The Arsacid Empire

The Foundations of the Arsacid Rule

Arsaces I (Parth. Arshak) was the ruler of the Parni tribe, part of the Dahae tribal confederation of Central Asia, probably themselves part of the various Eastern Iranian nomadic tribes which also included the Sakas mentioned in the Behistun Inscription. We know little about Arsaces’ background, but we are told by various sources that sometimes between 247-239 BCE, he was crowned the king of Parthia, probably as a successor to Andragoras who had previously raised in rebellion against Antiochos II Theos. The circumstances surrounding these events are also quite confusing themselves, our sources often being from centuries later and written by Greek or Roman historians. Initially, it was believed, based on Arian’s account of Alexander’s life and the fragments of his lost Parthica that Arsaces rose in rebellion with the help of his brother Tirdat (Gk. Tirdates). However, newer research suggests that the existence of this brother, who supposedly also succeeds Arsaces I, is doubtful. Information gained from previously ignored sources (Justin) and newly discovered primary material (the Nisa ostraca) now lead us to believe that Arsaces was crowned king of Parthia and ruled in that region for about two decades, probably taking time to establish his rule over this vast satrapy. Where he might have been based is unknown to us, although his coins are generally attributed to Nisa (later Mithradatakerta) near Ashkabad in modern day Turkmenistan (the name Ashkabad itself is reminiscent of the name of Arsaces/Arshak/Ashk).

Sometimes around 213 BCE, Arsaces I was succeeded by his son Arsaces II. Shortly afterwards, the Seleucid king Antiochos III (the Great), the successor of Antiochos II Theos, who had become aware of the Parthian and Bactrian threats, decided to re-establish his rule over his eastern satrapies. Thus, in 209 Arsaces II was defeated by Antiochos and had to flee to Transoxiana, probably taking refuge with his native Parni tribe. Soon afterwards, however, Arsaces successfully sued for peace and managed to regain his throne in Parthia, although only after accepting the suzerainty of Antiochos. At that time, Antiochos’ involvement with the Mediterranean politics and his support for Hannibal against the Romans left the field peaceful enough for the Parthians to establish and strengthen their rule in the East.

From the rule of Arsaces II’s successor, Phriapatius, we don’t know much. An ostracon found in a wine storage from Nisa gives us his name, by mentioning him as the ancestor of the kings who ruled at the time when the ostracon was written. It has often been alleged that Phriapatius was a nephew of Arsaces I and the son of the aforementioned Tirdat. However, with the new research showing that Arian’s account about Tirdat as a brother of Arsaces I was probably fictional, the issue of the relationship of this king to those before him has been thrown into the dark. The present author, however, believes that Phriapatius was indeed the son and successor of Arsaces II and proposes that the name Tirdat should be given to Arsaces I as his personal name, while Ardawan (Lat. Artabanus), thus Artabanus I, should be used for Arsaces II. In any case, after this point, all Arsacid kings took the honorary, or the family, name of Arsaces and used it on their coins as well, a fact that makes their identification and relationship quite difficult. Furthermore, we know that it was during the rule of Phriapatius that the Arsacid rule also extended to Hyrcania (mod. Gorgan) to the east of the Caspian Sea and the first steps in the expansion of the Arsacid power were taken.

Phriapatius was followed in 176 BCE (or as it is sometimes alleged, 170 BCE) by his son, Phraates I (Path. Farhad). Not much is known about the reign of this king other than his subjugation of the Mardi tribe in central Alburz range. If accurate, this would mean that the Arsacids by this time had managed to enter eastern Media, still firmly in the hand of the Seleucids. Reportedly, however, their campaigns in Media proper were not successful as a confederation lead by the Sakas defeated their advances in that region. Phraates died in the battle at Media and was succeeded by his brother, Mithradates I (ca. 165 BCE).

From Mithradates I to Mithradates II

As an empire, we can date the foundation of the Arsacid rule to the succession of Mithradates I (Parth. Mithra-data: Gift of Mithras). Prior to his rule, the Arsacid rule in Parthia was only one of the many autonomous kingdoms in the territories of the Seleucid Empire. However, with the succession of Mithradates I, we have the beginnings of a true empire, one that consciously or unconsciously was trying to recreate the empire of the Achaemenids.

The early reign of Mithradates probably was spent in Parthia proper, re-establishing his rule over his core territories, securing it against the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, and making sure of the safety from the Bactrian side by effectively blocking off the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Diodotos’ successors, essentially deciding the western limits of the Bactrian power and limiting the direction of its expansion to the south. Part of Mithradates’ time was also occupied by having to deal with the claims of his nephew child who might have had designs for their own place on the throne of the Arsacids.

