Seleucia

SELEUCIA (sē-lū’shĭ-a, Gr. Seleukia). The Seleucia of the NT was founded in 300 b.c. by Seleucus I Nicator, to provide a seaport for Syrian Antioch, which lay some sixteen miles (twenty-seven km.) inland. It lay near the mouth of the Orontes and was a naval base in Roman imperial times. It was the port of departure for Paul and Barnabas on their first journey (Acts.13.4). This city is to be distinguished from the Seleucia on the Tigris founded by the same monarch twelve years earlier.


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SELEUCIA sĭ lōō’ shə (Σελευκία). Seleucia stands on the coast of Syria in the NE corner of the Mediterranean, some five m. N of the mouth of the Orontes River. Antioch, the capital of Syria, royal seat of the Seleucid kings, was a few m. inland, at the point where the Orontes, after its northern course between the Lebanon ranges, turns sharply E to the sea. The grave deforestation of the Lebanon ranges, which began thirteen centuries b.c., when the Phoen. occupants of the coastal strip became aware that there was an international market for cedar timber produced a problem of erosion which has not been adequately solved even today. Hence the heavy burden of eroded soil carried to the sea by the Orontes. Because of this erosion the construction of Seleucia’s artificial harbor somewhat N of the mouth of the Orontes proved to be wise. It was formed, according to the visible remains, of two stone jetties of which the southern one took a wider sweep and overlapped the northern, thus giving an entrance sheltered from the prevailing S wind and blocking the northward drift of the Orontes silt. Even so, the silt deposited along the coast by the outflow of the river ultimately filled and choked Seleucia’s outlet to the sea. The site of the harbor today is a damp flat, built of alluvial deposits, in which a few fragments of the harbor masonry can be distinguished. Seleucia, designed to serve as a port for Antioch, was one of nine cities which bore the name of Seleucus, the first ruler of the dynasty which ruled Syria and adjacent territories from the beginning of the 3rd cent. b.c. until the Romans assumed control of the eastern Mediterranean, two and a half centuries later.

One of the most astonishing phenomena of history was the transformation of the political pattern of the Eastern Mediterranean by the rapid conquests of Alexander the Great and the partition of his subjugated territories by the Successors, as his generals who carved themselves kingdoms were called. Seleucus, who took the title Nicator, was one of Alexander’s lesser generals, who boldly seized control of the northern central satrapies of Alexander’s empire. He founded the Seleucid kingdom of Syria in 312 b.c. and in 301 he built the port which bore his name. Seleucus and Antiochus were both common Seleucid names. This accounts for the various Seleucias and Antiochs which are scattered over the map of the Hel. kingdom.

The Syrian Seleucia was known as Seleucia Pieria, to distinguish it from the similarly named foundations in Mesopotamia, and in the neighboring region of Cilicia. The appended adjective Pieria preserves in all probability the name of an existing Phoen. port, overlaid by Seleucus’ major foundation; however, there is no evidence to prove the fact, for serious archeological investigation has not yet been undertaken on what is likely to prove a richly rewarding site. The Syrian monarch intended his port to be a strong fortress guarding one of the chief approaches to his kingdom. For all its strength, natural and engineered, about a half cent. later, Seleucia was captured by Ptolemy III Euergetes, who launched an attack on Syria, prob. from Cyprus as his base (1 Macc 11:8). Lacking the compactness of Ptolemaic Egypt, Syria found it difficult to control the various territories and tortuous frontiers of her far-flung complex of heterogeneous peoples and provinces and lived in long rivalry with her fellow successor state of Egypt, but she suffered no setback more serious than this damaging inroad into the heart of her kingdom by the third Ptolemy. Seleucia remained in Egyp. hands, a nearby menace to the security of Antioch, for over thirty years. It was recaptured by Antiochus the Great in 219 b.c., but again fell briefly into the hands of the Ptolemies in 146 b.c. Polybius’ chapters on Antiochus’ siege of Seleucia contain a lucid description of the port’s military importance and of its topography.

Antiochus’ recovery of Seleucia from Syria’s Egyp. rival, was part of the program of that military king to recapture and consolidate all the varied regions of the Seleucid kingdom, and it was obvious that he would restore Seleucia first of all. He regarded the port as a symbol of all his soldierly success, and the story is told that in 205 b.c., he entered Seleucia in triumph, like a second Alexander, with a train of elephants and masses of plunder. It was prob. on this festive occasion that the monarch assumed the ancient royal title of the Achaemenid rulers, and called himself “the great king.” His common appellation was “Antiochus the Great.” Under his rule Seleucia was greatly beautified and its fortifications strengthened to enable the port more effectively to fulfill its major purpose, and provide a bastion of defense for Antioch, the capital.

