Calendars are the bones of history. They fortify the memory of individuals and societies, and they suggest explanations for documented events. Without them there would be no structure to what happens apart from sequential order. All calendars depend on astronomy and the cycles of the seasons, but fixing a starting date is unavoidable.
The history of the Greek and Roman world is full of different calendars, often called eras, which served states and rulers as a means of commemorating them for good or ill. Eras furnished a commonly accepted chronology, often with more than local recognition. The Romans dated their republic from the foundation of the city (ab urbe condita), which had a traditional but fictitious date of 753 BCE, supported by the first-century BCE scholar M. Terentius Varro. The Athenians dated by the year of individual magistrates known as archons; the Jews used traumatic events such as the Babylonian exile. Many individual cities had their own calendars, which began with the tenure of specific magistrates or priests and restarted at the beginning of a new tenure.
An event could thereby be dated in many ways. In trying to locate the precise time of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, with his characteristic thoroughness, offers a bouquet of dates—the fifteenth year after the conquest of Euboea, the forty-eighth year of a priesthood at Argos, the year of Pythodorus’s archonship at Athens, and six months after the battle of Potidaea.
So it is hardly surprising that the first king of the Seleucid monarchy in Syria started a new calendar for his empire from the time he moved into Babylon in 311 BCE. He did not actually set up this new calendar until he had eliminated all his rivals in 305, but he retrojected his first year by six years, so that his new era began in 311. This move to establish his claim from the earliest moment of his uncontested authority in the region might easily be understood as yet another attempt to hitch a calendar to the reign of a king. But through a dense and wide-ranging study, grounded in the languages of the region (Akkadian and Greek), Paul Kosmin has brilliantly demonstrated in his new book, Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire, that Seleucus did much more than that.
Kosmin has seen, as no one before him, the chronology and consequences of the chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Historians have, of course, recognized for centuries that Alexander’s conquests transformed the eastern Mediterranean world, extending from the Middle East all the way to the Ganges. His achievements and his sudden death left the Persian empire of the Achaemenids on the brink of dissolution and the whole of Syria and Palestine, as well as western Asia Minor, open to competing claims from the generals that survived him, known as Diadochoi (“successors”). Alexander and the Macedonian army he brought with him left irreversible traces of Greek culture in the lands through which he passed. The realms over which his successors contended were very different from what they had been before he marched through them.
Alexander was not just another conqueror in the ancient world. He severed that world from its past. He hellenized it, and at the same time he delivered a lethal blow to its traditions. In securing an eastern empire Seleucus not only brought an end to the squabbling over the succession in the region: he inaugurated a new era, as might have been expected. But more than that: the era he inaugurated was not to end with his death but would continue to provide a calendar for centuries afterward. Kosmin observes,
The Seleucid Era was a continuous, unbroken count of years…. At Seleucus I’s death in 281 BCE, his son and successor, Antiochus I, did not restart the count, and the subsequent kings let it continue unbroken. Accordingly, the Seleucid Era’s time reckoning was uninterrupted, irreversible, paratactic, cumulative, endless, and directional…. This Seleucid Era was the world’s first continuous tally of counted years and the unheralded model for all subsequent era systems, including the Common Era.
The continuity of the Seleucid calendar has been known since antiquity and has been repeatedly emphasized in studies of ancient chronology, but it is Kosmin’s achievement to draw out the implications of this new calendar for subsequent time-keeping. It is by no means clear that Seleucus saw himself as the architect of a radical change in recording time, but he undoubtedly wanted to ensure the continuity of his dynasty. The Seleucid era, being open-ended, overshadowed and superseded the eras that his rivals established in Egypt, Macedonia, and Asia Minor.
After describing Seleucus’s initiative Kosmin develops a powerful argument about how it influenced memory of the past before Alexander. It is not certain that Seleucus had this in mind, because even without Seleucus Alexander himself had already transformed the nations he conquered, by importing Greek culture and language along with his Macedonian soldiers. But Seleucus undoubtedly did more. He altered the perceptions of the long past that extended from the Minoans and Mycenaeans through the Persian Wars and the age of Pericles all the way to Alexander. Among the Jews it was a past that extended from Moses through the Babylonian exile. Kosmin emphasizes the historical fissure that Alexander had opened up, and the way Seleucus exploited this to solidify his power. The centuries that followed until Pompey’s arrival with Roman troops in the first century BCE were inevitably different in many ways, but above all they were conspicuously disconnected from what had gone before.
