Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

 

 

 

Vologases V

 

Struggle between the two Sons of Volagases IV., Volagases V. and Artabanus. Continued Sovereignty of both Princes. Ambition of Caracallus. His Proceedings in the East. His Resolve to quarrel with Parthia. First Proposal made by him to Artabanus. Perplexity of Artabanus. Caracallus invades Parthia. His Successes, and Death. Macrinus, defeated by Artabanus, consents to Terms of Peace. Revolt of the Persians under Artaxerxes. Prolonged Struggle. Death of Artabanus, and Downfall of the Parthian Empire

 

On the death of Volagases IV., the Parthian crown was disputed between his two sons, Artabanus and Volagases. According to the classical writers, the contest resulted in favor of the former, whom they regard as undisputed sovereign of the Parthians, at any rate from the year A.D. 216. It appears, however, from the Parthian coins, that both the brothers claimed and exercised sovereignty during the entire term of seventeen or eighteen years which intervened between the death of Volagases IV. and the revolt of the Persians. Artabanus must beyond all doubt have acquired the sole rule in the western portions of the empire, since (from A.D. 216 to A.D. 226) he was the only monarch known to the Romans. But Volagases may at the same time have been recognized in the more eastern provinces, and may have maintained himself in power in those remote regions without interfering with his brother's dominion in the West. Still this division of the empire must naturally have tended to weaken it; and the position of Volagases has to be taken into account in estimating the difficulties under which the last monarch of the Arsacid series found himself placed—difficulties to which, after a struggle, he was at last forced to succumb. Domestic dissension, wars with a powerful neighbor (Rome), and internal disaffection and rebellion formed a combination, against which the last Parthian monarch, albeit a man of considerable energy, strove in vain. But he strove bravely; and the closing scenes of the empire, in which he bore the chief part, are not unworthy of its best and palmiest days.

 

An actual civil war appears to have raged between the two brothers for some years. Caracallus, who in A.D. 211 succeeded his father, Severus, as Emperor of Rome, congratulated the Senate in A.D. 212 on the strife still going on in Parthia, which could not fail (he said) to inflict serious injury on that hostile state. The balance of advantage seems at first to have inclined towards Volagases, whom Caracallus acknowledged as monarch of Parthia in the year A.D. 215. But soon after this the fortune of war must have turned; for subsequently to the year A.D. 215, we hear nothing more of Volagases, but find Caracallus negotiating with Artabanus instead, and treating with him as undisputed monarch of the entire Parthian empire. That this was not his real position, appears from the coins; but the classical evidence may be accepted as showing that from the year A.D. 216, Volagases ceased to have much power, sinking from the rank of a rival monarch into that of a mere pretender, who may have caused some trouble to the established sovereign, but did not inspire serious alarm.

 

Artabanus, having succeeded in reducing his brother to this condition, and obtained a general acknowledgment of his claims, found himself almost immediately in circumstances of much difficulty. From the moment of his accession, Caracallus had exhibited an inordinate ambition; and this ambition had early taken the shape of a special desire for the glory of Oriental conquests. The weak and dissolute son of Severus fancied himself, and called himself, a second Alexander; and thus he was in honor bound to imitate that hero's marvellous exploits. The extension of the Roman territory towards the East became very soon his great object, and he shrank from no steps, however base and dishonorable, which promised to conduce towards the accomplishment of his wishes. As early as A.D. 212 he summoned Abgarus, the tributary king of Osrhoene, into his presence, and when he unsuspectingly complied, seized him, threw him into prison, and declaring his territories forfeited, reduced them into the form of a Roman province. Successful in this bold proceeding, he attempted to deal with Armenia in the same way; but, though the monarch fell foolishly into the trap set for him, the nation was not so easily managed. The Armenians flew to arms on learning the imprisonment of their king and royal family; and when, three year afterwards (A.D. 215), Caracallus sent a Roman army under Theocritus, one of his favorites, to chastise them, they inflicted a severe defeat on their assailant. But the desire of Caracallus to effect Oriental conquests was increased, rather than diminished, by this occurrence. He had sought a quarrel with Parthia as early as A.D. 214, when he demanded of Volagases the surrender of two refugees of distinction. The rupture, which he courted, was deferred by the discreditable compliance of the Great King with his requisition.

