Monday, September 9, 2019


Paul J. Kosmin, Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. 380. ISBN 9780674976931. $55.00.

Reviewed by Julian Wünsch (

Version at BMCR home site


In 312/11 BC Seleucus I returned with a small force to Babylonia and defeated his rival Antigonus I Monophthalmus, who had expelled him from the province four years earlier. When he proclaimed himself king in 305 BC, he made this campaign the starting point of the Seleucid Era, a dating system that moved progressively forward until the dissolution of the Seleucid state—at that time a largely unknown way of time reckoning that became the model for our contemporary calendar eras. Paul J. Kosmin, author of the highly praised "The Land of the Elephant Kings",1 has dedicated his new book to the study of Seleucus I's innovation. In the first part of the volume (pp. 17–101) he discusses the establishment and functioning of the Seleucid Era, describing its use in the administration, on coins, measures and weights as well as in civic decrees and royal letters; he furthermore analyzes its effects on the perception of Seleucid kingship. The second part (pp. 103–233) details how the local populations of the Seleucid Empire, namely the inhabitants of Babylonia, Judaea, Armenia and western Iran, were influenced by the new dating system.

Kosmin's monograph is distinguished by the extensive use of cuneiform sources: The author draws parallels between Seleucus I's return to Babylon and the Babylonian New Year festival (akītu), suggesting that the rarely attested participation of Seleucid kings at this event served not, as previously assumed, mainly the fostering of Babylonian traditions but rather the memory of the Seleucids' foundational myth. In this context he also proposes an intriguing new interpretation of the É UD.1.KÁM, the "Temple of Day One" occasionally mentioned in the Astronomical Diaries, as a sanctuary commemorating the inauguration of the Seleucid Era. Likewise convincing is Kosmin's hypothesis that the chronographic system provides insight into the worldview of the Seleucids. He argues that the Era dating encouraged the rulers' orientation on Seleucus I and reduced the importance of their personal achievements. The policy of the Seleucid kings therefore primarily sought to reassert the original territorial extent of the Empire under its founder.

In the second part, Kosmin discusses with great sophistication cuneiform texts (the Babyloniaca, the Uruk List of Kings and Sages and the Dynastic Prophecy), Jewish apocalyptic literature (the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch) and the Iranian Zand ī Wahman Yasn to illustrate that they might have been influenced by the Seleucid Era. He argues that it induced the local writers to view the history of their people as a discrete and closed past which could be chronologically ordered and divided into segments, and also fostered ideas of the impending demise of the Seleucid Empire. This hitherto unheard-of approach leads to the convincing conclusion that the increased emphasis on their own history, which is to be observed in many indigenous communities in the Empire, can be interpreted as a response to the temporal regime of the Seleucids. To show this, Kosmin not only analyzes Babylonian and Jewish texts, but also the archaeological monuments erected by Adad-nādin-aḫḫē of Girsu, the Frataraka rulers of Persis and the Artaxiads of Armenia.

The only serious criticism2 regarding "Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire" is that it focuses entirely on the Near Eastern regions of the Seleucid kingdom, therefore omitting Western and Northern Asia Minor and to a large part also Central Asia from the discussion—in the first-mentioned field, an analysis of the Royal Eras of Bithynia and Pontus, which were likely modeled on the Seleucid Era dating, would have been interesting.3 Aside from this, Paul J. Kosmin has written a very inspiring book which distinguishes itself through its meticulous treatment of the source material, especially the texts originating from Babylonia and Judaea. With erudite and convincing arguments, Kosmin manages to emphasize the complex significance of the Seleucid Era and thereby offers a valuable contribution to the field of Seleucid studies.


1.   Cf. the review by Laurent Capdetrey BMCR 2015.09.09
2.   Of minor note is that the author's bibliography misses an article from Peter Weiß (P. Weiß, "Schleuderbleie unter Tryphon. Parolen, Embleme, Ausstrahlungen", ZPE 203, 2017, pp. 135–141), which may have appeared too late for inclusion. Kosmin interprets an inscribed slingshot of the usurper Diodotus Tryphon as „the weaponization of time against the Seleucid empire" (p. 94) but Weiss demonstrates that the reading of a fifth year on this object cannot be sustained.
3.   Parthia, Bactria and India are dealt with in only three pages (pp. 98–100). The Royal Eras of Bithynia and Pontus are discussed by W. Leschhorn, Antike Ären. Zeitrechnung, Politik und Geschichte im Schwarzmeerraum und in Kleinasien nördlich des Tauros (Historia Einzelschriften 81), Stuttgart 1993.

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