The new Seleucid era proved to be the first of the regional eras that eventually proliferated all over the lands east of the Mediterranean. These sprang up largely from commercial and administrative contacts, not through conquest. Many began as local city eras. In the Roman provinces in the East various cities adopted local eras on the Seleucid model. After they took hold they were often used beyond the cities where they began. For example, the era of Bostra, in northern Jordan, became the era of the entire Roman province of Arabia—an era that lasted into late antiquity. In an excellent 1972 book on Greek and Roman chronology, which Kosmin oddly omits, Alan Samuel declared, after describing Seleucus’s calendar, “The number of eras which came into use and then expired to be replaced by yet other eras during Hellenistic and Roman times is probably not infinite, but I have not been able to find the end of them.”1 One sympathizes. Samuel’s frustration with the profusion of post-Seleucid calendars justifies Kosmin’s view that the Seleucid era was something new and that it constituted, accidentally or by design, a definitive break with the past.
As Kosmin acutely observes, the memory of the ancient Middle East grinds to a halt after Alexander, and the past, including the Babylonian captivity, became frozen in time. The severing of the past from the Seleucid era, Kosmin argues, was a goal of the dynasty, which tried to erase all that had come before it:
This temporal field, generated at court, propagated throughout the empire, and reenunciated by subject communities, took as the limit point of appropriate historical reference the Seleucid Era…. The Seleucids’ pervasive and exclusive orientation to their dynastic present meant that they owed no historical or moral debt to their predecessors. The empire was grounded only in itself.
Since the Seleucid era, unlike former regnal eras that ended with the last year of a monarch’s reign, did not end with Seleucus’s death, his dating system continued for centuries, long after the demise of his family and kingdom. It not only altered ways of reckoning both present and future time: it closed off the past.
To illustrate the rupture Kosmin shows that the Akkadian cuneiform “Uruk List of Kings and Sages” abruptly terminated its list of named kings. Their names had been paired from the beginning with a sage or scholar until the Seleucid period. But then comes the Greek name Nicarchus, probably given by the Seleucid king Antiochus II to a governor of Uruk, and this name appears without an associated scholar or sage. Thereby, Kosmin observes, “a millennia-long paradigm of Babylonian history” is undone.
Also, in Babylonia, an early-third-century priest called Berossus, who knew cuneiform and wrote in Greek, composed a history of the world from the creation down to his own time. Although his work, known as Babyloniaca, has been lost, it was read, excerpted, and summarized in the centuries that followed, so that it is possible to see what Berossus recorded. The first of his three books included a Babylonian account of genesis, narrated by a primeval sage called Oannes, who is said to have told the story after emerging from the waters of the Persian Gulf, where he had dwelled because he was part fish and part man. Equipped with a human voice, which conveniently allowed him to tell his story, he produced an account that bears a close resemblance to the creation narrative in the great Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. Oannes’ revelations extended from the great flood to the days of an unidentified but early Seleucid king in the third century BCE.
Berossus’s account of a certain Nabonassar in the eighth century BCE suggests knowledge of the calendar that Seleucus introduced: “Nabonassar collected and destroyed the deeds of the kings who preceded him in order that the enumeration of the kings of the Chaldeans [i.e., Babylonians] start from him.” It is tempting to see here the impact of Seleucus’s erasure of the past through his own new era. Because the Seleucids had ensured that the count of years would go inexorably forward after his death, the pre-Seleucid centuries had gradually disappeared into a distant past for all those affected by the new regime. These were Arabs, Jews, Persians, Macedonians, and Greeks. Perhaps in response to the temporal break these cultures began producing texts of their own that sought to bring their histories into the present, establishing links with a past that might otherwise have been cut off.
The Jews in Judaea, who became subject to Seleucid rule at the beginning of the second century BCE, had been there long before, as they knew from the Bible, including the Pentateuch and the Prophets, as well as other writings from Jewish antiquity. By far the latest biblical book is Daniel, from the first half of the second century BCE. It memorably evokes a pre-Seleucid past by a significant turn to apocalyptic narrative, or what Kosmin also calls eschatological narrative. Perhaps the best-known example of this genre is the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, with its dramatically visionary utterances. These allude obliquely to the past and also to the present in the form of what is called in Latin vaticinium ex eventu, a fictive prophecy that predicts something that actually occurred, or is imagined to have occurred, in the past. Kosmin rightly says, “These writings, although mostly treated as prognostic, future-oriented compositions, are works of historiography.” As historiography the book of Daniel affirms the existence and relevance of a past that the Seleucids had tried to smother. It becomes a new way of bringing closure to the remote past.
Daniel, together with comparable apocalyptic texts from Seleucid Judaea, including I Enoch, can be reasonably read, according to Kosmin, as a direct consequence of the dramatic calendar change introduced at the end of the fourth century BCE. This is because the apocalyptic genre allows, through its fictive prognosis, a representation of the remote past that is meaningful for the present. The well-known linguistic division of Daniel’s text into Aramaic and Hebrew can be explained to some extent by the combination of Babylonian court tales with Seleucid-era fictions about Jews in exile. Kosmin sees the book of Daniel as “a carefully constructed, programmatic unity,” which allows the Jews of Seleucid Judaea in the second century BCE to have an inspiring past during their confrontation with abusive rulers. Although it is impossible to make a precise correlation of the two languages with the court tales and the afflictions of exilic Jews, Kosmin finds Daniel to be more insightful about his own time than the second-century Greek historian Polybius. I am not sure he is right about this, but he has made a strong case.
