“Time and its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire” by Paul J Kosmin

Tetradrachm, Seleucus I, third century BCE (Wikimedia) Tetradrachm, Seleucus I, third century BCE (Wikimedia)

There’s a song by the Rolling Stones which has the words “Time, time, time is on my side, yes, it is,” and which we might imagine being merrily hummed by Seleucus I in 305 BCE as he instituted a new system of dating which made him, in effect, the ruler over time itself. In future, Seleucus decreed, time would not stop when one sovereign died and restart when his successor ascended the throne. Instead, time would be continuous, durational, move progressively forward and not be reversible.

In other words, the Seleucid Empire, as Paul Kosmin would have us understand, was responsible for the way we in the twenty-first century view and measure the passing years. “This new temporality, propagated throughout the empire,” the cover notes tell us, “changed how people did business, recorded events, and oriented themselves to the larger world.” This may sound promising to us, but, we find out, there were many people who didn’t like it, and who responded either by resurrecting the past or “created apocalyptic time frames that predicted the total end of history.” So whose side was time, ultimately, on?


The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, Paul J Kosmin (Harvard University Press paperback, August 2018)
The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, Paul J Kosmin (Harvard University Press paperback, August 2018)

This book is actually the “second part” of Kosmin’s two magisterial books about the Seleucid Empire, following hard on the heels of The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire (2014). In the first book, which may be prerequisite reading for the second one, Kosmin presents a thorough treatment of Seleucid history as well as discussing how it engaged with the outside world diplomatically, ethnographically and geographically. This empire, he explains, was a curious hodgepodge of nationalities, languages and religions stretching from modern-day Bulgaria to Tadjikistan, founded (321 BCE) by Seleucus I, surnamed Nicator (the Victor), one of Alexander the Great’s generals, after the fragmentation of Alexander’s vast empire at his sudden death in 323 BCE. It was curious because first, it didn’t actually include Macedonia, its ruler’s (and Alexander’s) home territory, and secondly because Seleucus (not a man with any royal blood in his veins) and his descendants had absolutely no historical claims to any of the lands over which they ruled. Indeed, when the ageing Seleucus tried to conquer Macedonia decades later, he failed miserably.

They managed to hold the whole thing together (more or less) until 65 BCE, when the last ruler, Philip II, surnamed Barypous (the heavy-footed), or Philoromaeus (the Roman-lover) was deposed, and a few years later killed, probably by his beloved Romans.


Kosmin discusses how the empire established its spatial identity, specifically by making peace with Chandragupta, founder-king of the Mauryan Empire in India. The two empire-founders accomplished this by exchanging land for elephants (hence the title of Kosmin’s book); Seleucus transferred some territory in the east of his empire to Chandragupta, who handed over 500 war elephants in exchange. There was also “most likely” a dynastic marriage between Chandragupta and a Seleucid princess. What Seleucus did through this seemingly-odd exchange was to tighten up his administration by ceding territory that was too far away for him to effectively control, and perhaps which Chandragupta might have had designs on anyway. The Treaty of Indus, as Kosmin calls it, was thus a major part of Seleucid territorial delineation. The elephants were useful not just as war animals, but beasts of burden as well, not to mention a potent symbol of royal power. The peace lasted until one of Seleucus’s successors, Antiochus III Megas, or the Great (223-187 BCE), invaded Mauryan territory, defeated an Indian army and rewarded himself with more elephants and treasure when he made peace with the ruler. He didn’t keep any Mauryan lands, but again delineated formally the extent of the empire.

