New York, Tokyo, Paris, Rio de Janeiro. The list of the great metropolises of our age is as versatile in geography as it is long. But we should not think that metropolises are an invention of the modern age. Surely, their size and population cannot be compared to anything the world has seen, but great cities were the landmark of every civilization, since the dawn of time.

The epoch of Hellenism (IV-I century BC) saw the birth of some of the greatest cities of Antiquity. Antioch on the Orontes River was one of the most splendid of them, a true rival of Alexandria in Egypt. So how did this great city come to being? Was it possible that the vision of a single man and his will could create a whole new system of cities, move great masses of people, and redistribute wealth and resources?

The Urban World Of Hellenism

We need to take into account two main historical trends if we want to find the answers to these questions. The first of them is the evolution of the Hellenistic world after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The second – the new urbanization policy that his successors enforced in the Near and Middle East and on the Balkans.

In his influential and compelling book Alexander to Actium. The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age”[1] professor Peter Green describes the birth of this new world of conquerors, clerks, scientists and artists - a world that is enforced on the native population that seeks the seclusion of the province. And truly – it seems that the dynamics of the Hellenistic age was born precisely in these large cities, built by Alexander’s successors to shelter the large flow of settlers from the classical Greek world. Alexandria, Antioch on the Orontes, Seleucia thus came to life – the world of the conquerors, where the conquered had no place unless they adopt the Greek culture. But before I go on and concentrate on the story of Antioch, I must describe the events that defined the lives and world of two generations after Alexander’s death. These events were instrumental in the fate of Antioch itself.

From Triparadisus To Ipsus

Alexander’s startling campaign against the Persian Empire and his legendary conquest fundamentally changed the political and social structure of the ancient world in the large area between the Danube, the Black Sea, Italy and the Indus River. Alexander is often described as a force of nature – his rise to power and glory is so stunning and successful, the scale of his conquest – almost unimaginable to his contemporaries. So it was no surprise that his death in June 323 BC in Babylon sent raptures through his newfound empire.

And his generals were ambitious – Perdiccas, Antigonus the One-eyed, Ptolemy, Seleucus, Craterus – they had all taken part in numerous battles, risked their lives and had been wounded. Now they wanted their share of the loot. The prize was so massive, so close to grasp that a compromise was impossible. The lack of a strong heir to the throne who could consolidate the Macedonian power and use the endless resources at hand, makes the Wars of the Successors almost inevitable. The first victim of the bloodbath, surprisingly, was one of the best soldiers among them – Craterus, who died in a battle against Eumenes in 321 BC. Shortly after this Perdiccas – the strongest contender for the throne and one of Alexander’s closest friends – was killed by his own soldiers who refused to fight their brothers-in-arms, commanded by Ptolemy.[2]

The unexpected deaths of both Craterus and Perdiccas forced the other generals to find a peaceful solution. They met at Triparadisus (present-day Lebanon) in 321 BC. The mighty victors of Gaugamela, Issus and Tyre now agreed that the empire could not be held together. They shared the spoils as they saw fit, or rather – as the situation forced them to. Antipater, regent in Macedonia, and his son Cassander were too occupied in Greece and Macedonia to have any claim to the imperial crown. Lysimachus had too many problems in Thrace, at least in the first years of his reign there. Ptolemy was content with his position as Pharaoh of Egypt – he never wanted anything else. Eumenes, Alexander’s secretary surprised everyone with his military talents, but was finally defeated by Antigonus in Asia Minor and was finally killed in 316 BC. Seleucus, still a secondary cavalry commander and governor of Babylon had neither the authority nor the resources to lay claim to the throne.

