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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014) by Peter Kosmin

Map of the Seleucid Empire in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey

Book Review:
The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014)
 by Peter Kosmin
Published April 2014
Harvard University Press

  I was in THE Harvard University book store in Boston a couple weeks ago and saw The Land of the Elephant Kings by Peter Kosmin sitting on the shelf.  I don't mind confessing that I got pretty excited, but then picked up the slimmish volume and saw that the price was fifty bucks.   Fifty bucks for an academic history of Seleucid Empire?  I'm interested, but not fifty bucks interested.  Returning to Southern California, I didn't forget about The Land of the Elephant Kings, rather I used the Inter Library Loan function at the San Diego Public Library to request it from the UCSD library.

   As far as I know this is the first book length treatment of the Seleucid Empire in the modern era (I'm just guessing) so despite some substantial issues with readability, The Land of the Elephant Kings is a must for anyone who is seriously trying to get a grip on the history of the pre-Islamic Middle East.   The Seleucid's were a dynasty that emerged in the aftermath of the untimely death of Alexander the Great.  Selecus I Nicator was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, and his dynasty controlled the empire shown above from roughly 305 B.C. to 65 B.C., collapsing via excessive dynastic struggle.

   The Seleucids have not been a favorite of modern historians, who prefer either the pre-Alexander empires or the post-Islamic period. The Seleucids were essentially foreign occupiers, and they didn't introduce a religion, nor did they represent any kind of "new era."  All of this is freely admitted by Kosmin, who also repeatedly states that there is not much information of any kind to be found anywhere about the Seleucids.  This gives The Land of the Elephant Kings both a fragmentary and elliptical feel, like a coloring book only half colored in.

   The Land of the Elephant Kings is not a conventional narrative history, rather Kosmin embraces the "spatial turn" in social sciences, wherein historians use the metaphor of space to describe the behaviors of less conventional states and empires in history.  Historically, The Seleucids were typically discounted as being a "weak" empire with little or no state structure, and the main thrust of Kosmin's argument is to demonstrate that in their own way the Seleucid monarchs were most active.

  Mainly he does this by drawing on archaeology to point out how many colonies they founded.  The Seleucids were nuts for founding colonies, and they put dozens down, many of them in the area of Syria.  He also makes the case that the Selecuids were constantly "on the go" travelling in and around their Empire in a constant attempt to put down rebellions and "show the flag" to their vassals. Additionally, the made one limited but important contribution to wider world culture, being the first Kings to refer to time via their own era, judging each year as being part of the "Seleucid Era."  This was picked up by Christians and other Near Eastern cultures and is responsible for our own use of "B.C." and "A.D." today.

  Unfortunately there is little in The Land of the Elephant Kings to appeal to a non-specialists.  That's a pity considering the paucity of other books on this same subject, but fully understandable considering the limitations of source material.  Perhaps this book will serve as a stimulus for further advances in Seleucid studies.

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