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Seleucid Babylon Notes

Classics Notes > The Hellenistic World: societies and cultures 300 BC to 100 BC Notes

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'The real centre of the Hellenistic World was Babylon.' Discuss Babylon was the city in which Alexander died and he may well have intended it to become the capital city of his newly conquered empire which stretched from Macedonia in the west to India in the East. However its place in the Seleucid dynasty which followed is much less important and to say it was the real centre of the Hellenistic world, which flourished under Alexander's later successors, is perhaps going too far. For this to be true then the city must have been a major source for the spread of Hellenism, which could be defined in terms of Greek culture, political institutions and language, or perhaps itself a paradigm of Greek values, which could be emulated by the locals or by other Greeks further afield. Neither of these things seems to have been the case to any significant extent at Babylon and there were certainly other cities in the Seleucid territory and other Hellenistic Kingdoms which suited the criteria much better. Also it is important to consider how the spread of Hellenism, the major defining factor of the Hellenistic world, came about and whether it could be said to have had one true centre at all; how much of an impact could a city in the heart of Asia under the rule of the Seleucids have had on Egypt under the Ptolemies, for example. The city of Babylon had a diverse history and culture long before Alexander ever visited the city and this alone would have made it hard for the city to become Hellenised or be a font from which Hellenism could spring. This is particularly true since it had to compete with the new cities which were built on a Greek model with Greek institutions of politics and culture. If Strabo's comparison of one such city Seleucia-Tigris with Babylon is to be believed then it shows that Babylon suffered a severe decline during the Seleucid period, "For he and all the kings after him lavished attentions on this city and transferred their royal capital there. Hence it has now grown larger than Babylon while Babylon is largely deserted, so that one would not hesitate to apply to it the words of a comic poet about Megalopolis in Arcadia: "Megalopolis is a great desert" (Austin 188). There exist ostraka from the third century which show that there was certainly a Greek garrison in the city under officers with Greek names along with a Greek theatre and some shards of Greek pottery. A certain amount of Hellenising probably did go on in Babylon but the fact it would have already had a highly developed cultural and civic identity as well as a lot of pre-existing buildings taking up all the space meant that this could surely have only ever gone so far. Since Seleucus was such a prolific founder of Greek cities in Babylonia and his empire more generally it is much simpler to imagine that the majority of Greek settlers would have found their homes in more familiar surroundings; since they, along with their cultural institutions, were the main driving forces behind Hellenism, then any centre of Hellenistic world is surely to be found elsewhere than Babylon. Another city which can provide some insight into the difference between native cities and those which were newly founded on a Greek model is Uruk in Babylonia. Although this is not as large or as famous as Babylon and so inevitably would attract less Greek settlers it is useful for showing how little Greek interaction was with the local community outside of the new cities and this can perhaps provide some explanation as to why Babylon itself did not become overly Hellenizing and even began to decline during this

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