The Hellenistic World After Alexander's Death

The only general who seriously gained from all these conflicts was Antigonus, “with a body, resembling a tower and a commanding voice who was worshipped by his soldiers”. The access to the treasuries of Susa, Ecbatana and most of all Babylon gave him endless resources. Even Ptolemy in Egypt could not match the financial might of Antoginus. In 314 BC the supreme general managed to remove Seleucus from Babylon, but this was the beginning of his downfall. The former governor barely escaped with his life, but managed to reach Egypt and warn Ptolemy of the overambitious plans of his former comrade. It is more than ironic that Ptolemy became a patron to Seleucus, as the two were the founders of ruling dynasties that bitterly fought against each other during the following century and a half.

But it was too early for that. Between 314-312 BC Antigonus looked so powerful and rich that the other Hellenistic rulers joined their forces against him. It is a classical example of an early balance of power. In 312 BC the son of Antigonus – Demetrius the Besieger, compared undeservedly by his court to Alexander himself - suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Ptolemy near Gaza. This in turn gave Seleucus a chance to reclaim Babylonia and the eastern provinces of the empire. Despite Antigonus’s desperate efforts and some heavy fighting in the period 311-308 BC, Seleucus managed to hold on, proving to everyone that he was now a major player on the chessboard, a general and politician of remarkable quality.

The next decade is full of bitter fighting among the former brothers-in-arms. Antigonus and Demetrius were always in the centre of the power struggle. In 302 BC they manage to score a major tactical success by utterly defeating Cassander – governor of Macedonia. Antipater’s son had a tough choice to make – an utter capitulation or flight to Lysimachus in Thrace. He chose the second option. Alarmed by this turn of events Lysimachus, Ptolemy and Seleucus united once again for a final showdown. The battle of Ipsus was the most decisive clash since the epic encounter at Gaugamela thirty years earlier. It was Seleucus who decided the battle. His armored elephants wrecked havoc among the unbreakable phalanx and completely wiped out Antigonus infantry. Demetrius did lead a successful cavalry charge, but his way back to the centre was blocked by 300 of Seleucus elephants. This gave his allies the chance to encircle and destroy the remnants of Antigonus forces. The great general was killed himself. The last chances for a unified Hellenistic empire died at Ipsus.

The Spoils Of Ipsus And The Foundation Of The Seleucid Quadrant

Lysimachus and Seleucus were the two main victors of this great conflict, because Ptolemy was not present at the battlefield. Besides, his geographic position did not give him much chance to capitalize on the success of his allies.Seleucus I Nicator

Seleucus not only cemented his rule in the eastern provinces, where he was now unchallenged. He also took control of Eastern Asia Minor and most importantly – Syria. The conquest of Syria would become the main reason for the bitter antagonism between Seleucids and Ptolemies in the years to come. But after Ipsus Seleucus who now called himself The Victor (Nicator) was too strong to oppose. But still he thought Babylon and not Syria to be the centre of his empire. His decision had personal motives as well – he had spent his best years in the great ancient metropolis, his beloved Bactrian wife Apama resided there, he preferred the lavish comfort of this imperial capital. Still, he realized the importance of Syria all too well.

The common practice of the Hellenistic rulers when they wanted to merge a new-conquered territory was to colonize it – to build new city centres and settle Greek-speaking inhabitants from the islands, Greece proper or Macedonia. In the case of Syria, the Seleucids had a peculiar challenge to overcome – the region was famous for its ancient trade ports – Damascus, Sidon and Tyre. So in order to make the new cities vivid and competitive to the old metropolises, Seleucus had to undertake a building program of unprecedented scale. He decided to build not one or two, but four large cities – Seleucia-Pieria and Laodicea on the Mediterranean coast; Antioch and Apamea on the Orontes River. The original idea of the conquering general probably envisaged Seleucia as the leading point of this square – the main reason he named the city after himself.[3] But soon the port was overshadowed by Antioch and it served the needs of the rising imperial capital. To make Seleucus plan even more impressive and far-reaching, near Apamea he began building a large farm for war elephants. Thus the four cities, located under 60 miles apart from each other, formed a huge urban agglomeration that present-day historians call “The Seleucid Quadrant”. When the Quadrant flourished, it must have had a population of over half a million people – something unseen in the ancient world. In a way the vision of the early Seleucids was so beyond its time, it resembles features of the industrial age. The province was solely oriented to providing the urban centres with all they needed – food, textiles, timber. The Seleucids wanted to create an urban world from the start – trade was in the focus of their economic program, not agriculture.

