The People That History Forgot
Chapter 14 

Syria Becomes the New Babylon

Read and ListenWe now come to a matter concerning ancient history that all historians are able to accept without controversy. That is this: The Seleucid kingdom which succeeded the rule of Alexander the Great in Syria, Asia Minor and other eastern areas can be designated a Babylonian kingdom.

It has been customary to call the Seleucid realm a Greco-Macedonian regime. And, this is true, but only on the surface. After Alexander the Great conquered Asia, he made as capital of this vast eastern domain, the city of Babylon. He planned further African and European conquests but was prevented from carrying out his designs by his untimely death at Babylon when he was 33 years of age. His death put the government into confusion. There was, however, a treaty between the major claimants to the domain. It was finally divided into four major areas with rulers over each. After some further bickering between the new rulers, the central area of the former empire fell out to Seleucus, a general of Alexander’s army. He took over this central Babylonian region and proclaimed himself the king of Babylon. In a short time he took over all of Syria. And, for over 250 years he and his descendants controlled the areas of Syria and Mesopotamia.

"Seleucus, surnamed Nicator, who had received this province [of Syria] in his lot in the division of the Macedonian dominions, raised it into an empire, known in history by the name of the kingdom of Syria or Babylon."

  • Lemprierre, A Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed.
    (Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1984) p. 587

Seleucus’ kingdom was called either a Syrian or a Babylonian one. The two terms became synonymous with Seleucus’ rule beginning in 312 B.C.E. What is interesting, in later times the kings of the Seleucid empire consistently call themselves not the kings of Syria, but rather the Kings of Babylon (e.g., Bevan, House of Seleucus, vol.1, p.255). They wanted to maintain the historical tradition of the old Babylonian empire that they were its successors, not that they were simply "Syrians." And as we will presently see, the Seleucid kings represented their realm as a resurrection of the old Babylonian kingdom.

What type of kingdom was this realm of Seleucus in a racial sense? At first, it was made up of about five per cent Greeks and Macedonians (mainly of soldiers, veterans of Alexander and a few Greek colonists) while the rest was made up of the native populations of the various countries of the kingdom. Seleucus was very prone to build new cities in his Asian empire. He built no less than thirty. They were all designed on the Greek manner. The architecture was Greek and so were the social institutions. Some few Greek colonists were brought in to give the cities the "Greek" flavor. And more importantly, Greek was the language imposed on the citizens of this kingdom.

From this, we might imagine that the kingdom was, in fact, a real Greek kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. The actual Greek racial element which Alexander the Great introduced soon became a thin veneer upon the old traditions, religions and society in general. What the old stock did, who had been transported there in the days of Esar-haddon, was to adopt practically everything "Greek" into all their elements that made up their society. But in no way did they give up the fundamental attributes of their own Babylonian society which they had been reared in for centuries.

While the Greek religions were brought to Syria and Babylon, they soon became Babylonian. And while some Greek peoples came to the area, they soon amalgamated with the native races, who were the Syrians and Babylonians. The Seleucid kingdom was only "Greek" in name. It was actually a Babylonian kingdom that now had Greek names being used for its traditions, religions and society in general. It was "Babylon" in Greek guise.

Dr. W.W. Tarn (one of the authors of the Cambridge Ancient History) shows how this "Greek" kingdom of Seleucus reverted quickly back into being a Babylonian and Syrian one.

"Mercenaries settled in Asia [the Seleucid Empire] had from the start taken native wives; certainly by the first century intermarriage and the mixture of peoples in daily life and trade was doing its work, and, precisely as in Egypt at the time, the term ‘Greek’ sometimes denoted culture, not blood; the ‘Greek woman, a Syro-Phoenician by race’ of Mark 7:26 was such a ‘culture Greek,’ perhaps with Greek political rights in her city. After the European immigration of the few Greek colonists in the third century B.C. came to an end, first a balance was established, then the Greek began to lose ground, partly through mixing his blood with Asiatic stocks."

The disintegration of this Greek veneer was started very early, even with Alexander. He commanded the bulk of his army officers to marry into the native population. This was done on a wide scale. Even Seleucus, the beginner of the new empire centered at Babylon, was married to an eastern princess. The fruit of that mixed union was Antiochus the First, the king who followed Seleucus to the throne. From that time onward, the deterioration continued to such an extent that Greek blood almost wholly disappeared except in a few isolated districts in the extreme western part of the empire. Certain forms of Greek culture retained their force, and especially the Greek language became the official language of the empire, but the Greek race in the areas that Alexander conquered almost entirely disappeared within a few generations.

The Roman historian Livy reports a statement of a Roman consul to his troops in 189 B.C.E. Speaking about the submergence of the Greek racial characteristics in the east, he said,

"The Macedonians who settled in Alexandria in Egypt, or in Seleucia, or in Babylonia, or in any of their other colonies scattered over the world, have degenerated into Syrians, Parthians, or Egyptians. Whatever is planted in a foreign land, by a gradual change in its nature, degenerates into that by which it is nurtured."

