And the Foundation of Hellenistic Syria
Henri Seyrig
The main subject of the following observations will be an attempt to contrast the condition of Northern Syria in the days of the Phoenician monopoly of navigation and sea-trade, with its condition after the Macedonian conquest. The change was truly a revolutionary one. The purely agricultural hinterland of Northern Syria was suddenly transformed into one of the most brilliant cradles of civilisation of the Ancient World, with its centre in the city of Antioch. Historians have hitherto been content with recording the fact as if it had been a natural one that needed no other explanation than the magical appearance of the Macedonians. They never seem to have asked themselves why this revolution occurred, and by what means, and why the country had remained in stagnation for so many centuries before. They did not attempt to clarify the general conditions of Northern Syria at that moment of history, its relation to geography, to economy, to the technical knowledge of its inhabitants and of its invaders. The problem lies almost, intact before us.

Antioch was founded by Seleucus I in 300 B.C., and for almost a thousand years - until the Arab invasion put an end to its importance in 637 - remained one of the two great centres of Greek civilisation in the Levant, second only to Alexandria, and later to Byzantium. Its wealth was obviously due to its position on the great- commercial road along which the products of Asia were carried to the Mediterranean, mainly from the Persian Gulf and along the Euphrates. Antioch, and its harbour, Seleucia, were situated at the very opening of that road on the sea, and derived enormous profit from the traffic.

And yet there is something peculiar in this sudden rise and this tremendous fortune. The history of Northern Syria before the foundation of Antioch has been greatly elucidated in recent years by archaeological exploration, and it becomes increasingly clear that no city, or even a town of moderate importance, had ever, for at least two thousand years, occupied the two sites on which Seleucus I was going to found Seleucia and Antioch. Nor should it be forgotten that the Arab invasion was immediately followed by the fall of Antioch to the rank of an insignificant provincial town, and apparently by the complete disappearance of its harbour-town, Seleucia.

It thus appears that the prosperity of Antioch - and, I should add, of her three sisterfoundations in Northern Syria: Seleucia, Laodicea and Apamea, which had been established in the same year - are an exception in the history of the region.

Northern Syria has always enjoyed a privileged situation, due to its being the place where the valley of the Euphrates comes nearest to the Mediterranean. Between Mesopotamia and the sea, the Syrian Desert advances like a formidable wedge, pointed northwards. The traffic between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean seems to go back to a very remote past, and the correspondence of the Kings of Mari already mentions a Cretan garment at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. The shortest way, for that traffic, would have been to cross the desert. But there were no, organized itineraries with water points, and there was no security against the roaming, tribes of nomads. Until the time when Palmyra, at the beginning of the Roman period, organized a net of camel-tracks with wells and caravanserais, as well as a permanent police force in the desert, the journey remained hazardous, and the caravans preferred to go around the desert. They followed the Euphrates to the northern tip of the desert, and then took a westward course through more civilised areas. There, inevitably, they came upon Aleppo, that held the keys, both to the harbours on the coast, and to the passes that led into Asia Minor through the Taurus mountains. From time almost immemorial, therefore, Aleppo remained, not only the principal market place of the region, but also a necessary link between East and West. Here again, the cuneiform tablets show it, acting as an intermediary. To quote only one picturesque instance: one day the Phoenician King of the coastal town of Ugarit heard reports on the marvels of the palace of the King of Mari, on. the Middle-Euphrates, and wished to send his son to see them; since he had no direct relations with the King of Mari, he begged the King of Aleppo to make arrangements for the journey.

Aleppo, therefore, appears as the true predecessor of Antioch, and indeed, it is a striking feature in its history, that it recedes into the background as a purely provincial town as soon as Antioch. develops, and that the fall of Antioch at the time of the Arab invasion immediately brings Aleppo back to the foreground, to become again the commercial queen of Syria during the middle ages, and even almost to the beginning of the present century.

What do we know about the trade of Aleppo with the sea in those very early days? There were, for this trade, three possible lines of communication .Two of them were with Phoenician cities of considerable importance, Ugarit, near the modern Latakia, and Myriandus, on the Gulf of Issus, near the modern Alexandretta. The third one was with a Greek settlement at the mouth of the Orontes, at a place now called Al-Mina - and this is the road on which Antioch, some centuries later, was to be founded.

The first one of these connections, with Phoenician Ugarit, is well attested by the tablets in cuneiform script. It may have followed mainly a track now used by the direct highroad from Aleppo to Latakia, or, alternatively, a somewhat longer track, from Aleppo to the city of Alalakh, in the plain of Antioch, whence it would take a road leading southward along the middle Orontes, until it would join the first track. Ugarit, to be sure, was definitively destroyed about I200 B.C. by the so-called Peoples of the Sea, but it is unlikely that this should have put an end to the commercial relationship of Aleppo with Phoenicia: probably the traffic went on, but now with Aradus.

