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An Empire Builder: Seleukos Nikator

Alexander the Great has gone down as the wonder of the ancient world with his spectacular career and conquests but, John Grainger argues, a niche ought to be left for the junior general who carved out his own empire from the chaos that followed Alexander's death.

Two ancient empires, above all the rest, attract attention for their size, wealth and longevity: the Roman and the Persian. Each was huge, each lasted for centuries and each produced a long period of peace in which the inhabitants, after an even longer time of troubles, could flourish. In between these empires, there is another, less well known, but all the same vital connection between them. This was the empire put together by Seleukos, one of Alexander's generals, and called after him the Seleukid empire.

Alexander's spectacular career, conquering and fighting from Mace- don to India and back to Babylon, had been a disaster for everyone, even for himself. The only real beneficiaries had been his officers, who had gathered the riches of the Persian empire into their greedy hands. Even his own soldiers had had enough in the end. They went on strike in India in 326 BC to force Alexander to turn back, and in Babylonia, half way to Macedon, there was a near revolt which at last convinced him to dismiss them. Finally he let many of them go home, though few of them actually got there.

His officers, who had had more chance to gather loot, held greater expectations of the future. They were to be the lords of this new empire, and many of them had begun to act as independent lords while Alexander was out of sight. When he returned he conducted a savage purge, eliminating anyone who roused his suspicions. Then he died, aged only thirty- three, in June 323 BC. In less than a year his surviving generals were fighting each other. Egypt, under Ptolemy, was effectively independent of the rest of the empire within another year. Alexander's heirs, a baby and a half-wit, were soon brushed aside, and one man emerged as the claimant to the whole empire: Antigonos the One-Eyed.

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