History of Iran
(part of Iranologie.com)
Part IV: The Arsacid Empire
Chapter IV: Orodes II to the Fall of the Arsacids
The major problem of Parthian history, largely true for all of Iranian history, is the lack of narrative sources in general, and in particular an absence of native narrative sources. What we know of the rule of the Arsacids is mostly deducted from the Roman sources who obviously would have written the history of their enemies not from a favourable or friendly point of view. Even more than the political biases, the problem with this type of sources is their geographical bias, naturally mostly concerned with the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, and thus western borders of the Arsacid one. As mentioned before, even our attempt at recording the history of the Arsacids and their internal affairs is affected by this, the period after the death of Mithradates II and before the rise of Orodes II to power being named “the Parthian Dark Ages,” due to the absence of details in the Roman sources.
Of course, we have had some success in gazing into this period, as well as the rest of the Arsacid history, by utilizing newer, or rather more elusive sources, such as the coins or the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries. Through these, we are now able to know with some degree of certainty the order of the Arsacid emperors, although often not their exact relationship with each other. However, these sources too fail to tell us much about the events of the empire outside its western parts, as the Babylonian Diaries, for example, are naturally concentrated in the western regions. The coinage, obviously quite vague sources themselves, also becomes a part of this issue. We know about the types of Arsacid coins and that they were struck in many localities, including Mithradatokerta, Hecatompylos, Ecbatana, Susa, and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. However, numismatists agree that Seleucia was the only place where the Arsacid tetradrachms were struck and all other mints limited themselves to issuing drachms and its smaller divisions. Consequently, even the coins can barely tell us much about the social or political life of the empire and along with other sources, limit us to the history of the western regions of the Arsacid territories. The reader should thus be well aware of this limitation in historical evidence while reading this or any other introduction to the Arsacid history. Of course, when our sources clearly go out of their way to mention the events in the east or center of the Arsacid lands, we easily become aware of them and can use these instances to partially understand what might have occupied the attention of the Arsacid great king and the energy of his court aside from their wars with the Romans.
The Battle of Carrhea
The Battle of Carrhea, fought in 53 BCE near the city of Carrhea (Syr. Harran) in Syria, is generally mentioned as one of the most important episodes in the history of late ancient Near East and certainly a significant and decisive event in the history of Roman imperialism. The importance of the Arsacids is not known, as we obviously do not have any narrative sources which might have given us the Arsacid point of view, but the fact of the long reign of Orodes II might hint at the fact that the battle at least helped guarantee the Arsacid over-lordship over most of West Asia.
The roots of Carrhea go back to the reign of Phraates III and the Tigranes the Great of Armenia. While Tigranes, as previously mentioned, had taken the side of his father-in-law, Mithradates VI of Pontus in his wars against Rome and thus carved himself an empire which shortly rivaled and even surpassed the Arsacid Empire, his rival in Iran had not quite taken a back seat in the events. When Tigranes was finally cut-down by the Romans and was confined to his core territory of Armenia, Phraaes III took the opportunity to completely remove Tigranes and to re-capture the infamous “70 Valleys” once again. In this effort, Phraates gave cover, and his daughter’s hand, to Tigranes the Younger, the son of the great conqueror who had rebelled against his father. The shielding of a pretender to the throne concerned the Romans who had given Tigranes the Great the right to rule his own lands and were thus interested in the issue of his succession. It was at this point the Roman general and governor Luculus who concerned himself with the matter and made the first contacts with the Parthians.
Phraates III, in the meantime, was murdered by his two sons, Mithradates III and Orodes II. The two brothers were heavily blamed for the patricide and the account has even reached the pages of the history of Dio Cassius. However, the act was not to go unpunished as in 57 BCE, Orodes II himself rose in rebellion against Mithradates and forced his brother to take refuge with the Roman governor, this time called Gabinius. It is thus in light of such events that M. Licinius Crassus, the famous Roman statesman and the leader of the army which crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus, decided to enter a war with the Arsacids, under the pretext of restoring Mithradates III to his throne.
Crassus has often been blamed for having been a clueless money-bag with no military skills, and his campaigns in the east dismissed as childish and self-serving. However, it seems more and more as if he was seriously planning on organizing a full-attack on the Arsacid lands, if one is to judge by the fortifications he erected on the borders of Rome with Arsacid Mesopotamia before the beginning of the war. To someone familiar with the geography of the Arsacid territories, it is obvious that Crassus did not have a clear idea of the physical size and the human population of the Arsacid Empire and seems to have thought of it as a state similar to Pontus or Armenia. In short, Crassus easily underestimated his enemy from the very beginning, a fault well-known as a recipe for failure in warfare.