The second possible connection of Aleppo with the Phoenicians on the coast was with the Gulf of Issus - a shorter and more obvious connection in our modern eyes, although the track had to climb to a high pass through the mountains that separated the gulf from the interior. This connection is not yet attested by any early document, but this may well be by chance. The first mention of it, however, is still earlier than the Greek conquest. It consists in a passage of Xenophon, who reports that in 400 B.C., he saw a large commercial fleet at anchor before the city of Myriandus, which he says was inhabited by a Phoenician population, and which was situated on the gulf, in the immediate vicinity of the modern Alexandretta. Xenophon does not give us any hint as to the purpose of that commercial fleet, but one scarcely sees a reason for its presence there, if it had not been in connection with the commerce of Aleppo - a function that has been performed to the present day by Alexandretta. Myriandos still lies buried under a big mound, strangely untouched by the spade of the archaeologist: it would be quite an urgent task to attack it, before the surface of the tell is entirely covered by modern houses, and to ascertain it the Phoenicians were already there in the Bronze Age, and what were the relations of the place with the interior, as well as with countries overseas. An excavation could very possibly yield a body of information not inferior to that of Ugarit. However that may be, we have here, well before the Greek conquest, a well attested commercial outlet of Northern Syria on the gulf of Issus, - and it is in Phoenician hands.

The third possible approach from Aleppo to the sea was by the lower course of the river Orontes, and deserves to interest us most, since it was to become the road from Antioch to Seleucia. On it the texts are silent, and only archaeology has something to say. From around 1200 B.C. a settlement, possibly a Cypriote one, existed in the estuary of the Qrontes, and this was replaced about 800 B.C. by a Greek settlement. Both sites, respectively Sabouni and Al-Mina, have been excavated, and undoubtedly show that some traffic between the coast and the interior took place along the river. But it is quite doubtful that this traffic ever became an important one. The coast, near the mouth of the Orontes, is a very dangerous one. The estuary is widely open toward the sea, and as soon as the wind blows from the west, or northwest, or south-west, there is a big tide-wave at the entrance, which puts even smaller boats in serious difficulty and danger if they attempt to pass it. The anchorage in the bay is no more reliable, and the winds are so sudden, that the boats can never feel safe. This situation, I should think, would explain the peculiar fact that the Phoenicians entirely neglected the spot, although it afforded an easy communication with the interior, and must have tempted them on that account. Indeed, the mere fact that the Phoenicians, although they were firmly established to the south of the Orontes at Ugarit and Aradus, and to the north of the Orontes at Myriandus, allowed Greeks to occupy the mouth of the river, - this fact is significant enough, and it well agrees with their constant policy of occupying all the really profitable spots on the coast, while they left to the Greeks the minor spots of no great promise. Altogether, then, the absence of the Phoenicians seems to make it clear that the lower course of the Orontes, in these ancient days, must have been only a very secondary thoroughfare, which is also suggested by the only moderate importance of the settlements at Al-Mina and Sabouni, compared to the Phoenician cities.

Another argument to the same effect seems to be suggested by the situation in the Amuq plain, now the plain of Antioch, then the heart of the little 'Kingdom of Mukish, Mukish seems to have mostly derived its prosperity from the products of a rich and well water ed soil, and probably more still from the exploitation of the forests of mount Amanus, to the North of the plain, whose resinous woods were in, great demand in Babylonia. Probably there was some commerce too, but the position of the capital, Alalakh, seems to show that this traffic was not directed towards the mouth of the Orontes. Alalakh is not situated at the place where the river leaves the plain to flow down to the sea (which is the place where Antioch was to be founded). On the contrary, Alalakh was situated at the place where the river, breaking though the hills, enters the plain. It would seem, therefore, that Alalakh was mainly interested, not in the road that followed the lower Oxontes, downwards, toward the coast, but in a very different road, that followed the valley of the middle Orontes, upwards, toward the South. This may well have been an alternative itinerary for the traffic between Aleppo and Ugarit or Aradus. In any case, there is no evidence whatever that Alalakh could have been a predecessor of Antioch in its relation with the sea.

Altogether, then, of the three accesses to the sea which Northern Syria offered to the caravan trade from the Euphrates valley, the two well attested ones are with the Phoenician cities of Ugarit (and latex probably Aradus) and Myriandus; while the third access, by the estuary of the Qrontes, which was going to be the main one under the Greeks and the Romans, seems to have remained a very secondary one during the second millennium and the period of the Persian empire.

Apparently, therefore, the knot of the whole situation, the factor that was decisive in shaping the destiny of this region into a mainly agricultural one for the entire period before Alexander, was the almost complete monopoly held by the Phoenicians over the maritime commerce of the Syrian coast, the fact that consequently all the greater commercial arteries from the Persian Gulf headed for the Phoenician harbours, and the fact that the Phoenicians failed to use the possibilities offered by the mouth of the Qrontes.

