A Short Introduction to the Seleucid Era

Citation with persistent identifier:

Kosmin, Paul J. “A Short Introduction to the Seleucid Era.” CHS Research Bulletin 4, no. 2 (2016). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:KosminP.Introduction_to_the_Seleucid_Era.2016


1§1 This brief paper is intended to supply background information for my presentation at the Research Symposium on Saturday, 30th April. The oral presentation will discuss the invention of the Seleucid Era dating count and its employment in one significant sphere of social and political life in the Seleucid Levant ­­­— market trade. In this introductory paper, I will introduce the nuts and bolts of the Seleucid Era count — its temporal texture, its form, and its frequency. The following paragraphs and the oral presentation can only hint at the broader issues at stake in this current book project, in which I hope to demonstrate that the invention and employment of era-counting within the Seleucid Empire fundamentally transformed experiences and understandings of the durational present, the pre-Hellenistic past, and the hoped-for or predicted future.

The Temporal Texture of the Seleucid Era

2§1 Before the Seleucid Empire, and elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, three chronographic systems were used for fixing annual dates: (i) year names, where a year was designated by an outstanding event of the preceding twelve months, selected by royal authority and archived in lists of date formulas (e.g. “the year when Enlil-bani made for Ninurta three very large copper statues” or “the year when Naram-Sîn reached the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates”); (ii) eponyms, also used in Greece (e.g. “in the limmu-ship of Bēl-Dan, the herald of the palace” or “in the archonship of Pythodorus”); and (iii), most commonly in monarchic states, the regnal years of individual kings (e.g. “in the seventh year of king Nebuchadnezzar” or “in the fifth year of king Philip [III]”). Each of these systems recorded events not dates and was geographically specific. There was no transcendent or translocal time system to systematically locate oneself in the flow of history. There was no uncomplicated way to synchronize events at geographic distance.

2§2 The founder of the Seleucid Empire, a general of Alexander called Seleucus I Nicator, changed all this. Amidst the chaos of the Wars of Succession, Seleucus introduced a new system for reckoning the passage of time, opening a continuous count from the establishment of his independent power. This was the world’s first irreversible tally of numbered years. It is the unheralded ancestor of every subsequent era system, including the Jewish Era of Creation, the Islamic Hijrah, the Era of Zoroaster, the Christian Anno Domini system, and the Common Era. This first  Era was distinctive in two ways. First, it was never a regnal count, never a count of Seleucus’ years on the throne, for its epoch (or Year 1) was placed in 311 BCE, when Seleucus, regained control of Babylon, six years before he took the diadem of kingship. The reckoning remained six years in advance of Seleucus’ regnal count. So, in the cuneiform King List from Babylon, we read the strange entry: mu.7.ká[m] šá ši-i mu.1.kám Isi-lu-ku lugal, “Year 7 (SE) that is the first year of Seleucus the king”[1]; the Babylonian King List goes on to tell us that Seleucus I reigned for twenty-five years and died in 31 SE. Secondly and more importantly, at Seleucus’ death in 281 BCE his son and successor, Antiochus I, did not restart the calculation. According to the same Babylonian king-list, Antiochus I ruled from 32 SE to 51 SE[2]; his successors continued accordingly.

2§3 The Seleucid Era established the chronological backbone along which the empire’s own history could be ordered. It framed the temporal parameters in which the kingdom lived forwards and was understood backwards[3]. Speaking more generally, time according to the Seleucid Era, decoupled from the death-accession cycle, was transformed from being concrete, immanent and process-linked into being abstract, homogeneous, and transcendent. The Seleucid Era was a regular durational measure unconstrained by the phenomenal order of things, objects, and events. It was paratactic and endless, without high or low points, expansions, contractions, or pulsations. All this was unprecedented.