However, Mithradates appears again in the pages of history in 144 BCE when he is reported to have successfully captured Babylonia, well into the Seleucid territory We should then assume that he had managed to conquer Media before this date, a task which had taken his brother’s life when he had attempted to realise it. We know that Mithradates minted coins in his name in 140 BCE in the city of Seleucia-on-Tigris, the eastern capital of the Seleucid empire. If precise, this would mean that Mithradates I had managed to control most of the heartland of the Achaemenid Empire by this time. We are also told that he managed to defeat and capture Demetrius II, the Seleucid king, who was sent into captivity in Mithradatokert (Nisa), one of the capitals of the Arsacids. In this sense, 140 BCE is a good date to assign for the end of the Seleucid rule in Iran and the establishment of the Arsacid power as an empire in the same territories.

After securing the Arsacid rule over Parthia, Hyrcania, Media, Mesopotamia, and probably even Persis (Per. Pars; the home province of the Achaemenids), Mithradates I appears to have died peacefully sometimes around 132 BCE. He was succeeded by his son Phraates II. The new king had the misfortune of having to face off with Antiochos VII Sidetes, the Seleucid king who initially managed to cut ways into the Arsacid territories. He was, however, successfully defeated at a battle 129 BCE, leaving Phraates free to deal with a new threat, that of the invading Sakas from the northeast and the east. He and his uncle and successor, Artabanus II were both quickly defeated and killed by the Sakas who had managed to penetrate the Arsacid lands as far as Media. We don’t know much about the next two or three kings of the Arsacid Empire, since they left us nothing but their coins showing the short periods of their rule. It is safe to gather that they also perished in the battles against the mounting force of the Sakas.

Mithradates II

If we could liken Mithradates I to Cyrus in his vigor for conquest and territorial expansion, then Mithradates II should be called the Darius of the Arsacid Empire. He was a brilliant organiser of the empire, as well as a credible military leader. He inherited a young empire, deep into trouble by the Saka onslaught, and made it into a true world empire. Mithradates was the younger son of Artabanus II and he succeeded the throne after several minor kings who might have been his elder brothers or cousins. By the early 110’s BCE, following the the defeat of the Sakas, Mithradates II had settled them in their new homeland in eastern Iran, the later province of Sakestan (modern Iranian Sistan). This is an important event in the cultural history of Iran, as it has been often suggested that the Sakas were responsible for transmitting the eastern Iranian epics to Iran proper and thus initialising the famous Iranian epic cycles which come to be represented by the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. It was from among the Sakas, also, that the noble family of the Surens rose, establishing themselves as one of the supposed six elite families of the Arsacid Empire.

After securing the empire, Mithradates II took up the task of re-organising his territories by turning his attention to the west. He seems to have paid much attention to Media and Armenia and sometimes around 100 BCE, defeated and killed king Artavasdes I of Armenia and captured “70 Valleys” of his territory. It has recently been suggested that an uncle of Mithradates (thus the fourth son of Phriapatius) named Vologases (Parth.Valkhash, Arm. Vagharshak) had been previously appointed as the autonomous king of Media, probably following Mithradates I’s conquest of that satrapy. However, the descendants of this Vologases, his son Arshak and grandson Artakhshir, appear to have created much trouble for their cousin Mithradates II, prompting him to invade their territory and annex it to the main Arsacid throne. This might have then be the event that has been interpreted as the Arsacid conquest of the 70 valleys of Armenia (in fact parts of Media Atropatene) and the initial Arsacid conflict with the Armenians.

A comment on the nature of the Arsacid kingship might be appropriate here. In the traditional historiography of Iran, reflected in historical and epic sources from Al-Tabari to Ferdowsi, the period of the Arsacids is named the period of Muluk ul Tawaif, “the Kings of the Tribes”. This is interpreted to have been the time were Iran (the Plateau and the Lowlands) were ruled by many kings and thus were decentralised, effectively creating a situation similar to European feudalism of the Middle Ages. Forgetting the historiographical issues involved with this interpretation, and even not considering the element of Sasanian propaganda, we might be able to deduce something relating to the nature of the Arsacid kingship from this common attribution of mediaeval historians. As we can see from above, even a king as mighty as Mithradates II has had to deal with competitors to the throne who seem to have ruled securely in their own designated territories and later have claimed the main throne of the Arsacid Empire. We also know that the Arsacid Empire included many officially recognised, and coin minting, “client kingdoms” such as that of Persis, Elymais, and Characene. On the actual nature of the Arsacid kingdom, we have suggestions from the Roman historians that the method of Arsacid succession was open and did not follow a father-son order, the only requirement for the great king being his membership in the Arsacid royal house. Consequently, one might suggest an elective high-kingship, similar to the position of the Holy Roman Emperor, where various Arsacid kings ruling territories on the Iran Plateau and the Mesopotamian lowlands, could be elected to (or even deposed from) the position of high kingship. Even more than creating a convenient way of viewing the Arsacid succession, this might help us in understanding the chaotic order of the Arsacid kings and the constant presence of pretenders to the throne who lack any direct relationship with those they replace.

