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Demetrius I Soter – Roman hostage who dreamed of rebuilding Seleucid Empire

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Coin of Demetrius I Soter
Coin of Demetrius I Soter | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Demetrius I Soter was the ruler of the Seleucid state from 162 to 150 BCE. Demetrius proved to be an ambitious and talented leader, who, however, in the face of the progressive disintegration of the state, numerous enemies and the power of Rome, was not able to succeed in rebuilding the former glory of the Seleucid Empire.

Crisis of the Seleucid state

The defeat of Antiochus III (Demetrius’ grandfather) in the Seleukid War, which lasted 192-190 BCE, was in fact the end of the Seleucid state. The Romans put very difficult peace conditions on their rivals. The ruler of the Seleucid dynasty gave up the lands in Asia Minor above the Taurus Mountains, gave his son Antiochus IV as a hostage, and agreed to pay a contribution of 15,000 talents. In addition, the Seleukid fleet was reduced to a few ships, the use of war elephants was forbidden, and the Seleucids were not allowed to make alliances and issue wars. The provisions of the truce were finally included in the peace treaty in 188 BCE. in Apamea, and the Roman Republic gained a very strong position in the Eastern Mediterranean.

After the death of Antiochus III in 187 BCE, his son Seleucus IV Philopator took power, who was forced to live in harmony with Rome and pay a huge contribution. At one point, however, Seleucus came into conflict with Pergamon, an ally of Rome, which the Senate did not like. Seleucus was forced to send his son Demetrius hostage to Rome in 175 BCE, and in return, Antiochus IV was allowed to return. In the same year, an assassination attempt occurred at the Seleucid court and Seleucus was killed; however, the power was taken over by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had just been released from Rome.

Demetrius held hostage in Rome

When Demetrius was sent to Rome, he was about 12 years old. The Romans practised taking boys from foreign elites as hostages because in this way they could properly shape the minds of boys and their docile attitude towards Rome, and then install a ruler friendly to them on the throne. Demetrius, like other foreign young hostages, was brought up precisely in the spirit of friendship with Rome.

Polybius clearly states that there was a belief that Demetrius should be held hostage while his father was in power; however, with his death in 175 BCE. Demetrius should be released. The boy, however, was too young and unaware of his rights, and therefore did not even strive for freedom.

Unexpectedly, in 164 BCE Antiochus IV died during the military expedition against the Parthians and Bactrians, and his son Antioch V, who at that time was only 9 years old, took the throne. Demetrius, already 22 years old, demanded his rights to the throne because after the death of his father in 175 BCE he deserved the throne of the Seleucids. Demetrius was to deliver a speech in which he argued that Rome was both his motherland and protector and that he had many friends among the sons of senators. Demetrius’ words, however, did not impress the Senate, which rejected the request. As Polybius points out, Rome liked a state ruled by a child, not an ambitious man.

Additionally, to control the situation in Syria, the newly appointed legates of Gnaeus Octavius, Spurius Lucretius and Lucius Aurelius were sent there to control the rule of the young Antiochus V. Apamea. These demands, however, met with enormous opposition from the people of Antioch, who killed Octavius. It was a major crack in Roman-Seleukid relations, and on top of everything, accusations of Antiochus V’s participation in this event began to appear; but the king’s advisor, Lysias, denied this with all firmness.

Escape of Demetrius from Rome

Demetrius decided to take advantage of the new situation. First, he was to go to his friend Polybius for advice. Polybius, like Demetrius, got to Rome as a hostage. During the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE (the Third Macedonian War – 171-168 BCE) in which Aemilius Paulus smashed the Macedonian phalanx to dust and dust, Polybius was captured. His origin and (perhaps) the fact that he showed great skills on the battlefield (for which the Romans praised him) meant that he was sent to Italy in 167 BCE, along with thousands of other noble Achaeans. Due to his high personal culture, Polybius came under the protection of consul Aemilius Paulus, who was a lover of Greek culture.

Demetrius asked Polybius if he should appear again before the Senate asking for his release from Rome. The Greek historian, however, told him that a man does not stumble twice over the same stone and that he should believe in himself and prove that he deserves the throne. However, Demetrius consulted additionally with his other friend Apollonius, who advised to question the Senate again, as he can no longer be held hostage when his cousin is sitting on the throne. Demetrius decided to refer the request to the Senate again but was refused again.

Demetrius decided to follow Polybius’ advice and try his luck. He was confirmed in this belief by the adopted father Diodorus, who believed that it was a good time for Demetrius, because since the murder of Octavius, chaos has fallen in the Seleukid state, and people are distrustful of Antiochus V and his adviser.

Demetrius made the decision to escape and asked for help from Polybius. He introduced Demetrius to his friend Menyllus of Alabanda, who had chartered a ship at the mouth of the Tiber and provided him with transport to Tire. Finally, Demetrius managed to reach Antioch, where he also obtained real support from the aristocracy. In 162 BCE Demetrius took the Seleukid throne and killed his cousin and his adviser.

Sad rule and the end

Demetrius, who dreamed of regaining the former glory of the Empire, had to face big problems; Rebellions broke out in Judea, and the neighbouring states of Cappadocia, Pergamon and Egypt had a common policy regarding the Seleucids – they cared for a weak central authority. To this end, all three states endorsed the rights to the throne of Alexander Balas, who was to be the alleged son of Antiochus IV. The man also received the support of Rome, which proves how hopeless the situation was when ambitious Demetrius was. All that was left for him was to fight to the end and to send his descendants: Antiochus VII and Demetrius II to the west coast of Asia Minor, to Knidos. The Jews and Antioch again stood up against Demetrius, and he himself was finally killed in the fight.

  • Appian, Roman history
  • Polybius, The Histores

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