The Form of the Seleucid Era

3§1 The Hellenistic period witnessed the emergence of a new visual culture of materialized time. Sundials were scattered across cityscapes and sanctuaries[4]. Novel personifications of time were discovered and worshipped[5]. Hellenistic monarchs paraded and paraded themselves in natural times and seasonality: the two great Hellenistic royal processions described by Athenaeus – Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ at Alexandria and Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ at Daphne – incorporated into their rolling tableaux representations of the Morning and Evening Stars, the natural Year (a six-foot tall man, wearing a tragic mask, carrying a cornucopia), the Four Seasons, Night, Day, Dawn, and Noon[6]; Demetrius Poliorcetes wore a cloak woven with the celestial zodiac[7]; the citizens of Teos crowned their cult statue of Antiochus III with the fruits of each season[8]. All these figurations — and there are many more — expressed either the cyclical times of nature and the heavens or the momentous and divine moment. But the Seleucid Era, as a linearized, open, and historical temporality, seems to have resisted depiction in these allegorical or imagistic modes. It was only and exclusively materialized as number.

3§2 In contrast to the culturally-embedded logics of figural iconography, “number, by its nature, flattens out idiosyncrasies”[9]. That is to say, in whatever script the Seleucid Era number was recorded — and we have it attested in the Greek, Akkadian, Phoenician, and Aramaic counting systems — the year’s numerical value was universally stable: within the extraordinary diversity of the imperial territories, the Seleucid Era, as a regular and homogeneous chronographic system, seems to have achieved a regulating and homogenizing force.

3§3 More particularly, the Greek alphabetic numbering system, by which the Era year date was expressed in most court and administrative business, was given a unique ordering. The Greek numerical system is less well known but far simpler than the Latin. In short, the twenty-seven letters of an extended Greek alphabet were divided into three groups of nine letters each: the first nine letters of the alphabet, α to θ, represented the units 1 to 9; the next nine letters, ι to ϙ (qoppa), 10 to 90; and the final set, ρ to  ϡ (sampi), 100 to 900[10].

α᾽              1                                 ι᾽               10                              ρ᾽              100

β᾽              2                                 κ᾽              20                              ϲ᾽              200

γ᾽              3                                 λ᾽              30                              τ᾽              300

δ᾽              4                                 μ᾽              40                              υ᾽              400

ε᾽              5                                 ν᾽              50                              φ᾽             500

ς᾽              6                                 ξ᾽               60                              χ᾽              600

ζ᾽               7                                 ο᾽              70                              ψ᾽             700

η᾽              8                                 π᾽             80                              ω᾽            800

θ᾽              9                                 ϙ᾽              90                              ϡ᾽              900

3§4 In every form of numbering across the Greek world except for the Seleucid Era year date, these numbers were arranged in backward alphabetic order, from larger to smaller – our “123”, for instance, would be written ρκγ᾽. But the Seleucid Era count reversed this standard, increasing from units to tens to hundreds – 123 SE would be written γκρ’[11]. The Era year date was the only numerical unit within the broader ancient world, within the Seleucid Empire itself, and even in individual Seleucid documents, to be arranged in this way. To give a couple of examples: the inscribed letter of Antiochus III, appointing a high priest of the Apollo and Artemis sanctuaries at Daphne, closed with the dating formula δκρ᾽ Δίου ιδ᾽, “124 (SE), Dios 14”[12]; the letter of Antiochus VIII or IX, proclaiming the freedom of Seleucia-in-Pieria, ended with the date γσ᾽ Γορπιαίου κθ’, “203 (SE), Gorpiaeus 29”[13]. In each case, the entirely standard larger-to-smaller (reverse alphabetical) arrangement of the month’s day numbers (ιδ’ and κθ’) directly follows the exceptional smaller-to-larger arrangement of the Seleucid Era year dates (δκρ᾽ and γσ᾽). This peculiar ordering of the Era number was also a spoken phenomenon. An inscription from Euromus in Caria gives the Seleucid Era numerals as ει καὶ ρ᾽, “115 (SE)”, where the καὶ, “and”, reproduces the oral form[14]. 1 Maccabees, the Hasmonean chronicle of the Maccabean revolt, wrote out in full the Seleucid Era dates in their unique smaller-to-larger arrangement[15]. Josephus, synchronizing these Seleucid Era dates with Greek Olympiads, clarifies by comparison: the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, for example, is dated ἔτει γὰρ πέμπτῳ καὶ τεσσαρακοστῷ καὶ ἑκατοστῷ, “in year five and forty and one hundred” and ὀλυμπιάδι ἑκατοστῇ καὶ πεντηκοστῇ καὶ τρίτῃ, “in the one hundred and fifty third Olympiad”[16]: the Seleucid Era date is fully written out in its reverse order of units, tens, and hundreds, its Olympiad equivalent in the standard hundreds, tens, units. To return to our example, 123: if this were, say, a quantity of grain we would read it “one hundred and twenty-three”; if it were the Seleucid Era year date, uniquely we would say “three and twenty and one hundred”.

