The Fall of the Arsacid Dynasty Started with a Wedding – Part 1


Incredibly, the end of the Parthian Empire started with a fake wedding.

Before the wedding took place, a civil war had been raging in Parthia between Vologases VI and his brother Artabanus V. After much warring between the two contesting parties, Artabanus came out as the winner and inherited the Empire. While Artabanus was enjoying his new throne, many miles to the west, the Roman Emperor Caracalla moved his headquarters to Antioch in the summer of 215 CE. The reason for Caracalla’s temporary move was that he was desirous of the title ‘Parthicus’, which would grant him great renown throughout the Roman Empire, and so he devised a plan in 216 CE.

Coin of the Parthian king Artabanus IV. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Coin of the Parthian king Artabanus IV. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. /CC BY-SA 3.0)

He decided that the best way to win over the Parthians was to write Artabanus a letter. Once the last scribbles were written, he gave it to his embassy, along with expensive gifts of fine workmanship.

Artabanus enjoyed the gifts, and when he opened the letter, Caracalla made it very clear that he wished to marry one of his daughters. Caracalla’s objective was to unite two empires under one great power, which would benefit both men, since not only would a much stronger army emerge from this union, but the trade restrictions could be lifted. Artabanus at first did not approve of the request, saying, “that it was not proper for a barbarian to marry a Roman” and “it was not fitting that either race be bastardized.”

Bust of the emperor Caracalla.

Bust of emperor Caracalla. (CC BY 2.5)

Therefore, Artabanus declined the offer. Artabanus was no fool; he knew of Caracalla’s deceitfulness when dealing with other nations. But this was not the end of the matter. Caracalla persisted, offering more gifts and showing enthusiasm for the marriage and for the union between the two powers. Artabanus finally believed that Caracalla was telling the truth. Artabanus felt that a permanent peace had finally arrived and publicly announced the wedding.

Caracalla crossed the rivers and was welcomed with sacrifices, decorated altars, incense scattered in his path, and all sorts of entertainment. Once he was near the palace at Ctesiphon, Artabanus came out to meet his future son-in-law in the plain before the city, with his daughter nearby. With an entire city jubilant over the event, crowned with flowers in their hair and wearing the finest robes, the populace danced to the music of flutes and drums. The men left their horses and their bows to partake in the drinking. Nothing out of the ordinary was suspected. When the Parthians were good and drunk, especially the men, the decisive moment was to be unveiled.

Caracalla gave the signal, and the happy party—celebrating what they thought was to be a peaceful end to many centuries of bloodshed—was slaughtered. Artabanus nearly died, but was helped onto a horse and escaped with a few men. The Roman troops took much booty and many prisoners. Caracalla then gave the order to pull out, and marched away unopposed. However, this was not to be the end, for Caracalla gave his men permission to loot and burn all the towns and villages they came across and to carry as much as they could, for it was all theirs for the taking. How far they went into Parthian territory remains unknown.

Caracalla’s great raid across the western portion of the Parthian Empire was short lived, for as soon as he enjoyed his spoils, one of his own men assassinated him. For roughly three days, the Romans were without an emperor until they chose a Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, who was not a soldier by any means. There was no time for mourning Caracalla’s death or rejoicing in Macrinus’ ascension, for the Parthians were fast approaching.

Medallion with Roman Emperor Caracalla, circa 215 and circa 243 (Imperial Roman).

Medallion with Roman Emperor Caracalla, circa 215 and circa 243 (Imperial Roman). (Walters Art Museum/Public Domain)

The Bloody Battle of Nisibis 217 CE

Artabanus was seeking retribution, and once he entered Roman territory, he burned several cities in Mesopotamia.  Word eventually reached Macrinus of the coming Parthians, who were great in number, “including a strong cavalry contingent and a powerful unit of archers and those mail-clad soldiers who hurl spears from dromedaries.”

A Westerner on a camel. (386 – 534 CE)

A Westerner on a camel. (386 – 534 CE) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Macrinus assembled his forces and moved out. The new emperor understood the severity of the situation and took to diplomacy in the hope it could avert battle and restore peace in the region. Macrinus sent the captives and a friendly message to Artabanus, urging him to accept peace and arguing that he was not to be blamed for Caracalla’s actions. Artabanus looked over the letter and rejected it immediately. He responded to Macrinus that if peace were to exist between the two, Rome must “rebuild the forts and the demolished cities, abandon Mesopotamia entirely, and make reparation for the injury done to the royal tombs as well as for other damage.” Further deliberation ceased when the Parthian army arrived outside the Roman headquarters at Nisibis.

