Paul J. Kosmin. The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. xv + 423 pp. $52.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-72882-0.
Reviewed by Christian Djurslev (University of Exeter)
Published on H-War (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Although The Land of the Elephant Kings begins with stories about three elephants (more precisely, fifty-three of them) described in three different types of sources, the monograph by Paul J. Kosmin is devoted to the greatest metaphorical “elephant” of antiquity, namely, the Seleucid Empire (312-64 BCE). It is concerned with the conceptions of space and ideologies of power in this empire that began with the capture of Babylon by Seleucus I and came to an end with the Roman conquest of Syria by Pompey the Great. It addresses not only how the Seleucids articulated what they conceived of as their imperial space, but also how the non-Seleucids living in Asia responded to the appropriation. This important dichotomy is explored particularly well in chapter 7, “King Makes City,” and chapter 8, “City Makes King,” in which Kosmin examines the tensions in the diverging versions of the foundation myths of the Seleucid colonies, such as Antioch-by-Daphne and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. The variations in these tales reveal crucial distinctions in the relationship between ruler and ruled. These distinctions say something important about the strategies the Seleucids deployed to hold together their kingdom that “also generated the fault lines along which it fell apart” (p. 27). Kosmin’s emphasis on territory in all contexts—economic, political, religious, social—is a focus that is informed by contemporary discussions of the Seleucid world.
The beginning of the book offers a wide range of information on and approaches to the Seleucids: current contentions in the field and how this book differs from them, the problematic sources available on the topic, the vast geographical space Kosmin aims to cover, and a short but lucid history of the whole period within the chronological parameters. The structure, and thus the principal argument of the book, is set out in a sophisticated manner with four parts of two chapters each, which is perhaps inspired by the four legs of an elephant. In contrast to this excellent structure is the somewhat underwhelming conclusion. It is rather short (six pages) and does not say anything about how the author envisages the research on the Seleucid Empire going forward. This last section could have been revised more carefully, as this book is in fact a doctoral dissertation that has been prepared for publication, even though the author never says so, not even in the oddly placed acknowledgments section. The conventional bibliographical material is useful, however.
This structure brings me to questions about the audience for the book. There is no clear indication for whom this book is written. While the general introduction seeks to highlight the main problems for any interested reader, it slowly becomes apparent that this book is written for a specialist audience. This focus is in itself not a bad thing, but it could be better advertised. In fact, the author is guilty of explicitly differentiating between his readers by statements such as: “Those in the know can leapfrog to the naming of parts” (p. 7). This sort of excluding remark is off-putting for any would-be reader, even if it might be intended as a signpost for experts in the field. In any event, even for scholars, sentences like “While the origins of this new thinking [i.e., the ‘spatial turn’] lie in Leibniz’ anti-Newtonian metaphysics and, more recently, a soixante-huitard spatialization of Marxist dialectic, in which the Cartesian model is revealed as the supposed buttress of capitalism and imperialism, the implications and applications for historians are much wider and more profound” are too abstract and vague to be meaningful (p. 6).
For the specialist, then, Kosmin’s discussion and use of the sources are naturally highly significant. Of immediate interest is the very close study of the date of Megasthenes’s Indica that tells us something about the earliest Seleucid knowledge of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) in an appendix. Kosmin’s argument about this fragmentary text is made against the revisionist thesis by Brian Bosworth, who suggested that Megasthenes was sent on an embassy to Chandragupta a decade and a half earlier (319-8 BC) than normally assumed (305-3 BC). Although Kosmin’s argument for the traditional dating of 305-3 BC is forcefully made, it fails to convince and, as a consequence, much of his discussion of Megasthenes in chapter 1 becomes contentious and tenuous. For instance, it is highly speculative to suggest that Megasthenes envisaged his Indica as an apology for Seleucus I’s failure to conquer that country. The appendix is unlike any of the sporadic instances of source criticism he conducts elsewhere in the book, and it is worth saying something about his approach to the sources in general.
In the relevant section of the introduction, his command of a very wide range of underutilized sources in several ancient languages is impressive. In my opinion, however, he devotes too little space to the problems of how we can actually use these sources and how they relate to each other. Using material culture from Aï Khanoum in Afghanistan, epigraphy in Greek and Akkadian from Babylon and Asia Minor, hoards of coinage from around the Seleucid Empire, and literary sources by sixth-century Christians is obviously a great challenge, especially as Kosmin seeks to synthesize them, but the author offers no explicit methodological framework for doing so. For instance, on the Graeco-Roman and Jewish literary traditions made use of in the book, he states that “they offer our most detailed and sophisticated characterizations of the empire and its impact, along with evident authorial biases that are of historical interest in their own right” (p. 9). Yet, in several instances (for example, Megasthenes in chapter 1 and the geographer Demodamas in chapter 2), Kosmin depends too heavily on these fragmentary sources to deduce a great deal of what he considers “facts” about the kings rather than “representations” or, better, “variants” of Seleucid discourse on spatial power at a specific time and place (not always defined). For instance, he posits that there was an official court Seleucus Romance, akin to the Alexander Romance, although Peter Fraser was himself skeptical about the existence of such a text. Kosmin treats the material he believes belonged in this lost work as if it was as authentic as the Seleucid inscriptions or Babylonian tablets (discussed later in the same chapter). Given the arbitrarily inappropriate weight Kosmin gives to fragmentary and lost sources, readers new to the topic (if they have made it this far through the book) should treat his sweeping conclusions with a great deal of care; other Hellenistic historians might have combined the material differently and thus have arrived at other conclusions.
There have also been some strange choices in the articulation of the material and the structure of episodes. If the book is envisaged as broadly thematic and chronological, why not begin with Seleucus’s establishment of his kingship in Babylon and in Iran? If Megasthenes is indeed as late as Kosmin believes, why begin in India where the Seleucid presence was felt for so short a time? Kosmin’s attempts to solve the typical problems of Seleucid scholarship (How were the Seleucids able to govern their multicultural empire for such a long time? Why did the empire fall apart?) by discussing “space” as a constructed concept are therefore innovative, but questionable in execution and wholly based on (admittedly informed but fanciful) speculation.
. Paul Joseph Kosmin, “Seleucid Space: The Ideology and Practice of Territory in the Seleucid Empire” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2012).
. “The Seleucus Romance, or early Seleucid chroniclers, call the tradition what we will.” Peter Fraser, Cities of Alexander the Great (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 39 (cited by Kosmin without comment on p. 94n5).
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