Ancient History & Civilisation

Seleucus & Family:
Father-son solution to forbidden love

Besides conquering the world, Alexander the Great had another ambitious goal: to meld the cultures he conquered into one Greek-speaking entity. One of his bright ideas? After defeating the Persians, he selected eighty of his best and brightest Macedonian officers—including a shrewd young commander named Seleucus—to marry an equal number of dazzling Persian noblewomen. With cross-cultural procreation in mind, Alex splashed out lavishly for the spectacle. One of his less subtle party favors? Gold and silver nuptial couches for each couple.

Over the long term, Alex’s efforts fell flat—except for Seleucus, who adored his Persian bride Apama. Of the eighty, they were about the only pair to remain married. (Full disclosure: an adventurous princess, Apama had already hit the mattress with Seleucus. Several years earlier, she’d traveled to faraway India with her lover, where she’d given birth to their first child, Antiochus.)

Apama and Seleucus went on to have three more children. It’s rash to speculate about personality traits of long-ago people, but Seleucus, despite his job description, appeared to adore his wife and treat her well. On the other hand, he was one of those aristocratic Macedonian males, a group notorious for collecting wives, especially those who came with additional real estate.

Some twenty years after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., King Seleucus controlled mammoth chunks of the regions we now call Turkey, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and even a piece of India that went beyond what Alexander had won.

When Seleucus turned sixty, he lusted for just a little more territory— and thus married a superb young specimen named Stratonice, kin to several other Macedonian generals who’d been part of the Alexander inner circle. Taking his new bride to his capital of Antioch, Syria, the king named another city after Stratonice to make her feel at home. In addition, he gave his young wife “honorary goddess” status by setting up a local temple to worship Stratonice as Aphrodite.

These attentions may have given heartburn to Seleucus’s longtime wife Apama, who’d already had various cities named after her. Being older and wiser, she resigned herself to the newcomer. By now her son Antiochus was a strapping young man, training to succeed his father.

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This celebrity case of love sickness had a happy ending: son wins dad’s new wife, first wife retrieves original husband.

Suddenly, however, he fell ill with a mysterious disease and stopped eating. In despair, Seleucus paid outrageous sums to bring in Erasistratos, the most famous physician in the Greek world, to take the case. The doc was initially stymied because he couldn’t find physical symptoms of the malady. Being, however, a believer in psychosomatic disease, he hung out in the sickroom, observing family and friends as they came and went. All the visitors seemed to drain Antiochus’s vitality, with one exception: Stratonice, the young queen in blooming health.

Erasistratos was a learned man. He also adored the love poetry of Sappho, who’d lived several centuries earlier. He was familiar with her apt descriptions of passionate love—flushed face, sweaty body, faltering voice, irregular heartbeats—and he saw all these symptoms in Antiochus. Clearly the young man was lovesick; and at the same time, he recognized and felt guilty about the inappropriate nature of his passion for his stepmother.

So the doctor took King Seleucus aside, saying to him, “Your son has the disease of love for a woman, but a hopeless love.” Being a ruler and used to getting his way, Seleucus was astonished, demanding to know how to rectify the situation. Since he knew that the king loved his son dearly, Erasistratos delicately told him that Antiochus was in love with Stratonice.

After the initial shock, Seleucus clearly saw that he should step aside and let his son follow his desire. (Never mind what Stratonice thought; it was 293 B.C., after all.)

When the whole matter was resolved, King Seleucus then announced to his people that he was handing over the reins of his Upper Asia empire to the next generation, his son and Stratonice.

He actually offered to marry the young couple.

In this heartwarming story (written about by Greek historian Plutarch and others), everyone achieved happiness in this odd situation, even and especially Apama, the faithful first wife of Seleucus, who got him all to herself until his death at age seventy-seven. Young Antiochus the First won his true love and joyously went about founding nearly as many cities as Alexander the Great. The Seleucid dynasty and empire remained a vigorous force in the world and stayed independent of Roman rule until 190 B.C.

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