Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

The short reign of Orodes III (4- 6 A.D.)

It seems probable that, like most princes of the blood royal, he had taken refuge in a foreign country from the suspicions and dangers that beset all possible pretenders to the royal dignity in Parthia, and was living in retirement, unexpectant of any such offer, when a deputation of Parthian nobles arrived and brought him the intelligence of his election. It might have been expected that, obtaining the crown under these circumstances, he would have ruled well; but, according to Josephus (who is here, unfortunately, our sole authority), he very soon displayed so much violence and cruelty of disposition that his rule was felt to be intolerable; and the Parthians, again breaking into insurrection, rid themselves of him, killing him either at a banquet or on a hunting excursion.


Vonones I ( 8 - 12 A.D. )


This done, they sent to Rome, and requested Augustus to allow Vonones, the eldest son of Phraates IV., to return to Parthia in order that he might receive his father's kingdom. The Emperor complied readily enough, since he regarded his own dignity as advanced by the transaction; and the Parthians at first welcomed the object of their choice with rejoicings. But after a little time their sentiments altered. The young prince, bred up in Rome, and accustomed to the refinements of Western civilization, neglected the occupations which seemed to his subjects alone worthy of a monarch's regard, absented himself from the hunting-field, took small pleasure in riding, when he passed through the streets indulged in the foreign luxury of a litter, shrank with disgust from the rude and coarse feastings which formed a portion of the national manners. He had, moreover, brought with him from the place of his exile a number of Greek companions, whom the Parthians despised and ridiculed; and the favors bestowed on these foreign interlopers were seen with jealousy and rage. It was in vain that he endeavored to conciliate his offended subjects by the openness of his manners and the facility with which he allowed access to his person. In their prejudiced eyes virtues and graces unknown to the nation hitherto were not merits but defects, and rather increased, than diminished their aversion. Having conceived a dislike for the monarch personally, they began to look back with dissatisfaction on their own act in sending for him. "Parthia," they said, "had indeed degenerated from her former self to have requested a king to be sent her who belonged to another world and had had a hostile civilization ingrained into him."


All the glory gained by destroying Crassus and repulsing Antony was utterly lost and gone, if the country was to be ruled by Caesar's bond-slave, and the throne of the Arsacidse to be treated like a Roman province. It would have been bad enough to have had a prince imposed on them by the will of a superior, if they had been conquered; it was worse, in all respects worse, to suffer such an insult, when they had not even had war made on them. Under the influence of such feelings as these, the Parthians, after tolerating Vonones for a few years, rose against him (ab. A.D. 16), and summoned Artabanus, an Arsacid who had grown to manhood among the Dahee of the Caspian region, but was at this time king of Media Atropatene, to rule over them.


Artabanus II ( 10 - 38 A.D. )




It was seldom that a crown was declined in the ancient world; and Artabanus, on receiving the overture, at once expressed his willingness to accept the proffered dignity. He invaded Parthia at the head of an army consisting of his own subjects, and engaged Vonones, to whom in his difficulties the bulk of the Parthian people had rallied. The engagement resulted in the defeat of the Median monarch, who returned to his own country, and, having collected a larger army, made a second invasion. This time he was successful. Vonones fled on horseback to Seleucia with a small body of followers; while his defeated army, following in his track, was pressed upon by the victorious Mede, and suffered great losses.


Artabanus, having entered Ctesiphon in triumph, was immediately proclaimed king. Vonones, escaping from Seleucia, took refuge among the Armenians; and, as it happened that just at this time the Armenian throne was vacant, not only was an asylum granted him, but he was made king of the country. It was impossible that Artabanus should tamely submit to an arrangement which would have placed his deadly enemy in a position to cause him constant annoyance. He, therefore, at once remonstrated, both in Armenia and at Rome. As Rome now claimed the investiture of the Armenian monarchs, he sent an embassy to Tiberius, and threatened war if Vonones were acknowledged; while at the same time he applied to Armenia and required the surrender of the refugee. An important section of the Armenian nation was inclined to grant his demand; Tiberius, who would willingly have supported Vonones, drew back before the Parthian threats; Vonones found himself in imminent danger, and, under the circumstances, determined on quitting Armenia and betaking himself to the protection of the Roman governor of Syria. This was Creticus Silanus, who received him gladly, gave him a guard, and allowed him the state and title of king. Meanwhile Artabanus laid claim to Armenia, and suggested as a candidate for the throne one of his own sons, Orodes.


Under these circumstances, the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, who had recently succeeded Augustus, resolved to despatch to the East a personage of importance, who should command the respect and attention of the Oriental powers by his dignity, and impose upon them by the pomp and splendor with which he was surrounded. He selected for this office Germanicus, his nephew, the eldest son of his deceased brother, Drusus, a prince of much promise, amiable in his disposition, courteous and affable in his manners, a good soldier, and a man generally popular. The more to strike the minds of the Orientals, he gave Germanicus no usual title or province, but invested him with an extraordinary command over all the Roman dominions to the east of the Hellespont, thus rendering him a sort of monarch of Roman Asia. Full powers were granted him for making peace or war, for levying troops, annexing provinces, appointing subject kings, and performing other sovereign acts, without referring back to Rome for instructions.