The actual Battle of Carrhea seems to have concluded quite quickly. The two armies of Rome and the Arsacids clashed near the city walls, Crassus leading his seven legions and the Arsacid army being commanded by the famous Parthian general Surena. The Romans, heavily armed and relying on techniques that had made them successful against the Gauls and Decians in the plains of Europe, made the strategic mistake of waiting for the Parthians to attack directly. However, the Parthians, despite their lower number, were lightly armoured and highly mobile due to their use of horses: the Parthian army was almost entirely made-up of the cavalry. Surena himself was at the core of the army, protected by his special guard and commanding the attack, which famously took the form of the “Parthian Shot”. The Parthians on their horses started moving away from the Roman legions armed with short spears and instead, turned back on their saddles shooting piercing arrows at the enemy. In this manner, the well-known Roman legionary formations were forced to open up and spread, making them even more vulnerable to the Parthian arrows. The result of the battle was an almost total massacre of the Roman legions. Crassus’ son was among the fallen, and Crassus himself was also killed after being suspected of planning a trick when going to Surena to conclude a peace treaty.
The immediate outcome of the battle was a catastrophe in Rome and an establishment of the borders in Iran. In Rome, the shock made the arrogant and young imperialistic power realize that the Arsacid power cannot be compared with that of Pontus and thus sober decisions were made to confirm the borders of the two empires. In Iran, the successes made Orodes II too powerful and gave him the confidence needed to continue his military success. Thus, his son and heir, Pacorus (Pakor) was given the control of an army which marched down the coast of the Mediterranean to the Jerusalem. The political situation in the holy-land at the time was quite uncertain, the power being claimed by the relatives of the Grand-Priest headed by a certain Antigonos on one hand, and at the other hand by a group of pro-Roman politicians whose most well-known member was Herod. Pacorus naturally supported Antogonos and appointed him as the king (ca. 39 BCE). However, Pacorus soon suffered a defeat in 28 BCE and was killed in a minor battle near Jerusalem. The news of his death devastated Orodes II who seem to have died soon after, but worst of all left the issue of succession open to question. We know that the eventual successor of Orodes was his son Phraates IV who is accused of gaining the throne by murdering his brothers.
We should here mention a few words about the great hero Surena was obviously a member of the noble family of Suren, known from other sources. The Surens were from the Saka stock and probably natives of Sakastan (Sistan) in southeastern Iran. It might have been this family, or another “Parthian” family which controlled the areas to the east of Sakestan as well, establishing a short-lived by quite strong kingdom in northern India, known as the “Indo-Parthian” kingdom. A famous king of this dynasty was a certain Gondophares (Parth. *windafar(n)a-) who is known from his many coins and is also mentioned in the western sources, including the accounts of early Christian arrival in northern India. In mythology, mixed with modern scholarship, this Gondophares is sometimes equated with the Surena of Carrhea, while the possible influences of Surena on the development of the epic character Rostam has bizarrely been redirected back to Gondophares, somehow re-creating the latter as the real historical Rostam. Whatever the case, we know that Surena was indeed a respected general of the Parthians and surely one of the main reasons for the long lasting rule of Orodes II.
The reign of Phraates IV was marked by heightened conflicts with Rome. Following the death of Pacorus, Mark Anthony, at the time the most powerful general in Rome, launched a campaign against the Parthians, trying to limit their growing power. His initial action was to kill the Arsacid appointed Antigonos of Jerusalem and installing Herod in his place, thus helping to found the House of Herod. After this, Anthony continued towards the heart of the Arsacid lands and by using a northern route through Armenia, reached Praaspa, the capital of Media Atropaten. There, he faced the Arsacid army headed by a general of Phraates. The battles were quite undecisive, but Anthony’s strength was soon diminished from the lack of supplies in a foreign land. He was forced to conclude a treaty and to withdraw to Syria.
Anthony was soon back for a treaty with Phraates, asking for his support in the fight against Octavianus (later Augustus). Thus, the Parthian army seem to have fought in support of Anthony, although in the sea battle of Actium (33 BCE), there was no Parthian army to be seen. The victor of the battle, Octavianus, consequently managed to talk the Arsacid king to return the Roman standards taken in the Battle of Carrhea and thus won a diplomatic battle which he celebrated like a military one. The calm that pursued seems to have been the first phase of the well-publicised but hard to qualify Pax Romana.
In addition to peace, Augustus gave Phraates a concubine, The Musa, who soon became a favourite of the aged great king and gave him a son called Phraateces (Parth. *Farhadak, “Little Phraates”). The kings four elder sons were also sent to Rome where they became quite familiar with the Roman way of life.
