Laodice I (c. 285–c. 236 BCE)

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Laodice I (c. 285–c. 236 bce)

Queen of Syria who fought fiercely to ensure that sons of her line would rule over Seleucid Asia. Born around 285 bce; died around 236 bce; daughter of Achaeus, a Seleucid prince, and an unknown mother; married Antiochus II, third Seleucid (that is, Macedonian) king of Asia; children: daughters, Stratonice III, Laodice II, and perhaps an unnamed third daughter; sons, Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax (the Hawk).

Although one source claims that Laodice I was the daughter of Antiochus I, the second Seleucid king of Asia, she was more likely the daughter of Antiochus' brother, Achaeus. The name of Laodice's mother is unknown. So also is the year of her birth, although chronological considerations of a dynastic nature suggest that she was born around 285 bce. If so, Laodice would have been about 20 when she married her cousin Antiochus II, the son of Antiochus I.

The mid-260s were a difficult time for Antiochus I, for the periphery of his empire had begun to break away from centralized authority. This process was exasperated by the disaffection of Seleucus I, the older of his two sons. Confronted with Seleucus' excessive ambition, Antiochus I had him executed. This personal tragedy, in conjunction with the waning of his physical vigor, stimulated Antiochus I to elevate his other son, Antiochus II, to the position of co-regent (266). It was almost certainly within this context that Antiochus I then arranged for the marriage of Laodice to Antiochus II, both to consolidate dynastic interests within the Seleucid house and to promote the production of children to carry on the royal line.

With Antiochus II, Laodice had two sons, Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax (the Hawk), two daughters, Stratonice III and Laodice II , and perhaps an unnamed third daughter. These daughters later functioned as diplomatic pawns in Antiochus II's losing battle to maintain control of his kingdom's frontiers. Stratonice would marry Ariarathes III of Cappadocia; Laodice II would marry Mithridates II of Pontus (both subkingdoms in modern Turkey). In addition, it is possible that a third daughter may have become the wife of Diodotus, a general appointed to Bactria (modern Afghanistan). Diodotus was originally loyal to Seleucid interests, but, after his province was cut off from the heart of the Seleucid Empire (in modern Syria) by the successful rebellion of the Parthians in 247, he eventually established an independent command in the east.

Urged on by his mother, Laodice, who should have restrained him instead, Seleucus inaugurated his reign with a murder.


Despite the serious erosion of the Seleucid frontiers, however, when Antiochus II became sole monarch after the death of his father in 261, he occupied himself primarily with problems of more immediate importance to the core of his realm. What concerned Antiochus II was the Egyptian encroachment upon territories along the coasts of Aegean Turkey and Palestine that he considered his by dynastic right. Alexander the Great's Empire stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River had lasted but a short time after that conqueror's death in 323. By 270, what Alexander had briefly united had been divided among several states, chief among them being the Macedonian kingdoms in Europe, Asia and Egypt, ruled respectively by the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic dynasties (each founded by a general who had once served under Alexander). These rival monarchies owed their independent existences to the on-again, off-again wars waged chiefly among themselves.

By 261, to protect Egypt and to expand his sphere of influence, Ptolemy II, the reigning king of Egypt, had seized most of the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, much of which had been at least for a time under a Seleucid master. To rectify this "injustice" to his territorial claims, in 259 Antiochus II (after having arranged for a temporary alliance with Antigonus II, the Macedonian king of Europe) launched the Second Syrian War against Ptolemy II. By 253, Antiochus II had achieved enough success in this conflict for Ptolemy II to offer peace—a peace to be secured through the marriage of Antiochus II to Ptolemy's daughter, Berenice Syra . In order to sweeten the deal, Ptolemy II offered to Antiochus the lucrative revenues of Palestine, then being collected by Egypt, as Berenice's dower. Lusting after these revenues and worrying that a continuation of war could undermine interests further afield, Antiochus agreed to the peace and marriage—a decision which had profound implications for Laodice. Although royal polygamy was well established in the Macedonian tradition at this time, Ptolemy II would have none of it in this case. Fearing that the life of his beloved daughter would be endangered if Laodice remained at court, and wanting a son of Berenice Syra to succeed Antiochus II in lieu of the two heirs already produced by Laodice, the Egyptian king made it a condition of peace that Antiochus divorce Laodice.

This Antiochus did, even though he doted on Laodice. (However, being somewhat of an alcoholic playboy, he was certainly not faithful to her.) In order to soften the blow of rejection, Antiochus gave Laodice a substantial estate, consisting of several properties near Babylon and Borsippa. These provided for a comfortable "retirement," but, after leaving Antioch (the Seleucid capital), Laodice and her children had no intention of residing in the relative isolation of Mesopotamia. Rather, they took up residence in Ephesus. The Aegean seaport of Ephesus was far better placed both for the inauguration of political intrigue and for the successful flight that might become necessary if such intrigue went awry. Clearly, Laodice had no intention of abandoning her husband or his empire to Berenice Syra and any sons she might produce.