At sunrise, the vast Parthian army appeared. Artabanus, along with his men, saluted the sun, as was their custom, and with loud cheers, the cataphract charged while the horse archers fired over their heads. The cataphract horsemen and dromedary riders inflicted considerable damage to the Roman ranks along with the relentless shower of arrows from above.

A Chinese terracotta figurine of a cataphract horse and rider. (386–534 CE)

A Chinese terracotta figurine of a cataphract horse and rider. (386–534 CE) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Parthian horseman.

Parthian horseman. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But even the Parthians suffered considerable losses since the Romans were at their best in close combat. After a while, the Romans began to feel the pressure and had to make a quick decision while the Parthians were regrouping. The Romans pretended to retreat, and as they did, they threw down caltrops and other pointed devices, which the sand concealed, making them nearly invisible. The Parthians, thinking that the Romans were fleeing the battlefield, gave chase, and when the horses and the soft-footed camels stepped on the sharp devices, they suffered great injury and would throw the rider. The rider was now vulnerable to be captured or killed since his armor weighed him down. Or, if he were to get up, he could not run far, for his robe would trip him.

Antique Roman Caltrop made of iron.

Antique Roman Caltrop made of iron. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For two days, the armies fought in this manner, with disastrous results from morning until night, both celebrating in their camps as if they had won. On the third day, the Parthians tried to encircle the Romans, but the Romans had given their divisions and extended their front line to avoid this. The Romans were being worn down by the relentless attacks of the Parthians, who had numerical superiority. But, they could extend their lines to avoid being outflanked for only so long. The consistent Parthian onslaught eventually wore down and demoralized the Romans, causing their lines to collapse and Macrinus to flee, but the arrival of night saved them. With nothing left to gain, especially with the piled-up dead bodies creating barriers, the Romans acknowledged defeat and retired to their camp.

The slaughter of both men and animals was so great that the entire plain was covered. Bodies were piled in huge mounds; camels lay in heaps. The number of corpses that littered the battlefield hampered any further attacks, for not only could one not gain a foothold without stumbling but even finding the enemy was a problem since the piled remains of dead comrades blocked each other’s view.

Macrinus, who had lost the respect of his men, knew that he had lost something else, a victory. Macrinus forgot that the forces of Artabanus were merely a militia, as Parthia had no standing army, and he could only hold onto his men for so long because they were unaccustomed to sustained efforts. Having been in the field for some months now, the Parthians had grown weary and wished to return home. With a temporary armistice in place, Macrinus could rethink his plans.

The Parthians carried off their dead and the Romans carried theirs off the field as well. Once the battlefield had been cleared, it was just a matter of time before a renewal of combat was to ensue. Macrinus was not going to let that happen, but it would not have mattered anyway because his men had lost faith in their newly crowned emperor.

Macrinus offered friendship to Artabanus and explained that Caracalla was dead and that he, Macrinus, was the new emperor. To secure peace, Macrinus offered the Parthian king gifts and 200 million sesterces (approximately fifty million denarii). Artabanus thought it over carefully and agreed to peace, since the Romans had “suffered a suitable punishment.” Besides, Artabanus’ own army was terribly wounded. Afterward, Artabanus returned to Parthia while Macrinus hurried to Antioch.

Even though Macrinus had lost the battle, the entire affair was presented as if he’d won. The Roman Senate offered Macrinus the title of “Parthicus,” but he refused it, and rightfully so. But regardless of his feelings, coins were still minted bearing the legend Victoria Parthica. Even though Rome held him as the victor, the fact of the matter is, he shamefully lost, costing Rome much money, but more importantly, prestige.

Roman coin featuring Macrinus

Roman coin featuring Macrinus (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Rise of the House of Sasan and Mighty King Ardashir

Parthia never would recover from this Pyrrhic victory over Rome in 217 CE. Due to losses in 116, 164, and 198/99 CE, Parthia had lost much prestige. While it is true that Parthia kept Rome in check, and did not allow themselves to be destroyed by the Romans like the Celts and Carthaginians, the Romans were still able to dictate politically and penetrate Parthian territory militarily. Parthia’s inability to fend off the Romans allowed others, like its own family and those who held a considerable amount of power within their own regions, make a bid for the throne. When there is regime uncertainty, expect political upheaval. Even though Artabanus V had defeated Rome, the war with his brother Vologases VI resumed.

Iran would never find stability while the Arsacids were in charge. It would take a person of non-Arsacid birth to stabilize and unite Iran, and his name was Ardashir I of Persia. But who was Ardashir?