Volagases surrendered the two unfortunates; and the Roman Emperor was compelled to declare himself satisfied with the concession. But a year had not elapsed before he had devised a new plan of attack and proceeded to put it in execution.

 

Volagases V. was about this time compelled to yield the western capital to his brother; and Artabanus IV. became the representative of Parthian power in the eyes of the Romans. Caracallus in the summer of A.D. 215, having transferred his residence from Nicomedia to Antioch, sent ambassadors from the last-named place to Artabanus, who were to present the Parthian monarch with presents of unusual magnificence, and to make him an unheard-of proposition. "The Roman Emperor," said the despatch with which they were intrusted, "could not fitly wed the daughter of a subject or accept the position of son-in-law to a private person. No one could be a suitable wife to him who was not a princess." He therefore asked the Parthian monarch for the hand of his daughter. Rome and Parthia divided between them the sovereignty of the world; united, as they would be by this marriage, no longer recognizing any boundary as separating them, they would constitute a power that could not but be irresistible. It would be easy for them to reduce under their sway all the barbarous races on the skirts of their empires, and to hold them in subjection by a flexible system of administration and government. The Roman infantry was the best in the world, and in steady hand-to-hand fighting must be allowed to be unrivalled. The Parthians surpassed all nations in the number of their cavalry and in the excellency of their archers. If these advantages, instead of being separated, were combined, and the various elements on which success in war depends were thus brought into harmonious union, there could be no difficulty in establishing and maintaining a universal monarchy. Were that done, the Parthian spices and rare stuffs, as also the Roman metals and manufactures, would no longer need to be imported secretly and in small quantities by merchants, but, as the two countries would form together but one nation and one state, there would be a free interchange among all the citizens of their various products and commodities.

 

The recital of this despatch threw the Parthian monarch into extreme perplexity. He did not believe that the proposals made to him were serious, or intended to have an honorable issue. The project broached appeared to him altogether extravagant, and such as no one in his senses could entertain for a moment. Yet he was anxious not to offend the master of two-and-thirty legions, nor even to give him a pretext for a rupture of amicable relations. Accordingly he temporized, contenting himself with setting forth some objections to the request of Caracallus, and asking to be excused compliance with it. "Such a union, as Caracallus proposed, could scarcely," he said, "prove a happy one. The wife and husband, differing in language, habits, and mode of life, could not but become estranged from one another. There was no lack of patricians at Rome, possessing daughters with whom the emperor might wed as suitably as the Parthian kings did with the females of their own royal house. It was not fit that either family should sully its blood by mixture with the other."

 

There is some doubt whether Caracallus construed this response as an absolute refusal, and thereupon undertook his expedition, or whether he regarded it as inviting further negotiation, and sent a second embassy, whose arguments and persuasions induced Artabanus to consent to the proposed alliance. The contemporary historian, Dio, states positively that Artabanus refused to give his daughter to the Roman monarch, and that Caracallus undertook his expedition to avenge this insult; but Herodian, another contemporary, declares exactly the reverse. According to him, the Roman Emperor, on receiving the reply of Artabanus, sent a new embassy to urge his suit, and to protest with oaths that he was in earnest and had the most friendly intentions. Artabanus upon this yielded, addressed Caracallus as his son-in-law, and invited him to come and fetch home his bride. Herodian describes with much minuteness, and with a good deal of picturesque effect, the stately march of the Imperial prince through the Parthian territory, the magnificent welcome which he received, and the peaceful meeting of the two kings in the plain before Ctesiphon, which was suddenly interrupted by the meditated treason of the crafty Roman. Taken at disadvantage, the Parthian monarch with difficulty escaped, while his soldiers and other subjects, incapable of making any resistance, were slaughtered like sheep by their assailants, who then plundered and ravaged the Parthian territory at their will, and returned laden with spoil into Mesopotamia. In general, Dio is a more trustworthy authority than Herodian, and most moderns have therefore preferred his version of the story. But it may be questioned whether in this particular case the truth has not been best preserved by the historian on whom under ordinary circumstances we place less dependence. If so disgraceful an outrage as that described by Herodian was, indeed, committed by the head of the Roman State on a foreign potentate, Dio, as a great State official, would naturally be anxious to gloss it over. There are, moreover, internal difficulties in his narrative; and on more than one point of importance he contradicts not only Herodian, but also Spartianus. It is therefore not improbable that Herodian has given with most truth the general outline of the expedition of Caracallus, though, with that love of effect which characterizes him, he may have unduly embellished the narrative.

