Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)


Roman Standards


Tiridates fled at their approach, and, having contrived to carry off in his flight the youngest son of Phraates, presented himself before Octavian, who was in Syria at the time on his return from Egypt (B.C. 30), surrendered the young prince into his hands, and requested his aid against the tyrant. Octavian accepted the valuable hostage, but with his usual caution, declined to pledge himself to furnish any help to the pretender; he might remain, he said, in Syria, if he so wished, and while he continued under Roman protection, a suitable provision should be made for his support, but, he must not expect armed resistance against the Parthian monarch. To that monarch, when some years afterwards (B.C. 23) he demanded the surrender of his subject and the restoration of his young son, Octavian answered that he could not give Tiridates up to him, but he would restore him his son without a ransom. He should expect, however, that in return for this kindness the Parthian king would on his part deliver to the Romans the standards taken from Crassus and Antony, together with all who survived of the Roman captives.


It does not appear that Phraates was much moved by the Emperor's generosity. He gladly received his son; but he took no steps towards the restoration of those proofs of Parthian victory which the Romans were so anxious to recover. It was not until B.C. 20, when Octavian (now become Augustus) visited the East, and war seemed the probable alternative if he continued obstinate, that the Parthian monarch brought himself to relinquish the trophies which were as much prized by the victors as the vanquished. In extenuation of his act we must remember that he was unpopular with his subjects, and that Augustus could at any moment have produced a pretender, who had once occupied, and with Roman help might easily have mounted for a second time, the throne of the Arsacidse.


Last Years of Phraates


The remaining years of Phraates—and he reigned for nearly twenty years after restoring the standards—are almost unbroken by any event of importance. The result of the twenty years' struggle between Rome and Parthia had been to impress either nation with a wholesome dread of the other. Both had triumphed on their own ground; both had failed when they ventured on sending expeditions into the enemy's territory. Each now stood on its guard, watching the movements of its adversary across the Euphrates. Both had become pacific. It is a well-known fact that Augustus left it as a principle of policy to his successors that the Roman Empire had reached its proper limits, and could not with advantage be extended further. This principle, followed with the utmost strictness by Tiberius, was accepted as a rule by all the earlier Caesars, and only regarded as admitting of rare and slight exceptions. Trajan was the first who, a hundred and thirty years after the accession of Augustus, made light of it and set it at defiance. With him re-awoke the spirit of conquest, the aspiration after universal dominion. But in the meantime there was peace—peace indeed not absolutely unbroken, for border wars occurred, and Rome was tempted sometimes to interfere by arms in the internal quarrels of her neighbors—but a general state of peace and amity prevailed—neither state made any grand attack on the other's dominions—no change occurred in the frontier, no great battle tested the relative strength of the two peoples. Such rivalry as remained was exhibited less in arms than in diplomacy and showed itself mainly in endeavors on either side to obtain a predominant influence in Armenia. There alone during the century and a half that intervened between Antony and Trajan did the interests of Rome and Parthia come into collision, and in connection with this kingdom alone did any struggle between the two countries continue.


Phraates' sons sent to Rome


Phraates, after yielding to Augustus in the matter of the standards and prisoners, appears for many years to have studiously cultivated his good graces. In the interval between B.C. 11 and B.C. 7, distrustful of his subjects, and fearful of their removing him in order to place one of his sons upon the Parthian throne, he resolved to send these possible rivals out of the country; and on this occasion he paid Augustus the compliment of selecting Rome for his children's residence. The youths were four in number, Vonones, Seraspadanes, Rhodaspes, and Phraates; two of them were married and had children; they resided at Rome during the remainder of their father's lifetime, and were treated as became their rank, being supported at the public charge and in a magnificent manner. The Roman writers speak of these as "hostages" given by Phraates to the Roman Emperor; but this was certainly not the intention of the Parthian monarch; nor could the idea well be entertained by the Romans at the time of their residence.


Revolution in Armenia

These amicable relations between the two sovereigns would probably have continued undisturbed till the death of one or the other, had not a revolution occured in Armenia, which tempted the Parthian king beyond his powers of resistance. On the death of Artaxias (B.C. 20), Augustus, who was then in the East, had sent Tiberius into Armenia to arrange matters, and Tiberius had placed upon the throne a brother of Artaxias, named Tigranes.


Tigranes died in B.C. 6, and the Armenians, without waiting to know the will of the Roman Emperor, conferred the royal title on his sons, for whose succession he had before his death paved the way by associating them with him in the government. Enraged at this assumption of independence, Augustus sent an expedition into Armenia (B.C. 5), deposed the sons of Tigranes, and established on the throne a certain Artavasdes, whose birth and parentage are not known to us. But the Armenians were not now inclined to submit to foreign dictation; they rose in revolt against Artavasdes (ab. B.C. 2), defeated his Roman supporters, and expelled him from the kingdom.