In an arresting coda to his analysis of apocalyptic texts, Kosmin aptly invokes a cuneiform document called the Dynastic Prophecy, which brings the pre-Seleucid past into the present through an allegedly secret vision of the great gods. This vision is called secret because it appears to allow for the fall of the Seleucids. A similar project can be inferred from Zoroastrian apocalyptic literature with tendentious periodizations that not only repeat narratives of the historical past but also create a scenario for regime change in the future. These texts can be seen as undermining the Seleucid Empire by claiming that something else came before it and, more radically, that something else would succeed it. According to Kosmin, “It is a curious thing to oppose an empire by segmenting history…. The Seleucid kingdom, despite all its efforts to establish a limit-horizon of historical reference, was dragged into the same space of experience as the empires that had preceded it.”
Hellenistic history came to a spectacular end with the battle of Actium in 31 BCE followed by the suicide of Cleopatra a year later. Her death terminated the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and prepared the way for Augustus and a vast Roman empire that endured for three centuries. Recorded history in the Greek East after Actium began to flourish once again. Between Seleucus and Augustus there had been only one great historian in the Greek-speaking world, and that was Polybius, whose crabbed prose mirrored his courageous attempt to write a kind of serious history that had long gone out of fashion.
Greek writers of the Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE) had done little to commemorate the world in which they lived, because Rome was inexorably expanding its influence at the expense of the Greeks, but with the collapse of the Roman republic a new age dawned. From the Euphrates to the Atlantic everyone recognized the change. The poet Horace wrote odes about it. Augustan historians such as Asinius Pollio, whom Horace celebrated, could see that the exploits of Pompey had undermined the old chronological as well as administrative structures. New eras, including a Pompeian era, starting in 63 BCE, sprouted across the region, and the Roman provincial bureaucracy replaced local authorities.
In the early third century CE the Greek writer Philostratus provided unmistakable proof of the long neglect of the three centuries of the Hellenistic period. He composed a set of potted biographies of flamboyant orators, who were known in his day as sophists, and he introduced these biographies with a survey of Greek rhetoric from the golden age of Pericles. He singled out Gorgias in the fifth century BCE and then advanced to Aeschines and Demosthenes in the fourth century BCE. But after that his story moved abruptly to the reign of Nero in the first century CE. That means that Philostratus bypassed more than three centuries by naming no more than a few nonentities whom he considered utterly lacking in talent. He could then begin his account of later sophists with a certain Nicetes, who declaimed under Nero. Philostratus simply expunged the entire Hellenistic period in the Greek world. Although Philostratus lies outside Kosmin’s survey, he illustrates the lasting impact of the Seleucid era. His perspective would probably never have entered the consciousness of any educated Greek in the Roman Empire without the calendar reform of Seleucus and its attendant closure of the classical Greek past at the end of the fourth century BCE.
That the rhetorical tradition continued after the Seleucids only proves that no attempt to erase the past can ever stop the flow of history. Even the hiatus that swallowed up the Hellenistic period eventually vanished before Rome’s domination in the lands through which Alexander had passed. Of course every nation has its own calendar, to divide the present from the past. Yet this division never holds. In ancient Judaea the advent of the Seleucid Antiochus IV in the second century BCE saw a portentous struggle with the Maccabees. This turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Seleucid royal line in the following century.
As often happens with ancient history, new discoveries require new thinking, and even the subtle and persuasive arguments that Kosmin has given us leave space for new material and further reflection. It is worth mentioning two extraordinary floor mosaics of the fourth century CE that have recently been unearthed at Apamea in Syria and at Huqoq in Lower Galilee. Both evoke, many centuries later but still vividly, the world that Seleucus forged in the third century BCE.2 The Seleucid heritage was obviously still important in Syria and Palestine, even if the interpretation of the new images is still under discussion. One mosaic was discovered in an illicit excavation at Apamea in Syria, where it was photographed and secretly removed, presumably for the antiquities market. Its current location is still unknown. It depicts Seleucus’s foundation of the city of Apamea on the site of Pella, where a Macedonian military colony, also commemorated in the mosaic, had been established. Seleucus himself is pictured prominently with other Macedonian generals as well as his wife Apamê, whose memory was preserved in the name of the city.
