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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.
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on 24 December 2013
Rome, Parthia & India: The Violent Emergence of a New World Order, 150-140 BC, John D Grainger, Pen & Sword, 2013, 210pp (+xiv)

This is an excellent narrative account of the turmoil in the Hellenistic world between 150 and 140 BC, looking at interrelated events reaching from Spain to India. The author is a noted historian, specialising in the later Hellenistic period, and has written many original and readable histories thereof – see ‘Further Reading’ below.

This book looks at a relatively ‘busy’ period in the Hellenistic world, which stretches, as the Author notes in his opening chapter, from Spain to India, and anyone who spoke Greek could communicate with most people across that region, thanks to the penetration of Greek colonists and culture since Alexander’s campaigns. This is a period relatively unexplored by historians, as there are no Great Captains, few famous battles, and the political leaders are, with a few exceptions, mainly obscure. I would note here that the Author, in one of his earlier introductions, has had a rant at publishers (and writers) who insist on publishing ‘yet another’ biography of Roman emperors who achieved nothing other than have good sources for their reigns, making them easy to write about, and therefore popular with readers because so many people wrote about them – historical celebrities, in fact; famous for being famous. This Author has chosen the narrow, narrow road, “so thick beset with thorns and briars”, and has worked to master the sources for the Hellenistic world, which allows him to paint a picture of the relative interconnectedness of events in the decade studied here.

The book looks at the expansion of Rome into Greece and Macedon, which it had tried to avoid for many years; while simultaneously fighting a long war in Spain and the final war with Carthage. There is a power vacuum in Greece due to the great powers of the eastern Mediterranean being caught up in the collapse of the Seleukid empire. Egypt actually withdraws from naval bases in the Greek islands to avoid being the only major power adjacent to the expanded Roman world. The civil wars of the Seleukids meant that the Parthians were able to expand into former Seleukid territory; there was no one to prop up the Baktrian kingdom against nomad invasions, and Greek states in India were in turn unsupported from the west. Egypt, as well as having its own internal problems meddled with Seleukid affairs, but was unable to achieve any lasting success, and Hellenistic rulers, though not culture, basically disappeared from east of Syria.

I found this a fascinating and readable book about a fascinating period of ancient history. Although there are no Great Captains, there are many lesser characters that deserve to be better known. Military aspects are discussed fully and as clearly as the sources allow. Polybius himself is a participant in some of the events, there are a couple of Scipios about, and any number of Ptolemies and Maccabees.

The Contents are –
P001: The World in 150 BC
P013: The Syrian Crisis
P025: Andriskos in Macedon
P037: Rome’s Problems
P051: Baktrian Problems
P064: The Sack of Pataliputra
P077: The Dynastic War in Syria, 148-145
P088: The Destruction of Carthage
P099: The Sack of Corinth
P114: Roman Decisions
P128: Parthia
P141: The Burning of Antioch
P157: Fragmentation
P170: The Kingdom’s Last Chance
P183: The World in 140 BC
P187: Notes and References
P198: Appendix
P199: Bibliography
P202: Index

The Wars of the Maccabees
The Cities of Seleukid Syria
The Syrian Wars (Mnemosyne, Supplements)
The League of Aitolians (Mnemosyne, Supplements)
The Roman War of Antiochos the Great (Mnemosyne, Supplements)
Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire (Hambledon Continuum)
Hellenistic and Roman Naval Warfare 336BC - 31BC
Hellenistic Phoenicia
Seleukos Nikator: Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom
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