Kosmin then goes on to discuss Seleucus’s relationship with India, using as his reference the Indica a work by the historian and diplomat Megasthenes (c. 350-290 BCE), who had spent a good deal of time there and whose lost work, fortunately preserved in extensive fragments quoted by other historians and ethnographers is described by Kosmin as “a sensitive engagement with the new, multipolar world-order.” Kosmin himself argues in this first book that, unlike Megasthenes, many historians of the period have missed a major point by asserting that the Seleucid monarchy was personal, not territorial, thus de-emphasising the fact that it needed to delineate its space just as much as its rulers needed to establish their own personal power over it, hence the treaties. Seleucus I knew where he might have been vulnerable, and having a powerful, friendly neighbor made it much easier for him to consolidate his administration. Kosmin’s first book demonstrates how the Seleucids handled space and territory, and goes on to discuss ideology, notably how the rulers “sponsored” writers and historians to create a world-view of the empire which seems to have been accepted by most of its inhabitants. Another interesting aspect of the Seleucids was their realisation that it was a good idea for people to actually see their king, and many of them travelled in their empire for this purpose, the precursor, perhaps, to the famous “royal progress” made by English rulers such as Elizabeth I and James I.


Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire, Paul J Kosmin (Harvard University Press, December 2018)
Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire, Paul J Kosmin (Harvard University Press, December 2018)

In Time and its Adversaries, Kosmin devotes an entire volume to the subject. It is a work of extremely erudite and rigorous scholarship, and if anyone is interested in the Seleucids, reading The Land of the Elephant Kings first is a must, otherwise the context is lost and the reader will get bogged down by the sheer learning of Kosmin’s book, its extensive notes and its reference to many rather obscure sources. In both books, however, Kosmin provides a useful and accessible introduction, which certainly helped this reviewer understand what he was doing. Kosmin’s approach was like nothing I’d ever read before; most non-specialist books on ancient culture are fairly straightforward historical narratives or biographies of major figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Pericles. There are also scholarly writings on what we might term the “theory” in historical works by people like Herodotus and Thucydides or discussions of philosophy, but Kosmin has extended these kinds of inquiries into the more abstract subjects discussed in his two books. He states in Time and its Adversaries that his main argument or hypothesis is “proposing an important dialectical relationship between the empire’s pervasive time regime and the temporal thinking and historical practice of its subjects.”

The second part of the hypothesis suggests, as noted above, that there were those in the empire who didn’t agree with Seleucus’s new time, and that some people used their disagreement to justify asserting their own independence from Seleucid rule. One group which might be familiar to readers of the Bible (with Apocrypha, of course) were the rulers of Judaea, whose revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (175-164 BCE) is documented in I and II Maccabees. Those who fought for autonomy argued, amongst other things, that the empire had no historical claim to its territories, and they looked back in time to their own pre-Seleucid history to justify and strengthen their objections and, ultimately, revolts. They also responded symbolically with such actions as restoring old architectural structures and statues or retelling great stories from the past. Antiochus IV’s destruction of Jerusalem’s temple was, in one sense, a conscious act of simultaneously making time and space Seleucid while eliminating the symbol of the Solomonic past, rather than following the more tolerant policies of his predecessors. Kosmin always makes it clear that what he deals with here is the very beginning of a new world-view; it didn’t just happen, but developed slowly and had its serious opponents.


Time and its Adversaries may be rather heavy going for the non-specialist, but Kosmin does not pretend that it’s something for the general reader. Reviewers have already noted its “erudition” and “theoretical sophistication”, its “bold, interdisciplinary analysis”, and its new approach to the history of the period, all of which make the book a necessary addition to the shelves of scholars, who will be its main audience.

The interdisciplinary outlook of the book is what makes it special; there is something there for anyone who seriously studies classical, ancient Near Eastern or biblical history as well as literature, and Kosmin has given us a fascinating look at the sophisticated thinking of the ancient world. Time and space are subjects we usually associate with quantum physics or philosophy (Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity, for example), not with ancient Asian monarchs, and Kosmin shows us a bold new approach to the ancient world. “The Seleucid world,” Kosmin tells us,


as expressed through the temporal regime it invented and promoted, constituted a Weltanschauung, a total worldview—a mode of thinking about power, duty, origins, historical development and the future.


It was, he says, “both relatively coherent and fundamentally different from what had come before.”

What it also did was to show us, in the end, that time is not on our side, that it cares not a whit for us or for the past, and progresses inexorably ever onward, placing us


in the tension of living between incompatible histories, between an empty time of state and the call of an ending, of balancing number with meaning.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.