Thea Musa is accused of having killed Phraates in 2 CE and replaced him with Phraateces. The young king only managed to rule for two years and was removed by the court nobles. He managed to escape to Syria and soon died there, having left us a few coins to confirm his strange story. He was immediately replaced by a certain Orodes III whose familial relationship with Phraates IV is unknown to us.
However, one of the sons of the Phraates IV who had lived in Rome for many years, known as Vonones I, was soon chosen as the new king. The arrogance with which the Romans pretended to have installed Vonones on the throne (REX PARTHIS DATUS) caused the rebellion of a certain Artabanus III who, like many before him, came from Atropaten. Vonones initially managed to defeat the pretender, but was soon defeated by him and Artabanus was established on the throne ca. 15 CE. Vonones had to escape to Syria and take refuge with Germanicus, the step-grandson of Augustus, and was soon killed there.
Artabanus III is one of the most famous Arsacid kings and managed to rule his empire effectively. He is known to us from an edict/letter that he wrote in Greek to the city-council of Susa in Elymais. He ruled for a long time and despite many obstacles, managed to guarantee an unprecedented period of peace for his empire. However, this did not mean that he was not forced to take part in many battles and was further required to avoid many plots set against him by his enemies, particularly emperor Tiberius.
The reign of Artabanus III was marked by two major conflicts, one being the rebellion of the royal city of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris and the other, a conflict with the kings of Iberia over Armenia. The rebellion of Seleucia, which lasted for many years, seems to have been raised due to conflicts between the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian inhabitants of the city who were each supported by either the royal power or their own local influences. The rebellion was never fully crushed, but it might have been at the root of the later destruction of the city by Vologases I and its replacement by Vologasokerta. In any case, we know that for his residence, Artabanus certainly moved his seat to Babylon.
The conflict over Armenia was over the appointment of an Arsacid puppet-king called “Arsaces” and the local king, Mithradates, the brother of the king of Iberia. As expected, the action was an excuse for a conflict with Rome and was well extended beyond the reign of Artabanus in 38 CE. When Arsaces was killed by Mithradates, Artabanus sent his son Orodes to re-establish the Arsacid rule in Caucasia. However, Orodes was killed by Sarmatian mercenaries and Artabanus himself was forced to move against Armenia. However, the Roman general Vitilius, an ally of Pharsamanes of Iberia, immediately attached Mesopotamia and forced Artabanus to retreat from Armenia. Artabanus moved to Hyrcania and temporarily left the throne of western Iran open. Vitilius’ attempts to establish a certain Tiridates on the throne were unsuccessful and soon enough, he had to conclude a treaty with Artabanus himself.
In 38 CE, Vardanes I succeeded Artabanus III. His reign was marked by a conflict with his brother Gotarzes who also laid claim to the throne, being based in Hyrcania to the east of the Caspian Sea. The two united themselves when Emperor Claudius set Mithradates of Iberia free to re-start his claim to the throne of Armenia. Gotarzes moved back to Hyrcania and Vardanes I managed to defeat Mithradates and also to finally subjugate the rebellious city of Seleucia. The conflict with Gotarzes, however, soon restarted and in 45 CE, Vardanes was killed while hunting, replaced by Gotarzes II. The rule of the new king was also marred by a conflict with a certain Mithradates, a Roman puppet and a grandson of Phraates IV. Although Gotarzes managed to defeat Mithradates and his Roman and Parthian supporters, he himself was soon dead from a disease.
His successor was a certain Vonones of Media whose rule was insignificant. He was duly replaced by his son, Vologases I (Parth. Valkhash) who can confidently be called one of the greatest of all Arsacid great-kings.
Vologases I and the “New World Order”
The reign of Vologases seem to have started with a conflict, as usual over Armenia, but also over the rule of Media. It seems like Vologases was planning to appoint his brother Pacorus as the king of Media and another borther, Tiridates, as the king of Armenia. The latter land was presently in the hands of Rhadomistes, a son of the aforementioned Phrasamanes of Iberia. The actions of Vologases naturally attracted the Roman attention. An army, headed by Cn. Domitius Corbulo was sent to meat the Parthian forces under the command of Tiridates. The conflict lasted long and through the succession of Nero in place of Claudius (54 CE). Any compromise was dismissed and sporadic battles were fought between the Romans and the Parthians. It was, however, eventually solved when the two empires agreed that from that point on, the king of Armenia was to be appointed by the Arsacid king and confirmed by the Roman Emperor. Tiridates, thus appointed, traveled to Naples and received the scepter of rule from the Emperor Nero. This was indeed the beginning of a new era in the Iranian-Roman relations and the start of a new world order.