Whatever the case, Mithradates II, who had managed to subdue and control most of his uncle’s territory and leave a strong and centralised empire to his son, Gotarzes I (Parth. Gotarz), died in 91 BCE. He is generally known as the greatest of all Arsacid emperors and his reign as the most successful of that dynasty. It might be due to his abilities, but probably also due to the stability of the imperial system, that the Arsacid Empire survived for over 300 years after his death.

The Parthian “Dark Ages”

The stretch of time between the death of Mithradates II (91 BCE) and the accession of Orodes II (55 BCE) has been dubbed “The Parthian Dark Ages” by the scholars. The title is an allusion not to the Mediaeval European meaning of the word (as in lack of scientific and intellectual endeavors) rather to the Greek Dark Ages. In this sense, these years are dark because they have left us little information about themselves, and particularly the sequence of the kings that ruled during these forty years.

However, one can also suggest that the Dark Ages are largely a modern construct of historians and have become confusing because of the various criteria imposed upon the study of the age by the historians. These include a belief in the absolute firmness of Mithradates II’s grip over the empire and the “classical”, almost Achaemenid nature of his rule, as well as the use of various sources (numismatic, textual, or material) as points of departure for constructing the history of this era. In a sense, if one approaches the issues without any presupposition, the events might make more sense.

We know that while Mithradates II was still alive, another ruler by the name of Gotarzes also minted coins.The minting of coins by Gotzrzes is then interpreted as signs of “open rebellion” against Mithradates II. This is reinforced by the problematic translation of a certain Parthian ostracon from Nisa which was thought to show the rebellion of Gotarzes against his father, while the correct translation might simply suggest Gotarzes’ succession after his father.

As previously mentioned, many pieces of evidence from the Arsacid times seem to suggest an electoral system of kingship in the Arsacid family. This is something similar to the position of the Holy Roman Empire in Mediaeval Europe where the independent ruler of a region was elected to become the Holy Roman Emperor and the nominal overlord of all other rulers. Certain evidence in the Arsacid history seem to suggest the presence of a similar system in the Arsacid structure, something which might have at its root either the tribal origins of the Arsacid family or the competition of other grand families known from their time. Among these evidence is the aforementioned rule of Vologases of Media, as well as the need for Mithradates II to put down the claims of Vologases’ son and grandson. This, particularly the competition from Media, once again shows up when another ruler by the name of Darius of Media claims the throne sometimes during the “Dark Ages”. It is also noticeable that one of the inscriptions from the time of Mithradates II himself is in Media, at the bottom of the Behistun cliff, showing Mithradates alongside his son Gotarzes who is dubbed “The Satrap of the Satraps”, a title alluding to Mithradates’ own title of “King of Kings”.

So, we might attempt to put the events in perspective. We know that Gotarzes indeed was the son of Mithradates and we in fact have no evidence of a rebellion by him against his father, save the minting of the coins. It seems, actually, that Gotarzes was groomed to succeed his father (if the title of “Satrap of the Satraps” means anything) and this might have even been reinforced by allowing him to mint coins, to establish and advertise his right to be the next king of kings, when in fact the position was elective. Indeed, the rebellion suggested might not have been one initiated by Gotarzes against his father, rather one undertaken by Mithradates II himself against the established elective system, trying to guarantee the succession of his son.

It is then this rebellion that causes the turmoil in the Parthian Empire, and quite possibly after the death of Mithradates II. The turmoil then has become confusing since several kings who managed to mint coins during this era have escaped the notice of history. Among these is the famous figure of Sinatruces who declared himself “king of kings” in 77 BCE and is portrayed on his coins as an old man. It is suggested that he was a brother of Mithradates II and that he lived in exile among the Sakas and only made a comeback in face of internal rebellion when he was 80 years old. This might be a little exaggerated as Sinatruces was robust enough to put down several rebellions and indeed seems to have been quite a capable king.

The Armenian Interlude

During the time of rebellion, Tigranes of Armenia (95-55 BCE) managed to achieve significant gains in the region. He had established himself in the Caucasus and eastern Asian Minor by participating in the Mithridatic Wars against Rome and on the side of Mithridates VI of Pontus. Although eventually a disastrous event, the alliance with Mithridates of Pontus gave Tigranes the momentum needed for establishing his position as a powerful king. He quickly managed to move against Parthia and capture the infamous “70 Valleys”, an achievement which was much hailed by the Roman sources. He then claimed the title of “king of kings”, previously belonging to the Parthian great king, for himself. This could also be a further evidence for the electiveness of the high-kingship, although Tigranes admiteddly was not a member of the Arsacid royal house.

