BMCR 2008.09.27

Between High and Low. A Chronology of the Early Hellenistic Period. Oikumene Studien zur antiken Weltgeschichte, Bd. 5

, Between high and low : a chronology of the early Hellenistic period. Oikumene ; Bd. 5. Frankfurt am Main: VA, Verlag Antike, 2007. 175 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9783938032206 €29.90.

In his earlier works Thomas Boiy dealt with the late Achaemenid and the early Hellenistic periods in Babylon and several individual questions concerning early Hellenistic chronology. Based on cuneiform sources, his latest book propounds a new overall chronology of the early Hellenistic period, from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the usurpation of the royal dignity by the Diadochs around the year 306 BC. Boiy develops his thesis into an introduction to the difficulties and particularities of dating in this period. His well thought out proposal is an eclectic chronology situated between the traditional ones, the high and the low chronology.

The first chapter offers an analysis of the relevant sources. Starting with the Greek and Latin sources he introduces the most important authors, inscriptions and papyri before he turns to the Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions which are the larger part of the sources. The following sub-chapters cover also the Egyptian, Aramaic, Lydian and numismatic sources.

The second chapter presents the political history of the period in a relative chronology, based on the works of Curtius Rufus and particularly Diodorus of Sicily. Boiy relates briefly Alexander’s conquest and in detail the succession plan in Babylon, the First War of the Diadochi, the Treaty of Triparadisus, the Second and the Third War of the Diadochi, the battles between Antigonos and Seleucus in Babylonia after the Peace of the Dynasts, and ends with the assumption of the kingship by Alexander’s successors.

After reconstructing the events via the literary sources, Boiy adduces in the third chapter the chronological frame by means of the cuneiform material. He tabulates the chronological details given in Ptolemy’s Royal Canon, the Babylonian and the Uruk king lists, the Saros Canon and the Solar Saros. Then he examines how the inhabitants of Alexander’s empire dated their documents during his reign and how they continued this after his death. He focuses on Babylonia, Lydia, Egypt, Idumaea and Phoenicia in order not to overlook the particularities of each chronological system. To clarify the complexity of this topic two of the several examples offered by Boiy can be mentioned. In Ptolemy’s Royal Canon, Alexander’s reign lasts eight years whereas in the Babylonian sources it lasts only seven years, because Egypt was conquered one year earlier than Babylonia. One has to verify whether each source pre-dates or post-dates: when one king dies, do they count the current year in the name of the old or the new ruler? Taking into consideration this aspect the Solar Saros should be treated as a special case. Usually it pre-dates, but because it changed to post-dating only for the reign of Philip Arrhidaeus it attributes an additional year when compared to the other Babylonian sources. With the help of the results of these examinations Boiy creates a table at the end of the chapter that shows which year of our calendar is related to which year in the Royal Canon, the Solar Saros, the Aramaic sources, etc.

In the fourth chapter Boiy combines those results with the political history of the early Hellenistic period in order to deduce a dated chronology. Given his argument this chapter is surely central to the book. He starts with an account of the traditional chronological systems, summarized here in order to show the basis of Boiy’s following contention.

K.J. Beloch in his Griechische Geschichte in 1904 constructed a chronology of early Hellenism which was based on the books 18-20 of Diodorus. The construction was in the main generally accepted and is called the high chronology. In the second edition in 1927 he rejected the dates of the death of Perdiccas and the Treaty of Triparadisus as they were presented in the Diadochi Chronicles (published 1924), a cuneiform Babylonian source of highest importance. Unlike Beloch E. Manni took this dating seriously and in 1949 offered a chronology predicated on the fact that the chronicles mention the month Ayaru in the year Phil.04 (= May/June 320 BC) as the time in which Perdiccas was campaigning against Ptolemy. Manni’s so-called low chronology, established itself as a milestone, although A.B. Bosworth tried in the 1990s to re-establish a modified version of the high chronology. Bosworth argues for example that the Babylonians, for practical reasons, continue dating in the name of Antigonus Monophthalmus although Seleucus had already returned from Egypt and had resumed power. Considering the enormous hostility between the two successors, Boiy is certainly right when he cannot imagine Seleucus tolerating such a procedure. He is also not persuaded by Beloch’s thesis of a failure in the chronicle concerning the dating of Perdiccas’ campaign. He argues that the Babylonian scribes wrote down the events as they had happened year by year. So it would be quite unlikely to choose the wrong year for a special event, particularly because the chronicle is probably based, at least in part, on historical notes in the astronomical diaries which were recorded monthly.

In addition to the supporters of the high chronology there are several versions which combine single parts of both systems; their main differences are that Perdiccas’ death, the Triparadisus Conference, the battles between Antigonus and Eumenes in the East, Seleucus’ flight from Babylonia to Egypt and Antigonus’ campaign in Syria and Phoenicia are dated one year later in the low chronology than they were in the high one. This does not mean that both systems are fully contradictory of each other. For instance, both the high and the low chronology are identical from Asander’s defeat in Caria in the winter of 320/19 BC until Eumenes leaves Nora in spring 318 BC.

After reviewing his earlier works regarding the chronology of the early Hellenistic period Boiy introduces his proposal of a low-high-low composite. Beginning with the death of Perdiccas he follows the low chronology till Eumenes’ stay in Cilicia and Phoenicia, when he turns to the high chronology. When it comes to the events after the battle of Gaza Boiy prefers again the low chronology.

These events are now dealt with separately because of their special difficulties, since our literary sources do not mention at all for example the fights in Babylonia between Antigonus and Seleucus after the Peace of the Dynasts in autumn 311 BC. All we know about those incidents is transmitted by cuneiform sources. Because of this there are several theories. Those based on the high chronology Boiy rejects. The proposals adapted from the low chronology have in common that they date Seleucus’ return to Babylon after the battle of Gaza in the beginning of 311 BC, but concerning Demetrius’ campaign in Babylonia there are three different assumptions. After discussing them, Boiy argues why he supports the version that Demetrius arrived in November 311 BC and not later.

At the end of this chapter he surveys the political history of the early Hellenistic period as presented in chapter 2 but complementing it with the chronological frame which follows from the arguments of the following chapters; a three-column schema illustrates the results.

The short conclusion summarises the most important aspects of the book.

Boiy’s work is actually more than just a presentation of his thesis about the chronology of the early Hellenistic period. Because he explains the body of source material, gives a summary of the political history, spells out the diverse dating systems in different parts of the empire and abstracts the divergences between the high and the low chronology, I would tend to call his book a well-constructed introduction into the general chronology of early Hellenism, which also includes his own low-high-low thesis. The bibliography of nine pages includes all relevant standard books and also the latest literature concerning the topic.

His remarks are comprehensible and he balances his conclusions well, whilst also frankly admitting that his proposal is not a perfect solution (p. 152). The numerous tables are decidedly helpful as they enable the reader to see the differences and concordances between the individual sources and chronologies. To restrict the topic to the period between the death of Alexander and the claim to the kingship by his successors is justified since there was no living member of the house of the Argeads left. The new dynasties had developed and consolidated and the disturbances that had crossed the empire ebbed away for a time.

Altogether the book is worth being read by anyone who is interested in the period of early Hellenism and its chronology. For those who are already familiar with this topic, Boiy’s work offers an interesting new thesis with its excellent case for a low-high-low chronology. For those who are new to the issue it is a worthwhile introduction.