 

The advance of Caracallus was, if Spartianus is to be believed, through Babylonia. The return may have been (as Dio seems to indicate that it was) by the way of the Tigris, through Adiabene and Upper Mesopotamia. It was doubtless on the return that Caracallus committed a second and wholly wanton outrage upon the feelings of his adversary, by violating the sanctity of the Parthian royal sepulchres, and dispersing their contents to the four winds. These tombs were situated at Arbela, in Adiabene, a place which seems to have been always regarded as in some sort a City of the Dead. The useless insult and impiety were worthy of one who, like Caracallus, was "equally devoid of judgment and humanity," and who has been pronounced by the most unimpassioned of historians to have been "the common enemy of mankind." A severe reckoning was afterwards exacted for the indignity, which was felt by the Parthians with all the keenness wherewith Orientals are wont to regard any infringement of the sanctity of the grave.

 

Caracallus appears to have passed the winter at Edessa, amusing himself with hunting and charioteering after the fatigues of his campaign. In the spring he threatened another advance into Parthian territory, and threw the Medes and Parthians into great alarm. He had not, however, the opportunity of renewing his attack. On April 8, A.D. 217, having quitted Edessa with a small retinue for the purpose of visiting a famous temple of the Moon-God near Carrhaa, he was surprised and murdered on the way by Julius Martialis, one of his guards. His successor, Macrinus, though a Praetorian prefect, was no soldier, and would willingly have retired at once from the war. But the passions of the Parthians had been roused. Artahanus possessed the energy and spirit which most of the recent monarchs had lacked; and though defeated when taken at disadvantage, and unable for some months to obtain any revenge, had employed the winter in the collection of a vast army, and was determined to exact a heavy retribution for the treacherous massacre of Ctesiphon and the wanton impiety of Arbela. He had already taken the field and conducted his troops to the neighborhood of the Roman frontier when Caracallus lost his life. Macrinus was scarcely acknowledged emperor when he found that the Parthians were close at hand, that the frontier was crossed, and that unless a treaty could be concluded he must risk a battle.

Under these circumstances the unwarlike emperor hurriedly, sent ambassadors to the Parthian camp, with an offer to restore all the prisoners made in the late campaign as the price of peace. Artabanus unhesitatingly rejected the overture, but at the same time informed his adversary of the terms on which he was willing to treat. Macrinus, he said, must not only restore the prisoners, but must also consent to rebuild all the towns and castles which Caracallus had laid in ruins, must make compensation for the injury done to the tombs of the kings, and further must cede Mesopotamia to the Parthians. It was impossible for a Roman Emperor to consent to such demands without first trying the fortune of war, and Macrinus accordingly made up his mind to fight a battle. The Parthian prince had by this time advanced as far as Nisibis, and it was in the neighborhood of that city that the great struggle took place.

 

The battle of Nisibis, which terminated the long contest between Rome and Parthia, was the fiercest and best-contested which was ever fought between the rival powers. It lasted for the space of three days. The army of Artabanus was numerous and well-appointed: like almost every Parthian force, it was strong in cavalry and archers; and it had moreover a novel addition of considerable importance, consisting of a corps of picked soldiers, clad in complete armor, and carrying long spears or lances, who were mounted on camels. The Roman legionaries were supported by numerous light-armed troops, and a powerful body of Mauritanian cavalry. According to Dio, the first engagement was brought on accidentally by a contest which arose among the soldiers for the possession of a watering-place. Herodian tells us that it commenced with a fierce assault of the Parthian cavalry, who charged the Romans with loud shouts, and poured into their ranks flight after flight of arrows. A long struggle followed. The Romans suffered greatly from the bows of the horse-archers, and from the lances of the corps mounted on camels; and though, when they could reach their enemy, they had always the superiority in close combat, yet after a while their losses from the cavalry and camels forced them to retreat. As they retired they strewed the ground with spiked balls and other contrivances for injuring the feet of animals; and this stratagem was so far successful that the pursuers soon found themselves in difficulties, and the armies respectively retired, without any decisive result, to their camps.