By this time, Tigranes was renowned enough to attract the attention of the Syrians who asked him to protect them, presumably against the internal strife of the last members of the Seleucid house. Tigranes thus conquered Syria and Cilicia and established his rule all over the northern Mesopotamia. As a result, the empire of Tigranes the Great temporarily managed to overshadow the Arsacid Empire as the most important political power in the Near East. However, as with all following powers, Tigranes had to deal with the imperialistic ambitions of the Romans who were trying to establish themselves in a land faraway from the center of their empire and were thus militaristically quite aggressive. It was during the reign of Sinatruces that Tigranes was decisively defeated by the Cn. Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) in 66 BCE. He was left to rule Armenia, now reduced back to its old boundaries, as an ally of Rome until his death in 55 BCE, incidentally the date of the accession of Orodes II to the throne of Parthia.

The End of the Dark Ages

Several more kings followed Sinatruces, among them Phraates III (70-57 BCE) who managed to hold power after his father, as well as Darius of Media Atropatene. This supposed pretender to the Parthian throne minted a series of coins usually dated to the year 70 BCE, the year of the succession of Phraates III to the throne of his father Sinatruces. Although a few of these coins have been re-attributed to Phraates III himself, there is no doubt that Darius was indeed a claimant to the Arsacid high-kingship. The position of his fiefdom, Media Atropatene is interesting to notice. This satrapi was located to the north of Media proper and bordered Armenia and the territory of Tigranes the Great. Indeed, at the time we can assume that parts of Media Atropatene were incorporated to the empire of Tigranes. It is also not improbable to think that the much-fought-over 70 Valleys were located in Media Atropatene. Also noticeable is the fact that Media as a whole was the kingdom of Vologases of Media who, as mentioned before, claimed the Arsacid high kingship and whose descendants were subjugated by Mithradates II.

So, considering the above, we can again return to our theory that the issue of Parthian high-kingship was indeed unresolved and at least a rival family of the Arsacids, holding power in Media, presented constant challenges to the better known branch (the “Ctesiphon Branch”?). Darius himself would thus be the latest, and possibly the last, of these Arsacid princes of Media to revive an ancestral claim to the high-kingship after the death of Sinatruces.

Phraates III was finally murdered by his own two sons, Mithradates III (57-55 BCE) and Orodes II (57-38 BCE). In the rivalry between the brothers, Mithradates III asked for help from Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria, an incident which might demonstrate his lack of popularity at home. With the accession of Orodes II, traditional historians usually end the Dark Ages as the Roman sources again start talking about the Parthian history. It is indeed under Orodes II that Romans suffer their worst defeat in the east and thus realize a need for the realignment of their foreign policy and ideals of imperialistic subjugation.

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.

Pax Parthica

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.

Further Reading

Assar, G.R.F. “Recent Studies in Parthian History II”, The Celator, Volume 15, No. 1, Jan 2001.

Assar, G. R. F. “A Revised Parthian Chronology of the Period 91-55 BC” (2006). Parthica 8, 2006, 55-104.

Bivar, A. D. H. “The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids” in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983

Briant, P. “The Seleucid Kingdom, the Achaemenid Empire and the History of the Near East in the First Millennium BC,” in P. Bilde, ed., Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990.

Diakonoff, I. M. & Livshits, V. A. Parthian Documents from Nisa, Moscow, 1976

Livshitz V.A. “Three New Ostraca Documents from Old Nisa”, in Erān ud Anīran: Webfestschrift Boris Marshak,

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.

Mørkholm, Otto, “Greece to India,” In: Carson, R. A. G., Berghaus, Peter & Lowick, Nicholas (eds.), A Survey of numismatic research : 1972-1977, Berne: International Numismatic Commission, 1979, p. 60-97.

Nikitin, Alexander B. “Datirovannye drakhmy Fraata III i khronologiëia Suzianskikh mednykh émissii” [The dated drachmas of Phraates III and the chronology of Susianian copper emissions]. Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1984, no. 4, p. 249-252.

Weiskopf, Michael.”The Kuh Dasht Hoard and the Parthian ‘Dark Age’, ” Museum Notes, 1981, vol. 26, p. 125-152.

Wolski, J. The Decay of the Iranian Empire of the Seleucids and the Chronology of the Parthian Beginnings, Berytus, 12, 1957

Wolski, J. L’Empire des Arsacides, Gent: Peeters, 1993.

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