A swift glance over the map of the Near East easily confirms the commanding strategic position of the Quadrant. From the North it closes all the important old routes to the trading ports of the Levant and Egypt. At the same time any conqueror who would try to invade Babylonia from Asia Minor would expose his southern flank and would leave a strong position in the rear. The havens of the coast presuppose the building of large ports while the Orontes River enables swift communication inlands. And to make things even better, the region was naturally rich, with fertile soil, good climatic conditions and abundance of fresh water supplies – all the conditions for the urban policy to succeed were present.

Still, Seleucus never considered the Quadrant to be the centre of his empire. His son Antiochus though preferred Syria to Babylon and slowly but steadily the focus of the empire moved westwards. Usually the new cities were given extensive self-governing rights. The cities in the Quadrant however were different in nature – they were too important for the central government and their rulers were chosen among the closest circle of the King, often within the royal family.

The cities however possessed all the traditional practices and institutions of democratic polis government. This duplicity in the Seleucid policy is easily explainable – they wanted to create the image of liberal and just rulers and at the same time attract colonists from the Greek world. This kind of urbanization policy became the model in the Hellenistic world.

Antioch - Architecture, Topography, Strategic Position And Problems Of Defense

Antigonus’ death meant also the end of all his ambitious plans. Well, at least most of them. The general had begun building his capital in the very heart of his domains. Seleucus immediately grasped the advantages of the location. It was a matter of pride and political face however to start anew. He chose a spot in the foot of mount Sulpius, on the left bank of the Orontes, less than six miles away from the site Antigonus had picked. He chose to name the new city after his father.

The location of the city is more than advantageous, in the coastal valley that links Asia Minor and Palestine, on the most important trading route of the Orient. The place had its deficiencies though. The small mount Sulpius, overlooking the city, offered an easy position for any attacking army from the east. On top of that torrential winter rains often caused horrible downslides – another challenge for the engineers planning the city. Seleucus was well aware of these weaknesses, but the advantages were too many. The high plain of Daphne, some six miles away from the city gave refuge from the summer heat as well as abundant fresh water supplies for the future capital. The land in the surroundings was fertile – the locals grew olives, wheat, vegetables and lavish vineyards. The region was also famous for its first-class timber, much sought in Antiquity for ship-building.

But any new city during this age needed a special local mythology to attract settlers from Greece. Antioch was no different. According to legend, the nymph Io died close by, and the sons of Hercules built a city at the same place. One of the most famous 4th century AD orators Libanius, a citizen of Antioch, retells the local legend for the birth of the city. Seleucus sacrificed a bull at the beginning of the construction, but then an eagle picked a piece of meat and dropped it at the place where Antioch was founded. The victor of Ipsus himself started the legend that during his campaign in the region Alexander camped here and particularly liked the springs of Daphne. This was a well-thought propaganda – Alexander already had an almost divine status and everything related to him attracted interest and zeal.

The construction itself began in 300 BC and according to a much later source, the Byzantine historian John Malalas - also a resident of Antioch, the first settlers were the 5300 Athenians and Macedonian veterans, moved from the now abandoned Antigonea. Seleucus decided on the traditional Hippodamian grid system, but engineers also paid special attention to the climatic conditions and took advantage of the fresh summer winds, blowing from the sea. The main citadel of the city was built on mount Sulpius, while the agora – the main square – laid in its footsteps. Antiochus I built a new section of the city across the river, designated for the local population that was streaming in the flourishing capital. Seleucus II Callinicus (246-225 BC) began the building of another heavily fortified section of the city, on an island in the middle of the Orontes.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC) built the last section of the now huge capital and named it after himself. Thus the city received the nickname Tetrapolis – “4 cities”. It extended on no less than 20 square miles and the four sections of the city were separated by lavish spacious public gardens.

