Iranians in the Hellenistic World (Fourth to Second Century BCE)

Dr. Rolf Strootman is currently working on this project, which is connected to his other projects Royal Roads: The First World Empires and the Creation of the Silk Road, 550–150 BCE and The Achaemenid Aegean (Fifth to Fourth Century BCE).

This research project focuses on Iranian elites during the Hellenistic period. It aims to reassess the place of Iranians within the fabric of Macedonian imperial hegemony, from the rise of Argead Macedon in the later fourth century to the collapse of the Seleukid Empire as a world power after 150 BCE. The basic idea is this: after Alexander the Great defeated the Achaemenids, Iran and the Near East were ruled by Macedonian dynasties; but in the later Hellenistic period, Iranian dynasties reestablished themselves. These dynasties however—the Arsakids of Parthia, Fratarakā of Persis, Mithradatids of Pontos, Orontids of Kommagene, and others—used an idiom of monarchical representation that was profoundly different from that used previously by the Persian Achaemenids. So what happened during the period in between?

This question follows from the rethinking in this researcher’s earlier work of the Seleukid Empire as being basically a negotiated enterprise, and a dynamic network of personal relations converging at the (mobile) imperial court. By moving away from the conventional conceptualization of the empire as a bounded, territorial state a more dynamic model of interactions between various interest groups is feasible to explain cultural exchange and change in the Hellenistic World—a model in which imperial-local interactions are neither top-down nor bottom-up, but entangled.

Working from this new perspective on empire, which is part of a broader ‘Imperial Turn’ in the study of world history, the research considers the place of Iranians within the Macedonian empires of the later Argeads and the Seleukids. Alexander the Great famously co-opted Persian nobles and initiated a policy of intermarriage between the Macedonian nobility and leading Iranian families. Alexander’s ‘Iranian policy’ is considered a failure in conventional scholarship. But the Seleukids successfully continued this policy. It is now more accepted that Iranians were pivotal to Macedonian rule and military power in the East, while new studies on the Hellenistic ‘East’ have shown that Iran and Central Asia were much longer and stronger integrated into the Seleukid fabric of empire than previously thought. Like Alexander, the Seleukids too used huge numbers of Iranian cavalry for their campaigns. The military significance of Iranian troops, as well as ongoing intermarriage with Iranian dynasties, suggest a strong presence of Iranian nobles at the Seleukid court. The growing importance of Iranians in the Seleukid Empire eventually led to what may be termed ‘the Persianization of Hellenistic Iran’, that is: the emergence of Iranicate royal idiom among local rulers in the context of the gradual ‘vassalization’ and finally disintegration of the Seleukid Empire.

The research specifically focuses on the agency of the Seleukid imperial court—the mobile contact zone where local elites met and interacted—in the evolution of Middle Iranian dynastic identities. That such agency existed, is evident from the ‘globalized’ nature of these developments and the preference for models from the fourth-century Aegean, viz., the cultural area where Hellenistic kingship originated. A more difficult question, yet to be addressed in both Hellenistic and Iranian scholarship, is how the imperial dynasty itself was affected by intermarriage and generations-long dealings with Iranian troops in their armies. Did the Seleukids eventually become ‘Iranian’ or did they choose to remain ‘Greek’, an if so, why? And can it be really assumed that the imagery used in Seleukid monarchical representation was also thought of by contemporaries as ‘Greek’, and foreign, as we are now wont to do? Or have modern categories of national identity been projected retrospectively on past visual styles?