 

The next day there was again a combat from morning to night, of which we have no description, but which equally terminated without any clear advantage to either side. The fight was then renewed for the third time on the third day, with the difference that the Parthians now directed all their efforts towards surrounding the enemy, and thus capturing their entire force. As they greatly outnumbered the Romans, these last found themselves compelled to extend their line unduly, in order to meet the Parthian tactics; and the weakness of the extended line seems to have given the Parthians an opportunity of throwing it into confusion, and thus causing the Roman defeat. Macrinus took to flight among the first; and his hasty retreat discouraged his troops, who soon afterwards acknowledged themselves beaten, and retired within the lines of their camp. Both armies had suffered severely. Herodian describes the heaps of dead as piled to such a height that the manoeuvres of the troops were impeded by them, and at last the two contending hosts could scarcely see one another! Both armies, therefore, desired peace. The soldiers of Macrinus, who had never had much confidence in their leader, were demoralized by ill success, and showed themselves inclined to throw off the restraints of discipline. Those of Artabanus, a militia rather than a standing force, were unaccustomed to sustained efforts; and having been now for some months in the field, had grown weary, and wished to return home. Macrinus under these circumstances re-opened negotiations with his adversary. He was prepared to concede something more than he had proposed originally, and he had reason to believe that the Parthian monarch, having found the Roman resistance so stubborn, would be content to insist on less. The event justified his expectations. Artabanus relinquished his demand for the cession of Mesopotamia, and accepted a pecuniary compensation for his wrongs. Besides restoring the captives and the booty carried off by Caracallus in his raid, Macrinus had to pay a sum exceeding a million and a half of our money. Rome thus concluded her transactions with Parthia, after nearly three centuries of struggle, by ignominiously purchasing a peace.

 

It might have been expected that the glory of this achievement would have brought the troubles of Artabanus to a close; and if they did not cause the pretender who still disputed his possession of the throne to submit, would at any rate have put an end to any disaffection on the part of the subject nations that the previous ill-success of Parthia in her Roman wars might have provoked. But in the histories of nations and empires we constantly find that noble and gallant efforts to retrieve disaster and prevent the ruin consequent upon it come too late. When matters have gathered to a head, when steps that commit important persons have been taken, when classes or races have been encouraged to cherish hopes, when plans have been formed and advanced to a certain point, the course of action that has been contemplated and arranged for cannot suddenly be given up. The cause of discontent is removed, but the effects remain. Affections have been alienated, and the alienation still continues. A certain additional resentment is even felt at the tardy repentance, or revival, which seems to cheat the discontented of that general sympathy whereof without it they would have been secure. In default of their original grievance, it is easy for them to discover minor ones, to exaggerate these into importance, and to find in them a sufficient reason for persistence in the intended course. Hence revolutions often take place just when the necessity for them seems to be past, and kingdoms perish at a time when they have begun to show themselves deserving of a longer term of life.

 

It is impossible at the present day to form any trustworthy estimate of the real value of those grounds of complaint which the Persians, in common doubtless with other subject races, thought that they had against the Parthian rule. We can well understand that the supremacy of any dominant race is irksome to the aliens who have to submit to it; but such information as we possess fails to show us either anything seriously oppressive in the general system of the Parthian government, or any special grievance whereof the Persians had to complain. The Parthians were tolerant; they did not interfere with the religious prejudices of their subjects, or attempt to enforce uniformity of creed or worship. Their military system did not press over-heavily on the subject peoples, nor is there any reason to believe that the scale of their taxation was excessive. Such tyranny as is charged upon certain Parthian monarchs is not of a kind that would have been sensibly felt by the conquered nations, for it was exercised upon none who were not Parthians. If we endeavor to form a distinct notion of the grievances under which the Persians suffered, they seem to have amounted to no more than this: 1. That high offices, whether military or civil, were for the most part confined to those of Parthian blood, and not thrown open to Parthian subjects generally; 2. That the priests of the Persian religion were not held in any special honor, but placed merely on a par with the religious ministers of the other subject races; 3. That no advantage in any respect was allowed to the Persians over the rest of the conquered peoples, notwithstanding that they had for so many years exercised supremacy over Western Asia, and given to the list of Asiatic worthies such names as those of Cyrus and Darius Hystaspis. It must, however, be confessed that the account which has come down to us of the times in question is exceedingly meagre and incomplete; that we cannot say whether the Persians had not also other grounds of complaint besides those that are known to us; and, more especially, that we have no means of determining what the actual pressure of the grievances complained of was, or whether it did not reach to that degree of severity which moderns mostly hold to justify disaffection and rebellion. On the whole, perhaps, our conclusion must be, that the best justification of the outbreak is to be found in its success. The Parthians had no right to their position but such as arose out of the law of the stronger—