  • Livy, XXXVIII,17

And though the armies of Antiochus the Third were sometimes called Greeks, Livy and Plutarch report they were actually "all Syrians" (Livy, XXXV, 49, 8; Plutarch, Titus,17). Let us also recall that Juvenal said the multitudes of "Greeks" in Italy were not Greeks at all but were from Syria: "The river Orontes has long flowed into the Tiber" (III, 62). This clearly shows, even though the Syrians had Greek names and even some Greek cultural tendencies, they were hardly real Greeks in a racial sense.

In other words, the Greek race in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Babylonia succumbed. This decay was begun by Alexander himself when he encouraged (actually ordered) his men to marry with eastern racial stocks. The effect was the complete overwhelming of the Greek minority. By the end of the 2nd century B.C.E., the Greek racial element was so small as to be non-existent in most regions in the Seleucid kingdom. The Seleucid kingdom in Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia had virtually reverted to the native racial stock.

As an example of how this reverting can take place, historians give us a modern equivalent of the Greek invasion and penetration of Syria and Babylon. We have the British take-over of India. Just like the spread of the Greek language in Nearer Asia, so English became the official tongue of all India. And, as Alexander gave Asia a Greek culture, the British gave India its civil service, its jurisprudence and a form of democracy. However, there is one matter in which the analogy breaks down: Alexander had his men marry into the Asian stock thus mixing the races, while the British commanded no such thing, and in fact such intermarriage with the Indians was actively frowned upon and the Indians themselves did not want to mix with the British. But Alexander actively encouraged the intermarriage of his Greek invaders with the native stocks wherever they went. The intermarriage of Alexander’s Greeks with the natives, soon extinguished the Greek blood, while in India there still remain a few small colonies of British race.

Thus, it can be plainly observed, from the above analogy, and from the historical sources, that the Greek kingdom of Alexander retreated back to its native population in race and in their psychological attributes. The records of history prove this conclusively. For example, when Alexander brought his Greek gods and religions to Syria and Babylonia, the natives were willing to call their own gods by some of the Greek names of deity, but to replace the Babylonian gods with the Greek ones, they most emphatically refused. In actual fact, the Greek gods turned into Babylonian ones.

"Greece was ready to adopt the gods of the foreigner, but the foreigner rarely reciprocated; Greek Doura [the Greek temple in Mesopotamia] freely admitted the gods of Babylon, but no Greek god entered Babylonian Uruk. Foreign gods might take Greek names, but they took little else. They [the Babylonian gods] were the stronger, and the conquest of Asia [by the Greeks] was bound to fail as soon as the East had gauged its own strength and Greek weakness."

Speaking of this retention of native worship in the east, the great Belgian archaeologist and historian of the first part of this century, Dr. Franz Cumont remarks:

"The native religions retained all their prestige and independence. In their ancient sanctuaries that took rank with the richest and most famous in the world, a powerful clergy continued to practice ancestral devotions according to barbarian rites, and frequently liturgy, everywhere performed with scrupulous respect, remained [in Syria] Semitic."

The old Babylonian gods of the Syrians were not exchanged for the incoming Greek ones. Besides, as it can be clearly shown, well over 95% of the people of Syria and Asia, even at the beginning of the Seleucid empire, were native easterners. The invading Greeks had little chance of uprooting the basic religions and philosophies of these people. And, by intermarriage, it was the Greek alien who gave way to the native easterner. The later "Greek" kings succumbed almost entirely to eastern ways, especially in religion. "The East led its conqueror captive" says Dr. Tarn (Hellenistic Civilisation, p.306).

The political aspects of the Seleucid kingdom were no less Babylonian. They based their administration on the Old Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian forms. Thus, there was a historical continuity in government all the way from Assyria to the Seleucid kingdom (Tarn, Hellenistic Civilisation, p.118).

"One feature of Seleucid rule was the resurrection of Babylonia, whose ancient culture was to the Seleucids what that of Egypt was to the Ptolemies. Cuneiform literature revived [under Persian rule the art had decayed]; besides scientific astronomical work and business documents, chronicles of current events were written, and myths were versified. Rituals, incantations, and omen literature were frequently copied and studied, as were Sumerian hymns and their Babylonian translations. ... The last cuneiform document extant dates from 7 B.C. [the latest finds have now brought the last cuneiform text to about C.E. 100]. This activity points to a RELIGIOUS REVIVAL, which was fostered by the early kings. Antiochus I carried to completion Alexander’s project of restoring Bel’s temple at Babylon which Xerxes had destroyed. He re-founded Nebo’s temple at Borsippa, while Bel’s priest Berossus dedicated to him [Antiochus] his work on Babylonian history. Under Seleucus a priest of Uruk, possibly at his request, found at Susa and copied the old ritual of the gods at Uruk, whose worship was re-established. The temple of Anu at Uruk was restored in 182 B.C. under Seleucus IV. The priests of Uruk also collected a temple library. Mr. Sidney Smith has suggested to me [Dr. Tarn] that the Seleucids favored Babylonian religion as a bulwark against Zoroasterianism."

