Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)


Phraates IV r. 37–2 BC, being crowned by Nike

Reign of Phraates IV. His cruelties. Flight of Monceses to Antony. Antony's great Parthian Expedition, or Invasion of Media Atropatene. Its Complete Failure. Subsequent Alliance of the Median King with Antony. War between Parthia and Media. Rebellion raised against Phraates by Tiridates. Phraates expelled. He recovers his Throne with the help of the Scythians. His dealings with Augustus. His death and Character.


Phraates reign of terror


The shedding of blood is like, "the letting out of water." When it once begins, none can say where it will stop. The absolute monarch who, for his own fancied security, commences a system of executions, is led on step by step to wholesale atrocities from which he would have shrunk with horror at the outset. Phraates had removed brothers whose superior advantages of birth made them formidable rivals. He had punished with death a father who ventured to blame his act, and to forget that by abdication he had sunk himself to the position of a subject. Could he have stopped here, it might have seemed that his severities proceeded not so much from cruelty of disposition as from political necessity; and historians, always tender in the judgments which they pass on kings under such circumstances, would probably have condoned or justified his conduct. But the taste for bloodshed grows with the indulgence of it. In a short time the young king had killed all his remaining brothers, although their birth was no better than his own, and there was no valid ground for his fearing them; and soon afterwards, not content with the murder of his own relations, he began to vent his fury upon the Parthian nobles. Many of these suffered death; and such a panic seized the order that numbers quitted the country, and dispersed in different directions, content to remain in exile until the danger which threatened them should have passed by. There, were others, however, who were not so patient.




A body of chiefs had fled to Antony, among whom was a certain Monseses, a nobleman of the highest rank, who seems to have distinguished himself previously in the Syrian wars. This person represented to Antony that Phraates had by his tyrannical and bloody conduct made himself hateful to his subjects, and that a revolution could easily be effected. If the Romans would support him, he offered to invade Parthia; and he made no doubt of wresting the greater portion of it from the hands of the tyrant, and of being himself accepted as king. In that, case he would consent to hold his crown of the Romans, who might depend upon his fidelity and gratitude. Antony is said to have listened to these overtures, and to have been induced by them to turn his thoughts to an invasion of the Parthian kingdom. He began to collect troops and to obtain allies with this object. He entered into negotiations with Artavasdes, the Armenian king, who seems at this time to have been more afraid of Rome than of Parthia, and engaged him to take a part in his projected campaign. He spoke of employing Monseses in a separate expedition. Under these circumstances Phraates became alarmed. He sent a message to Monseses with promises of pardon and favor, which that chief thought worthy of acceptance. Hereupon Monseses represented to Antony that by a peaceful return he might perhaps do him as much service as by having recourse to arms; and though Antony was not persuaded, he thought it prudent to profess himself well satisfied, and to allow Monseses to quit him. His relations with Parthia, he said, might perhaps be placed on a proper footing without a war, and he was quite willing to try negotiation. His ambassadors should accompany Monasses. They would be instructed to demand nothing of Phraates but the restoration of the Roman standards taken from Crassus, and the liberation of such of the captive soldiers as were still living.'


Antony plans invasion

Mark Antony


But Antony had really determined on war. It may be doubted whether it had required the overtures of Monseses to put a Parthian expedition into his thoughts. He must have been either more or less than a man if the successes of his lieutenants had not stirred in his mind some feeling of jealousy, and some desire to throw their victories into the shade by a grand and noble achievement. Especially the glory of Ventidius, who had been allowed the much-coveted honor of a triumph at Rome on account of his defeats of the Parthians in Cilicia and Syria, must have moved him to emulation, and have caused him to cast about for some means of exalting his own military reputation above that of his subordinates. For this purpose nothing, he must have known, would be so effectual as a real Parthian success, the inflicting on this hated and dreaded foe of an unmistakable humiliation, the dictating to them terms of peace on their own soil after some crushing and overwhelming disaster. And, after the victories of Ventidius, this did not appear to be so very difficult. The prestige of the Parthian name was gone. Roman soldiers could be trusted to meet them without alarm, and to contend with them without undue excitement or flurry. The weakness, as well as the strength, of their military system had come to be known; and expedients had been devised by which its strong points were met and counterbalanced. At the head of sixteen legions, Antony might well think that he could invade Parthia successfully, and not only avoid the fate of Crassus, but gather laurels which might serve him in good stead in his contest with his great political rival.


The invasion of Antony 36 B.C.