It was the far campaigning of Antiochus the Great, in his efforts to regain control of all areas once held by Seleucid Syria, which brought him into direct confrontation with the Romans, who, awakened to their international obligations by the Second Punic War, were realizing that their quest for a stable frontier must extend to the Hel. kingdoms of the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Antiochus’ great political mistake was his failure to recognize the emerging power of Rome, and her vital interest in the eastern Mediterranean. He thrust his conquests too far to the W and was decisively defeated by the Romans. By a treaty signed at Apamea on the Orontes in 188 b.c., the Seleucid kingdom of Syria ceased to be a great power in the Mediterranean world, but retained her place as a continental power in the Middle E. Seleucia was still a major fortress in Syrian hands. Rome, after all, was not seeking conquests, so much as a stable eastern wall.

It was not till well over a cent. later that the Romans appeared in power in the heartlands of the Syrian empire. Mithridates of Pontus and Tigranes of Armenia looked with hostility and suspicion on the consolidation of Rom. power in Asia Minor. It was because of a general breakdown of order in the eastern Mediterranean and its associated territories, that the Rom. Senate invested the great soldier Pompey with special powers in 66 b.c. to deal with the growing chaos of the area and to restore peace, Pompey’s three years in the E were a remarkable feat of soldiering and administration. When Pompey arrived, he found that an Armenian and Pontic invasion had reached as far as Jerusalem. Seleucia, thanks to the strengthened fortifications of a cent. before, was still intact in the rear of the invading armies. It was for this reason, after his rapid recovery of all territories W of the Euphrates, that Pompey bestowed on Seleucia the status of “free city.” In his organization of the wide arc of eastern territories from Asia Minor to Egypt, Pompey eliminated what was left of the Seleucid kingdom. It had long been in decline, weakened by domestic and dynastic strife, and eroded along all its borders by progressive loss of control. Recognizing that fact, Pompey formed Syria into a Rom. province. Seleucia remained a free town within the provincial borders, and an essential port of entry for the distant power which had assumed control. The port was further fortified to act as Caesarea did on the same difficult coast, as a harbor, a base, and a bridgehead.

With the coming of Rom. domination and the Rom. peace to an area which had been rent and enfeebled by chaos, weak government, and chronic war, Seleucia began a cent. of significant development. The maritime activity of the port must have been great. It was not only a place of exit and entry for an important Rom. province, but a staging post for ships in an age when navigation favored coastal sailing. It was from Seleucia that Paul and Barnabas sailed for neighboring Cyprus (Acts 13:4) on the first Christian missionary journey. Half a cent. later, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, passed through Seleucia on his way to martyrdom in Rome. Paul and Barnabas undoubtedly returned that way (14:26), but it was so taken for granted that Seleucia was the gateway to Antioch, whither the twain were proceeding to make report, that no specific reference is made to the port. It is unlikely that they sailed up the lower reach of the Orontes to Antioch itself, although, for smaller ships, this was navigationally possible. It is an odd fact that, in the sea beyond the silt-covered remains of Seleucia’s harbor works, there are two fragments of the old masonry which are known as Paul and Barnabas. It is also likely that it was from Seleucia, in Paul’s second tour abroad, that he and Silas set sail (15:40, 41). Barnabas and Mark no doubt used the same departure point (15:39). Cyprus is visible on a clear day. The current on the coast sets in a northeasterly direction, but a good offshore wind would counteract its thrust and land the travelers in Cyprus in less than a day.

Seleucia retained its status as a free city and this dignity was confirmed by Vespasian in a.d. 70. All through the 1st cent., Seleucia was the base of Rome’s Syrian fleet. There were continual Rom. attempts in imperial times to improve a not very satisfactory port, and there are traces of Rom. engineering. Chief among these remains is a vast tunnel some 200 yards long, designed to direct some of the downflow from the hills away from Seleucia’s harbor works. The problem of erosion and silting was evidently a serious concern. The tunnel bears the inscribed names of both Vespasian and his son Titus. The inference might be that Seleucia had assumed large importance as a base and supply port during the Great Rebellion in Judaea. It had a clear advantage over Caesarea for this purpose, because of its relative remoteness from the scene of war and guerrilla harassment.