Coin of Ardashir I. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Coin of Ardashir I. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. BY-SA 3.0)

Ardashir was born in Tirdeh, Persia, in 180 CE. He was the son of Badag (Papak or Papag) a Zoroastrian priest and Princess Rodak. However, Ardashir’s father may have been Sassan, a Zoroastrian priest who served in the temple of Anahita. Many historians regard this alternative, and suspect that Badag adopted Ardashir after the death of Sassan. According to the Book of the Deeds of Ardashir, Sassan is claimed to be a descendent of the Achaemenids, who were a former ruling house of Persia. Ardashir, from a purely political position, legitimized this claim in order to unite Persia. Before Ardashir became king of Persia, his father took him to a man named Tire, in the city of Darabgerd (modern Iran), to be educated when he was seven. Tire agreed and took him for a son of his own.

According to the Book of the Deeds of Ardashir son of Babag, Ardashir was proficient and accomplished in learning and riding at the age of fifteen. When Artabanus V received word of this accomplished man, he wrote a letter to Babag requesting him to send his son to Artabanus to his court “so that he will associate with our sons and princes, and we might order for him position and reward according to the learning which he possesses.”

Relief of the Coronation of Ardashir I at Naghsh-e-Rostam. Ardashir is receiving the Kingship's ring from Ahuramazda.

Relief of the Coronation of Ardashir I at Naghsh-e-Rostam. Ardashir is receiving the Kingship’s ring from Ahuramazda. (CC BY 2.5)

Babag could not refuse his Lord and immediately “sent Ardashir well-equipped with ten servants and a superb present of many marvelous, magnificent, and suitable things for the acceptance of Ardavan (Aratabanus V).” Every day Ardashir was immersed in the art of horsemanship and hunting alongside the sons and princes of Artabanus. After some time, Ardashir proved better than his competition. Not only did he surpass the Arsacid nobility in horsemanship and hunting, he was more “warlike than them all, on the polo and the riding (ground), at Chatrang (chess) and Vine-Ardashir, and in (several) other arts.” However, the nobility became jealous of Ardashir and decided to use their privilege to undermine him during a hunting trip.

One day Ardavan went a hunting with his chevaliers and Ardashir. An elk which happened to be running in the desert was (then) pursued by Ardashir and the eldest son of Ardavan. And Ardashir, on reaching close to the elk, struck him with an arrow in such a manner that the arrow pierced through the belly as far as its feathers, passed through the other side, and the animal died instantly.

When Ardavan and the chevaliers approached them, they expressed wonder at such a dart and asked: — “Who struck that arrow?” — Ardashir replied: “I did it.” The son of Ardavan said: — “No, because I did it.”

Ardashir became angry and spoke thus to the son of Ardavan: “It is not possible to appropriate the art and heroism (of another) through tyranny, unpleasantness, falsehood, and injustice.” This is an excellent forest, and the wild asses here are many. Let us try here a second time, and bring into display (our) goodness or evil nature and dexterity.”

When Artabanus heard this, he was offended and banned Ardashir from riding horses, and punished the young man by sending him to his stables, with the task to take care of those animals so “that you do not go in the day or night from before those horses and cattle a hunting, to the playground or the college of learning.” Ardashir, upset by this, wrote a letter to his father. Upon reading the letter, Babag responded to his son:

“You did not act wisely in disputing with great men on a matter from which no harm could have reached you, and in addressing them with coarse words in public. Now speak out excuses for your relief and feel humble repentance, for the sages have said: It is not possible for an enemy to do that for an enemy, which, is brought on himself by an ignorant man from his own actions. Do not be grieved narrow-mindedly from a person at the time when you cannot pass your life (happily) without him. And you yourself know that Ardavan is a king more powerful than I, you, or many people in this world with reference to (our) bodies, lives, riches, and estates. And now, too, such is my strictest advice to you that you should act in unison with and obediently (towards them), and not deliver up your own glory to annihilation.”

After Ardashir’s debacle with the Arsacid nobility, the man who raised him, Tire, died. When Tire passed, the king of Persis (the province of Persia or Fars), Guchehr, declared Ardashir king of Darabgerd. Soon after, Ardashir challenged Guchehr with the aid of his father, Babag, and overthrew the king by 200 CE. However, Ardashir was not granted the kingship of Persis, Babag gave this title and province to his eldest son, Shapur. Ardashir, unhappy playing second fiddle, declared war on his brother. Before the battle could take place, Shapur mysteriously perished. The cause of death was said to have been by a collapsing structure from an old Achaemenid fortress. Afterwards, Ardashir proclaimed himself king of Persis by 208 CE. His brothers protested this and Ardashir disposed of them. If his brother challenges were not enough, many local petty kings of Persis refused to acknowledge Ardashir rule. Ardashir responded by going to war in which he crushed them.

He thus solidified his position as the rightful king of Persis. However, Parthian leadership in Ctesiphon thought otherwise and sounded the alarm.

Top Image: Detail; Emperor Caracalla. (CC BY 2.5), and Cataphracts circa 101 AD. (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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