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Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides / Stefan Pfeiffer (eds.): Culture and Ideology under the Seleukids. Unframing a Dynasty, Berlin: De Gruyter 2022, XII + 360 S., 49 Farb-, 5 s/w-Abb., eine Tbl., ISBN 978-3-11-075557-2, EUR 113,95
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Rezension von:
Gillian Ramsey
Campion College at the University of Regina, Regina, CA
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Gillian Ramsey: Rezension von: Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides / Stefan Pfeiffer (eds.): Culture and Ideology under the Seleukids. Unframing a Dynasty, Berlin: De Gruyter 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 6 [15.06.2023], URL:

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Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides / Stefan Pfeiffer (eds.): Culture and Ideology under the Seleukids

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Culture and Ideology under the Seleukids emerges from the scholarly dialogue initiated during a three-day conference of the same name held in 2019 at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The conference's subtitle, An Interdisciplinary Approach, reflects the original desire to bring together Assyriologists and scholars of the Ancient Near East with Classicists - the two, often mutually exclusive, groups of Seleukid researchers. This blend of intellectual traditions is indeed evident in the volume's contents.

The volume's new subtitle Unframing a Dynasty shows a shift in the ambitions of the project toward forming new paradigms for analyzing the Seleukid political and cultural domain. As the editors put it in their introduction, they aspire to "(re-)appraisal of the cultural dynamics under the Seleukid regime" (1).

One key impression upon the reader is the sheer diversity of cultural entanglements and receptions at work within and on the fringes of the Seleukid sphere. The notion that the Seleukids operated in and fostered a heterogeneous political culture is not new. It can give the impression that they fused a great many different ethnographic elements into a kind of chimaeric ideology.

This volume presents a dynasty which is still illusory (e.g. Brüggemann's chapter 'Mehr als Schall und Rauch?'). The dynamic, however, is different. Rather than scholars attempting to define a singular Seleukid ideology composed from Macedonian, Greek, Achaemenid, Iranian, and other political traditions, here we have Seleukids being all things to all peoples. At the core lies a singular desire to hold on to power, and at the edges are multitudinous forms of cultural engagement, creating a rich tapestry of creative politics.

There are sixteen chapters divided into four sections, entitled 'Representations and Perceptions: Ideology and the Beginnings of a Monarchy', 'Political Culture: A Contested Monarchy', 'Local Ideology: The Babylonian Tradition and Greek Culture', and 'Cultural Interdependencies: Empires and Ideologies in Dialogue'.

With these sorts of multi-authored thematic endeavours there is always a danger that the conference organizers and editors set out a singularly focussed methodological aim but the individual contributors simply carry on with whatever their own research project happens to be, only superficially paying regard to the organizing ethos. The result can be a patchwork of disparate contributions which do not synergize. Happily, this volume does achieve a productive dialogue between its chapters which draws the reader into new views of the Seleukid kingdom.

A strength of the volume is how many of its chapters address the same specific personages and non-literary items of ancient evidence. This revisiting from different perspectives, particularly for the ancient material sources, creates a valuable sense of cohesion.

There are a few specific individuals, both historical and mythical whose stories and careers feature repeatedly across different chapters. As the founder of the Seleukid kingdom of the volume's title, Seleukos I is prominent, along with analyses of his history, kingship, and policies (McAuley, Dumke, Trundle and de Lisle, Ogden, Olszewski, Hunter, Brüggemann). From elsewhere the Seleukid family two figures stand out: Antiochos I (McAuley, Wenghofer, Mehl, Hunter), and Antiochos III (Coşkun, Mehl, Michel and Widmer, Hunter, Pfeiffer). On the mythical side, Herakles makes a few appearances in different discussions (Ogden, Anagnostou-Laoutides).

Several authors analyze the same items of ancient evidence, apart from common literary passages: the mosaic of Apameia depicting the foundation sacrifice at Antioch (Ogden, Olszewski), the gold octodrachm of Ptolemy II featuring the jugate busts of himself and Arsinoe II and Ptolemy I and Berenike I (Dumke, Hunter), Seleukid silver coin issues bearing distinctive obverse iconography such as Apollo seated on the omphalos (Dumke, Trundle and de Lisle, McKechnie, Hunter), the Antiochos I Bosippa cylinder inscription (McAuley, Mehl, Anaganostou-Laoutides, Pfeiffer, Brüggemann), and the Menippos dedication at Delos (Pfeiffer, Brüggemann).

In a more general way, the variety of archaeological, numismatic, epigraphic, and art historical evidence used here, along with a plethora of literary passages, greatly enhances the interdisciplinary nature of the volume.

Regarding the chapter topics and the various ways the authors choose to pursue their analyses, there are several themes which emerge across the volume. These include, in no specific order: Ptolemaic comparisons, relations to Alexander the Great, the reception of Seleukid ideology outside the kingdom, entanglements with earlier Near East empires, revisiting questions about the structuring of Seleukid royal power, and Seleukid iconography. Akin to the repetition of certain sources of evidence, many of the individual chapters touch upon several of these themes in different ways, making the volume more than the sum of its parts.

One result of the aim to reassess Seleukid ideology is the revisiting of topics and questions which have featured, often heavily, in earlier scholarship. The nature of Seleukid succession strategies, the death of Seleukos I, occurrences of regional rebellions, questioning Antiochos III's attributions as "Great", and so forth are all well-trodden areas which appear here. The advantage for these new investigations is the interdisciplinary nature of the volume, giving multiple angles of analysis. The result is not a new scholarly consensus but simply to open up established history to fresh vantage points.

Some real high points of the volume are the discussions of material which relate to the often-asked questions but work with evidence rarely addressed. Olszewski works on the mosaics of Apamea and their relationship to both the early formation and the long-lasting remembrance of Seleukid dynastic identity. Michel and Widmer discuss the deep historic meanings and cultures of royal insignia behind Antiochos III's use of Nebuchadnezzar's robe in 187 BCE. Beaulieu examines how accounts of Antiochos IV's death map onto much older narratives about the horrific illnesses of kings who have wronged their people. Hunter presents examples of Seleukid iconography co-opted by other regimes and what these borrowing processes say about Seleukid ideologies at certain points in time. Mairs considers the impact of Seleukid culture on Bactrian royal practices.

A final question lingering with this reviewer concerns agency: who, exactly, was responsible for these numerous and diverse expressions of culture, leadership, and political identity? Even though many of the authors attribute the choices and policies to the Seleukid kings themselves, it is hard to imagine that they had the background knowledge, cleverness, and sense of nuance required to achieve on their own what this volume describes. Surely there must have been many more royal agents and advisors, artists and muses who inspired and directed matters. And that broadening of the picture is one type of unframing the Seleukids which this volume might instigate for us.

Gillian Ramsey