Armenians ask Parthia for aid




Another Tigranes was made king; and, as it was pretty certain that the Romans would interfere with this new display of the spirit of independence, the Parthians were called in to resist the Roman oppressors. Armenia, was, in fact, too weak to stand alone, and was obliged to lean upon one or other of the two great empires upon her borders. Her people had no clear political foresight, and allowed themselves to veer and fluctuate between the two influences according as the feelings of the hour dictated. Rome had now angered them beyond their very limited powers of endurance, and they flew to Parthia for help, just as on other occasions we shall find them flying to Rome.


Phraates could not bring himself to reject the Armenian overtures. Ever since the time of the second Mithridates it had been a settled maxim of Parthian policy to make Armenia dependent; and, even at the cost of a rupture with Rome, it seemed to Phraates that he must respond to the appeal made to him. The rupture might not come. Augustus was now aged, and might submit to the affront without resenting it. He had lately lost the services of his best general, Tiberius, who, indignant at slights put upon him, had gone into retirement at Rhodes. He had no one that he could employ but his grandsons, youths who had not yet fleshed their maiden swords. Phraates probably hoped that Augustus would draw back before the terrors of a Parthian war under such circumstances, and would allow without remonstrance the passing of Armenia into the position of a subject-ally of Parthia.


The death of Phraates, Phraataces

( r. 2 B.C. - 4 A.D. )and Musa






But if these were his thoughts, he had miscalculated. Augustus, from the time that he heard of the Armenian troubles, and of the support given to them by Parthia, seems never to have wavered in his determination to vindicate the claims of Rome to paramount influence in Armenia, and to have only hesitated as to the person whose services he should employ in the business. He would have been glad to employ Tiberius; but that morose prince had deserted him and, declining public life, had betaken himself to Rhodes, where he was living in a self-chosen retirement. Caius, the eldest of his grandsons, was, in B.C. 2, only eighteen years of age; and, though the thoughts of Augustus at once turned in this direction, the extreme youth of the prince caused him to hesitate somewhat; and the consequence was that Caius did not start for the East till late in B.C. 1. Meanwhile a change had occured in Parthia. Phraates, who had filled the throne for above thirty-five years, ceased to exist, and was succeeded by a young son, Phraataces ( a diminutive of Phraates ), who reigned in conjunction with the queen-mother, Thermusa, or Musa.


The circumstances which brought about this change were the following. Phraates IV. had married, late in life, an Italian slave-girl named Musa, sent him as a present by Augustus; and she had borne him a son for whom she was naturally anxious to secure the succession. According to some, it was under her influence that the monarch had sent his four elder boys to Rome, there to receive their education. At any rate, in the absence of these youths, Phraataces, the child of the slave-girl, became the chief support of Phraates in the administration of affairs, and obtained a position in Parthia which led him to regard himself as entitled to the throne so soon as it should become vacant. Doubtful, however, of his father's goodwill, or fearful of the rival claims of his brothers, if he waited till the throne was vacated in the natural course of events, Phraataces resolved to anticipate the hand of time, and, in conjunction with his mother, administered poison to the old monarch, from the effects of which he died. A just Nemesis for once showed itself in that portion of human affairs which passes before our eyes. Phraates IV., the parricide and fratricide, was, after a reign of thirty-five years, himself assassinated (B.C. 2) by a wife whom he loved only too fondly and a son whom he esteemed and trusted.


Review of the life of Phraates


Phraates cannot but be regarded as one of the ablest of the Parthian monarchs. His conduct of the campaign against Antony—one of the best soldiers that Rome ever produced—was admirable, and showed him a master of guerilla warfare. His success in maintaining himself upon the throne for five and thirty years, in spite of rivals, and notwithstanding the character which he obtained for cruelty, implies, in such a state as Parthia, considerable powers of management. His dealings with Augustus indicate much suppleness and dexterity. If he did not in the course of his long reign advance the Parthian frontier, at any rate he was not obliged to retract it. Apparently, he ceded nothing to the Scyths as the price of their assistance. He maintained the Parthian supremacy over Northern Media. He lost no inch of territory to the Romans. It was undoubtedly a prudent step on his part to soothe the irritated vanity of Rome by a surrender of useless trophies, and scarcely more useful prisoners; and, we may doubt if this concession was not as effective as the dread of the Parthian arms in producing that peace between the two countries which continued unbroken for above ninety years from the campaign of Antony, and without serious interruption for yet another half century. If Phraates felt, as he might well feel after the campaigns of Pacorus, that on the whole Rome was a more powerful state than Parthia, and that consequently Parthia had nothing to gain but much to lose in the contest with her western neighbor, he did well to allow no sentiment of foolish pride to stand in the way of a concession that made a prolonged peace between the two countries possible. It is sometimes more honorable to yield to a demand than to meet it with defiance; and the prince who removed a cause of war arising out of mere national vanity, while at the same time he maintained in all essential points the interests and dignity of his kingdom, deserved well of his subjects, and merits the approval of the historian. As a man, Phraates has left behind him a bad name: he was cruel, selfish, and ungrateful, a fratricide and a parricide; but as a king he is worthy of respect, and, in certain points, of admiration.

