The historian’s task was, according to the famous British lexicographer Dr Johnson, a simple one: he “had no other labour than to arrange and display the material already put into his hands”. Historians just had to tell in their own words what they had read in the books by their Greek and Roman colleagues. There was little to add, Johnson said, because only “that certain kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend upon as true.”
He was wrong. The great antiquarians and authors like Johann Winckelmann already knew that there was more to history than rewriting older sources. Jean-Foi Vaillant had already published his Seleucidarum Imperium, sive historia regum Siriae ad fidem numismatum accommodata (1681; “The Empire of the Seleucids, or history of the Syrian kings based on coins”), in which he had shown how important the study of coins can be for historians.
The pictures and legends on coins -the one to the left shows Antiochus III- have been used to show that certain kings ruled that are not mentioned in our sources, to understand royal and imperial policies, to recognize changes in religion, and for chronological purposes. I recall winning a bottle of ouzo during the excavations of Halos, because the coin I had discovered was the youngest found until then, and an indication for the terminus post quem of the earthquake that destroyed this Hellenistic town.
However, it is not just the pictures and legends that are interesting. Quite recently, numismatists have started to take into account the volume of coin production. If we know the number of dies, we can establish the volume of the money supply, which is one of the key indicators to understand any economical system. And you can also use the number of dies to make some educated guesses about the length of the reign of a king.
This is the method that Mr. Oliver Hoover of the American Numismatic Society has recently employed in an article on Late Seleucid chronology. To be honest, I needed to draw a table to understand it completely, but I think I’ve mastered it now, and I hope this page on Seleucid chronology may be useful. It also includes the results of some recent studies by Mr. Bert van der Spek, who has distilled chronological information from the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries.
- Oliver Hoover, ‘Revised Chronology for the Late Seleucids at Antioch (121/0-64 BC)’ in: Historia 65/3 (2007) 280-301
- Bert van der Spek, ‘New Evidence from the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries Concerning Seleucid and Arsacid History’ in: Archiv für Orientforschung 44/45 (1997-1998) 167-175.