 

     The ancient rule, the good old plan,
     That those shall take who have the power,
     And those shall keep who can—
 

when the time came that they had lost this pre-eminence, superiority in strength having passed from them to a nation hitherto counted among their subjects, it was natural and right that the seat of authority should shift with the shift in the balance of power, and that the leadership of the Persians should be once more recognized.

 

If the motives which actuated the nation of the Persians in rising against their masters are thus obscure and difficult to be estimated, still less can we form any decided judgment upon those which caused their leader, Artaxerxes, to attempt his perilous enterprise. Could we trust implicitly the statement of Agathias, that Artaxerxes was himself a Magus, initiated in the deepest mysteries of the Order, we should have grounds for considering that religious zeal was, at any rate, a leading motive of his conduct. It is certain that among the principal changes consequent upon his success was a religious revolution—the substitution for Parthian tolerance of all faiths and worships, of a rigidly enforced uniformity in religion, the establishment of the Magi in power, and the bloody persecution of all such as declined obedience to the precepts of Zoroaster. But the conjecture has been made, and cannot be refuted, that the proceedings of Artaxerxes in this matter should be ascribed to policy rather than to bigotry, and in that case we could not regard him, as originally inspired by a religious sentiment. Perhaps it is best to suppose that, like most founders of empires, he was mainly prompted by ambition; that he saw in the distracted state of Parthia and in the awakening of hope among the subject races, an occasion of which he determined to avail himself as far as he could, and that he was gradually led on to enlarge his views and to effect the great revolution, which he brought about, by the force of circumstances, the wishes of others, and the occurrence of opportunities which at first he neither foresaw nor desired.

 

It has been observed, that Parthia was, during the whole reign of Artaxerxes, distracted by the claims of a pretender, Volagases V. According to Moses of Chorene, two branches of the Arsacid family, both of them settled in Bactria, were at feud with the reigning prince; and these offended relatives carried their enmity to such a length as to consider submission to a foreigner a less evil than subjection to the de facto head of their house. The success of Artabanus in the war against Rome had no effect upon his domestic foes; and Artaxerxes undoubtedly knew that, if he raised the standard of revolt, he might count on a certain amount of support from discontented Arsacids and their followers. But his main reliance must have been on the Persians. The Persians had, in the original arrangements of the Parthian empire, been treated with a certain amount of favor. They had been allowed to retain their native monarchs, a concession which naturally involved the continuance of the nation's laws, customs, and traditions. Their religion had not been persecuted, and had even in the early times attracted a considerable amount of Court favor. But it would seem that latterly the privileges of the nation had been diminished, while their prejudices were wantonly shocked. The Magi had ceased to be regarded as of much account, and, if they still formed nominally a portion of the king's council, can have had little influence on the conduct of affairs by the government. Such a custom as that of burning the dead, which seems to have been the rule in the later Parthian times, could never have maintained its ground, if the opinion of the Magi, or their coreligionists, had been considered of much account.

 

Encouraged by the dissensions prevailing in the Parthian royal house, strong in the knowledge of his fellow-countrymen's discontent, and perhaps thinking that the losses which Artabanus had sustained in his three days' battle against the Romans under Macrinus had seriously weakened his military strength, Artaxerxes, tributary king of Persia under Parthia, about A.D. 220, or a little later, took up arms against his master, and in a little time succeeded in establishing the independence of Persia Proper, or the modern province of Fars. Artabanus is said to have taken no steps at first to crush the rebellion, or to re-establish his authority over his revolted vassal. Thus the Persian monarch, finding himself unmolested, was free to enlarge his plans, and having originally, as is probable, designed only the liberation of his own people, began to contemplate conquests. Turning his arms eastwards against Carmania (Kerman), he easily reduced that scantily-peopled tract under his dominion, after which he made war towards the north, and added to his kingdom some of the outlying regions of Media. Artabanus now at length resolved to bestir himself, and collecting his forces, took the field in person. Invading Persia Proper, he engaged in a desperate struggle with his rival. Three great battles were fought between the contending powers. In the last, which took place in the plain of Hormuz, between Bebahan and Shuster, on the course of the Jerahi river, Artabanus was, after a desperate conflict, completely defeated, and not only defeated but slain (A.D. 226).

