Hellenization and why Antioch has mosaics

As I continue to trace the history and geopolitics of Antioch, in this blog I focus on the Seleucid Empire, which lasted from 312-64 BC.

In an earlier post, I traced how in the precursor to Antioch, when Syria was part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Alexander the Great conquered that Empire. Upon his death, his empire was divided between his generals. At that time, Rome was just a tiny hilltop farming settlement.

The heavy conflict in the region involved the biggest chunk of Alexander’s Empire, which included Syria and Mesopotamia. This went to General Seleucus and was referred to as the Seleucid Empire. Seleucus built Antioch in Syria and made it the capital of his Empire. Its rival was another division of Alexander’s Empire, Ptolemaic Egypt. The two empires fought many wars for control of the Levant.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the same, parts of the Seleucid Empire broke away. Judea broke away and the miracle that led to the first Hanukkah occurred. In another example, a nomadic people from northern Iran and southern Turkmenistan (who were related to the Persians) called the Parthians, moved to annex or capture many Seleucid provinces to form a new Persian Empire, the Parthian Empire, as a successor to the Achaemenid Empire. In Mesopotamia, the Parthians built their new capital, Ctesiphon, on the other side of the river from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. The Parthians also incorporated some former provinces of the Achaemenid Empire that were not under Seleucid control into their empire.

During the many wars to expand its influence in Asia Minor and mainland Greece, the Seleucid Empire (including Antioch) declared war on Rome. Earlier, during the time many provinces were breaking away, Eumenes I as governor of Pergamon, had also declared independence from the Seleucid Empire and proclaimed himself king of Pergamon. His successors allied with Rome against the Seleucids. There, the empire met its match. Eventually the Roman Republic took over the remainder of the Seleucid Empire in 64 BC. In 27 BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

In addition to the wars, the Seleucids brought Greek culture to the area, especially in Syria. Eventually, Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid Empire, and Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, became the two richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean. Through acculturation, during the creation of the Seleucid Empire, the area around Antioch adopted Greek culture, including the language, literature and decorative arts. This was especially true of the rich cities—as Greek culture was very city-focused.

Thus, mosaics came to Antioch. Evidence of Greek culture can be seen in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s mosaics. The Lion and Humped-Ox Animal Friendship Mosaic fragment includes the Greek word for friendship. Under the Persians, the trade language of the Eastern Mediterranean was Aramaic. When Alexander arrived it was changed to Koine Greek and remained so even under the Romans until the Muslim conquest when it was replaced by Arabic.

Image obtained from Alex’s Twisted Ribbons post

Another fragment of the BMA’s Antioch collection depicts a scene from Greek mythology of “Europa and the Bull”. It shows Zeus in the form of a bull carrying away Europa after he kidnapped her.

A similar depiction was also used on the modern Greek 2 Euro coin in 2002.

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