Well, we all know that Alexander the Great conquered a huge truckload of land to practically no point at all since he died shortly afterwards, but what happened then? Molecular biologist Jens Jakobsson has the answers, and offers them in Alexanders arvtagare. (No, the fact that he's a molecular biologist has nothing to do with the popular history book he's written; I just thought it was kinda cool.)
Basically, what happened when Alexander died was what could be expected – civil war broke out and the huge empire was split up between his generals. Since he'd defeated some of the strongest states there were at the time, it's no surprise that some of the pieces of his crumbling empire would also become quite strong players – like Ptolemaic Egypt, or the main subject of Jakobsson's book, the Seleucid Empire.
Jakobsson offers a recap of the events and wars leading to the splitting up of Alexander's empire between the Diadochi, and then concentrates on the successful Seleucus (who carved a nice big piece for himself) and his heirs. Seleucus appears to have been an intelligent man, who ruled reasonably well by the standards of the day and didn't go overboard with the killing of opponents, or defeated enemy armies. The huge and varied empire he created for himself was kept under control by a well organized bureaucracy, a huge standing army, and a network of cities – many of them founded by Seleucus. In this, he appears to have taken the lead of the Persians, who had ruled large chunks of his empire before. Still, the strong centrifugal forces of such a disparate empire meant that a lot of its rulers' time, energy and resources would be spent on simply keeping it together, and in the end, that would prove to be an impossible task. Partly this was because of the forces inherent in the empire, partly outside pressures (like the nascent Roman empire, which would turn out to be the victor in the end – only to eventually fall apart itself) and to a large extent, internal strife within the ruling class. That's something that's struck me again and again when reading about all these powerful ancient and medieval civilizations and states – if you stand united, you often seem to have a decent to good chance of standing up to even rather powerful adversaries, but if not, then you're pretty much screwed.
Anyway, Jakobsson depicts the political history of the Seleucid Empire (with the occasional gaps where the sources are unclear or simply non-existing), from Seleucus I, who was murdered in 281 BC, when he was about to conquer Macedonia and Thrace, and through the ebbs and resurgences of the empire until its final remains were defeated by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. He also makes excursions into the history of its neighbors – including kingdoms breaking out of the empire, like Bactria (on which he has done some research of his own) and the Maccabees. It's at times impressive how rulers managed to hold the empire together in the face of outside dangers, and at other times depressing how they wasted resources, married their sisters, fought with their mothers and generally made ordinary people's lives a lot harder than they should have been.
Basically, Jakobsson eventually concludes, the empire was simply too disparate and its Greek rulers too much of a foreign elite for it to last – and most importantly, its constant civil wars eroded both the empire's resources and the populations confidence in and respect for their rulers. To this can be added that the Romans developed military tactics and a level of organization that made the Greek phalanx obsolete, and that the Seleucid capital was a tad too vulnerable, placed at the Western edge of the empire instead of in a protected center. End result: No more Seleucid Empire.
So is this a book worth reading? Absolutely. I mean, its size alone makes the Seleucid Empire worth knowing about, and its at times sorry history also has something to teach us about how to govern, and how not to govern. That said, this is not a perfect book, partly due to circumstances beyond the author's control.
The main problem with the book is that it is, frankly, a bit of a mess. That's not Jakobsson's fault, though. Rather, it's the Seleucids'; there are so many of them, they fight constantly (and almost without exceptions die in strife rather than of old age), and keep losing and adding provinces, allies and enemies to their empire. So this is not a book that gives you a simple, easy-to-remember overview of the history of the Seleucid Empire, mainly because there isn't one to be had; prepare to read with care. Also, the publisher should have done one final proofreading of the book; there are plenty of small errors dispersed throughout the book that don't have any major impact on the quality of the narrative, but which seem a bit unnecessary.
Finally, the emphasis on political history leaves out a lot of stuff that might have made this an easier read; culture, philosophy, daily life and such, but the book is already at 200+ pages. Any more than the brief cultural overview in the introductory chapter would probably have made it overlong, even though Jakobsson writes an easy-going prose that makes this less of a hard slog than it might otherwise have been. Perhaps there will eventually be a follow-up book? I'd read it.
Recommended – albeit with the caveats already mentioned. You want the brief, easy-to-read version, you might want to start with Wikipedia.
Another review (in Swedish) of Jakobsson's book here.