Vologases, however, still had to deal with other issues, most significantly the recurring rebellion of Seleucia and the newly rising power of the Kushans in the east. His solution for the problem of Seleucia was to build a new city called Vologasokert on the bend of the Euphrates and to the south of Seleucia. In this way, not only was the control of the great king over his Mesopotamian residence guaranteed, but also was the position of the trade route that passed from the Iranian Plateau through Palmyra and towards the Mediterranean.
From the north, Vologases had to deal with the attacks of the Alans from beyond the Caucasus, a task he managed well in 78 CE. In the east, however, the newly founded empire of the Kushans was on its way to becoming a major power. It had already defeated the remnants of the Parthian and Saka power at both sides of the Hindukush and was well on its way to becoming a major power under its greatest kings, Kanishka, Huvishka, and Vesudeva. Vologases, in turn, well managed to secure his eastern borders from the Kushan power and his coins, struck in Merv, is an indication of the continued power of the Arsacids in the east.
Vologases is also important for the cultural and religious history of Iran. Although the presence of a written form of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, is often doubted by the scholars, the Avesta itself preserves a narrative of the collection of the book during the time of Vologases I. Although we lack any evidence for its proof, but it seems that at least in the Zoroastrian literature, Vologases is well appreciated as a wise king.
Even Vologases, however, seem to have had to deal with claims with other members of the Arsacid family who minted coins, even tetradrachms in Seleucia, while he was still the ruling king. Among these is Pacorus II and Artabanus IV. But Vologases was surely king until 97 CE from which date we have tetradrachms minted in Seleucia.
A collection of minor kings and pretenders succeeded Vologases until Chosroes, probably a brother of Pacorus II, managed to gain the throne. He had the misfortune of being the contemporary of the Emperor Trajan who did not approve of his choice for the king of Armenia, Parthamasiris. In 113, thus, Trajan embarked upon a large campaign against Parthia. His route, started from Armenia in the north, eventually lead him through the imperial city of Ctesiphon and reached the coast of the Persian Gulf. His success, however astonishing, were short lived due to unfriendly reception of the locals and even petty kings of the regions such as Characene. In 116, Trajan returned to Ctesiphon and installed a puppet king, Parthamaspates, a son of Chosroes on the throne. His generals had previously pillaged Edessa and Nisibis and in 117, following several unsuccessful attempts at taking Hatra and an epidemic, Trajan withdrew his army to beyond the Euphrates, returning not only Nisibis to the Arsacids, but also Dura-Europus. He soon died in Cilicia and was replaced by Hadrianus who returned the borders back to their original position on the Euphrates.
Parthian Decline and the End of the Empire
The chaos left by the campaigns of Trajan was never quite brought to order. Vologases III had to deal with many pretenders who minted coins, including Mithradates IV who actually outlived him in parts of the empire until 192. Vologases IV, a son of Vologases III, had to deal with renewed Roman attacks on Mesopotamia, which he was in charge of. In 163, Romans attached Dura-Europus and captured it, the city becoming a Roman possession from that point on. Mesopotamia was also attacked by a pandemic of Smallpox which was brought from the east (Bactria?) and made the Parthian military even weaker.
A strong king, Vologases V, came to power in 191. He was almost immediately attacked by Septimous Severus who himself had recently gained power following the murder of the Emperor Commodus. Despite much damage and another attempt against Ctesophon, Vologases V seems to have retained his power in Mesopotamia and even have extended it to the Iranian Plateau proper. In 207, Vologases VI, his son, replaced him on the throne. The new king minted tetradrachms in Seleucia, confirming his control over Mesopotamia. However, he was challenged by his brother, Artabanus V who was in charge of Media and the Plateau. Some tetradrachms attributed to Artabanus V probably belong to Vologases VI, suggesting his continued power in Mesopotamia until 222. However, he had to deal with yet another Roman attach, this time by Caracalla who had the claim of restoring the empire of Alexander. Internally, Artabanus was attacked by Ardashir Pabakan, the local king of Persis, and was killed by him in the Battle of Hormozdegan (222). Although Vologases VI had managed to regain much of his territories from the Romans following the death of Caracalla and the succession of Macrinus, he was in turn defeated by Ardashir in 223 CE. The Arsacid Dynasty was finished and a new dynasty with a new vision was born: the Sasanians.
General Bibliography and Reading Suggestions
Bivar, A. D. H. “The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids”, in E. Yarshater ed. Cambridge History of Iran, vol. III, part I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Longdon, R. P. "Notes on the Parthian Campaign of Trajan," JRS XXI (1931): 1-35.
Maricq, A. "Vologesias, l'emporium de Ctesiphon," Classica et Orientalia (1965): 113-125.
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