In 301, at Ipsus in Phrygia, the combined forces of Seleucus and Lysimachus, king of Thrace, defeated Antigonus the One-Eyed, who died on the battlefield. The two kings immediately divided the spoils: Lysimachus took Asia Minor, and Seleucus took Syria.

Seleucus was already master of Babylonia and of the vast satrapies in the East, reaching as far as India. But the dream of reconstituting for himself the empire of Alexander was still alive in him, and he must have clearly perceived that the coming struggle for supremacy would take place around the Mediterranean. Syria, therefore, was of essential importance to him. Syria, unfortunately, was far from being entirely in his hands. Ptalemy, the king of Egypt, who had not taken part in the battle of Ipsus, held the two thirds of Syria, and was not ready to surrender them. His were Palestine, more than half of the Phoenician coast, and considerable districts in the interior, including probably the great city of Damascus. Seleucus, therefore, had to be content with the northern part of the country, which was thence-forward going to be called after him, Suria Seleukis, Seleucian Syria, or. simply the Seleucis.

Yet even in the Seleucis his authority was not unrestricted. The former Phoenician kingdom of'Aradus, in Persian times a faithful vassal of the Great King, iater an ally of Alexander the Great at the siege of Tyre, had to be treated by Seleucus with caution. Seleucus scarcely had a fleet; and obviously, if he wished to meet the situation that was developing around the Mediterranean, he would have to rely on the famous Aradian fleet. The Aradians, moreover, bad a very flourishing sea-trade, and it was not in the interest of Seleucus to endanger their cooperation by inconsiderate interference in their affairs, especially since the Aradians, being Phoenicians, must have been quite ready to listen to Ptolemaic propaganda coming through their brother-Phoenicians under Ptolemaic rule. And finallv it may be added that the usual policy of the Greek conquerors, both Lagid and Seleucid, was as much as possible to avoid settling their colonists on land belonging to urban communities, where such colonisation might have produced endless friction. Altogether, then, even in Seleucis was Seleucus not entirely free. The part in which he was free is the not too spacious district in which he immediately proceeded to found his four great cities: Seleucia., Antioch, Apamea and Laodicea.

Seleucus, as soon as he gathered the fruits of his victory at Ipsus, must have felt that a capital at Seleucia on the Tigris would be too eccentric for a mainly Mediterranean policy, and he decided to build one in his new dominions. The choice was open to him, for at least two plans. One of them would have been to establish himself at Alexandria ad Issum, the present Alexandretta, where, very probably, already Alexander the Great had settled wounded veterans after the battle of Yssus. The gulf of Issus provided the best anchorage on the Syrian. coast, and a fertile coastal plain -ensured an adequate supply of food. But the city was immediately contiguous to Ciiicia, and this, with a neighbour like Lysimachus, must not have seemed very engaging. Moreover, the city was at the foot of a high range of mountains that separated it from the interior of Syria. Its situation would have been a very precarious one in case of a siege, if the enemy had occupied the pass which was the only possible access for relief. Nor did this pass, at an altitude of 22OO feet, provide a satisfactory communication with the interior for heavy traffic.

There remained, then, the plain of Amuq, later the plain of Antioch, and the lower course of the Orontes, which indeed Seleucus ultimately chose.

In many respects, the choice seemed an obvious one. Large tracts of land were available, not only in the plain where Antioch was to be created, but even in the coastal plain, the future site of Seleucia, and could easily be divided and allotted to the colonists, mostly Macedonian and Thessalian soldiers on whom Seleucus could rely for the defense of the country. This land did not have to be expropriated at the expense of any existing cities, since there were not any, but already belonged to the king: this, indeed, is what we learn from Xenophon, who, in the passage already quoted, tells us that when he marched from the gulf of Issus to Aleppo in 40o B.C., with the army of Cyrus the Younger, the villages that he saw on his march belonged to the queen of Persia. They were, therefore, royal land, and they undoubtedly remained available as such to the Greek conquerors. Another essential feature, in the eyes of a king who would have to fight for his possessions, was that the region was admirably protected from a military point of view: contrary to what would have been the case of the Cilician plain, at the tip of which Alexandria ad Yssum stood, high ranges of mountains not only defended the approach, but also provided, at their foot, excellent opportunities for fortification, both at Seleucia and Antioch. Furthermore, while Alexandria ad Issum was rather a dead end, the plain of Antioch could become the centre of an admirable system of roads, radiating in every possible direction to meet the needs of administration, of war, of commercial relations. Finally the soil was very fertile, there was water everywhere, the mountains were covered with forests, the lake and the river supplied excellent fish in quantity (on which the market of Antioch still relied in Byzantine days); and the climate, most healthy, even would remind the settlers of the climate of Greece.

