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  • The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire by Paul J. Kosmin
  • Gillian Ramsey
Paul J. Kosmin. The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 423. $49.95. ISBN 978–0-674–72882–0.

This book sets out to meet one of the pressing needs facing Seleucid studies today: to demonstrate how the political culture of what is considered a relatively minor world empire, hovering at the periphery of the discipline of classics, is [End Page 275] relevant to classicists. With evocative language, Kosmin paints a picture of a Seleucid geopolitical imaginary of interest to historians concerned with global imperialism, the conceptualization of space, and the drivers of political engagement between rulers and subjects. Using the “spatial turn” as a methodological basis (5), Kosmin argues that the Seleucids made a coherent and long-term effort to contextualize their ruling authority in a single “imperial terrain” (6).

Kosmin describes the Seleucid empire as a “ghost”: ever-present but not invited into the grand timeline of Western civilization, perceived but not regarded as a contributor of anything useful to our classical heritage (6). By the conclusion these assumptions are shown up as erroneous—whether in the empire’s innovation of a chronological era and “internalization of its own historicity” (100–103), its enduring architecture for Near Eastern ethnography and political geography, or its imperatives for performing kingship (256–57). Kosmin refreshingly treats the Seleucid world on its own terms, showing how the Seleucids’ choices gave historical and spatial coherence to their empire in its own moment. The traditional, titular exoticism of the “elephant kings’” world—such an inducement to study it—is retained in a section on the Seleucid Indica (chapter 1) but refigured within the Seleucid-centric, spatial mode of analysis.

Kosmin demonstrates a willingness to engage with the later decades of the dynasty, often abandoned as too confused or too inconsequential for the world stage. He keeps the first-century kings within the frame and follows Seleucid geopolitics and colonial strategy to the bitter end in 64/3 bce. He treats the later dynasty as a viable object of study, not just an ineffectual rump, as is seen to good effect in chapters 4 and 8. It is rare to find a Seleucid history whose thesis is applied as consistently to the last fevered days of civil strife and dissolution in Syria as to the heady empire building of Seleucus I, Antiochus I, and Antiochus III.

One highlight is the section (chapter 2) on the long-lasting assertion that the world-encircling ocean stretched from the Caspian gulf to India, reconfiguring the Asian remnant of Alexander’s world empire as a worthy, unitary continental empire. This Hellenistic geographical curiosity has long needed a fresh take; of note is how Kosmin shifts it from being a pernicious geographical ignorance to deliberate imperial cartography, and situates it within his vision of the Seleucid worldview.

Kosmin provides some inventive examples of how Seleucid history can work comparatively with geography, colonialism, and migration studies: the curious description of Seleucid geography as organized into settlement “panels” and circulatory “axes” (186–92), the brief section on Chasidic toponymy in New York (109–10), and the reading of the establishment of dynastic cult and the Seleucid Romance as “a spatializing act” within the reimagined heartland of Syria (104–108).

Students and interested readers of Hellenistic history will appreciate the précis of Seleucid evidence, geography, chronology (7–24), and colonization (chapter 7); the glossary (361–67); and Kosmin’s facility with a wide range of generically and linguistically varied sources, as he performs with ease a vivid conjuration of that Seleucid ghost out of such diverse evidence.

The book is not polemical; Kosmin does not consider counterarguments for some contentious topics—the Indus treaty, the strong empire position, understandings of how secessionism and colonial rebellions threatened the “imperial terrain”—which will leave Seleucid specialists feeling somewhat bereft and unconvinced. Kosmin circles around what has been and still remains a Seleucid [End Page 276] paradox: that the dynasty, through its efforts to get and...


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