Reverting to notable travelers moving through the port of Seleucia, mention must be made of the Neopythagorean sage, Apollonius from Tyana in Cappadocia. Born about the beginning of the Christian era, and surviving almost to the end of the cent., this teacher and pagan misisonary matched his contemporary Paul in the length of his journeys and in his zeal for a moral way of life. Philostratus wrote in his life of Apollonius (III: lviii), that he “went down to the sea at Seleucia, and finding a ship sailed to Cyprus.” The journey must have almost coincided with that of Paul and Barnabas. Like Paul, the sage wrote letters to various groups, and two of them are addressed to the councilors of Seleucia, who had asked him to visit them. He regarded the Syrian city as “hospitable to man and devoted to the gods” (Epistles of Apollonius, XII and XIII).

The city at this time must have been a splendid place with a wealth of temples and an amphitheater cut out of a cliff, which may still be seen. The great road which linked Seleucia with Antioch may also be traced here and there, and the lofty ruin of the market gate through the city wall survives. On the steep lower slopes of Mousa Dagh, there are great man-made caverns which, it is suggested, were warehouses in the days of Seleucia’s commercial prosperity and sea-borne trade.

Seleucia presents a strong challenge to modern archeology. The University of Princeton has been interested in the whole area, and from 1932 has conducted extensive excavations at neighboring Antioch. The nearby ruins of Seleucia, spread along the Mediterranean shore and for a distance inland, are as yet hardly touched by the diggers. For two years before the long interruption of the Second World War, digging was done at Seleucia. Some houses, the market gate, and a Doric temple were cleared, also a 5th-cent. memorial Christian church, the Martyrion, but excavation of the whole city calls for a major effort on the part of the Lebanese government which controls the site.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The seaport of Antioch from which it is 16 miles distant. It is situated 5 miles North of the mouth of the Orontes, in the northwestern corner of a fruitful plain at the base of Mt. Rhosus or Pieria, the modern Jebel Musa, a spur of the Amanus Range. Built by Seleucus Nicator (died 280 BC) it was one of the Syrian Tetrapolis, the others being Apameia, Laodicea and Antioch. The city was protected by nature on the mountain side, and, being strongly fortified on the South and West, was considered invulnerable and the key to Syria (Strabo 751; Polyb. v.58). It was taken, however, by Ptolemy Euergetes (1 Macc 11:8) and remained in his family till 219 BC, when it was recovered for the Seleucids by Antiochus the Great, who then richly adorned it. Captured again by Ptolemy Philometor in 146 BC, it remained for a short time in the hands of the Egyptians. Pompey made it a free city in 64 BC in return for its energy in resisting Tigranes (Pliny, NH, v.18), and it was then greatly improved by the Romans, so that in the 1st century AD it was in a most flourishing condition.

On their first missionary journey Paul and Barnabas passed through it (Ac 13:4; 14:26), and though it is not named in Ac 15:30,39, this route is again implied; while it is excluded in Ac 15:3.

The ruins are very extensive and cover the whole space within the line of the old walls, which shows a circuit of four miles. The position of the Old Town, the Upper City and the suburbs may still be identified, as also that of the Antioch Gate, the Market Gate and the King’s Gate, which last leads to the Upper City. There are rock-cut tombs, broken statuary and sarcophagi at the base of the Upper City, a position which probably represents the burial place of the Seleucids. The outline of a circus or amphitheater can also be traced, while the inner harbor is in perfect condition and full of water. It is 2,000 ft. long by 1,200 ft. broad, and covers 47 acres, being oval or pear-shaped. The passage seaward, now silted up, was protected by two strong piers or moles, which are locally named after Barnabas and Paul. The most remarkable of the remains, however, is the great water canal behind the city, which the emperor Constantius cut through the solid rock in 338 AD. It is 3,074 ft. long, has an average breadth of 20 ft., and is in some places 120 ft. deep. Two portions of 102 and 293 ft. in length are tunneled. The object of the work was clearly to carry the mountain torrent direct to the sea, and so protect the city from the risk of flood during the wet season.

Church synods occasionally met in Seleucia in the early centuries, but it gradually sank into decay, and long before the advent of Islam it had lost all its significance.