A train of unusual magnificence accompanied him to his charge, calculated to impress the Orientals with the conviction that this was no common negotiator. Germanicus arrived in Asia early in A.D. 18, and applied himself at once to his task. Entering Armenia at the head of his troops, he proceeded to the capital, Artaxata, and, having ascertained the wishes of the Armenians themselves, determined on his course of conduct. To have insisted on the restoration of Vonones would have been grievously to offend the Armenians who had expelled him, and at the same time to provoke the Parthians, who could not have tolerated a pretender in a position of power upon their borders; to have allowed the pretensions of the Parthian monarch, and accepted the candidature of his son, Orodes, would have lowered Rome in the opinion of all the surrounding nations, and been equivalent to an abdication of all influence in the affairs of Western Asia. Germanicus avoided either extreme, and found happily a middle course.




It happened that there was a foreign prince settled in Armenia, who having grown up there had assimilated himself in all respects to the Armenian ideas and habits, and had thereby won golden opinions from both the nobles and the people. This was Zeno, the son of Polemo, once king of the curtailed Pontus, and afterwards of the Lesser Armenia, an outlying Roman dependency. The Armenians themselves suggested that Zeno should be their monarch; and Germanicus saw a way out of his difficulties in the suggestion. At the seat of government, Artaxata, in the presence of a vast multitude of the people, with the consent and approval of the principal nobles, he placed with his own hand the diadem on the brow of the favored prince, and saluted him as king under the new name of "Artaxias." He then returned into Syria, where he was shortly afterwards visited by ambassadors from the Parthian monarch.  


Artabanus reminded him of the peace concluded between Rome and Parthia in the reign of Augustus, and assumed that the circumstances of his own appointment to the throne had in no way interfered with it. He would be glad, he said, to renew with Germanicus the interchange of friendly assurances which had passed between his predecessor, Phraataces, and Caius; and to accommodate the Roman general, he would willingly come to meet him as far as the Euphrates; meanwhile, until the meeting could take place, he must request that Vonones should be removed to a greater distance from the Parthian frontier, and that he should not be allowed to continue the correspondence in which he was engaged with many of the Parthian nobles for the purpose of raising fresh troubles.


Death of Vonones


Germanicus replied politely, but indefinitely, to the proposal of an interview, which he may have thought unnecessary, and open to misconstruction. To the request for the removal of Vonones he consented. Vonones was transferred from Syria to the neighboring province of Cilicia; and the city of Pompeiopolis, built by the great Pompey on the site of the ancient Soli, was assigned to him as his residence. With this arrangement the Parthian monarch appears to have been contented. Vonones on the other hand was so dissatisfied with the change that in the course of the next year (A.D. 19) he endeavored to make his escape; his flight was, however, discovered, and, pursuit being made, he was overtaken and slain on the banks of the Pyramus. Thus perished ingloriously one of the least blamable and most unfortunate of the Parthian princes.


Artabanus' Armenian gambit


After the death of Germanicus, in A.D. 19, the details of the Parthian history are for some years unknown to us. It appears that during this interval Artabanus was engaged in wars with several of the nations upon his borders, and met with so much success that he came after a while to desire, rather than fear, a rupture with Rome. He knew that Tiberius was now an old man, and that he was disinclined to engage in distant wars; he was aware that Germanicus was dead; and he was probably not much afraid of L. Vitellius, the governor of Syria, who had been recently deputed by Tiberius to administer that province. Accordingly in A.D. 34, the Armenian throne being once more vacant by the death of Artaxias (Zeno), he suddenly seized the country, and appointed his eldest son, whom Dio and Tacitus call simply Arsaces, to be king.


Taunting Tiberius

At the same time he sent ambassadors to require the restoration of the treasure which Vonones had carried off from Parthia and had left behind him in Syria or Cilicia. To this plain and definite demand were added certain vague threats, or boasts, to the effect that he was the rightful master of all the territory that had belonged of old to Macedonia or Persia, and that it was his intention to resume possession of the provinces, whereto, as the representative of Cyrus and Alexander, he was entitled. He is said to have even commenced operations against Cappadocia, which was an actual portion of the Roman Empire, when he found that Tiberius, so far from resenting the seizure of Armenia, had sent instructions to Vitellius, that he was to cultivate peaceful relations with Parthia. Apparently he thought that a good opportunity had arisen for picking a quarrel with his Western neighbor, and was determined to take advantage of it. The aged despot, hidden in his retreat of Capreae, seemed to him a pure object of contempt; and he entertained the confident hope of defeating his armies and annexing portions of his territory.



 Phraataces and Musa


The reaction of Tiberius