 

The victory of Hormuz did not, however, absolutely decide the contest, or determine at once that the Parthian empire should fall, and the new Persian kingdom succeed into its place. Artabanus had left sons; and there were not wanting those among the feudatories of the empire, and even among the neighboring potentates, who were well inclined to embrace their cause. A certain Artavasdes seems to have claimed the throne, and to have been accepted as king, at least by a portion of the Parthians, in the year following the death of Artabanus (A.D. 227), when he certainly issued coins. The Armenian monarch, who had been set on his throne by Artabanus, and was uncle to the young princes, was especially anxious to maintain the Arsacids in power; he gave them a refuge in Armenia, collected an army on their behalf, and engaging Artaxerxes, is even said to have defeated him in a battle. But his efforts, and those of Artavasdes, were unavailing. The arms of Artaxerxes in the end everywhere prevailed. After a struggle, which cannot have lasted more than a few years, the provinces of the old Parthian empire submitted; the last Arsacid prince fell into the hands of the Persian king; and the founder of the new dynasty sought to give legitimacy to his rule by taking to wife an Arsacid princess.

 

Thus perished the great Parthian monarchy after an existence of nearly five centuries. Its end must be attributed in the main to internal decay, working itself out especially in two directions. The Arsacid race, with which the idea of the empire was bound up, instead of clinging together with that close "union" which is "strength," allowed itself to be torn to pieces by dissensions, to waste its force in quarrels, and to be made a handle of by every foreign invader, or domestic rebel, who chose to use its name in order to cloak his own selfish projects. The race itself does not seem to have become exhausted. Its chiefs, the successive occupants of the throne, never sank into mere weaklings or faineants, never shut themselves up in their seraglios, or ceased to take a leading part, alike in civil broils, and in struggles with foreign rivals. But the hold which the race had on the population, native and foreign, was gradually weakened by the feuds which raged within it, by the profusion with which the sacred blood was shed by those in whose veins it ran, and the difficulty of knowing which living member of it was its true head, and so entitled to the allegiance of those who wished to be faithful Parthian subjects. Further, the vigor of the Parthian soldiery must have gradually declined, and their superiority over the mass of the nations under their dominion have diminished. We found reasons for believing that, as early as A.D. 58, Hyrcania succeeded in throwing off the Parthian yoke, and thus setting an example of successful rebellion to the subject peoples. The example may have been followed in cases of which we hear nothing; for the condition of the more remote portions of the empire was for the most part unknown to the Romans. When Persia, about A.D. 220, revolted from Artabanus, it was no doubt with a conviction that the Parthians were no longer the terrible warriors who under Mithridates I. had driven all the armies of the East before them like chaff, or who under Orodes and Phraates IV. had gained signal victories over the Romans. It is true that Artabanus had contended not unsuccessfully with Macrinus. But the prestige of Parthia was far from being re-established by the result of his three days' battle. Rome retained as her own, notwithstanding his success, the old Parthian province of Mesopotamia, and was thus, even in the moment of her weakness, acknowledged by Parthia to be the stronger. The Persians are not likely to have been braver or more warlike at the time of their revolt from Artabanus than in the days when they were subjected by Mithridates. Any alteration, therefore, in the relative strength of the two peoples must be ascribed to Parthian decline, since it cannot have been owing to Persian advance and improvement. To conclude, we may perhaps allow something to the personal qualities of Artaxerxes, who appears to have possessed all the merits of the typical Oriental conqueror. Artabanus was among the most able of the later Parthian monarchs; but his antagonist was more than this, possessing true military genius. It is quite possible that, if the leaders on the two sides had changed places, the victory might have rested, not with the Persians, but with the Parthians.

 

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