The Seleucids almost totally abandoned the religious forms of the Olympian gods and reverted to Babylonianism. The Seleucid empire witnessed, as Dr. Tarn has clearly observed, "the resurrection of Babylonia." Even Alexander’s policy was to bring back the old Babylonian empire. "Alexander presented himself to the Babylonians as the restorer of the old order than as an innovator" (Bevan, House of Seleucus, vol.I, p.245). And even though the Greek language became the lingua franca of the kingdom, and though the Babylonian gods took Greek names, the religious and political society remained Babylonian.

Alexander believed that the Greek gods were the same as the Babylonian ones, though there were some national differences that existed which to him were of little consequence. All the gods and goddesses of the world were, to Alexander, basically the same deities that had various national names and ethnic peculiarities associated with them.

As an example of this, perhaps we can mention the idol which Antiochus Epiphanes erected in the Temple at Jerusalem. Native records tell us that it was Baal Shamayim, the Babylonian Sun-god. The Greek name of the idol was Zeus Olympus (or, the Romans called him Jupiter Capitolinus), but it was clearly the old Mesopotamian Sun-god.

The Seleucids adopted Babylonian religion throughout their domain. All over Syria, the Seleucids restored temple lands to the priests, and these were vast estates in some cases. This was to get the priesthood on their side in governing the people. The cooperation between the priests and the kings was generally very good, except when priestly power got so strong that they, in the time of the later Seleucids, began to dictate to the kings certain policies to be followed.

In short, as Dr. Tarn remarks, the Seleucid kingdom brought about the resurrection of Babylonia. No wonder the Seleucids consistently identified themselves with the ancient Babylonians, and that their kingdom, as Lemprierre’s Classical Dictionary records, was known as the kingdom of Babylon (p. 587).

Babylonians and Syrians

Seleucus had his first capital at Babylon. In commemoration of his desire to make a revived Babylonian kingdom, he devised a new standard calendar for his realm. The first year of this calendar was 312 B.C.E., when he first made Babylon the capital of his empire. Throughout his realm people were required to date all documents from this new era. The new system (based upon the old Babylonian Lunar-Solar calendar) was called the Seleucid Calendar, and the first year of it was known as the beginning of the Seleucid Era. All the Jews of Babylon took over this Era for computation of dates subsequent to 312 B.C.E. This Era was even followed later on by Palestinian Jews. It was only abandoned by official Jews when the Era of Creation was finally adopted in the 2nd century after Christ.

This new calendar of Seleucus was important for it focused attention upon Seleucus as the new Babylonian king and by virtue of this, he was reckoned as the ruler of the central region of Alexander’s empire. A few years after making the city of Babylon his headquarters, Seleucus decided to build a new capital city some 40 miles north on the Tigris. The reason for the move was mainly brought about by nature. Old Babylon was decaying. The Euphrates was changing its course away from the city. Uncontrollable swamps were beginning to abound in the area. And also, the ravages of wars had taken their toll on the old city.

Thus, Seleucus built a new city, using some of the material from the old city of Babylon. Significantly, the king demanded that the population of old Babylon move to this new city on the Tigris. It was called Seleucia-on-the-Tigris or new Babylon. Thus, the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar was practically left empty of inhabitants. The old city went into a state of decay very soon and in the time of Jesus it was in ruins and virtually empty. This is because Seleucus built his new city north of Babylon and ordered the population to move there. These facts have long been known by historians, but the general public today (and many ministers of religion) are not aware of this change from the original Babylon to another one that is where Baghdad is now located. This new city was called "New Babylon" and Seleucus (after the king).

"Seleucus, having called this city by his own name, and designed it for an eminent monument thereof in after ages, gave it many privileges above the other cities of the east, and these were a further invitation to the Babylonians to transport themselves to it, and by these means, Babylon [old Babylon on the Euphrates] became wholly desolated so that nothing was left remaining of it but its walls."

  • Prideaux, Old and New Testament Connected, vol.I, p.540

The new city of Seleucus was Greek on the outside, but in the core it was Babylonian. The ground plan, for instance, was built as an eagle, the symbol of the old Babylonian empire.

"Although the days were long past when the Babylonians had borne rule in Asia, the Babylonian people and the Babylonian civilization existed still."

The new city gathered to it not only the inhabitants of old Babylon but also people "from Assyria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Syria," that is, from all Mesopotamia! (Smith’s Smaller Classical Dictionary, p.476).

This city became new Babylon, the capital of the Seleucid empire. As Bevan says, Babylon was simply "transferred to another site" (House of Seleucus, p.253). It became common to call the inhabitants of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris the "Babylonians" (Strabo, Geography, XVI.7.43).

This means that the civilization of Babylon did not cease to exist. While it is true that the old site of the former Babylon (that had existed for almost the previous 2000 years) went into ruin, the political and religious "Babylon" continued to flourish with the new city on the Tigris River. This, however, does not end the story. There was yet to be one more move in western Asia of the political and religious "Babylon." We will continue with the story in the next chapter.

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