3§5 The reverse numericalization of the Seleucid Era date was a brilliant invention, for it served as an immediate diagnostic marker of the imperial chronography while requiring of readers and listeners no additional or specific skills. Seleucid Era year numbers could stand alone and be recognized for what they were; by contrast, the numerals of Olympiad or month dating (see above), as of everything else countable, required explicit designation[17]. This smaller-to-larger order of the Seleucid Era numerals made an argument about the texture and nature of time. Saying “three and twenty and one hundred” rather than “one hundred and twenty three”, for instance, produced a sense of ever-accumulating temporal depth, of time moving increasingly away from its epoch. It manifested in written and verbal modes the Era’s underlying chronographic principle of unbroken, irreversible linearity. Its absolute status, free of identifying or qualifying nouns, proposed a monopoly of political time and a temporal transcendence. All this requires a considered decision by the imperial center, presumably shortly after the Era’s introduction, to develop and deploy this unique numerical form, offering good evidence for the early Seleucid court’s politicization and self-conscious reflection upon temporality. The scheme’s adoption throughout the empire by both officials and subject communities attests the determined articulation of a differentiated temporal landscape, although we know nothing of the specific mechanisms that enabled or enforced such conformity[18].

The Frequency of the Seleucid Era

4§1 Seleucid Era year numbers were marked onto an unprecedented range of public, private, and mobile platforms. Era dates were affixed to market weights and amphora handles, royal and local coinage, building constructions and votive offerings, seal rings and silver bowls, royal letters and civic decrees, tombstones and tax receipts, priest lists and boundary markers, astronomical reports and personal horoscopes, marriage contracts, manumissions and much more; Jewish, Babylonian, and, presumably, the lost Seleucid historiography dated events by the Era year. In our world full of date marks it is easy to underestimate the sheer novelty, and so historical significance, of this mass year-marking. But, to my best knowledge, this was without precedent or parallel. In no other state in the ancient Mediterranean or west Asia did rulers and subjects inhabit spaces that were so comprehensively and consistently dated. Such pervasiveness was enabled but not, of course, required by the Era’s materialization as number.

4§2 The Era’s display on innumerable quotidian and public objects carried the imperial year count, and the whole political system it represented, deep into private spaces and, undoubtedly, personal thoughts with a penetration unavailable to any other imperial technology. The Era date would have been visualized, read aloud, repeated, internalized, and made entirely natural for the daily life of imperial subjects. Such domestication of the Era, through both state coordination and undirected routine, must have produced something approaching an intuitive sense of temporal location and panimperial synchronicity, much as our own Anno Domini/Common Era dating has become international second nature[19]. The distinctiveness of the Seleucid Era count — irreversibly linearized, exclusively numericalized, and extensively displayed — asserted a temporal framework into which people, objects, and even the world at large could be fitted, sequenced, and related to one another. Everything dated in this way, from market weights to manumissions, had object histories, that is, an immediately legible and inherently comparative temporal depth. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that for the first time in history people lived in a thoroughly dated world.