Short reigns of Phraataces, Orodes II., and Vonones I. Accession of Artabanus III. His relations with Germanicus and Tiberius. His War with Pharasmanes of Iberia. His First Expulsion from his Kingdom, and return to it. His peace with Rome. Internal troubles of the Parthian Kingdom. Second Expulsion and return of Artabanus. His Death

Phraataces sends an ambassador to Augustus


The accession of Phraataces made no difference in the attitude of Parthia towards Armenia. The young prince was as anxious as his father had been to maintain the Parthian claims to that country, and at first perhaps as inclined to believe that Augustus would not dispute them. Immediately upon his accession he sent ambassadors to Rome announcing the fact, apologizing for the circumstances under which it had taken place, and proposing a renewal of the peace which had subsisted between Augustus and his father. Apparently, he said nothing about Armenia, but preferred a demand for the surrender of his four brothers, whom no doubt he designed to destroy.


The answer of Augustus was severe in the extreme. Addressing Phraataces by his bare name, without adding the title of king, he required him to lay aside the royal appellation, which he had arrogantly and without any warrant assumed, and at the same time to withdraw his forces from Armenia. On the surrender of the Parthian princes he kept silence, ignoring a demand which he had no intention of according. It was clearly his design to set up one of the elder brothers as a rival claimant to Phraataces, or at any rate to alarm him with the notion that, unless he made concessions, this policy would be adopted. But Phraataces was not to be frightened by a mere message. He responded to Augustus after his own fashion, dispatching to him a letter wherein he took to himself the favorite Parthian title of "king of kings," and addressed the Roman Emperor simply as "Caesar." The attitude of defiance would no doubt have been maintained, had Augustus confined himself to menaces; when, however, it appeared that active measures would be taken, when Augustus, in B.C. 1, sent his grandson, Caius, to the East with orders to re-establish the Roman influence in Armenia even at the cost of a Parthian war, and that prince showed himself in Syria with all the magnificent surroundings of the Imperial dignity, the Parthian monarch became alarmed.


Treaty with the Romans


He had an interview with Caius in the spring of A.D. 1, upon an island in the Euphrates; where the terms of an arrangement between the two Empires were discussed and settled. The armies of the two chiefs were drawn up on the opposite banks of the river, facing one another; and the chiefs themselves, accompanied by an equal number of attendants, proceeded to deliberate in the sight of both hosts. Satisfactory pledges having been given by the Parthian monarch, the prince and king in turn entertained each other on the borders of their respective dominions; and Caius returned into Syria, having obtained an engagement from the Parthians to abstain from any further interference with Armenian affairs. The engagement appears to have been honorably kept; for when, shortly afterward, fresh complications occurred, and Caius in endeavoring to settle them received his death-wound before the walls of an Armenian tower, we do not hear of Parthia as in any way involved in the unfortunate occurrence. The Romans and their partisans in the country were left to settle the Armenian succession as they pleased; and Parthia kept herself wholly aloof from the matters transacted upon her borders.


Hatred of Phraataces


One cause—perhaps the main cause of this abstinence, and of the engagement to abstain entered into by Phraataces, was doubtless the unsettled state of things in Parthia itself. The circumstances under which that prince had made himself king, though not unparalleled in the Parthian annals, were such as naturally tended towards civil strife, and as were apt to produce in Parthia internal difficulties, if not disorders or commotions. Phraataces soon found that he would have a hard task to establish his rule.


The nobles objected to him, not only for the murder of his father, but his descent from an Italian concubine, and the incestuous commerce which he was supposed to maintain with her. They had perhaps grounds for this last charge. At any rate Phraataces provoked suspicion by the singular favors and honors which he granted to a woman whose origin was mean and extraction foreign. Not content with private marks of esteem and love, he departed from the practice of all former Parthian sovereigns in placing her effigy upon his coins; and he accompanied this act with fulsome and absurd titles. Musa was styled, not merely "Queen," but "Heavenly Goddess," as if the realities of slave origin and concubinage could be covered by the fiction of an apotheosis.


Death of Phraataces


It is not surprising that the proud Parthian nobles were offended by these proceedings, and determined to rid themselves of a monarch whom they at once hated and despised. Within a few years of his obtaining the throne an insurrection broke out against his authority; and after a brief struggle he was deprived of his crown and put to death. The nobles then elected an Arsacid, named Orodes, whose residence at the time and relationship to the former monarchs are uncertain.




 Mark Antony's invasion


 Orodes III