Within a year of her Seleucid marriage, Berenice did give birth to a son in whose person was the promise of a lasting peace between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Nevertheless (for whatever reason, but certainly at the instigation of Laodice), Antiochus abandoned Berenice Syra and Antioch for Ephesus and Laodice. On a personal level, Antiochus obviously preferred Laodice over Berenice Syra, but it is equally clear that Laodice must have been politically active on behalf of her sons and against Egypt. Otherwise, Antiochus' potentially foolhardy alienation of Ptolemy II and the revenues of Palestine is inexplicable. As far as the succession was concerned, Laodice almost certainly pointed out to Antiochus' subjects that their well-being depended on a secure succession. Furthermore, she probably suggested that her sons were unlikely to give way before the claims of Berenice Syra's infant son, and that, because they were older, they had a much better chance of attaining their majority before Antiochus II died. In addition, it is also likely that Laodice used her location in Ephesus to approach Antigonus II in Macedonia, for that monarch could not have been at all happy about a Seleucid-Ptolemy alliance. As such, it is probable that Antigonus pulled out all the stops to convince Antiochus II that a union with Laodice was more in his long-term interest than one with Berenice Syra.

Although Antiochus II remained in Ephesus for several years after joining Laodice there, no open breech between Syria and Egypt developed, both because he did not officially divorce Berenice and because Ptolemy II, despite applying diplomatic pressure on Antiochus to return to his (second) wife, was apparently too far into physical decline for an aggressive move against Antiochus.

So things continued until January 246 bce, when the death of Ptolemy II brought Berenice Syra's brother, Ptolemy III, to the Egyptian throne. Unwilling to tolerate the humiliation of his sister and kingdom, Ptolemy III pressured Antiochus II to honor the obligations which he had accepted in order to win the revenues of Palestine at the end of the Second Syrian War. Within months, this assertiveness appeared on the verge of paying off, for it seemed as though Antiochus was about to return to Berenice Syra in Antioch. In August, however, just before an imminent departure, Antiochus died suddenly—almost certainly the victim of poison. Immediately thereafter, Laodice had her son, Seleucus II, proclaimed king.

Thus throwing down the political gauntlet, Laodice acted decisively against her rival and her rival's son before their rescue could be effected by Ptolemy II. Both were murdered in Antioch, certainly at Laodice's instigation and perhaps even personally carried out by her son, Seleucus II. Thereafter, Ptolemy III invaded the Seleucid Empire, beginning the Third Syrian War (246–241). Although too late to save Berenice Syra, Ptolemy's incursion reasserted his control over much of the Palestinian and Anatolian coasts. Her sons being too inexperienced to confront Ptolemy III directly, Laodice championed their dynastic claims. In this role she functioned competently, forestalling the premature collapse of Seleucid power. One anecdote in particular testifies to both Laodice's position and ruthlessness. Concerned with the loyalty of Sophron, the commander of her Ephesus garrison, Laodice discussed her fears in front of one of her personal attendants, a woman named Danae , who, unknown to Laodice, was also Sophron's lover. After Danae warned Sophron about his imminent arrest, he betrayed Ephesus to Ptolemy III. When Laodice discovered how Sophron had been forewarned, she had Danae—hitherto an intimate—thrown to her death from a cliff. To a Laodice engaged in a war for the very survival of her line, nothing could excuse such perfidy.

Despite her leadership during the Third Syrian War, Laodice's ultimate impact upon the Seleucid was mixed at best. Perhaps emboldened by her success in maintaining the core of the Seleucid Empire against Egypt's aggression, Laodice refused to relinquish the reins of power once peace had been arranged. Despite the fact that her older son was well over 20 when a new pact ended this round of war with Egypt, Laodice refused to withdraw from public affairs. In fact, to ensure the extension of her own influence and perhaps imagining her influence over her younger son to be greater than over her older, Laodice incited Antiochus Hierax (only 14 at the time) to challenge Seleucus II's sole possession of the Seleucid throne. Laodice's encouragement of Antiochus Hierax provoked a debilitating civil war which ended only in 236, which even then was settled only after Seleucus II ceded to Antiochus Hierax his territorial claims north of the Taurus Mountains—thus effectively relinquishing all personal claims to Anatolia. Although the brothers thereafter are known to have co-operated at least occasionally, their rivalry certainly accelerated the disintegration of the Seleucid Empire.

When Laodice died is unknown. Nevertheless, given her willingness to pit her sons against each other for her personal advantage, it is unlikely that she lived to see their reconciliation in 236. It is even possible that her death precipitated this reconciliation.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California