4§3 Outside the infrequent but spectacular interventions of warfare, royal procession, benefaction, and so forth, one of the most significant quotidian experiences of empire would be of this transcendent and linear time regime. These Seleucid Era markings were especially associated with those spaces and activities where an instrumental rationality and a focus on the near future were dominant: fiscality, i.e. taxes, archives, and their authorizing procedures; trade, i.e. coinage, weights and measures, and the agora; and imperial communications of all kinds. The counter-sites, the places and practices saturated with alternative and non-linear time regimes, would be, say, the countryside, the ruin, the shrine, the internal periphery (mountains, deserts etc.), and all those spaces and behaviors characterized by women and the impoverished. Such zones of greater and lesser imperial time consciousness offer a strong visibility gradient for the density of state interventions: for, as I hope to demonstrate in my oral presentation, the Era functioned as a synecdoche of the empire and its claims.


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[1] Sachs and Wiseman 1954. Olmstead 1937:4 and Bickerman 1944:75 n.11 incorrectly interpreted this calendrical synchronism as Year 7 of Alexander IV = Year 1 of Seleucus. This is impossible; see Sachs and Wiseman 1954:205 n.1. Note that the Babylonian King List only mentions those rulers who used the royal title, and so mentions a six-year reign for the child-king Alexander IV and no reign for Antigonus; see Boiy 2000.

[2] Sachs and Wiseman 1954: Obv. 9: [m]u.32.kám Ian a šá Isi lugal mu 20 in.ag.

[3] While Savalli-Lestrade 2010:61, in an essay devoted to early Hellenistic dating systems, has recognized it as “vraiment révolutionnaire”, more general works on ancient chronology either briefly acknowledge its importance (Feeney 2007: 139) or pass over it with scarcely a comment (Clarke 2008).

[4] Within the civic environment, Aulus Gellius preserves a parasite’s lament, attributed to Plautus’ Boeotian Women but deriving from Greek context: “You know, when I was a boy, my stomach was the only sundial, by far the best and truest compared to all of these. It used to warn me to eat, wherever – except when there was nothing. But now what there is isn’t eaten unless the sun says so. In fact the town’s so stuffed with sundials that most people crawl along, shriveled up with hunger (itaque adeo iam oppletum oppidum est solariis | maior pars populi iam aridi reptant fame)” (Gell. 3.3).

[5] E.g. Lysippus’ famous Kairos; see Austin-Bastianini 142 = Anthologia Palatina 16.273 = 19 Gow-Page.

[6] Ath. 194c-206e (Callixenus of Rhodes BNJ 627), with, e.g. Bunge 1976 and Walbank 1996.

[7] Plut. Demetr. 41.4.

[8] Herrmann 1965.

[9] Appadurai 1996:133.

[10] Tod 1950.

[11] This was first observed in print by J. and L. Robert, Bulletin épigraphique 1967 #651, but has not been extensively discussed.

[12] OGIS 244.

[13] OGIS 257.

[14] Errington 1986 l.2.

[15] 1 Macc. 1:54, 2:70, 3:37, 4:52, 6:20, 7:1, 9:3, 9:54, 10:1, 21, 57, 67, 11:19, 13:41, 51, 14:1, 27, 15:10, 16:14.

[16] Joseph. AJ 12.321.

[17] This is confirmed by, e.g. 1 Maccabees, where the only Seleucid year date not ordered in the Seleucid Era mode (1:10) was expressly identified, as “the year of the kingdom of the Greeks” (ἐν ἔτει ἑκατοστῷ καὶ τριακοστῷ καὶ ἑβδόμῳ βασιλείας Ἑλλήνων); elsewhere, the ordering of numerals sufficed.

[18] It already appears in 276/5 BCE at Karatepe, only half a decade after the Seleucid conquest of western Asia Minor (TAM 5.2 881 ll.2-5: βασιλευόντων Ἀντιόχου | καὶ Σελεύκου τοῦ Άντιόχου | ἑβδόμου καὶ τριακοστοῦ ἔτους, μη|νὸς Ὑπερβερεταίου). The form had penetrated to the minor Phrygian villages of Neon Teichos and Kiddioukome by 267 BCE (IK Laodikeia am Lykos 1 ll.1-3: βασιλευόντων Ἀντιόχου καὶ [Σ]|ελεύκου πέμπτου καὶ τεσαρακο|στοῦ ἔτους, μηνὸς Περιτίου).

[19] On the domestication of modern national standard times, see Edensor 2006.