Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire


by Paul J. Kosmin

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 278. Illus., maps, gloss., appends, notes, biblio., index. $22.95 paper. ISBN: 9780674986886

How to Run an Empire in the Hellenistic Age

First published in 2014, and now available in paperback, this study by Prof. Kosmin (Harvard) takes a look at the Seleucid Kingdom, which came closest to reviving Alexander’s empire. Ptolemaic Egypt aside, the Seleucids managed to run the longest surviving of the “Successor” states that arose out of the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. In a number of ways the Seleucid empire bears some interesting parallels with that of Austrian Habsburgs, both rather ramshackle entity lacking ethnic, geographic, religious, cultural, or any other form of unity beyond the crown, yet one that endured for more than two centuries (312-64 BC).

Kosmin divides his treatment into four parts, each of two chapters, which explore different aspects of the policies and strategies employed by the Seleucid monarchs to keep their state intact and sustain their power.

The first part covers Seleucid interactions with Central Asia and India. These relationships were vital to their success, because for much of their reign the Seleucids monopolized trade between the Mediterranean world and China and India, the latter in particular of importance because it supplied elephants which were an increasingly important factor in warfare during the Hellenistic period.

The second part covers the Seleucid “core” areas. Ideologically this included Macedon, though they never actually ruled there, and found their base in Syria and, for a time, Asia Minor.

Part three deals with the internal workings of the empire, both in its government and commerce, and the final part looks a the impressive Seleucid efforts at city-building, which proved an important factor in of strengthening their power.

Although The Land of the Elephant Kings is primarily for the specialist in the Hellenistic Era, the more serious arm chair historian of the period will find this an interesting read.


Note: The Land of the Elephant Kings is also available in hard cover and several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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