The other mosaic of approximately the same late antique date was discovered in a controlled excavation at Huqoq in a synagogue with magnificent mosaics of biblical scenes, including Noah’s ark, Samson at Gaza, Jonah and the whale, the tower of Babel, and the drowning of Pharaoh’s soldiers. But the most striking of the images comprises three horizontal registers, of which the uppermost shows a king with his army, accompanied by war elephants, facing a group of men with drawn swords. Between the king and the sword-bearing throng is an older man of obvious authority with one hand pointed upward (to heaven, one supposes). The middle register shows the same person seated in the midst of an arcade with eight others, four on each side of him and all with lamps above them. The lower register shows the aftermath of a battle, with a fallen elephant. The most obvious interpretation of these three scenes is that they represent the Jewish resistance to a brutal assault from the Seleucid Antiochus IV against the Maccabees in the mid-second century BCE. Like the mosaic at Apamea, the one at Huqoq seems evidently to be a late antique allusion to the Seleucid age. The elephants, which the Seleucid armies favored, all but guarantee this. The problem is that all the other images at Huqoq are biblical.
Although current debate about these new images is inconclusive, they illustrate above all the long reach of the Seleucids into late antiquity. There is no problem about identifying the foundation of Apamea. But why a synagogue in Lower Galilee would incorporate a scene from the Maccabean revolt is by no means obvious, particularly when all the other images in the same synagogue evoke the biblical past. In my judgment Janine Balty has made the most reasonable suggestion,3 although she has not convinced everyone. She emphasizes the nine lamps above the seated figures and argues that the allusion must be to Hanukkah after the reconsecration in 164 BC of the Second Temple, which Antiochus IV desecrated. She sees the lamps as an allusion to the miraculous use of a modest amount of oil to light lamps for eight days. This would give the mosaic an appropriately Jewish context and identify the central older figure as the High Priest. It would also explain the presence of the scene in a synagogue even if it uniquely shows a strictly non-biblical episode.
The long memory of the Seleucid era is even more impressive in a few fragments of inscribed stones from the late Roman occupation of Syria, which suggest that Seleucus’s calendar was still in use in the late fourth century CE. An inscription that was seen and recorded in the nineteenth century at the western edge of the Leja plateau in southern Syria is dated to 689 by something that the text calls the “era of Damascus.” Although this part of the world usually employed the era of the province of Arabia, that era would deliver far too late a date, and recent editors have rightly determined that the era of Damascus in this instance is nothing less than the Seleucid era under another name.
Seleucus had correlated the Macedonian calendar of his army with the local Babylonian calendar he had found in place when he entered the region. The Macedonian calendar began in the autumn, but Seleucus knew perfectly well that the Babylonians began each year in the spring. He therefore combined the Babylonian calendar with the Macedonian one, so that there were two simultaneous calendars. In the winter the Macedonian calendar would be one year ahead of the Babylonian, but during the summer their years would be the same. In this way Seleucus could stake his claim, in front of his troops and among the Babylonians. This is the calculation behind the tradition of representing Seleucus’s first year as 312/311 BCE, indicating autumn 312 by Macedonian reckoning and spring 311 by Babylonian.
The Damascenes began their year in the spring, like the old Babylonians and unlike the Macedonian Seleucids, and it is now generally agreed that the Leja stone is dated by the Seleucid calendar but by reckoning from the spring of each year. Hence we seem to have a survival of Seleucid time in Syria as late as 377 CE—far later than any date Seleucus himself could have imagined. The double dating he introduced in 305 BCE, with each year beginning both in the autumn and in the spring, proved to have a longevity beyond any other era in the Middle East. This was no small achievement. Without Paul Kosmin’s meticulous investigation of what Seleucus achieved in creating his calendar without end we would never have been able to comprehend the traces of it that appear in late antiquity.
Of the countless new eras that emerged in antiquity after Seleucus, his was the most enduring and arguably made him the most influential of Alexander’s successors. Only Cleopatra, the last descendant of the successor Ptolemy, eclipsed the fame of the first Seleucid. But Seleucus achieved his fame by a rare conjunction of administrative creativity and military prowess. The cuneiform texts that Kosmin has expertly deployed prove that the Babylonians themselves accepted what was happening even when Seleucus was still alive. His book is a magisterial contribution to this hitherto obscure but clearly important restructuring of time in the ancient Mediterranean world.
Alan E. Samuel, Greek and Roman Chronology: Calendars and Years in Classical Antiquity (Munich: Beck, 1972), p. 246. ↩
For Apamea, see M.T. Olszewski and H. Saad, at popular-archaeology.com/article/wanted-a-remarkable-piece-of-history-, September 12, 2017; for Huqoq, Jodi Magness, Karen Britt, Ra‘anan Boustan, et al., “The Huqoq Exavation Project: 2014–2017 Interim Report,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 380 (2018). ↩
Janine Balty, “La ‘mosaïque à l’éléphant’ de Huqoq: un document très convoité et d’interprétation controversée,” Journal of Roman Archaeology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2018). ↩