Yet, with all those advantages, there was a serious, and even fundamental drawback: as we have seen already, the mouth of the Orontes was one of the worst points of the whole Syrian coast for the sailors. The bad winds, the lack of shelter, the difficulties of landing, are so deplorable, that the Phoenicians had never attempted a settlement, so that the whole district in the interior had always remained, for that very reason, a purely rural area. And even to the south of the estuary, almost as far as the vicinity of Aradus, the coast offered no acceptable shelter or anchorage to the sailors. The site of Ugarit, it is true, had been occupied by a flourishing city, but this was in the Bronze Age, when boats were light and shallow, prehomeric boats that could be pulled ashore every evening, not to be compared with the heavy cruisers and cargo-boats of the Hellenistic age. Ugarit, destroyed around 1200 by the Peoples of the Sea, never again rose from its ruins, never again was occupied by the Phoenicians, who allowed Greek pioneers to settle there, as they had allowed them at the mouth of the Orontes and at many other secondary points on the coast, in view of a rather inconspicuous traffic.

There could apparently be no question of establishing an important naval fortress where Ugarit had stood, and Seleucus did not attempt to do so, but chose a spot some ten miles south of Ugarit to become the site of Laodicea.

Here we come to the crucial question in our enquiry: why did Seleucus show himself more able to make use of that inhospitable coast, than even the astute Phoenicians had done? The answer, I believe, lies in the superior engineering knowledge and skill of the Greeks. The Phoenicians, whatever their commercial abilities and the adventurous spirit of their sailors may have been, had always been content with taking advantage of the natural facilities offered by the coast. Where they found good harbours and safe anchorages, they developed great and wealthy cities, - but they did it only there. Their attitude toward Nature remained, in this respect, a rather passive one. With the Greek conquest, we are suddenly confronted with a superior technique. The coast, as it was, seemed inexorably hostile to the plans of Seleucus? Well, his engineers were there to beat that resistance. He ordered them to dig two artificial harbours into the coast, one to become Seleucia, and another to become Laodicea.

That stroke of genius of the first Greek king entirely changed the economy of the country. From that date, 30o B.C., northern Syria ceased to be the purely rural area that it had been, and for ten centuries was to remain a thriving centre of commerce and civilisation. Its shores ceased to be touched only by local or coastwise traffic as in the past. Merchant vessels and warships now were able to land and stay safely at the starting points of the greatest commercial and military roads that could unite Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. The economic development of the country was immediately so considerable, that the old Phoenician city of Axadus seems to have remained unaffected by the competition of the two new harbours. Apparently the demand was increased to such an extent, that there was work for everybody. The country was opened to great international traffic, and remained one of the centres of the ancient world as long as the Mediterranean stood open.

It seems to be time now to sum up our conclusions. Our main topic has been the contrast between the country as it was before the Greeks, and the country as it became under the first Greek king. We saw that North Western Syria had always been purely agricultural, and had always remained aside from the great currents of traffic. This was due to the fact that its coast was so inhospitable to sailors, that the Phoenicians, who held a factual monopoly over maritime commerce in those parts, never thought it worthwhile to settle here. And then we saw how Seleucus suddenly touched off a movement that had remained a mere potentiality for so many centuries, a movement that made North Western Syria, for a thousand years, one of the major centres of civilisation in the ancient world. Most historians have been content with ascribing to Seleucus, in the choice of his foundations, intentions mainly political and strategic. A few only, among them Rostovtseff, have also believed that definite economic and commercial considerations had influenced his plans. We must of course beware of planting into the mind of Seleucus our own knowledge of what happened after him, but I am inclined to share the opinion of those latter historians. Seleucus, after all, had already been king for some twelve years in Babylonia, and it is not easy to believe that he had remained unaware of the commerce between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. He most certainly knew the huge profits that were being made from that trade; and when, coming into Syria, he found the majority of the Phoenician ports in the hands of his rival Ptolemy, surely he must have done his utmost to divert into his own harbours the traffic that would otherwise have taken the way to Southern Syria and Phoenicia. In all likelihood, therefore, Seleucus was the founder, not only of his four cities, but of their future enormous wealth.

Antioch and her sister cities constitute only one example of this pattern of rise and fall, but that example is an interesting one, because we seem to feel, at its origin, the presence of a great historical personality. The fortune of the four cities is certainly based on a geographical privilege and on the economic phenomenon of exchanges between East and West. Yet those two factors were only potential, and a third factor, the unfortunate nature of the coast, seemed likely to prevent them forever from becoming active.

What did awaken them was the intervention of Seleucus, who by his immediate creation of the harbours, forced Nature to give way before him. When we look at the consequences, far reaching, yet in no way unforeseen by him, his decision was truly that of a great ruler.