms themselves, although Grainger does a rather good job in presenting our limited knowledge in a clear and concise way.
Accordingly, the book's title is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. Rather than being about Rome, Parthia and India, it is about the two former and their rise from the West and the East, and about the demise of the Seleucid Empire. This started with the breakaway and loss of their more far-flung provinces: Bactria, Asia Minor and then Parthia.
As the author shows rather well, even after its (more narrow than commonly admitted) defeat in battle against the Romans, the Seleucid Empire very much remained the major superpower in the East.
This was especially the case since in BC 200 and for the next fifty years or so, Rome was very reluctant to occupy subjected territory and conquered states. Parthia, still a vassal state of the Empire thanks to Antiochos' expeditions in the East, was not a major threat. What the author shows in fact is that the Seleucid Empire almost self-destructed, with vicious bouts of civil wars pitting rival candidates for the throne against each other. He also shows how others, starting with the Parthians, but also the Maccabean Jews and Ptolemy VI of Egypt, took advantage of these wars and, in the two latter cases, interfered and took sides in their own interest.
It is then, as he shows, that the Empire lost first the so-called Upper Satrapies - the Iranian plateau which provided most of the King's best cavalry - followed by Babylon and Mesopotamia, the richest province by far, the Empire's bread basket and one of its heartlands (the other being Syria).
This book turned out to be a rather fascinating piece of little-known history. I do have one regret however: as is often the case, the author seems to have lacked space and to have at times limited himself to cursory explanations. In some cases, little or no explanation at all is provided. This is for instance the case for Ptolemy VI and Antiochus VII Sidetes (and his brother Demetrios II to a lesser extent), presented as capable rulers and soldiers, but who failed.
Four stars for a book that is, in a way, the continuation of the recent and excellent biography of Antiochus III published in the same collection. It is clearly written by someone who knons his topic and is currently preparing a three-tome history of the Seleucids (which is badly needed since previous efforts are either twenty years old or almost eighty years old, not necessarily in English, out of print and hard to find and terribly expensive) and for whom this Empire constitutes a main area of interest.