Seleucid Chronology – New Evidence

29 September 2008
Seleucus I Nicator (Louvre)

Seleucus I Nicator (Louvre)

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.

Antiochus III the Great (British Museum, London)

Antiochus III the Great (British Museum, London)

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.

Astronomical diary, referring to financial measures during the First Syrian War (British Museum)

Astronomical diary, referring to financial measures during the First Syrian War (British Museum)

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.


28 September 2008
The Etna

The Etna

Mount Etna is probably the most active volcano in Europe; it certainly is the volcano with the longest recorded history. Greek and Latin authors refer to no less than twelve eruptions.

When you visit the dark and inhospitable landscape, it is easy to imagine that in Antiquity, it was believed that the fire-breathing Enceladus was buried alive on Sicily; when he moved, earthquakes were the result. The god Hephaestion (or Vulcan) had his forge inside Mount Etna, and the Cyclopes were believed to have lived in caves. Because of its height, Mount Etna was also believed to have been a place where people had gathered during the Great Flood, and survived.

I’ve been there twice, but never had an opportunity to reach the summit. However, my friend Jolanda gave me some photos of flowing lava, which you can admire here (and more of her photos here).

The Asclepium of Balagrae

16 September 2008
The Asclepium of Balagrae

The Asclepium of Balagrae

Balagrae is the ancient name of El Beida, the former capital of Libya. Except for a Byzantine fort and its adjacent church, the main ancient monument is the Asclepium. The foundations are well-preserved, and there is a delightful odeon next to it. The capitals of the Ionian columns are especially interesting, as they are decorated with silphium, a medicinal herb that was produced in this area.

As the readers of this blog know, I am slowly migrating part of my website (more…); among the articles that have recently moved are the pages on the rivers Euphrates, Marun, Pasitigris, and Sambre, together with the Roman fortress at Anreppen.

Janzur Rock Tomb

13 September 2008
A priest

A priest

The small rock tomb at Janzur, discovered by accident in 1958 near the road from modern Tripoli to Sabratha, belongs the finest monuments of Libya. It is just 2.5 x 2.2 meters, but the walls are decorated with splendid frescoes. The room was probably created in the second or third century, but was apparently never used, as the two sarcophagi were empty and two niches were never used to display urns.

The paintings can be divided into three groups: animals in the lower register, mythological scenes and human beings in the upper register (like the priest shown on the photo), and angel-like representations of the souls on the ceiling.

2001. A Space Odyssey, and Zoroastrianism

6 September 2008

It is probably one of the best-known and most impressive images from movie history: the spectacular rise of the sun and the earth over a moonscape, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey. Kubrick seems to have liked the image, because he repeated it several times, with minor variations like the sun rising over a strange monolith or the sun rising over a crescent-shaped earth (video).

Of course, it is not just the image that makes this scene unforgettable. It is the splendid music that really matters and makes the experience, in a word, sublime. This is what makes cinema great, and this is why I went back to see 2001 at least five times.

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (British Museum)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the British Museum)

Kubrick’s movies are usually full of little, intellectual jokes. To offer an example from his wicked Doctor Strangelove: if in one scene a group of soldiers is ordered to bomb the “Laputa Missile Complex”, it comes as no surprise that in another scene a Soviet leader is visiting a brothel. And yes, la puta is not only Spanish for “prostitute”, but also a reference to Gulliver’s Travels. I said Kubrick was a bit of an intellectual, didn’t I?

Perhaps, the intellectual joker in Kubrick also accompanied the artist when he created the sunrise in 2001. The impressive music is from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spoke Zarathustra”), and belongs to a part of that symphonic poem that represents a sunrise. Well-chosen, but there is more to be said.

Strauss’ tone poem was in turn based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s book with the same title. The philosopher was not particularly interested in the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, but merely needed a hero that was older than Judaism and Greek philosophy, and lived at the dawn of history.

Nabonidus, stele from Harran (Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

It seems that Kubrick did some research into Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by the real Zarathustra. The alignment of a lunar crescent and the sun is a common theme in eastern art. It can be seen, for example, on every Achaemenid royal tomb, and I would not be surprised if Kubrick knew it. An even closer parallel can be found on two monoliths from Harran, which can be seen in any book on ancient eastern art: the Babylonian king Nabonidus venerating the moon crescent, a planet, and the sun.

Perhaps some of you will object that Babylonian art has little to do with Zoroastrianism, or remark that it is debatable whether the Achaemenids adhered to the teachings of Zarathustra. Of course that’s fair criticism, but as I said: Kubrick was an intellectual and an artist – he was not an Iranologist.

A very, very ancient road in Northern Gaul

6 September 2008
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilda”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

That being said, the Chaussée Brunehaut or Via Belgica or whatever you prefer to call it, is an important monument. I am not certain, but it may be one of the oldest roads in the world that is still in use. You can find more information here.