Nor can the Roman general be taxed with undue precipitation or with attacking in insufficient force. He had begun, as already noticed, with securing the co-operation of the Armenian king, Artavasdes, who promised him a contingent of 7000 foot and 6000 horse. His Roman infantry is estimated at 60,000; besides which he had 10,000 Gallic and Iberian horse, and 30,000 light armed and cavalry of the Asiatic allies. His own army thus amounted to 100,000 men; and, with the Armenian contingent, his entire force would have been 113,000. It seems that it was his original intention to cross the Euphrates into Mesopotamia, and thus to advance almost in the footsteps of Crassus but when he reached the banks of the river (about midsummer B.C. 37) he found such preparations made to resist him that he abandoned his first design, and, turning northwards, entered Armenia, determined to take advantage of his alliance with Artavasdes, and to attack Parthia with Armenia as the basis of his operations.


Antony in Armenia


Praaspa ( Takht-i-Suleiman )


Artavasdes gladly received him, and persuaded him, instead of penetrating into Parthia itself, to direct his arms against the territory of a Parthian subject-ally, the king of Media Atropatene, whose territories adjoined Armenia on the southeast, and capture the city of Praaspa ( now called Takht-i-Suleiman, Throne of Solomon ). Artavasdes pointed out that the Median monarch was absent from his own country, having joined his troops to those which Phraates had collected for the defence of Parthia. His territory therefore would be open to ravage, and even Praaspa, his capital, might prove an easy prey. The prospect excited Antony, who at once divided his troops, and having given orders to Oppius Statianus to follow him leisurely with the more unwieldy part of the army, the baggage-train, and the siege batteries, proceeded himself by forced marches to Praaspa with all the calvary and the infantry of the better class.


Antony invades Media, disaster and retreat

This town was situated at the distance of nearly three hundred miles from the Armenian frontier; but the way to it lay through well-cultivated plains, where food and water were abundant. Antony performed the march without difficulty and at once invested the place. The walls were strong, and the defenders numerous, so that he made little impression; and when the Median king returned, accompanied by his Parthian suzerain, to the defence of his country, the capital seemed in so little danger that it was resolved to direct the first attack on Statianus, who had not yet joined his chief. A most successful onslaught was made on this officer, who was surprised, defeated, and slain. Ten thousand Romans fell in the battle, and all the baggage-wagons and engines of war were taken. A still worse result of the defeat was the desertion of Aitavasdes, who, regarding the case of the Romans as desperate, drew off his troops, and left Antony to his own resources.

The Roman general now found himself in great difficulties. He had exhausted the immediate neighborhood of Praaspa, and was obliged to send his foraging-parties on distant expeditions, where, being beyond the reach of his protection, they were attacked and cut to pieces by the enemy. He had lost his siege-train, and found it impossible to construct another. Such works as he attempted suffered through the sallies of the besieged: and in some of these his soldiers behaved so ill that he was forced to punish their cowardice by decimation. His supplies failed, and he had to feed his troops on barley instead of wheat.


Meantime the autumnal equinox was approaching, and the weather was becoming cold. The Medes and Parthians, under their respective monarchs, hung about him, impeded his movements, and cut off his stragglers, but carefully avoided engaging him in a pitched battle. If he could have forced the city to a surrender, he would have been in comparative safety, for he might have gone into winter quarters there and have renewed the war in the ensuing spring. But all his assaults, with whatever desperation they were made, failed; and it became necessary to relinquish the siege and retire into Armenia before the rigors of winter should set in. He could, however, with difficulty bring himself to make a confession of failure, and flattered himself for a while that the Parthians would consent to purchase his retirement by the surrender of the Crassian captives and standards. Having lost some valuable time in negotiations, at which the Parthians laughed, at length, when the equinox was passed, he broke up from before Praaspa, and commenced the work of retreat.


There were two roads by which he might reach the Araxes at the usual point of passage, One lay towards the left, through a plain and open country, probably that through which he had come; the other, which was shorter, but more difficult, lay to the right, leading across a mountain-tract, but one fairly supplied with water, and in which there were inhabited villages. Antony was advised that the Parthians had occupied the easier route, expecting that he would follow it, and intended to overwhelm him with their cavalry in the plains. He therefore took the road to the right through a rugged and inclement country—probably that between Tahkt-i-Suleiman and Tabriz—and, guided by a Mardian who knew the region well, proceeded to make his way back to the Araxes. His decision took the Parthians by surprise, and for two days he was unmolested. But by the third day they had thrown themselves across his path; and thenceforward, for nineteen consecutive days, they disputed with Antony every inch of his retreat, and inflicted on him the most serious damage. The sufferings of the Roman army during this time, says a modern historian of Rome, were unparalleled in their military annals. The intense cold, the blinding snow and driving sleet, the want sometimes of provisions, sometimes of water, the use of poisonous herbs, and the harassing attacks of the enemy's cavalry and bowmen, which could only be repelled by maintaining the dense array of the phalanx or the tortoise, reduced the retreating army by one-third of its numbers. At length, after a march of 300 Roman, or 277 British, miles, they reached the river Araxes, probably at the Julfa ferry, and, crossing it, found themselves in Armenia. But the calamities of the return were not yet ended. Though it was arranged with Artavasdes that the bulk of the army should winter in Armenia, yet, before the various detachments could reach their quarters in different parts of the country, eight thousand more had perished through the effects of past sufferings or the severity of the weather. Altogether, out of the hundred thousand men whom Antony led into Media Atropatene, less than seventy thousand remained to commence the campaign which was threatened for the ensuing year.