As most of the other Hellenistic metropolises, the population of Antioch was diverse. The Greek and Macedonian settlers soon blended in with the locals. According to archaeological data the city’s population already exceeded 22 000 during Antiochus I’s reign. During the II century BC a large and powerful Jewish community settled in the imperial capital. At the time of the fall of the Seleucid Empire (64 BC), Antioch had a population of over half a million people and was twice as big as Rome at the same time!

Antioch During The Roman Age

Antiochus I, who ascended to the throne in 281 BC soon chose Antioch as his capital, as he thought Seleucia on the Tigris was more difficult to defend. But he was proven wrong. In 246 BC the Ptolemaic army conquered the city and managed to hold it for over three years. Even worse, the Egyptian armies held Seleucia-Pieria until 219 BC, so the capital was cut off from the sea for over quarter of a century. Despite all these shortcomings the city continued to grow and flourish and turned into the crown jewel of the Seleucid Empire – a fake symbol of strength long lost.

Antioch, as many other Hellenistic cities had some of the traditional features of a Greek polis – the city council and parliament as well as the educational system. The Seleucids were successful in upholding the illusion of civic liberty, which explains the lack of multiple local riots. During the late Hellenism, when the empire became more and more centralized, the Kings did not see any reason to continue the spectacle and abolished the civil councils, but this did not disrupt the life of the capital at all. The petty political rivalries and bloodsheds of the Classical Age had no place in the large Hellenistic polis.

Economic And Cultural Importance Of Antioch

At the beginning of the construction of Antioch Seleucus I ordered his sculptures to create statues of the protectors of his family – Apollo and Zeus. But another large statue was carved atop the mount Sulpius by the one of the greatest sculptors of the age – Eutychides of Sycion. At first the statue of Tyche – the goddess of good fortune – symbolized onTyche Of Antiochly the luck and prosperity of the city. But as time passed by it turned into a symbol of the Seleucid capital, recognizable all around the Hellenistic world.[1] In the earlier epochs of Greek history and philosophy Fate was considered a malicious force of the Gods, an instrument to punish extreme pride and hubris. But during the Hellenistic age this concept changed dramatically – it was a time of social optimism and Fate soon became synonym of luck, success and prosperity. With an ear of wheat in her hand and a foot over the allegorized Orontes, Tyche favorably pours the horn of plenty over the city under her protection.

Despite all the riches of the great empire, Antioch failed to become one of the cultural centres of the Hellenistic age and fell much behind its rivals Alexandria and Pergamum. The Seleucids did possess great financial resources (though not as much as their Egyptian rivals), but they simply did not have the stomach for art and philosophy, with few remarkable exceptions. Antioch could never boast with a Library or Museum, remotely equal to those in Egypt.

When it comes to trade though, things were completely different. As I have already mentioned Antioch lied on the main trading route of the Orient and transit taxes were a main source of income for the imperial government.[4] The capital never suffered from food shortages and is much closer in this regard to Alexandria than other great ancient cities like Rome or Athens. The port of Seleucia gave its rules an open portal to the vast Mediterranean sea trade – especially during the II century BC Antioch could rival even the Queen of the Sea – Alexandria on the Nile. Even after the Roman conquest the city remained one of the main trading centres of the East which further proves the strong foundations it was built upon.


The birth and rise of Antioch was the result of two interrelated trends – the creation of powerful Hellenistic empires and the vast urbanization policies that the new dynasties enforced. In that regard the Seleucids had no rival – the creation of their Quadrant in Syria has no parallel in ancient history. But of all their projects by far the most successful was Antioch on the Orontes – their splendid capital, the natural heart of the vast eastern empire. Antioch was truly one of the most magnificent metropolises of Hellenism and it fully incorporated in its fate all the processes that characterize the age of its birth.

Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age
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The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 7, Part 1: The Hellenistic World
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