Paul Kosmin. The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014
It is quite common in the study of ancient Judaism to discuss the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism. Recent scholarship in the field of Hellenistic history has complicated this encounter in a variety of ways, particularly by presenting Hellenism as a less static and fixed model, and as a more local form of identity construction and bricolage. Despite this growing trend, when it comes to the role of the Seleucid Empire in the Maccabean revolt, there is still a regrettable tendency in the field of ancient Judaism to treat the Seleucids as generic advocates of Hellenism, rather than as dynasty with its own specific idioms of imperialism crafted for its territory.
Paul Kosmin’s The Land of the Elephant Kings is an invaluable corrective to this problem. In his book he attempts to understand the royal ideology of the Seleucid dynasty, examining how this vast empire was constituted and imagined by its rulers. In this reappraisal of Seleucid royal ideology, it joins important works that have reconceptualized the Seleucid Empire, such as Susan Sherwin-White and Amelie Kehrt’s From Samarkhand to Sardis and John Ma’s Antiochus III and the Cities of Western Asia Minor. Sherwin-White and Kehrt argued that we should place the Seleucid Empire in its Near Eastern context, thinking of it as a unified empire, rather than as constantly in the process of dissolution. Ma’s work has argued that the Seleucid ruler was actually quite interventionist in civic life, undercutting the portrait of the disinterested, passive ruler. Joining these broad reimaginings of Seleucid rule, The Land of the Elephant Kings examines the creation of Seleucid space in the lands that they ruled. Kosmin draws on scholarship on the construction of space, often associated with Henri LeFebvre, arguing that space is not a necessary unity, but something that is ideologically constructed, in this case by the power of the state. The imagination of space was one of the key ways through which the Seleucid Empire constructed and perpetuated itself.
The Seleucid kingdom was the largest of Alexander’s Hellenistic successor states. As such, its vastness prevented any pre-existing geographic or cultural unity. Kosmin therefore explores how the Seleucids constituted their empire as a territorial unity. Chapter 1 argues that the rulers Seleucus I and Antiochus I constructed their border with India as the border between two self-sustained and differentiated geographic spheres. Reconstructing in particular the fragmentary text of Megasthenes’ Indica (Seleucus I’s emissary to India), Kosmin argues that India was conceptualized as a peer kingdom, against which Seleucid space was constructed. Chapter 2 describes the construction of the northern boundary of Seleucid rule in Central Asia as the creation of an ideological boundary between civilization and nomadic barbarism. Lacking a peer kingdom, the Seleucids constituted their border against barbarism.
The third chapter focuses on the life of Seleucus I, the founder of the Seleucid Empire. After his defeat of Lysimachus at the battle of Corupedium in 281 BC, Seleucus I laid claim to rule over Macedon through an ideology of homecoming (nostos), claiming that his empire should stretch from India back to where it had begun. With Seleucus I’s assassination in Thrace by his ward Ptolemy Ceraunus, his successor Antiochus I renounced his claims to Macedon, and instead bounded Seleucid territory in the west at the water’s edge. The Seleucids maintained nominal control over Thracian territory, but never bothered to impose their power over this loose confederation of tribes. This same discussion of homeland continues in Chapter 4, where Kosmin argues that the Seleucids practiced a form of diasporic imperialism in that they renounced Macedonia as irrecoverable. They mapped their own homeland in northern Syria, naming and inscribing the topography of the landscape with the sites of Greece, Macedon, and site names that recalled the Seleucid dynasty.
Chapter 5 examines how the Seleucids demarcated space and how this aided the formation of Seleucid rule. Kosmin notes that official ascension to Seleucid kingship occurred as these rulers crossed the boundaries of the empire. Thus, Demetrius I escaped Rome and ascended to his kingship when he landed in Seleucid territory. Similarly, Kosmin argues that Seleucid space was to a certain extent fixed; special measures had to be undertaken to add new territories to Seleucid rule. Thus, he discusses an episode from the Roman-Seleucid War (192-188 BC), where Antiochus III is alleged to have tarried on Euboea, after having fallen in love with a local girl (and according to Livy, forfeited all his advantages through his indolence). Yet, Kosmin argues that the girl represented Euboea, who Antiochus III married as part of the process of incorporating Euboea into the Seleucid Empire. Chapter 6 examines how Seleucids moved in their empire, pointing to the importance of Seleucid royal circulation for the administration of the empire. Kosmin argues that arrivals and departures marked Seleucid claims over cities and that movement through rural space marked a claim to the traversed territory.
Chapter 7 examines the spatial pattern of Seleucid royal colonization. It argues that Seleucid rule shifted settlement to previously unoccupied regions such as northern Syria, created new civic populations and relations of dominance, and realized a new kind of Seleucid urbanism based on orthogonal grids with geometric uniformity. Chapter 8 traces some of the important ways that Seleucids colonies constructed non-Seleucid urban identities, through the creation of mythological origins for their cities and the demarcation of civic space into city space and royal space, which the cities ultimately came to ignore. The conclusion examines the role of Seleucid space in the unraveling of the Seleucid Empire.
Kosmin displays a mastery of the wide-ranging sources for the Seleucid Empire, including cuneiform chronicles, fragmentary Greek sources, civic epigraphy, and Seleucid archaeology. Particularly admirable is his reliance on the rather rare archaeological excavations of Seleucid sites, pointing to the distinctive plans of Seleucid cities on the one hand and fortresses on the other, and arguing that the Seleucids constructed similar spatial arrangements across the empire.
For readers who focus on ancient Judaism, ancient Christianity, and Biblical Studies, it may be a bit odd to see Kosmin’s constant use of I and II Maccabees as sources that bear witness to Seleucid conceptions of space. These are after all, essentially Jewish books. Yet, Kosmin shows that we can use descriptions by imperial subjects to better understand the empire, and the converse proposition holds as well: a better and more accurate account of Jews in the Hellenistic period will emerge from close engagement with the changing picture of the Seleucid empire. Through this process, we can move away from old models that imagine an encounter between Hellenism on the one hand and Judaism on the other and instead see how Hellenism, Judaism, and the relationship between them were actually in an almost constant state of negotiation and flux, and therefore enabling the reader to better appreciate the historical role and nature of Jews in the Seleucid Empire as a specific place and time.