Well may the unfortunate commander have exclaimed as he compared his own heavy losses with the light ones of Xenophon and his Greeks in these same regions, "Oh, those Ten Thousand! those Ten Thousand!"


Quarrel between Phraates and the king of Media


On the withdrawal of Antony into Armenia a quarrel broke out between Phraates and his Median vassal. The latter regarded himself as wronged in the division made of the Roman spoils, and expressed himself with so much freedom on the subject as to offend his suzerain. He then began to fear that he had gone too far, and that Phraates would punish him by depriving him of his sovereignty. Accordingly, he was anxious to obtain a powerful alliance, and on turning over in his mind all feasible political combinations it seems to have occurred to him that his late enemy, Antony, might be disposed to take him under his protection. He doubtless knew that Artavasdes of Armenia had offended the Roman leader by deserting him in the hour of his greatest peril, and felt that, if Antony was intending to revenge himself on the traitor, he would be glad to have a friend on the Armenian border. He therefore sent an ambassador of rank to Alexandria, where Antony was passing the winter, and boldly proposed the alliance.


Artavasdes seized


Antony readily accepted it; he was intensely angered by the conduct of the Armenian monarch, and determined on punishing his defection; he viewed the Median alliance as of the utmost importance in connection with the design, which he still entertained, of invading Parthia itself; and he saw in the powerful descendant of Atropates a prince whom it would be well worth his while to bind to his cause indissolubly. He therefore embraced the overtures made to him with joy, and even rewarded the messenger who had brought them with a principality. After sundry efforts to entice Artavasdes into his power, which occupied him during most of B.C. 85, in the spring of B.C. 34 he suddenly appeared in Armenia. His army, which had remained there from the previous campaign, held all the more important positions, and, as he professed the most friendly feelings towards Artavasdes, even proposing an alliance between their families, that prince, after some hesitation, at length ventured into his presence. He was immediately seized and put in chains. Armenia was rapidly overrun. Artaxias, whom the Armenians made king in the room of his father, was defeated and forced to take refuge with the Parthians. Antony then arranged a marriage between the daughter of the Median monarch and his own son by Cleopatra, Alexander, and, leaving garrisons in Armenia, carried off Artavasdes and a rich booty into Egypt.


Median king defeated, Romans expelled from Armenia


Phraates, during these transactions, stood wholly upon the defensive. It may not have been unpleasing to him to see Artavasdes punished. It must have gratified him to observe how Antony was injuring his own cause by exasperating the Armenians, and teaching them to hate Rome even more than they hated Parthia. But while Antony's troops held both Syria and Armenia, and the alliance between Media Atropatene and Rome continued, he could not venture to take any aggressive step or do aught but protect his own frontier. He was obliged even to look on with patience, when, early in B.C. 33, Antony appeared once more in these parts, and advancing to the Araxes, had a conference with the Median monarch, whereat their alliance was confirmed, troops exchanged, part of Armenia made over to the Median king, and Jotapa, his daughter, given as a bride to the young Alexander, whom Antony designed to make satrap of the East. But no sooner had Antony withdrawn into Asia Minor in preparation for his contest with Octavian than Phraates took the offensive. In combination with Artaxias, the new Armenian king, he attacked Antony's ally; but the latter repulsed him by the help of his Roman troops. Soon afterwards, however, Antony recalled these troops without restoring to the Median king his own contingent; upon which the two confederates renewed their attack, and were successful. The Median prince was defeated and taken prisoner. Artaxias recovered Armenia and massacred all the Roman garrisons which he found in it. Both countries became once more wholly independent of Rome, and it is probable that Media returned to its old allegiance.


insurrection against Phraates


But the successes of Phraates abroad produced ill consequences at home. Elated by his victories, and regarding his position in Parthia as thereby secured, he resumed the series of cruelties towards his subjects which the Roman war had interrupted, and pushed them so far that an insurrection broke out against his authority (B.C. 33), and he was compelled to quit the country. The revolt was headed by a certain Tiridates, who, upon its success, was made king by the insurgents. Phraates fled into Scythia, and persuaded the Scythians to embrace his cause. These nomads, nothing loth, took up arms, and without any great difficulty restored Phraates to the throne from which his people had expelled him.



 Parthian invasion of Syria


 Roman Standards