Theses Doctoral

State Formation and Ethnic Identity in the Late-Seleucid Levant (200–63 BCE)

Ish-Shalom, Tal A.

This dissertation provides a model for understanding the relation between shifting imperial and post-imperial geopolitics and cultural change in diverse local communities. Specifically, I offer a new perspective on the debate in ancient history regarding “Hellenization,” i.e., the adoption and adaptation of Greek cultural idioms by non-Greek communities. Despite recent advances in emphasizing local communities’ agency in the “Hellenization” process, scholars tend to maintain a rigid dichotomy of monolithic “Greek” vs. “local” culture, and do not offer a comprehensive model accounting for variations in changes, and continuity, by region or time.

I propose such a model for the late- and post-Seleucid Levant, and offer significant insights into Hellenistic, Phoenician and Jewish history. I argue that following the Seleucid conquest in the early second century BCE, diverse local communities began competing against each other for imperial favor by often resorting to a form of particularistic ethnic discourse, which emphasized claims to ancestral, pre-Hellenistic identities. In a paradoxical process, however, competing communities often adopted Greek cultural idioms to support these particularistic claims. While it is shown how the specific Greek cultural idioms adapted, varied according to sub-region and period, leadership, and geopolitical situation, it is argued that the idiosyncratic competitive dynamic, fostered by Seleucid power, incentivizing both particularistic discourse and the adoption of new Greek cultural idioms, proved pivotal in allowing diverse communities to develop a Greek cultural “infrastructure.”

The political-cultural analysis allows us to broaden and nuance our understanding of subsequent Seleucid disintegration. By better integrating the literary and epigraphical sources with a fresh approach to the numismatic evidence (including the study of some unpublished collections) and taking into account the dramatic archaeological advances of the past two decades, I propose a new model for Seleucid decline. The “concessionist” dynamic outlined by recent scholarship, according to which local elites exploited Seleucid dynastic rivalries to extract privileges, needs to be qualified. While describing well the situation in some communities, such as Hasmonaean Judaea, it is not adequate for cities on the Phoenician coast. Rather, I propose an alternative “loyalist-secessionist” model, stressing the greater importance of external actors, especially the underappreciated role of the Ptolemies and a new understanding of Rome’s indirect involvement.

The cultural implications for this novel political-historical model come to the fore following a watershed in Seleucid political history, the death of King Antiochus VII in 129 BCE. In an anarchic late-Hellenistic world, smaller cities, such as Tyre and Sidon, upon becoming independent, sought new alliances by re-utilizing their Greek cultural “infrastructure” towards greater institutional and cultic homology with Greek peer polities. In the absence of Seleucid pressure towards particularism, by contrast, traditional elements were rendered obsolete or even counterproductive to these new efforts. Thus, only at this stage of independence from Hellenistic empire non-Greek cultural elements atrophied, explaining the loss of Phoenician language in this period and the decline in sites of native cult. In other words, it was not a long, linear process of “Hellenization” but concrete, largely contingent, historical factors that explain this development in the specific time and place.

In the neighboring Hasmonaean kingdom, by contrast, a series of contingent events (e.g., the “Judaization” of the Idumaeans) created a power-multiplier that put the kingdom onto a different trajectory. Prioritizing imperialistic ambitions, and shifting their own Greek “infrastructure” accordingly, they were not incentivized to similarly abandon traditional language and cult. Rather, by adopting a new ethos of a Hellenistic court, the kingdom facilitated the coalescing of newly-Judaized elites around the Hasmonaean dynasty and Jerusalem, fostering a metrocentric imperialistic outlook which paradoxically complemented and cemented rather than replaced the Yahwistic cult and a sense of Jewish particularism. This, I argue, is a key, hitherto overlooked, factor in the continuity of particularistic Jewish identity, which may help historicize and elucidate the seeming Jewish “exceptionalism” in the region.

Put differently, the observed cultural divergence between Levantine communities, clearly apparent by the Roman period, can, in fact, be traced to, and elucidated by a specific historical moment, the common experiences of Seleucid imperial domination and the contingent effects of it collapse in the course of the 2nd century BCE.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
Schwartz, Seth R.
Ma, John T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 3, 2023